Aligarh: memories

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Recalling Aligarh and Udaipur

By Ahmad Ali Khan


These are passages from the unpublished and incomplete memoirs of the writer on the first anniversary of his death. Ahmad Ali Khan, who died on March 13, 2007, was Editor/Chief Editor of Dawn from 1973 to 2000 and again in 2003-04. He was the longest serving editor of this newspaper who steered Dawn through the most difficult times for the print media in the history of Pakistan without compromising its independence and credibility….


THE four years at Aligarh were in several ways an enriching experience for me, both academically and in other ways.

There were a few outstanding teachers whose commitment to learning and to teaching were a source of inspiration; teachers like Prof M. Habib of the political science department, Dr Hadi Husain, Professor Khawaja Manzoor Husain, who taught us English literature, to mention only a few of the more distinguished members of Aligarh’s academia. Of course the average faculty member was not too good. There were some senior teachers who fell into a category of their own. For instance, as Vice Chancellor Dr Ziauddin Ahmed handled matters of institutional policy.

Of course there were others like Prof A.B.A. Haleem (Abba Haleem to some boys because of his authoritarian manner and paternal airs) whose primary interest seemed to be in administration. He was known to have specialised in the study of the French revolution and was said to be good at it when he began. But after he became Pro-Vice Chancellor he had less and less time for studying the latest literature on the subject.I was summoned to meet him on three different occasions. At the first such meeting he asked me to clarify my position on what he had been told about my intellectual leanings. He said he had been informed that I was quite interested in atheism and socialism. “Mein ney suna hai ke aap ko atheism aur socialism sey kafi dilchaspi hai” (I have heard that your interest is in atheism and socialism).

Regarding the first charge, I said I had made no claim about being an atheist in any conversation with anybody. And I added that if anybody had arbitrarily formed any opinion about my religious beliefs without directly discussing those supposed beliefs with me, I was not bound to accept that opinion. This matter disposed of, I pleaded guilty to the second charge, namely, that concerning socialism.

As I said I was interested in socialism and was keen to understand its meaning and purpose, I was subjected to a spontaneous viva voce. Prof Haleem rattled off one question after another at a good speed to test my knowledge of the subject. I don’t remember the wording but I was supposed to offer definitions of Fabian socialism, guild socialism and Marxian socialism and to say how one differed from the other. As he finished with his questions, I knew I had passed the test.

I was required to present myself before Prof Haleem on two other occasions and in both these cases I was really at fault for having acted rashly and provocatively. On one occasion I rode a tonga and using a loudspeaker invited listeners to a public meeting of leftists to be held in Aligarh city. This tonga was fitted with two red flags, one on each side. I should have known that nobody had been doing this kind of thing on the university campus. Besides, it was a useless venture since the university had already been captured by the Muslim League.

As I was passing the road behind the S.S. Hall boundary four boys, each of sturdy build, came and stopping the tonga took strong exception to the use of the red flag. They were very angry. Therefore I and Comrade Siddique who was accompanying the tonga on a bicycle offered to remove one red flag and replace it with a Muslim League flag. A League flag was provided and was duly hoisted on one side using a rope.

The angry boys then insisted that I stop the announcement and accompany them to the house of Prof Haleem. The latter was very annoyed with me and with Siddique. He ordered that the announcement be stopped and noted down my name and the name of my boarding house. Next morning I found a brief notice posted on a notice board near the entrance to my hostel saying that I had been fined Rs10 for “taking out an unauthorised procession”.

The bursar’s office never asked me to pay the fine and I still owe Rs10 to the university on this account. The third time I had to appear before Prof Haleem was when I committed an act of premeditated indiscretion by distributing in broad daylight a leaflet which contained derogatory remarks against M. Mohsin Siddiqui, one of the candidates contesting for the office of the vice-president of the Union.

Mr Siddiqui later became a political leader and a factory owner in Pakistan. He was assassinated a long time ago in Karachi. I was working for Mr Nusrat Hassan, who was my roommate (Mr Hassan held a number of high official posts and now lives in Karachi after his retirement. We continue to be good friends).

While distributing the leaflets I was intercepted by a group of boarders, mostly senior boys who ‘arrested’ me and presented me before Prof Haleem. This was the second time I was appearing before him as an accused, leaving aside the first occasion when I was asked to defend my ‘subversive’ views. I was quite worried. I knew that I had violated the unwritten Aligarh code according to which any printed material against a candidate in the Union elections was distributed only in the darkness of the night.

The person engaged in such activity — it was called “anti-work” in the Aligarh parlance — had to take care that he was not caught in the act. The impugned leaflet was produced before Prof Haleem who looked at it. Then two fierce eyes glared at me making me quite nervous since I had no defence to offer.…

See also Udaipur

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