A Great Man We Should Know

by Mehdi Khawaja

“Knowing him has been an education.”

     Edward Said

 “By which mirror Eqbal, in his clear undertone, still plots to end all human pain?”

     Agha Shahid Ali, Rooms Are Never Finished

There are scholars — intellectuals, as you may call them; and there are too many of them. Then there are rebels, those with insurrectionary attitude; and there are too many of them too.

But then, very seldom, perhaps by happenstance in nature, there are people like Eqbal Ahmad: rebel-scholars: Rebellious heart, scholarly mind.

Eqbal Ahmad was born in Irki in what is now Bihar in India. He witnessed the first killing in his life at the age of four, when he was sleeping with his father and his rivals bloodied him in bed for espousing the land reform measures. That was in around 1937. A decade later, Eqbal witnessed a more gruesome and horrid form of human disposition. With independence, India was being partitioned. Hundreds of thousands were killed and twenty-two million people were displaced. Eqbal’s mother was a sympathizer of Congress, but his brothers saw Jinnah as their leader. His brothers asked him to move. He moved; mother stayed. In his short story Two Recumbent Male Figures Wrestling on a Sidewalk, John Berger recounts the episode of Eqbal’s trek from one country to another.

Roughly a year in Pakistan and Eqbal joined a battalion of Muslim League youth to fight in the first war of Kashmir, during which he was shot. A decade later, completing his graduation in Economics from Lahore, he received a scholarship to study in the US — first at the Occidental College in California and then at Princeton University. There he studied the Middle-Eastern & African histories & politics. Soon he travelled to Paris and got involved with Algerian nationalists who were fighting a war of liberation against the French in Algeria. He fought side by side with Algerian nationalists like Frantz Fanon and Ben Bella till the French were driven out.

After the war was over, he was invited to join the first independent government in Algeria but he declined and returned to the US. There he taught for some time at University of Illinois at Carbondale (1964-65) and Cornell University (1965-1968) and became an early dissident of America’s war in Vietnam and Cambodia.

During this time he found himself so much isolated that sometimes while sitting at the lunch table, large numbers of people would line up for a table but nobody would sit with him. In 1971, Eqbal was indicted with the anti-war Catholic priest Phillip Berrigan, and six other Catholic pacifists on charges of conspiracy to kidnap Henry Kissinger and blow up the heating system in Washington federal buildings. After hours of deliberations, the jury acquitted them and declared a mistrial. In 1982, Hampshire College in Amherst took him as a professor to teach World Politics and political science. Eqbal co-founded the Transnational Institute, an overseas offshoot of Institute of Policy Studies. He was an editor of the journal Race and Class, and co-founder of Pakistan Forum.

It is difficult to put Eqbal Ahmad in a definition: an irenic political scientist, an erudite academic, and a valiant activist who supported — and sometimes was even involved in — anti-war activism and resistance movements across the globe. His extensive knowledge and analysis were sought by leaders of revolutions and policymakers around the world. During 1979-1981 Iran Hostage crisis, Iranian President Abolhassan Banisadr wanted him to negotiate with the Americans. Both the countries trusted no one but Eqbal’s honesty.

The purview of Eqbal Ahmad’s knowledge is far wide. He has dealt with and written about numberless subjects. I have tried to sum up his views about few of them here:

Gandhi and the Partition of India

Of the partition of 1947, Eqbal believed that when two communities co-exist with each other for such a long time as seven hundred years, it is impossible not to find ways out of separation. He thought that partition could have been avoided, but not unless Indian anti-imperialists understood the necessity of avoiding the ideology of nationalism. Nationalism is an ideology of difference, he argued, so Gandhi is at least as responsible for contributing to the division of India as anyone, including Jinnah. Tagore, the poet, had warned Gandhi: “Look, the politics you are introducing in India is going to divide the two communities.”

According to Eqbal Ahmad, Gandhi was an anti-imperialist opportunist who pursued a politics that spiritualized and sectarianized the politics of India. He gives us an example:

On his return to India in 1915, the first major cause Gandhi picked up was the salvaging of the caliphate in Turkey. In the Middle East, the Ottomans were falling apart; the Turkish nationalism had no use for it and was throwing it away. In India, Muslims portrayed the collapse of Ottoman sultanate as a product of British machination. They started the anti-British movement in the name of saving the caliphate in Turkey. Mahatma jumped in. There was a massive movement in which Muslims were totally mobilized and Gandhi was leading it along with Ali brothers. The Congress Party threw its support on behalf of the caliphate movement. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad also became a leader in this movement. Jinnah warned Gandhi, “Don’t do this. This is using religion or appeals of religion in politics. One day it will backfire on us.

And indeed it did.

The Question of Palestine

The great man who went through the Algerian revolution could no longer romanticize armed struggle. Eqbal argued that armed struggle was supremely unsuited to the Palestinian condition. Moreover, Israeli Zionist organisations, in views of Eqbal, continue to portray the Jews as victims of Arab violence.

Eqbal was a fierce opponent of the Oslo agreement. According to him the agreement is extremely unjust, because it doesn’t respond to any of the fundamental issues in the Palestinian conflict: it offers no compensation, no restitution, no return to the half of Palestine’s population who are now refugees; it offers no settlement of the issue of water rights in the occupied territories; it offers Palestinians no right to self-determination, no protection from expanding Israeli settlements. In other words, Oslo leaves open all the fundamental questions that have defined the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Eqbal Ahmad was invited to meet Yasir Arafat many times, last time being in Tunisia, when the PLO had been beaten and driven out of Lebanon. At this crucial point Eqbal proposed to him that his single biggest need was to develop a really clear-cut position, to remove the question of recognition. Announce that he has no problem recognizing the state of Israel. But ask which Israel he is being asked to recognize. Is it the Israel of 1948? Is it the Israel of the 1947 partition plan? Is it the Israel of 1948 that expanded three times more? Is it the Israel of the 1967 war? Is it the Israel of Israeli imagination? Because Israel is the only country, the only member of the United Nations that has refused to announce its boundaries. Arafat always took notes of what Eqbal suggested, but always did nothing. In the later days, Eqbal was disappointed with Yasir Arafat and remarked that, “Arafat and the people around him are thugs collaborating with Israel. Right now, in their moment of greatest thuggery, the Western media is saying nothing about them. They have suddenly become good guys.”

A Solution for Kashmir

Eqbal Ahamd’s solution to the conflict of Kashmir is lesser known but most relevant:

Kashmir, since 1948, has been divided between India and Pakistan. The Pakistani side is called Azad Kashmir, “Free Kashmir,” with its capital Muzaffarabad. It has its own autonomous government. Pakistan almost totally controls its foreign policy, defense, and commercial policies. So in a way its autonomy is severely compromised. On the other hand, India controls all of the rest of Kashmir, which divides into three parts. First, the Valley. Majority of its population is Muslim, who have over the last two centuries suffered great discrimination, injustice and oppression at the hands of the maharajas. Second, there is Ladakh which is predominantly Buddhist. India considers this part of Kashmir to be terribly important for its defense because it is next to China. Lastly, there is Jammu, where more than half of the population is non-Kashmiri-speaking Hindus. But their religion is less important than their ethnicity — they are Dogras, the same people as the maharajas. They have been favoured. They speak a different language. They feel closer to India. They do not share the premises of Kashmiriyat.

What Eqbal proffered is that we seek an agreement which leaves the Pakistani part under Pakistani control. Jammu and Ladakh, which do not share premises of Kashmiri nationalism, should be left under Indian sovereignty. The Valley should be given independence. But the agreement among the three — Kashmiri leadership, Pakistan, India — must envisage uniting Kashmir with divided sovereignty. Remove the line of control, remove border patrols, make trade free among these three, make India-Pakistan and the independent Kashmiri government jointly responsible for the defense of this mountain area.

We, too, have a Bomb

In May 1999 India tested its nuclear weapons. Few days later Pakistan also did. Eqbal Ahmad asserted that it made no sense whatsoever for India to have tested its nuclear weapons a second time, and made equally no sense for Pakistan to follow suit. According to him, the only way one can explain India’s decision is this particular brand of Hindu nationalism the BJP represents, which was in the office at the time. The BJP’s notion of power is a military power, he says, and it believes influence is attained by force or the show of force.

Defying the assertion by Pakistan’s then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that Pakistan had no choice but to test nuclear weapons, Eqbal argued that after testing their weapons, the Indian leaders became panicky that they would look very bad if Pakistan did not test. The Indian foreign minister said Pakistan should reconsider its position in South Asia because the strategic equation had changed. L K Advani said that India was going into Pakistan to take over those parts of Kashmir that were in Pakistani hands. Atal Behari Vajpayee, the then prime minister, said that the strategic equation had changed and the Pakistanis should understand it. These kinds of provocative statements were made every day. However, to respond to such provocation by exploding its own bomb is not the act of responsible leadership. Just because India had done it does not mean that Pakistan should also have done it. “If India had not tested its bomb in 1974,” says Eqbal, “Pakistanis probably would never have started to develop their bomb. I do not defend such competition. I do not defend either responding to provocation. I think these are all childish acts, not acts of national security.”

The Dream that Remained a Dream

Eqbal Ahmad saw the higher education in Pakistan as collapsed and inherited from colonial system, which was meant to produce servants of the empire. He dreamt of establishing Khaldunia in Pakistan, a university named after the fourteenth-century sociologist Ibn Khaldun. By establishing Khaldunia, Eqbal wanted to revive higher education, set some example and show what kind of curriculum should be the curriculum of an independent and self-governing people. Until his death, Eqbal made every little effort possible to establish Khaldunia, but the men in power and the ruling elites saw to it that the university is not established.

Considering how larger than life figure Eqbal was, not much has been written on him. Small efforts have been made, although, by his dears and friends across the globe: books have been dedicated to him; an Eqbal Ahmad Annual Lecture Series is organised at the Hampshire College (The first Eqbal Ahmad Lecture was delivered by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in 1998.); Eqbal Ahmad Centre for Public Education is a web-based learning programme that takes inspiration from the life and works of Eqbal Ahmad.

Eqbal Ahmad wrote his last column on the war in Kosovo on April 25, 1999 and died on May 11 of heart failure, following surgery for colon cancer. My own words fail me to conclude this piece, so I must reach for David Barsamian who, in the introduction to his book of interviews with Eqbal Ahmad, writes: “It is difficult to think of Eqbal Ahmad in the past tense.”

(Mehdi Khawaja was born in Kashmir. He studies English Literature at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Observations in this article are author’s own.)



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