Remembering Basudev Chatterji (1949-2017)

Basudev Chatterji was a historian and teacher who seldom allowed himself to become the victim of historiographical fads and counselled his students to mine books for information as much as for arguments.

The death of Basudev (Robi) Chatterji on 8 June in Guwahati brought to an end a somewhat turbulent and passionate life in which commitment to history as a discipline and teaching as a vocation stood out. Chatterji served as chairperson of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) from 2009 to 2014, and retired as professor in the Department of History, Delhi University. Chatterji’s main contributions to the literature on Indian history, though few, were marked by scholarship and imagination. His study of tariffs in the pre-independence era is an example of thoroughness and range, seldom found in studies of policy. It continues to be regarded among specialists as major critical engagement with the works of the Cambridge and imperialist schools of historiography. His selection of documentation for the “Towards Freedom” volumes allowed him to go further and stimulated controversy. Surrounding all this was a life lived out on its own terms, where there was interrogation of the foundations of history, regular acquaintance with revolutions in method, and determination to draw in students, friends, and colleagues into his concerns.

For serious students of history who passed through St Stephen’s College and Delhi University at different times during the past half century, the memory of Chatterji as a teacher will always ­remain. In the classroom and outside it, he repeatedly “modernised” his sense of the subject. Inclined to Marxism and a left disposition, he wholly rejected the doctrinaire and the groups and lobbies that went with a commitment to the left in India. He was deeply aware of the questions generated by economic and social history regarding simple nationalist readings of India’s past and he advanced on this through his personal engagement with the subaltern challenge, language issues, and culture. The latter developed partly through his personal relationships: the “designer eye” of his first wife, Ruchira Banerji, and the intellectual range of his second wife, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.

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