Irfan Habib

‘Nation’s mental make-up may suffer grievously’

Print edition : October 16, 2015

Professor Irfan Habib delivering a lecture in New Delhi on November 22, 2014. Photo: S. Subramanium

Miniature portrait of Aurangzeb at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. He was more complex than the fanatic that he is made out to be by Hindu right-wing historians.

Irfan Habib, the eminent historian, on how the present government’s large-scale project to saffronise history does not stand rigorous historical scrutiny and why the Hindu Right, given its record of submissiveness to the British during the national movement, needs to invent a glorious past for itself and the country.

IN the last few months, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Union government has stepped up its efforts to steer the Sangh Parivar’s Hindutva agenda by changing the nature of public institutions. Prominent scholars have come forward and said that the government is pushing autonomous institutions, such as the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) and the Lalit Kala Akademi, to carry out research only on topics that are in line with the Sangh Parivar’s doctrines. Many scholars claim that in the process the government is high-handedly promoting unethical and unscientific research practices in various disciplines.

In the cultural sphere, too, BJP-led State governments have tried to introduce measures that are clearly Hindu majoritarian in nature. Initiatives like the ban on meat-eating on some pretext or the other, the introduction of Hindu texts like the Gita and the Ramayana in schools as textbooks or renaming city landmarks like the Aurangzeb Road in New Delhi mirror the present government’s keenness to promote Hindutva—the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s (RSS) primary political agenda. It is because of such state patronage to Hindutva that Hindu extremists, both within and outside the government, have been delivering, with impunity, hate spiels against Muslims and Christians in various parts of the country. Implicit in these assaults on the plural culture of India is a direct attack on the shared grammar of history as perceived by the public. Naturally, one of the most important agendas of the Sangh Parivar is to rewrite history textbooks. The first National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, which came to power in 1998, had commissioned Hindutva ideologues to rewrite history textbooks, completely dismissing the rigorous work of professional historians.

Historians and other scholars believe that state patronage to Hindutva will not only see the end of globally accepted scientific and rational traditions of inquiry, an obligation for any disciplinary research, but also communalise history on the basis of bizarre untruths. Professor Irfan Habib, the internationally reputed historian of medieval and ancient India and at present Professor Emeritus in the History Department of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), spoke to Frontline on how the present government is trying to change various hypotheses in history without backing them up with scientific evidence. The 84-year-old Habib has been a strident critical voice against religious fundamentalisms of all hues throughout his life. He recently opposed the demand by some groups that AMU be given the status of a minority institution. Out of the many classics he has written, The Agrarian System of Mughal India 1556-1707 has, for the last five decades, served as the most important text for history students to understand the nature of Mughal India. Professor Habib headed the ICHR for many years and is a recipient of the Padma Bhushan, among many other awards. Excerpts from the interview:

Many initiatives of the present political dispensation suggest that the BJP-led government is on a mission to reinterpret Indian history. Some of the areas that it has identified as core subjects for research are various aspects of the Vedic Age, the Aryan question, the Delhi Sultanate, the Mughal Empire, and Hindu epics. These are topics that have already been examined thoroughly by professional historians in academic debates. How do you see this development?

I have read some general “historical” pronouncements of the leaders of the present regime, topped by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s claim that Lord Ganesha’s elephant head shows that plastic surgery had already been invented in India in remote antiquity. Statements of similar mental calibre by lesser figures in his flock have since multiplied. The present chairman of the ICHR has been announcing to all who would listen the need to construct Puranic history, that is, I suppose, a combination of Ramayana and Mahabharata narratives, holding it to be the premier task of the historian today.

The renaming of Aurangzeb Road and the strident declarations by RSS-aligned organisations against “1,000 years of foreign rule” are indications that the periods of the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal Empire are likely to receive a treatment similar to what they received in the National Council for Educational Research and Training’s [NCERT] history textbooks, issued under the first NDA regime. This time, the school textbooks to come forth will probably outdistance their predecessors in the realm of myth and prejudice.

This being the case, it is unlikely that there could be any real encounter between history as an academic discipline and such shoddily inventive fiction as the RSS projects. There is hardly any room for “academic debate” here. Thankfully, history itself will not change however much it may be falsely presented. But the nation’s mental make-up may grievously suffer thereby.

How has the controversial “Origin of the Aryans” question been resolved by historians? The position of the Hindu Right has always been that the Aryans are from India. Does historical evidence prove that? What is the generally accepted theory on Aryans within the discipline of history?

Indeed, owing to extensive research over a long period now, much has been clarified about the “Aryans”. The word “arya”, and allied forms, meant “noble” in Indo-Iranian languages. “Iran” itself is a mere territorial plural of the word “arya”. But its application to the entire body of speakers of Indo-European languages was the work of the Nazis, who claimed for the Germans the status of purest “Aryans”. It is clear that “Indo-European” language relationships have nothing to do with race or religion. The term simply represents speakers of allied languages. Secondly, linguistic studies have established a rough picture of the sequence among languages, those close to the hypothetical ancestor, the “Proto-Indo-European”, and others much more distant from it. Rig Vedic Sanskrit and Avestan, from which one can reconstruct “Proto-Aryan” or “Proto-Indo-Iranian” are placed much down the ladder compared with Hittite or Albanian. It is, therefore, most unlikely that India was ever the home of the original Proto-Indo-European language. It is, indeed, childish to make an issue out of it and claim without proof, very much like the Nazis did, that we, as Aryans, went out and civilised the world, as if “Aryan” or “Indo-European” is synonymous with civilisation. Proto-Indo-European lexical reconstructions, in fact, reveal a very primitive level of society.

Recently, the government renamed New Delhi’s Aurangzeb Road A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Road. This was a significant step that erased the memory of a Mughal ruler who in popular perception is seen as an anti-Hindu tyrant. How do you assess Aurangzeb and his times? How has the Sangh Parivar managed to so successfully create an image of him as an anti-Hindu ruler and how do professional historians view this claim?

There is no reason to take sides with Aurangzeb while opposing the renaming of Aurangzeb Road. He murdered two brothers, imprisoned his father, partly altered the religious policy of his predecessors, imposed discriminatory taxation, especially the jizya, or poll tax on non-Muslims, and destroyed some temples, notably Keshav Rai at Mathura. As against this, he continued many grants to temples, such as to those of Vrindavan. Other grants to temples or orders making concessions to them have also been published.

Foreign travellers coming to India in his reign generally drew a picture of a tolerant government rather than of a land of religious persecution. Communalists on both sides made him a figure he was not—a pious, religious zealot to one and a religious fanatic to the other. He had one achievement to his credit—for some time, he united practically the whole of India under one political centre and so completed that identification of Hindustan with the Mughal Empire, which, quite astonishingly, became embedded in popular consciousness, for example, among the sepoys who revolted in 1857, a majority of whom were Brahmans.

Aurangzeb is, in popular understanding, infamous for the destruction of Hindu temples, the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi and the Krishna Janmabhoomi in Mathura being examples. The Sangh Parivar has also played up the destruction of the Somnath temple to validate its arguments against the so-called Muslim/foreign rule. The historian Richard Eaton has tried to demystify the issue of temple destruction. How have Indian historians resolved these issues?

The change of name of Aurangzeb Road seems a first step. As may be imagined, democracy was non-existent in the Indian consciousness before the national movement instilled it in us. The Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire were both aristocracies, the nobles largely Muslim, and the landed aristocracy (zamindars), upper-caste Hindu. It has been calculated that during his closing years, 30 per cent of Aurangzeb’s commanders were Hindus, but chiefly Rajputs and Marathas. Moreover, the rulers were not foreigners who were plundering this country to send wealth abroad. So to call it “foreign rule” is absurd. Whatever they created and left behind, in monuments and art, has added to India’s glory and good name.

As for temple destruction, I am not in total agreement with Richard Eaton, but he too does not condone any of it. On the other hand, we must remember that Somnath was destroyed by Mahmud of Ghazni, who is not counted among the Muslim rulers of India. Incidentally, Mahmud, too, was a complex character: he had a large force of Hindu troops with Hindu commanders, whom he employed to keep his Muslim subjects in order. One such commander, Tilak, a stout-hearted tantrik, was a particular favourite of his. As for the Delhi Sultans, many temples are known to have been built under them, the most notable being the last reconstruction of the Mahabodhi temple at Bodh Gaya in 1295-98. Under the Mughals, the list of temples built and reconstructed would be an infinitely long one. When I was reading a manuscript collection of Aurangzeb’s letters in his last years, I was struck by one to a son of his, urging him not to miss seeing the sculptures at Ellora while going to Aurangabad, describing them as one of the wonders of God’s creation.

One must remember that there are many sides to culture. Tara Chand’s Influence of Islam on Indian Culture, first published in 1928 or thereabouts, is a classic exposition of the theme. One aspect missing in it is the explicit invocations of Indian patriotism that now emerge. The first real expression of patriotic sentiment—favourably comparing India and its people to those of other countries, glorying in its natural beauty, its climate, its Brahmanical scholarship, the excellence of its languages, but essentially that of Sanskrit, the contributions Indians have made to the world, namely, decimal placement of numerals ( hindsa), chess and Panchatantra tales—occurs not in a Sanskrit work but in the imported language of Persian, in the court poet Amir Khusrau’s Nuh Sipihr, written in A.D. 1318. A very strange product, indeed, of “foreign rule”!

Tara Chand himself noted that the large extent gained by the Delhi Sultanate promoted a sense of “larger allegiance” among the Indian people. But beyond this, surely, lay also a less insular view of life and greater knowledge of other countries and cultures that the influx of Perso-Arabic influences promoted.

According to the Sangh Parivar, both the Mughal state and the Delhi Sultanate were anti-Hindu regimes—empires in which Muslims exploited the wealth and surplus of Hindus. Your comments.

I think on the first part of the question I have said enough. On the second part, that the Hindus produced the surplus and Muslims consumed it, the absurdity of this would be obvious if anyone studies the detailed locality-wise enumeration of zamindar castes in the great Mughal survey, the Ain-i Akbari (circa 1595). The bulk of the zamindar class comprised Hindu upper castes. Even where the major part of the peasants were Muslims, such as Bengal, the zamindars were “mostly Kayasths”, as it continued to be the case till the British conquest.

No foreign account describing Indian poverty excludes Muslims. As far as the land tax was concerned, Muslim peasants received no concession distinguishing them from their Hindu counterparts. Nor were wage rates (including rates quoted in official documents) varied according to whether the labourer was a Hindu or a Muslim. If Muslim nobles showed off their wealth, it was the Banya merchants and bankers who controlled much of the trade of the country and developed, under the Mughals, an elaborate system of deposit banking and insurance. The view that is held by the Sangh Parivar is thus baseless.

Delhi University’s Sanskrit Department has planned a workshop on the Rig Vedic age. Why is the Sanskrit Department taking so much interest in a topic that belongs to the discipline of history? It is also claiming to make public some documents, based on astronomical studies, which may change the perception about the period in which it existed. It has been a persistent campaign of the Sangh Parivar to push back the Rig Vedic period by many centuries to justify their view of the Hindu civilisation as the oldest one, and, thus, a superior one. What does historical research show?

The Rig Veda’s date can be roughly obtained by a number of means. We must remember that India had no year-dating system before Asoka used regnal years in his inscriptions in the third century B.C. So, naturally, the Vedic hymns carry no dates themselves. Other modes, therefore, had to be employed to discover when they were composed. For example, the Rig Veda describes ratha, or horse-drawn chariot. The earliest archaeological evidence for such chariots does not go beyond 2000 B.C. even in its region of first use, the Russian and Kazakhstan steppes. So, the Rig Vedic hymns could hardly be earlier than 2000 B.C.

The other is language. Rig Vedic and Avestan languages are very close to each other. Iranian names in dated Mesopotamian inscriptions suggest that Avestan’s earliest portions go back to about 1000 B.C. The Rig Veda can thus be roughly placed in the second millennium B.C., which fits in with its knowledge of copper but not of iron. Its deities are anthropomorphic, not zoomorphic as are Indus deities, and since the Indus civilisation collapsed around 1800 B.C., that gives a further upper limit to the Rig Veda. The astronomical details in the Rig Veda are minimal, so the Sanskrit Department of Delhi University is hardly likely to get any sensational results unless they read into the Rig Veda what is not there. Incidentally, RSS “ideologues” have long been anxious to obtain the highest antiquity for the Rig Veda (their star archaeologist V.S. Wakankar placed it in 8000 B.C., in Neolithic times!), and whatever the results of the Sanskrit Department’s efforts, it seems the RSS has now faithful pupils among the savants of Delhi University.

The Lalit Kala Akademi in Delhi is holding an exhibition at present. It is called “Cultural continuity from Rig Veda to Robotics”. The stated purpose of the exhibition is to prove the theory that Rama was a historical character and other theories, such as the Saraswati river existed in a different age and that the Mahabharata war was actually fought. What is the nature of evidence shown by Sangh Parivar historians?

The issue of Ramayana has fortunately been discussed by a historian of the most conservative credentials, the late Professor D.C. Sircar. In his Problems of the Ramayana, he acclaims the beauty of the text but absolutely denies the historicity of its narrative. Religious mythologies, whether of the Brahmanical, Judaic or Islamic traditions, have no place in history for the events they relate, though how these myths themselves arose is often an interesting question for the historian to inquire into.

The government is on a spree to ban meat in all parts of India. This step assumes that Hindus are averse to eating meat. How have food practices, especially meat-eating, been dealt with in the study of Indian history?

Naturally, historians have been long aware that animal (including cattle) sacrifices were part of the Vedic religion. Professor D.N. Jha has brought much relevant material together in his book on meat in Indian dietary traditions. After the emergence of Buddhism and Jainism, there was increasing repugnance against cow slaughter and meat-eating generally, though among Kshatriyas and many lower castes meat-eating has persisted. The subject is one on which there is also a notable essay by H.D. Sankalia, called “The Cow in History” [ Seminar, 1967]. An eminent archaeologist, he was himself, I believe, a strict vegetarian.

How should the discipline of history be studied? Is that an unresolved theoretical question? There are various schools, like positivist, liberal, Annales, Marxist, subaltern, postcolonial, and so on. In arriving at their arguments, do the historians of the Hindu Right follow any particular school? And, if in the discipline of history there has always been the possibility of many interpretations which has provided the ground for a healthy academic debate, why are professional historians so averse to the Hindu Right’s interpretations of Indian history?

I think when we mention various schools of history, let us be clear that it is not as if historians do not agree on anything. Nobody disagrees with the fact that Akbar ascended the throne in 1556 and died in 1605, or that Asoka issued his edicts, in Prakrit, Greek and Aramaic, to preach dhamma.

Indeed, on the bulk of facts established by the use of methods involving the study of primary sources, archaeological and numismatic evidence, carbon dating, palaeography, etc., there is hardly much room for disagreement. Differences become legitimate when a selection from among these facts has to be made in order to understand what factors were more influential in causing change and of what type. The schools you mention have their different scales of judgment or hypotheses in this area. When you speak of the Right camps, whether Hindu or Muslim or any other brand, their legitimacy too begins only after they have adopted the various methods by which historical facts are established. R.C. Majumdar and D.C. Sircar can be cited precisely as such historians though their political and social views were well to the Right.

What the so-called “Hindu Right”, in your terminology, is now doing is to reject the historical method itself, and thus, instead of looking at Majumdar and Sircar, they appear to be acclaiming seers like Swamy David Frawley, who can produce any “fact” at the drop of a hat with no authority needed and so has really well merited the Padma Bhushan recently awarded to him. Another source of inspiration seems to be the “NASA scientist” Navratna Rajaram, who produced a horse-bearing Indus seal to establish the Aryan character of the Indus civilisation. The fraud was exposed by Professor Michael Witzel in your magazine [“Horseplay in Harappa, Frontline, October 13, 2000]. With such a crowd, debate could be waste of time, but you are wrong in stating that debate has not been held. Whenever suitable occasions have presented themselves on various themes, relevant issues have been taken up.

In this regard, what is the scientific basis of the conclusions drawn by right-wing historians? Say, for example, the conclusions drawn by Y.S. Rao on Hindu epics or Rakesh Sinha’s interpretation of Indian nationalism?

I understand Professor Rao’s own area of research was land settlement in the Northern Circars under early British rule. I am afraid I have not seen any work of his on the Puranas or the epics. I am frankly not aware of what Rakesh Sinha has written on the national movement.

Why does the Hindu Right target the discipline of history more than any other discipline whenever it comes to power? It always says that history-writing in India is biased as it is dominated by Leftists or Congress secularists and that it wants a bigger space in the discipline. Your comments on this.

There is a psychological difficulty with RSS men. Though they shout of “nationalism”, they do so now when, after 1947, it has become safe to do so. They contributed no “heroes” to the national movement themselves at the time it meant going to jail or suffering otherwise. They kept on the good side of the British while seeking to undermine the national movement by shouting “Hindu-Hindi-Hindustan” or “Hindu Raj Amar Rahe”. Did these activities not contribute to Partition, the blame for which they now lay at the door of Gandhji and Nehru? Thus, they have to invent a false history in which they can paint themselves as nationalists while defaming the principal freedom fighters.

I need not expand on this theme because all these points were brought out in the Indian History Congress report of 2003, a booklet of 130 pages, offering a critique of the presentation of Indian history in the NCERT’s textbooks commissioned to present the version of the “Hindu Right”.

When faced with the proof that their narrative is absurd, the RSS and its followers claim that all history has been dominated by Leftists, and it is thus that India is not being recognised as the home of the Aryans, etc., etc.! Let them, however, spot a Leftist among R.C. Majumdar, Tara Chand, Ishwari Prasad, N.K. Sinha, D.C. Sircar and B.N. Mukherjee, to take a few great names from among historians, who, despite their own different ways of interpreting history, yield little ground for the RSS to hoist its bhagwa flag on.

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