“At the heart and soul of this book is an endeavour to articulate a vision of Islam, rather the many different kinds of Islam instead of the frightening monolithic of popular perception, living in harmony with other faiths and of the Muslims, inheritors of the great Indian civilisation, living in a pluralist milieu.”
These words of historian Mushirul Hasan, written in his book ‘Moderate or Militant: Images of India’s Muslims’, are a perfect mirror into the mind of one of India’s finest historians. One of the first historians to have created the substratum of the Islamic engagement with the Indian nationalist movement and the Indian republic, Hasan was a pioneer in changing the tone of history writing in India when it came to the way the discipline projected Islam in the country. A brilliant historian, a fearless advocate of free expression and a passionate academic, who did everything he could to bring about far-reaching positive changes in Jamia Milia Islamia, where he worked as the Vice-Chancellor towards the end of his career, is how those close to him will remember him.
Born exactly two years after the birth of independent India, on August 15, 1949, Hasan grew up in a nation that was still coming to terms with fractures left behind by Partition. His works reflected the mood of the times and brought fresh perspective into examining the past through the lens of the present. His first book, ‘A Nationalist Conscience: M.A. Ansari, the Congress and the Raj’ dwelled in the mind of a Muslim nationalist leader and his interactions with the Indian National Congress. ‘Legacy Of A Divided Nation: India’s Muslims From Independence To Ayodhya’ that he wrote in 1997 was an in-depth analysis of the connections between the Indian nationalist movement, the origins of Muslim separatism and the plight of the community in modern India. ‘Nationalism and Communal Politics in India’ on the other hand, traced the roots of the communal politics in India back to the late eighteenth century.
“The majority of his work and cumulatively the most important part of it was the way in which he defabricated this monolithic notion of Indian Muslims into specifics of their historical reality,” says Mukul Kesavan who teaches History in Jamia Milia Islamia. Hasan’s most important contribution, Kesavan added, was “the way in which he transformed the history of the republic and its most important minority”.
But Hasan’s endeavour into India’s past did not just consist of his engagement with Indian Muslims. ‘The Nehrus: Personal Histories’ that he published in 2006 is a brilliant pictorial biography of India’s first political family. ‘Wit and Humour in Colonial North India’ on the other hand looked into the publication of cartoons in an India under colonial rule. History for Hasan was a subject that he was surrounded with while growing up, and was even more enamoured by during his college years. In an interview with the television anchor Syed Mohd Irfan in the popular show Guftagoo broadcast on Rajya Sabha TV, Hasan spoke at length about his love for history and how it grew over the years. “My home used to be filled with books. Most among these were History books since my father was a big historian. He had written quite a bit, on Kashmir, Tipu Sultan, Babur,” he said about his father, the esteemed historian Mohibbul Hasan. He went on to speak about his college Aligarh Muslim University from where he completed his MA. “At Aligarh during that time, there were several great professors and social scientists. It was a great environment that ignited interest in History in me.”
After completing his Masters from AMU, Hasan worked as a Professor at Delhi’s University’s Ramjas College at the young age of 19. He later went to England to do his PhD from Cambridge University and completed it in a matter of three and half years.
Once he was back from England, he began his teaching career in Jamia where he will always be remembered as a fearless academic who fought to bring about intellectual and cultural changes. “When he took over Jamia as its Vice-Chancellor he literally transformed it. He hugely expanded Jamia’s infrastructure. He established new departments and centers. He transformed it intellectually by bringing it into the mainstream of the capital’s intellectual life. He invited all manner of academic, intellectuals and policy figures into taking up permanent and temporary responsibilities in Jamia and made it a genuinely metropolitan university,” says Kesavan.
“During his term several new academic centers came up in the university like Dalit studies, minorities, comparative religion, Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace & Conflict Resolution,” says Shahnawaz Ali Raihan who was a student of Comparative Religion in Jamia when Hasan was its Vice-Chancellor. In May 2010, Hasan was appointed as the Director-General of the National Archives where again he transformed the space into a center of genuine intellectual production.
Apart from his academic pursuits though, Hasan was also a vociferous advocate of free expression. “His role during the Batla House encounter was commendable. I remember he gave a wonderful speech in the auditorium taking the side of the students and boldly condemning extra judicial killing of the students,” says Raihan. In the 1990s, when Hasan was pro-vice chancellor of Jamia, he stood up for Salman Rushdie’s rights for publishing the Satanic Verses even though he did not like the book much. “In the wake of him saying this in an interview he was physically attacked in Jamia by people who took an orthodox fundamentalist view of this whole issue. He could not enter the campus for about two-three years. But he stuck it out and insisted that he had right to say what he did,” says Kesavan. In the end, however, he returned to Jamia not just as a Professor but also as its Vice-Chancellor.
The last couple of years of his life though Hasan endured a lot of pain as he met with a road accident about two years back and was mostly bed ridden after that. He was also undergoing dialysis for kidney problems. Hasan breathed his last in the early hours of Monday leaving behind the legacy of a life lived full and free, engaging in full spirit with the intricacies of the past, present and the future.