Irfan Habib: Defender of history

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.

Published : Sep 18, 2021 06:00 IST

Irfan Habib

Irfan Habib

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 12 to celebrate the 90th birthday of Professor Irfan Habib, legendary historian, progressive intellectual and leading role model for generations of students and scholars. Significant presentations by Professors Romila Thapar, Amiya Kumar Bagchi, Aditya Mukherji and Irfan Habib were preceded by felicitations offered by Sitaram Yechuri, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Prof. Shireen Moosvi. Prof. Prabhat Patnaik chaired the symposium.

The Aryan question

Romila 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 Romila Thapar took it up to explicate her approach to 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 colonialists and Hindutva 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 a multi-lingual environment with significant similarities and dissimilarities with Dravidian and Munda languages. Caste identities and ritualistic practices too display “mixed” rather than “isolated” characteristics. Civilisations are porous and appear “multi-cultural” rather than “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. 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, may be disallowed”.

Rise of fascism

Amiya 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 colonised countries. “The development of the advanced capitalist countries was causally connected with the underdevelopment of ex-colonial countries,” he argued. He cited data to show that whereas in 1750 India accounted for about 24.5 per cent of global manufactures, by 1913 this declined drastically to a mere 1.3 per cent. During the same period, the output of developed countries went up from 27 per cent to 92.5 per cent. The colonisers justified their ruthless exploitation by, on the one hand, claiming to civilise “uncivilised” peoples and, on the other, by justifying this ‘civilising’ mission; on the grounds of racial superiority and inferiority This was to have an important role in the rise of fascist ideologies in Europe during the late 19th and 20th centuries.

The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) adopted the Nazi idea of Aryan supremacy and the racial inferiority of Jews enthusiastically and adapted it 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. Romila Thapar pointed out that the term Aryan identified a language and not a race and “any number of racially diverse cultures can pick up the same language in a given historical situation”.

Aditya 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”. This view 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”—70 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 V.D. Savarkar and M.S. 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”? Irfan 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. In the field of education, communal distortions by the RSS and its associated organisations are doing severe damage to the country and its people. The National Education Policy’s (NEP) assault on the content and design of the education system will 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 B.R. 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? Irfan Habib referred to an early encounter with a book by 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 paid tribute to his unique contribution in the field of history and was profuse in his praise for Irfan Habib’s unswerving commitment 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’s split, the CPI(M). Having lived through the most tumultuous period of India’s history including Partition, he remained dedicated to the social uplift 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 Irfan Habib’s ability to provoke critical thought on political and ideological issues in order to encourage a deeper understanding of Marxist practice.

Shireen Moosvi, a long-time colleague and collaborator of Irfan 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 Irfan 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, Prabhat 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 discourses that were found “acceptable” within a given disciplinary framework were encouraged by the structure and design of courses. 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. Amiya Bagchi also took note of this powerful deterrent to opening up spaces for alternative perspectives when he considered the invisibility of the subject of devastation caused by colonial exploitation in colonised countries in literature dealing with colonisation of the Third World. 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 about 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 August 20 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 387 “Moplah martyrs” of 1921 be removed from the volume on the grounds that their movement was not against British colonial rule but was fundamentalist in nature.

Among those who strongly protested against the recommendation was former ICHR chairman M.G.S. Narayanan, who had been appointed by the A.B. 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 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. The Ministry of Culture now claims that this “misrepresented 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 aimed at distorting history but at instigating communal animosities. 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 paid attention only to indoctrinating its cadre through its shakhas and showed little concern for education. Following the assassination of Gandhi, the then Home Minister, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, banned the RSS and jailed more than 25,000 of its activists. Obviously, parents were reluctant to send their children to shakhas and it also 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 Bharatiya Janta Party and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, 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, textbooks of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) “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 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 involvement in the anti-colonial freedom movement, and even more so, to deflect from and defy evidence and testimonies that are suggestive of his role in instigating the assassination of Gandhi.

Aditya Mukherji provided examples of texts and lessons that demonised Muslims, identified Christians as “anti-nationals” and launched attacks on “secular scientific history”. When the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) came to power in 1999, key people were removed from the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) syllabus committee and Hindutva votaries were appointed to top administrative positions such as that of Director or Chairperson of the NCERT, University Grants Commission, the Indian Council of Social Science Research and the Indian Council of Historical Research. 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 and Satish Chandra. The RSS leader K.S. Sudershan branded them as “anti-Hindu”, although some leading intellectuals, including President K.R. Narayanan and the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, defended them. A “group of self-appointed protectors of Indian nationalism” gathered at the house of 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 students in defence of their universities, by citizens in defence of their political and civil rights, and by 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 its 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 Irfan Habib dealt a powerful blow to the irrationality of this deceptive and ahistorical concept.

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

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