Remembering Imtiaz Ahmad who Epitomized Social Justice, Secularism and Composite Culture

Imtiaz Ahmad

Prof. Imtiaz Amhad (1940-2023) who was formerly Prof. at JNU (Centre for Political Studies) is no longer with us.  Prof. Ahmad was 83 years old when he died at the All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) on 19 June 2023.   Prof, Ahmad was born on April 28, 1940 in the middle class family in eastern Uttar Pradesh. After completing his B.A. and M.A. from Lucknow university, Prof. Ahmad came to Delhi and obtained his M.Phil. degree from University of Delhi.  For a short period of time, Prof. Ahmad also taught at Delhi College, (1966-67) and finally joined at JNU in 1972 as an associate professor and retired in 2002 as professor from the Centre for Political Studies. His method of teaching was intellectually stimulating and thought provoking. Prof. Ahmad encouraged students to develop critical thinking and questioning ability in the classroom. He also severed as visiting professor of anthropology in USA (University of Missouri) from 1968 to 1971.

Prof. Ahmad has left us at a time when the Muslim community in particular and Indian society in general has been facing huge challenges such as, poverty, unemployment, rabid communalism along with the rise of violence against Dalits and minorities in the public domain. Amidst the rise of the majoritarian state, Indian Muslims have been facing huge challenges in terms of safeguarding their cultural identity and existence in the civil society. To put it differently, Muslim community has become ‘politically untouchable’ (most of parties are averse to giving tickets to Muslims), socially excluded and experiencing violence in everyday life.  Currently, Indian democracy is moving increasingly towards ‘ethnic democracy’ and “majoritarian state” (if not de jure but in de facto sense) and now Indian Muslims have become ‘Second Class’ citizens, as underlined by a French political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot in his writings. In short, hate crimes and communal attacks on Indian Muslims is perhaps now becoming the “new normal” in the public domain.  It is sad to note that secular and social justice parties are succumbing to norms of majoritarian politics and maintaining strategic silence vis-a-vis Indian Muslims.

Imtiaz Ahmad was also witness to attacks from the communal forces, when he raised these questions on social media. No doubt, Ahmad in his entire academic life was committed to promote the progressive ideas such as secularism, social justice, and composite culture. He was against both the Hindu communalism and the Muslim communalism and that was the reason why Ahmad has been disliked by both the Hindutva forces and Muslim clerics.

When I have decided to work on Pasmanda Muslims especially on caste and social stratification among the Muslims during my M.Phil. and Ph.D., it was Ahmad’s writings and his academic lectures delivered at Jamia Millia Islamia and elsewhere had immensely helped me to carry forward my research.

To be an honest, Ahmad’s academic insights have immensely benefited me especially on caste and social stratification among the Indian Muslims.  I have greatly benefited from his argument in favor of reservation for Dalit Muslims.  For Ahmad, not giving the reservation to the Dalit Muslim because of their different religion (belonging to followers of Islam), is compromising with the principle of secularism, equality and religious freedom, as enshrined in our constitution. However, the BJP has opposed the Scheduled caste status for Dalit Muslim because for them in Islam there is no untouchability sanctioned by religious scripture.

When I started working on caste among the Muslim community, I came to know that except Imtiaz Ahmad, no Indian academics including the left-liberal Muslim intellectuals have done research on caste and social stratifications among the Muslims.  To note that Indian sociologists have studied the Hindu community from the lens of social anthropology and underlined the caste system that widely prevailed in the Hindu community. However, similar criterion has not been applied by Indian sociologists while studying the Indian Muslims and social structure.

For a long time, due to influence of colonial scholars, Indian academics also assumed that Islam is an egalitarian religion and caste system is anathema to the Muslim community.  But, Imtiaz Ahmad underlined that the caste system is not sanctioned by Islam but if sociologically studied the Muslim community, one could see the caste and social stratification prevalent in the Muslim community. However, Ahmad has not equated the Hindu caste system with the caste that exists in the Muslim community. For him, in Indian Muslim society caste-like features exist but not the caste system, as seen in the Hindu society.  And for Ahmad, the practice of endogamy (marriage within caste and biradari) and occupational based differences can be widely seen in the Muslim community.  In this respect, Ahmad’s edited volume on, Caste and Social stratifications among Muslims in India (1973), which is considered as his seminal work. Contrary to popular belief (Muslim community is monolithic in nature), Ahmad has shown that it is a myth that has been created by the Colonial administrators and western scholars that has been uncritically accepted by the Indian State and Civil society in post- Independent India.

To be precise here, his writings are not liked by both the Hindu Right and the Muslim conservatives on range of issues, as stated above.  In my view, Ahmad’s writings and academic works has been deeply grounded in everyday social lived reality and he captured the empirical realities of Muslim community. It would be not wrong to say that he was an “organic intellectual” (in Gramscian sense) because he was a man of civil society, not the ruling political dispensation. While having interactions with him during my academic works (especially when I was doing my PhD on Pasmanda Muslims), I can say that he had never maintained any kind of intellectual hierarchy and academic elitism and whenever I asked questions regarding   problems of Indian Muslims, he clarified my several doubts very patiently.  To be honest here, I have got a lot of academic insights from his writings and through conversations. I think after the demise of three eminent intellectuals such as, Asghar Ali Engineer, Prof. Mushirul Hasan and Prof. Imtiaz Ahmad, now academic vacuum  has been created  to represent  the  concern of the Indian Muslim  community intellectually especially  at a time when the community  has been passing  through  extremely  critical times.

To note that Prof. Ahmad has left a lot of intellectual and academic writings before us. His writings will continue to inspire those generations of young scholars who are committed to bring out reform within the community and willing to promote secular, social justice and democratic values in the public domain.   Ahmad has supported communitarian laws (Muslim Personal Law) but it should not compromise with the egalitarian norms of gender justice. For Ahmad, both internal reform and democratization of inter-community (between the Hindus and Muslims) and intra-community (within community between Men and women) relations is important. In other words, he was uncomfortable with those upper-caste caste Muslim (Ashraf) and Ulema who bypassed the question of internal reform and try to maintain status- quo.  Ahmad has questioned the homogeneity of the Muslim and the Hindu community and foregrounded the diversity and pluralism to understand the dynamics of Indian society and culture.  Prof. Ahmad was very much active and used to post his views on range of issues, as stated above on social media. His comments have not been welcomed both by the Hindu Right and the Muslim upper castes.   Ahmad’s writing on educational backwardness is empirically and sociologically grounded and historically informed.  For Ahmad, Indian Muslims has been educationally backward not because of ‘minority complex’ and ‘innate conservatism’ rather it should be understood from the lens of the size of Muslim middle class and social strata that has been reduced after the Partition and Muslim middle class exodus to Pakistan.

To sum up, Ahmad’s writings on Islam, family, Kinship, communalism, secularism, caste and social stratifications among the Muslim are worthwhile to pursue academically and need to be taken seriously by young generations scholars in particular and the larger Indian academia in general.  His views are more relevant in the current political and social context and at time when the Muslim community is passing through extremely critical phase. Lastly, I would say that man can die but his intellectual and progressive ideas cannot die. The real tribute to Prof. Ahmad will be to carry forward his agenda of social justice, composite culture and secular legacy in times to come.

Dr. Badre Alam Khan has done PhD from Department of Political science, University of Delhi and currently associated with Centre for Equity Studies, Delhi.

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