Irfan Habib on Naxalism and much more
anupam goswami | February 15, 2010
In this country and beyond, Irfan Habib is widely recognised as one of the most influential historians in the modern era. His initial and substantive work pertains to what is called the medieval period of Indian history. However, Habib is equally known for his incisive insights into earlier historical processes as well as key themes of recent and contemporary times. Much of his academic work has been conducted from the Department of History at the Aligarh Muslim University where he still works as professor emeritus.
There, on a chilly January day, in an austere room, freezing compared with the world outside its single window, he talked to Anupam Goswami about the key trends that have shaped the functioning of the Indian Republic. His diagnosis and prognosis had eclectic hues. Characteristically, his icy insight was bracing rather than bleak. Excerpts from the interview:
Mainstream history stops its work at the years 1947 and 1950. How is it to engage and relate with the processes of the Indian state over the last six decades?
It is generally desirable for the professional historian to be independent of his immediate biases, or at least not to be over-influenced by them. To that extent historians do tend to work with reasonably earlier periods. Another consideration is the availability of materials that are used as historical evidence. All governments around the world restrict the availability of official documents for historiographical scrutiny. In most European nations there is a 25-year limit; but in India this practice is especially rigid and complex whereby historians are still not allowed access to many official documents and intelligence reports which date before 1947. Moreover, there is also the reality that a very fundamental political transition happened in 1947 and this was carried very substantially forward in 1950. So these years will be permanent reference points in Indian history in any case.
And, of course, historians are acutely aware that a very new form of the state was created for this country and its people during 1947 and 1950. For the first time this country had a state that was created for the explicit and stated purpose of development of this country. Unlike the Mughal state, it did not exist primarily to tax the people in order to maintain the ruling class and its official establishment. Unlike the British state, it did not exist to extract tribute from this country and send it to Britain, or to convert this country into a vast market for British goods. The Indian Republic was created for the development and welfare of the people of this country — even though one could strongly differ over the path being taken, or the extent to which this objective would be achieved. The fact is that India came into being as a modern nation state during the years 1947 and 1950, and this is the reason why these years will always be crucial points in our history.
What are your own memories of the first Republic Day?
I was an undergraduate student then, and also a member of the Communist Party that was underground those days. The Communist Party had adopted a very rigid and blinkered denunciation of the constitution and this did influence us to some extent. Of course, the party abandoned this line later on. But even as aware young Indians, many of us felt that the constitution did not reflect all the ideals espoused by the national movement, including the principles enounced by the Indian National Congress in its annual sessions of Lahore in 1929 and Karachi in 1931. We thought that the constitution had key limitations, and some of these continue till today.
But then, the date of 26th January already held special appeal for all of us. Even before 1947, this date had been celebrated as the Purna Swaraj day each year since the Lahore Resolution of the Indian National Congress in 1929. So, on 26th January 1950, most young men like me could not help being moved to celebrate the occasion. Like many others, I got hold of the Indian flag and mounted it on my terrace that day. And I will also add that all of us severely underestimated the massive change that was to follow in our country. No matter how one appreciated that moment, none had the comprehension of what was being begun.
Some contemporary scholars look upon democracy as a wholly imported construct and therefore alien to the historical experience of this country’s people with the state.
Well, most things that are important in the contemporary public life of most nations are generally imported. Technology is important and is usually imported. Entertainment is important and often largely imported. Cinema is important and imported in large quantities. More important to our discussion, capitalism and concepts of equality and democracy were specific products of a specific historical situation in Europe, and they were imported by the United States of America a couple of hundred years ago; and then later by various countries of Asia. Indeed, the idea of a nation too is a very important and imported concept. So all through history, civilizations, countries, and communities have transited from one era to the next and transformed themselves with the help of ideas and ideologies borrowed from others.
There can never be any merit in the argument that our people cannot work with concepts and practices that originated elsewhere.
Was even the idea of nation imported to this country?
There was definitely the concept of India as a country from very early times onwards. But a nation is different in the sense it occurs when the people of a country feel themselves to be part of one community – and very definitely a political community. Their government comes from within the country, even though it might not be a democracy. This development took place during the national movement and culminated in independence in 1947, and the creation of the republic in 1950. The process was very strongly influenced and motivated by lessons from the experiences of various modern nations.
What did the term ‘nationalism’ imply for people in the early years of the Indian Republic? How has the implication of this term evolved over the years?
In the 1950s and the 1960s, our sense of nationalism was conditioned by the fact that it had served as a theoretical and practical framework against a foreign power that had subjugated us for 200 years. It was a liberating concept. This realisation was a key motivation for diverse groups and sections within the country to accept a subordinate status to the national movement. Of course, the national movement complemented this trait with a very strong agenda for social and economic emancipation. Thus, most communities from every part of the country, as well as dalits and others, were very strong supporters and participants in the national movement.
More recently, it has been used as an ideology to fight dissent from within the country, and it is only fair to say that some groups might find it a restrictive or oppressive concept these days. However, the key fact is that while some people might find this concept a problem in contemporary India, there is no dominant nationality in this country that might try to impose a particular brand of nationalism on others.
But is not there the implication that while our country technically became independent in 1947, and then a republic in 1950; emancipation is a continuing project for diverse sections and communities of the Indian people?
Very true. At the same time emancipation is historically related to some economic resonance. In the early 1950s, this country had no capacity in manufacturing and suffered from a severely limited agricultural base, as well. The 1950s and the 1960s saw a massive public sector effort in the primary and the secondary sectors of the economy, as well as a very significant spread of higher education. These led to processes such as peasants becoming proprietors of land — especially in states like Uttar Pradesh — and new employment, particularly in government jobs. These processes may not have reached out to all, and their coverage could have been limited.
But only when certain groups realized that they were left out in these processes, did they strike out in terms of mobilisation that was based on their excluded identities. This was true for the dalits as well as regional movements. Thus, the identity-based movement in Assam actually began after public sector units started taking crude petroleum out of that state and some Assamese groups started agitating for a reciprocal return of public goods and services. Elsewhere, in the 1950s, Kerala received a large share of the country’s foreign exchange earnings from its rubber and coffee. This economic distinction was among the factors for a nascent separatist movement in that state that is totally forgotten today.
Is that not a very mechanistic view of various ‘sub-nationalisms’ that have come up in various parts of the country over the years?
On the contrary, I am saying that the processes of economic growth created by the modern Indian state create the basis of sub-nationalism and regional aspirations. These are always fed by the sense of being left out, or by-passed. No ‘sub-nationalism’ questions the basic objective or goal of development. They just want a larger share of the pie than what they are getting.
This also creates the opportunity for the Indian state to handle sub-nationalisms or any splinter aspiration; for as long as the economy is large enough, and there is the right handling in adequate amount, the Indian state can ensure reasonable accommodation for most sub-nationalisms. This is has been proven true in the context of the separatist movements in the north-east, as well as in Punjab. I guess it will hold true for others as well.
Also, you have to examine the very logic of some of the supposed sub-nationalism in recent times. How has the formation of Jharkhand made life easier for its tribal communities? What is the logic for Telengana when all of Andhra Pradesh speaks Telugu? Will Hyderabad be better off after Telengana is formed? In each such case, people are clearly missing the point that a larger state has the capacity to generate larger resources for larger interventions for development.
How do you look upon the attempts of these ‘sub-nationalisms’ to create their own histories?
Of course there should always be constant renewal and refreshment to the scope of our history. But many of the ‘sub-nationalisms’ and sectional aspirations also lead to the creation of mythologies. You will find that in various parts of India, regional or sectional heroes are venerated to absurd levels, alongside actual suppression of genuine historiography. This is certainly true in Maharashtra.
Elsewhere, there is the demand to create false histories. Thus, there is an attempt to show that the national movement was inimical to dalit welfare which is outright stupid. My generation can never forget that dalits were prevented from serving water to the upper castes in the railways and other public spaces; they were usually employed as sweepers who were paid lower wages than attendants belonging to other communities, and many other forms of explicit discriminatory action during the British era. All this changed by decree after independence. The constitution abolished untouchability, not some British ruling. The Indian state established that dalits would get equal wages for equal work, not the British. Of course, much more needs to be done still. There is a great deal of caste-based discrimination that happens in many spheres of our social and economic life, but at least we are able to point out that in violation of the law of the land. In any case, who is to ignore the tremendous affirmative action carried out by the Indian state in this regard.
So there is very real need to study the history of caste and class based exploitation and oppression that happened in the past, as well the forms taken by these processes in current times. But this requirement can never be filled by false histories or mythologies that only serve to build up sectional or communal leaderships.
To what extent has the constitution succeeded in providing a stage for efficient participation and negotiation for these diverse and often competing sub-nationalisms and regional aspirations?
There have been moments when various political aspirations have threatened to overwhelm our framework of the nation state; but I think the constitution has survived some pretty testing episodes. Of course, the People’s Representation Act that provides for regular elections, as well as the framework for federalism and state governments have been key mechanisms in this regard. Overall, democracy has worked in this country.
On the other hand, there is also the point-of-view that sees the practice of democracy in this country as one which is largely limited to the conduct of elections.
All democracies are essentially about the conduct of elections. You vote to decide upon the overall direction of your future as a citizen, as well as to elect those who will take decisions about that future. You do not vote for having a day-to-day say in working for that future. Actually, this is true for all institutions. You cannot use the opportunity of democracy to create indiscipline or chaos.
How do you look upon leaders like Gandhi and Nehru, in terms of their capacity to provide pan-national leadership to diverse groups and communities?
It is difficult for anybody of my generation to not have been hugely influenced by these two personalities. My grandfather on my mother’s side, Abbas Tyabji, was a very close associate of Gandhiji who chose him to lead the Salt Satyagraha after his own arrest in 1930. My father Mohammad Habib was Marxist, but personally influenced by Gandhi. In my family house he was always referred to as Mahatma or Bapu, just as he was in hundreds of thousands of homes. As a political leader he had his failures and shortcomings; but these were so outweighed by his great successes, that his overall influence on Indian history is quite majestic.
Jawaharlal Nehru was very different in his orientation and beliefs from Gandhi, especially in his espousal of modern industrial development and the central role of the state, but he too had this great facility for capturing the popular imagination of the time. The political capacity of these leaders is evident in the fact that Gandhi was able to showcase Nehru as his chosen one, despite the quite distinct political orientation and style that the latter had.
What is their legacy or lesson to subsequent generations of Indian leaders?
The legacy is extremely rich and multi-hued. But the key element was to coalesce the aspirations of many sections and diverse groups of people into a forward looking vision. This ability came to the fore in the way Gandhi engaged with the dalit aspirations. It was also sharply evident in the way Nehru reached out to the working class and young students, to name just two groups.
Surely there was scope for Indian leaders to set more radical national agendas after Gandhi and Nehru. Both the Left and the Right in the political spectrum have shown severe limitations at the national stage.
I think circumstances create the room and space for leaders. Of course they must have instinct and understanding of the available opportunity too.
What Nehru tried to do was gigantic – he engaged in establishing modern industry in this country, as well as creating public investment that would seed the growth of private enterprise. He also created a social agenda for the Indian state, which included legislation that would protect the interests of workers in the early phase of industrialisation. In comparison, perhaps no such great challenge has been identified as a political project by subsequent leaderships. This is particularly true for the right-wing and left-wing political parties. As a practising Marxist, I would also say that the opportunity for the Left has also been stymied by the agrarian reform in various parts of the country as well as the creation of employment opportunities; no matter what the limitations of these processes have been.
How do you assess the Naxalite agenda in this regard?
We have to acknowledge the absolute deprivation that exists in the regions that are home to the Naxal movement, but their strategy and methods are altogether something else. The Naxalites espouse allegiance to Mao Zedong, but the Chinese communist movement never preached revolution through murder. In that country, the challenge for the communists was to replace archaic rule of warlords and landlords by some form of modern civilized government. However, the Naxalites are simply fighting the Indian state and saying that it would not be allowed to conduct any development.
So, in actual practice, they are not fighting any class. Indeed, Mao himself had warned against a policy of indiscriminate killing by once stating that a separated head cannot be stitched back. Clearly, the Naxalites are devoid of any such self restraint today.
How do you look upon the emergence of civil society initiatives in recent years?
Civil society is an omnibus term that means various things to various people, but principally referring to the conduct of public affairs outside the state. Yet most of these people draw upon the state in various ways. For example, the NGO sector is very substantially supported by state funds, either within this country, or from overseas in a big way. So how can it be regarded as a non state player? A person like me is retired and totally dependent on the state’s pension. There is no way I can see myself as existing outside the state.
But are current civil society initiatives in any way similar to the manner in which middle-class nationalist leadership emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries?
The nationalist leadership was engaged in an explicitly political project. They were opposing British rule and seeking to replace it with their own government. It does not matter whether this was couched as a demand for ‘Home Rule’ or for ‘Self -rule’ or for ‘Swaraj’. Each was a crystallisation of the same political aspiration. Civil society does not show such political purpose. On the other hand, it does crystallise the desire that citizens have for stability and for a sense of security. At one level this is a legitimate longing of key sections of society, while at another it also reveals the political limitations of its genre.
But do civil society movements have the potential to lead national level mobilisation for diverse sections of the population in this country?
Look, the so called civil society mobilisation are largely horizontal in nature; in the sense that these are restricted to similar sets of people. Political mobilisation is vertical in the sense that it has to bring together dissimilar sets of people, as was so brilliantly showcased by the national movement. Moreover, any national level mobilisation has to deal with the question of the state, and has to be explicitly political in nature. In a democracy that can be achieved only by political parties, whatever their nomenclature.
Overall, how inclusive, or ‘exclusivist’ is the idea of the nation-state, and the practice of the constitution, as it has evolved over the 60 years of the Indian Republic?
That is clearly the question of all questions today. Clearly, the Indian state has sought to be reasonably inclusive for much of this time, even though it has had moments of severe stress and even points of rupture. However, it is also undergoing fundamental changes in some of its key opening strategies.
The socialist premises have clearly given way to those which favour a larger role for private capital, the framework for protecting the working classes and labour is being weakened, and new economic models are being adopted. There is a rationale for all of this provided that we maintain the inclusive ethic. It is very reasonable to assume that if this ethic weakens, the points of tension and stress will deepen, and even proliferate whenever there is crisis in the new economy.
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