Reproduced from: Dawn, (Karachi) 07 December 2003 | section Books
Hamza Alavi - A personal tribute
by Dr Mubarak Ali
It is always painful to write about a friend who is no more. A flood of memories carry you back to the past when you spent such good times together. You recall the shared moments - when you talked about your projects. Then you suddenly return to the present and realize that those times have gone never to return. A chapter of your life has closed. Only the memories remain for you to cherish for the rest of your life.
As I write these lines, I distinctly remember that cold December evening of 1990, when I first met Hamza Bhai in Lahore. In those days, he was teaching at the University of Manchester and was on a visit to Pakistan. We became friends. He returned to England and continued to correspond with me on academic matters. At that time he was working on the Khilafat movement and sent me his writings for comments. Sometime he would also request me to send him material that was not available in the UK.
When he finally settled in Karachi after his retirement, we met more frequently. Whenever we met, we would always discuss one historical, political or social issue or another. He had already published his ground breaking work on Pakistan. His thesis of the salariat class and the role of landlords of the Punjab and Sindh in the Pakistan movement; his theory of the 'overdeveloped state'; his views on nationhood and nationalities in Pakistan; and the role of bureaucracy were widely appreciated and quoted by the scholars of South Asia.
In 1998, we invited him to Lahore to deliver a lecture on Pakistani nationalism. In his lecture he vehemently opposed the religious, linguistic, or ethnic nationalism and propounded the theory of territorial nationalism based on the country's geography, which he believed Pakistan needed. Later he conducted research on the origin of the 'Pakistan ideology' and refuted the official version that Pakistan had been created in the name of Islam. He was collecting material in support of his thesis that the Communist Party helped the Muslim League develop an organization and discipline. This gave rise to the concept of an ideology for the country which was reconstructed later as the 'Islamic' and then the 'Pakistan' ideology.
He was also critical of the Indian historians who are writing colonial and post colonial history from the nationalist point of view and ignoring some of the important aspects of the history of the Muslim community. When in 1999, the Indian historian Gyan Pandey visited Pakistan, Hamza Bhai held extensive discussions with Pandey and made a plan to hold an Indo-Pakistan historians' conference in Lahore. The Indian historians, including Partha Chatterji, Mushirul Hasan, Gyan Pandey and others were eager to come to attend the conference and discuss some controversial issues with their Pakistani counterparts. However, the relationship between the two governments deteriorated and their ties were so strained that all communication links were cut off. No other alternative remained but to cancel the conference.
In the later days of his life, Hamza Bhai became interested in Punjab and its role in the freedom movement. According to him, it is important to understand the history of Punjab in order to understand the history of Pakistan. He was very critical of Ian Talbot and Gilmartin and wanted Pakistani historians to undertake research on the role of the Unionist, Ahrar and Khaksar parties, especially on how the landlords shifted their loyalty to the Muslim League just before Independence because they were concerned at the Congress Party's programme for land reforms in the country.
He was very fond of my elder daughter Atiya who is doing her PhD in history at Chicago University. He wanted her to take 'Punjabiyat' as the topic for her dissertation. He was in communication with her and regularly sent her emails discussing the subject. Once she wrote an article on 'Marx's concept of alienation' which he liked and encouraged her to study Marx and to use his philosophy and thoughts as tools to understand society rather than to adopt them as an ideology.
He was an admirer as well as a critic of Marx. Once he pointed out that Engels, after Marx's death, handed over all his unpublished papers to Karl Kautsky for editing and publishing. Kautsky did not publish these manuscripts. In the 1960s, when East Germany's communist government published Marx's writings, only then did the real Marxist philosophy come to be known. Alavi accused Kautsky of distorting Marxist writings. According to him, Marx was misunderstood in the academic world because of Kautsky. However, Alavi appreciated Kautsky's book The Agriculture Question (Die Agrar Frage). He was asked to write the introduction of its English translation. Interestingly, Kautsky disowned his book subsequently.
Hamza Bhai published all his articles in academic journals or anthologies. When friends pressed him to collect his articles and get them published in a book he delayed the project. First he wanted to update these articles, which was an uphill task. Then ill health prevented him from completing the job. His book on the Khilafat movement met the same fate. He had already written four or five chapters but couldn't complete the book as he turned his attention to other matters. The project remains incomplete. When last time I met him on September 12, he talked about his unfinished projects: the Khilafat movement, Punjabiyat, and the Pakistani ideology.
He very much wanted to reconstruct the history of the colonial and postcolonial periods in the subcontinent. He asked me a number of times to shift my interest from the medieval to the modern period.
As he taught and worked in the universities in the West and wrote in English, most of his work remains unknown in Pakistan. Therefore, we decided to get his articles translated into Urdu. The first translation of one of his article was published in the quarterly Tarikh and then we brought out two books titled Jagirdari Aur Samraj and Pakistan: Riyasat Ka Bohran. When we launched Tarikh he supported us and agreed to become an advisory member on its board.
In 2001, when we organized the first history conference at Lahore, he came over from Karachi specially to chair it. He was always ready to support all those efforts which gave strength to progressive movements. He had a long association with the Irtiqa Institute and readily participated in their seminars and meetings. He also supported the group of young people who started to publish a monthly magazine 'Badalti Dunya. Occasionally he even contributed articles for it.
My family was very fond of him. He adopted my daughters as his own (he didn't have any children of his own). When Atiya and Shahla went to Chicago for higher education, his greatest concern was for their welfare and safety. He immediately sent them $500 each with specific instructions that they should travel by taxi from the airport to their hostel. He would always inquire from Atiya about her finances and sent her money whenever she needed it. He was also concerned about my financial condition and insisted that friends should share with each other whatever they have.
On September 10, my friends in Karachi organized a ceremony to launch some of my recently published books. He was requested to preside over the function. He came in spite of his infirmity. He spoke first saying he might have to leave earlier as he was not feeling well. But he sat till the end. That was his last public appearance. Thank you Hamza Bhai for that gesture and many more.
Hamza Alavi: Profile
Born in Karachi on April 10, 1921
Was educated at Sindh Madressah and DJ Science College, Karachi, Wadia College, Pune, Bombay University, and Aligarh Muslim University (where he obtained his MA degree in Economics). He joined the Gokhale Institute, Pune, for his PhD but left it to begin his working life.
His professional life began as a research officer in the Reserve Bank of India in Bombay before partition and shifted to Karachi after Independence to join the State Bank of Pakistan.
In 1953 he left his job and moved to East Africa where he took up farming but found he could not make a go of it so he went to London to join the London School of Economics for a PhD in Banking in Pakistan.
But he gave up his studies as he got involved in political activism when he changed his line of study from economics to sociology and political anthropology.
His teaching career took him to the University of California, Los Angeles, University of Denver, University of Sussex, University of Manchester, University of Leeds, University of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, Michigan State University.
He did anthropological field research for 15 months in a Punjab village in 1968-9.
He was founder member of the editorial board of the Journal of Contemporary Asia (1971-1985) and the Journal of Peasant Studies (1973-1996).
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