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‘He Thought of Both India & Pak as Home’: Remembering Marxist Icon Aijaz Ahmad

He once said, “The BJP is programmatically communal while the Congress is pragmatically communal.”

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I first heard about Aijaz Ahmad, who passed away at 81 earlier this month in the US on 9 March, during my college days in Lahore, when he appeared on the cover of Monthly Review, a reputed American socialist journal, in an interview titled In Defence of History. In the interview, he railed against the formidable Palestinian literary critic Edward Said, whose tome, Culture and Imperialism, I had reviewed for my first-year course in English.

Then, after formally joining the then-Communist Mazdoor Kisan Party (CMKP), I often heard of a ‘Professors Group’ within the Mazdoor Kisan Party (MKP) – the older incarnation of the CMKP – comprising ‘professors’ who had mostly built their reputations abroad – Feroze Ahmad, Eqbal Ahmad, Hamza Alavi and Aijaz Ahmad – and had joined the party in order to conduct Marxist study circles for the workers. Later on, when I went to Leeds to complete my MA, I returned to Pakistan for a short time during the summer to conduct interviews for my dissertation, where I interviewed Alavi in Karachi and Dr Mubashar Hasan, the stalwart of the Pakistan Peoples Party in Lahore.

Whenever intellectuals and professors who had worked for the labour movement in Pakistan were mentioned, Aijaz Ahmad’s name was definitely taken.
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A Big Name Not Only in Pak, But Across the World

One day, at Leeds, I caught sight of his classic book In Theory: Nations, Classes, Literatures in the library. Certainly, I studied the chapter on Edward Said first of all. Said’s very famous book, Orientalism, is considered a most important book in universities around the world (and outside the academic circles as well). However, the manner in which Said had even deemed Marx an orientalist in this book created a huge uproar. The full response, which Aijaz gave to this accusation of Said, has itself become as important as Orientalism.

Then, upon my return to Pakistan, when I combined teaching at a public sector university with taking up a project on the Railway Workers Union’s struggle for democracy, I interviewed many veteran communists, progressive trade unionists and journalists like Tahira Mazhar Ali (mother of Tariq Ali), Sardar Shaukat Ali, Ahmad Bashir and Begum Naseem Shamim Malik. The names of Feroze Ahmad, Eqbal Ahmad, Tariq Ali, Hamza Alavi and Aijaz Ahmad would frequently be mentioned in the same breath. Old comrades and senior journalists would tell me that these great intellectuals were big names not only in Pakistan but also on an international level.

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When I Received an Email From 'the' Aijaz Ahmad

In early 2010, while I was a graduate student of Middle Eastern history in Arkansas, I was surprised to receive a long email from ‘the’ Aijaz Ahmad in response to an essay I had written on Yemen in Counterpunch reminding readers of its revolutionary past in contrast to what the likes of Thomas Friedman and even Patrick Cockburn were peddling both in mainstream and ‘alternative' American journalism about that benighted country at that time. He encouraged me in my humble work on the history of Yemen’s communist past and shared his own past attachments to it. That was the beginning of an on-again, off-again correspondence which lasted until the October of 2021.

In April 2013, I had the opportunity to visit India for the first time to present an academic paper on Yemen at the Historical Materialism conference in New Delhi. I contacted Aijaz sahib immediately after reaching there.

My first meeting with him was at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), also the venue of the conference, where I had also been put up by my hosts. He had come to give a talk there at the invitation of the student union. The hall was packed. His talk on religious fundamentalism was very substantial, and one sentence of his I still remember: “The BJP is programmatically communal while the Congress is pragmatically communal.”

The hall erupted in applause at this line and the students burst into laughter. I also remembered more than a decade ago when ace Pakistani Urdu writer, Fahmida Riaz, had recited her incendiary poem Naya Bharat in this same university, with its opening line “Tum bilkul hum jaise nikle” (You turned out just like us) comparing Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan in the 1980s with the BJP’s newly-ascendant Hindu fundamentalism, leading to an army officer pulling out a gun with Riaz having to be escorted out of the venue by her hosts. But Aijaz had no such luck, despite the fact that the Indian state regarded him as a ‘Pakistani’ because of his living in Pakistan for the early decades of his life, thereby refusing to grant him Indian citizenship though he lived in India for three decades.

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Aijaz Wanted to Visit Yemen

After the seminar, we met briefly. A few days later, we met at the India International Center for a memorable meeting. He knew I was a member of the CMKP, whose earlier incarnation, the MKP, Aijaz had been a part of when he used to live in Pakistan. He asked about it as well as the Awami Workers Party, which had been newly established at that time. He also inquired about the broader Pakistani left. He had visited Pakistan during Musharraf’s rule, and he mentioned it.

He inquired a lot about the situation in Afghanistan. He also had a keen interest in Yemen and knew that I had written a lot on that country and had visited it a few years back. He said that he, too, wanted to visit Yemen to renew solidarities but was not sure (due to the security situation) whether to go or not. I advised him that he should definitely visit and Yemeni comrades would look after him.

Aijaz avoided talking about personal matters. I, too, did not dare ask him if he missed Pakistan. During the conversation, he let slip that he sometimes writes poetry but only for himself. He has neither published it anywhere nor does he plan to.

I said, “It would be a grave injustice not to publish it. At least do email me a few poems, I will only read for myself.”

His smiling response was, “No, they are not that good.”

He also mentioned Tariq Ali, Abid Hasan Minto, Mirza Ibrahim, Abdullah Malik, Major Ishaq and a few comrades of the left, some of whose names I was hearing for the first time.

He once said, “The BJP is programmatically communal while the Congress is pragmatically communal.”

A rare photo of Aijaz Ahmad from 1969.

(Photo courtesy: Vijay Prashad)

In those days, India was preparing for elections. He was worried about the potential victory of the BJP. He asked me about my opinion. I said, laughing, “I think if Manmohan ji can win from anywhere, it could be the constituency of Jhelum and Chakwal. Their people are very proud of him.” He roared with laughter.

This splendid and memorable meeting went on for three to four hours. After dinner, we left the India Center and went home in one rickshaw.

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When He Suddenly Stopped Responding

After that dinner, while I was in Delhi for a few more days, we met on some more occasions.

But after my return from India, there was a lull in our email correspondence. Though I visited India again for literary festivals in Delhi and Lucknow a year later in February 2014, I could not meet him. Rather, I spoke to him on the telephone to find that he had gone to Calcutta for a Communist Party of India (Marxist) election rally. Little did I know then that after the rise of the BJP to power, it was becoming difficult for him to remain in Delhi.

A few months later, he emailed me to invite me to contribute a chapter on the hidden history of revolutionary Yemen for an edited book he had commissioned from the Columbia University Press (CUP). I was amazed that even during the lull in our email conversation, he had been keeping track of my essays in Counterpunch; he cited the one I had written on the great Turkish communist poet Nazim Hikmet’s 50th death anniversary.

I now know that this was his way of quietly encouraging younger scribblers like us. I highly regarded then – and still do – his very kind invitation, a great honour for someone like me whose Arabic was at best at the beginner’s stage and who was by no means an ‘expert’ on the country. Nevertheless, I had a series of enthusiastic correspondences with him about this draft chapter.

And then suddenly Aijaz ceased responding altogether.

It was four years later when almost on a whim, I decided to email him, after hearing conflicting reports from comrades that he had either been ‘chucked out’ from India or had relocated to the US under pressure from Hindutva fanaticism.

Not sure how he would respond after such a long gap, this couplet of Faiz filled my heart:

Bada hai dard ka rishta

Tere naam par aayenge gham-gusaar chale

(Great is the relation of affliction

The well-wishers will come on in your devotion)

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A Shelved Project Amid 'Political Pressures'

I wrote to him. Aijaz responded promptly, saying that he remembered me well, and that the CUP project had to be shelved not only because of a difficult new editor but also due to political pressures, which hastened his departure from India to the United States. What he did not say to me was that his health was deteriorating and his busyness was increasing, and hence his ‘tardy’ correspondence.

In the last year, I came across the phenomenal book brought out by Vijay Prashad Nothing Human Is Alien To Me, in which he has interviewed Aijaz about his life and legacy. Aijaz opens up more about his seminal years in Pakistan, his association with the MKP and the time spent with some of the great poets and personalities of Lahore, not all of them progressives like Aijaz.

He once said, “The BJP is programmatically communal while the Congress is pragmatically communal.”

The cover of Nothing Human is Alien to Me.

This book will indeed become his testament, especially for a new and uninitiated generation politicised by the depredations of Hindutva and for whom it is perhaps difficult to appreciate that the fertile ground for the emergence of non-communist intellectuals like Arundhati Roy and Pankaj Mishra in this century is because of the pioneering efforts of the generation that produced sharp communist intellectuals like Aijaz Ahmad in the last century.

In all these years, whenever his writings were published in Frontline, Monthly Review or Socialist Register, I would read them, leaving everything else. After the publication of Prashad’s work, I often used to bother Aijaz on email regarding some detail, on his association with Major Ishaq or Hamza Alavi, asking him about Rauf Malik and Zafarullah Poshni (both distinguished nonagenarians who passed away last year), or inquiring him about the significance of the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case as a cultural marker.

Some days, his response would be wonderfully detailed, at other times it would be disappointingly curt. It was during one such communication that he admitted that he knew neither the year nor date of his birth, and had to make it up to satisfy school registration requirements.

Not knowing that he was seriously ill, I longed to write to him earlier this month while writing a piece on the 50th death anniversary of the remarkable Urdu poet Nasir Kazmi, Aijaz’s friend with whom he spent many an hour in Lahore.

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How the Lahore Festival Didn't Bother to Invite Him

Aijaz Ahmad’s writings will keep guiding not only me but also future generations. My meetings and correspondences were, without doubt, important and a source of honour, but the best means to meet him are his immortal writings, which are a permanent symbol of his commitment to Marxism, revolution and the working class.

Aijaz Ahmad was one of a dying breed of subcontinental intellectuals who claimed both India and Pakistan as their home over and above the din of divided loyalties. His love for Lahore can be gauged by the fact that he had named his daughter after that quintessential symbol of Punjab, the river Ravi. Yet, the literary festival in Lahore ironically made no effort to ever invite its prodigal son as a keynote speaker from just across the border, while falling head-over-heels to invite younger successors like Pankaj Mishra all the way from London.

Be that as it may, he was one of the shrewdest and most original anti-imperialist analysts of Asia and Africa of our time, an intellectual unintimidated by power or authority, a companion in arms to such diverse figures as Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Howard Zinn, Tariq Ali, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, Richard Falk, Fred Jameson, Alexander Cockburn and Daniel Berrigan.

His latest – and now sadly last – work is a delightful recounting of his long physical journey from Pakistan to India and onto the United States, and his stunning intellectual journey from Ghalib to Gramsci.

Aijaz sahib! Many thanks for the memorable dinner. Alas, you could not come to Pakistan and I could not invite you to that dinner in your favourite restaurant which you had accepted with your customary smile.

(All the translations from the Urdu are by the writer, who is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He is currently working on a book, ‘Sahir Ludhianvi’s Lahore, Lahore’s Sahir Ludhianvi’, forthcoming in 2022. He can be reached through email at razanaeem@hotmail.com.)

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Topics:  Pakistan   India  

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