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A Civilizing Mission | The Nation

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A Civilizing Mission

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Among anticolonial intellectuals, Pakistani scholar and activist Eqbal Ahmad (1933-99), who toward the end of his life spent fifteen years teaching at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, holds a special place. He never published a classic text on the order of Frantz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth or Edward Said's Orientalism, nor did he achieve anything like fame. (The closest he came was a passing notoriety during the Nixon era, when he was indicted on charges of conspiring to kidnap Henry Kissinger.) Yet everyone who was someone in the vast but--in the West--obscure world of Third World radicalism knew Ahmad, and even his adversaries had a grudging respect for him. As much as Said, he was a mentor to a generation of thinkers, mostly South Asian, who have been active in protest struggles in the West as well as on the subcontinent.

About the Author

Amitava Kumar
Amitava Kumar is the editor of World Bank Literature (Minnesota) and the author of Bombay-London-New York (Routledge)...

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Within a few miles of Ahmad's birthplace in the Indian state of Bihar stands the mausoleum of Sher Shah Suri, the sixteenth-century ruler who built the Grand Trunk Road across the giant spread of the subcontinent. In a BBC documentary called Stories My Country Told Me, Ahmad, traveling in a car across that great unifying marker in the region, cites Sher Shah's remark that "roads are the carriers of civilization." Ahmad's work as a writer and activist might be said to have performed the same function. It is not only the power but also the wide range of his sympathies that astonish. He was a committed engineer of emancipation, building imaginative roads, linking issues across continents.

Though best known for his eloquent speeches and lectures, Ahmad published with some regularity; his Selected Writings, edited by Carollee Bengelsdorf, Margaret Cerullo and Yogesh Chandrani, are now available from Columbia University Press. They shed light on guerrilla warfare, the cold war, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, the nuclear tests carried out by India and Pakistan. There are more than fifty pieces: Some were written as op-eds, including for The Nation; a few were delivered as speeches; and several were published as scholarly essays.

Yet this collection, for all its riches, offers the merest hint of the scope of Ahmad's life. He may have taught at a small New England college, but he inhabited a large stage, and his adventures reflected a profoundly committed cosmopolitanism that has since degenerated into a more fashionable, and considerably less dangerous, seminar-talk in cultural studies courses on American campuses. During the early 1960s, while he was a doctoral student at Princeton and doing research in Tunisia, Ahmad rallied to the cause of Algerian independence and befriended a number of high-ranking FLN leaders exiled in Tunis. Upon his return to the United States in the mid-'60s, he became an early and impassioned opponent of the war in Vietnam and then, following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, an outspoken advocate for Palestinian rights at a time when such a position was virtually taboo in the United States.

Ahmad remained throughout his life a Marxist, but of a special kind, as the Indian social theorist Ashis Nandy reminded me in a recent conversation. Sitting in his home in Delhi, close to the shrine of the fourteenth-century Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya, Nandy described Ahmad as a Leninist who was long "straining at the leash." Even in the First World, where Ahmad spent many years, "the most creative Marxists had shed the shackles of Leninism." And Ahmad did the same with age. But what gave his thinking its suppleness, Nandy suggested to me, was that Ahmad had been born in a society where faith was deeply entrenched and secure. Ideology is not so powerful in such places. For some members of the radical left, particularly in the West, people in developing countries are an ideological abstraction, on whom fantasies of liberation are projected from a comfortable distance. These fantasies are not infrequently laced with condescension. Ahmad, by contrast, was led into political activism by a genuine love and compassion for the peoples of the Third World, who were anything but strangers to him. "To identify him with an ideology, as if he were a fully formed Western man," Nandy told me, "is to do him an injustice. He fought for causes in the Third World and had a robust, life-affirming attitude towards the people among whom he fought."

Not that anyone would have predicted a career of radical, globe-trotting activism for Ahmad, who was born to a prosperous family of Muslim landowners. But the struggles in British-occupied India, followed by the bloody partition that accompanied independence, changed all that. Ahmad, barely a teenager at the time, was forced to join the long caravan of refugees trekking to Pakistan. His father had earlier been murdered over a property dispute; his mother refused to leave India for Pakistan, reportedly rebuking her sons for having become "Muslim Zionists." In the course of the long march to the newly created border, young Ahmad served as an armed sentry, shooting down marauders who attacked the caravan. The experience was no doubt scarring.

In a sense, the agony of partition--of bloody interethnic riots, mass displacement and the slaughter of a million civilians--had an effect on South Asian intellectuals not unlike that of the Holocaust on Jewish intellectuals: It became their subliminal reference point, the angle of vision that defined their politics. Ahmad drew very specific lessons from the nationalist bloodletting. Like Rabindranath Tagore, a poet and thinker he admired, Ahmad understood that Indian anti-imperialist movements needed to avoid the ideology of nationalism. In a series of interviews with David Barsamian, published in 2000, Ahmad said, "We rejected Western imperialism, but in the process we embraced Western nationalism lock, stock, and barrel." The carnage of the partition was inevitable. And also, arguably, the present-day fundamentalist revival with its ultranationalist underpinnings.

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