new irfanhabib

IRFAN HABIB is one of the most eminent living historians of India. Born in Vadodara, Baroda, in 1931, he has had a lifetime connection with Aligarh Muslim University, from which he has issued a prodigious output of work, ranging from very focused scholarship, to cartography, to large scale works on Indian history. He was awarded a Government of India overseas scholarship to New College. He remembers having to study Caesar’s invasion of Britain, but appreciated the rigour of the tutorial system which he briefly experienced. Then he started his research on the Mughal agrarian system.


Photo of Karl Marx

Karl Marx influenced Irfan Habib

Habib is a committed lifelong Marxist, and Marxism has underpinned his world view and his work. He is a living rebuke to those who may see the term ‘Marxist Historian’ as something rigid and arid: rather, it allows him to provide refreshing and original intellectual critiques of conventional wisdom. His understanding of Marx’s own views on tax and rent systems in pre-colonial India (where the state was the rent collector) inform a view of the Indian economic development where the surplus leaves the village. His own contribution to the historiography of India is built on his ‘The Agrarian System of Mughal India 1556–1707’, but then extends, both backwards (Vedic) and forwards (post-colonial) in time, and into the People’s History of India series, which he conceived.

Habib does not flinch from controversy. A passionate secularist, he has taken a firm stand against the recent trends in the politicisation of history, the so-called saffronisation of text books, syllabi and public discourse. Habib takes it a step further and describes it as ‘fictionalisation’: “… fictionalisation is when you build up false history and false claims for the nation”.

The Tyranny of ‘Historical Schools’


Book jacket, Essays in Indian History

Habib’s interest in deflating the approaches of schools of history which derogate the real dynamics of India – such as the Cambridge School – help provide a much more balanced view of India than the strident interplay of debate between them often permits. As this excerpt from an interview in 2010 with Parvathy Menon shows, it starts from a critique of trends in Western historiography.


"… even it you were a liberal English historian, you would not like to have a dark picture painted of British-ruled India, and you would like to see if it couldn’t be painted differently. In England, where Indian studies had almost been abandoned in the 1950s and 60s (except for the older generation), there came about a renewed interest. Such scholars got a particular engine and method for their cause in the ‘structural analysis’ approach advocated by Sir Lewis Namier. Actually the approach was misnamed, because what Namier and his followers dealt with was the study of private papers and individual motivation. If you could ensure that Indian nationalist leaders had motives of personal careers, or caste and community affiliations, then a different picture would emerge of Indian nationalism and the British rule which they criticized would not look so bad after all. These historians never handled the question of tribute or deindustrialization: their concern was all about individuals. Thus the national movement appeared not to be based on real grievances but on manufactured ones. This is roughly the position of the Cambridge school - Gallagher, Anil Seal, Bayly, Judith Brown and others.

The motivations of the Subaltern trend in historiography were different. As far as Ranajir Guha is concerned, his book, A Rule of Property for Bengal, arose out of dissatisfaction with the nationalist historian N.K. Sinha, where obviously N.K. Sinha was right and Ranajit Guha wrong. Sinha argued that the Permanent Settlement was instituted to ensure the maximization of land revenue collection, but, because of various factors like the movement of prices, it did not work so well for the British. Ranajit Guha himself confesses that Sinha ignored the ideological fact that colonialism wanted to create landed property, and that his own book is not on economic history at all but an intellectual history of how this idea progressed. This, I think, is a subversion of the entire economic history of the Permanent Settlement, stemming from his sense of dissatisfaction with the nationalist school for all the wrong reasons. Guha developed this approach into an almost perverse hostility to mainstream Indian historiography. From there he went on to hypothesize a struggle among three elements: colonial elites, Indian elites and subalterns. Of course his definition of subaltern is completely different from Gramsci’s, who said that subaltern classes actually help to reinforce the hegemony of the ruling classes. Guha’s description of subaltern is ‘subordinate classes’ – wrong English actually, because the Oxford English Dictionary defines subaltern as a ‘subordinate clause’ not ‘class’. In logic, the main argument is supported by a subordinate clause, so in fact subalterns should form a subordinate support to the cause of the ruling classes. But for Guha, from subordinate classes they become resisting classes. And then he creates a picture, without any historical basis whatsoever, of subalterns being communities, which are not economic classes but those whose members do not have an English education. So a big landlord who had not passed high school is subaltern because he is not influenced by ‘elite’ ideas! Indian elites arc not capitalists, they can be workers too if they are influenced by elite ideas. This collection of ideas, set up initially as premises, was built up into a theology under whose influence Subaltern historians wrote papers, mainly to use the word ‘subaltern’ and decry the nationalist leadership.

The great weakness in the Subaltern theorists is that they do not deal with aggregates. Therefore the colonial tribute does not come under their scanner, nor does deindustrialization, because a tribal person did not see cither tribute or deindustrialization. Actually, it is only the peasant who could have seen the impact of deindustrialization. Even a landless labourer may not have seen it as he would not have known why his real wages were falling. So the total rejection of economic statistics of higher magnitudes results in total rejection of any question as, to why and how India was exploited by colonialism. This self-imposed blindness is basic to Subaltern historiography. Therefore the Subaltern approach actually fits in very well with the Cambridge school, because both attack the Indian ‘elites’ whose members worked out the ways in which Britain was exploiting India and created ‘Economic Nationalism’, on which Bipan Chandra has written.

The Subaltern high-priest now is Panha Chatterjee, who even sees communalism as a ‘subaltern’ phenomenon, and argues that the ‘Nehruvian Marxists’ are wrong in thinking that the Indian people are not communal. These are extremely disingenuous statements, though they have got considerable support abroad. Edward Said also wrote in praise of the ‘Subalterns’, although he did warn them that many of their ideas could be ’complicit with neo-colonialism’.

The Subalterns have found post-modernism very useful, because postmodernism also rejects statistical aggregates and any large economic framework. One of the early works anticipating post-modernism was by Louis Dumont. In his book Homo Hierarcbicus, he rejects the notion that India has a history or that it has an economic history, or even that economic ideas can be applied to Indian society. All this has been completely absorbed by the Subalterns who arc pleased to hitch on to Dumont’s emphasis on the ideological underpinning of caste. Thus, not only is communalism a subaltern phenomenon, but so is tribalism and casteism. Dumont also fits in with post-modernism because the latter rejects the ‘meta-narrative’. Rejection of the meta-narrative means that you cannot deal with large economic factors, you can only deal with individuals and small communities; and you certainly cannot apply a common, universally applicable scientific method. All this fits in with not only the Subaltern approach, but also the communal approach to history. Edward Said was once a favourite author of the RSS, whom they frequently cited in their battle with secularism and modem values.

As far as textbooks are concerned, I don’t think that these tendencies are as yet reflected in them, although they have certainly weakened the view of the colonial regime as an exploitative one. This has given rise to other distortions of history. Take some ideologues of the modem Dalit movement. They have consistently attacked the national movement and its ideology, totally ignoring the fact that Ambedkar collaborated with British imperialism at very crucial moments when he had no need to do so. They also totally negate Gandhi’s contributions to Dalit uplift, and ignore the brutal conditions which Dalits suffered from under British rule and which became things of the past only after 1947, disadvantaged and repressed in many ways that Dalits stiil remain. When you pass the main Aligarh flyover, you pass a statue. This is of Raja Ugrasen of the Banias riding a horse, supposedly a great ruler - bur who never existed! So every caste now is manufacturing its history.

Another aspect of this is that if you write criticisms of the nationalist and Marxist historians or schools, you are welcome in western institutions, particularly in Britain and the US. I think this too is having its effect on certain circles, but I would not overstress this factor.

Actually, the whole lot - Namierists, Subalterns, Cambridge historians, post-modernists, even Edward Said - they all exert an influence that encourages chauvinism, communalism and caste sentiment. Muslims cannot be studied by non-Muslims is the conclusion one draws from Edward Said. An Arab can only study Arabs; Indians can only be studied by an Indian. The external enquirer must always be excluded. This appeal to communal and caste sentiment is also very important for the success of globalization, because even as globalization operates to produce a unified economic sphere to the detriment of underdeveloped national economies, such ideologies encourage fragmentation in the ideological sphere and so break down resistance to globalization. The post-modernist project of cultural fragmentation may thus seem to be the natural ideological counterpart of the economic side of globalization."

Pre-Colonial India: The Case of Tipu Sultan


Drawing of Tipu Sultan's famous mechanical tiger

Tipu Sultan's famous mechanical tiger mounts a European soldier, and is now in the V&A Museum

The later rules of Mysore built a regime and governance system which was far more rounded, subtle and modern than the conventional narratives. Habib edited a series of essays on the subject, ‘Confronting Colonialism’, and his own views of Tipu Sultan are both refreshing and revisionist.

He writes of his modernisation efforts:


"Since agriculture was the main sector of the pre-modern economy of Mysore, Tipu’s major concern was naturally with agricultural improvement. An order issued by Tipu shows concern that if revenue was collected at the wrong time, this would pauperize peasants by compelling them to sell their cattle. Such untimely collections were to be avoided, and ‘the resource-less’ (nadar) peasants were to be given taccavi loans ‘in the form of cattle and grain’ in order to enable them to undertake cultivation. Old canals and embankments were to be repaired, and new ones built. Similarly, old dams thrown across rivers were to be repaired, and new ones constructed. Headmen (‘patels, shanbhogs, etc.’) who oppressed peasants were to be punished. These regulations were largely in conformity with the traditional principles of earlier regimes including the Mughal administration. Buchanan’s gibe that Tipu merely interfered with and spoilt earlier irrigation works from a desire to set up his own, is not borne out by the concern shown in these injunctions for keeping the old works in good order.

Nine miles from Srirangapatnam is the famous modern dam on the Kaveri, built to create the great lake of Krishna Raj Sagara. When excavation work for it began in 1911, an inscribed slab was unearthed: dated 12 June 1798, this announced that Tipu Sultan had laid the foundations of the dam on this very site to provide water for irrigation; and a quarter of the revenue was to be exempted for those who thereby brought new area under cultivation. Since Tipu fell within a year of the foundation of the dam, it is no discredit to him that the work was left incomplete and neglected by the British-controlled regime that followed. But it speaks much for his acumen and interest that he should have chosen the exact site for the dam that modern engineers were to select more than a hundred years later.

Tipu was also interested in furthering agricultural manufactures. This is shown by a very interesting order he issued for raw-sugar manufacturers to be summoned and trained in the making of candied sugar and white sugar so that they might manufacture and sell these finer varieties in their own localities.

Another indication of Tipu’s farsighted innovation was the introduction of sericulture in Mysore, which was to grow later into such a successful industry. The raising of mulberry trees was assigned to particular land-farmers (talluqdars). Twenty-one centres (karkhanas) for the culture of silkworms were established; the worms were to be produced on a monthly basis; and the proceeds paid into the treasury: Tipu looked forward to an increase in silk production year after year.

Such interest in agricultural improvement could be creditable enough. But it was in the sphere of manufactures that his endeavours especially distinguished him from all contemporary Indian potentates. We have already seen that Haidar Ali had concentrated on modernizing his army and the manufacture of muskets. In 1787, Tipu instructed his prospective ambassadors to France to tell the French king that he had in Mysore ‘ten workshops (karkhanas) where countless muskets (banadiq) were being manufactured’. These muskets were modelled after those of Europe. Cossigny, governor of Pondicherry, examining one ‘produced by Tipu Sultan's workers’ in 1786, thought it equal to any produced in Europe. This was also the judgement in Paris pronounced on two pistols presented by Tipu's ambassadors to Louis XVI in 1788. Tipu’s ambassadors to the Ottoman court (1785–86) were asked to exhibit proudly to the Turks the muskets earned by the men in their train, that had been made in Mysore. But Tipu wanted further improvement, and he asked his ambassadors to Paris to request the French monarch to send him ‘other craftsmen who could make muskets of novel designs, ... cannon-pieces, and iron guns (baitaroi)’, to all of whom he would pay suitable wages. A founder, with four master craftsmen, was actually brought from France in consequence. Buchanan refers to a machine installed at Srirangapatnam by ‘a French artist’ to bore cannon: it was to be driven by water power, but was actually worked by bullocks.

Where Tipu went significantly beyond his father was in his anxiety to introduce modern technology outside the area of weaponry. He asked his ambassadors to France to get, on their own, ‘a printer of books, on suitable wages’. And the French Icing was to be requested to obtain for him the services of ‘a clock-maker, a maker of Chinaware and a maker of glass and mirrors’. By 1797, he was demanding from France 'ten cannon founders, ten ship-builders, ten manufacturers of Chinaware, ten glass and mirror makers, ten makers of ship clocks (literally wheels), and wheels (or engines) for raising water and other kinds of wheel work, and workmen versed in gold plating’.

Tipu could not establish a printing press, but he did succeed in making paper by modern methods (‘formed on wires like the European kind’). He also succeeded in manufacturing ‘watches and cutlery’. There was certainly a French watchmaker working at Srirangapatnam in Tipu’s late days; and his services might have been utilized in setting up clock and watch manufacture. As for cutlery, Tipu refers in his orders to his own workshop for the manufacture of knives, scissors and needles. Its superintendents were to gather ironsmiths from different localities and train them in the technique of manufacture, so that they might manufacture and sell these goods on their own in their own localities. In view of this exhortation, Buchanan’s allegation that Tipu wished to keep the new techniques a secret from his subjects seems especially ill-founded.

And can one say after all this that Tipu Sultan was ‘an innovating monarch, who made no improvements’; or that his aim was simply to impress his subjects rather than ‘to improve his country’?

It is obvious from these endeavours of his that Tipu was well aware that technology lay behind much of the Europeans’ success. He also simultaneously held the view that European powers had acquired their dominance by developing certain financial and commercial institutions and practices (companies and monopolies), and building and operating navies and fleets. Here too they could be emulated, but, as with the technological devices, this could be done only under the aegis of the state. Tipu, therefore, tried to build in Mysore an immense state-run trading enterprise, a veritable primitive public sector.

There is no doubt that pre-colonial Indian regimes often undertook commercial activities to augment their income. Seventeenth-century potentates on the western coast, like Malik Ambar and Shivaji, had ships trading across the Arabian Sea; and many rulers on the Karnataka and Kerala coasts controlled or monopolized the pepper trade. Haidar Ali had realized, as we have seen, that to protect his ships against the English, a navy was also essential. With Tipu not only did these ideas assume a far more vigorous form, but he developed them into a full-scale project to imitate the European East India Companies and make Mysore a sea power based on naval strength and maritime trade.

Accordingly, Tipu Sultan proceeded actively to rebuild the navy that Haidar had established and then lost in the Second Mysore War (1780–84). When, in 1792, the English seized Honavar (‘Onore’), they found on a fortified island nearby naval stores that contained ‘almost the whole iron work for a ship of sixty guns’, the ship having had to be scuttled by Tipu’s men when ‘nearly completed’, in order to escape capture by the English. Despite this fresh setback, Tipu set about planning to build a navy afresh after 1792: this was designed to consist of 7 warships (jahazat-i jangi), each to be mounted with 30 to 50 guns (darakhsh).

Tipu’s major interest was, however, in building ships which could be used for trade, though, being armed for defence, as was usual with merchant ships of the time, these could also be used in naval action. The initial area for their use in commerce and future naval ambitions was naturally the Arabian Sea. His ships already used to sail to Musqat (Oman), where a factory (trading house, kothi) of his government (sarkar) had been established before 1785. That year his larger plans led him to send an embassy to Constantinople.

This embassy, really consisting of a board of four officers, had both diplomatic and commercial objectives. In the official diary of the mission, which is unfortunately incomplete, commercial transactions dominate. The embassy and its large retinue and cargo was put aboard three ships, Pakhrul Marakib, Path-i Shahi Mu’izzi, and Nabi Bakhsh, and a galliot (ghurab) Surati, which sailed from the port of Tadri to Musqat (Oman) on 20 March 1786. The cargo carried by the ships consisted mainly of black (round) pepper, sandalwood, cinnamon and textiles, which was to be sold off at Musqat, the Iranian ports and Basra (Iraq). Tipu was, however, not spending so much money merely to sell goods: he hoped to make Basra a permanent depot for the trade, with the port under his own control. He asked his ambassadors to try to secure for him a farm (ijara) of the port from the Ottoman monarch; this would give a safe haven to his vessels a during the monsoons, and Constantinople would gain by what he would pay it for the farm. Clearly, he wished to act like the European Companies by establishing an overseas settlement of his own!"



Excursions in History, Essays on Some Ideas of Irfan Habib (Tulika Books, 2011)

Confronting Colonialism, Resistance and Modernization under Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan (Anthem Press, 2002)