A tribute to Irfan Habib

Print edition : October 14, 2000

The Making of History: Essays presented to Irfan Habib edited by K. N. Panikkar, Terence J. Byres and Utsa Patnaik; Tulika; pages 678, Rs. 900.

WHY not say it, Irfan Habib is an extraordinary phenomenon. As a historian, he has few peers. His research on The Agrarian System of Mughal India, published in the 1960s, immediately became a classic. Recognition as a fearless exponent of Marxist historiography rained down on him. His initial work pertained to the medieval era of Indian history. He has ceaselessly produced tracts on aspects of this historical period, each of which bears the stamp of his intellectual depth and clarity of writing. His mind and interest did not, however, long stay confined to any particular, narrow phase of events and occurrences. He soon spread out; nothing from the very ancient period to the outer fringes of modern Indian history has escaped his attention. The po int has to be emphasised over and over again: whatever he has written has been the product of scholastic endeavour of the highest order: reasoning, primary data not unravelled in the past, application of such data towards formulating credible hypotheses, and the entire corpus built, stone by stone, into a magnificent edifice which can be held in comparison only with other products emanating from Irfan Habib's mind and pen. It is the combination of quantity of output and quality of excellence which has e nabled his works reach the reputation of being the other word for supreme excellence.

Inevitably, he has attracted attention as much within the country as outside. Honours have come to him easily. What is of stupendous additional significance, his interpretation of data, building of premises based on such data and expansion of the underly ing reasoning, have never strayed away from their Marxist foundation. He has been unabashedly Marxist in his scholastic activities, and has never made a secret of his intellectual and emotional inclination. No run-of-the-mill braggart, his output, every line of it, every expression of his format, has spelled out his faith and belief. Ours is a hide-bound society; it breathes reaction from every pore. Nonetheless, it has been unable to either bypass or be indifferent to Irfan's towering scholarship. Not only has he been accorded the highest academic distinction in an educational institution which has its fair share of retrograde thoughts and demeanour. Even the country's administrative establishment could not fail to take cognisance of his intellectual prowess. Thus the Chairmanship of the Indian Council of Historical Research was offered to him. He held this position for well over a decade, and it was no vacuous adornment of a throne. He used the opportunity to wonderful effect, guiding and counsellin g historical research at different centres of learning in the country. The result shows in the secular advance in the quality of history teaching and writing in the different Indian universities.

But research interests have not held back Irfan in a narrow mooring. Alongside his individual research activities and the scholastic work he has encouraged around him, his focus of attention has continued to be his students. He has lived for his students , and it would be no exaggeration to claim that he is prepared to die for them. A little facetious research will prove the point: about half of his colleagues on the faculty of history in the Aligarh Muslim University happen to be his former students. It would still be a travesty to infer that he built his students in his own image. He has been a radical thinker, a weather-beaten socialist prepared to combat all ideological challenges, and yet his catholicism as a teacher is by now a legend. Even those whose stream of thought is not in accord with his wave-length have nonetheless found in him the most painstaking teacher who would not deny a student, any student, what he, rightfully or otherwise, can expect of a teacher. Irfan's style of exposition has an elegance of its own: he is an accredited socialist, and yet his command of language, and the manner in which he puts it across, have the hallmark of the legatee of a benign, civilised aristocracy. Maybe in this matter his heredity has been a natural helper.

That does not still tell the entire story of his dazzling career. It is possible to come across scores and scores of arm-chair socialists and radicals whose faith has not nudged them into political activism. From that point of view too, Irfan Habib is al together out of the ordinary. He has been, for nearly three decades, an accredited member of a revolutionary political party; he has not concealed this datum from any quarters. Quite on the contrary, that identity has been his emblem of pride. He has bee n prepared to serve the cause of the party whenever called upon, without however compromising or neglecting his academic responsibilities. It is this blend of intense - if it were not a heresy, one could say, almost religious - belief and fearless partic ipation in political activism which has marked him out in the tepid milieu of Indian academia. His activism, one should add, has widened beyond the humdrum sphere of political speech-making and polemical writing (although, even in his absent-mindedness, his polemics has never descended to the level of empty rhetoric). Irfan's social conscience has prodded him into trade unionism, what many academics would regard as waywardness of the most shocking kind. Irfan could not have cared less for such snobbery. He has also encouraged his students to combine radical thought with political engagement. He has been at the forefront of organisers of teachers' movements. To cap all, he has been the main inspirer and mobiliser of the non-teaching employees of his uni versity and elsewhere. He has suffered on all these accounts including, for a period, suspension from his university. This was an outrage, and social pressure forced the university to revoke its insensate decision.

TO fail to mention his relentless opposition to communal revanchists of all genres will be an unpardonable omission. Muslim fundamentalists have made him their favourite target; of late, Hindu communalists have joined the ranks of this motley crow d. Irfan has not for one moment cowered before this rabble. A quiet, tranquil person in his natural disposition, there is a reservoir of fire in him which has been continuously directed against society's reactionary scum.

For this truly extraordinary scholar, his friends, colleagues and admirers have now assembled, in the form of a festschrift, an extraordinary collection of 23 essays. The Making of History is a labour of love and regard; it is, at the same time, a compendium of much of academic excellence as of social awareness. And it is a magnificently produced volume, for which full credit devolves on the publishers.

THE festschrift opens with a perceptive and comprehensive Introduction covering the major aspects of Irfan Habib's pursuits and fascinations. The essays that follow are arranged in five sections, each of which reflects Irfan's research interests i n different phases. In this brief survey, it is not possible to render justice to each of the different contributions and their authors. The reviewer therefore proposes to draw attention to only some of the essays and seeks forgiveness from the other aut hors.

An additional preliminary comment is perhaps necessary concerning the nature of the contributions: barring one or two exceptions, each essay bears the imprint of a Marxist approach. That is understandable in the light of Irfan's personal inclinations. In that sense, The Making of History is a fusion of subjectivity and objectivity. The contributions include one British, one from Bangladesh and two from Japan.

The first section covers a span of ancient Indian history. Romila Thapar, in her commentary on Rigveda as a mirror of social change, is as incisive and scintillating as ever. She and Suraj Bhan who discusses the Aryanisation of the Indian civilisation, a rrive at more or less the same conclusion, Romila a little elliptically and Bhan much more directly: the post-Independence endeavour on the part of some groups to invest Vedic culture superiority over other civilisations of the ancient world constitutes a much overdrawn picture; all that can be said to its credit, or discredit, is that the social stratification which has been the perennial curse of Indian civilisation has its genesis in Vedic times.

The articles in the second section combine analytical rigour and historical insight to explicate the social processes unleashed toward the end of the Mughal period and the accompanying transition of society from the feudal to the semi-feudal mode. Iqtida r Alam Khan traces the antecedents of market formation and narrates the tales of peasant exploitation as well as peasant resistance. Muzaffer Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam dig into both archival accounts and contemporary literature. Theories are formulate d in this section on the basis of prior intuitions. These are emended via ferreting of data; new hypotheses thereby rear their head. A charming example is provided by J. Mohan Rao's excursion into production and appropriation relations in Mughal India. I n what is almost an aside, Hiroyuki Kotani discusses rural and urban class structures in the Deccan and Gujarat in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; the piece is both a throwback to ancient times and a preview of the nineteenth- and twentiet h-century social complexities.

The third section pushes us into the proximity of the colonial era. The four essays in this section divide themselves into two even groups. The first two papers, by Terence J. Byres and Amiya Kumar Bagchi, are pristine examples of the inter-meshing of ec onomic theory and economic history, with emphasis on building new theoretical constructs. Byres posits an inverse relationship between land productivity and size of holding for Mughal India, basing himself on Irfan Habib's pioneering work and laments the lack of a study, a la Irfan, on the agrarian system of British India. Bagchi's tract on the working class as the historian's burden is breathtaking in its sweep. His premise does not have an altogether specific Indian context; the essay connotes a historicity which has a universal appeal; the endless saga of the repression of the working class and their resistance to it is nonetheless illumined by examples picked from Indian annals, north and south, east and west.

The other two essays in the section are gems of statistical exploration intended to reveal the extent and magnitude of colonial exploitation. Shireen Moosvi painstakingly gathers together data from different sources, adding her own collation of primary d ata, to establish the empirical truth of the stagnation, and in certain periods, the actual delcine of both per capita income and real wages in the colonial era. On the other hand, Utsa Patnaik wades into the Luxemburgian theme of external exploit ation. Her fresh estimates of eighteenth century British trade as a transfer device from tropical colonies will be quoted, this reviewer has not the least doubt, in future texts attempting to describe the colonial nightmare.

Section four again has a theme-wise bifurcation. The first two essays, the contributions of Javeed Alam and Aijaz Ahmad, constitute a devastating critique of a genre of academic pretensions that have gained prominence in recent years. To be fair, the pro tagonists of such scriptures are often well-meaning in their interpretations. They have, however, been affected by the malady of either left-wing adventurism or straightforward frustration. Both Aijaz Ahmad and Javeed Alam are punctilious in the construc tion of their hypotheses, and the common conclusion one reaches from assimilating the message of their two essays is that modernity and post-modernism have added at best some footnotes to Marxist historiography. The articles by Mihir Bhattacharya, Ratnab ali Chatterjee and Malini Bhattacharya dwell on the two-way relationship between historical occurrences and the cultural process. Mihir discusses the impact of the grim Bengal famine of the 1940s on the sensitivity of two outstanding Bengali novelists, M anik Bandyopadhyay and Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay. Ratnabali Chatterjee analyses the archaeological evidence of the early traces of nationalism in the cultural nuances of medieval Bengal. Malini Bhattacharya is severe in her attack on the modern-day tre nds to package so-called ethnic products, including folk songs, musical tunes and handicrafts, for crass commercial purposes. She tells us that the indigenous artists, whatever their sphere of creativity, articulated a deeply felt secularism, from which we should draw inspiration.

Section five ushers in many of the themes of contemporary controversy. K. N. Panikkar analyses the links between culture and nationalism and their anti-thesis represented by communal politics. He does not stray from solid facts, and yet spares no invecti ve for the social reactionaries where such invective is richly deserved. Mushirul Hasan revisits Indian partition. He invites the new generation of historians to cast away the conventional format of Partition studies and concentrate on stressing the hith erto neglected literature on inter-community relations, Partition and national identity. Mushtaq H. Khan sheds light on a problem which has till now scarcely drawn the attention of Indian scholars: what he describes as class, clientelism and communal pol itics in Bangladesh. K.M. Shrimali's meticulous review of the archaeological evidence pertaining to earlier times has two objectives: first, to question the empirical foundation of the alleged conversion of Hindu religious structures into mosques, et al, in the Muslim epoch, and second, to prove how flimsy is the claim of a Rama temple predating the Babri Masjid in the Ayodhya location.

The final section relates to economics of the modern era. C.P. Chandrasekhar discusses the ongoing economics reforms focussing on the public sector undertakings and suggests that these reflect the construct of a true pompadour non-civilisation. Th e last essay in the volume, by Prabhat Patnaik, is of an altogether different genre. Prabhat depicts his essay as a simple model of an imaginary socialist economy. His modesty is misleading, for his construction is not of an imaginary socialist system, b ut of an idyllic system, which carries forward the Marxist-Leninist ideological postulate beyond Rosa Luxemburg, Oskar Lange and Michal Kalecki. Prabhat's conceptual model of an internally consistent socialist economy, this reviewer is firmly of the view , will still the disquiet of many doubting Thomases.

The volume ends with a detailed and conscientious list of Irfan's publications, which will be of immense use to future research scholars.

All told, The Making of History is a most appropriate tribute to Irfan Habib's unrelenting commitment to history and the social sciences. Several of the contributions in the volume, one is tempted to suggest, are bound to make history!

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