Prof. Aijaz Ahmed | A true Marxist intellectual with a wide scholarship

His presence in India was a source of extraordinary stimulus for the intellectual and political life on the Left in this country

March 10, 2022 06:32 pm | Updated March 11, 2022 12:39 am IST

Professor Aijaz Ahmad, leading Marxist thinker, critic and commentator. File

Professor Aijaz Ahmad, leading Marxist thinker, critic and commentator. File | Photo Credit: R. Ravindran

Professor Aijaz Ahmad, who passed away on March 9, 2022, was a truly outstanding Marxist thinker of our time. He was what can only be described as a classical Marxist who strongly resisted efforts to import what he considered to be alien and incompatible concepts into Marxism, in the name of making it more realistic, thereby creating eclectic admixtures. His celebrated work In Theory: Classes, Nations and Literatures contained a critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism that sought above all to establish the primacy of the classical Marxist tradition. As a true Marxist intellectual, he had his scholarship encompassing several disciplines: literature, literary criticism, history, philosophy, politics and political economy; and in his political commentaries, he brought to bear on every particular quotidian incident, his understanding of the totality of our times.

Aijaz was born into a prosperous landed family of Uttar Pradesh in 1941 that migrated to Pakistan at the time of the Partition. In later life, he had the occasion to visit his ancestral village only once and was overwhelmed by the warmth that the common people showed towards him. They had never before set eyes on him, and yet they took him as one of their own. He taught for years at various universities in the United States and Canada, including at York University, Toronto, that has for long been a centre of creative heterodox thinking, before returning to India which became his home for more than two decades. He became a Professorial Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, a Visiting Professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and held the Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan Chair at Jamia Milia Islamia. He became a regular contributor to the fortnightly Frontline and to journals on the Left like Social Scientist and The Marxist. He was also associated with the publishing venture Leftword Books from its very inception. In fact, many of his later books were published by Leftword.

Aijaz’s presence in India was a source of extraordinary stimulus for the intellectual and political life on the Left in this country. He gave numerous public lectures, never said no to invitations from Left student groups and Left literary circles, and never shied away from taking strong positions on political issues of the day, no matter how controversial within the Left these positions might have been. He brought to all such issues the rigour of his intellect. One had to reckon with this rigour if one happened to be on the opposite side in such debates, and of course one always learned from him even when disagreeing with him.

His wisdom, his sense of humour, his joie de vivre, his easy sociability, and his wonderful gift of being a good raconteur, endeared him to all who came across him. And he had the typical Awadhi trait of fondness for good food and good music. He also loved old Hindustani films of which he had dozens of video cassettes.

India was where Aijaz felt completely at home; he was more Indian than most Indians of a comparable social background that I have come across. After all, he had decided to return to India despite having been all over the advanced capitalist world and after holding the most prestigious academic positions. And yet, ironically, the fact that he was for a while a citizen of Pakistan always came in the way of his formally making this country his permanent home. This peculiar position, of not being able to settle down in a country that one considers one’s home, was a perennial source of tension for him. It ultimately made him accept the offer of the Chair in Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, that had been held at one time by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. But his leaving India, where he had legions of friends and comrades, and that too at a time of life when one wishes no longer to be peripatetic, was a source great pain and anguish for him.

I cannot resist narrating a remark of Maulana Azad about which Aijaz had told me when the issue of Partition had come up. When some Muslim League persons of pre-Partition days had asked Maulana Azad to give his assent to the idea of Partition and ended their plea by warning that if Partition did not occur then there would be continuous strife for the next one hundred days, Maulana Azad had replied that if Partition did occur then there would be continuous strife for the next one hundred years. We are, alas, still in the midst of those one hundred years and to lose a sagacious and revolutionary intellectual like Aijaz at this time constitutes an irreparable loss. For his friends, among whom I am fortunate to count myself, it is a deep personal loss.

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