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Tagore would be an ‘anti-national’ in today’s India, says Irfan Habib

‘I had no godfather in the university system,’ says the noted historian.   | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

If ever a sub-editor in a hurry needed a representative picture of a professor, she can safely dig out a photo of S. Irfan Habib from the archives. Dressed in a red polka-dot shirt, blue jeans, and a mildly rumpled jacket, the head of scholastic grey matching an off-white, windswept beard, it is difficult not to think of him as an absent-minded professor.

Habib isn’t one, though he does keep forgetting to smile for the photographer.

We meet at the India International Centre and settle down outside of the lounge. I realise too late that I must strain to hear his voice above the pitter-patter of a water fountain that, over the course of our conversation, merges with the sound of a sudden spell of wintry rain. He looks frailer than I had imagined. “I had a bypass surgery last October,” he explains. “I’m not fully back to normal. Need more rest for a complete recovery.”

But the historian needs to be up and about as his latest book, Indian Nationalism: The Essential Writings, was released in early December. The anthology, which he put together, collects the reflections of some of the best sub-continental minds — from Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Lala Lajpat Rai to Jayaprakash Narayan and Khwaja Ahmad Abbas — on the subject at a time when nationalism has become a potent force multiplier in Indian politics.

Habib takes pride in being a product of “mofussil India” at having made a mark, though his intellectual priors were outside the metropolitan academic elite. “I had no godfather in the university system,” he says.

History of science

Born in 1953 in a village two kilometres from Hastinapur, Habib’s schooling and entire higher education took place in Meerut district. “My father was a doctor. We were four brothers and one sister, and I was the eldest son. So, there was a lot of pressure on me to follow in his footsteps,” he recalls. “But I didn’t sit for any medical entrance exams as I had no interest in it.”

As a compromise measure, Habib enrolled for a B.Sc (Hons) degree at Meerut College. “But after I graduated, I put my foot down and said I had to do something I liked. I took up history.”

Habib did his M.A. in history from Meerut College, and followed it up with a PhD. from the same institution. “There used to be good colleges in these places in those times,” Habib says, hinting at but leaving unsaid the contrast with the state of affairs in the present.

Interestingly enough, the inspiration for his doctoral dissertation came from Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). After completing his M.A., Habib landed in JNU in 1974. He had applied for the M.Phil programme and cleared the entrance exams. On the advice of a friend, he had picked a topic in medieval history for his M.Phil research. “But, after two-three months, I lost interest,” recalls Habib. “I also didn’t want to spend two years learning Persian. But, while in JNU, I came across an article by Bipan Chandra, published in 1973, on the ideological foundations of revolutionary terrorist movements. I realised at once that is what I wanted to research.”

Habib left JNU and went back to Meerut College to do his PhD. — on Bhagat Singh as a revolutionary ideologue. “It was in JNU that I found the germ of my doctoral thesis. I expanded on Chandra’s article through archival research and field work that involved meeting the family members and associates of Singh, who were still alive in the early 1980s,” Habib says. His book, To Make the Deaf Hear: Ideology and Programme of Bhagat Singh and Comrades’ is a seminal work on Singh’s ideological evolution and intellectual legacy.

Composite nationalism

I ask him about the current enthusiasm among the right wing for appropriating Bhagat Singh as one of their own, even as the Left’s attitude to him remains one of benign neglect. “The right wing is, of course, trying to appropriate him — they try it every year on March 23, the day of his execution. And they do so by speaking of him only as a nationalist and a martyr — they never talk of his ideology.”

But, wasn’t Bhagat Singh a martyr? “Sure he was. And so were Sukhdev and Rajguru who died with him, and the scores of others who were executed before and after them by the British. The right wing only wants to use the halo of martyrdom around Bhagat Singh for its political purposes. But it is not martyrdom that makes Singh special — it is his thought, and that is something the Right is not comfortable with.”

And Singh was a nationalist too. “The term Bhagat Singh used was ‘composite nationalism’, whose fundamental tenet is inclusion,” Habib points out. “This means that nationalism cannot be the basis for exclusion. Singh never believed in the binary of ‘nationalist’ and ‘anti-national’. For him, nationalism could not be based on religion, culture, region or ethnicity.”

Habib is at pains to stress that Bhagat Singh was much more than a brave young man who sacrificed his life in the freedom struggle. “He was a man of ideas. He had views on an alternative agenda of governance, on caste, communalism, freedom of the press, the role of students in politics, gender — and what he had to say on all these are relevant today, for we are still discussing the same things.”

Love of research

After his PhD. in 1979, Habib began teaching in a college in Bulandshahr. In 1982, he came to Delhi to attend a seminar on the Persian polymath, Avicenna, at the Indian National Science Academy. There he met A. Rahman, who is considered the father of history of science studies in India, and was then the Chief of Planning at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Delhi.

“Professor Rahman told me that he had just set up a new centre, the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies (NISTADS), within CSIR in Delhi. He said to me, ‘Not many people work in history of science. I want young people to research. You’ve finished your Ph.D.; you’ve been teaching for four years. Why don’t you try something new?’ I didn’t know much about this subject at the time. So I spent a few months reading up at the Teen Murti Library. I liked the subject. And I said yes to him,” remembers Habib.

“I joined as a research associate, and after one year I got the job of a regular scientist. At NISTADS, they call everyone a scientist, whether you do science or not.” Habib spent the bulk of his professional life in this institution. “I was the first to join and the last to leave from among my peer group. I was there until 2008-09, for more than 25 years.”

At NISTADS, Habib and his colleagues did pioneering research on the social history of science in colonial India. “We did a lot of books, conferences, and papers. It was one of the most vibrant research groups at the institute,” says Habib, his eyes lighting up at the memory of those exciting days.

In 2008, the National Institute of Education Planning and Administration (NIEPA) introduced a Maulana Azad chair. Habib was its first incumbent and held the chair until last year.

In the later part of his career, Habib began to research and publish on the decline of the critical imagination in Islam. But at the moment, for reasons fairly apparent, it is nationalism that preoccupies him. “Tagore would be an ‘anti-national’ in today’s India, given his views on nationalism,” he muses. “Nationalism is not a virtue on so many grounds. It is certainly not something to be used as a weapon against your own people, as is happening today.”


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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 3:49:40 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/tagore-would-be-an-anti-national-in-todays-india-noted-historian-s-irfan-habib/article22470890.ece

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