Tolerance and Intolerance

[The 76th session of Indian History Congress was held in the University of Gaur Banga, Malda, in December 2015. Among the participants were Prof Irfan Habib of Aligarh Muslim University and Prof Sushil Chaudhury of University of Calcutta. Sankar Kumar Biswas and Biswajit Roy spoke with them on a number of issues, particularly against the backdrop of growing intolerance in the country. Excerpts :]

Q.  First of all we would tike to know about the 'Aligarh School of History'. What are the aims and objectives of'Aligarh School'at present?

Prof Habib : You See, why Aligarh has come out? (It was).... just because .... during the pre-British time they emphasized on, what they called, 'integrating factors'. After Independence, apart from Calcutta, with the unending effort of the stalwart like Prof N K Sinha.... Illahabad and then Aligarh started. Those were the major centres across the country. So it emerged as one of the nationalist schools of History. After independence this becomes related more and more to leftwing inclination, with some of its figures, but you must remember that there were right wings also like my teacher—Prof Nizami, my teacher Prof Rashid who were very good in short.... Presently... the attempts are to make the centre as 'fact based' school of thoughts as far as possible. Because that too has been attacked over and over again. Here you have inserted mythologies and let us say it is not only ancient Indian mythology, you might say 'Bramhin' or Hindu mythology, but Muslims have similar mythologies and mythological perceptions that they want to incorporate in other countries like Islamic States and so on. They have Perception of Islamic history which is as absolute as the myth building in India.

Q. In your Opinion what is the new trend emerging in historical research generally in the world and specially in our country?

Prof Habib : You know, research and history writings are related, but they are also different. Research refers more and more to detailed studies and discoveries of new facts, whereas historical writings are more concerned with the views, thinking, Synthesis and critical synthesis... that come forward with interpretations.

For research and fact findings, they are important—with ideologies that have been developed. And... the post modernists attack and say that there is no scientific method in History. Actually, they are confused, I think, within two issues, as far fact findings are concerned. Fact findings are very important principles. But when you come to interpretation, making selection of the facts they are so firm... and to see which kind of tendency is more important, and then of course, some subjective facts and it is only there where that subjective fact is corporate but as far as... fact findings are concerned, History finds, what you call historical fact. Facts are no interpretation in this regard which disregards historical facts and... so as for example... you have asked about 'The Aligarh School'. It first started and many of our publications are to emphasize the fact that... you can only restrict yourself by facts... and facts established by historical methods, not by mythologies or prejudice.

Prof Chowdhury : Well, what Irfan Saab said is very pertinent, you know but my point in research and writings is... perhaps research is more important than writing, in the sense that you can write something but if you don't have sources, or the facts... that's very important, You cannot go onward. My Prof N K Sinha, he used to say... Prof Habib knows him well...

Prof Habib : I... I mentioned him earlier. He was one of the greatest nationalist historians.

Prof Chowdhury : Yes, N K Sinha, used to say that "I don't believe in theories, I believe in the facts, so what I find in the facts... established research and then I write." So facts are more important you know, as far as I think.

Q. In case of fact finding, if you look out the agendas of central govt. of BJP there are two—commodization and communalization are they complement to each other or they dividing us?

Prof Habib : They are... not necessarily compatible. There could be co-existence. In the United States the business view is that... everywhere liberal kind of system should prevail, the leaders think that, you know, business controls depression. Therefore, the particular system, the electoral system, the two party system, ensure that... whichever... party has business interest should be protected. So they do not necessarily promote the racial or cultural or communal differences. Not necessarily (Stopping Prof Chowdhury loudly), in India this could be the same. After all big business needs a part. The Congress govt's policy which was for the secular govt... (administered) ...the reservation, the caste based reservation and so on.

The liberal public supported planning in public sector... It is not that, I think, the big businesses and from RSS, because RSS had never any economic programme, unlike Congress, they never had developed any economic programme. They never thought that the state should have anything to do with it. Today Gujarat model, however they thought... that supporting business would strengthen them electorally. So they support business. In this regard, they have two pillars in fact. They go to the business and say we are the real people, who will support you.... in Gujarat model... and on the other hand, they want to strengthen their electoral base by communalism. So it is through that big business BJP and RSS serve their own interests, in which an acceptance or the dominance of corporate sector is combined with communalism.

Prof Chowdhury : Don't you think that 'Gujarat Model' failed in Bihar in recent past?

Prof Habib : Yes, I think it failed because the 'Gujarat Model', the assumption that if big business comes, then employment and prosperity will follow. But as one knows when big business comes, employment often contracts, because the new technology is labour saving and of course it has no solution even for land problems. So it has very little attraction for youth. In my own town, for example, there were factories for six thousand workers. After the liberalization in India after 1990-91, all closed, there is no factory left now.

Q.  What is your opinion about 'intolerance' in present time in our country?

Prof Habib : Intolerance is a very broad term and there can be various forms of intolerance. In our country, there is caste intolerance for instance, the caste-based system. There is religious intolerance. People of one religion are keeping apart from another, think that their charity also is confined to their own faith. It is also a kind of intolerance.

So issue of intolerance is a very broad one, but probably what you are trying to mean is that one should stand upon and say that nobody can express a view which is against his or her own sentiment. This is actually an attack on the freedom of speech. The things are being said against rationalists. There were two murders of the rationalists—one in Maharastra and one in Karnataka. So people are talking about this type of intolerance. These kinds of things have grown in this country, and that should not be allowed to grow. And I think that everyone should agree.

Prof Chowdhury : completely agree with Prof Habib. He is really one of the exponents of liberalism and rationalism. What he said is rather very pertinent in the present context, you know, not only intolerance, I think some persecution is also going on, which we all should protest.

Q. In your opinion, where lies the root of intolerance?

Prof Habib : As I said—it depends on what kind of intolerance you have in your mind. There is caste intolerance, religious intolerance, there is one against rationalism. There is an issue of what is good for the nation. If we think that this is good for the nation and somebody says this is not, you would not allow that person to speak. So it depends on what kind of intolerance you are thinking about.

Q. What you are thinking about communal and cultural intolerance?

Prof Habib : Even that's .. they are different. Culture is not entirely religious, there can be caste and customs, there can be regional customs, the whole issue of language also. Languages are unconnected with religion but there may be issue of language. As like 'Hindi' or 'Punjabi' is one major example of this kind of dispute. So, you know, one has always to consider what kind of intolerance one is thinking of, but as I say, a major thing is that we should realize, we should have freedom of speech and just because you don't like the views of a person, you should not say that he is not allowed to speak.

Prof Chowdhury : The tradition, in India, flows very much from the early age. As you know Rabindranath Tagore said long back. This is the country where 'Saka-Huna-Mughal-Pathan ek Dehe Holo Lin' (Saka-Huna-Mughal-Pathan are incorporated in one body)- all the cultures assembled. People of different religions are absorbed in the Indian society. India traditionally was never intolerant. What Prof Habib says is very true. There is cultural and religious intolerance. But ... any sort of intolerance should be condemned and should be protested.

Q. In this context I would like to know whether it is challenging to our belief and ethos in our society as well as country?

Prof Habib : Actually, as Prof Chowdhury says, intolerance of this nature—that you won't allow anyone to speak—has to be against the interest of our nation. Because we cant decide what choice we should make if there is no open debate and analysis.

But there is a further point that, you know, one must realize as Tagore asked us to realize in 'Kabuliwala'—that all human beings are similar. They have similar affections, they have similar sentiments, they have similar notion. But what intolerance does—is that it makes us forget.

Prof Chowdhury : I think, in popular level, you know, I lived in a small village in north Bengal and what I have seen is that this intolerance or sort of persecution in common men level is not very important, you know. It is so much evident that if Hindus and Muslims stand side by side, you can't differentiate the culture—our culture. It is my own experience that, to some extent, has vanisned today. I don't know why. In these urban areas that is more prevalent. I don't know whether Prof Habib will agree or not.

Q. Do you think State controlled intolerance really exists? Can you correlate between state and intolerance?

Prof Habib: Well, the present central govt., is in close association with the BJP and RSS. There is particular emphasis on extreme views that Indian nation, being a Hindu nation, is a peculiar kind of Hindu nation as viewed by the RSS. So this kind of things has increased.

If you look at the statements of several leaders of RSS and BJP, ... of course... resistance has also increased, a lot of honoured people are returning awards and titles so far...

Prof Chowdhury : Look at the instances of Shahrukh Khan, Amir Khan—the way they are criticized. That is very unfortunate. This is a democratic country and in this country you should practise tolerance.

Q. What is your opinion about cultural plurality and syncretism?

Prof Habib : You see, the thing is that syncretism by itself is a neutral word. If Muslims learn caste, customs from Hindus and Hindus learn religious fanaticism from Muslins, then it is syncretism. Then we should be very happy about (Laugh Loudly). So it is important what you are synthesizing.

Q. Our last request, what will be your messages to our nation.

Prof Habib : That's not very important. I am a small man to make a message (laugh). But I think all of us should consider very deeply what our nation needs and, you know, mere slogans are not sufficient. Profound thought is necessary. You just don't say that oppose big business—for its own sake. What an alternative programme we have. So national welfare requires prudent thought, debate to find out what is the best for the country. And I think about a humanitarian spirit under which you can recognize that all human beings have the same rights and the same future.

Vol. 48, No. 45, May 15 - 21, 2016