Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, the Historian Who Blended Scholarship With Teaching

Rudrangshu Mukherjee pays tribute to Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, who passed away on January 7.

The emperor of maladies compelled Sabyasachi Bhattacharya to yield to his overwhelming powers on the morning of January 7. He had fought the emperor for over a year but ultimately, the suffering was too much and his body surrendered even as his spirit resisted. Bhattacharya’s passing leaves behind a void in the lives of his wife and daughter, his innumerable students in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and a select group of friends in Delhi and Kolkata.

Sabyasachi Bhattacharya came to Presidency College, Calcutta in the mid-1950s from Ballygunge Government High School. In Presidency, he was taught by that remarkable teacher Sushobhan Sarkar, who trained so many young minds in the historian’s craft. From Sarkar, Bhattacharya learnt how to build up the structure of an argument.

But it was in his MA classes that his range of historical learning widened and deepened under the inspired teaching of Barun De, who had then just returned from Oxford. It was under De’s guidance that Bhattacharya chose to pursue research in history, although the official supervisor of his Calcutta University PhD dissertation was another redoubtable historian, Amales Tripathi.

The financial moorings of the British Raj

Bhattacharya chose an unusual theme for his PhD thesis. He explored the financial moorings of the British Raj – how the huge financial resources of the British empire in India were managed. What kind of investments occurred, how were revenues raised, how expenditure was budgeted for and so on.

His investigation of financial policy-making revealed in great analytical detail that Indian realities and the welfare of the Indian people had no place in the management of the Raj’s finances. Bhattacharya was taking forward a theme first suggested by R.C. Dutt in his pioneering work on the economic history of India under British rule. The PhD thesis, enriched by further research and a new introduction, was to become Bhattacharya’s first book.

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But before his book was out, Bhattacharya caught the attention of historians with an essay called “Laissez Faire in India” which came out in the mid-1960s in The Indian Economic and Social History Review. He was almost immediately marked as a rising star. The essay exposed the anomaly of a government committed to free trade at home and an astute practitioner of discrimination in India.

After his PhD, Barun De and Ashok Mitra (who, till his death was very fond of Bhattacharya) took Bhattacharya to the Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta. From there, he was selected to a fellowship in the University of Chicago and thereafter he became the Agatha Harrison Fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford.

On his return from Oxford in the early 1970s, Bhattacharya joined the Centre for Historical Studies in JNU, where he was a part of a remarkable group of scholars that included Romila Thapar, S. Gopal, Bipan Chandra and others who made the centre the foremost post graduate history department in India.

The announcement that JNU would be launching a School of Engineering was controversial in itself. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Bhattacharya found his intellectural home in JNU. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

JNU – his intellectual home

In JNU, Bhattacharya found his intellectual home. He was an outstanding teacher who enriched the lives of students for nearly four decades. His teaching had empirical depth and an analytical vision. I was his student in the early years of the MA course in history and can never forget the clarity with which he laid bare the making of India as a colonial economy. In tutorials, he would always challenge us whenever we parroted conventional wisdom.

While at JNU he contributed to The Cambridge Economic History of India. In this piece, sadly often unnoticed, Bhattacharya analysed the evolution of the East India Company’s monopsony in late 18th century Bengal. He showed how the company braided this economic position with its political power to have a dominating effect on the market with devastating consequences for the weavers and their livelihood.

Bhattacharya’s interests could not remain confined to economic history. He moved to the history of culture and wrote a thought provoking book on ‘Bande Mataram’. He edited with a very perceptive introduction the entire correspondence between Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi – a collection that is invaluable to anyone interested in the complex relationship of these two giants.

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He wrote a book on Tagore largely intended for non-Bengali readers. He also wrote an introductory book in Bengali to the economic history of India under British rule.

Bhattacharya held a number of important administrative jobs. He was vice chancellor of Viswa Bharati, the chairman of the Indian Council for Historical Research and chairman of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta.

Bhattacharya enjoyed his adda with his friends. He had a dry but impish sense of humour and often burst out with a booming laugh. My enduring memory of him is his teaching both in the class room and in tutorials, asking probing questions and making incisive comments. He was first and foremost a teacher but he had the rare gift of blending his profound scholarship with his teaching.

Rudrangshu Mukherjee is professor of history and chancellor of Ashoka University. All views expressed are personal.