How Dr. Aijaz Ahmad (1941-2022) Inspired A Generation Of Activists

How Dr. Aijaz Ahmad (1941-2022) Inspired A Generation Of Activists
Many people who had contributed to the arts, politics and culture of South Asian have passed away this year. Among them is the brilliant Dr. Aijaz Ahmad, who passed away at his home in Irvine, California, in the USA, on 9 March 2022, leaving quite a rich legacy. In South Asian Left circles, he will be remembered for his many decades of activism. Aijaz was amongst that unique circle of thinkers who were born in India, moved to Pakistan, and ended up in the US, enriching them all. He was a citizen of each of these three countries at some point in his life. But he died an American, in a country whose policies he was often critical of, but one which gave him the opportunity to continue his work and raise his family.

Aijaz Sahib was able to lead and teach wherever he set up his tent. An academic Marxist, he opposed the Stalinist model of governance. A social scientist with a brilliant command of literature in at least two languages (English and Urdu), he was one of the most articulate people that this writer has ever met. His last teaching position was as Chancellor’s Professor, Comparative Literature School of Humanities at the University of California, Irvine, where his research focus was on Critical Theory, World Literature, Marxism and Tricontinental Social Thought. Before UC Irvine, Dr. Aijaz had a chance to teach at York University (Toronto), Jawaharlal Nehru University (India), Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) University (India), the School of African and Oriental Studies (London), and the University of Sao Paulo (Brazil). And this list may not be complete.

Born in Muzaffarnagar (UP) in British India, Aijaz moved to Pakistan as a teenager. His major works published in book form include Ghazals of Ghalib (1971) as editor and co-translator, with introduction, In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (1992), Lineages of the Present: Political Essays (1996), Marx and Engels on the National and Colonial Questions: Selected Writings (2001), Globalization and Culture: Offensives of the Far Right (2002), Reflections on Our Time: Seven Essays on the 20th Century (2004) and Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Imperialism of Our Time (2004). In addition to these his articles and essays also appeared in numerous publications, especially Frontline (India) and Monthly Review (US) and lest we forget, he was also an accomplished Urdu poet.

Although this article is being published many months too late to focus on his passing, this writer still wanted to make sure that it was written this year – and it is a bit personal.

In the late 1970s, a small group of left-wing activists amongst the Pakistani Diaspora here in the US and in Canada were actively fighting the Zia dictatorship in Pakistan. There was no social media then but there was a magazine called The Pakistan Progressive (an offshoot of The Pakistan Forum) which was being published regularly. Leading the intellectual charge in the Progressive at the time were three “A’s” or Ahmads/Ahmeds. Dr. Aijaz Ahmad, Dr. Eqbal Ahmed and Dr. Feroz Ahmed took the fight against the then dictatorship very seriously and inspired the progressive element within our community here through that magazine. Of the three A’s, Dr. Feroz died at a young age (57, died in 1997) and Dr. Eqbal (66, died in 1999). Dr. Aijaz was the last one from the group to pass away at the age of 81. There were other contributors to the magazine too, but it would be difficult to list all in this one article.

It is our luck that there are a couple of friends that we could reach out to from the old days of the Progressive which were still in touch with Dr. Aijaz or his work. Naturally, I approached them for this article. First, Dr. Talat Rahman in Florida, and second, Asad Zaidi from the Los Angeles area. I had a chance to have a short conversation with both. We also chatted about two articles published in the Progressive, written by Aijaz Sahib, that were historically important. The first was “The Rebellion of 1983” which was possibly the only detailed writing on the MRD mass movement in Sindh against the Zia Dictatorship – and which may have convinced the outside world that things were more politically shaky in Pakistan than the mainstream media was revealing at the time. The second article that was very insightful was “Political Islam: Spiritual Solutions to Material Problems” which turned out to have much more validity in subsequent years.
In the late 1970s, a small group of left-wing activists amongst the Pakistani Diaspora here in the US and in Canada were actively fighting the Zia dictatorship in Pakistan

With the assistance of Dr. Talat Rahman (thanking her here), we got a chance to revisit the years just after the 1979 hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and how the idea of the Progressive came about, as small groups based in New York and California came together to keep the democratic candle lit for Pakistanis abroad. Aijaz Sahib was instrumental in us bringing out a quality magazine from a uniquely Left perspective that libraries anywhere would be proud to have (compared to emotional propaganda which was also then present in volume), said Talat.

Dr. Aijaz provided us with much of the backbone to what we were trying to accomplish. This went on for many years until the magazine stopped publication in 1993. The Progressive was sent to places worldwide and generated quite a bit of interest here in the US too. Dr. Aijaz was not just an intellectual, he was also involved in the grassroots movement, added Talat. A very accurate assessment by her.

Asad Zaidi was with Dr. Aijaz Ahmad during the final chapter of his life. He said that he would categorise his years with Aijaz Sahib in three phases;

1.) While getting used to the discourse of politics, from the Pakistan Forum days and the clarity of political analysis that Aijaz brought to the table for our benefit during the initial Progressive years.

2.) When Aijaz moved away from Pakistan and went to India, became an essayist, and published a book In Theory in 1992, which was quite complex, while we kept up with him through his writings in Frontline Magazine.

3.) In 2010, when he appeared in my backyard, in Irvine. This third phase is more of a personal one, when I got to know Aijaz on a human level.

Dr. Aijaz was an authority on the UP-origin foods/delicacies and had quite a sense of humour! Near the end of his life, health issues dominated many conversations with Aijaz, said Asad (who himself has a Biomedical background), and I interacted with him on his medical issues along with discussions on the post-Soviet world.

To conclude, I too wanted to share a memory or two of Dr. Aijaz Ahmad through this article. My thought process was more in alignment with Dr. Feroz Ahmed during the old days and I disagreed with Aijaz Sahib on specific issues regarding the PPP. But despite his reservations, during a California trip, he said that a military dictator had no right to hang an elected prime minister. On the Iranian Revolution, he was not optimistic for the long run and termed it an aberration which will change course. That very topic is quite relevant and in the news these days.