Monday, January 5, 2009

Subaltern studies a challenge to historians: Irfan Habib

The Hindu : National : Subaltern studies a challenge to historians: Irfan Habib
Subaltern studies a challenge to historians: Irfan Habib

‘Globalisation is accompanied by immense ideological offensive’

KANNUR: Historian Irfan Habib has said that post-modernist and subaltern studies in history, being promoted by the western establishment, are a serious challenge facing historians.

Talking to The Hindu on the sidelines of the 69th session of the Indian History Congress, which concluded on the Kannur University campus at Mangattuparamba on Tuesday, Professor Habib said globalisation was accompanied by an immense ideological offensive.

On the one hand, there was globalisation and on the other, “you are telling every country, along with every cultural community within that country, that your culture is different, your history is different,” he said.

Subaltern historians such as Ranajit Guha believed that only local alternative communities had history. That meant India did not have a history and even the working class did not have a history.

Professor Habib said the subaltern concept was similar to the view that Indian values were different from western values and, therefore, it could not be understood by western methods. That was the view of Edward Said, who said that oriental history could not be studied with critical tools fashioned in the west. That also meant that an Indian could not study Arab history. The post-modernist view was that every culture must have different tools.

According to this view, Marxism was a meta-narrative and rejected by Professor Said, subalterns and post-modernists. “British historians will never think of applying these methods to the British history. They are applying it to Indian history,” he said.

Asked about secular historians’ concern about distortion of history in the country, Professor Habib said it would be wrong to claim that Marxist historians alone were opposing Hindu communalism. In fact, none of the major historians had joined the communal interpretation of history. Even R.C. Majumdar, who might be right wing or communal, could not go the way of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Nationalist historians and historians who used Marxist tools were in agreement that the history propagated by the RSS was a ‘lunatic asylum.’

Not a single professional historian of any eminence could subscribe to the RSS view of history, he added.

Reacting to History Congress president K.N. Panikkar’s observation that Marxist historiography had paid inadequate attention to culture, Professor Habib said the country did not have a very large number of Marxist historians. They had concentrated mainly on elements of history which were more in the field of technology, economics, conditions of people, formation of classes and class struggle.

“Their interests have been different and are not likely to change very much,” he said. Even D.D. Kosambi’s interests in culture were very peripheral. The Marxist historians in the country had to work in a situation where several things were not clear. Kosambi had often said that he was going to culture to understand the economic bases because there was no direct evidence from economic base on which the historian could develop.

“It is different from saying that culture is the crucial element,” Professor Habib said.

Stating that no culture could be treated as superior, he underlined the uniqueness of every culture. “It would be absurd to say that European craftsmen did not contribute to the reshaping of the world and that China did not contribute to the development of technology to an extent other pre-modern civilisations had contributed.” But it did not mean that cultures could not be studied by same tools, he added.
Professional forum

Talking about the relevance of the Indian History Congress, the historian said it was first of all a professional forum where historians could interact and young historians and history students could meet each other, learn how to present papers and respond to questions.

The congress represented the tradition of its inception in 1935 as a body of nationalist historians. It opposed Emergency and passed a resolution against the Union government’s reference of the Babri Masjid case to the Supreme Court in 1993.

Professor Habib said history was about facts and their interpretation. “When people say there are fundamental disagreements in history, they relate to only part of the terrain.”

No historian would say that Akbar did not die in 1605, though there were debates on methods being applied to study history.

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