//The Life and Times of Eqbal Ahmad

The Life and Times of Eqbal Ahmad

[Editor's Note: Article authored by Beena Sarwar, Fellow, Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Kennedy School of Government, Cambridge, Massachusetts]

The Life and Times of Eqbal Ahmad

Eqbal Ahmad's writings are compulsory reading for anyone who wants to understand and improve the state of the world today. Oxford University Press in Pakistan published Between Past and Future: A Collection of Essays on South Asia, edited by his daughter Dohra Ahmad, nephew Iftikhar Ahmad, and Zia Mian in 2004.

The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad (Columbia University Press), launched on September 28, 2006, in Cambridge, MA, adds to this essential reading list. It is expected to be available in Pakistan and India too.

Eqbal had graduated from Forman Christian College in Lahore – incidentally, also the alma mater of Gen. Musharraf. He spoke fluent Urdu and English, as well French and Arabic. When he first met Julie, later his wife, in France in the 1960s, they spoke in French and she didn't realise right away that he also spoke English.

During the Zia years, Eqbal was unable to return to Pakistan as he faced treason charges punishable by death. He held prestigious academic positions abroad, but found the forced exile extremely painful. By the time he came back, after Zia's death, he was already a legendary figure in Pakistan, anathema to the establishment but embraced by human rights activists and the intelligentsia.

He was among those who conceptualised and gave direction to the Pakistan India Peoples Forum for Peace and Democracy, or PIPFPD, established in 1994 to facilitate people-to-people dialogue between ordinary Indians and Pakistanis. PIPFPD has since then grown tremendously, with many offshoots all over both countries. It was the first forum to articulate the formula that Kashmir should not be seen as a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan, but as a matter of the lives and aspirations of the Kashmiri people, who must be included in any dialogue to resolve the issue – a formulation that has finally seeped into public discourse and government discussions.

Eqbal supported freedom struggles around the world. Fidel Castro sent him Cuban cigars, but stopped when Eqbal continued to argue for greater civil liberties and democracy. The Indian historian Radha Kumar (who introduces the South Asian portion of this book), says that Yasser Arafat showed her the chair that Eqbal liked to sit in. This friendship too, dimmed when Eqbal stuck to his stand for non-violent strategies and dismissed Oslo as bringing unsustainable peace at the cost of the Palestinian people.

After 1990, Eqbal rented a small house in Islamabad and divided his time between America and Pakistan – teaching at Hampshire College, writing his weekly column, participating in human rights and peace related efforts, and working towards Khaldunia.

His retirement ceremony at Hampshire College in 1997 drew hundreds. The more impressive thing was the distances people came from, as well as the distinguished intellectuals and activists in attendance.

After that, he spent most of his time in Pakistan, very much part of the struggle against the 'talibanisation' of society, and the use of religion for political purposes. His articles on Jinnah predicted where the country was heading. He articulated the essential link between the rule of law and a country's stability, noting that Jinnah "did not lose sight of this civic principle even in the darkest hours of 1947". He wrote against the infamous Hudood Ordinances of 1977 that criminalise adultery and make rape a private offence in which the victim has to prove her innocence.

In 1998, Eqbal blasted the BJP-led government for its nuclear tests and argued that Pakistan need not follow suit. He was severely disappointed when the Nawaz Sharif government gave in to domestic political pressures and the severe provocation from India, and turned the Chaghi mountains white.

Eqbal was diagnosed with cancer of the colon in May 1999, as both countries geared up to celebrate their nuclear anniversaries. He died just six days later, on the morning of May 11, the anniversary of India's nuclear test.

His legacy lives on, in his writings, and in his memory. The Eqbal Ahmad Foundation set up by his relatives and friends holds an annual distinguished lecture series in Pakistan named for him. Noam Chomsky addressed the series in November 2001, and received standing ovations at each venue. Edward Said was to address the series also but sadly, this could not happen.

The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad Book Launch

The book launch of The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad took place in the nearly full 300-capacity Ames Hall (Harvard Law School). The organizers hadn't put up many posters or done any aggressive inviting, in case of over-crowding, given that Noam Chomsky was one of the speakers and the publicity about Chomsky following Chavez's address to the UN.

The organizer, Jack Trumpbour of The Labor & Worklife Program at Harvard Law School introduced the event, starting with a small clip from the documentary on Eqbal (that Asia Foundation commissioned me for Geo TV; 20 min; broadcast Nov 2004; Urdu). He talked about the concept of Empire as Eqbal defined it, not just physically subjugating other countries as the British colonizers did, but dominating them through other means as America has been doing since the downfall of the British.

David Barsamian of Alternative Radio in Colorado made an audio-recording of the event, which should soon be available on his website and on CDs.

Barsamian's book, Confronting Empire was also the main theme of the Chomsky talk on Eqbal Ahmad's legacy and the contemporary crisis. Always low key, Chomsky juxtaposed valuable information that brought out the irony of the situation. His detractors criticize him for not providing original analysis but he himself has never claimed to do more than put together information that is already available. The mainstream media sidelines this information, and also Chomsky. When they do give him space, it is done disparagingly, and far greater space is given to his detractors.

Chomsky talked about the "international community" — defined essentially as the US and its allies, Bush's "messianic mission", and the "unusual historic event we are witnessing" today — the destruction of a nation in Palestine, because the Palestinian people "committed a terrible crime in the last free election: they voted in the wrong people."

The real reason for the Israeli (US-Israeli) aggression, believes Chomsky, is that the Hezbollah provides the only meaningful support for Palestinian rights. Another reason is to eliminate Lebanese deterrents that stand in the way of an attack on Iran.

The aggression has two consequences: first, it deters negotiations, and secondly, it makes the dissidents and reformers within the society more vulnerable, as regimes under attack tend to become harsher. Shirin Ebadi and others testify to this, as can others in such societies (to which I would add the USA, its many freedoms notwithstanding).

A panel immediately following Chomsky's talk was addressed by Stuart Schaar, Eqbal's "college buddy" at Princeton; Margaret Cerullo, his colleague from Hampshire College and one of the book's editors; and me, as a journalist and documentary filmmaker from Pakistan who produced a documentary on Eqbal and knew him as a colleague in the human rights and peace movements. Emran Qureshi of Harvard Law School's Labor & Worklife Program summed up.

Prof. Schaar read extracts from his forthcoming biography of Eqbal (publisher being negotiated) for which he visited Pakistan in 2004, and found "the legacy of a global peacemaker".

Margaret Cerullo talked briefly of the two turning
points for Eqbal. One was the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, when the Arab states failed to respond, when he predicted that this "would turn up the heat of Islamic outrage". The second was the Gulf War of 1991, when Iraq was accused of unlawful seizure of land and development of nuclear weapons – charges that can also be laid at Israel's door, but no one has ever suggested invading it.

She talked about his theory of the "logic of counter-insurgency" and his argument that the gap between coercive military occupation and the determination of the occupied would only lead to a spiraling of violence and even genocide – an argument that has been all too well illustrated in present-day Iraq.

I spoke of Eqbal in the Pakistani context, someone who was "just Eqbal" to so many, regardless of differences like age, status and experience. Always courteous, he would listen attentively with genuine curiosity, then ask thought-provoking questions that provided new insight. He extended the same courtesy to those who opposed his progressive, secular world view — from military dictators to religious extremists.
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