Eqbal Ahmad was clearly one of the finest examples in South Asia of what his friend Edward Said called a “public intellectual.” He was also one of the first to urge a serious examination of the political roots of modern militancy in the Middle East and South Asia.
Eqbal Ahmad taught at a number of universities and colleges in the US, but he was not only an academic. He had actively engaged with the anti-colonial struggles in Algeria and Vietnam. It is equally well-known that Eqbal Ahmad remained a committed Marxist throughout his life (he once called Marxism “a non-narcissistic outlook on life”) even as he turned critical of Leninist politics.
Eqbal Ahmad’s first exposure to the Left was among the Communist fighters in Kashmir in the first India-Pakistan war of 1947-48. Some leaders of the Communist Party of India in the 1940s saw Kashmir as a possible launching pad for socialism in South Asia and were involved in the Pakistani effort to secure Kashmir in late 1947. Eqbal Ahmad was among the first Pakistani fighters in Kashmir in the fateful October of 1947 and had a four-month long fighting stint in Kashmir.
Eqbal Ahmad had been recruited by the activists of the Muslim League from his college campus in Lahore. This was the Talim-ul-Islam College of the Ahmadi sect which had been relocated to Lahore after Partition. The Ahmadis were not only actively involved in the efforts to organize for Kashmir in the Punjab, but also fought in the 1947-48 war. Only five students volunteered to fight in Kashmir when Muslim League activists visited Eqbal Ahmad’s college. At the young age of 15, after about four days of training in small firearms, Eqbal Ahmad was taken by the Muslim League activists to Muzaffarabad where he joined volunteers from the northern areas of Pakistan.
Even though the young Eqbal Ahmad had been brought to Muzaffarabad by the Muslim League, he joined a Communist Party unit led by Latif Afghani. This was his first introduction to Communist politics.
Latif Afghani was a Communist activist and a trade union leader who had also been a member of the All India Students Federation of the Communist Part of India. Latif Afghani was later arrested in 1950 by the Pakistani government for his protests against the pro-US Iranian Shah.
This frustrated attempt to liberate Kashmir with the force of arms by a coalition of ragtag forces took place against the background of genocidal violence in neighboring Punjab which had spilled over into Jammu by the September of 1947.
Later Eqbal Ahmad wrote that the Pathan tribesmen had started fighting each other before they could even enter the city of Srinagar in the last week of October. He reported heavy casualties among the Pakistani fighting units from the northern areas once the first battalion of the better-armed Indian Army was airlifted to Kashmir on 27 October 1947.
Eqbal Ahmad’s stint as a guerilla fighter in Kashmir ended with him being shot, not by the Indian Army, but in the fighting between the rival Pathan factions.
This experience was to echo in the advice Eqbal Ahmad relentlessly gave to the Pakistani establishment when he was approached to help lobby for the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination after the 1990 uprising. He strongly advised the Pakistani Army against repeating the mistakes of Afghanistan in Kashmir and urged them not to try and assert control over Kashmiri guerrilla fighters. Eqbal Ahmad also warned of the dangers of any attempt to split the national liberation struggle in Kashmir. In cautioning the Pakistani Army, Eqbal Ahmad was drawing upon his vast experience in the dynamics of national liberation struggles all over the world.
Eqbal Ahmad spoke of his experience of fighting in Kashmir in an unpublished interview given to his daughter Dohra in 1998 and excerpted in Stuart Schaar’s Eqbal Ahmad: Critical Outsider in a Turbulent Age which is an excellent short introduction to Eqbal Ahmad’s life and times by one of his close friends.
Eqbal Ahmad was also one of the first South Asian intellectuals to offer a serious critical commentary on the events in Kashmir in a series of articles in the mid-1990s written for the Pakistani newspaper, The Dawn, which still remain unrivalled for their insight into the nature of the Kashmir conflict. Eqbal Ahmad wrote passionately in these articles of “a Kashmiri solution for Kashmir” and unambiguously stated that no solution to Kashmir was possible without the involvement of Kashmiris.
Eqbal Ahmad was openly supportive of independence for Kashmir and just as equally openly critical of Indian and Pakistani stands and approaches to Kashmir. In one of his articles he wrote:
The reality is that New Delhi’s moral isolation from the Kashmiri people is total and irreversible. It might be reversible if India were to envisage a qualitatively different relation with Kashmir, one which meaningfully satisfies Kashmiri aspirations of self government, but so far New Delhi has evinced no inclination in this direction.
In another piece he wrote this about the Pakistani policy on Kashmir:
Pakistan continues to wage a half-hearted war of position replete with private doubts, symbolic posturing and petty opportunism. Its support has still not helped unify or energise the insurgency in Kashmir into a winning movement. The resulting stalemate appears ‘stable’, and unlikely to be upset in the absence of a conventional India-Pakistan war. Since war is not an option, Pakistan’s policy is reduced to bleeding India; and India’s to bleeding the Kashmiris, and to hit out at Pakistan whenever a wound can be inflicted.
And with all the dangers of an all-consuming war in mind, Eqbal Ahmad urged in another seminal article that all stake-holders should accept these realities to arrive at a solution: One, a military solution of the Kashmir dispute in not possible. Two, it is equally difficult to envisage, as India does, a unilateral political solution. Three, while the US has a stake in peace between India and Pakistan, neither the great powers nor world opinion shall make a decisive contribution towards resolving this conflict. Four, direct negotiations offer the only effective path to a peaceful solution. However, meaningful negotiations are not possible without Kashmiri participation. Hence the most sensible way to resolve the dispute is tripartite negotiations involving Pakistan, India and a representative Kashmiri delegation. Direct negotiations do not preclude a facilitating role for the United Nations or the US.
Even though he remained committed to a dialogue between India and Pakistan with Kashmiri participation, he strongly opposed any Oslo-like agreement pushed by the US. He was also the first to warn against any military adventurism on either side which did not take into account the reality that national liberation struggles are primarily political.
Eqbal Ahmad had seen too many victories of nations in the South fade into defeat as successful anti-colonial struggles put a corrupt, nationalist elite into power which, in turn, created their own political monsters in the form of reactionary extremism. For Eqbal Ahmad, the real struggle for a national liberation movement was to build a popular, mass-based, political movement which delegitimised the military situation by offering a parallel administration to the colonised.
Eqbal Ahmad often stressed that the prolonged conflict over Kashmir had created a social environment of conflict in India and Pakistan. Even as he tirelessly advocated direct negotiations between India, Pakistan and Kashmiris, he remained skeptical of any US mediation on Kashmir as he viewed the US primarily as a statuquoist power which was unlikely to take Kashmiri interests into account as against those of India and, to a lesser degree, Pakistan.
Eqbal Ahmad also anticipated that the armed struggle in Kashmir is likely to endure, but predicted that it was unlikely to find its goal of exhausting the enemy easy in the absence of independent supply lines. But perhaps Eqbal Ahmad was at his most prescient when he spelt out the dubious role of the Kashmiri intelligentsia which he considered to be more inclined to secure its class interests rather than Kashmiri interests. He reminded his readers that Kashmiri intelligentsia is likely to behave as a cautious class, as it did in early 1990s, more vulnerable to opportunity than open to risk-taking.
Eqbal Ahmad was more aware than anyone else of how the political defeat of national liberation struggles can lead to despair in the struggling masses which, in turn, is exploited by the intelligentsia to support the status-quo as soon as there is a shift in the balance of power against the liberation movement. Eqbal Ahmad was a Pakistani intellectual but he remained unambiguous in his commitment to a Kashmiri solution for Kashmir and bemoaned why Pakistan had denied itself, and Kashmiris, the advantage of ‘revolutionary power’.
—Abir Bazaz is a PhD candidate in Asian Literatures, Cultures and Media Program at the University of Minnesota. He is also a filmmaker.
Eqbal Ahmad—Brief profile
Eqbal Ahmad was born in the village of Irki in Bihar in 1933. His father was a landowner and supported land reforms earning the anger of other landowners. In revenge, he was murdered by the landowners who opposed his land reforms. As a boy of about four, Eqbal Ahmad witnessed the murder. A second episode of murder and mayhem shaped his early years–the blood-soaked partition of India and his tortuous march from Bihar to Lahore. A few years later, after winning a scholarship, Eqbal Ahmad left Pakistan for a graduate programme at Princeton University. Very soon he became thoroughly involved in the Algerian war of independence from France. He became a close associate of Ben Bella, and then a member of the Algerian Revolutionary Council. Subsequently, he was appointed member of the FLN delegation at the Paris peace talks. Eqbal Ahmad was one of the first opponents of the American imperial adventure in Vietnam. A nervous American government indicted him in a spectacular 1970 trial, along with the several others, of a conspiracy to kidnap Henry Kissinger and blow up the heating system of the Pentagon. Eqbal Ahmad was Professor Emeritus of International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. He taught world politics and political science at Hampshire College from 1982 for around 15 years. Upon retirement in 1997, he moved to Islamabad and was involved in efforts to establish Khaldunia–an independent institution for higher education. A prolific writer, his articles and essays have been published in The Nation (USA), Dawn (Pakistan), among several other journals throughout the world. Eqbal Ahmad died of cancer on 11 May 1999.