‘The word Hindu is Arabic. Why don’t they throw it out?’ – Nehal Ahmed in conversation with the eminent Historian, Irfan Habib.
Prominent historian Irfan Habib tells Nehal Ahmed that lies and falsehoods are being glorified in textbooks by India’s right-wing government.
India’s Hindu nationalist government has removed chapters on centuries of Muslim rule in the subcontinent, including those of the Mughals, from some school textbooks.
The government, led by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has also removed references to the contribution of Muslims in the country’s freedom struggle against the British colonial rulers.
In the textbooks revised by a government-run educational body, ancient India has been glorified, often without the support of historical facts.
Historians say the revision of school textbooks is a part of the BJP’s Islamophobic project to deny Muslims their place in India’s history.
Nehal Ahmed spoke to historian Irfan Habib, a globally renowned authority on Mughal history, to understand the BJP’s project of rewriting history and its impact on knowledge dissemination in the South Asian country – home to 200 million Muslims.
Nehal Ahmed: Why is the BJP removing Mughal and other Muslim rulers from school textbooks?
Irfan Habib: Well, it’s not only [about] removing the Mughal rulers. They are actually trying to communalise Indian history by either removing or denigrating Muslims. But this is only one part of the BJP project, the other part is not only omission but myth-building.
Nehal Ahmed: Can you talk about the recent changes in school textbooks in India?
Habib: In the ancient Indian history syllabus recommended by the UGC [University Grants Commission, the body that governs the universities in India], the caste system is omitted from history. It claims Muslims introduced the caste system during the medieval period.
Every virtue is to be credited to ancient Indian civilisation. According to the new draft BA [Bachelor of Arts] history syllabus proposed by the UGC, India is supposed to be the original home of the Aryans. It declares that Aryans went from here to civilise the world.
Historians must prove by establishing facts, they can’t manufacture facts. You can’t create an Aryan race. And this is an insult to Sanskrit, because actually in earlier Sanskrit texts, Arya is an area in Iran. Iran is the plural of Arya. Actually, Iran means [the land of] Aryans.
Now you make Aryans into a race, like Hitler did. Ancient Iranian and Rig Vedic Sanskrit are very close, they are sister languages. Arya means a very respectable and noble person, it doesn’t mean the race. From there onwards, you see it’s not only anti-Muslim but also anti-reasons.
Nehal Ahmed: Can you talk about the Indian knowledge system and how it is being now framed by the Hindu far right?
Habib: I recognise that historical sources are such that they can have a Hindu communal interpretation, Muslim communal interpretation, and you can have a Marxist interpretation.
When the Organiser [magazine published by far-right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological mentor] published an article saying that Maan Singh built the Taj Mahal, historian Ramesh Chandra Majumdar wrote to them, saying “I won’t read your paper now and you are not entitled to publish any of my articles”. Majumdar came from the Hindu communal school of historians, but nevertheless, he was a professional and did not accept any unproven fact, whether for ancient or medieval India.
Nehal Ahmed: The Hindu right has always considered the Mughals as outsiders. Now they are also attacking and othering Muslim leaders such as freedom fighter Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and 18th-century ruler Tipu Sultan.
Habib: The exclusion of Azad is anti-Muslim. They don’t want to show that any Muslim was involved in India’s freedom movement.
In the case of Tipu Sultan, it is a total reversal of the national issue. Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru [India’s first prime minister] and others always had very good words for Tipu. The suppression of the Malabar rebellion by Tipu cannot be justified. But that could be said of almost any ruler of that time. But what he did for Mysore and modernisation of its economy, and his battle against the British colonialists cannot be set aside. I should point out that the Indian History Congress in 1999 published three volumes on Tipu. So, Indian historians are not in agreement with the BJP.
Nehal Ahmed: Names of cities and roads with Muslim names are being erased. How will it impact public memory about Muslims and their historical heritage?
Habib: They want to destroy public memory. Aurangabad’s original name was Khirki and it was again founded by Muslim Malik Ambar, an African. So Malik Ambar is an outsider because he is an African and he is also a Muslim, hence he can’t be named. You can’t call it Ambarnagar which you should if you are interested in history or you should call it Khirki. But Sambhajinagar [Aurangabad’s new name] makes no sense because Sambhaji never went to Aurangabad.
Taj Mahal is a dollar earner. But they silently promote the popular perception that the Taj Mahal was originally a Shaivite temple. The English [colonial rulers] in order to protect the Taj from lightning put up a conductor. Now the BJP and its supporters call the conductor a Trishul [trident, a holy Hindu symbol]. It is this kind of popular misperception that they are making.
Nehal Ahmed: Why does the BJP want to rewrite history? The project has two aspects: the demonisation of the Mughals and the glorification of the Hindu past. Can you elaborate on that?
Habib: Their aim is to demonise Muslims, including the Mughals. You see, they have a number of problems. Let me spell them out for you. The word Hindu is Arabic. Why don’t they first throw it out? Religion itself is a Semitic concept brought to India, now they [BJP] are trying to shape Hinduism according to it.
In fact, there is no use of the word Hindu in Sanskrit literature until the 14-15th century. And even the Vijayanagar emperors called themselves Hindu Rai Sumatran, that is Sultan over Hindu Rai. This is very interesting how the words developed. But here you can see that you are applying to Indian religious history concepts that have come from Islam.
They are applying fantasies like India being the mother of democracy. No historian has admitted that India was the mother of democracy. Rig Veda talks about Rajas, which means tribal chief. Yes, you find mention of democracy in ancient Greece and Rome but never find it in India, you never find it in China, and you don’t find it in Iran. I say show me a serious historian of ancient India who has said so.
The Sanskrit name for that period is Mahajanpada, which doesn’t mean democratic republic. It means tribes. No serious historian that I have read – communal or otherwise – ever claimed there was democracy in ancient India. Removing the caste system from ancient India is totally denying history.
Nehal Ahmed: The BJP says historical wrongs are being set right. What was wrong in the textbooks? Critics say myths are being pushed as history. As a historian, what do you say to that?
Habib: You see, I can give one example of the Ahoms of Assam. Now if you look at the speeches on Ahoms by [India’s] Home Minister Amit Shah and Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, they present the Ahom as the greatest nationalist and the Mughals as foreigners. But they forget that the Ahom language is the Thai language, that their descendants have started calling themselves Thai Ahoms. Today they are both Hindus and Muslims. They were obviously Thai, they were not Hindu.
So you are revising not only history but also creating myths. And if they say they drove out the Mughals, they forget that in 1679, Guwahati ultimately fell to the Mughals. Just to celebrate Ahom who was as foreign as the Mughals, or as Indian as the Mughals, because they both came from foreign lands. How much would you lose if the Mughals are driven out of Indian history? Taj Mahal, Red Fort, and the earliest statistical work in the world – Ain-i-Akbari – will be out.
Nehal Ahmed: What will be the impact on India’s education system and society as the state monopolises knowledge production with a clear anti-minority bias?
Habib: It is not simply biased, but lies and falsehoods are being glorified. This Aryan business is just like the Nazis. What if you are an Aryan? How do you get bigger and nobler if you are an Aryan? Claiming Indus Valley Civilisation as Sanskrit and calling it Saraswati is absurd. The Taj Mahal is an asset, but you are driving it out of your history.
Nehal Ahmed: Do you think the BJP is mirroring the 1930s Nazi Germany in terms of propaganda and revision of history?
Habib: Well, actually MS Golwalkar [RSS leader] praised the Nazis. Certainly, the RSS founders were greatly influenced. In the 1970s, Golwalkar praised Hitler’s treatment of the Jews whatever they might now say about Israel.
Nehal Ahmed: The Hindu right-wing says there was a mass conversion of Hindus under the Mughals and other Muslim rulers. Muslim rulers are also accused of destroying temples. They call it a dark period of history. How do you respond to that?
Habib: This is actually quite absurd. You see when Hajjaj ibn Yusuf sent Mohammed Bin Qasim to Sindh [in the eighth century], he asked him to treat the Hindus as they were treating the Christians and the Parsis, that is to say: be tolerant. Mohammed Bin Qasim did not destroy any temple. In fact, the Multan temple was destroyed by the heretics. So they present a totally wrong picture.
Now I can perhaps say that Hajjaj’s policy was not driven by any great religious spirit of tolerance but simply by practical sense. If you invade a country, you don’t antagonise all of its people. Multani merchants were greatly promoted by Muslim rulers and of course, Mughals had very large components of Hindu officials. An ordinary Muslim had little chance to go up the ladder.
The first finance minister of Aurangzeb was a Hindu, his greatest officer was Maharaja Jai Singh of Amber [later Jaipur] who was appointed viceroy of the Deccan. Of course, the Mughals were not democrats, but neither they were out to convert people by force.
The best thing is that if you read European accounts of India during Aurangzeb’s time, they say that every religion was permitted – you can go to a temple, you can go to a mosque, you can go to a church. There was no parallel in Europe like this or in the Islamic world.
If you refer to Persian sources, then the picture is very different, although I would argue that the English translation, which is also available, is often misleading. One can’t deny the fact that temples were destroyed. Nobody defends Aurangzeb’s discriminating measures but at the same time, it will be wrong if you do not compare India’s position with other countries where religious tolerance was not there. If you compare it with the other countries [in the 18th century], Aurangzeb’s India looked tolerant.
Nehal Ahmed is a doctoral student at the Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. His research interests include Indian and world cinema as well as migration studies. Nothing Will Be Forgotten marks his debut as an author.
This interview was originally published in Al Jazeera on 10 May 2023.
Cover image: Indian historian Irfan Habib is a globally renowned authority on the Mughals [Anupam Tiwari/Al Jazeera]