The Public Intellectual

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Remembering Political Scientist Eqbal Ahmad on his Death Anniversary  

By Haris Rashid

EQBAL Ahmad began his career as a political scientist at a time when liberation movements were rapidly spreading throughout the Third World. He personally got involved in some of the most important liberation movements that happened after World War II. The vast first-hand experience gave him the ability to predict the direction of political events before they occurred. On 20 December 1998, five years before the US invaded Iraq, Eqbal wrote an article in Dawn newspaper in which he predicted something about Iraq that we currently witness. He argues that if Saddam Hussein is eliminated, “Iran’s influence may easily fill the post-Saddam vacuum, a development Saudi Arabia, the sheikhdoms of the Gulf, and the US shall find intolerable. Since none of America’s conservative Arab allies like Arab nationalism . . . they may counter Iran by promoting Sunni fundamentalism. Sectarian groups thrive in this brand of Islamism. Like Afghanistan today, Iraq may turn into a battleground of war parties backed by several states.”  On October 12, 1998, Eqbal while delivering a public lecture analyzed the new U.S. foreign-policy paradigm of antiterrorism and predicted that bin Laden and all the terrorists that the US had mobilized in Afghanistan against Russia would turn against the United States. In 1980 while visiting Beirut, he wrote a memorandum for Palestinian leaders Yasser Arafat and Abu Jihad (aka Khalil al-Wazir) in which he “sadly forecast the quick defeat of PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] forces in South Lebanon” by the Israeli armed forces. There are other innumerable instances where Eqbal used his uncanny analysis to predict the emerging trends.

Born in Bihar, he along with his family migrated to Pakistan during partition. In 1948, at the age of 15, he volunteered to fight in Pakistan’s first war in Kashmir. Even though motivated and trained by the Muslim League battalion to for the war, in Muzaffarabad, he joined the single Communist Party unit that was led by Latif Afghani. As they were retreating from Srinagar, Eqbal was shot at and wounded. In his own words, as quoted in Stuart Schaar’s recent book Eqbal Ahmad: Critical Outsider in a Turbulent Age, it was “not in some martyrdom, but in the exchange between rival Pathans” that he was shot. The four-month experience with Communist guerrillas in Kashmir introduced Eqbal to the Left. Although he never became a member of the Communist Party, during his college he continued to attend the special extracurricular school established by Communist militants, where he sharpened his logic and analytic skills. Throughout his life, Eqbal remained on the left of the political spectrum but he was never dogmatic. Whenever required, he would criticize the left also.

After completing his bachelors and masters degree from Lahore’s Foreman Christian College (FCC), Eqbal lectured at Pakistan Military Academy. In 1958, he won a scholarship to study at Princeton University in the United States. Here as a grad student, he trained in Middle Eastern and North African studies. Beginning the work on his thesis in early 1962, he went to Tunisia where he got involved in the Algerian conflict. During his job at Cornell University- one of the centres of the anti–Vietnam War movement- from 1965 to 1968, Eqbal fell in with a committed group of activists. In 1971, under President Richard Nixon, Eqbal along with six other activists was indicted for plotting to kidnap National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. Eqbal had proposed to make a citizen’s arrest of Henry Kissinger and interrogate him while filming the whole event. They were also accused of conspiring to blow up heating ducts in tunnels underneath government buildings in Washington, D.C. The case was known as Harrisburg 7. However, on 5 April 1972, all of them were acquitted of these charges.

Eqbal was also deeply involved in the Palestine-Israel conflict. He favoured a bi-national state solution to the conflict. He along with his friend Edwar Said opposed the Oslo accord of 1993 because it did not provide the solution to the conflict. He was also opposed to PLO’s ‘violence of the oppressed’ that represented feelings and favoured ‘revolutionary violence’ with a mobilizing content. He would define PLO as the “organization of the oppressed, carrying on non-revolutionary tactics with a non-revolutionary program by a non-revolutionary organization.” During several seminars organized in Palestine and other countries, he asked them to create lobbying organizations in the US similar to that of Israeli organizations. However, after some time his views were not heeded by the PLO and Yasser Arafat froze him out and ignored his advice. Eqbal would sympathize and show solidarity with the oppressed but he would never do it at the expense of his honesty and critical faculty.

In 1981 Eqbal had started teaching at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts from where he retired in 1997. After his retirement, he attempted to establish a private liberal arts college in Islamabad, Khaldunia University. However, due to his constant criticism of the Benazir Bhutto government in Pakistan, Bhutto’s husband Asif Ali Zardari confiscated the 200 acres in Islamabad that the cabinet of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had promised to Eqbal in January 1993 for the construction of the projected university.  Zardari supposedly intended to use that land for a country club and golf course. Eqbal did not exchange his independence and critical thought for a piece of land. He was always critical of his friends and enemies alike. For this reason, no one- the Communists, PLO or Pakistani government could claim him as one of their own. It is pertinent to mention that in 1968, Ayub Khan offered Eqbal an Ambassadorial appointment but he refused because his conscience did not allow him to work with a military dictator. Also, during his stay in Tunisia, President Bourguiba tried to recruit him to write his official biography. Eqbal refused the offer because writing a biography would mean that he “produce a laudatory paean, temper his criticisms, and bend the truth.”

During his last days of life, Eqbal was involved in Indo-Pak relations when he discovered he had colon cancer. He died at around age sixty-nine in Islamabad on May 11, 1999, from a heart attack after undergoing surgery for colon cancer. As Arlie Russell Hochschild, Eqbal’s friend would tell Stuart Schaar, “Eqbal lived a big life, and was bigger than his life.”


Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer

  • The author is a student at Ashoka University 

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