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The salt of the earth

Updated July 30, 2018

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Ishtiaq Ahmed.
Ishtiaq Ahmed.

Gifted with the art of story-telling, Ishtiaq Ahmed was famous among his school teachers at Saint Anthony’s High School who would ask him to come up with impromptu stories and narrate them to his class fellows. A veteran leftist, political scientist and researcher, Ishtiaq was born in a house on Temple Road Lahore in 1947.

Popular for his hospitality and friendly nature, his house used to be a den for his friends.

“Like my father, I had a big circle of friends, including the people from my working class neighbourhood and a set of upper middle class friends from Saint Anthony’s school. I was always interested in the company of elders and learnt a lot from my father’s friends. When I grew up, my father gave me a room in the house to establish an assembly of my own,” he recalls.

He had a natural talent for singing but never was encouraged by his parents to have voice training.

“My father would ask me to recite a ‘Naa’t’ by Muhammad Rafi and give me money as a gesture of appreciation but never let me learn music. After watching Baiju Bawra, I was the one who believed that one could break the glass with music frequencies.

“I would sing for hours, holding a hockey as no Tanpura was available, on my rooftop to break the glass with musical resonance,” Ishtiaq says in a lighter vein.

“Lahore was simple and beautiful. We would go to cinema, play cricket and roam around Temple Road, Regal Chowk, The Mall and Lawrence Gardens. A lot of restaurants and coffee shops got vanished with the passage of time.

“I was attracted to socialist ideology after being inspired from ‘Hum Log’, a movie by Balraj Sahni. I have seen ‘Kartar Singh’ by Saifuddin Saif´ several times. Dismantling the state-sponsored narrative of the two-nation theory, it was the biggest film ever made on the Partition. No one has been so faithful in telling us what happened during the Partition,” he believes.

I grew up reading Krishan Chandar, Manto and Sahir Ludhiavi.

“Sahir is my all-time favourite. He addresses a wide range of subjects, from war and women to the class struggle.”

Dr Ishtiaq says he was raised in a liberal environment and he would play Flush on every Diwali at home.

“Till the 1970s, Lahore was like a Raga Bhairvi, an evergreen city,” he recalls.

Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed remained a brilliant student through his life.

“I was into reading and aspired to be a detective. Solving mysteries and research are two sides of the same coin, I guess.

“During the anti-Ayub Khan movement, the University of Punjab was divided into Left and Right camps. Inspired by Professor Khalid Mehmood, I studied the works by Marx, Lenin and Mao. I was among the founder members of National Student’s Organisation (NSO). What I regret is being with the Maoist Movement. I finally landed in Mazdoor Kissan Party, led by Major Ishaq and Afzal Bangash, this affiliation never ended.”

Being an idealist, Dr Ishtiaq decided not to go for civil service and opted for teaching to serve people.

“My first posting was at the Gordon College, Rawalpindi. Khwaja Masood, the vice principal was mentor of Professor Khalid Mehmood, who offered me my first job there as a teacher.

“After Bhutto’s famous tour of seven African countries, the Maoist left assessed that it is the time for the adventurous revolt. They ventured into hostile agitation and were crushed by Bhutto. Afzal Bangash stayed with us in Rawalpindi for three months when he was underground. Trade union leader, Riffat Baba, was also arrested in a massive crackdown. He sent me a message, through Comrade Zaheer Rizvi, to leave Pakistan. He was thoroughly grilled about me because of my active and regular study circles, influencing the young activists. In the meantime, my brother came to Pakistan from Sweden. My mother asked him that she is too old to bear Ishtiaq going to jails, like his father, who was arrested for his association with Khaksar Tahreek, and I left for Sweden.”

In Sweden, Ishtiaq kept on organising people and raising voice against Bhutto’s anti-people acts. Pakistani ambassador refused to renew his passport by declaring him a Russian agent and he got political asylum in 1975 when he was doing his PhD on ‘Concept of Islamic State’.

“Prince Barkat Ali, my junior at FC College, helped me getting back my Pakistani passport when he was appointed to Sweden in 1981. I came back to collect the research materials from Pakistan and defended my PhD thesis in 1985.

‘Concept of Islamic State’ was followed by ‘State Nation; and ‘Ethnicity in Contemporary South Asia’ and ‘The Politics of Group Rights’.

In Pakistan, Dr Ishtiaq is known for his books ‘The Pakistan Garrison State’ and a remarkable work on the partition ‘Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed’.

It took him the hard work of 12 years to complete the untold and camouflaged episode of Indian history. Reflecting his passion for his land and people, this work could be termed the only comprehensive study of the Partition. All his books are against oppression and dismantling the narratives being propagated by colonisers and dictators.

Dr Ishtiaq is currently researching on political intentions and inclinations of Jinnah. He visits Lahore every year and works for the fall semester at the GC University Lahore.

“Leaving Lahore is like bidding farewell to my first love. Despite all distortions made in the name of development, I still love my city of dreams.”

Despite spending a lot of time on serious research and academic work, Ishtiaq Ahmed kept a singer and a story-teller in him alive. He sings regularly and shares it with friends on social media. He is working on a novel and has a plan to pen down short stories in Punjabi.

Humble and soft spoken Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed is widely respected among his friends and students for generous nature.

“Despite having nasty experiences, I believe that most people in the world are good. I am lucky to be blessed always with loving friends. It helped me go through the odds of life without getting cynical,” he concludes.

Published in Dawn, July 30th, 2018