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Historian Irfan Habib sees Pakistan-like cherry-picking of history in India

'They don’t teach these things in Pakistan, neither Mohenjodaro nor Taxila. How will your country be respected if you don’t respect your history? So is the situation in India now'

Piyush Srivastava Aligarh Published 15.04.24, 05:54 AM
Irfan Habib.

Irfan Habib. Picture by Piyush Srivastava.

Historian Irfan Habib, 93, believes that history should be studied and taught “as it was, not as it should have been”.

“Unfortunately, the current dispensation is not only removing important parts of our history but also trying to prove that Indians are Aryans. How does it affect India whether we are Tamil or Aryan?” the professor emeritus with Aligarh Muslim University told The Telegraph in an interview on Friday.


“The Bharatiya Janata Party is dying to prove that the Indus Valley Civilisation belonged to them — the Aryans. Don’t they understand that we would remain Indian even if we are Dravidian?”

Habib believes that India has taken a leaf out of Pakistan’s book in the matter of educational policy.

“We are becoming Pakistan. There was the Indus Valley Civilisation and Mohenjodaro in Pakistan. There was art in Taxila, about which (Sir John Hubert) Marshall (director-general of the Archaeological Survey of India from 1902 to 1928) said that even Greek art cannot compete with it,” he said.

“They don’t teach these things in Pakistan, neither Mohenjodaro nor Taxila. How will your country be respected if you don’t respect your history? So is the situation in India now. You (the BJP government) exclude Akbar from the history books. The entire world used to say that India was a tolerant country those days. Europeans who visited India were amazed to see people from every religion coexisting here. But this history will not be taught now.”

Habib added: “The good thing is that no serious historian is associated with them.”

Nehru & Savarkar

Habib stressed that the Congress should be given credit for India attaining independence.

“The Hindutva forces don’t have any right to compare themselves with the Congress or the Left parties. Ajay Kumar Ghosh of the Communist Party of India and many other leaders were sent to Cellular Jail but they didn’t tender any apology the way Vinayak Damodar Savarkar did,” he said.

“Surprisingly, the British government didn’t want to lift all the bans on Savarkar after his release from jail. They didn’t allow him to participate in any political activity. It was the Congress government in Bombay province in 1937 that passed a resolution and advocated the lifting of all the restrictions on him. But this thankless man held his first meeting thereafter against the Congress.”

Savarkar had officially joined the Hindu Mahasabha soon after the restrictions on him were lifted.

Irfan Habib.

Irfan Habib. Piyush Srivastava.

“Then, when the lower court acquitted Savarkar in Mahatma Gandhi’s murder case, Pandit (Jawaharlal) Nehru saved him. The judgment said that the proof against him was not enough. The judge demanded such proofs which could never be produced,” Habib said.

“Nehru’s government would have challenged the order but he said that people would brand him as a witch-hunter against Savarkar if he went in appeal. Call it Nehru’s wish to take credit for his release, or generosity. But these people don’t appreciate Nehru for this favour.”


Habib said it had been decided during the freedom struggle to assimilate every caste and religion into the movement, and this laid the foundation for secularism.

“Secularism means no religion will have any influence, only reason will have its influence. Unfortunately, some important institutions changed the meaning of secularism and said that all religions can have influence. It is absurd because only the dominant religion would be tolerated in such a situation,” he said.

“The heritage of our Constitution is not about Indian culture. The heritage of our Constitution comes from the heritage of worldwide democracy. The American Constitution doesn’t have the word ‘religion’ in it. The French Revolution and the French Constitution didn’t mention this, either.”

Rewriting history

“You see the new syllabus for BA: it says that the caste system came to India after the emergence of Muslim rulers. And the syllabus also recommends the reading of the Manusmriti. What will a reader do? The Manusmriti is full of caste and then you are saying that the caste system was not there before the entry of Muslim rulers,” Habib said.

“Akbar has been excluded from the syllabus. Ashoka is there but his introduction is missing. They are saying that Aryans were Indian and they went to other countries from here. Tell me, how does it make a difference?

“The study of human skeletons suggests that the origin of humans was in Africa. How does it make sense if we say that we are not from Africa but only from India?”

Name changes

In the context of BJP leaders’ demand to change Aligarh’s name to Harigarh, Habib said: “There was a cantonment where Aligarh Muslim University stands now. The Marathas called it Aligarh after the name of their supporter, Nazaf Ali Khan. Do they want to erase their own history?”


Habib said that both Sri Lanka and India were under British rule, and neither Sri Lankans nor Tamilians lived on Katchatheevu island. Later, the British government of the day gave the Island to the Sri Lankans (then Ceylonese).

“Fishermen continued to go there not for fishing but to rest during breaks from fishing. This agreement was recognised by Indira Gandhi government. This part of the land was not given to Sri Lanka by India,” he said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has alleged as part of his poll campaign that the Congress government gave away a part of India to Sri Lanka.

“What sounds disturbing to me is that we are destroying our relations with our neighbours very fast. Now they want to annoy Sri Lanka on this issue. A conflict is already going on with Pakistan and China. Can we not live in peace?” Habib said.

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