Jaundiced perspective

Print edition : June 08, 2018

Professor Irfan Habib. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat

Interview with Prof. Irfan Habib, historian.

THE turn of events in Aligarh Muslim University in connection with Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s portrait in the students’ union hall has perturbed students, faculty members and all those who have given a good part of their lives to the university. The historian Prof. Irfan Habib is no exception. He pointed out that when the portrait came up in 1938, Jinnah was feted on the campus, and the students at that time had great regard for him. A popular leader then, Jinnah was among the best-read politicians of the time. So conferring life membership on him was only natural. Significantly, the demand for a separate state of Pakistan had not been made until then, though the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) had aired the concept of Hindu Rashtra. Hoping for things to return to normal soon with the students going back to their classroom for their final examinations, Prof. Habib told Frontline that the latest controversy suited the political dispensation of the day. Excerpts from the interview:

How does one resolve the AMU crisis?

Things were beginning to settle down. Unfortunately, now both sides are prolonging it. It is time to move on.

Does it not suit the government for the issue to linger on?

The AMU fraternity should understand that. We have said what needed to be said. Now the sooner normalcy returns, the better it is for everybody.

Has the irony struck anyone that the Aligarh MP, Satish Gautam, objected to Jinnah’s portrait but has not a word to say about places like Victoria Gate or Stratchey Hall?

Actually, the university has maintained the old names. There is no culture of name changing here. The names you refer to have been there since colonial times.

Why is there objection to Jinnah and not to any colonial names? Is it a throwback to Golwalkar’s ideology of the Muslim being the first enemy?

It is an age-old issue. First, on the Jinnah portrait. The portrait has been there among a large number of other portraits. I believe there are photographs of even C.V. Raman and Dr Ambedkar there. But I must confess that when I was a student I was taken aback, then realised the rationale behind it. Back then, nobody in the university gave it that kind of importance. He was given a lifetime membership by the students’ union, and, accordingly, his photograph came up.

Now for the RSS agenda of the Muslim being the first enemy, well, Muslims have been regarded as the sole enemies by them. They never opposed the British. They did not take part in the colonial struggle. They did not oppose the colonial masters. So opposing any names like Victoria Gate, etc., is out of question for them. They are in a way keeping alive the Golwalkar ideology of the Muslim being the Other.

Does it strike people who oppose his photograph that Jinnah was not even a practising Muslim? He was probably a secular man for a large part of his career.

We know that with some difficulty he was persuaded to offer Friday prayers. He used to eat pork, drink, and all of that is well known. In that sense, he was not religious, but he was not secular too. When it came to his political advancement, he adopted the policy of negotiating with the British rather than the Congress.

But when Gandhiji supported the Khilafat movement in 1919, Jinnah opposed him....

Yes. But what was of greater significance is that much later he had talked of proportional representation for Muslims. That small issue led to the division. The Congress also could have been more considerate towards him. From thereon, things changed. But these are matters of history. Not much to be gained in the recent controversy by digging up the past.

Do you not think the latest controversy around Jinnah is part of a plan to hit out against every Muslim name—Akbar, Aurangzeb, Khilji, now Jinnah?

As far as Akbar is concerned, it is absurd. He was among the most liberal of rulers. Khilji too had little to do with Islam beyond his name. And he was a shrewd administrator. These details do not matter to those bent on maligning them. But they [the Hindutva brigade] will keep on doing it. I have a feeling they have the support of the powers that be.

Does it not make Muslims identify with people they have rejected in the past? Not many Muslims in the years gone by have looked at Akbar or Khilji as a Muslim ruler...

I would not go that far. I guess most Muslims respect Jinnah. Remember, Muslims in Madras who had no chance of going to Pakistan voted en bloc for it.

Today, though, there is a concerted attempt at projecting the community in a particular colour. For that any medieval ruler can be useful with scant regard to his contribution.

Is there a future for leftist ideology at this critical time of our history?

I think that socialism actually reduces these differences, it adjusts the differences and presents an idea that is different from conservative ideas. It needs to be taken to another level.

Attempts are on to rewrite history from a right-wing perspective.

No, it is not right-wing perspective. It is a communal, totally chauvinistic, perspective. It has no space for debate, dialogue or dissent. It is jaundiced. It is blatantly communal.

One can debate with a different perspective, but in this case there is no room for debate or dissent.

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