Interview: Irfan Habib Debunks RSS’s Nationalism and Their Attempts to Rewrite History

“What RSS promotes is fantasy not history….There is nothing common between history and such mythology.”

Irfan Habib. Credit: Amber Habib

Irfan Habib. Credit: Amber Habib

Many prominent scholars have come forward in the last two years to condemn the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Union government for steering the Sangh parivar’s Hindutva agenda in autonomous public institutions. They have repeatedly pointed out that attack on independent thinkers and thoughts have increased under the BJP regime and this may portend an all-round attack on reason, free speech and scientific temper in society.

A life-long leftist and renowned historian, Irfan Habib, has been at the forefront of an intellectual resistance towards the Sangh parivar. The octogenarian historian has constantly called out BJP’s attempts to communalise history. Presently, professor emeritus at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Habib spoke to The Wire on a range of issues – from current political situation to contentious issues in history.

Professor Habib headed the Indian Council of Historical Research for many years and is a recipient of the Padma Bhushan, among many other awards. Out of the many significant books 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 decentralised nature of Mughal India.

Excerpts from the interview:

In the last few years, political debates have seen extraordinary polarisation, with hardly any middle ground. The discussions in the media, too, are conducted within binaries. Either you are a nationalist or a pseudo-secular; a patriotic or a terrorist-supporter. Many say the constitutional and erstwhile nationalistic values of secularism, welfare, respect for the other seems to be vanishing now. What do you think?

I do not think anyone’s name-calling should deter one from thinking rationally and speaking out what one believes to be right. It was expected that with the electoral triumph of RSS/BJP at the centre, there would be greater resort to communal hysteria and “nationalistic” rhetoric, and that has, of course, come to pass.

Do you think politics, irrespective of ideologies, has become devoid of the general principle of insaniyat over the last 70 years?

I am not sure what particular sense is to be attached to the word insaniyat, which in Urdu broadly means compassion, and I do not share the view that all post-independence regimes have necessarily lacked this quality. Indian “politics” during the last 70 years, has seen many turns and twists, but I do not see it as only a depressing story. After all, with all its shortcomings India is still a far better country in every respect than it was under British rule. We have preserved democracy and secularism, though the latter does face a grave threat under the present dispensation; and, I am not even sure if freedom of expression can really be safeguarded under the current surge of chauvinism. Yet, democracy and secularism are the gifts of independence which we must protect at all costs.

Do you see a general swing towards the religious right (not only Hindutva) in India? And does this trend have any connection with the phenomenon of increasing ‘corporatisation’ in the last three decades?

The use of religion by the West in the Cold War had its political consequences, seen initially in Afghanistan and Yugoslavia in 1990s. Once aroused and financed, the movement has led to Al Qaeda and ISIS. I have a feeling that the corporate sector instinctively trusts BJP more than the Congress, since the latter cannot, for the sake of its own popular base, disown the legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru. Money, though essential, is not by itself sufficient for electoral success. The RSS and BJP are, therefore, bound to turn to communalism and chauvinism to gain or at least retain public support. Muslim fundamentalism, that has long received Saudi financing, has grown and this growth places an instrument in the hands of Hindutva forces to raise alarm, and turn the situation to their own advantage.

Many critics of the RSS and BJP have called it fascist or semi-fascist. Do you think the Sangh qualifies for that?

It is obvious that with the constitution still in place and most state governments out of BJP’s control, civil liberties and democratic rights are not abrogated though they are under attack through organised hooliganism. The RSS which controls BJP has a manifestly fascist ideology as can be seen from [M.S.] Golwalkar’s writings and RSS’s quasi-military practices. How long the present phase will last is anyone’s guess. If no united opposition is put against the present regime, the present state of balance may not last long.

In one of your recent interviews, you said that an all-round attack on reason and rationalism characterises fascism. We have seen murders of rationalists (M.M. Kalburgi, Govind Pandsare, Narendra Dabholkar) in the recent past.  

The murder of rationalists you mention certainly arose out of a desire to create terror so that critics of Hindutva are reduced to silence. Similar acts are committed in Islamic countries as well, e.g. Bangladesh and, most recently, Jordan. The delay in catching and punishing the culprits in the three cases you cite is reprehensible; and it is possible that ultimately those who inspired the murderers would go scot-free as in the case of the assassination of the father of the nation, even if the actual assassins are caught.

The economic right and the religious right seem to have converged at this given moment in Indian polity. What do you think?

Capitalism can happily exist in a democratic system where money controls press, radio, TV, etc., and also influences the electoral process directly. In India today, it sees in BJP a regime which is free from the idealistic vision of a welfare state, which the Congress finds in its inherited baggage. If that is replaced under BJP by communal rhetoric, a vote-catching device of equal promise, this seems to suit the corporate sector still better. Given this situation, one can say, as you do, that in India today economic right and religious right appear to converge.

You recently floated an idea to the Left to forge tactical alliances with secular, democratic groups to fight the Right. This includes aligning with Congress. But the Left has bitter experiences with the Congress before, and in the end stands compromised politically on many occasions because of such alliances. Your comments. 

The Left under all situations has to stand on its feet. If we have lost ground, say, in Bengal, it has not been because of our alliance with Congress, for we had no alliance with it when we lost power. In retrospect, it was rather our joining BJP in the no-confidence vote against the Congress subsequent to the nuclear deal that cost us dear in the 2009 parliamentary elections. Today, it is rather a question of deciding whether the defeat of the BJP is our major goal or not. If it is, then suitable electoral alliances with other secular parities must be considered.

Not only the Congress but practically all other non-Left parties have objectives different from our own. Shall we shun them all at every point? If not, then, we should decide what our tactical priorities are and settle the question of electoral alliances in their light.

While the Left’s actual fight on the ground in the last three decades has been to keep the Sangh parivar at bay, its ideological fight on paper has been one of resisting economic reforms. Many feel that Left’s inability to mount a political opposition on the basis of one principal contradiction – say something like Aam Aadmi Party and its anti-corruption drive – is one of the reasons for its gradual decline in the last three decades. What do you think?

Elections are not won only on paper programmes. The Left has had agrarian reforms and workers’ rights on its agenda, which theoretically should invite mass support. But there has been no corresponding growth of our organisations and ideological influence. The fall of the Soviet Union shook people’s faith in socialism, and this has doubtless had a negative effect on the Left’s position in the long term. However, the conditions that create the necessity for a communist and workers’ movement not only remain but have intensified, so we have no one to blame except ourselves if we have not worked hard enough. No strategy of alliances can act as a substitute for it.

A new stream of politics based on Dalit assertion as reflected in the movements of Una, Mumbai and other parts poses a significant challenge to the Right.  

I do not think attacks on Dalits represent any perception of a threat from Ambedkarites. Rather, it is an inevitable result of growth of caste prejudice that is inseparable from the Hindutva ideology promoted so diligently by the RSS and the other Hindutva outfits.

The Dalit intelligentsia is also critical of the Left for having ignored the caste question in India. While doing so, they see Ambedkarite politics as a progressive replacement to the Left. As a historian, what is your take on it?

I do not agree with the current Ambedkarite critiques of the national movement, as well as of the Left. The central question in India before 1947 was the overthrow of British rule which exploited all people of India including Dalits. The national movement sought to alleviate Dalit grievances through the Harijan movement (which, let us remember commanded the loyalty of the bulk of Dalits at that time). This is now denounced by Ambedkarites. Similarly, communist leadership of struggles of landless labour, which basically involved Dalits is belittled and the fact that many of the leaders came from upper castes is held against the communists. So it is wrong to say that Dalit interests were ignored in the national movement or by the Left. It is also wrong to belittle what has been done for Dalit upliftment since independence. Clearly, the Ambedkarite programme which looks only after the interest of 15% of the population cannot supplant the Left’s goal of socialism, which to borrow C.R. Das’s words, looks after the interests of 98%. Dalits are, of course, an important part of that 98% and their rights and interests must be protected.

There has also been a surge of agitations from dominant castes in which they demand reservation and other benefits from the state. How do you look at it?

It is clear that the upper/middle caste movements, such as those of Jats in Haryana, Patels in Gujarat and Marathas in Maharashtra, with a hidden or open anti-Dalit edge, suggest that casteism is now taking an open, unabashed form, which under the impact of the national movement would have once seemed unimaginable. While embarrassing momentarily for the BJP state governments, such movements ultimately are grist to the reactionary mill and narrow the space for genuine peasants’ and workers’ struggles.

Whenever BJP is in power, history writing seems to be the first casualty. There have been efforts to ‘saffronise’ history aggressively, not just officially but through a sustained social media campaign. How can professional historians intervene in this campaign?

Although the RSS-inspired attack is supposedly on the alleged machinations of “Left” or Marxist historians, the history they present is in total contradiction to what “professional historians” present, whether of Right, Centre, Left or of no known political views. The writing of R.G. Bhandarkar, R. C. Majumdar and D. C. Sircar, all three of solid Rightist views, is as alien to the “history” of Mr. [Dinanath] Batra and Swami Hawley, as that of D. D. Kosambi or R. S. Sharma. It is not correct to say that historians have neglected cultural history: just consider the mass of critical work on Sanskrit literature from William Jones to [Pandurang Vaman] Kane, or the study of the history of secular sciences. What RSS promotes is fantasy not history, trying to push back the date of everything to make Aryans the author of every invention or scientific discovery: the Pythagoras theorem becomes a “Hindu” discovery just by titling it “Baudhayana theorem”, and so on. There is nothing common between history and such mythology.

The Sangh Parivar thinks both the Mughal state and the Delhi Sultanate were anti-Hindu regimes – empires in which Muslims consumed the surplus produced by the Hindus. Your comments.

The exploiting classes in medieval India had an undoubtedly large Muslim component. But, first, this is far from saying that the Muslims as a community were rulers, or that any part of the surplus was sent abroad: all the loot, whether by sultans or rajas was spent inside the country. Secondly, among the landed magnates (the so-called “zamindars”) a large majority belonged to Hindu castes as one can see from the zamindar castes listed for each locality under Akbar. Thus the surplus too was shared.

A necessary question in today’s context. Do you think the cow being elevated to a holy position is historically inaccurate?

As for the question of cow-slaughter in ancient India, I think the writings of professors H. D. Sankalia and D. N. Jha have presented sufficient material to settle the point. However, there is no difference of opinion that the cow was held to be sacred in ancient as well as medieval times.

Today, we have many voices from the Sangh parivar who denounce Indian constitution (IGNCA’s chairman Ram Bahdur Rai and K. Govindacharya) in the name of nationalism. What was RSS’ role in the nationalist movement and constitution making?

The RSS, founded in 1925, played no role at all in the national struggle. Its main targets were Muslims and the Congress, not the British government. Its ‘nationalist’ pretensions are thus fabricated and merely a cover for hostility to democracy and secularism, which are the defining elements of our constitution.

One of the biggest private educators currently is the RSS running schools under different names with the theme of – Indianise, spiritualise, nationalise. As a prominent historian, will you blame it on successive governments’ declining expenditure on education?

The state should certainly increase both expenditure on education that is purged of superstition and ‘spiritualism’. Since school education is now a fundamental right, non-BJP governments should ensure that education is properly imparted to all pupils so as to promote a scientific temper and secular spirit. There should be no support or recognition given to RSS-sponsored schools or religious madrasas.