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Prof. Mohammad Habib: An Indomitable Historian (Prof Irfan Habib)

Mohammad Habib was born in 1895, the second son of Md. Naseem, a leading advocate of Lucknow, who had earned enough from his practice to restore the family’s fortunes as taluqdars (land-owners). He wished his sons to have an English education, and was himself sufficiently liberal to be one of the prominent hosts of the famous Congress session at Lucknow in 1916. After completing his studies at M.A.O. College, Aligarh (precursor to the Aligarh Muslim University), Mohammad Habib went to Oxford in 1916, where he read for Honours in History, a degree he obtained in 1919.

As President of the Oxford Majlis (the Indian Students’ Organisation), he invited Mrs Sarojini Naidu and the Irish poet Yeats to address the Majlis: and his nationalist sympathies made him abandon the ICS examination, which then used to be held in London. His impressions of Maulana Mohammad Ali, who paid a visit to England to plead Turkey’s cause, were, however, not favourable. After his Honours at Oxford, Mohammad Habib worked under the famous Professor Margoliouth of Cambridge, to prepare a fresh translation of the famous history of Firishta for the D.Phil degree, but before the work could be completed, he responded to the call for Non-cooperation and returned to India in 1920.

With the withdrawal of the Non-Cooperation Movement, Habib felt free to apply for employment at the newly founded Aligarh Muslim University, where he was appointed Reader in 1922 and soon afterwards Professor. It says much for the University authorities’ attitude in such matters in those days that they did not let the fact that the person appointed was an “uncompromising Non-cooperator” (in the words of a hostile Treasurer) influence their judgement. Mohammad Habib’s own loyalty to the National Movement and the Congress was intense. He successfully contested as the unofficial Swaraj Party candidate in the UP Legislative Council elections in 1926. In 1927 he courted and married Sohaila Tyabji, the daughter of Abbas Tyabji, one of Gandhiji’s close associates. He also accompanied Dr M.A. Ansari, the Congress President elect to the Madras session in 1927, and helped draft his address. It was, however, Gandhiji to whom he gave his full allegiance. Gandhiji must have felt it too, for after a meeting with my father at Aligarh in 1929, the Mahatma noted that “by his humility and yet dignified bearing he captured me entirely” (letter of 7 November 1929).

These personal details are relevant to an understanding of the depth of Mohammad Habib’s belief in the composite nature of India’s civilization and his impatience with those who tried to undermine Hindu-Muslim unity. His Mahmud of Ghazni (pub. 1927) was “composed and re-composed”, as he said in a later Preface, when the Lucknow riots of 1924 were “torturing my Eastern soul.” The book was important both as a critical historical study of Mahmud, and as an important early salvo in the nationalist historiography of medieval India. He summed up his major conclusion in this one sentence: To later generations Mahmud became the arch fanatic he never was, and in that `incarnation’ he is worshipped by such Mussalmans as have cast off the teachings of Lord Krishna in their devotion to minor gods.

Another important element of Habib’s attitude was a deep sense of sympathy for the poor and the oppressed. He often told me of the stories he had heard from villagers of his father’s estate about the oppressions of the taluqdars, past and present. Along with Mahmud of Ghazni, in which he writes feelingly of how Mahmud plundered, killed and collected captives, he wrote Desecrated Bones, a set of three stories, published in 1925. The first of these, a medieval tale, revolved round the secret murder of an old peasant, Karam Narain, by the local landlord Malik Hizabruddin.

The Desecrated Bones foreshadow Habib’s growing interest in sufism as a possible medieval response to injustice. He was also interested in bringing out cultural and social aspects of medieval history, which were so far untouched in conventional historiography. In 1929 he published Hazrat Amir Khusrau of Delhi, a biography of the famous Indo-Persian poet (d.1325), which also contained a sensitive sketch of the Chishti saint Nizamuddin Auliya. What particularly attracted Mohammad Habib was the latter’s refusal to pay court to the Sultans and their nobles.

The ’Thirties began with Civil Obedience, the strongest challenge yet that the National Movement threw to Britain. Habib had opted for academic life, but his sympathies remained firm. He opened a special account with the Indian-owned Central Bank of India, from which he continuously donated large amounts to the Congress. At the height of the Civil Disobedience Movement he wrote a piece on ‘Medieval History and Modern Politics’, taking issue with Elliot’s preface of 1844 in which he had dismissed Indian critics of British rule as ‘bambastic baboos’ and had spoken of the ‘high destiny’ of the British as rulers of India. Unmindful that the article was appearing in the University’s official Aligarh Magazine (early 1931) Habib commented:

The world is constantly changing; nothing lasts. The ‘bombastic baboos’ will have their swaraj. ‘Our high destiny as rulers of India’! What a vanishing dream!

In 1932 after a visit to Iran he published a long article on the Administrative System of Modern Persia in the Muslim University Journal. He had gone to Iran, he used to say, to show how an independent Asian country could govern itself better than a colonised one. He concealed his disappointment at the reality as he found it behind a detailed description of the institutions as they were supposed to function, and some high words of praise for Reza Shah at the end.

In History his interests were now developing in two directions: studies of early medieval rulers (which included a translation of Amir Khusrau’s history of Alauddin Khalji’s conquests, the Khazainu’l Futuh, published in 1931) and the history of early medieval sufism (on which he gave lectures at Vishwa Bharati, Santiniketan, at Tagore’s invitation in 1935). He came increasingly to the conclusion that though ethically significant the sufis could not really be seen as either missionaries or social reformers. Yet he spent much time in sifting the chaff from the grain in sufic sources.

The ’Forties saw the growing strength of the Muslim League with its slogan of Pakistan. It is now surprising to recall how calm and unaffected my father remained, when confronted by the constant shift of friend after friend into the League camp. His own loyalties to the Congress stood where they were, though his antipathy to Hitler and sympathy with the Soviet Union inclined him to support a moderate approach to the Allied War Effort. I remember a sudden visit by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to our house one late afternoon in 1942, seeking lunch that local Congressmen had forgotten to arrange for him: Nehru firmly chided him for doubting the wisdom of the Congress rejection of the Cripps proposals. Mohammad Habib organised with such Congressmen, as remained out of prison and local Communists, a Citizens Relief Committee to distribute cheap grain in 1943. In the 1946 elections, which had separate Muslim electoral booths, he voted openly as an ‘illiterate’ voter so that everyone should know he had voted for the Congress!

In all these years he, and, under his influence, even such historians at Aligarh as had League sympathies, wrote in the mainstream nationalist tradition. In December 1943 he organised a session of the Indian History Congress at Aligarh (the local League was civilized enough to ban Pakistan slogans for the period!), and planned a series of publications to project a composite (‘Crescent-Lotus’) perception of Indian history. He himself thought it very important as a historian to understand what India was like previous to the Ghorian invasions. In 1941 he published a monograph on Indian Culture and Social Life at the time of the Turkish Invasions, which contained the germs of many ideas on which he was to draw later. The Partition found him as resolute in his position as before. Presiding over the Indian History Congress session at Bombay in December 1947, he presented an address which bears reading today. Beginning with a tribute to Gandhiji, he went on to commend the Congress High Command in that it “has retained its sanity and balance and has adhered, in spite of increasing difficulties, to its conception of a democratic and secular state.” He looked forward to “one national community”, where religion would only be a private affair. He also warned that “a state-dominated interpretation of history is one of the most effective means of sabotaging democracy.” Finally, came his favourite plea: greater attention from the historians to the lot of the Indian poor, the peasant and the worker — “the struggles of his life, his joys, his sufferings and his hopes.”

Within scarcely a month of his reading this Address, Gandhiji was assassinated. I never saw him more affected by any other event. He had a sleepless night, and he burnt the correspondence that he had had with Gandhiji over a personal matter in the family. If there was one man in whose admiration he would never let one qualification enter, it was “Mahatmaji” — I never heard him refer to him except under this designation.

By this time, he had become deeply interested in Marxism. He had, of course, read Laski and other socialist thinkers; and he had been always an admirer of the Soviet Revolution; but it was when the colonial ban on Marxist literature was lifted in 1943 that he read avidly all the Marxist classics that he could lay his hands on, underlining them heavily as was his wont.

The new influence, reinforced by a visit to China in 1951, which made a deep impression on him, is visible in his long introduction to a reprint from Aligarh of Vol.II of Elliot and Dowson’s History of India as told by its own Historians, published in 1952. Habib was not impressed by the conventional Marxist attachment to slavery and feudalism as successive modes of production. His own knowledge of European History made him disinclined to apply the category of feudalism to medieval India. But he accepted the centrality of classes, class-contradictions and social revolution in history. His reading of the Marxist archaeologist Gordon Childe drew him to the concept of ‘urban revolution’, which had originally been propounded by Childe for the Bronze Age.

Reading the Introduction one is now struck by the thought that it would, perhaps, have been better for Professor Habib not to apply the language suitable for modern revolutions to the Ghorian conquests, as when he says that “the so-called Ghorian conquest of [North] India was really a revolution of Indian city-labour led by the Ghorian Turks.” It is worth noting, however, that he does modify the import of the sentence by the statement that “to an extent, though only to an extent, in the pursuit of their personal careers, the selfishness of which no one would deny, they [the Ghorian Turks] were also, consciously or subconsciously, subserving the common good.” There is also the description of these potentates that I cherish: They drank profusely; they prayed and fasted with punctiliousness; they patronised mullahs and dancing-girls with the same indifferent generosity, the latter for this world, and the former for the next….

Marxism did not substantially alter my father’s faith in an undefined monotheism. He never had had any belief in afterlife, and was heavily critical of the inequitous elements in various religious systems, including Islam. He also held that all scriptures could be subjected to rational historical criticism. On the other hand, he was deeply attracted to the New Testament, to the innate monotheism of the Bhagavad Gita, and to the achievements of Prophet Muhammad as a ‘revolutionist.’

The two decades that followed were for Habib years of increasing detachment from the political establishment of Free India, despite his previous loyalties. He did go to Paris twice, first as an alternate delegate to the UN General Assembly at Paris in 1948 and then to a UNESCO meeting at Paris in 1949; but these were not followed by any further official assignments. He never wavered in his admiration for Pandit Nehru and his independent foreign policy; but he was unhappy over the rift with China. He stood as a united Opposition candidate for Vice-President in 1969, when his friend Pundit Sundarlal and the Communist leader EMS Namboodiripad asked him to do so. He stated to the press that he was standing for the election only because he knew he was not going to be elected!

His time all these years, especially after his final retirement from the University in 1958, was spent mainly in academic work. His major object of study was now the Delhi Sultanate, and especially its notable historian and theorist Ziya Barani. He collaborated with Mrs Afsar Khan in a translation of selections from Barani’s massive, unpublished work on statecraft, the Fatawa-i Jahandari. He wrote an insightful introduction, published in 1958 in a journal and then in the form of a book, Political Theory of the Delhi Sultanate. His criticisms of Barani’s ideas are quite severe, for he saw in him a parochial and traditional thinker, who had no sympathy with change. And yet Barani, as the major historian of the Sultanate, with concerns for matters of economic and social history, became so much a centre of attention for Mohammad Habib that he decided to translate the whole of Barani’s Tarikh-i Firozshahi.

This work proceeded along with the editing of The Delhi Sultanate, constituting Vol.5 of the Comprehensive History of India, sponsored by the Indian History Congress, and with Professor K.A. Nizami as the co-editor. Professor Habib contributed the main interpretative chapters and extensively rewrote some of the contributions. The bulky volume was published in 1970 and has gone through several re-printings.

Till practically the day he died, Professor Habib went on working. He had just completed the translation of Barani’s Tarikh and drawn up an extensive list of the terms, places and persons on which he wished to write notes. It has been my ambition, which I have not been able to fulfil, to accomplish the unfinished task.

*Irfan Habib is Professor Emeritus at Centre of Advanced Studies, Department of History, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh. He is Padma Bhushan awardee. Article is taken from official website of Centre of Advanced Studies, Department of History, AMU.
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