History may be reduced to anecdotes’ under BJP rule.
Irfan Habib on the current challenges to history-writing and to India’s scientific, secular temperIrfan Habib, eminent historian and former professor at Aligarh Muslim University, says the current Bharatiya Janata Party-led government has abandoned reason and rationalism, and that this puts a heavier burden on Opposition parties to forge a combined front. Excerpts from the interview:
How do you compare the present National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre with previous governments?
The obvious difference is that this government is very divisive in its approach on religious, caste and communal considerations, much more than the first NDA government. But this government, and particularly the ruling party because of its majority and the RSS connection, is raising throughout the country questions about caste and religion, directly or indirectly. You beat up Dalits under ‘Gau Raksha’. You are... similarly raising issues against Muslims.
The second difference is that no previous government had abandoned rationalism and reason to the extent that this government has. I can’t imagine even [Atal Bihari] Vajpayee saying that Lord Ganesh shows that we knew transplants and plastic surgery, or introducing the issue of flying vehicles at the Science Congress. An attack on reason and rationalism is usually what fascism does. Throughout the history of fascism, [we see] these two major elements — divisiveness and attack on reason — in the name of national glorification.
They also have a conviction that India should be a land for big business. An ordinary citizen sees development in terms of roads, connectivity, and employment. But this is not their perception. Other governments were also capitalist-oriented, they had also some kind of populism. But this government is abandoning these policies.
These are not weaknesses. These are all strengths from their point of view.
What should the Opposition parties do in the present context?
One obvious advantage that the Opposition parties have is that they control many State governments. This provides them a limited degree of dual power. That puts restrictions on the operations of the Central government. Despite their differences, Opposition parties in power in various States should try to stop the divisive and communal activities of the BJP and the RSS. There should be stronger punitive action against BJP leaders who are inciting people on communal lines.
Do you think the Congress, the Left, etc. should forge a united front wherever possible to combat the BJP?
I think this should be considered. And particularly when you are dealing with State governments, there is a possibility of agreement on many issues even if one disagrees on the issue of socialism. On public welfare measures, there can be agreement with parties that are not committed to secularism but believe in some sort of a welfare state. The possibility of such alliances should be explored. Though the Left is not strong in most States, it can contribute 2-3 per cent of votes and in the first-past-the-post system with small margins, it becomes very important.
The Left should also understand its responsibility and not do anything that harms this front. In my opinion, we should not make an issue that the Congress should not be a part of the front.
But the Left Front fielded candidates separately in Bihar without joining the Mahagathbandhan.
That was, I believe, a great mistake.
What do you think about the changes made by the Central government to the writing of history? What are your views on the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR)?
The major complaint [regarding ICHR] was that the bulk of the new people had no reputation as historians. They were put there not because they were right-wing historians but because they were RSS nominees. The difficulty in history that the RSS has is that the kind of history they want to project is not accepted by the most right wing of serious historians.
R.C. Majumdar used to write for Organiser. Then Organiser printed an article that the Taj Mahal was built by Man Singh. And Majumdar wrote to them that they should not publish such nonsense. So they wrote back to him saying we believe in liberty and free expression. So Majumdar wrote to them that my freedom dictates that I should never write for your paper. And they printed his letter.
The type of history they are trying to sell is not just fantasy but extremely dangerous. This time they may go much further and reduce history in schools to anecdotes.
Can one’s nationalism be defined in terms of what one says or does? Can people be disciplined to behave in a particular way which alone is seen as nationalist?
No, nationalism had a particular meaning during the freedom struggle. The particular psychological problem with the RSS is that they were nowhere there. The RSS was founded in 1925. What was their nationalism for those 22 years? So, they can’t have any national heroes. Now you are great nationalists!
So, what according to you should nationalism mean today?
The nation is now safe. It is independent. There is no use now growling and shouting about the nation. Nationalism now means doing something for the welfare of the people. That includes the people of Kashmir.
You made a statement comparing the RSS with the Islamic State (IS). There are people who disagree and say they are not the same.
I didn’t say that they are parallel or they are the same. I said they [the RSS] talk like the IS.
Should all forms of communalism be equally condemned?
There were various forms. There were communal elements in the Congress too, but they were civilised. Communities demand greater representation at times. This is different from denouncing other communities. A Muslim or Dalit leader may say we need greater representation, but that is different. The second one is closer to semi-fascism. When you run someone down, you allow them no space in the polity. Golwalkar said as much — Muslims shall have no rights whatsoever. The Pakistani Right said as much about Hindus and Sikhs. So, it is about degrees. Rajendra Prasad opposed the Hindu Code Bill but would you call him communal? Adjustments are always possible with such people.
Corrections & Clarifications:
This article has been edited for a factual error