Professor Imtiaz Ahmad Valued Intellectual Honesty over Everything Else

He threw political correctness to the winds, which resulted in his being sidelined by the political and academic establishments
Prof. Imtiaz Ahmad

Prof. Imtiaz Ahmad is no more with us. For nearly five decades, he was engaged in teaching and research. First, as a teacher of political sociology in the Jawaharlal Nehru University, afterwards as a valued mentor to many students who wanted to work on Muslim issues or more generally wished to engage with his ideas. JNU was not kind to him; he remained suspended for the best part of his career, over an issue which could have been sorted out a long time ago. Coming from a middle-class family in Uttar Pradesh, Imtiaz did not posses the “right” kind of social and cultural capital to negotiate his way through the elite and frequently upper caste corridors of the university. Imtiaz was out of the university system, but through his sheer academic output, he made sure that he was taught and remembered in all universities.

He once told me that if one does not have intellectual honesty, then there is no point in doing academics. I understood the full import of this comment very gradually. Over the years, I realized why he was not feted like other academic dons and why no government recognition was ever conferred on him. His intellectual honesty always meant that he was on the wrong side of the political establishment. Today, when I understand how leading academics tailor their research to be “politically correct” or remain loyal to a “network”, I understand Prof. Ahmad’s comment with more clarity. It is painful that a scholar of his stature was ignored not just by various governments but also by the academic establishment.

Prof. Ahmad’s oeuvre spans original writings on caste and religion in Indian Muslims, the specter of communalism, education, kinship systems, etc. It was through his writings that we understood the multiple identities which Indian Muslims inhabit. His edited volume on caste amongst Muslims is still the best resource for any researcher willing to interrogate the category. Towards the later phase of his life, he devoted special attention to the question of backward castes amongst Muslims. Today organized under the umbrella of Pasmanda movement, many consider him the most important reason why the talk of Muslim caste permeated the Indian academia and civil society. He not just wrote on the issue but also toured different parts of country to deliver lectures. He would invite empirical pieces on caste and collect them in an edited book in which he would write a long introduction laying thread bare the problem at stake. At times, some of the pieces would argue the exact opposite of what he was proposing in the introduction but like a true scholar, he would include the contrary view also. He argued that caste discrimination existed with the Indian Muslim society and that there was no point denying it. This certainly did not go down well the Muslim establishment whose politics, academically or otherwise, depended on the denial of caste within their society.

I remember his interjections when the Sachar Committee Report was published in 2006. The Report showed that as a community, Muslims lagged far behind others in crucial indicators like education, representation, etc. The reception of the Report among Muslim intellectuals and those on the left was along predicted lines. Both made common ground in accusing state discrimination as the primary locus responsible for Muslim backwardness. It was only Prof. Ahmad who brought some nuance to the debate. He reminded the upper caste Muslim intellectuals how their forefathers had declared English education to be the work of the devil and hence had shunned modernity for nearly 150 years. He reminded them that Muslims were late starters in accessing modern education and that historic lag was bound to show as inequality between different communities. He reasoned that since there is a very small percentage of Muslims who can be called middle class, higher educational attainments will continue to be low.

To those on the left, he subtly pointed out that the indices for West Bengal (which was ruled by the CPM for the longest time) was far worse when compared to Gujarat (which had a BJP government). He reasoned that it was not the government or the state which was solely responsible for Muslim backwardness but rather matters internal to the community should also inquired into. But then discrimination and exclusion were the buzzwords of the time and no one paid any heed to what Imtiaz was arguing. I must also add that he was one of the few scholars who had actually read the Report; others were just fluffing.

Indian Islam was another area which retained his abiding interest. In his Ritual and Religion in India, he had stipulated that Indian Islam was simultaneously local and universal. The local elements could be seen in the practice of visitation to various dargahs, use of amulets and even rituals and practices in common with Hindus. At the same time, Indian Islam was also part of the universalism of the faith, seen in practices like Salat, Saum, Hajj, etc. This was not an idea which was original to Prof. Ahmad; such theorizations had an old history in the discipline of social anthropology. But his original formulation was that both these tendencies will continue to co-exist in what he called “Indian Islam”. In other words, he was arguing that the average Indian Muslim was perfectly happy to co-exist in two simultaneous and at times contradictory worldviews: those of the local Hindu cosmology and that of the great tradition of Islam. The historian of Islam in South Asia, Prof. Francis Robinson got into a detailed argument with him over the issue. Other scholars weighed in with the result that today no serious researcher of Islam in India can overlook the debate initiated by Prof. Ahmad.

Prof. Ahmad always encouraged difference and plurality of views. In that spirit, I must say that he was too much wedded to the idea of Nehruvian secularism and a linear view of modernization. Many a time, he assumed that modernization will take care of the orthodoxy within the Muslim community. Today, we know that things are far more complex: that Muslim orthodoxy is on the increase even as the educational levels of the community are going up. He also assumed that religious pluralism was inherent in the Indian ethos. While this might be true, placing too much emphasis on it makes us oblivious to the processes, internal to religious communities, which lead to the very subversion of that pluralism.

After he retired from the university, he was regularly seen on television adding nuance to otherwise drab debates. He weighed in on the majoritarian turn which the country was taking but was always optimistic that this was a passing phase. Sadly, his belief in the innate moderation of Indian normative psyche might not have too many takers. But the conviction with which he uttered those words could only come from a man deeply weeded to the idea of India.

Anyone writing the story of Indian Muslims post-Independence will have to engage with Prof. Ahmad’s ideas. And that’s a legacy that very few academicians leave behind.

A regular contributor to, Arshad Alam is a writer and researcher on Islam and Muslims in South Asia. 

Courtesy: New Age Islam



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