Professor Irfan Habib is an enigmatic Marxist Indian historian who is widely regarded as an authority on ancient and medieval India. BE’s Saptarshi Deb and Anustup Roy Barman spoke to him on the sidelines of the 78th session of the History Congress held in Kolkata on issues ranging from the evolution of Indian nationalism to the emerging trend of communalism.
Q. What is nationalism for you? How does it apply to India’s pluralistic society?
A. First, we should understand that nationalism is a historical phenomenon. It has not been there for all time. I’ll give an example. If one had asked the Chinese pilgrim Yuan Chwang in the seventh century what was the extent of India, he would have surely answered, as is shown by his account of India, wherever there prevailed the caste or varna-jati system.
Caste system was the universal institution defining India. The limits of that system were also partly set by major geographical barriers that enclose the country. But when you talk of the nation, as Ram Mohan Roy very perceptively pointed out, it is the caste system which undermines it. It is a great divisive factor. There is no real law that states that multiplicity is good for a nation. It depends on the kind of multiplicity you are speaking of. One can say that the caste system is a celebration of multiplicity. But as a nation we must end that kind of multiplicity.
As for religion there are now nations where religion is invoked as their basis. As far as that is concerned, there were Indian nationalists who called themselves Muslim nationalists - they said that Muslim interest could be adjusted with national interest. Just as there were Brahmins like Madan Mohan Malaviya who held that Hindu interests could be adjusted to the national interest. Whenever I think of Malaviya, one can object to his divisiveness on communal grounds, such as was shown in the Hindi-Urdu controversy, but there were occasions when he preferred the interest of the nation over the interest of the community. Moreover, in the course of the national movement, adjustments could be made to accommodate some communal demands. I will give the example of the 1916 Lucknow Pact between the Congress and the Muslim League. Everyone knows that in Bengal, Muslims formed the majority. In other provinces Muslims were a minority. Now the 1916 Pact gave Hindus who were a minority in Bengal 60% of the seats and Muslims who were around 18% in Uttar Pradesh (UP) got 30% of the seats. In other words, communal interests could be adjusted as in this case at middle class levels, because in 1916 the electorate was restricted to middle classes only. One can always speculate that the Partition could have been avoided if communal interests could have been accommodated to the extent possible. The main blame certainly rests with the Muslim League for refusing to make any real compromise.It would seem that once religion becomes the main element then other identities seem to wither away or be subsumed under the religious one. As Nehru said in his autobiography, Hindu identity could be concealed under the Indian one, while Muslim identity borne by a minority could not be so concealed.
One can always speculate on whether the Partition, which brought so much human suffering, could have been avoided. But still when it occurred, the Indian leadership to its great honour decided that India should be a secular state. One must remember that the word ‘secular’, at that time had a much stronger meaning than it is now given in India. Secular all over the world means total alienation of state and law from any religion. The classic example is furnished by France, as in its time by the Soviet Union. By their Revolution of 1789, the French established a secular state though the word ‘secular’ was not used at that time. A State is held to be secular when it decides issues on the basis of human welfare in this life, not on what religion sets as a requisite belief or ritual leading to rewards in afterlife. This position is reflected in the French rule about not letting anyone wear turban, hijab or cross in schools. In India, unfortunately through an assertion made by Sir S. Radhakrishnan, the Supreme Court entertains a different version of secularism viz, that the state should be impartial in dealing with different religions so that it may even promote faith in God. French secularism is godless. In Soviet Russia there used to be a journal called Godless. Even in Persian and Urdu poetry, there is godlessness. One fears the Radhakrishnan form of secularism opens the doors to Hindutva and majoritarinism.
Q. The federal structure of India represents its plurality. In the political sphere, how necessary is it for national political parties to go for different strategies for different states?
A. Before the linguistic states came most of the provinces were multilingual except Bengal or UP. The Congress had in 1920 constituted ‘provincial committees’ based on linguistic regions. Now Nehru had initially opposed the formation of states on the basis of language because he thought people with different forms of speech should learn to live together. The main opposition party then, the CPI supported the formation of linguistic states. Finally, Nehru gave in because of the Andhra agitation. Regional consciousness can of course be related to national consciousness but increasingly in some countries, the development is in the opposite direction as in the Soviet Union which broke up in 1992 or in Scotland, where in a recent referendum a very large section of the population (though not the majority) voted for separation from England. Yet, despite the strong survival of their own language (Welsh), the people of Wales have not similarly demanded separation from England. That could be a lesson for us, a multi-lingual country. Yet, though Irish is not really spoken in their ordinary life by people in Ireland, the Irish people yet form a separate nation. So how far language alone can be the basis of nationhood is disputable. Certainly, India has had a historical identity as a country and you see from the political point of view that large nations have been better placed for opposing colonialism and big powers than smaller countries. That is why in the Indian national movement regionalism, like communalism, was seen as a dangerous trend. We should be in favour of India as one nation. But local rights and language interests have also to be protected, to keep all sections of our people together.
Q. You have recently pointed out that India cannot be called an agrarian economy and is a capitalist one. How do you explain the crisis in the Indian agrarian sector and link it to India’s economic growth?
A. It is true that in 1947, when we became independent, India was mainly an agrarian country with a small industrial sector. But now over seventy years have passed, during which the industrial sector and capitalist-controlled service sector have vastly expanded. In the countryside hired-out tractors and harvesters have extensively replaced ploughs and scythe-harvesting. So not only does agriculture contribute less than 18% of our GDP, it too is increasingly dominated by a kind of rural capitalism based on hiring out of machines.
So we should recognize that we are in a capitalist sate though with a large rural population, which means that nearly 50% of our population has to be maintained with less than 18% of GDP that is accounted for by agriculture. This is a particular problem of our development. We should recognize that the top corporate section now dominates our economy (and so the state) to a degree it never could do earlier. Although we often call BJP’s policy a neo liberal one, it is the standard policy of helping top business and gaining the latter’s support in return. To an extent the Congress had some reservations about such a policy. It has some traditional links with smaller business and some concern for the public sector. You can see that privatisation of the public sector has always proceeded on a far greater scale under BJP.
It is true that Gandhian thought is anti-industry. Gandhiji used socialist criticism of capitalist exploitation to denounce industry and to this position he remained true to the last. But to him the fault lay not with the capitalists but with machinery. To socialists, on the other hand, the culprit is not machinery but capitalism. Once capitalism has become the dominant system in our country, communists have to think whether a stage like the People’s Democracy’ is still feasible, and whether a perspective of socialism cannot be provided for in its programme.
There is an obvious contradiction of interest today between the working class and peasants, on the one hand, and capitalists, on the other. This contradiction can only be overcome by extending social networks and economic support to the peasants and workers and such resources can only come if capital comes under state control. It is true, we should learn more from the failure of the Soviet Union and the success of China where private and public sectors co-exist. In China, a private firm takes instructions from the communist party. The associations are funded by the private companies according to government guidelines. We surely need to learn from (though not necessarily blindly copy) China’s success story.
Q. You have mentioned that communalism is the single most important threat to India’s democracy. How do you view the recent distortions in history and what impact can it have on historical studies?
A. Communalism is like Nazi racism. As Dimitrov pointed out, fascism represents the alliance of finance capital at the top with a racist ideology to subvert the democratic process and suppress all opposition. The RSS and BJP are obviously proceeding in the same direction. Every step they make is in favour of the top corporate sector, while inflaming communal and caste prejudices under their Hindutva brand of ideology. From demonetization and GST imposition, small businesses have greatly suffered along with ordinary people but large enterprises have gained. Even ordinary people now are beginning to see that BJP is not a party of the poor. They are like the Nazis who were also not loyal to their voters. Corporate money and communalised appeals are an effective combination for the BJP to secure votes, especially when the opposition remains hopelessly divided.
Now communalism can thrive best, if it can indoctrinate our youth. When the Congress was in power, it was not concerned about what kind of history is taught so long it was not very communal. It is wrong to say that under it a particular kind of history was created. The official history of the national movement by Tara Chand has a stinging criticism of Gandhi for rejecting Muslim demands at the round table conference. The Congress did not apparently bother about such criticisms. What people became concerned about was that school textbooks were falling in quality, during the 1950s and 1960s. So they created a central organization, to carry out research and issue model text books. People say that history is always changing. But this is, of course, not at all the case. Our knowledge grows, but facts already established remain. It is a total misconception that every government creates its own version of history. This is the case with BJP alone, but it does not promote real history, it only promotes mythology and hate stories.
BJP is not only distorting history but also playing with science. RSS nominees are trying to kill all real academic research. They aim to turn CSIR laboratories into R&D departments of big companies. Corporates are not in the business of scientific advancement; they are in the business of cutting costs. What finance capital wants from research laboratories is not what science demands.
Q. What is your opinion about the state of historical studies in different Indian universities?
A. I am afraid much research in our institutions consists of mere repetition. The same things are being done over and over again. There is limited use of source material and much reliance on secondary texts. Still we get many good papers at the History Congress. Yet it is true, that there is much less original or path-breaking work than we are entitled to expect.
Q. What are the challenges historians are facing today? Is evidence based study in history gaining ground as against interpretative history?
A. Both fact-collection and interpretation are closely related. The main difficulty is that source languages are not being adequately studied and used. You may be surprised to hear that for the epigraphy branch for the Indian Archaeological Survey there is a crisis of good Sanskritists, although BJP speaks so much about putting money in Sanskrit education. It is surprising that Persian is also not being studied adequately even in Pakistan. Unless we search for and decipher inscriptions and similarly use archival material and written texts extensively we cannot really add further to the knowledge of history.