On this day in 1999 - Remembering TNI's first director Eqbal Ahmad 11 May 1999

On this day in 1999, TNI’s first Director, Eqbal Ahmad, died. He was a Pakistani activist, journalist and political scientist who spoke 5 languages (Urdu, Arabic, Farsi, French and English), and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of history. He was known for his activism against the Vietnam war and US imperialism, for African-American civil rights in the USA, Algerian liberation from French colonialism, and Palestinian sovereignty.

Eqbal Ahmad

The eminent Palestinian scholar Edward Said, who dedicated Culture and Imperialism to Eqbal, described him as: 

A man of enormous personal charisma, incorruptible ideals, unfailing generosity and sympathy to others, Ahmad was a prodigious talker and lecturer and, although his gifts best expressed themselves either in dazzlingly eloquent speech or incisive journalism, he was perhaps the shrewdest and most original anti-imperialist analyst of the post-war world, especially in the dynamics between the West and the post-colonial states of Asia and Africa.

Eqbal’s life experiences shaped his politics profoundly. He was born in Bihar state in India in 1933 or 1934. At a tender age, his Gandhian father was murdered next to him, by fellow zamindars (including at least one relative) unhappy with him defending landless peasants against abuses and providing them with small parcels of family land. The murder of his father was a trauma Eqbal forever associated with material greed. After the partition of India in 1947, Eqbal travelled some 900 miles from his village to Pakistan with his brothers and reluctant mother as part of the Muslim exodus. Of this formative experience, he said, “(W)hat I saw then was the ease with which humanity, perfectly good humanity, can descend into barbarism”, cementing an ever-lasting mistrust of exclusivist nationalist ideology and religious sectarianism.

In 1958, Eqbal went to the USA for post-graduate studies at Princeton University. His graduate research took him to North Africa, for a comparative study of Moroccan and Tunisian labour unions. In Tunis, he established a cultural centre and became embedded in the Algerian resistance movement, working alongside the likes of Frantz Fanon and other members of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) in exile. This saw him arrested in France. He declared later that “Algerians lost the war militarily, but won it politically”, thanks largely to the strategy of “isolating France morally” on the international stage.

Eqbal was long active in solidarity with Palestinians too, serving as a “critical insider”, drawing on what he had learned in Algeria and his acute sense of politics. He met Yasser Arafat on numerous occasions, though joked that Arafat rarely took his advice. On acquiring his PhD in 1965, Eqbal taught at Princeton, the University of Illinois and Cornell University. After making a speech to a group of Cornell students about the Six-Day War between Israel and the Arab states in 1967, in which he argued that the conflict was more complicated than the media were portraying it, he found himself ostracised in the academy.

He had been active in the civil rights movement since he arrived in the USA, and was an early and prominent opponent of the Vietnam War. In 1971, along with six leftwing Catholic clergy, he was one of the famous Harrisburg Seven charged with conspiracy to kidnap Henry Kissinger. This was based on correspondence passed on to the authorities referring to an idea tossed around over one of Eqbal’s famous dinners for a citizens’ arrest of said war criminal. The case was dismissed by the jury in 1972. The same year, he was invited to become a Fellow of the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) in Washington DC.

In 1973 he was commissioned by the IPS Directors to undertake a five-week trip across Europe to test the waters on establishing an activist scholar institute in Europe. He spoke to over 200 individuals across a wide political and intellectual spectrum, who embraced the idea enthusiastically. This saw the birth of the Transnational Institute (TNI) as the international arm of IPS at that time, and his appointment as its first Director. Its doors opposite the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam opened on 9 November 1973, and TNI was officially registered as of 21 March 1974.

Amitava Kumar described Eqbal as “a committed engineer of emancipation, building imaginative roads, linking issues across continents". And this was how he quickly established TNI as an international hub bustling with activity, a meeting place for radicals and exiled revolutionaries from around the world, and an internationalist network of activist-scholars.  Following the coup against the Allende government in 1974, he organised TNI's first major international conference on Chile. Eqbal also sought to support the efforts of the North-South Dialogues in producing proposals for a New International Economic Order (NIEO). To this end, he established close working relationships with Counter Information Services (CIS) in London and the recently established SOMO in Amsterdam to produce counter-reports to tackle the issue of regulation of transnational corporations. One of these reports - on how Western-imposed agricultural models were creating deliberate dependencies for the South on the North - was the subject of a very well attended press conference held during an FAO World Food Summit. This success, urged on by the then President of the G77, led to other lines of work being developed by TNI in support of the NIEO. In 1975, Eqbal stepped down as Director to dedicate time to his own intellectual work, but remained involved with TNI, as a Fellow, and later as an advisor and regular visitor.

Eqbal’s uncompromising politics – particularly with respect to Palestine – kept him an itinerant, untenured professor at various universities in the USA, until 1982 when Hampshire College, a small institution in Massachusetts, made him a professor.  He taught there until his retirement in 1997, whereafter he settled back in Islamabad to dedicate himself to establishing an alternative university in Pakistan. He wanted to call it Khalduniyah after the great Arab polymath and historian, and intended it to be a blend of Western and traditional madrassah educational institutions. Pakistani politics put paid to his dream but following his death, friends established the Eqbal Ahmad Centre for Public Education in his honour.

The Transnational Institute continues to draw inspiration from the life and work of Eqbal Ahmad, and to ensure that future generations do too. As we work to stop the genocide in Palestine today, we remember his wise words: “.. the primary task of revolutionary struggle is to achieve the moral isolation of the adversary in its own eyes and in the eyes of the world. . . .” ― Eqbal Ahmad, Confronting Empire 

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