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January 5, 2001
The Rediff Interview/ Professor Irfan Habib
The saffronisation of Indian history has been a controversial subject ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party assumed power at the Centre. This has angered many leading historians in the country.
The apprehension of historians like Professor
In Calcutta to attend the 61st session of the Indian History Congress, Professor Habib, a former head of the Indian Council of Historical Research, spoke to
The apprehension of historians like ProfessorIrfan Habib arises from the fact that this process will result in a distorted interpretation of Indian history.
In Calcutta to attend the 61st session of the Indian History Congress, Professor Habib, a former head of the Indian Council of Historical Research, spoke toRifat Jawaid about the revival of the Babri Masjid controversy and other issues pertaining to Indian history.
The 61st session of the Indian History Congress is being held at a time when the Babri Masjid issue is once again being debated. What does the IHC make about the revival of the Ayodhya controversy?
It's not historical evidence that is being talked about today. The position of the Indian History Congress in the past was that irrespective of the origin of the Babri Masjid, the structure should not have been demolished. Whether those who said there was a Ram temple underneath and those who said there wasn't -- the point is that once a structure is established and it becomes an ancient monument, it can't be disturbed. These two controversies must be absolutely delinked.
Therefore, in the Warangal Resolution of March 1993, the History Congress specifically criticised the Government of India for referring the matter to the Supreme Court. We have maintained all along that the structure that upholds must be preserved as it is.
The only thing which has revived the controversy is Vajpayee's assertion that the destruction of the Babri Masjid was a kind of a national movement. So obviously, historians are perturbed with the prime minister's interpretation of what was an act of vandalism.
An ICHR offical recently stated that there was no Babri Mosque at the disputed site in Ayodhya. How do you react to his statement?
Sushil Kumar, the person whom you are referring to, is merely a director of the Indian Council of Historical Research. He is not a historian. By making such statements, he probably feels he could please his masters.
Do you think people without a background in history should be allowed to hold key positions in an organisation like the ICHR?
Ask this question to the present regime.
How do you compare the National Democratic Alliance government with its predecessors?
Other regimes were not interested in a particular ideological myth. The present regime wants to impose a specific mindset or ideology which is not an ideology of science. This is how I find the present government different from the regimes we had in the past.
As a historian, how disturbed are you by the reported attempts of the saffronisation of Indian history? There are reports that saffronisation is taking place in text books, educational institutions such as the ICHR, the Indian Council of Social Sciences Research and the National Council for Education, Research and Training.
You are asking me two different questions. First, we must understand what value education the HRD ministry in the BJP government is talking about. To me, value education is another name for religious instructions as it is clear from the curriculum and filling up of posts in the NCERT with those practicing the ideology of the Sangh Parivar. But that is declared illegal by the Indian Constitution. By our Constitution, no State-supported institutions can impart religious instructions on a compulsory basis. It is unconstitutional.
The BJP government is visibly concerned because religious instructions mean, to that extent, a scientific approach is automatically curtailed. Be it Islam or any other religion, the very nature of religion is that you accept it. No archaeologist worth his name can say that Ibrahim founded the Kaaba, yet Muslims believe this. So clearly, religion must be separated.
Secondly, history deals with religious beliefs that the Kaaba was founded by Ibrahim. Therefore, I believe religion does not prove its beliefs by history and history does not accept the fact of the religion unless of this kind. If these two issues are mixed in Indian education, it will mark the demise of scientific and rationale education in the country.
How difficult is it for independent researchers to carry on with their work under the BJP government? Not so long ago, two historians -- Sumit Sarkar and K N Panikkar -- had alleged that two of their volumes on the freedom movement were withdrawn because they refused to toe the Sangh Parivar line.
So long as India continues to uphold the dignity of democracy and civil rights, there is no reason why historians should feel intimidated. As for the withdrawal of the two volumes edited by two eminent historians, I feel it is a matter for the ICHR. The Indian History Congress has that matter on its agenda and we will get a resolution on it during our three-day conclave. The general body of our Congress will debate this issue extensively.
The BJP government is being singled out for recruiting scholars who toe their line. But the Left Front government in Bengal has often been accused of appointing people with a Marxist background to sensitive positions. As a Marxist, how can you justify this?
Even I have come across such reports in a section of media. As for Bengal, all the appointees here were never been short of basic prerequisites. They have always fulfilled the academic standards. The only difference between the BJP government and the non-BJP ruled states including Bengal is that the latter did not regard Marxist views as totally unacceptable.
History is based on fact. Yet one often sees historians divided on any given issue. Many people say personal prejudice and political lineage influence researchers.
Every individual sees a particular set of historical facts differently. It may be because of his experience, affiliation and political allegiance. However, there is very little doubt that they are all historians. On the other hand, the kind of things the Sangh Parivar is busy doing today? It is not adhering to any historical facts.
A true historian can never say anything outside the framework of historical facts. The only satisfying revelation is that those who believe in distorting history are very few in number. There are many who owe political allegiance, but they do not necessarily follow them while researching certain subjects.
Coming back to the Babri Masjid controversy, what is your personal reading? Was there really a Ram temple on which Babar constructed a mosque?
I have no different opinion than what some eminent historians have already said on this issue. Actually, this historical evidence was collected and a detailed report issued by four historians of repute in the past. They observed that when the Babri Masjid was being constructed, there was no memory of a Hindu temple in Avadh, which was then a medieval town.
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