Historian Irfan Habib has been in the eye of a storm. Manjula Sen meets him

The Yamuna Expressway scoops up the car from Noida, on the outskirts of Delhi, and deposits you at the other end where a forked market-lined road eventually leads to Aligarh. There the 138-year-old Aligarh Muslim University‘s sparkling campus sits picture perfect.

AMU’s most famous living historian and current professor emeritus has been in the eye of several recent storms. Habib has not only been signing letters condemning the “vitiating atmosphere” for intellectuals, he has also found himself with an unknown “son-in-law”.

An international credit rating agency had penned a cautionary note about capital flight from India if the development agenda was hijacked by the government’s “fringe elements”. There was an immediate outcry on the social media, with many holding that the writer of the note was Habib’s son-in-law. All that the two shared was a Muslim name.

One is curious if his family was bothered by the to-do.

“It was not actually my family that was affected. It shows the mental makeup (of those spreading the lies). Also, what if he was related? The other side was a bit taken aback when the real son-in-law’s name turned out to be Amit Mishra,” he starts chuckling. And then tops it: “If they had asked about my daughter-in-law, her name is Abha Dev”.

The octogenarian is busy with his lectures and writings. A notice announces an upcoming talk on the national movement. “Oh that. We have lectures in the historical society. The students come because there is a full paper on the national movement in competitive exams,” he says drily.

The historian is spare, wry and self-effacing. Given a choice, he would have done the interview via email or phone. Indeed, he has already meticulously handwritten some answers to the questionnaire before the drama of the Bihar results on television riveted him to distraction. “I got to the fourth question,” he says handing over the paper.

As for the results, he is “elated.” Elated, he says, because, among other things, the syllabus of Bihar’s schools will remain intact.

Habib’s secular pennant has not endeared himself to either Muslim or Hindu fundamentalists. At the AMU itself, he has had several run-ins with strident students and managements, and for the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), he is a reviled bête noire along with other “leftist” historians.

Do recent events indicate that historiography in India is set for a dramatic change, given the National Democratic Alliance government’s emphasis on overhauling the education and cultural department?

Habib believes historiography usually alters when one discusses facts or aspects of the past not known or studied before, or when there are new approaches or modes of analysis. Recent events in India have not brought forth any innovations in this area, he contends. “What is taking place is an officially-sponsored misrepresentation of history, primarily through changing syllabi and textbooks in order to articulate an utterly chauvinistic, communal and semi-mythical narration,” he rues.

In this he finds the role of the Supreme Court discouraging. “In 2002, it not only allowed but advocated ‘instruction in religion’ in schools, contrary to the Constitution’s prohibition of ‘religious instruction’,” he says.

Habib himself benefited from a secular education. Neither the Congress government of 1937-1939 nor the Muslim League changed the syllabus although they switched to Urdu. “We had Nehru’s fantastic article Tomorrow in India as literature. There was no ideology to it. They (the League and the Congress) have not received credit for that. Now I see the value of that: a totally secular education under a communalist dispensation like that.”

Habib was influenced by his father, professor Mohammad Habib, who was a nationalist, later with Marxist leanings. As a student in Oxford, he had hosted a talk by Sarojini Naidu and the poet W.B. Yeats under the Oxford Majlis, a students’ body. “He always insisted he came back (to join the non-cooperation movement) on Mahatma ji‘s call, not Mohammad Ali Jinnah‘s,” Habib stresses.

A steady stream of visitors flows into his small office, with requests for forms, book and signatures. Habib is uncomfortable with anyone standing. ” Tashreef rakhiye (do sit down),” he insists repeatedly.

A conversation with him is akin to being an invisible onlooker to epochal events unfolding in the national movement. Habib was 16 when India became independent in 1947. What was it like? “I was 16 in 1947 but I was 11 in 1942,” he quips.

Then he tells a story which he is loath to relate very often because it is “as if one is glorifying one’s self”. He was not involved in the incident, but was a mere witness, he adds.

The Cripps Mission came in 1942 with the promise of Dominion status after the Second World War, he starts.

“One afternoon a tonga came to a stop at our house. And out jumps Pandit Nehru. Turns out he had come to Aligarh for a Congress meeting. Either Congress leaders forgot about his lunch or gave him a lunch which he just couldn’t swallow! So he had decided to visit his friend. We as children were terribly excited. The door was ajar, and we could hear them,” he recounts.

They – he and his brother – heard his father ask Nehru why he had rejected the Cripps proposal. They were giving us Dominion, at least, his father pointed out.

“Panditji said: ‘Habib, you will always remain a professor. We will be free. In five years.’ Of course it didn’t come in five years. It came in five-and-a-half-years.” At this, Habib smiles broadly, before making his point.

“Now this is interesting because [British historian] Perry Anderson in Indian Ideology – which should actually be titled Indian Illusions  said Nehru never thought Independence would come or if it did it would come in 1975. Now this is just fiction. Because some ICS officer of that time wrote in his memoirs it is accepted at face value. All this material is serving the RSS mainly.”

But what impression did the remarks leave on the young boy who overheard this? “I was mature enough and I understood we were slaves and Pandit ji was saying we will be free. I understood English. That much. Not very much. For my medium of instruction in school was Urdu not English.”

In 1948, Gandhi was assassinated but before that it had “become obvious that the massacres would come. And therefore Gandhi ji‘s fast of January 13, 1948, was so important. There was an almost spontaneous demonstration of about a lakh of people on the fifth day of the fast in Aligarh. After his fast the atmosphere was totally changed.”

Habib’s first political participation, he recalls, was in a demonstration immediately after the assassination. And that was when he came into contact with the Communist Party of India.

What drew him to them? “Their slogans,” he replies. The Congress was saying Ishwar Allah tero hi naam, sabko sammati de bhagwan. Gandhiji amar rahe. (You are Ishwar and Allah – give everyone wise counsel. Long live, Gandhiji). The Communists, on the other hand, were chanting: Gandhiji ke hatyaron ko phaansi do. Mahasabha walon ko phaansi do” (Hang Gandhiji’s killers, hang the [Hindu] Mahasabha members).”

Habib, too, has his share of labels and then some. Would he describe himself as liberal Muslim? “Actually, religion to me is a very weak symbol of identity. I like Nehru in An Autobiography. I didn’t like Nehru in his Discovery of India, I have no faith in God and afterlife, so religion to me is just one of the several identities.”

But religion could be a cultural identity? “Partly. Culture is also shared. They are Islamic – when I say Islamic I mean cultures associated with Muslim populations, not necessarily cultures derived from the Arabs of the 7th century. Modern strains like the Enlightenment and scientific revolution and the French Revolution, I hope, are more at work in my ideological orientation. And, of course, Marxism.”

The label that is most pilloried today but one that he owns proudly is secularism. He leaps to its defence instantly. “One should be clear about secularism. Secularism through Nehru to the entire world means all state actions must be directed towards the welfare of human beings in this life. Not afterlife.”

As his colleague, historian Shireen Moosvi, steps out to shush chattering students in the corridor, one recalls stories of Habib cycling to campus. Does he still? He shoots back with, “On Fridays! I am now 84, and I find it difficult.”

The next volume of the People’s History of India, of which he is the general editor, will be out in December. All his work now is handwritten – the typing came to a stop when the typing ribbon became unavailable, interjects Moosvi.

Does he think of writing his autobiography? “I hope not! I hope I don’t ever consider it. First, I will have to suppress a large number of facts,” he starts laughing. “You know in autobiographies, except Gandhi’s and Nehru’s, it seems the chap is exalting himself. Anyway, I have been a university professor. What have I done?