Sucheta Mahajan is a professor at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She has been Gillespie visiting professor at the College of Wooster, Ohio, US; Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study; Fellow of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center and a visiting professor at the Maison des Sciences de l’homme, Paris.
She was born in Delhi in 1958 to a family of historians. At the time of partition of India, her Father VD Mahajan and mother Savitri Shori Mahajan were both teaching history in Lahore from where the family migrated to Delhi in 1947 where they grew up in a middle class refugee colony, Lajpat Nagar.
When asked if she became a historian because her father VD Mahajan and her sister Prof Mridula were historian, she said, “No, I did not want to follow in the footsteps of my father and chose to study economics (honours) after high school. I was clear in my mind that economics did not help me understand the functioning of the economy and society. Mridula, my elder sister, took me to meet a professor of Economic History at Jawaharlal Nehru University and I decided to study economic history, hoping to make use of my training in economics, statistics and mathematics.”
She was an activist of ‘Free Thinker’ during her student days at JNU, although JNU was a centre of left politics. Her PhD thesis was on ‘Pressures on a Colonial Regime and Working of Imperial Policy, Transfer of Power in India, 1945-1947’. Prof Bipan Chandra, who was her mentor, guru and teacher, wished to bring out a series on modern Indian history so SAGE published the first book of its series in modern Indian history Independence and Partition. Prof Bipan asked her to prepare her book for publication.
“I was of course delighted that mine was the first in the series. Later, I learnt that the theme had had wide appeal and hence suitable to launch the series. Today we have crossed the 15 mark and my book has been reprinted and is due for a revised edition.”
Sucheta Mahajan’s significant books include Independence and Partition: The Erosion of Colonial Power in India (2000); India’s Struggle for Independence (1988; with Bipan Chandra et al); RSS, School Texts and the Murder of Mahatma Gandhi, The Hindu Communal Project (2008; with Aditya and Mridula Mukherjee) and Education and Social Change: MVF and Child Labour (2008). She has also edited many books such as Rites of Passage, A Civil Servant Remembers: H.M. Patel (2005); Composite Culture in a Multi-Cultural Society (co-edited with Bipan Chandra), and most recently, Towards Freedom 1947: Documents on India’s Freedom Struggle (2013). Her fields of interest span the short and long history of the twentieth century, its politics, political economy and social change.
The News on Sunday: You have discussed different aspects and phases of freedom struggle in your works. What do you think was the main reason that forced the British to leave India?
Sucheta Mahajan: The fundamental factor at work behind the British decision to leave India was the irreversible decline of imperial authority brought about by the growing hegemonic influence of the anti-colonial movement. This erosion of colonial power took place over a period of over two decades or more and created anxiety for the government from late 1930s onwards.
The masses joined the national movement, as evident in the movements of non-cooperation and civil disobedience and in the election results of 1937. Later the loyalists, the officials and men of the armed forces deserted the sinking ship.
By the end of World War II, the British government began to move to fashioning a retreat from empire which would still keep them in the picture in post-independent India.
TNS: Why could India not maintain its secular image as minorities and lower castes do not feel as secure now?
SM: I think India is still secular in its basic [structure] despite the communal regime in power at present. The society is pluralistic and tolerant of diversity, which is why the communalists, be they Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Christian, cannot shape the society in their mirror image. The Modi sarkar, which got a big majority last summer, could not bring its party to power in Delhi recently, though they tried every trick up their sleeve. Civil society needs to be very vigilant to stop the designs of the RSS to foment communal sentiment, instigate communal violence and communalise education.
It is true that minorities in some regions feel insecure, as in Gujarat, where they faced state-sponsored violence in 2002. On the positive side, minority and majority groups peacefully coexist in other areas. Lower castes continue to face discrimination in society but are supported in their movement to empowerment by government policies, including reservation.
The picture, I would say, is complex with insecurity and inequality coexisting with progress.
TNS: How do you look at the movement of forced conversion?
SM: One such movement is Ghar Wapsi or Home coming, a scheme of the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha, in which those who were converted to Christianity or Islam are welcomed back into the Hindu community after some ceremonies of purification. This is often done under pressure by the RSS and related organisations though it is claimed that the reconversion is voluntary.
In this movement, mostly Christians are targeted. RSS claims that the conversion of Hindus, especially lower castes, was enforced, that they were bribed to become Christians. When Ghar Wapsi is opposed, the RSS demands a debate on conversion. By that they mean conversions by the Christians, and the implication is that those are forced and should be banned.
TNS: You have dealt in detail with the partition of Punjab. What were the factors that caused the division of Punjab and Bengal?
SM: Division of Punjab was fallout of the division of the country (India). When it became clear that the British would leave after partitioning the country, the minorities in Punjab demanded a division of the province to ensure that not all of Punjab should go into Pakistan. Hindus and Sikhs did not wish to be under the rule of the Muslim League.
Polarisation increased after the Rawalpindi riots in March 1947 and the fall of the government of Khizr Hayat Khan under pressure from the civil disobedience movement of the Muslim League. Communal violence escalated, leading to civil war-like situation. Mountbatten Award declared the division of Punjab along with division of the country.
TNS: How do you look at the role of Unionist Party in the United Punjab?
SM: Though it was pro-British in its politics, it was a cross-communal political alliance of Muslim landlords from West Punjab and Hindu peasant proprietors of South East Punjab. Sir Sikandar Hayat Khan and Sir Chhotu Ram were its main leaders. It was pro-agriculturist and initiated legislation for debt relief.
The Unionist Party represented the possibility of a non-communal politics in the crucial province of Punjab. However, its pro-government stance during World War II dented its electoral prospects in 1946, and the resignation of Tiwana under pressure from the Muslim League in March 1947 ended the last prospect of a United Punjab.
TNS: Some people (like Imran Ali)say that Punjab could have been an independent state if its leaders Fazal-e-Hussain and Sir Sikandar had not died?
SM: Sir Sikandar’s death certainly made the spread of Muslim League’s influence possible in Punjab and allowed the consolidation of Jinnah as an all-India leader. Punjab could not be an independent state as this option was not given to the provinces of British India under the Mountbatten Award. Provinces could join either the Union of India or the Union of Pakistan.
TNS: Going back to India, how do you see the evolution of the Maoist movement?
SM: The Maoist movement today is reduced to many Naxal groups in central India waging armed struggle against the state. Though they claim to speak in the name of the people, this is rarely the case on the ground. Often their cadres and sympathisers are with them because the state has failed to provide basic necessities, not because they believe in Marxist ideas. Naxals spread their hold because of the failure of the state to deliver on its promises, not because of the success of their politics.
TNS: After the victory of BJP, do you think India will become a Hindu state?
SM: No, India did not become a Hindu state at the time of partition, when Hindu communal groups stepped up pressure on the Congress to declare India a Hindu state. The argument was that Pakistan would be a theocratic state. Congress leaders, particularly Patel, ruled it out firmly. Today even extreme Hindu communal groups do not make this demand — their attempts are focused on communalising education, especially. History textbooks, fomenting communal violence at opportune moments, are suppressing secular voices. All these are deplorable and need to be opposed.
TNS: Do you think India and Pakistan would be able to resolve their issues, including Kashmir, peacefully and the amount they spend on defence would be spent on health, education and for the betterment of their people?
SM: Well, there is no reason that this should not be possible, given that the two Germanys have reunited despite extreme differences. In the case of Pakistan and India, there is a strong affinity shared by the people despite war-mongering by the governments.
At the level of people-to-people contacts there is great warmth and friendship. We share a common culture, have a shared history, and continue to interact with each other in various spheres of trade, communication, media, education. Attempts have been made to undermine this, such as Aitzaz Ahsan’s rooting of the culture of Pakistan in the Indus culture rather than in a common Ganga-Jamuni culture.
The governments, of course, do not wish to reach any agreement and want Kashmir to fester as an unresolved issue that will drain the economies of both countries and allow the United States to fish in troubled waters. So hope lies in the voice of the people.