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The Past Master

Irfan Habib’s intellectual honesty has won him as many friends as it has enemies

The Past Master
August 12: About 200 social scientists gather in Delhi to release ‘The Making of History’, a tribute to Irfan Habib, and to rally against the Hindutva attack on history.

Four years after he was unceremoniously thrown out of Aligarh Muslim University (amu), 69-year-old Irfan Habib cannot stay away from the red-bricked campus of fairy-tale towers even on holidays and Sundays. Every morning he sets out on his bicycle down the tree-lined drive of his gracefully-ageing mansion with a preppy satchel slung on his back. He is headed for the department his father, Mohammad Habib, helped set up but which Irfan has turned into the world’s most exciting and exacting centre for research on medieval India.

"It’s the books," says Habib, a little sheepishly. Although he is not permitted to borrow from amu’s vast and invaluable collection of historical texts and documents, "I have friends who borrow books for me," he says. Considering that Habib is something of a landmark in amu - everyone, from the students to rickshaw-pullers to the chaiwallahs, knows "Habib Saab," favourite professor, generous colleague, union leader, cricket fan - he is not short of friends.

He isn’t short of detractors, either. Flung out by the ear from amu, accused of pilfering ichr funds, roughed up at the Indian History Congress in 1994 for his resolution condemning the destruction of historic monuments, his research dismissed as "lies of that Marxist bunch", Habib remains coolly amused. "Can you call it a blow to science when a hooligan beats up a scientist?" he counters, refusing to take umbrage at Hindu extremist efforts to rewrite history.

"You can argue with them if they were serious historians," he says, "but how do you argue with these tabalchis?" Ancient Indian history, says Habib, may be weak on dates ("the textual use of eras") but there’s no dearth of epigraphic and other evidence, including the genealogical tables in the puranas, Kalhan’s Rajatarangini and accounts of Arab chroniclers. In fact, says Habib, barring Iraq, Palestine and Turkey, which had written records from 3000 BC, dates are a problem with all early history. But there are well-defined ways to establish dates fairly accurately, including linguistic analysis. The problem with current historical controversies, he says is that there’s nothing to argue with except "stupid propaganda".

"The problem isn’t with historians or the Indian people but with modern political mythology," he says. The great Aryan debate now, for instance, is but an attempt to establish that Aryans weren’t migrants but indigenous people who spread their civilisation westwards. "It is very anti-Dravidian. They want to push back the Aryan migration from 1400 BC to 5000 BC," he says, explaining that by pushing the Aryan civilisation back another 3,500 years, the Hindutva intellectuals are trying to lay claim to being the originators of Indo-European languages. "How nice to call ourselves the parents of the English language," he muses. "It must come from an inferiority complex - the English have no problem admitting they owe their language and civilisation to the Germans."

"But no serious historian is prepared to invent facts for their benefit," points out Habib. "Even R.C. Majumdar, who sympathised with their viewpoint, was unwilling to associate himself with their stupidity. When the Organiser published an article claiming the Taj Mahal or Red Fort, I forget which, was originally a Hindu monument, he stopped writing for them, he was so disgusted. And when D.C. Sarkar was under pressure to reduce the date of artefacts, he refused to invent facts. Marxist historians could argue with Majumdar because he used the same historical methods. But how do you argue with all this rot now being spread in the name of history? They don’t even have their geography right. This great Indus-Saraswati civilisation, for instance, which they want to invent. The Saraswati was only a little stream, in its later stretch it becomes Jhaneswar, then Ghaggar, and Hakra, which flows, rather unpatriotically, into Pakistan! So the attack on historians isn’t aimed at Marxists alone, but all historians, including nationalists like Jawaharlal Nehru and on those who wrote on Tipu Sultan," states Habib.

Habib’s contempt for Hindutva distortion of history has not endeared him, as one would expect, to Islamic fundamentalists. "Enemy of Islam" is what he’s often been called. "They don’t like me," he says simply. The Islamic trend in history nowadays, feels Habib, is being set by Edward Said’s orientalism, which he takes to mean that history can’t question Islam’s basic tenets. "My professor, a very logical man, used to say every history of Islam logically has to have four versions: the Islamic, the Jewish, the Christian and the kafir versions. The fifth version is the madhouse."

But Islamic historians face a problem, he points out a little gleefully: "They’ve too many written records to work around. What can you do with a text which states, ‘Jews went bravely to their death’? The early chroniclers didn’t realise the Jews weren’t Arabs like themselves." The only difference between Islamic and Hindu fundamentalists, he says, is that while Islamic historians want to impose religious values into history, the Hindus want to create a fiction.

Habib’s relentless pursuit of unprejudiced history has always been unstoppable. For instance, when Habib joined the Communists, his most serious difference with them was their historical perception of Gandhi. As the grandson of Gandhi’s trusted lieutenant, Abbas Tyabji, who grew up with a father who reprimanded his children when they called him Gandhiji, insisting they call him Mahatmaji, Habib was deeply troubled when he was expected to disown Gandhi after joining the party. In his meticulous fashion, he then wrote a paper which effectively appropriated Gandhi for Marxism and was later published in the party organ, Social Scientist.

Perhaps Habib’s greatest asset as a historian is an admirable sense of proportion, whether in his personal or professional life. When, for instance, Arun Shourie declared in his column that Habib had misappropriated Rs 27,000 from the ichr by not delivering the research he’d been commissioned to do, Habib didn’t bother to contradict him. "That grant was sanctioned all right, but I never drew it out because the project fell through. The necessary documents were lying in Rajasthan’s archives, and they refused to part with them." Contradicting these lies, says Habib, is a waste of time. "I’d rather spend the few years I have left doing my research."

Similarly, when amu threw him out, Habib didn’t bother to stay and fight, despite many years as a leader of the university employees’ union. He still misses the teaching ("Some of my best ideas came to me while I was teaching BA students or correcting their papers") but has too much on his plate to pine for the past. The project is as ambitious and exciting as those early papers which, as social scientist Prabhat Patnaik puts it, "we used to look forward to as much as Satyajit Ray’s next film". Habib has embarked on a people’s history of India, from earliest times to 1947. It’s an attempt to restate history, providing information on ordinary things of life like average age at death, prevalent diseases, diet ("They ate all sorts of beasts, including cows and tigers"), houses, art, symbols, funerals and the position of women. "Did you know that the earliest ornaments were worn by men, not women, and with the progress of civilisation the jewellery moved from the men to the women?" he queries, adding deprecatingly: "Such little things interest me."

There are other little things that excite him: Brian Lara making a century, for instance, or the sports minister’s "knee-jerk reaction to the match-fixing scandal". But most of all, Habib, an avid cricket fan, is troubled by the banning of India-Pakistan cricket matches. "Why can’t we follow the Sri Lankan example? Despite the LTTE, they keep (Muthiah) Muralitharan on the team. Cricket matches are the best way to keep people-to-people contact with Pakistan."

Historians may feel they are viewed "like a dinosaur", as Romila Thapar recently complained, but for this unwitting lodestar of a profession that shuns stardom, life - both present and past - is too exciting to waste on stupidities.


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