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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 1 New Delhi December 22, 2018 [Annual Number]

Tribute to Mushirul Hasan

Sunday 23 December 2018


Prof Mushirul Hasan is no more. The renowned historian—whose comprehension, according to fellow-historians, of Islam, Muslims and the Partition of India was indeed matchless—breathed his last in his sleep in the Capital on Monday, December 10, 2018, four years after he suffered serious injuries on account of a major car accident in November 2014 that severely impaired his functioning and activities. This accident happened soon after his latest book, When Stone Walls Cry: The Nehrus in Prison, came out. 

He was first the Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the Jamia Millia Islamia (1992-96) and then its VC (2004-09). 

He leaves behind his historian-academic wife and companion Zoya Hasan who taught History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University for several years. 

As former Vice-President Hamid Ansari (who was also the erstwhile VC of the Aligarh Muslim University, Mushir’s alma mater), recalled, “He was a historian of eminence with deep insight into processes that contributed to the making of the modern Indian progressive mind.... Though ahead of his contemporaries .... he was at times misunderstood. He was a modern and secular Indian and for these very reasons frowned upon by lesser minds.”

And Maulana Azad National Urdu University Chancellor Firoz Bakht Ahmed (grandnephew of Bharat Ratna Maulana Azad), while offering his homage to Mushir, observed: “Mushir might not live before us in flesh and blood but the tremendous legacy of historicity he has left for posterity will stamp him as an immortal in the genre of writing books loaded not only with knowledge but, most importantly, values and vision.” 

He also served as the Director General of the National Archives of India and President of the Indian History Congress. 

Essentially a Nehruvian secularist of high academic calibre endowed with a socialist vision, he boldly projected the Nehruvian approach whenever he was asked to speak. At the function to release K. Natwar Singh’s book in the recent past he unambiguously paid rich tributes to Jawaharlal Nehru making it clear that he was anyway to speak out his mind regardless of whether it was palatable to the persons (BJP leaders) sitting on the front rows. Earlier, while delivering the Fourth D.S. Borker Memorial Lecture in the Capital on August 24, 2002 he unequivocally declared: “My vision is the same as that of Nehru, even though the old certitudes of Indian politics have crumbled. Fifty years later, Nehru’s idea of India and his conception of tolerant, inclusive, and common Indianness have given way to exclusivist ideas of India and its political community. From the 1990s, in particular, the definition of Indianness has been assailed by the Hindu Right-wing. ‘Keep your windows and doors of your mind always open,’ Nehru had told a group of students in 1950, ‘let all winds from the four corners of the earth blow in to refresh your mind, to give you ideas, to strengthen you.’ Today, this vision appears all the more relevant since India’s plural and multicultural self-definition is being vigorously questioned. Citizenship and equality is being defined not by universalist but majoritarian criteria.”

While remembering Mushir today, we are reproducing some excerpts from that lecture the full text of which was published in the Mainstream Annual 2002 dated December 21, 2002.

My Vision of India: 2047 AD

My own researches have been influenced by the secular and composite values that have been at the heart of the great Indian project of nation-building. I had written in 1997: “It would be intellectually satisfying if, in some ways, this book is regarded as a personal manifesto, a statement through the history of partition and its aftermath, of the values which India’s Muslims should cherish, of the nationalist priorities they should promote.”

My conclusions were, then, based on the delineation of secular ideologies, the cross-communal networks and the social and cultural values shared by urban India’s Urdu-speaking elites. I had therefore argued that the secular ground, after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, had narrowed but not disappeared, and that religious minorities should occupy that territory along with other democratic and secular forces. (Legacy of a Divided Nation: India’sMuslims Since Independence) In the words of Vandana Shiva, who had delivered the Borker Memorial Lecture this day last year, my vision was of an India where all peoples and all cultures are connected in a vibrant, rich and diverse web of life and united in circles of compassion, justice and humanity. Indeed, it was anchored in the belief that India’s survival four decades from now or thereafter will eventually rest on plurality and not uniformity, on secularism not majoritarianism, on heterodoxy and not orthodoxy.

A society in transition—and a large country like India will always remain in a transitory stage—is always pregnant with new possibilities. And yet history and contemporary politics, though mired in various controversies, rekindles the hope that the vast subcontinent will retain its multicultural character.

Legacy of a Divided Nation, I repeat, was a personal manifesto of an individual born in free India, brought up in a liberal household where one read Mirza Ghalib rather than religious scriptures, heard Faiz, Majrooh and Firaq and received lessons in history from the best Marxist historians. Personally, I did not require a neat historical construct to put in place the working of different ideas and movements after Independence. To my generation, if not to Ashish Nandy’s generation, it was abundantly clear that secularism was a typically Indian goal; hence, its legitimisation during the nationalist struggle and in the political processes thereafter.

Yes, we read Faiz and Firaq and revelled in the poetry of Sahir, Sardar Jafri and Kaifi. Today, many turn to Iqbal, the poet whose populism in the 1940s provided a grand ideology, in which some Muslims could find their image. Moved by the images from Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, and Gujarat, many now read his ‘Shikwa’ or Complaint to God, or Hali’s “The Ebb and Flow of Islam”. Comparing the tragedy in Gujarat with Hulagu’s invasion of Baghdad centuries ago, there is even talk of closing ranks, shunning ijtehad or interpretation, and following, both in letter and spirit, the Koranic injunctions.

Nursing such defeatist ideas, as I indicated earlier, will not do. Secularism is by no means a defeated idea in civil society; in fact, it commands widespread acceptance. The same fire of mutual hatred leading to the country’s partition is ablaze after Gujarat. It has to be extinguished by us. We know who lighted the fire, how it was lighted. The fire is blazing; it has to be put out. When that happens, we may not have to burn candles to mourn our dead, or bemoan the demise of secularism.

I realise the obstacles, as indeed and all of you do. I also realise that many of the ideals and institutions that had made India different from the newly liberated countries of Asia and Africa are viewed with increasing scepticism by the younger generation. For one, the historical experience of resistance against colonialism has been more or less forgotten. The ideological edifice of nationalism stands weakened by the aspirations of ‘new’ groups trying to assert their identities, and by the persistent failure of the state to reduce social and economic inequalities. This has given rise to ethnic and untutored religious consciousness, and the resurgence of sub-nationalisms in Kashmir and the North-East.

Ethnic nationalism, though objectified by perceptions of relative economic deprivation, has so easily coalesced with religious fundamentalism. This is exemplified by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwala’s murky career and the ill-advised policies of several militant outfits in Kashmir, including the brutal expulsion of large numbers of Kashmiri Pandits from their own homeland. So that much as one bemoans the absence of nationalism—in terms of a countrywide vision anchored in conceptions of social justice, minority rights and gender equality—one is wary of the societal division into diverse ethnic communities ultimately constituting a complicating factor in ‘nation-building’.

This is not all. The earlier nationalist dynamic has been dissipated by a nationalism that is exclusive, insular and narrow in conception. Such nationalism, orchestrated by the print and electronic media, comes into play only when a nuclear explosion takes place, or when the country is at war with Pakistan. Otherwise, our nationalism remains dormant. In actual fact, what is flaunted as nationalism or patriotism on such occasions is nothing but militarism. Yet it is this and not secular nationalism that is saleable in the political marketplace. That is why it is allowed to run amok by political managers and propagandists.

As a concept and as a state policy, secularism is also under critical scrutiny. It is argued
that secularism, as a general shared credo of life is impossible, as a basis for State action impracticable, and as a blueprint for the future—impotent. It is also pointed out that both the ideology and politics of secularism have largely exhausted their possibilities, and that it was necessary to play around with a different conceptual frame.

To the Constitution-makers, the issue was not the European origin of the secular idea but its rightful appropriation in a diverse and plural society. They were not held back, as is the social science fraternity today, by the finer issues of definition, categorisation and application of secularism. Instead, they wanted to ensure that its essence—the impartiality and neutrality of the State in its relations with the religious institutions and practices of different communities— was not lost on the people. A secular state as a political solution for modern India was based on the contention that it afforded the optimum freedom for the citizens to develop into fully integrated beings. This, according to me, was a modern goal, rational and scientific, and in addition, I would emphasise, a specifically Indian goal. This is probably why what began as a mere experiment in the riot-ravaged and communally polarised India of 1947 acquired legitimisation in the political, cultural and intellectual discourses of the time.

The idea of the syncretistic tradition has also been challenged and undermined at various times by various contesting ideologies. Orientalist scholarship, almost exclusively based on Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic religious and other texts, constructed and helped to perpetuate exclusive and competing, if not conflicting, models of religious-cultural traditions, ignoring the intricate and fascinating processes of interaction of living religions and cultures, specially at the level of masses. The second serious challenge came, at a later stage, from the Islamic essentialists. The proponents of Hindu nationalism represent the third, which emerged and almost ran parallel to that of the Muslim separatists. Subdued in the late colonial and early post-colonial decades, Hindu essentialism has, as we have seen, gathered momentum over the last two decades.

The concept of the composite culture has been politicised all around. The liberal and Marxist critique has found it expedient to use it politically to combat communalism and other forms of sectarian strife, while the champions of political Islam as well as their saffron-robed counterparts have targeted it to undermine this notion for their own political reasons. To sap the foundations of a multi-cultural state, they have employed the argument of pseudo-secularism. They have, furthermore, appropriated the British divide-and-rule paradigm of Hindus and Muslims as separate civilisational entities that cannot survive together in peace. Doubts have already been expressed in these circles concerning the historical legitimacy of the syncretistic process in the making of India’s composite culture, with the corresponding claim made for a reconstructed Hindutva and a purified Islam....

I realise that the dice is loaded against secularism and multiculturalism, not just in India but also in many other societies. Yet, one mustn‘t brush aside the many bright spots in our progress towards achieving these goals. Instead, it is worth restoring the democratic and secular consensus of the 1950s and 1960s, for it provides a rationale for a rapprochement between diverse and at times conflicting goals. Perhaps the agenda bears the imprint of ambiguity, and, therefore, needs to be redefined in parts. Perhaps, it needs tailoring and trimming to suit the rapidly ever-changing political currents. Still, the ideological under-pinnings of the consensus envisaged by the Constitution-makers and assiduously cultivated by the country’s first Prime Minister, are, I believe, as relevant today as they were during his lifetime. His vision must guide us in these troubled times. I know that the debunkers are busy with him. Yet, as Toynbee had written, after the vultures have finished their scavenging work, Nehru, too, will be the great man that he was—great, though human; human, so loveable.

Notwithstanding the unlovely consequences of the Hindutva campaign, and the state’s passivity in allowing anti-secular forces to run amok, a glimmer of hope lies in the coalition of democratic forces, in the political revulsion against the excesses of the religious Right, and in the sheer diversity of this society. If such a coalition receives the electorate’s mandate, we can begin to argue confidently that secularism, as a general credo of life, is possible, as a basis of state action practicable, and as a blueprint for the future desirable.

Politicians fashion, so they claim, the future. Wise men and women envisage a future for their community and nation. Not being a politician has certain disadvantages. Wisdom, too, has eluded me. How, then, can I spell out my vision of 2047, a task assigned to me? I can merely discern existing trends, and define my ideological preferences. My intellectual and political vision, and I hope everybody’s vision, will depend on how best we can challenge the Sangh Parivar’s discordant and disruptive agenda.

I realise that the trishul is out in the open, but I also know that there are millions ready to defend Hinduism’s eclectic and humanistic values and the nation’s composite heritage. Ultimately, they are the ones who would ensure that the stories of death, demolition, and desecration will be over, the Hindi writer Rahi Masoom Reza would have said, and the stories of life will begin, because the stories of life never end. In ending this lecture, I will echo the sentiments of Tagore:

Let us announce to the world that the light of the morning has come, not for entrenching ourselves behind barriers, but for meeting in mutual understanding and trust on the common field of co-operation, never for nourishing a spirit of rejection, but for that glad acceptance which constantly carries in itself the giving out of the best that we have.

[Excerpts from the text of the Fourth D.S. Borker Memorial Lecture delivered in New Delhi, August 24, 2002]

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