Two features characterise the entire body of Aijaz Ahmad’s work, which offers us a way to read the history of the present. First, his evident wide reading about the history and sociology of the world, which allows him to provide the necessary global context for his study and for our new times that remain tied to the contradictions of a longer history. Second, his grip on Marxism, a living Marxism, a Marxism that has absorbed both the streams of Western Marxism and of national liberation Marxism.
Vijay Prashad writes that it is impossible for him to think without thinking alongside the work of Aijaz Ahmad. In Nothing Human is Alien to Me, a wide-ranging conversation, he draws out Ahmad, separating and interweaving strands of his thought, and in the process inviting us, the readers, to take a look at the method that drives his analysis. In the process, we learn to think through the present, better.
Return to India
Vijay Prashad [VP]: You returned to India in 1985. What was the immediate reason to do so?
Aijaz Ahmad [AA]: Oh, there was no immediate reason. This was something I had been thinking about for many years. I grew up in India and came to Pakistan only after my high school, so there was a sense of belonging to India. When I came to Pakistan and went to college in Lahore, I always felt as an outsider. Then there was this nationality question in Pakistan much of which kept deteriorating into ethnic narrow-mindedness and xenophobia, so I started feeling even more alienated in that developing political culture. I belonged to a political party which started fragmenting towards the end of the 1970s and finally collapsed after the revolution in Afghanistan in 1978 and the Soviet intervention there two years later. I was looking for a political home because I no longer had one. I could not go back to Pakistan where I no longer had a firm political home and it was also quite risky for me after zia-ul-Haq’s coup. So, all these things were percolating in my mind. I decided that I didn’t want to live in the United States; it was a very alienating experience for me, although by then I had lived in New York almost as long as I had lived in India or Pakistan. The communist movement in India was attractive as a possible political home. And a memory of the India of my childhood had always felt like an unfinished business of my life. When I first went to explore the possibility of moving back I was still travelling on a Pakistani passport. People I spoke to told me that living in India was possible but not on a Pakistani passport. I had to have a Western passport. I returned to New York and acquired an American passport, which is also a story in itself. In any case, my reason for acquiring an American passport was very ironic—I got it to live in India, which was my birthplace. After I returned with this new passport, I soon became a Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.
VP: You had familiarity with the Indian intellectual world, but now being back in Delhi you had a deeper link, and you quickly got involved with politics. What were the new themes that were beginning to enter your thought, your work, your imagination?
AA: The first thing that I experienced was that the intellectual culture in Pakistan was so incomparably backward compared to India, and that I had to catch up with those higher standards of intellectual calibre. The other was that I realized within a few weeks of being in India that it would take me two, three, four years to actually understand where I am—that I really didn’t know India except in this sentimental way of thinking, you know, that this is my home. I never believed that just being born someplace gives you any understanding of that place; the whole litany of identity politics. I actually went into another learning mode. I had spent the late 1970s and the first half of the 1980s reading an enormous amount; it was in those years that I think I became an intellectual. In India, I launched upon some three or four years of learning about India; again, a lot of reading, lots of meetings with intellectuals and activists, increasing involvement with party intellectuals. There was a learning curve, a very important learning curve.
VP: What were you reading in this time?
AA: Until then I had read about India very superficially here and there. A bit of Kosambi, part of Irfan Habib, part of Amiya Bagchi, Bipan Chandra from his early phase; things like that. Now I started reading more systematically, in two different directions. One, I read immense amounts on Indian history and society, more or less regardless of the political orientations of the author. That in fact included writings from the Right all the way from writings of the right-wing historians to files of the Organiser. At the same time, I launched upon reading the works of Indian Marxists. I read a lot of EMS. I read as much Ranadive as I could find. I remember acquiring all the three volumes of Ranadive on trade unions. I read CPI(M) [Communist Party of India (Marxist)] party literature very, very regularly and as much of it as I could. I read Sukomal Sen, the whole history of Indian communism. There were these many volumes of the Communist Party of India’s history issued by the CPI; the CPI(M)’s volumes came later. I read all that stuff. By the end of four or five years of this I had several bookcases filled with books on India, and the bookcases kept multiplying subsequently.
VP: When did you start feeling that you need to understand the cultural side, namely caste. I do remember very well you talking about how the new literature on things like caste had made these quite superficial observations that caste and maybe even various forms of identity were socially constructed, that they had roots in colonialism and so on, and I remember you saying that there is a longer history. When did you start going back and reading the earlier histories and drawing some of those conclusions?
AA: Yes. I think you’re referring to my own comments on things like Subaltern Studies, and the colonial construction both of communalism and caste—this is more or less the Subaltern Studies notion. I had dificulty with Gyanendra Pandey’s book on communalism as a colonial construction. On a conceptual level, the idea of constructed identities is a turn towards the discursive, the cultural. It is a turn away from materialist explanations to discursive explanations. The linguistic turn and the culturalist turn in which it is discourse that determines history—in this case colonial discourse. Colonial administration, through census making for instance, is said to create or shape religious communities and caste communities into political subjects. This leaves open the question of what was the real that was constructed? There had to have been a material base—a historical, sociological, material base—which could then be represented in colonial discourse that way; but representation does not create the realities. There are some other realities which representation and administration may alter and shape, that is true. But what were the real relations? For example, when it is said that these were very fuzzy communities which were sharpened by colonial intervention, it begs the question: fuzzy communities? But caste was never a fuzzy community. These were very hard and fast communities. I mean, if you have a society in which if a Dalit’s shadow falls … or a Dalit is walking on one side of the street and the wind comes from this way and touches the Brahmin …
VP: The fellow has to run and have a bath!
AA: The fellow has to run, yes. The Dalit is pollution personified and therefore his very presence pollutes the Brahmin; not only a touch, a shadow. I rather agree with Suvira Jaiswal, for instance, who argues that Brahminism is at heart not so much an orthodoxy as an orthopraxy. In other words, beliefs can be elastic so long as caste boundaries remain rigid. So there is nothing fuzzy about it but that is what Sudipta Kaviraj and people like that say endlessly*—communities were fuzzy, there were no sharp lines, it is the colonials who constructed these sharp lines and so on. This strikes me as a deep denial of what Brahminism has actually been, historically.
VP: It’s completely different from Ambedkar, for instance, who always understood the hardness.
AA: That’s right, yes. It’s an absolutely Brahminical notion; it’s a denial of the reality of what caste in India is. So, one of the things that happened is that I started reading people like Ambedkar, whatever was available of Periyar in English, whatever was available on caste. I read a great deal about caste, which had a cumulative effect on me over ten to fifteen years. It altered my sense of India. Caste was something that I became aware of in India very quickly. Having lived in Pakistan for a long time, and then coming to India with this notion that India had these great communist parties, and that it had Gandhi, Nehru, secularism and so on, I was so shocked by the subservience of the oppressed classes, which I immediately connected with caste. The way the upper caste, afluent types even speak to the poorer people; in Pakistan, they would get beaten up. In Pakistan, you embraced everybody from your own gender, you know, regardless of class, caste, and religion. Two men meet, they embrace. I come to Delhi and I find people born in upper caste families who no longer believe in caste divisions and who may even be on the left, politically, but who keep a certain physical distance even among friends, for whom an embrace is not a way of greeting each other. I connected that immediately with caste.
VP: That’s very interesting. But it’s also a class thing as well, because in different parts of India, you see different ways in which bodies function.
AA: Of course, sure, but I’m talking about the Delhi intelligentsia, left-wing Delhi intelligentsia among whom I was living; you say hello from a distance. But it is also true of many social conglomerates all over North India. So, for me, it was a very strange custom. I connected all of this with purity-pollution. The way people drink water; you pick up the bottle and keep it inches away from your mouth while you drink water from it—why can’t you just put it in your mouth? I don’t even know how to drink water like that! In the world that shaped me it was common for several people to drink water from the same glass. So just daily life, how bodies function, how manners function … simple daily things; what is no longer a belief but has become custom.
VP: And you know those are not rooted in some very modern period, these go back much longer.
AA: I connected all of this with caste almost immediately. Subservience of the oppressed classes of the kind that you find in India is [rooted in] caste; you don’t find it in a country like Pakistan which has no or very little communist or socialist influence. The great majority of Muslims are converts. So, caste too has been carried into the life of South Asian Muslims. But not as purity-pollution, untouchability, who can enter the upper caste’s kitchen and who cannot, who is allowed to eat with whom. It does manifest itself in choice of marriage alliances, things of that sort.
VP: But not in everyday life experiences and this consciousness of subservience, and so on, or superiority on the other side.
AA: Right, right. So, I became aware of caste in India on this level and increasingly began to understand that you really can’t study either Indian society or politics without understanding caste. Soon enough, I also realized how caste was important in electoral politics, for example.
VP: You were reading all this Indian Marxist literature, but much of it doesn’t absorb this lesson; the lesson of the pervasiveness of caste in society, the obstacles that it poses for praxis. So, what was your feeling about the literature you were reading at the same time as you were beginning to absorb this lesson from everyday life?
AA: Well, I came to understand very early the left-Ambedkarite thesis to be correct; that annihilation of caste is a precondition for class revolution in India. That, I think, has to be absorbed in communist practice and it has been absorbed rather spottily, unevenly and not deeply enough.
VP: I just watched a short video of Ambedkar being interviewed by the BBC, where he is sitting in a chair, the BBC reporter is sitting next to him and they’re sort of looking into the distance and talking to each other; it’s quite a charming little video. And the reporter talks about democracy in India and that the leaders are committed to ending caste and Ambedkar says, all nonsense; he says you need action. And then at one point, Ambedkar says, you don’t just need a vote; democracy is a strange thing because people need to eat, they need a house, they need to live with dignity. And then the reporter says, well you sound like a communist and Ambedkar says, well yes, you know, this might very well be the way forward and that’s in the 1940s.
AA: Oh, yes. Ambedkar’s own ambivalences fascinate me. By education, conviction and temperament, he is a very recognizable kind of Anglo-American constitutionalist. Such people tend to be socially and politically quite conservative. But as a man of Dalit origin and fighter for annihilation of caste, he can be neither socially nor politically a conservative in the Indian context. Hence his sense of unease with mere constitutionalism and merely formal arrangements of representative democracy. Meanwhile, his understanding of caste is very acute. He knows that caste justice is a matter neither of juridic equality which is what liberalism proposes nor a question of class tokenism of reservations in educational institutions or government. He understands caste as a matter of dignified social existence as well as acute deprivation in all aspects of human life, including of course the economic. To the extent that communism is a doctrine of radical and substantive equality, not merely formal equality, Ambedkar would be time and again attracted to it. But, for the most part, he was infuriated by the relative indifference to caste in the theory and practice of Indian communism of that time—just as he was repulsed by Gandhi’s duplicities on the question of caste. I have often wondered what Ambedkar’s attitude would have been if CPI had acknowledged the primacy of caste, the absolutely fundamental link between caste and class, in Indian society, and if it had consistently adopted a real programme of action in that light. In that case, Ambedkar might have faced a crisis in his liberal constitutionalism.
* Sudipta Kaviraj, ‘The Imaginary Institution of India’, Subaltern Studies VII, eds. Partha Chatterjee and Gyan Pandey, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993.