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Eqbal Ahmad was born in the village of Irki in Bihar, India in 1933 or 1934 to an Indian Muslim landowning family. A few years later his father was murdered over a land dispute while the young Eqbal lay beside him. Upon the partition of India in 1947, he and his elder brothers migrated to Pakistan. Eqbal lost contact with his family members in New Delhi and went North to Lahore carrying a gun. John Bergers short story "Two Recumbent Male Figures Wrestling on a Sidewalk" from Photocopies-Encounters (Vintage, 1996) treats of that trek.
Ahmads first degree in 1951, from Foreman Christian College in Lahore, Pakistan, was in economics. He received an M.A. in Modern History in 1953 from Punjab University in Lahore, and went on to study American history at Occidental College in California as a Rotary fellow in 1957. It was there that his interest was aroused in the history of native Americans and the settler colonialism that resulted in their near extinction.
He went on study political science and Middle East history at Princeton where he wrote a doctoral dissertation on the Tunisian labor movement. This work formed the basis of a lifelong interest in working-class politics. Along with Stuart Schaar, he wrote about North African trade union activists and progressive voices such as Tahar Haddad. From 1962 to 1964, Ahmad lived in North Africa, mainly in Tunisia, where he conducted his thesis research on trade unions and became a close student and active supporter of the Algerian Revolution.
In 1967, he earned his Ph.D. from Princeton. Upon his return to the U.S., he taught at the University of Illinois at Carbondale (1964-65) and Cornell University in the School of Labor Relations (1965-1968). During these years, he became one of the earliest and most eloquent analysts and opponents of the U.S. war in Vietnam. Following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, his public advocacy of Palestinian rights cost him isolation within the academy. From 1968 to 1972 he was a fellow at the Adlai Stevenson Institute in Chicago. In 1969 he married teacher and writer Julie Diamond. Their daughter, Dohra, was born in 1971.
In January 1971, Ahmad was indicted with the anti-war Catholic priest Phillip Berrigan, and six other Catholic pacifists, on federal charges of conspiracy to kidnap Henry Kissinger and to blow up the heating systems of several federal buildings in Washington, D.C. (Daniel Berrigan was an unindicted co-conspirator in the case). J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, just two months before had informed Congress of an incipient plot on the part of an anarchist group, the so-called East Coast Conspiracy to Save Lives, a militant group of Catholic priests and nuns, teachers, students, and former students aimed at ending the bombing in Southeast Asia, and securing the release of all political prisoners as ransom. The group became known as the Harrisburg 8; two thousand people protested at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. the day the indictments were handed down in a demonstration organized by the Harrisburg Defense Committee together with other defense groups representing victims of political repression. The case with its spectacular charges received considerable attention in the year between the arrests and the trial. After fifty-nine hours of deliberations, the jury declared a mistrial in April of 1972.
From 1972 to 1982, Ahmad was Senior Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. From 1973 to 1975, he served as the first director of its overseas affiliate, the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Between 1975 and 1982, he held visiting professorships at Rutgers in Newark, Sarah Lawrence, and the Institute of Third World Studies in the Hague.
In 1982, Ahmad joined the faculty at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he was professor of politics and Middle East studies for fifteen years, until his retirement in 1997. In 1990, he began splitting his time between Islamabad and Amherst, a pattern that continued until his death. During this period, he began to write weekly columns for Dawn, Pakistan's oldest English-language newspaper. His columns also regularly appeared in Al Ahram in Egypt.
In the early 1990s, he was granted a parcel of land in Pakistan by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government to build an independent, secular, alternative university, Khaldunia, named for the 14th-century Arab historian and sociologist, Ibn Khaldun, and patterned on Hampshire College. Khaldunia remained Ahmad's living dream and the focus of his considerable energies for the remainder of his life. The project failed. It was rumored that Asif Zardari, Benazir Bhutto's husband, wished to build a golf course on the land, which was first granted by her administration.
A prolific writer and activist, Ahmad was widely consulted by revolutionaries, journalists, policymakers, activists, and students around the world. A critical thinker on world politics and the contemporary Arab-Islamic world, he addressed many themes and issues: the rise of anti-colonial movements, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War from the standpoint of third world victims, in particular the legacy of the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, nuclear proliferation, Middle Eastern, and South Asian politics.
He was an editor of the journal Race and Class, contributing editor of Middle East Report and LEconomiste du Tiers Monde, co-founder of Pakistan Forum, founding member and editor (1968-1983) of Afrique-Asie and an editorial board member of Arab Studies Quarterly.
Eqbal Ahmad died in Islamabad on May 11, 1999, of heart failure, following surgery for colon cancer, diagnosed just one week before. He continued to agitate against nuclear arms testing on the Indian subcontinent until the time of his death. His last column for Dawn, on the war in Kosovo, was dated April 25, 1999.