Prof. Rizwan Qaiser: Covid-19 takes away one of the finest historians of the national movement

Simply Rizwan to most of his friends and colleagues, a leading voice among the historians of Modern India, succumbing to the virus, academic life will no longer be the same

Prof. Rizwan Qaiser: Covid-19 takes away one of the finest historians of the national movement

Rakesh Batabyal

With the untimely death of Prof. Rizwan Qaiser, Rizwan for most of his friends and colleagues, a leading voice among the historians of Modern India, the academic life of the country and more so of the capital will no longer be the same.

While Jamia Milia Islamia, where he has been a key member of the Department of History and Culture and also an extremely energetic member of its Teachers’ Union , loses one of academic leaders, Jawaharlal Nehru University, under siege for some time anyway, loses one of its most loved alumni who represented the University in more than one sense: someone who thought scientifically about social issues, believed that a humane world could be built with the ideals of compassion, equity and a sense of justice, the virtues tried to be enshrined in our collective consciousness during the national movement for freedom, and someone ready to speak up against the divisive social and political forces.

Born and educated in Munghyr, Bihar, Rizwan came to Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1980. It was in the Centre for Historical Studies where he had his training in Modern Indian history, with Prof. Bipan Chandra, Mridula Mukherjee, K.N. Panikkar, Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, and many others who had made the Centre the location of a robust historiography on Modern Indian history.

Coming a couple of years after the Emergency and having experienced the student movements in Bihar as a young boy, Rizwan took to the new kind of history in no time but also took to the political life of the campus at this time. Though he later moved to the School of International Studies where he worked for his Doctoral thesis with the renowned Prof. Bimala Prasad and Prof. Uma Singh, he remained a steadfast historian of the Centre for Historical Studies mould, as for him the historian’s job was not over with merely arranging facts and interpreting them in a chronological manner in a sophisticated academic language.

The historian has to review one’s own historiographical premises as well of others and present one’s case in that ouvre, as it is here that presuppositions, prejudices, biases and premises of historians and the traditions of history are located. At least two generations of students of history in Jamia Milia Islamia were richer with these historical practices becoming a prevailing mode there given the active presence of such historians. Rizwan remained till the last its most vocal proponent.

This has also allowed him to emerge as the most articulate historian of the national movement and its different strands. He meticulously located the participation of the Muslim in general and nationalist Muslims in particular in the overall universe of the national movement. In his Doctoral thesis, he chose to concentrate on the idea, role and politics of Maulan Abul Kalam Azad, the quintessential nationalist Muslim that one could think of. His work was an examination of the ideological position of the nationalist Muslims and the predicaments they had faced when the Muslim masses joined the Muslim League as against the wishes and exhortation of the Nationalist Muslims against such a move.

Prof. Qaiser showed with a historian’s craft and meticulous attention to detail how his protagonist, Abul Kalam Azad was not after all a failure just because, as other historians like V.N.Dutta and Ian Douglas claimed, he could not carry his co-religionists to the national movement under the leadership of the Congress.

In fact, Prof. Qaiser showed how Azad’s ideological position, that Muslims while following their religious credo must embrace a secular political line, turned out to be socially the most valid position to take. To Prof. Qaiser, Azad was, since his emergence as a national leader of the Muslims in the 1920s, trying to build a consensus on the point where the concerns and angst of the Muslsim community, born out of their general and particular location, could be alleviated within the Congress platform so that the Muslim need not seek other forums for such issues. Once the Muslim League emerges in the late thirties, Azad’s work, as Prof Qaiser shows, became more challenging as he had to think afresh and sometime not in a very friendly atmosphere within the Congress, to bring the younger generations of Muslims towards the Congress.

His becoming the President of the Congress in 1940 in many ways was an acknowledgement of the tough job that he had at hand. Prof. Qaiser maintained that Azad had developed an ideological position where Hindus and Muslims could coexist within the framework of a single nation with adequate amount of mutual cooperation and adjustment. The need for such adjustment became greater as the movement for Pakistan became deeper and sharper and the opposition to such demand too began to take intransigent position.

Azad, in his work came out as a historical figure, and not merely as a tragic one, or a literary genius as many others have tried to paint him. The previous historians who had worked on the Khilafat and Non Co-operation movement saw the flank of the Muslim leadership in the shape of Mohammad Ali or Abul Kalam Azad taking their historical places, somehow placing them in the context of the Muslim awakening. Further, the politics within the Muslim community as having to face the new realities of Indian politics and turning into some kind of sectarian politics had also been brought to the fore in earlier histories.

Where Qaiser diverged and made a lasting contribution with his book, Resisting Colonialism and Communal Politics: Maulana Azad and the Making of the Indian Nation (Manohar, Delhi,2011) was the fact that he placed the question of an ideological choice in politics at the centre of the historiography. Thus, Azad made a conscious choice in accepting an ideology which he thought was the ideal path for the Muslims to follow in their opposition to colonialism as well as accepting their role in defining the Indian nation. He held on to this despite being marginalised both by the Muslim masses who joined the League in large numbers, and within the circle of leadership in the Congress and yet, as Qaiser suggests, this ideological choice was the right one in hindsight as this provided a correct picture of the anti colonial feelings of the Muslim masses and their desire to be the part of a free nation. Muslim Communalism provided them a false idea and a false promise.

Communalism, for him, was a modern phenomenon and it used religion and yet communalism cannot be identified with the religious life of people, a line – very subtle at times – being taken by many historians of Muslim communities and Islam in South Asia.

Prof. Qaiser ‘s critique of the writings of Francis Robinson, Peter Hardy or Paul Brass was posited in this understanding. For Prof. Qaiser, modern history of Islam and more so the Muslims in India cannot bypass the issue of their fight against colonialism and their place in negotiating Indian Nationalism. His recent writings and lectures on Jamiat ul Ulema I Hind for example and their role during the 1940s in supporting the Congress and opposing the Muslim league for example, also underpinned Prof Qaiser’s continued emphasis on an appropriate historical trajectory within modern history for the Muslims and Indian nationalism.

.A social scientist and a socialist

Rizwan’s was also an acutely conscious historical persona steeped deeply in the cosmopolitan nature of Indianness. A proud Bihari who came out of the famed Zila School of Munghyr which once upon a time used to be an excellent institution and had already produced Indian’s pioneering historian of science, Prof. Deepak Kumar, Rizwan of late was also steering many good researches on the regional history of Bihar in modern times. He also had been noticing the inter regional differences in the nature of popular protest during the national movement in a recent lecture about how the elite and educated in Bihar actually were happy about the partition of Bengal, as they saw it was needed for the development of Bihar.

His consciousness was also shaped by his being part of the socialist students formation, Samata Yuvajan Sabha, which had produced most of the socialist leaders in the last century. He like thousands of students of his generations believed that a scientific secular and socialist society can be formed by the struggle of the youth. His was an active political academic life in the JNU where he even contested for the JNUSU presidential post in 1987 which also saw his ability to articulate a non communist socialist position for a general population. His was also a non compromising secular position and he intellectually tried to add his contribution to refine the secular position in the light of the actual politics that India was undergoing. One still remembers his visiting and holding meetings in villages for maintaining communal harmony during the Babri Masjid demolition days of 1992-3. He was in fact one of the founding members of the Sadbhavna Mission which Prof. Vipin Kumar Tripathy of IIT Delhi has been steering for almost three decades now.

In the light of the discussion on secularism, the author had asked him once about his steering the move to the granting of minority institution status to Jamia. He was asked whether that was not smacking of a political route to communal position; his answer to this was scientific and quite valid. Why do we assume that by giving an institution a minority status which is a legal status, the political and social outlook of the teachers and students will become communal?

When the country is going to celebrate its 75th year of Independence, it would be a pity that one of the finest and most articulate historians of the national movement will not be with us. His absence will be more acutely felt when we fight our battle for collective consciousness which has been showing enormously dangerous communal portents in the present.

For all the latest India News, Follow India Section.