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PROFESSOR Mushirul Hasan, Vice-Chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia University, was awarded the Padma Shri in 2007 for his contributions as a historian and administrator. He has to his credit almost a dozen books and numerous papers. The renowned historian, who will be turning 60 on Independence Day this year, did his Masters in history from Aligarh Muslim University in 1969 and after a brief stint as history lecturer at Ramjas College, Delhi University, got his PhD from the University of Cambridge in 1977.

Prior to his becoming Vice-Chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia in 2004, he was Pro-V-C from 1992 to 1996. He was also director, Academy of Third World Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, since July 2000. Professor Hasan is a member of numerous professional bodies and is vice-chairman of the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla. He has received numerous awards, including the highest French civilian award, Officer dans I’Ordre des Palmes Academiques (Officer of the Order of Academic Palms) conferred by the French Prime Minister. Professor Hasan spoke to SRI KRISHNA on various issues, including the writing of history books and fundamentalism in the country.

What is your view on handling of history textbooks and the teaching of the subject in our academic institutions?
It has been changing considerably. The sad thing is that the standard structure, particularly in history, has declined considerably. This is partly because of the poor quality of history textbooks and, of course, another reason is the distortion that has crept into these textbooks.

In history, there are always different versions and different interpretations. It is good to basically let the student be exposed to those different interpretations. But what is happening is now we have a highly doctored and distorted interpretation. That is obviously not good for a nation that prides itself on being the custodian of plurality and tolerance towards other people’s faiths and culture and history.

How do you view the teaching of history in different perspectives and is it the right approach?
I think national history has been fragmented too callously into regional and local histories. Regional and local histories do have a place, no doubt about it. But it should not be at the expense of what one might call a national perspective. I think a student in Kanya Kumari should have as much of a national perspective of history as a student in Kashmir. Now somewhere along the line regional and local identities have meant the exclusion of a national perspective. I don’t think that for a nation which is struggling to emerge as a cohesive entity, this is a particularly healthy development.

In view of the prevailing political scenario which appears fragmented, isn’t there a need to have the right interpretation of history?
Well, if you want to develop a strong unified nation, which is everybody’s aspiration, we will have to write our history not with a view to propagating a party’s point of view or ideology but with a view to discovering elements of unity and cohesion in our past.

What the British historians did was to idealise their own rule and bring out beneficent aspects of Pax Britannica. They covered up a lot of aspects of the medieval period which highlighted or brought out the salience of integrative, syncretic and pluralistic forces in Indian society.

How do you view the impact of British historians on our historians?
Such is the import of British historians that almost throughout the 19th century, some of our old Indian writers fell prey to the methodological framework that the British provided. So, we began to look at ancient India as the Hindu period, medieval India as the Muslim period and, of course, the British period is considered to be the modern period.

So, I think we need to learn lessons because it was the perpetration of these communitarian categories which eventually led to the partition of India. If you want stay together, which we must, we must instruct to young students, initiate them into a dialogue that will make them recognise the importance of an inclusive approach to history and historical events.

What is your view on the growing fundamentalism in this country that appears to be impacting on our politics?
I don’t think fundamentalism is growing. What is growing is the stridency of the fundamentalists. One has to make a distinction between the loud voices that you hear from different platforms and now, of course, television, and the millions of people who are not swayed by the fundamentalist rhetoric. So, I think one should not exaggerate the importance of fundamentalism growing. It is still, I think, limited to very small groups. It is heard because it is loud and it is strident, it is aggressive and it is militant. I think by and large what we call secular societies or what we call tolerance or plurality are still the cornerstones of most nations.

I think the commitment to those values is much stronger than the commitment to religious fundamentalism. We have to draw a distinction between religious fundamentalism and religion or religiosity. Yes, people are more religious, there is greater evidence of religiosity among different communities. But that does not mean that they are out to kill the followers of other religions.

On the contrary, I think if you are a devout Muslim, or a devout Hindu, or a devout Christian, you would probably be more tolerant towards followers of any other religion so that there is a collective interest in religious people getting together and fighting the menace of fundamentalism or terrorism.

As you have been associated with the academic community and are in constant touch with the student community, what role do you foresee for students in the country’s politics since the impression is that they are by and large not interested in entering politics?
In a certain sense, they have been kept out. I think the students themselves will need to assess the critical role they can play in society and they will therefore have to get their act together. One of the things that they need to do is to really see how the students’ unions, which have not been very creative bodies, if I may say so, can be reorganised, restructured to make these a more powerful vehicle for the articulation of students’ demands and also to make these unions a platform for the democratic aspirations of students to be fulfilled.

Yes, I think that more and more students and more and more youth need to be given the opportunity to enable them to show their creativity and thus flower. Since about almost 44 per cent of our population is below the age of 50, this is going to be a great asset in coming years and it is a great resource which we must use creatively and intelligently so that their energies are channeled in the right direction.

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