History against sectarianism

Ramachandra Guha

Echoes of the words of historian Mohammad Habib are relevant even today

A refugee special train at Ambala Station during Partition. Seventy-two years ago, India was a land at war with itself, as a wave of intense communal rioting had both preceded and followed Independence and Partition

Courtesy: Photo Division, Government of India, via Wikipedia

In December 1947, the annual Indian History Congress was held in Bombay. The president-elect that year was Professor Mohammad Habib of the Aligarh Muslim University, a historian of early medieval India, known especially for his studies of the Delhi Sultanate. From the late 1930s, many students and faculty at AMU had been active supporters of M.A. Jinnah and his Pakistan movement. Mohammad Habib was not one of them. He was resolutely committed to an inclusive Indian nationalism, whereby citizenship was to be defined by shared values rather than by common religious beliefs. He idolized Gandhi; as did his wife, Sohaila, whose father, Abbas Tyabji, had worked closely with the Mahatma.

In December 1947, India was a land at war with itself. A wave of intense communal rioting had both preceded and followed Independence and Partition. Professor Habib’s friends and family urged him not to take the long train journey from Aligarh to Bombay. They worried that he might be identified by his religion, and attacked. The patriot disregarded them, and delivered a presidential address whose words and warnings resonate 72 years later.

Mohammad Habib began his speech at the History Congress by praising Gandhi, whom he called “the greatest Indian teacher of all times”, under “[whose] divinely inspired guidance” his compatriots had “liquidated peacefully and by mutual agreement one of the most powerful empires the world has seen”. He then turned to the fact of Partition and what had led to it. He himself thought that the prime cause was the British creation of communal electorates, “a hideous arrangement no western democracy would have tolerated for a moment”. After Muslims were asked to vote separately, argued Habib, “differences of religion, inevitable in a large country like ours, were thus fused into two opposite political groups, and their increasing hostility was inevitable as with each succeeding election, and an expanding body of voters, all representatives were required to appeal exclusively to masses of their own denomination.” An inevitable (and noxious) consequence of communal electorates was that “the minority would lean more and more on the foreign power, and try to prove worthy of its support by sabotaging the national movement.”

Pakistan had been created as a homeland for Muslims. However, many Muslims had voted to stay behind in India. To those who questioned their commitment, Mohammad Habib answered that “the overwhelming mass of the Muslims of this land have an undoubted Indian paternity. It is true that there are innumerable Muslim families in India who claim a foreign origin, but this affiliation is purely fictitious.”

Habib warned Indian Muslims against nostalgia for the medieval past, when the rulers were of their faith. As he remarked: “The position of the Indian Musalmans in the middle ages was, if a very rough simile be allowed, not unlike Indian Christians during the British period.” Ruler and ruled might worship the same god; but in everything else they were separate and different. Habib further remarked: “In days when we were suffering from an inferiority complex owing to the brutal fact of a foreign government, which seemed unshakable, we made the best we could of our medieval Rajput Rajas and Turkish Sultans. That attitude is no longer necessary; and the plain truth has to be told that all our medieval governments were intensely exclusive aristocratic organisations... War and politics were games which only the well-born were allowed to play. The governments were in no sense governments of the people. An analysis of the officers of the Moghul and the pre-Moghul governments of Delhi will reveal the plain and sad fact that Muslims of Indian birth were rigidly excluded from the higher military and civil offices of the state. An Indian Muslim had as little chance of becoming a warlord of the Empire of Delhi as a Hindu Sudra had of ascending a Rajasthan throne.”

These warnings are still relevant, except that they apply to Hindus rather than Muslims. Indeed, Hindutva, the philosophy that animates our ruling regime, is entirely based on an inferiority complex. Hence its glorification of Hindu rulers such as Chandragupta and Shivaji, disregarding the fact that their regimes practised gender and caste discrimination absolutely at odds with what a modern, democratic republic should countenance.

As a thoroughgoing democrat himself, Mohammad Habib deplored the fact that, in the India of December 1947, “the hold of the ‘community’ over the individual is as complete today as it was in the middle ages.” Thus, “[s]ocial conventions and social prejudices, stronger than they have ever been in the past, strengthen the slavery of the individual. He is completely at the mercy of the community and its leaders in every sphere, including even the sacred sphere of his personal and domestic life.”

In India, the religious community defined and controlled the individual when he or she was alive, and when he or she died. Thus, as Mohammad Habib remarked: “It is impossible even now to be an Indian without being a member of an Indian community. There is, I believe, at present no graveyard in the land to which an Indian could lay claim merely on the basis of his Indian citizenship, and admission to every one of them lies through some community rite.”

To elevate the individual over the community, argued Professor Habib in 1947, “is the real challenge of the hour”. As he put it: “The present-day ‘communalist’ is a creature of tradition, a tradition so vitiated as to be next door to barbarism. The future ‘citizen’ will be a creation of laws consciously planned for the public good.” Habib accepted that “[d]ifferences of religion there are and will be; in this there is no harm.” However, he was emphatic that a central task of the Republic taking shape was to create “one State, one Law and one National Community for the whole land”. Mohammad Habib would certainly have been in favour of a common civil code for all citizens; elsewhere in the lecture, he lamented the fact that “the Indian citizen has neither a law of marriage nor a law of inheritance.”

In the last part of his lecture, Mohammad Habib turned to his own profession, the writing of history. He notes, accurately, that most Indian historians were from an elite background (they still are), and “this fact has inevitably coloured their vision”. Thus, while “[m]odern works on Indian history do not show any antipathy to the peasants and the working classes,” at the same time, “their attitude to the higher classes has been one of uncritical adulation.”

Because of this focus on the ruling classes, said Professor Habib, “[t]he lot of the Indian worker and everything connected with it — his wages, the prices of commodities necessary for the maintenance of his family, the struggles of his life, his joys, his sufferings and his hopes — all these are a virgin field for the historical investigator.” In asking for closer attention to the lives of workers and peasants, Mohammad Habib anticipated what became known as Subaltern Studies. Notably, even here he warned against dogmatism. Thus, while advocating a history from below, he observed: “I do not wish to postulate the theory of class-conflicts, nor am I unaware of how difficult the application of this [Marxian] theory becomes when, regardless of the fact that it is based on the experience of Europe during the modern machine age, it is applied to all countries and all times.”

A state-dominated interpretation of history is one of the most effective means of sabotaging democracy

— Mohammad Habib

I first read Professor Mohammad Habib’s lecture some 25 years ago, when, on the shelf of a university library, I came across the printed proceedings of the Indian History Congress of 1947. I came across an online text recently, and read it again, to be struck afresh by its sagacity and wisdom. The quotes offered above demonstrate this adequately, I think, but let me nonetheless offer some last examples. Back in December 1947, Professor Habib argued that while the State could fund historical research, it “should not interfere in the question of interpretation”. A free India, he said, “implies a free history of India in which every point of view has a right to be heard. Free and untrammelled discussion will lead us to the truth; and there is no other way of reaching it.”

Professor Mohammad Habib urged politicians to stay away from controlling or monitoring how the past was presented or re-presented. As he remarked: “A state-dominated interpretation of history is one of the most effective means of sabotaging democracy.” This was extraordinarily prescient, anticipating what Indira Gandhi sought to do with history and historians in the 1970s, and what Narendra Modi seeks to do with history and historians today.

courtesy : "The Telegraph", - Published 07 December 2019

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Features

Devotion is a desperately competitive business

Harold Wilson, Britain’s prime minister in the 1960s, would not utter a single word for the record when Fredda Brilliant’s statue of Gandhi was unveiled in London’s Tavistock Square. Since NRIs were not politically significant then, it was assumed he reckoned anything he said would be wasted breath

Gandhi is up for grabs. Amit Shah and Narendra Modi are not the only people who need a universally respected icon of inclusiveness. Controversial plans for a nine-foot bronze statue of the Mahatma outside Manchester Cathedral speak of other needs, as do the fierce objections of the so-called Decolonise Network at the University of Manchester, which accuses Gandhi of “anti-black racism and complicity in the British Empire’s actions in Africa”.

None of this has much bearing on who Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi really was, what he tried to achieve, and how far he succeeded in his self-appointed mission. It has everything to do with the perceptions and requirements of those who love or hate the myth into which he has been transformed. The proposed statue doesn’t celebrate the British conception of Gandhi either, although it might exploit it to promote the sponsor, the Shrimad Rajchandra Mission Dharampur. Since the mission’s website makes it sound devotional to the point of idolatry, it might seek a Western niche for its folk Hinduism. A less innocent explanation for its initiative is that “Gandhi is used as a propaganda tool to cover up human rights abuses by the current Indian government under Modi, which is engaging in an effort to erect Gandhi statues globally to create an image of India as an anti-imperialist state.” Objecting, the Indian Society of Manchester falls back on the conventional view of Gandhi as “a symbol of peace, non-violence, anti-colonialism, resistance and resilience”.

This is not the first time that man-worship and the addiction to graven images have dragged Gandhi into controversy. His first statue, planned appropriately enough for London’s poorer East End where he stayed in 1931, never happened. Thirty-seven years later, Harold Wilson, then Britain’s prime minister, flatly refused pleas to utter a single word for the record when Fredda Brilliant’s statue of a cross-legged Mahatma was unveiled in London’s Tavistock Square (picture). Since non-resident Indians were not a factor in British politics then, it was assumed Wilson reckoned that anything he said would be wasted breath. He wasn’t forced to ingratiate himself with ethnic South Asian voters. Unlike Theresa May, Samantha Cameron, Sarah Brown or Cherie Blair, Mary Wilson saw no need to flaunt sari or salwar-kameez.

As David Cameron’s chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, whom the wheel of political fortune has reduced to editing the Russian-owned freebie, Evening Standard, described Philip Jackson’s bronze Gandhi outside the Houses of Parliament in London as “a lasting and fitting tribute to his memory in Britain”. But a chance conversation exposed the falsity of the claim. Some weeks after the installation, a prominent English life peer with an interest in Indian affairs and highly-placed friends in New Delhi asked me at a dinner party in St John’s Wood in London what I thought of “the Gandhi statue”. When I began to say it seemed too tall for the plinth, he cut in with “But Gandhi is sitting cross-legged!” He meant the old Tavistock Square figure. Neither he nor anyone else round that table had heard of Jackson’s bronze which Osborne had called “a permanent monument to our friendship with India”.

Gandhi’s comments on that supposed friendship sounded too enigmatic, woolly and contradictory to permit conclusive interpretation. Asked whether he believed in England’s good faith, he replied he had faith in England because he had faith in the human race. Although “bitten” many times, he “trusted” England and “expected” the English to “be converted one day”. Despite that feeble testament, Gandhi was astute enough to know that the British connection will continue to flourish as long as Indians nurse worldly ambition and hanker for a slice of the pie of Western affluence and lifestyle. That has as little to do with Gandhi as a war-weary and bankrupt Britain’s decision to withdraw from an imperial role it could no longer sustain. If independence allowed Indians to invent a reason that reflected credit on the freedom movement and its stalwarts, it also allowed the West to claim the dignity of surrendering to the apostle of peace. The pacifism argument provides convenient excuses and alibis all round.

I haven’t seen the precise wording of the charge linking Gandhi with the Kashmiri plight. But Manchester’s Indian Society professes to be “deeply offended” by the suggestion that the statue was “insulting towards the Kashmiri community”. That seems to indicate that critics of the statue hold Gandhi responsible for the current situation there, possibly because he supported India’s war effort to repulse the Pakistani invasion. At the same time, some Hindu nationalists blamed Jeremy Raisman, the Leeds slum boy born to Lithuanian Jewish refugees who joined the Indian Civil Service and became finance member of the viceroy’s executive council, for Gandhi’s murder. It was Raisman’s thankless task to divide British India’s financial assets and Gandhi saw it as his moral duty to insist that India handed over Pakistan’s share. Given that background, it is anybody’s guess how Gandhi would have responded to the present crisis, especially after the impassioned speech that the “Ambassador of Kashmir”, as Pakistan’s prime minister called himself at the United Nations, made in September.

The Indian Society of Manchester dissociates Gandhi from “the political agendas on Kashmir” and “the actions of the current government in power”. Whether New Delhi accepts that dissociation is another matter. Gandhi is an even more prized asset than Vallabhbhai Patel in creating a past the Bharatiya Janata Party never had and shaping a future in which it looms large. It’s a question of one-upmanship and showmanship by those who are undeterred by the lone and level sands that stretch far away in Shelley’s Ozymandias. The Uttar Pradesh government rushed to reveal details of the Rama statue it plans for Ayodhya to upstage fraternal worshippers like the Shiv Sena and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which were suspected of plotting a massive temple. Devotion is a desperately competitive business. The new Rama on the banks of the Sarayu river, replete with pedestal and canopy, is expected to tower over the BJP’s own figure of Patel in the distant Narmada valley. Anna’s king of Siam would have been delighted with this childish obsession with height. So would the North Korean delegates who dragged out higher and higher stools at the Panmunjom truce talks at the end of the Korean War. In Patel’s case, there is the additional incentive of poaching on the Opposition to create the illusion of a lifelong Congressman being a secret pracharak.

Three incidents suffice to explain Gandhi’s pragmatism which makes all such self-serving posturing irrelevant. First, ignored by nationalistic editors when he returned from South Africa, Gandhi allowed the correspondent of London’s The Daily Telegraph to smuggle him into the whites-only Bengal Club for an interview. Second, when Jatindra Mohan Sengupta’s English wife, Nellie, complained that people were gossiping about her husband spending too much time in the Calcutta Club, Gandhi retorted it was a very nice club, and he wished he himself were a member. Finally, having read about Gandhi’s exploits as a student in London, Richard Symonds, the Oxford historian, was pleased to see the murals outside his place of martyrdom showing him dancing with demi-mondaine women in decollete dresses. “They haven’t deified Gandhi!” he said. “They are showing him as he was.” The dancing images had gone on his next visit: Gandhi was presented as the epitome of middle-class Hindu respectability.

He isn’t an easy personage to encapsulate. South Africa’s Jan Smuts commented when Gandhi returned to India, “The saint has left these shores, I hope forever.” A lesser leader would have tried to co-opt Gandhi to create a history in which nothing occurred before 2014.

courtesy : "The Telegraph", Published - 02 November 2019

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Features