Sunday, June 26, 2011

Professor Khalid Mahmud: an idealist bows out —Dr Muneer Ahmad

Professor Khalid Mahmud’s life is an illustration of the career of a typical post-World War II idealist. That period produced hundreds and thousands of such heroic persons. Disgusted with the miserable condition of man in society dominated by poverty created and sustained by the market forces, they were in search of a brave new world free from exploitation of man by man.

He was born in Kashmir. When communal riots broke out shortly before 1947 his father asked him and his younger brother to pick up a few valuables to carry to a place of refuge. The two brothers concealed a few storybooks under their sweaters. These were the ‘valuables’ they could think of carrying to a place of safety.

Professor Khalid Mahmud passed away on May 10 in Islamabad. He was a political scientist by academic training. He chose the occupation of a teacher for livelihood. Otherwise he was a political worker by avocation. He spent his entire life building grassroots organisations (trade unions, student bodies, teachers’ associations) to provide a foundation for a comprehensive transformation of society. He was a self-effacing man. He never sought public office. He always remained in the background. He promoted others in leadership roles. His primary objective was to build institutions.

Khalid received his initial political orientation in Gordon College, Rawalpindi. Later, he joined the Punjab University, through Government College, Lahore, to study for a Masters in political science. He graduated in 1957 in the first division. His Masters’ thesis was on the subject of trade unionism in Pakistan. His external examiner was Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The university published his thesis on trade unions as a monograph. For his research work on trade unions he travelled throughout the country, including East Pakistan. In the following years, many students wrote dissertations on different trade unions in Lahore taking Khalid’s thesis as a model.

After graduation, the Political Science Department appointed Khalid as a research scholar whose main assignment was to write a doctoral thesis in order to earn a PhD. He chose the topic ‘Political Parties in Pakistan’. When martial law was declared in 1958, he stopped working on his doctoral thesis on the plea that the political parties had been banned. I feel it was a lame and unfortunate excuse. He had already done considerable research work and could have easily written his doctoral dissertation in spite of the ban.

One notable feature of Khalid’s personality was a pronounced contempt for careerism. Unlike many other young men of his age, he never ever thought of becoming a civil servant. In fact, he was scornful of the idea. He also displayed little enthusiasm for higher education abroad. He declined offers for higher studies abroad for a doctorate. On occasions he surrendered such offers in favour of younger colleagues. If he ever contemplated a ‘career’, it was to be a professor. He did land up as a university lecturer in the Political Science Department of the Punjab University in 1968, 10 years after graduating from the same department. He was invited to join by Dr Anwar H Syed, who was at that time a professor in an American university and had joined the Punjab University as professor and head of the Political Science Department a little earlier on the special invitation of the then Vice Chancellor, Professor Hameed Ahmad Khan.

Khalid’s goal in life was not a career in any form. He did not aspire for a highly paid job, academic distinction or a prestigious position. It was political work — political work for the total transformation of society. He was influenced by Marx. He was inspired by people like Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The examples of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China led by Mao offered to him models of the future human society. He was a dedicated teacher. He lived in a spartan hostel room on the campus. He was not married and did not intend to. Apart from teaching, he worked among students and university teachers for the transformation of society. For him that was the primary task. All others were secondary. During this period (1968-78) he may be credited with three achievements. He set up, of course in cooperation with others, the National Students Organisation (NSO), a strident, anti-imperialist, anti-obscurantist force composed of young students. Among university teachers, he played a central role in reorganising and revitalising the Punjab University Academic Staff Association (PUASA). Today if the PUASA is an enduring professional organisation, it is largely due to the long, patient steering provided during its formative years by Professor Khalid Mahmud and other members of his team. His third achievement may be considered his work as a member of the Punjab University team for drafting proposals for the new education policy during 1968-69.

After the Zia martial law, political opponents from within the university conspired to remove prominent left-liberal teachers from the Punjab University. One of the university teachers removed from service was Mushahid Hussain. Most of the liberal teachers were transferred to hardship places. (Normally university professors are not transferable.) Khalid was transferred to a college in the district of Gujrat. He did not report for duty; thus he simply threw away his job. As a result, for many years he lived in self-inflicted destitution. Several years later, when Mushahid was appointed as the editor of The Muslim, he took Khalid on board. For quite some time this job provided him the badly needed lifeline. Gifted as he was, he immediately established himself as a talented columnist. It was during this period that he was introduced to the newspaper readers as ‘Professor’ Khalid Mahmud. It was done in order to distinguish him from his namesake colleagues. The incisive articles he wrote were later published in two volumes titled Pakistan Political Scene.

When he left The Muslim, after a few years, he joined the Institute of Regional Studies in Islamabad. Here, he wrote some highly insightful research articles on India. The political history of India was Khalid’s favourite subject from his college days. Many of his articles were published in the journal of the Institute. His knowledge of politics of India, both pre- and post-partition, was encyclopaedic. He also took an opportunity to travel through India and meet many political leaders. Thus he was no textbook specialist on India.

From a highly respected professor of political science, Khalid had now become recognised as a columnist and a mass communication expert. In due course he was invited to work as editor of one of the leading English language dailies, The Nation. He served in that capacity with distinction both at Lahore and at Islamabad. When he suffered a stroke four years before his death, his activities became severely curtailed. However, he continued writing a column for a journal till his last breath.

Professor Khalid Mahmud’s life is an illustration of the career of a typical post-World War II idealist. That period produced hundreds and thousands of such heroic persons. Disgusted with the miserable condition of man in society dominated by poverty created and sustained by the market forces, they were in search of a brave new world free from exploitation of man by man. They turned away from lust for power and wealth. They disowned their middle class origin and established solidarity with the working people. They sacrificed their personal comforts in order to build an infrastructure for revolutionising the entire society. It is tragic to see that their struggle and sacrifice has met with failure. Market forces are victorious. Greed reigns supreme. Idealism is battered. Did these idealists choose a wrong path? Are the stubborn forces of tradition too powerful to be surmounted by innovation? It seems that idealists like Khalid will continue to rise generation after generation in spite of setbacks. But will they, one day, meet with success? That is the question.


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