A great mind

Print edition : October 21, 2011

The book celebrates the historian Irfan Habib and seeks to understand the ideas that were central to India's social revolution.

IT is not unusual that a scholar is felicitated with festschrifts more than once; nor are thematic discussions of the contributions of a scholar altogether non-existent. However, celebrating a historian on the basis of the trails he has blazed is a rare experience. Excursus in History: Essays on Some Ideas of Irfan Habib shows how the work of Irfan Habib has broken new ground in different areas in Indian history, going beyond the narrow field of his specialisation where, to be sure, his work has been paradigmatic.

Even when he has been at the receiving end of a large number of controversies both in the small town of Aligarh where he lives and in the larger world outside, nobody has disputed his scholarship or the considerable contribution he has made to the discipline of history and its practice at various levels. Therefore, it is in the fitness of things that the first in a series to celebrate the contributions of modern Indian thinkers is dedicated to the ideas of Irfan Habib as a historian. For, Habib's ideas and practice have been precisely those that were central to the social revolution that India has witnessed in the period after Independence: democracy, socialism and secularism, the makers of which are celebrated in the series.

First and foremost, it is as a historian that Habib has made his mark. Reviewing his first book, Tapan Raychaudhuri wrote way back in 1965: Once in a very long while something happens to stir the shallow, turbid and yet extensive waters of Indian historiography. The publication of Irfan Habib's The Agrarian System of Mughal India is generally recognised even in the most unlikely quarters as one of these rare occasions. Although there were dissenting notes from the very beginning Riazul Islam's review of the book is a case in point the book has been a major breakthrough in Indian historiography inasmuch as it raised hitherto neglected questions, such as about agrarian production, surplus, its extraction, and the way in which it was recycled in Mughal India. Apart from contributing significantly to the understanding of the processes of production and distribution in northern India under the Mughals, this monograph also put forward many new ideas such as that of a price revolution in the latter half of the Mughal rule and understood much of the unrest towards the end of the rule (such as the Jat rebellions, the Satnami revolt, and so on) as so many peasant revolts.

As a sequel to this inquiry, Habib came out with a major conclusion that India did not, despite the necessary resources and conditions, have the potentialities of capitalist development as the surplus that was produced and extracted was not invested for the production of further wealth. Although, strictly speaking, this is a counterfactual and there could be alternative routes, the strict adherence to both the methods of scientific inquiry and of historical materialism makes this a seminal essay in Indian historiography.

While firmly rooted in his area of specialisation, namely medieval Indian history, Habib made major interventions in other areas of Indian history as well in a most authoritative way. His project of mapping different periods of Indian history, the results of which were presented in different sessions of the Indian History Congress, is truly remarkable. (It is a pity that these maps are not yet available to a wider audience.) This goes beyond a simple cartographic exercise: a detailed consideration of the sources relating to the periods in question and the scholarship available in the fields as well as a critical understanding of the historical landscape is available in these studies.

Similarly, Habib's review of the second volume of The Cambridge Economic History of India edited by Dharma Kumar establishes him authentically as a historian of modern India, too. Not only did he demolish the work there but he also represented, in a most meaningful manner, the political economy of colonialism in India and its working.

The work that he began in his Agrarian System and the sequel paper on the potentialities of capitalist development was finding its fulfilment. Again, when he launched the People's History of India series, many volumes of which he is himself the author, he was going backwards in time. The authority with which he presented the maps was seen in its fuller form and manner in these volumes, which are related to the earliest periods of Indian history. And, in a recent interview he gave one of his own favourite students, he shows the readiness to self-reflexively correct his position regarding what has come to be known as Indian feudalism, particularly in the early medieval phase of our history.

Secular outlook

Thus, Habib presents himself as a master of all periods of Indian history with a sweep that is truly breathtaking even when the scope is magisterial and intimidating. However, this is done not just to satisfy some idle academic curiosity. The pattern that he sees in Indian history is useful for the realisation of an ideology, which he has always stood for. Marxist political ideology and programme of action blend so well with his academic concerns and secular outlook. When he built up the Centre for Advanced Study in History in Aligarh Muslim University of which he was the coordinator for a long time, or when he provided the much-needed stewardship to the Indian History Congress, he was doing them with this larger mission in mind. That has earned him a large number of admirers and also enemies.

It is to discuss some ideas of this stalwart that Prabhat Patnaik has brought this volume together. This is not a festschrift to Irfan Habib: that has already been published by the same publisher and with the editor of this volume as one of the editors. Nor is it just an exercise in flattery.

The general editor of the series on Modern Indian Thinkers, of which the present volume is the first, says: It [that is, the series] is not about eminent Indians' or even about makers of modern India'. It is about thinkers belonging to different spheres of activity whose ideas bear upon the issue of India's social revolution. Continuing from this, Prabhat Patnaik writes in the Introduction to this volume: This is an examination of his work in different areas and an attempt to capture the totality of his thought. Accordingly, the book takes up several themes for discussion within the broad rubrics of history and historiography, with special reference to medieval India as well as political economy and theory. Shireen Moosvi opens the first section on history and historiography with an essay on Marxist Theory and the Historian's Practice, which is more a patronising kind of eulogy than either an essay on the topic or an analysis of the work of her teacher (who is both a Marxist theoretician and a practising historian!). So also, Iqtidar Alam Khan's essay on the People's History project cannot be described as entirely an exercise in critical understanding.

K.M. Shrimali's piece is a solid analysis of the cartographic exercises by Irfan and Faiz Habib. Shrimali's is not an empty prashasti; he assesses the work of father and son in a critical fashion. He does identify the ideological underpinnings in the mapping exercises and, going beyond what is at hand, charts out an agenda for future work.

Sabyasachi Bhattacharya develops on an idea of Habib and writes about early 19th century Bengal (about which, to be sure, Habib has not done much work). Vishwa Mohan Jha's lengthy paper is on how Irfan Habib treats prehistory. While it is a serious study whose scope goes beyond the subject matter, it is also permeated with some anger directed unnecessarily towards people who are not impleaded in the case. Jaya Menon's review of Habib's contribution to prehistoric archaeology is balanced.

The next section, on medieval India, is still more sumptuous. Satish Chandra makes an examination of Habib's Agrarian System and considers its implications for understanding the scenario in the 18th century with the help of the rich archive and meticulous research concerning what was once considered as another dark age of Indian history.

J.S. Grewal and Indu Banga assess Habib's writings on religion in medieval India and argue that, despite his understanding being comprehensive, he excludes the role of altruistic and humanistic concerns.

Professor Irfan Habib releasing a souvenir at a meeting of the Indian History Congress at the University of Delhi on May 15, 2010. Along with him are Professors S.Z.H. Jafri, R. Champakalakshmi, Romila Thapar and Arun Bandopadhyay.-SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

Great insights

Najaf Haider's essay on money matters is a brilliant intervention on a topic on which Habib has done considerable work. While appreciating the considerable work and the great insights of the master, Haider does not fail to point out the major differences he has with Habib. However, one cannot escape the feeling that good essays can end with bad conclusions.

Amar Farooqui's essay, examining Habib's work on the failure of Oriental societies to take off to a capitalist stage, raises the interesting question about how India in the post-Mughal period would have evolved had it not come under colonial domination. Habib has not speculated on this, but he is aware that we cannot avoid a discussion of the consequences of colonial tribute even in the explanation for India's inability to make the transition to advanced' capitalism. Other areas that are dear to Habib, such as technology and other aspects of Mughal history, too are taken up with varied competence.

Another section on Political Economy and Theory follows. This is extremely rich and is particularly useful, given the fact that Habib has been much more than a historian. His interest and contributions to the fields of political economy and theory have been immensely rich.

The title of Amiya Kumar Bagchi's essay, Celebrating Irfan Habib at Eighty, may give the impression that it is a panegyric; it is in reality a critical appraisal of the relevance of Marxist method in the post-Soviet world, particularly in the context of India.

Bagchi raises important points about the counterfactuals that Habib has put forward in relation to the potentialities of capitalist development in India. He also discusses the role of other aspects such as ideology and technology, all of which are of great relevance not only in appreciating the work of Habib but for an understanding of the processes of history within the framework of historical materialism.

Utsa Patnaik takes up the trade estimates in the historical writing of the colonial period and exposes the heavily one-sided character of this, which was not exactly innocent. Prabhat Patnaik's paper on the macroeconomics of a colonial economy is a tribute to Habib, who in his review of The Cambridge Economic History of India had demonstrated the impoverishing effect of the drain of wealth in the colonial period. Patnaik's essay is also a warning for the present when a comparable situation exists with a major difference.

Taking up Habib's view on Gandhi, Akeel Bilgrami argues that Habib recognised Gandhi's reliance on India's religious traditions as among the creative aspects of Gandhi.

C.P. Chandrasekhar takes up Habib's ideas regarding the prospects of Marxism within the post-Soviet scenario.

Irfan Habib has given a lengthy interview to Parvathi Menon. Usually reticent to talk about himself, he comes out in this interview with many insights and shows his readiness to revise some of his earlier positions, with an intellectual honesty that only top scholars will have. At the end of the book are reproduced a few reviews of his books.

It is to the credit of the volume that even damaging reviews, such as of Riazul Islam on his Agrarian System or of Joseph Schwartzberg on his Historical Atlas, have been included: this shows that the purpose of the volume is not to sing the praise of the subject. And, going beyond celebrating the work of a stalwart of a historian, the volume is a major intervention in understanding some of the major strands that went into the making of the social revolution that India has gone through in the post-Independence period.

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