Irfan Habib: The Indian variant of secularism opens the door to majority communalism

The renowned historian recalls the nightmare of Partition and says the Emergency and Modi coming to power are, for him, the most traumatic events in India post-Independence.

Renowned historian Professor Irfan Habib, 84, recalls the nightmare of Partition and the assassination of Gandhi, his encounter with Nehru, the rise of communalism, the decline of the Left, and the ongoing fictionalisation of history under the NDA regime. Excerpts from an interview with

What is your memory of the Partition and its impact on you and Aligarh?
I was 16 years old when Independence came. It was preceded by, as you know, the Muslim League’s domination of the Muslim constituency, including that of Aligarh. I inherited nationalistic feelings from my father (famous historian Mohammad Habib, 1895-1971), who belonged to the Congress. Because of the Muslim League I encountered considerable difficulties. For instance, I was pushed around when walking to and back from the school, which I ultimately left. But such incidents were minor in nature.

In comparison to the Partition riots, I suppose?
Yes. We were greatly worried as Aligarh used to border what is now Haryana, and the slaughter of Muslims had come up to the Yamuna. It was touch and go. In December 1947, we couldn’t even travel because it was unsafe for Muslims, many of whom were killed on trains.

Suddenly, Gandhiji’s fast in January (1948) in Delhi turned the situation upside down. Then, of course, in the same month, Gandhi was murdered. A massive demonstration was held in Aligarh the day after his assassination. It was my first experience of participating in a large demonstration, in which both the communists and socialists took part. It also happened to be my first communist demonstration.

Do you remember the slogans that were being chanted?
The Congress crowds were saying, Ishwar, Allah Tere hi naam, sabko sanmati de Bhagwan. (Ishwar and Allah are both Your names, please give everyone good sense). The communists and socialists and others were saying, Gandhi ke hathyaron ko, phaansi do, phaansi do. Mahasabha walon ko, phaansi do, phaansi do.  (Hang the killers of Gandhi, Hang the Hindu Mahasabha people.) The houses of Hindu Mahasabha leaders had been attacked all over UP, in Aligarh as well. Everyone went around saying they (Mahasabha leaders) had distributed sweets; it fanned rumours. The distribution of sweets happened, of course. (Sardar) Patel records it, though he said someone’s nephew or niece had got married and the person was therefore distributing sweets.

Indeed, January 1948 was a great turning point for this area of India.

Is this why, in a lecture in Delhi earlier this year, you said, “If we want to truly understand Gandhi's contribution to the building of modern India, then we should critically examine the events connected to the last four weeks before his assassination”?
Gandhi, unlike Nehru, was not a consistent thinker. In fact, Gandhi himself said that consistency wasn’t his strong point as he was after Truth. I hadn’t read Gandhi then. But you could see he was defending what is now called secular India, the term which Nehru and people like my father were already using. In fact, (the other day) I was reading my father’s address in December 1947 to the Indian History Congress in Bombay. He used the word secular, and said that Gandhiji was giving us a picture of secular India.

His fast was not only against the communal riotings, but also against India’s refusal to pay Rs 55 crore to Pakistan (under the terms and conditions pertaining to the division of assets and liabilities between the two countries). His was a remarkable action – he showed India would remain secular regardless of whatever happened in or with Pakistan.

But the Hindu Right criticises Gandhi for allowing the Partition and pandering to Muslims sentiments. He has been also called the mascot of the bourgeoisie. You now have the Ambedkarites criticising Gandhi for upholding the caste system.
As a historian, to understand Gandhi you have to understand what India was like in his times. We often forget that he came from a caste-ridden society. Since he has been extremely frank in his autobiography and expresses his feelings, even belittles himself all the time, it has become easy to criticise him, as [writer] Arundhati Roy and others are doing.

Gandhi was very honest in noting down what his feelings or opinions were at a particular point in time. But the fact is that he recognises it was a wrong thing. For instance, he talks of his initial repugnance of the Africans. He was honest, but he wasn’t a racist. Caste feelings were very strong in India then. You can’t be organising a mass movement against the British and yet say you will first abolish the caste system [before fighting the colonialism].

Gandhi can be easily accused of pandering to Muslim sentiments by his support to the Khilafat movement. But if Turkey hadn’t been supported, then British and French imperialism would have had the entire Asia in its tight grip. Lenin’s Russia, too, supported Turkey. If you look at the international scene then, the Khilafat movement was important, as was the non-cooperation movement with the British.

What you are saying is that Gandhi was trying to unite people on a common issue, despite their caste-religion-linguistic differences?
Yes. The main question then was: Was British imperialism the main target of the people, or was the main problem our own differences?  If you don’t regard British imperialism as the basic problem or principal target, then why Gandhi, even Nehru, communists, everyone would be vulnerable to criticism.

So Arundhati Roy and others are using today’s wisdom to judge Gandhi’s responses to the issues of his times.
I don’t know whether you’d say Arundhati and others are using today’s wisdom or un-wisdom to judge Gandhi. It is only wisdom to recognise the reality as it existed then. Wisdom dictates that we should be proud that while Gandhi in South Africa thought women should stay at home, he was in 1945 saying they should become generals, that there should be no discrimination between them and men. We should be proud of that transformation, not only in Gandhi, but in the whole country.

Gandhi was constantly evolving. Do you think the Dalits didn’t accept the caste system in the 1920s? Even today, for marriage purposes, Dalits recognise and subscribe to the caste (subdivisions) among themselves. It is absurd to think that all issues should have been raised at the time the British were being opposed.

Weren’t you denied a passport because you were a communist activist?
In 1954-55, the Central government issued an advertisement inviting people to send their academic data for overseas scholarships. I applied, and on the basis of my academic data – I had a first division throughout – I was selected. I got admission to Oxford. But I was refused the passport until I agreed to surrender the scholarship.

That’s bizarre, quite like Catch 22!
(Laughs) So I wrote to Panditji (Jawaharlal Nehru). My wife and I drafted the letter together. I suppressed the fact that I was the son of one of his friends. However, it was on the basis of that letter Nehru called me and scolded me and….

Scolded you for what?
For being a communist, because, as he said, the communists don’t recognise Constitutionality. He criticised Russia and China, where he had just been to. He spoke for a long time, but said he couldn’t do anything because the matter of the passport was in Pandit GB Pant’s hands. However, I got the passport two days later.

Are you telling me, Nehru personally phoned you, a student then?
There was no phone in those days. The secretary to the Aligarh Muslim University Vice-Chancellor, Zakir Hussain (who became India’s third President), sent me a slip saying I should meet Nehru at 9 am in Delhi. I found no security, no guards...

I read Nehru as Prime Minister went to Regal Cinema in Connaught Place to watch the film, Of Human Bondage.
That was how it was then. I wasn’t frisked until I entered (private secretary OP) Mathai’s room.

Would you say the influence of orthodox elements on the Aligarh Muslim University, which has such a pull on Muslims even now, has grown over time, in comparison to what it was in your student days there?
First, we must remember that the Muslim League wasn’t orthodox. They were communal, but not religious. Jinnah was himself not religious. In fact, among the Muslims supporting the Congress, there were a large number of theologians, who began to dominate parts of government policy.

Did this impact Aligarh Muslim University adversely?
Yes, but there were also other reasons. When I was studying there, one-third of students were non-Muslim, as also one-fourth of teachers. Today, 90% are Muslims. There are very few non-Muslim teachers left now. They are simply weeded out in the recruitment process. There are a few Hindu students living in hostels. The change in AMU’s composition has changed its mentality.

In my student days, Diwali and Guru Nanak’s birthday were celebrated. Truckloads of ladoos would come from the city gurudwara to AMU. The atmosphere was different. Hindus and Muslims would really live together then. Today, that isn’t there. It has influenced everything.

In an essay in the Little Magazine, you wrote, “The Partition of India in 1947, accompanying independence, was undoubtedly a setback in the battle for minds, in which, as we have seen, the nation dwells.” Do you think the implications of that “setback in the battle for minds” continue to linger even today?
We lost the battle of minds in the sense we wanted to keep Hindus and Muslims together – but the Partition took place. In this battle the setback was greater (for secular nationalists) among Muslims than Hindus. Whatever you might say about the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, they were a very small minority of Hindus and were hardly elected. This you can’t, obviously, say of the Muslim League. Because of India’s secular democracy, Muslims gradually turned to the nation. I think the kind of irrational sympathy for Pakistan that existed when I was a student is hardly there any longer.

But, unfortunately, communalism has become very strong among the Hindus now.

Do you feel the Indian variant of secularism, in which the state allows all religions to flourish and discriminates against none, is undergoing a reversal? Is it time we move to the European idea of secularism
Actually, one of the difficulties, ideologically, is that we have rejected the global notion of secularism. The word secularism as used by Pandit Nehru, or by my father, was that religion would be excluded from the state, as it was in the French Revolution.  The term was not used then, but the phenomenon was there. It was first used by (George Jacob) Holyoake (in 1851), who said secularism is morality without religion, without any idea of after-life. He also said secularism is linked to the idea of welfare (of people). This is the correct notion of secularism.

But the Radhakrishnan (Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, India’s second President) idea of secularism opens the door to majority communalism. It says all religions must be tolerated, which should be, but it also says religion can’t be separated from the state. There is nothing like an abstract religion. It is absurd to say that if we treat all religions equally, then religion can play a part in the state. Since there is no abstract religion, then only the majority religion can play a part.

This idea was upheld by the Supreme Court, which said instructions in religions should be there in all schools, despite the fact that the Constitution prohibits religious instructions in (government) schools. The judgement said it has to be allowed because all morality comes from sants and saints. This is historically a false statement. The sants and saints didn’t know about (social and economic) equality, gender equality. This kind of secularism is wrong. The global idea of secularism should have been upheld.

Why has the Left declined? Is it because, as it is often said, it didn’t factor the reality of caste in its strategies
Well, we can’t blame the country’s conditions. We can only blame ourselves. The communist movement did make many mistakes, the first of which was to support the demand for Pakistan. In 1948, we went in total opposition to the government and consequently destroyed much of the communist base. For instance, we opposed the Zamindari Abolition Act. We should have had a greater ideological campaign than we undertook, instead of concentrating on trade unions and peasant organisations so much.

It is easy to say caste was not factored in. In fact, all important communist leaders in Aligarh lived in what were then called Harijan bastis. We didn’t advertise it, we didn’t proclaim it. Nevertheless, as long as long as poverty and inequality exist, I can’t imagine the communist ideology not having an appeal for the nation.

You have been quoted saying the present Modi regime is attempting “not saffronisation, but fictionalisation of history”. How do you distinguish the two terms?
In history, it is possible to have different interpretations from the same set of facts. If there are a large number of facts available, as would be, say, in the 19th and 20th century history, then selection becomes very important. When we don’t have a large number of facts, because of disappearance of records, then you have only a partial knowledge of the past. In the latter case, different interpretations are possible. Now interpretations based on historical facts or data could be communal or non-communal, Marxist or post-modernist, etc. So long as you are dealing with recognised historical facts, you can argue your case.

For instance, RC Majumdar was a communal person. He had very harsh things to say about Gandhiji. But he was a historian, he dealt with facts. He refused to write for the Organiser when the RSS wanted him to endorse its theory that the Mughal monuments were not built by the Mughals. He thought it was nonsense. One still argues with Majumdar because he is a historian – and a tall historian at that. But what the RSS is promoting is fiction.

Can you cite some examples of what you call the fictionalisation of history?
This Saraswati mania, for instance. A river of such a large size could have been possible perhaps five million years ago, though I have my doubts about even that. But it is an absurdity to conceive that such a large river flowed through the Thar desert in 3000 BC. This is an example of fiction.

Why is the RSS obsessed with the Saraswati river?
They have this obsession because they want to present history that would suit the RSS ideology. That ideology, of course, is that the Hindus, particularly of Brahminical persuasion, had a glorious past, that they even had plastic surgery.

But where does the obsession with Saraswati fit into this?
This is because when you say the Indus civilisation or Harappan civilisation, then, for them, it becomes a problem. Harappa is in Pakistan, the Indus flows mainly in Pakistan. Since we have recognised the Partition, and given away a part of Bharat Desh, they must have the Saraswati (and so the Saraswati civilisation). You will be surprised to learn that the Geological Survey of India, during the first National Democratic Alliance government, issued a book in which it showed that the Saraswati river doesn’t enter Pakistan. In fact, the river is shown avoiding Pakistan altogether to flow through the deserts of Rajasthan. This is for you the Geological Survey of India.

In an essay you once wrote, you said, “What is of primary interest to us today is to ask whether there is still a case for India as a nation.” Has the case for India as a nation become stronger or weaker?
A nation is how we construct it; a nation is not a natural thing. You create a sense of (national) community and within it, little communities. And if we promote sectional divisions or regional divisions, to that extent the nation is weakened or affected adversely. So a nation has to be built up. One of the most important ways of sustaining the nation is secularism and democracy and paying attention to different regions and meeting their needs. The problem with the present government is that it lacks inclusiveness, which is necessary for the construction of a nation. So they may shout they are nationalists, but they are in fact undermining the nation.

What to you is the significance of Narendra Modi becoming Prime Minister?
I must confess I never thought he would become the Prime Minister. I think I had what now seems to me a very idealistic picture of the Indian electorate. I was mistaken. The Indian electorate is just like any other electorate in the world. But, certainly, propaganda and some hope that he would be different from others were factors behind his victory. But one must also realise that the RSS ideology is spreading, particularly in the middle classes.

Finally, in your opinion what has been the most traumatic event in India post-Independence?
(Laughs) For me personally, the declaration of the Emergency was one of them. Next to it is the coming of Modi to power.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist from Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, published by HarperCollins, is available in bookstores.

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