Defender of History

by Madhu Prasad

Published in Frontline, 24 September 2021


A symposium organised to celebrate Professor Irfan Habib's 90th birthday brings into sharp focus the Sangh Parivar's politics of relentless communal mobilisation, which revolves around Muslim-baiting, and its highly prejudiced interventions in the spheres of education, history and culture.

A remarkable symposium, entitled "In Defence of History", was hosted by the reputed academic journal Social Scientist, the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) and Tulika Books on August 12th, 2021, to celebrate the 90th birthday of the legendary historian, progressive intellectual and leading role model for generations of students and scholars, Prof. Irfan Habib. Significant presentations by Professors Romila Thapar, Amiya Kumar Bagchi, Aditya Mukherji and Irfan Habib were preceded by felicitations offered by CPI(M) General Secretary Sitaram Yechuri and Prof. Shireen Moosvi. The symposium was chaired by economist Prof. Prabhat Patnaik.

The Aryan Question

Prof. Thapar opened her characteristically lucid presentation with a reference to the "anxiety of the times in which we are living" but exuded confidence when she asserted that "ultimately the interpretation of the past" will come from evidence drawn from multiple sources and analysed through the exercise of reason. Contemporary politics had thrown up again a subject, the Aryan question, which used to be routinely treated and sidelined by students of history and so Thapar took it up to explicate her approach to the developments in history. The German interpretation that Indo-Aryans were the creators of the Vedic culture which was the basis of Hinduism had been adopted by the colonialists and the Hindtuva ideologues alike but professional historians have increasingly distanced themselves from it. Geographical evidence showed that the far earlier Harappan urban civilisation with a westward sweep extended over a much wider area than the Aryan agro-pastoral one with its eastward drift. Linguistic evidence too has shown that Vedic Sanskrit evolved not in isolation but in the midst of a multi-lingual environment with significant similarities and dissimilarities with Dravidian and Munda languages. Caste identities and ritualistic practices too display more `mixed' rather than `isolated' characteristics. Civilisations are porous and appear more `multi-cultural' rather than being `pure'.

With the wide variety of sources providing evidence that demands a rational analysis, historians require to be "trained" to assess and interpret the evidence. Under the circumstances it is not the stamp of "authority" provided to a "fantasised history, projected through social media, TV channels and glossy magazines” that is an imperative in defence of history but rather the "freedom to think", critique and reinterpret. This cannot be treated as an "anti-national" act because it allows us to comprehend our nationhood as expressive of a "thoughtful, humane and secular society" as we did in the early years after independence. However, the biggest fear now is that this freedom which education "should ensure, maybe disallowed".

Rise of Fascism

Prof. Bagchi, Chairperson of the Indian History Congress, spoke of his writings over decades which have focussed on the detrimental effects of colonialism on the economic and social conditions of the colonised countries. "The development of the advanced capitalist countries was causally connected with the underdevelopment of ex-colonial countries", he argues. Citing data to show that whereas in 1750 India accounted for about 24.5 percent of global manufactures, by 1913 this had declined drastically to a mere 1.3 percent. During the same period the developed countries had gone upwards from 27 percent to 92.5 percent. The principal ideologies propagated by the colonisers to justify their ruthless exploitation were the claim to civilising `uncivilised' populations on the one hand, and on the other, the ideas of racial superiority and inferiority on which this civilising mission was sought to be justified. This was to have an important role in the rise of fascist ideologies in Europe during the late 19th and 20th centuries.

The Nazi idea of Aryan supremacy and the racial inferiority of the Jews was adopted enthusiastically by the RSS and adjusted to its advocacy of the fundamental communal divide between two racially distinct and incompatible Hindu and Muslim communities in India who therefore could not constitute a single nation. Although Prof. Thapar pointed out that the term Aryan identifies a language and not a race and "any number of racially diverse cultures can pick up the same language in a given historical situation", Prof. Mukherji's presentation drew attention to "the close umbilical cord tie" between the “colonial and communal" interpretation of Indian history. British colonialism viewed the Indian people as "always divided on the basis of `primordial identities' of religion and caste and these identities were seen as subsuming all other identities or interests, economic, political, social or cultural." It was a view that became deeply embedded in the ideology and politics of the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha. Not surprisingly, therefore, the role of these organisations during the anti-colonial struggle showed a distinct propensity to adjust with and oblige the colonisers but never to accommodate or ally with the Muslim `Other'. Post-independence "the decades that followed the Nehruvian consensus" were for them the "wasted years", the seventy years in which nothing was said to have been achieved.

Falsifying History

Irfan Habib pointed out how the Nazi idea of Aryan supremacy was imported into India and referred to the role played by Savarkar and Golwalkar in making it a central feature of the Hindutva ideology. Why did they choose the Aryan identity idolised by the Nazis? Why did they not feel that it was "great to be Dravidian"? Prof. Habib asserted that it was important to have an accurate idea of a country's past. "False history for a nation is like a false memory for an individual. It is a disease for the country." History must be defended and protected against communal forces. This has to be a significant part of our efforts in the field of education as the communal distortions by the RSS and its associated organisations are doing severe damage to the country and its people. The NEP's assault on the content and design of the education system would affect all knowledge.

The need for restoring objectivity in the study of Indian history cannot be over-emphasised for it is not empty "self-praise but hard work, scientific knowledge, research technologies, developing democracy and civil liberties" that build the nation. The so-called `majoritarian' communal ideology in fact flies in the face of the interests and concerns of the vast majority of peasants and working people by physically dividing them, as Ambedkar had once written, on caste and religious lines.

An ideological orientation cannot be allowed to distort the very methodology and integrity of history as a discipline. How are historical facts discovered, evaluated and assessed in order to acquire historical knowledge of society and the country? Prof. Habib referred to an early encounter with a book by Prof. R.G. Bhandarkar, who was right-wing in his orientation but rigorous in his historical research to establish the point. Ironically, his library was vandalised and precious archival material destroyed some years ago by a right-wing mob.

Sitaram Yechuri, who coincidentally shares a birthday with Prof. Habib, paid tribute to his unique contribution in the field of history but was also fulsome in his praise for Prof. Habib's unswerving commitment both to Marxist thought and practice and to the communist movement as a steadfast adherent of the united Communist Party of India and, following the Party split, of the CPI(M). Having lived through the most tumultuous period of India's history including the partition and the communal riots, he remained dedicated to the social upliftment of the people and the struggle for social change. Yechuri recalled how throughout his own life in the party from the days of the student movement he and other comrades never failed to be inspired by Comrade Habib's ability to provoke critical thought on political and ideological issues in order to encourage a deeper understanding of Marxist practice.

Prof. Shireen Moosvi, a long-time colleague and collaborator of Prof. Habib at the History department of Aligarh Muslim University provided a glimpse of his meticulous and intensely self-critical intellectual capabilities as an academic. Her account revealed how Prof. Habib has come to occupy a unique standing among India's public intellectuals in being recognised as the founder of the globally acclaimed Aligarh School of History for the study of medieval Indian History.

In his closing remarks Prof. Patnaik took up the issue of the challenge posed to the freedom to think by what could only be termed the "tyranny of the profession". Only that discourse was encouraged by the structure and design of courses or preferred areas for research which was found "acceptable" within a given disciplinary framework. Others were discouraged, undermined or in the case of radically opposed frameworks often viciously downgraded and rejected. Such attitudes endangered the integrity of the discipline which should remain open to self critical analyses. This powerful deterrent to opening up spaces for alternative perspectives had been taken note of by Prof. Bagchi as well when he considered the invisibility in the literature dealing with colonisation of the Third World of the subject of devastation caused by colonial exploitation in colonised countries. The reluctance to study economic history in departments of economics was apparently a result of the reluctance to grant space to ideologically inconvenient perspectives.

Anti-Muslim Stance

The urgency conveyed by all speakers at the symposium, the need to intellectually confront the forces seeking to demolish and belittle history as a methodology and as one of the leading disciplines of Indian academics, was brought home almost immediately. At an official meeting held in Kozhikode on 20th August 2021 to mark the beginning of the centenary commemorations of the "Moplah rebellion" and honour its martyrs, RSS pracharak and former BJP national secretary Ram Madhav claimed that what he offensively referred to as the Malabar "riot" was anti-Hindu and one of the "first manifestations" of the "Taliban mindset" in India. A three-member panel set up following objections by the new breed of `Sangh Parivar historians' to review the entries in the fifth volume of the Dictionary of Martyrs of India's Freedom Struggle apparently recommended that the names of the 387 martyrs be removed from the volume as it was a fundamentalist movement. Among those who strongly protested the recommendation was none other than the former ICHR chairman Prof. M G S Narayanan who had been appointed by the Vajpayee government (2001-2003). He admitted that politically motivated factors could be behind the move which was "not right and not good" and that no fresh evidence had been offered that would demand a reinterpretation of the historical role of the martyrs. Although the panel's recommendations have finally not been accepted, the Sangh Parivar's characteristic mode of operation - outrageous public statements and controversies raised by prominent leaders on the one hand and surreptitious administrative actions on the other - is calculated to float its ideologically skewed version in the public domain.

A similar intervention has occurred even more recently. Within days of complaints appearing on social media which tagged the Ministry of Culture, the Information and Technology Ministry rushed to remove a paragraph on the Mughal empire from its website. The "Culture and Heritage" section of the was immediately converted into a photo gallery with 30 photographs of dance forms and monuments but with no descriptive texts in place! The Medieval India page had extolled the merits of the Mughal empire which the Ministry of Culture now ominously claims "misrepresents India's history" and hence will be replaced shortly with a more "accurate" portrayal.

These are not sporadic or erratic occurrences. The sustained campaign to discredit the role of the Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan in having resisted British colonial expansion by claiming that he was anti-Hindu is not only directed towards distorting history but at instigating communal animosities today. Promoting an anti-Muslim stance is the constant and determined focus of the Sangh Parivar's politics and all its interventions in education, history and culture are motivated by this agenda.

The stepping up since 2014 of blatant political and ideological assaults on the interpretation of India’s history and distortion of the facts of the country's diverse and plural heritage cannot be put down only to the arrogance of power exhibited by the Modi regime following its electoral success. In fact, this has been a political strategy adopted by the Sangh Parivar since its very inception. From 1925 to 1948, the RSS had paid attention only to indoctrinating its cadre through its shakhas showed little concern for education. However, following the assassination of Gandhi, the then Home Minister Sardar Patel had banned the RSS and jailed more than 25,000 of its activists. Obviously parents were reluctant to send their children to shakhas and it further appeared unsafe to run the political shakhas for fear of inviting governmental wrath. The Sangh promised to forsake politics and keep its functioning limited to `cultural' activities. With the lifting of the ban on this condition, the first Saraswati Shishu Mandirs were started. Their agenda however remained unchanged.

Distorting Textbooks

Whenever its political fronts, currently the Bhartiya Janta Party and the ABVP, have acquired access to or control over governmental institutions, they have systematically undermined historical facts and promoted a distorted and ideologically motivated conception of India's history. During the supposedly `moderate' Vajpayee regime, NCERT textbooks were `censored' and altered, works of leading academics and writers were removed from syllabi and recommended reading lists at school and college levels alike and often substituted in schools by material drawn from ideologues of the Sangh Parivar. In an assault on the public space of Indian democracy, a portrait of V.D. Savarkar, who repeatedly begged for forgiveness from the British colonisers and never stepped outside the limits within which they confined his future activities, was installed in the central hall of Parliament opposite the portrait of Mahatma Gandhi. No doubt this was intended to create the fiction of his continuing involvement in the anti-colonial freedom movement, and even more so, to deflect from and defy evidence and testimonies that are suggestive of his liability in instigating the assassination of Gandhi.

Prof. Mukherji provided examples of texts and lessons that demonised the Muslims, identified Christians as "anti-nationals" and launched attacks on "secular scientific history". When the NDA came to power in 1999 key people were removed from the CBSE syllabus committee, appointments were made of "pliant Hindutva believers to top administrative positions like the Director or Chairperson of the NCERT, UGC, ICSSR and the ICHR, before launching a frontal attack on secular scientific historians." Passages, already identified in an RSS publication, The Enemies of Indianisation: The Children of Marx, Macaulay and Madarsa, were sought to be deleted from textbooks written by leading historians like R.S. Sharma, Romila Thapar, Bipin Chandra, Satish Chandra etc. Despite a defence from leading academicians including President K.R. Narayan and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, the RSS leader K. S. Sudershan branded them as 'anti-Hindu'. A "group of self-appointed protectors of Indian nationalism" gathered at the house of the minister of education Murli Manohar Joshi and demanded the arrest of the historians. The minister himself branded the "history written by these scholars as `intellectual terrorism' which was `more dangerous than cross border terrorism'. . . ."

The ideological offensive after 2019 with the BJP having an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha is "now aimed at creating in the public mind, through relentless propaganda, a totally false notion of pride in a mythic past with which only the majority community is identified". Concerted attacks on secular history school textbooks and a UGC prepared curriculum framework for under-graduate history along the communal lines favoured by the ruling party are being rapidly pushed forward. A Rajya Sabha Parliamentary Standing Committee involving departments of education, women, children, youth and sports has taken up for consideration 'reforms' in the content and design of school textbooks. The Indian History Congress in a strongly worded statement has noted that the critique and the proposed reforms emerge not from the analyses of recognised historians but from "a political position favoured by votaries of prejudice".

Raising one's voice in defence of history is today a critical task facing not only the academic community but the people as well. Steps in this direction have already been taken by the students in defence of their universities, by citizens in defence of their political and civil rights, and by the farmers in defence of the right to cultivate their lands and earn a livelihood with dignity.

Confronting the lived history of the evolution of India as a nation through the freedom movement, which is reflected in our republican constitution, with a fabricated history of Hindu supremacy and victimhood lies at the core of the Sangh Parivar's goal of a `Hindu Rashtra'.

The symposium in honour of Prof. Irfan Habib dealt a powerful blow in exposing the irrationality of this deceptive and ahistorical concept.

Madhu Prasad is with the All India Forum for the Right to Education.