Institute for Social Justice

News & Events

A Life of Commitment and Inquiry

Professor Akeel Bilgrami, Columbia University and Institute for Social Justice, ACU

An old friend and intellectual companion writes on the many “sides” of Javeed Alam’s (1943–2016) character and academic work and the questions he explored over a lifetime, especially the philosophical issues around Marxism which were closest to his heart.

Javeed Alam died on 5 December. His death will be widely lamented. He was an activist of strong will and organisational skill. He was a political scientist of philosophical temperament and humane instinct. He was honourably and unwaveringly committed to communist politics in India, while increasingly of open mind, an undismissive interlocutor even with those who disagreed with him. As a result, his own work became more varied and subtle over the years. He was the sweetest of men. It is reported that someone in Samuel Johnson’s circle of acquaintances said that he had “wanted to be a philosopher, like the good Doctor himself, but cheerfulness kept breaking in.” Somehow, Javeed never let the fact that he was a philosopher “break in” and undermine his cheerfulness. He was a person of directness and, so far as I could see, without any hostility. There was never a hint of class or intellectual condescension. He had a contagiously warm gift for lively engagement with both people and ideas that fetched him, throughout his life, the companionship of many loving friends. I feel privileged to have been among them.

He was the son of distinguished Hyderabadi parents, an activist mother and a father who was a prominent philosopher. He grew up in the company of siblings who, like him and his parents, were admirably formed from an early age towards political conviction in the service of the common good. Ever since I met him and them, I have envied him this upbringing.

After acquiring school and university degrees in Hyderabad, he went to Delhi where, barely having entered professional life, he was confronted by the threat of what we have, in India, come to call “communal” politics. His trials with Hindu bigotry in the early 1970s as a young lecturer from a Muslim background, who had married Jayanti Guha, from a Bengali Hindu background, was the subject of political scandal, an early premonition of the far more menacing cultural ethos of our own time. Javeed and Jayanti rode the storm courageously with a groundswell of support from a secular-minded public, not just in Delhi but from the breadth of the country, something that cannot be taken for granted now, as it was then.

In the next major phase of his life, while a professor at Himachal Pradesh University, he was a powerful, highly motivated, and single-minded organiser of communist politics at various levels in that state. At a time when the left political parties are demoralised and defeated, these energies and effective mobilisational talents he demonstrated are especially important to recall.

Though he maintained a keen interest in ideas through this period of fruitful activism, he returned more fully to academic work after he left Himachal Pradesh to join research institutions in Calcutta and Delhi, and then later when he returned to Hyderabad to combine teaching with research at Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages (CIEFL). After his retirement, he took on one last stint of public service as director of the Indian Council for Social Research in Delhi before returning to Hyderabad once again. Despite heart-breaking recent setbacks of health and personal tragedy, Javeed, with the unfailing and loving support of his son Aniket and his family, remained a jolly and morale-boosting presence for all those who visited him in this last phase of his life.

In the 1990s, he had asked me to help him run a four-year-long recurring annual seminar in Hyderabad, sponsored by the Indian Council of Philosophical Research and the foundation bearing his father’s name (the Alam Khundmiri Foundation), on the subject of “The Radical Enlightenment,” which was understood by us to be a capacious trajectory of thought that ranged from the radical dissenters of the English Revolution in the mid-17th century through the German and English Romantic philosophers and poets, Marx and Marxism (including Indian Marxism), the humane socialist tradition of Ruskin and Morris, the anti-imperialism of Gandhi, Lenin, and Fanon, down to Horkheimer and Adorno in the European continent, and Chomsky, E P Thompson, and Edward Said, in the English-speaking world in our own time. Since I was teaching in New York for the most part of each year, all the hard work was done by him.

With his countrywide intellectual contacts and his ability to prompt people to discuss ideas, he brought to Hyderabad each winter the most interesting and accomplished intellectuals from every corner of the land in some of the most high-level seminars that Hyderabad has witnessed in recent times. The sustained thread of continuity and community in the discussions during this entire period can be found in the pages of the Social Scientist over successive years, which he edited and usefully introduced as a record of these extended deliberations. It was typical of his generosity that he worked tirelessly to facilitate these conferences and then painstakingly produced these volumes over half a decade.

How to Think about Nehru

His intellectual life was intense and productive—his books and articles over the years form a substantial corpus of work reflecting his philosophical acumen, his wide sympathies, his knowledge of the intellectual history of the Western tradition from the Early Modern period to Marx, and his informed familiarity with the details of political life in India since independence. If one adds to this significant volume of work, the incessant stimulus of his intellectual company, one can do no better in writing a brief notice such as this on his death, than to pay tribute by recalling and continuing the conversations on the questions he so frequently opened up. That is what I will now very briefly try to do in the little space that I have left.

What was perhaps most conspicuous in Javeed’s writing and his talk was his temperamental inability to fasten on anything but the most fundamental issues of politics. Even when he wrote and spoke of Muslims in Hyderabad or regional movements in Jharkhand and Punjab, or on class politics in Himachal Pradesh, his eye was on nothing less than the meaning and nature of modernity, socialism, democracy, secularism, nationalism, the large themes that he analysed with abiding focus throughout his adult life. This is an attractive quality of mind that forces us to situate detail in a more basic framework of thought.

As a result of the influence of some of his interlocutors in research institutions in Kolkata and Delhi, Javeed became more critical of the standard way of understanding nationalism in India, especially Nehru’s understanding of it, which he came to regard as having mistakenly assumed without evidence that India was a unity from time immemorial and so nationalism may proceed with the “idea of India,” a unified nation to be recovered from the shoals of colonial efforts to divide it.

This entire question of unity of the nation which has been the subject of a great deal of fine analysis among Indian intellectuals, is still very much a subject of contest and controversy, and part of its complexity lies, of course, in the fact that such an idea of unity is put under pressure from many different directions. Javeed acknowledges this complexity and his work on secularism and on caste spells out how this cannot just be seen as the Indian version of what Marxists have viewed as “the National Question” responding to the demands of regional autonomy. How and whether to conceptualise the nation as a unity when its fragmentation owes not just to regional nationalist aspirations but to caste and religion as well (so far as I know, gender was not a category that Javeed discussed at much length or very explicitly in this mix) was something that he struggled to formulate over the years with increasing flexibility.

I remember well an early discussion with him in the 1990s, when I had spent a few months at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi, in which he was being highly critical of Nehru’s Discovery of India. He was intelligently amalgamating two different influences on him that led to his dissatisfaction with that text. On the one hand there was, as I just said, his recent denial of an assumption of India as a unity. To posit such a unity, he now feared, would only become the submerged basis of the Hindutva nationalist ideal that we have been witnessing since the 1980s, and he thought it could be traced to Nehru’s misguided assumption in that work. On the other hand, he invoked Irfan Habib whom he reported as having compared it unfavourably with Nehru’s other writings for succumbing to a historical conception that stressed religion and culture far more than his earlier more insistent secular and progressive angle on India and its history. We sat up for hours talking about Nehru (and Gandhi).

I tried to be more sympathetic to the work by pointing out that it was not so much a unity that Nehru was stressing but rather, after an acknowledgement of great disunity, stressing nevertheless a kind of unselfconscious pluralism in India’s history that he, along with Gandhi, wished to tap as the basis for an inclusive anti-imperialist nationalism that was to be contrasted with European forms of nationalism that were exclusionary, based on finding an external enemy within and creating a feeling for the nation as “ours,” not “theirs”—something, in fact, that Savarkar wished for India. Javeed resisted this idea, saying that “pluralism” was a term of modernity and could not be applied to India’s historical past as Nehru did in that work. He refused my response that that is why I had called it an unselfconscious pluralism, one prior to its self-conscious articulation in recent political theory, and he went on to publish an explicit version of such a refusal in one of his papers in Thesis Eleven.1

Is There an Indian Secularism?

This led to an interesting discussion of how far terms can and cannot be redefined, can and cannot be divorced from their context of coinage and application. Though he resisted my claim that “pluralism” despite being defined explicitly in modern political theory was a term that could be used to characterise an unselfconscious social ethos that Nehru sought to depict as India’s historical past, despite its disunity, he and I found ourselves agreeing on the pointlessness of efforts by Radhakrishnan and Amartya Sen to claim that secularism should get a redefinition to capture something uniquely about India’s polity, some sort of neutrality and equidistance between different religions. We agreed, against such a view, that secularism was a notion that emerged in Europe under certain conditions of religious strife owing to religious majoritarianism in its nation-building exercises (and minoritarian backlashes against it)2 and that its applicability to India was necessary when those conditions began to be replicated (or, at any rate, approximated) in India.

I was inclined to think that secularism as it had emerged in Europe had been misleadingly and too vaguely sloganised as “the separation of church and state,” while Javeed was more approving of the slogan. But we both agreed that intellectual effort should be expended to make that slogan less vague and more rigorous. Javeed went on to write an essay in favour of the “separation” ideal of secularism.3 He begins that essay with a frontispiece quote from Gandhi dated 1942, declaring that religion and politics must be kept wholly independent of each other. This may seem startling to those who take Gandhi to be anti-secularist. I think it was part of his point, in starting with that quotation, to oppose that view of Gandhi. Bipan Chandra had also written an article citing many passages from Gandhi in the 1940s endorsing secularism as a separation of religion and politics,4 a striking reversal of things he said ever since the early 20th century. That leaves us with a very interesting fact to diagnose in our understanding of Gandhi (and Nehru): Why does “secularism” appear so late in the rhetoric of the national movement, as late as the 1940s, not only in Gandhi but even in Nehru’s writings and speeches? A proper diagnosis of this fact would be an important contribution to the subject of secularism in India.

Secularism and pluralism are just one set of theoretical (philosophical) and historical themes, that Javeed encouraged us all to discuss repeatedly and to which he himself contributed with increasing refinement and open-mindedness. There are several other strands in his work that I should mention, at least in passing, because they too speak to the most fundamental challenges that India has faced and continues to face.

Though Javeed’s writing showed most informed authority when he wrote about Himachal Pradesh politics, and most ethnographic sensibility and familiarity when he wrote about Hyderabadi Muslims (on this last, I urge the reader to turn to his charming and insightful piece on the burqa and the rickshaw5),his intellect grappled the hardest when he took on the large conceptual questions of modernity, democracy, and nationalism in India. I say “hardest” because he nevershunned his own contradictory theoretical impulses on these topics and sought, again and again, to work through them.

Modernity, Democracy, Nationalism

One way to read his writings on modernity, I think, is to see it as motivated by a question that is simply unavoidable, one that also explains Javeed’s interest in Gandhi. This is the question that even the communist in him (which Gandhi, of course, never was) could not ignore, the question whether one can, in our countries of the South, be anti-imperialist without in some sense being opposed to modernity? But what exactly is that sense? Or, to put it more flamboyantly, scratch an anti-imperialist, and you are bound to find some kind of anti-modernist below the skin’s surface. But what kind remains indeterminate, and vexingly so. It has vexed all earnest inquiry ever since Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj. Javeed wrote a whole book, I believe, with something like this question at the back of his mind.

His other book on democracy in our time in India is to a large extent concerned with the question of caste, in particular with the extent to which representative institutions have empowered “backward” castes. He was keen to see how this may be rightly seen, for all its pitfalls, not as casteism in politics but as a collective effort emerging out of an integration (rather than differentiation) of contiguous disadvantaged castes seeking recognition and respect and amelioration together through electoral means, a form of politics that he felt was wrong to be dismissed as “identity politics”—rather than the genuinely democratic politics that it sought to be—simply because it did not fit the model that was supposed to emerge out of the increasing domination of capital and the non-traditional class antagonisms it was supposed to generate. In general, a great deal of Javeed’s account of the successes and the possibilities of Indian democracy had the buoyancy of having been written in the immediate aftermath of the 2004 elections, and reflected the optimism that was generated by the unexpected defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in that election. It would have been interesting to get an update from him after the last general elections.

Just as his analysis of democracy sought to raise very hard questions of how to reconcile two prima facie contradictory theoretical instincts he had—electoral democracy as a reflection of the entrenchment of rule by the bourgeoisie, at the same time as it is a carrier of the collective exertion of hitherto “backward” caste groups against hitherto existing caste elites—his analysis of nationalism similarly raised very hard questions about how to reconcile his own dismay at the severing of one people into two nations with his acknowledgement of the fact that Nehru came to accept partition in order to bypass the difficulties that regional autonomy in an undivided India would have posed for his aspirations for a strong centre and a planned economy. (In fact, Javeed saw clearly that the Congress represented both the national bourgeoisie which saw high opportunity in a partitioned India with a strong centre, and at the same time the Nehruvian ideal of a strong centre geared to planning.)

His Philosophical Side

It would have been too much to expect Javeed (or anyone else) to fully and decisively resolve questions as fundamental and difficult as these, questions that require us to overcome the contradictions that each one of them invited—between socialist aspiration and anti-modernity, between democratic politics and the politics of identity, between the sentiment for an undivided people and the possibilities for a centrally planned humane political economy in a partitioned India. That he constantly raised these questions and explored them with intellectual passion is what made him such a vital presence in Indian intellectual life.

My own bond with him, apart from personal friendship, was that he saw me as speaking to a side of him—the philosophical side—that went deep in his own self-conception, partly out of his wide reading and education in the subject and partly because of the influence of a philosophical father whom he—and his siblings—had admired greatly. The philosophical issues around Marxism were, of course, what were closest to his heart and they surfaced pretty much whenever we met and talked at any length.

The last such conversation I had with him was in Chandigarh where we had both converged for a conference. Noticing a book in my hand, he asked me what I was reading. It was a book of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches. We began to talk over a drink (several drinks, actually) about the American Civil War and the freeing of American slaves. Sure enough, the topic came around to Marxism and to philosophy. We began to consider the hypothesis that slavery was only abolished because the incipiently industrial North of the country needed a new form of (wage) labour and so slavery, designed as it was for plantation agriculture in the American South, was quite the wrong model, and had to die out. But how, if that is so, we wondered, shall we understand the moral motives that the abolitionists and Radical Republicans and, indeed, Lincoln himself, had avowed for their opposition to slavery? “As a Marxist, this problem of how human mentality and consciousness nests in the objective patterns of historical and economic explanation is not something I have ever fully sorted out,” said Javeed, or words to that effect. And we pledged to each other that it would be the next topic that we would pursue in a seminar in Hyderabad in the year ahead. But that never happened.

There is so much more I wish I had taken the chance to discuss with him while it was still possible, but which the sobering distance between New York and Hyderabad had prevented.


1 Javeed Alam, “Tradition in India Under Interpretative Stress,” Thesis Eleven, No 39.

2 In other words, secularism as a doctrine arose to repair the damage that was generated first by European nationalism, that is, by nation-building exercises of this sort in post-Westphalian Europe, which appealed to religious majoritariansm against external enemies within (the Jews, the Irish, Protestants in predominantly Catholic countries and vice versa). Though the fault-line began with such religious majoritarian nationalism, there were, naturally, religious minoritarian backlashes against it and the ensuing religious conflict made it seem that the fault-line was religion itself which, as a result, should be steered outside the orbit of the polity. Thus it is that “secularism” emerged out of European nationalism—and, as such, it should be distinguished from “secularisation” is not a doctrine about religion’s relation to the polity in particular but a quite general societal and ideational process of the ebbing of religious practice and belief.

– See more at:


This article was written for and originally published in Economic and Political Weekly 

Back to news