Eqbal Ahmad’s Internationalist Vision

Eqbal Ahmad’s Internationalist Vision

For peace advocates in South Asia, Ahmad’s grammar of cooperation provides a much-needed alternative to hypernationalist politics.

Eqbal Ahmad in 1971 (Lee Lockwood/Getty Images)

On January 12, 1971, two FBI agents burst through the doors of the Adlai Stevenson Institute in Chicago to arrest Eqbal Ahmad. A preeminent South Asian activist and analyst of international politics, Ahmad had been charged with participating in a conspiracy to kidnap National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and bomb steam tunnels underneath government buildings in Washington, D.C.

A vocal opponent of the Vietnam War, Ahmad had found company among the antiwar Catholic Left and grown close to the Berrigan brothers, Philip and Daniel, both priests who had attracted the attention of federal authorities for their peace activism. By 1971, the Berrigans were serving prison sentences for breaking into a draft board office and burning hundreds of draft records. In a letter Philip received while incarcerated, a fellow Catholic activist recounted a recent conversation with Ahmad and others about a potential plan to make a citizen’s arrest of Kissinger. With the letter as evidence, the Justice Department filed charges against a group of antiwar activists that had long been on FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s radar.

The case of what came to be known as the Harrisburg Seven quickly gained national attention. During the trial, prosecutors attempted to single out Ahmad by repeatedly referring to him as “the man behind the scenes,” implying the existence of a larger, more sinister scheme led by a Muslim foreigner. But this strategy seemed to backfire: Ahmad, a photogenic man, was eloquent, thoughtful, and charming. The Harrisburg Seven recruited nationally noted defense attorneys for the case, and supporters in antiwar circles raised over $300,000 for their expenses. The defendants alleged that the plot was completely unserious: they were committed to nonviolence and had realized it was likely that such a plan would likely violate their principles. Ultimately, the case ended in a mistrial in April 1972 following a hung jury.

While Ahmad had already gained some renown for his work, the Harrisburg Seven trial brought him into the limelight of the American dissident left, cementing his reputation as an incisive thinker on power, politics, and internationalism. He often appeared in the pages of the New York Times and the Nation, writing primarily on international affairs. He befriended other radical luminaries, including Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Edward Said, who, upon Ahmad’s death, eulogized him as “perhaps the shrewdest and most original anti-imperialist analyst of Asia and Africa.” In the United States, Ahmad is perhaps best known for his cutting work on counterterrorism; he was one of the foremost critics of American policies that funneled money and arms to Afghan mujahideen in the late 1970s and 1980s. On many occasions, he correctly predicted the vicious reactions and spirals of violence that would follow from covert U.S. meddling in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Today, the memory of the Harrisburg Seven has faded, and Ahmad, who died in 1999, is barely known outside of Pakistan and niche South Asian academic circles. But his whirlwind life of anticolonial activism and wide body of work haven’t lost their urgent edge. As India and Pakistan grapple with intertwined political, economic, and environmental crises, Ahmad’s voice continues to speak with incredible clarity. His commitment was not to any single nation-state, but to all vulnerable people who are exploited by politicians and wealthy elites. Ahmad built a grammar of cooperation and solidarity that is invaluable for addressing the problems afflicting the subcontinent without reinforcing hypernationalist politics.

Ahmad was born in the early 1930s in northern India to a Muslim family affiliated with the nationalist party that led the struggle for Indian independence. Ahmad’s father was a zamindar—part of a class of landowners who leased land to tenant farmers. But as Ahmad’s close friend and biographer Stuart Schaar wrote, his father regularly defended poor peasants against zamindar abuse, even giving away parcels of his family’s property to support landless farmers. In 1937, Ahmad witnessed a group of local zamindars (including at least one relative) brutally murder his father. Speaking about the assassination decades later, Ahmad reflected on how politics and violence had shaped him: the event demonstrated that “class is more important than blood relationship and that property is more dear to people than friendship or loyalties.”

During the Partition of India in 1947, Ahmad and his family were among the millions of Muslims in India who left for Pakistan. Millions of Hindus and Sikhs made the reverse trip. In the lead-up to and immediate aftermath of independence, intense violence broke out between the groups. The partition-related death toll was somewhere between 1 and 2 million lives. Ahmad recalled witnessing bloody riots and butchery, carried out in the name of newfound Indian and Pakistani nationalisms.

After he was recruited to the army during the first Indo-Pak conflict in Kashmir—an enlistment he later credited to teenage adventurism rather than nationalist fervor—Ahmad moved to the United States in 1957 and pursued a PhD at Princeton University, where he also attempted to organize the university’s cafeteria workers. His graduate research took him to North Africa in the early 1960s, where he was set to do a comparative study of Moroccan and Tunisian labor unions. In Tunis, he became embedded in the Algerian resistance movement, working alongside key members of the Algerian nationalist party in exile. That time proved formative to his understanding of revolution. Contrary to the standard account of the war of independence as solely a triumph of guerilla warfare tactics, Ahmad, in an interview toward the end of his life, argued that “Algerians lost the war militarily, but won it politically,” thanks in large part to the strategy of “isolating France morally” on the international stage.

Ahmad also began advocating on behalf of dispossessed Palestinians following the 1967 Arab–Israeli War. Through his relationship with Said, Ahmad met with and advised prominent members of the Palestine Liberation Organization, including Yasser Arafat. Ahmad’s writings revealed a fierce belief in diplomacy and political solutions to armed conflict. In one essay, he wrote that the PLO “seemed committed to outfighting its adversary without outadministering it,” and despite his pleas to Arafat and other Palestinian leaders, the “ethos and structure of the PLO remained militarized,” counting on “posturing and public relations” in lieu of “sustained and sophisticated politics.” His frustration grew as PLO leaders, in his view, further entrenched themselves in a military conflict that they would not only lose, but that would sap the movement of its political and moral legitimacy.

Throughout his life, Ahmad argued that political leaders must resist the temptation to resort to vulgar nationalism—what he called “an ideology of difference”—to achieve their ends. He accused both Mahatma Gandhi and the first leader of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, of sowing the seeds of division with exclusionary political visions. As Ahmad saw firsthand during the 1947 partition, such visions of politics could easily lead to bloodshed. Political institutions, he believed, held a responsibility to cultivate a spirit of democratic spirit of solidarity with the other.

Tensions between India and Pakistan continued to escalate over the course of the second half of the twentieth century. In the 1990s, Ahmad became one of Pakistan’s most prominent anti-nuclear voices, delivering public addresses across the nation. His talks often faced resistance and disruption, usually by Islamic radicals or individuals affiliated with the Pakistani military.

In May 1998, both nations held nuclear weapons tests within several weeks of each other. Ahmad said that it made “no sense whatsoever for India to have tested its nuclear weapons . . . and equally no sense for Pakistan to follow suit.” In his analysis, there was not just the danger of nuclear conflict, but also the harm caused by violations of non-proliferation treaties that triggered heavy economic sanctions, which were imposed by the United States in 1998.

In the aftermath of the tests, Ahmad played a role in organizing informal Indo-Pak peace talks through the Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy. He also became an active participant in a South Asian dialogue project that sought to foster subcontinental cooperation and solidarity in the face of growing hypernationalism. His faith in the power of communication and democratic mobilization consistently informed his approach to navigating the politics of the subcontinent.

Ahmad knew that any resolution to tensions between India and Pakistan must address the situation in Kashmir. He lambasted the Indian government for its brutal repression of Muslim Kashmiris, and also reserved criticism for the Pakistani government’s cynical use of Kashmiris as pawns for their own geopolitical ends. Ahmad’s proposal for peace in Kashmir involved India maintaining the regions of Jammu and Ladakh, Pakistan retaining the region known as Azad Kashmir, and granting the Kashmir Valley the right to independence. Such a solution, Ahmad believed, would help establish greater cooperation and integration between the two nations, opening more lanes for commerce and movement. Today, this sort of analysis is rare. The Kashmir question is treated as a zero-sum competition between rival nations in perpetual conflict, with utter disregard for the millions of Kashmiris who have been harmed by decades of political and social oppression.

“Peoples and governments with an uncertain sense of the future manifest deeply skewed relationships to their history,” Ahmad wrote in a 1994 article for the Pakistani daily Dawn. “When the present is painfully replete with inequalities and frustrations, and the future holds little promise,” many embrace a distorted version of the past. Pakistani leaders, he continued, “needed the crutch of inverted history,” which encouraged fundamentalist views, to help secure their power.

Today, Ahmad himself is used as a character in an inverted history. Najam Sethi, a prominent Pakistani journalist loosely affiliated with the Pakistani left, has effusively described Ahmad as a “major nationalist and patriot,” citing his participation in the 1947 Kashmir War. It’s a subtle sleight of hand that conflates Ahmad’s love for the Pakistani people and efforts to better the Pakistani nation with nationalism—a claim he repeatedly rejected throughout his career.

In that same 1994 Dawn article, Ahmad examined the Hindu nationalists who, while steadily amassing political power in the 1980s, churned out “an enormous body of publications and educational material on the alleged excesses of Muslim rule in India, and Hindu resistance to it.” But contrary to the Pakistani case, there were some safeguards against these perversions of history, as “the most eminent among India’s historians openly and consistently debunked the revivalists’ claims.” This situation has changed for the worse over the last decade, however. Falsifications of history have been institutionalized in thousands of government-run schools, thanks to reforms enacted by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which controls the federal legislature and several state legislatures. Academics may now find themselves arrested if they express ideas that challenge the Hindu nationalist rendering of history, or any other opinion deemed out of line with the ruling party.

Both Pakistan and India have largely embraced fabricated ideological myths as fuel for their hypernationalist governments. In the meantime, both nations find themselves engulfed in crisis. In Pakistan, massive street protests followed the ousting of former Prime Minister Imran Khan in 2022; he later survived an assassination attempt. Historic floods have recently decimated the country, killing over 1,700 people, and a debt crisis followed a hugely unpopular $1 billion IMF bailout. In India, the BJP continues to tighten its grip on power, stripping away the nation’s secular and democratic foundations and in their stead creating a system that may be understood as a kind of theocratic fascism. The “New India,” as it’s known by its most abhorrent architects, is a nation where independent journalists are jailed, activists are openly targeted by state forces, and Hindu nationalism reigns.

The two countries’ long-term fates are deeply intertwined. According to international watchdogs, both nations will be on the front lines of the devastation wrought by climate collapse. More profoundly, as Ahmad sensed early on, despite their mutual enmity, the countries’ respective political identities are mirror images, grounded in an antagonism that manifests in jingoism and frequent military provocations. For peace advocates and organizers in South Asia and in the diaspora, Ahmad’s work provides a much-needed alternative framework. Where even the most well-meaning advocates on both sides generally restrict their political imaginations to their respective nations’ borders, Ahmad’s work urges them to transcend those restrictions to understand the shared dangers they face.

India and Pakistan are sinking further into the turmoil stoked by populist strongmen, military bureaucrats, religious zealots, corrupt dynastic political parties, and corporate elites. The visionary promise of the project of decolonization is fading, perhaps even quicker than Ahmad himself could have foreseen. To safeguard religious, ethnic, caste, and cultural minorities, and support billions of working people, we will need the spirit of democratic internationalism. The path to peace and prosperity in South Asia, Ahmad wrote, will force us to “re-orient our nationalist ideologies, and restore to our culture something of humanism, universalism, and commitment to justice.” Only then will we stand a chance of beating back the tides of authoritarianism, and creating political systems capable of meeting the dire challenges of our time.

Arvin Alaigh is a writer, organizer, and PhD student at the University of Cambridge. He is one of Dissent’s 2022 Emerging Writers.