We Lost Mushir Bhai When We Needed Him the Most

S. Irfan Habib's tribute to Mushirul Hasan, historian and former vice-chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia.

Mushirul Hasan was a quintessential liberal – not only as a scholar but also as a human being. His passing away on Monday, December 10, is a personal and professional loss to me and many others who came in touch with him. A tragic car accident in 2014, when he sustained head injuries, left him impaired in many ways. But he coped with his health issues and even occasionally showed the sparks of his trademark wit and intellectual brilliance. He is survived by his wife and fellow academician, Zoya Hasan.

Hasan was one of our most prolific historians of modern Indian history. He not only wrote extensively but also touched upon diverse aspects of our past refreshingly. He engaged with the complexities of pluralism, secularism, jihad, discrimination, education and all else that afflicts the Muslims of India. He was truly inspirational for scholars as well as students.

Mushir Bhai, as I always called him, also had a lighter side to him. All his conversations were peppered with humour, most of them in the AMU tradition. This lighter side took a serious turn when he decided to publish the history of humour in Awadh Punch. This was done at a time when cartooning had become a contentious issue, unfortunately perceived as a deliberate attempt at demonising the ‘other’. Hasan decided to show mirror to all those who take offence at cartooning. This book showed that this was not so in late 19th-century colonial India when a fine cartoonist could summarise a welter of perspectives. The Awadh Punch, a weekly from Lucknow, under the stewardship of its formidable editor Munshi Sajjad Hussain, was published from 1877 till its closure in 1936.

Also read: Mushirul Hasan: A Personal Memoir

Mushir has left behind a huge corpus of writings on Partition and on some of the key players in Muslim politics of the time like Dr M.A. Ansari and Maulana Muhammad Ali. Besides his seminal work on Partition, Mushir also put together two interesting volumes on the subject, titled India Partitioned: The Other Face of Freedom. These volumes constitute essays written in Urdu and Hindi which “speak of the cruelties humans inflicted on each other”. While introducing the volumes, Mushir wrote with his usual lucidity and commitment that “Partition also uprooted many cultural artefacts that had emerged out of composite traditions. Many of the narratives bemoan the fact that Urdu lost its pre-eminent position in India, because it came to be identified with one community”.

In one of the many discussions with him, Mushir Bhai talked self-reflexively about his two books, and with a mild complaint said they did not get the attention they deserved. The books were From Pluralism to Separatism: Qasbas in Colonial India and A Moral Reckoning: Muslim Intellectuals in Nineteenth-Century Delhi. I immediately agreed with him because both the books were based on extensive use of Urdu archives, very meticulously researched and translated into English. While introducing the first book, he remarked, “I write on the Masauli Kidwais not to validate the view that history is the essence of innumerable biographies, but because of the contribution of those lives I study to highlight pluralism which is the defining principle of their public and private lives.” This book, despite being local history, is deeply rooted in his cosmopolitan and pluralist vision, two core values that underline most of his works.

The second book is also based on some unconventional and literary sources and is actually the intellectual history of 19th century Delhi. He clarified in the preface itself, saying “one does not assume that literary views and their representation as such is the principal guide to the understanding of any society, but they do yield richer and more authentic portrait of social life than historians have been able to sketch from an investigation of official sources”. He saw this work as part of the history of mentalities, a subject he pursued in some of his previous writings as well.

The intellectuals in the book have been written about before as well, but “little has been written about their attitudes and behaviour towards one another, their responses to the onset of British rule, their experience of living through the 1857 rebellion, their own reappraisal of culture and identity, and above all their lives, theories and activities.” I feel that these two books were his seminal contributions, which deserved more acclaim and appreciation than they actually received.

Also read: Renowned Historian and Former Jamia Millia Islamia VC Mushirul Hasan Passes Away

He suffered the consequences of defending the freedom of expression when he critically spoke against the ban on Satanic Verses in 1992. He was a pro-VC at Jamia Millia Islamia and was physically attacked and dubbed by conservatives as anti-Islam. Despite the witch-hunt for some time, he remained committed to his words.

One normally assumes that serious scholars and teachers seldom turn out to be successful institution builders or administrators. Mushir defied that logic. As the vice-chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia between 2004 and 2009, he transformed the university into a formidable institution. Several new centres came up and the campus went through a visible qualitative change. He was successful in raising funds for the new ventures, a task that was not so easy.

As a director-general of the National Archives, Mushir had a daunting task to transform an institution which had been steeped in bureaucratic controls. In a short period of three years, he turned it around, began regular exhibitions of archival collections and gave the institution an academic flavour by organising regular seminars and lectures.

Mushirul Hasan will be remembered as one of the sanest voices of modern times. We lost him when we needed him the most.

S. Irfan Habib served as Maulana Azad Chair at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi.