Posted by Shaheryar Ali
History and interpretation – Communalism and problems of historiography in India
by Irfan Habib*
IF one looks back at 1947 to find out in what ways it brought about changes in the approach to the medieval (that is, the post-ancient, pre-British, and, in much of earlier discourse, the ‘Muslim’) period of India’s history, a few major shifts of emphasis could, perhaps, be immediately identified.
First of all, Partition meant that the two communalist camps, Hindu and Muslim, found two different ‘national’ homes. Until 1947 there had been a running debate between the advocates of the two communities. But with 1947, the Muslim side in the communal historical debate shifted entirely to Pakistan, where in its seemingly final version, the history of ‘Muslims in India’ was now projected as a struggle for a separate nation right from A.D. 712, when Muhammad ibn Qasim entered Sind at the head of an Arab army. This was the reading of history pursued with much energy by the late Ishtiaq Husain Quraishi, and as recently as January this year the publication has been announced of a two-volume Road to Pakistan, its Vol.I comprising a 653-page account of “the period from A.D. 712 to 1858”, written by “eminent historians and scholars of Pakistan” and edited by Hakim Mohammad Said of Hamdard (Karachi).
In India, the contrary interpretation found its high priest in the well-known historian R. C. Majumdar. To him the entire period from c. 1200 onwards was one of foreign rule; Muslims were alien to Indian (Hindu) culture; the Hindus, oppressed and humiliated, wished nothing better than to slaughter “the Mlechhas” (Muslims); the British regime was a successor more civilised than “Muslim rule”; yet real opposition to the British came from Hindus, not Muslims, even in 1857; and, finally, the national movement’s course was throughout distorted by concessions made to Muslims by Gandhiji, who was so much personally to blame for Partition. This view runs like a red thread in the volumes of History and Culture of the Indian People (first volume issued 1951), published by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan with financial assistance from the Government of India, and edited by R. C. Majumdar, whose great industry must extract admiration from his worst critics. (An early critic was D. D. Kosambi, who wrote that if Islam was so alien to India as the original patron of the series, K. M. Munshi, and its editor R. C. Majumdar thought, then they should have worried about their own “good Muslim professional names”!). Majumdar went on to author texts on the Rebellion of 1857 and the freedom movement in which the same stance was firmly maintained. Though after Majumdar’s death (1980), there has not appeared on the scene a historian of similar calibre in the Hindutva (or even the ‘soft Hindutva’) camp, the often unproven hypotheses and inferences that he bequeathed have all become firm truths for a very large number of educated people in India. Continue reading