Prof Irfan Habib on The Distortion of History

Interviewed by Teesta Setalvad

Teesta Setalvad: You famously and most recently said that the mythologizing of history seems to be a great preoccupation of the present dispensation. What exactly does the mythologizing of history entail?

Irfan Habib: Well, actually there are two aspects to this. One is the aspect that developed in the early 20th century. That is, to claim for ancient India or in their words, Hindu civilization achievements that are unique that should place that civilization above every other culture. This took early forms like claiming great antiquity for the Sanskrit language and particularly for the Vedas, and to claim all kinds of scientific achievements for a very early period, achievements that are not recorded or only occur in the epics and so forth. So they are heirs to that tradition and because of their Hindutva doctrine which goes back, of course, to their foundation, the foundation of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in the 1920s, they have espoused that. And then, the anti-Muslim tradition, that also has early beginnings and of course that had Muslim counterparts also. So they have picked up all of those prejudices and prejudiced interpretations of medieval and ancient Indian history. 

For instance the Hindu Mahasabha slogan that “we have being in under foreign rules and 1000 AD” has been picked up by them. As if all Muslim rulers were foreigners and sent money abroad, wealth abroad. That’s one aspect of mytholigising (of history). The second (aspect) is, to which adequate attention has not been paid, I think, is their distortion of the history of the national movement. Although they were themselves founded 22 years before Independence, they did nothing against the English. So when their leaders say that the patriotism of the RSS cannot be questioned –I am quoting their recent statements -- one wonders where that patriotism was from 1925 to 1947? They took no part in the national movement. They have no heroes; their leaders never went to jail excepted Hegdewar by mistake when he was arrested for a few days. I think during the civil disobedience movement. But otherwise nothing happened. Golwalkar has hardly any harsh word for the British Government compared to his harsh words against Muslims.

So their problem is that they can only revile the leaders of the national movement and now what they are doing is to pick up certain people who did not in their view can be espoused that their heroes. Their main heroes today, it seems, are Bhagat Singh, Subhash Chandra Bose and Patel. None of the three had anything to do with the RSS or Hindu Mahasabha. Obviously they can’t find any other heroes. The only thing they could say about these three people was that that two worked critical of Gandhiji, Shahid Bhagat Singh and Subhash Chandra Bose and Sardar Patel was critical of Jawaharlal Nehru’s views. They had controversies, for instances reflected in some of Nehru’s writings (Tomorrow in India) against Patel. They don’t realize, of course and many people don’t realise this, that in the national movement it was quiet common to have these differences without impairing the unity against the British. In that unity, the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha had no place. So now they building up a mythology in which the so-called ‘Hindu nationalism’ --actually that’s a misnomer --because they were never nationalist. They were communalists. So in which the Hindu communalism is trying to be portrayed as the mainstream of the national movement. Muslims are being excluded from it -- you will find no Muslim name among the leaders of the national movement-- in the textbooks which the first NDA government produced and I think the same thing would happen now.

January 4, 2016