Eqbal Ahmad (1934?-1999)

An intellectual unintimidated by power or authority

Eqbal Ahmad, perhaps the shrewdest and most original anti-imperialist analyst of Asia and Africa, has died, aged 66, in Islamabad following an operation for colon cancer. A man of enormous charisma and incorruptible ideals, he was a prodigious talker and lecturer.

He had an almost instinctive attraction to movements of the oppressed and the persecuted, whether in Europe, America, Bosnia, Chechnya, South Lebanon, Vietnam, Iraq or the Indian Subcontinent. He had a formidable knowledge of history, always measuring the promise of religion and nationalism against their depredations and abuse as their proponents descended into fundamentalism, chauvinism and provincialism. Ahmad was a fierce, often angry, combatant against what he perceived as human cruelty and perversity…

Ahmad was an early and prominent opponent of the Vietnam war, and in 1970 was tried with the Berrigan brothers on a trumped-up charge of conspiracy to kidnap Henry Kissinger—on which he and his alleged co-conspirators were acquitted. In addition to his outspoken support of unpopular causes (especially Palestinian rights), Ahmad's uncompromising politics kept him an untenured professor at various universities until 1982, when Hampshire College, Massachusetts, made him a professor. He taught there until he became emeritus professor in 1998, dividing his time between New England and Pakistan

During these years he travelled all over the world. Arabs, for example, learned more from him about the failures of Arab nationalism than from anyone else. In 1980, in Beirut, he was the first to predict the exact outlines of the 1982 Israeli invasion; in a memo to Yasir Arafat and Abu Jihad he also sadly forecast the quick defeat of PLO forces in South Lebanon. He was a relentless opponent of militarism, bureaucracy, ideological rigidity and what he called "the pathology of power". He was consulted by journalists and international civil servants about abstruse currents in contemporary Afghanistan, Algeria, Iran, India, Pakistan, Angola, Cuba, Sri Lanka, and he had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the US.

No one who saw him sitting bare-foot and cross-legged on a living-room floor, conversing genially until the early hours, with a glass in his hand, will ever forget the sight or the sound of his voice as he announced 'four major points'—but never got past two or three. He loved literature, especially poetry, and the sensitive and precise use of language, whether it was Urdu, English, French, Arabic or Farsi. Ahmad was that rare thing, an intellectual unintimidated by power or authority, a companion in arms to such diverse figures as Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Tariq Ali, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, Richard Falk, Fred Jameson, Alexander Cockburn and Daniel Berrigan.

Immaculate in dress and expression, faultlessly kind, an unpretentious connoisseur of food and wine, he saw himself as a man of the 18th century, modern because of enlightenment and breadth of outlook, not because of technological or quasi-scientific 'progress'. Somehow he managed to preserve his native Muslim tradition without succumbing either to the frozen exclusivism or to the jealousy that has often gone with it. Humanity and secularism had no finer champion.

-Edward Said in The Guardian 

The cosmopolitan lefti

Eqbal Ahmad had a wonderfully analytical mind. He could conceptualise events and policies with great ease when most of us looked in vain for theoretical frameworks. As events took place and policies were applied or misapplied, journalism had to wait for the final word from Eqbal Ahmad to understand what was happening in the world and inside Pakistan.

His left-wing past was cosmopolitan. He had seen the cold war world getting divided in a cruel confrontational politics that destroyed many men of integrity. While teaching in the United States, he challenged the US establishment successfully. Some of his best writings came out of that period. When he took on the US, it was on the basis of facts that no one could challenge.

Tragically, his efforts to set up a centre of learning in Pakistan came to grief. Khaldunia, the name he gave to his university, promised an independence of inquiry that Islamabad was not willing to tolerate. The threat was not so much the proposed university's left-wing anti-imperialist orientation, but its potential to challenge the state in Pakistan and its coercive religious ideology.

In 1991, while editing The Frontier Post, I happened to pick a bone with him through an editorial. My contention was that his blanket anti-Americanism was playing into the hands of the fundamentalists. He was so offended that to placate him I had to send him a written apology, an undertaking which I have never regretted. There were so many issues on which I found support in his columns that I sincerely realised the mistake I had made.

Later, as he became disenchanted with the Iranian revolution and the tightening of the ideological noose in Pakistan, he perhaps realised the risk of appearing to court popularity in the wrong quarters. His view of the Indo-Pakistan rivalry and the Kashmir dispute was so balanced that publications in South Asia and the West frequently sought him out for comment. The establishments in Islamabad and New Delhi couldn't have liked him for what he said in his inimitable and persuasive style. His speeches in New Delhi stand as masterpieces of criticism that India was not used to hearing from Pakistanis.

The circle of friends who had lionised him during his early anti- American period gradually distanced themselves as his tough secular mind refused to bend to their programmes. He stayed away from such 'national' causes as the bomb and anti-liberalism as a device to save national sovereignty. As the Pakistani mind moved towards isolationism, he criticised policies that embodied defiance of the world opinion in the name of nationalism. His columns in Dawn can be cited as the best opinion-writing done in Pakistan in recent years. Clarity and conceptual strength were the hallmark of his journalism.

He was partisan to no one's politics, he was partisan only to his view of life and politics. He had no self-doubt over the views he embraced. Normally lack of self-doubt characterises the mind of the hawk, but his adherence to secularism had deep intellectual and civilisational roots. The old hawkish argument that being a 'dove' sent the wrong message to the 'enemy' never washed with him. Towards the end, he stood away from both the intellectually frozen Left and the new aggressive nationalism of the hawks.

– Khaled Ahmed

The itinerant intellectual

In the death of Eqbal Ahmad—the brilliant Pakistani political scientist, journalist, activist and thinker—India has lost one of her most illustrious sons.

In that paradoxical tribute lies an important clue to the life and work of Ahmad, which spanned highly dispersed causes and events, geographically and politically. From the Algerian revolution and the anti-Vietnam protest in North America to anti-nuclearism and planning for a new Khaldunia University at Islamabad that, he had hoped, would break out of the shackles of conventionality and the intellectual stupor that afflict the South Asian university system.

Despite knowing him for some thirty years, I came close to Ahmad only during the last decade or so. Strangely because it gradually became obvious to us that, while we shared almost nothing of each other's larger vision, we agreed on virtually everything that was of immediate political and intellectual concern to us.

Eqbal was a Bihari. Like most Westernised upper-class Biharis these days, Eqbal had a touch of the wandering, itinerant intellectual about him. Only he began his journey early, in the wake of the massive bloodshed and the uprooting that accompanied the division of British India 50 years ago. The tiredness of those 50 years had begun to show in recent years. Those like me, who feel maimed by his sudden death this week, may like to console themselves with the thought that Eqbal Ahmad deserves his rest.

– Ashis Nandy

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