Ahmad, a life-long dissident both in South Asia and in the United States, led a remarkably full and varied life. Born in Bihar in 1934, during the Partition his family migrated to Pakistan. He came to the U.S in the early 1950s, and eventually did a Ph.D. at Princeton in Middle East Studies. Then he went to Algeria to support the FLN (Frantz Fanon was a colleague). Then he returned to the U.S., where he soon found himself caught up in anti-Vietnam war activism (he was charged alongside the Berrigan brothers with conspiring to kidnap Henry Kissinger; the charges were later dropped). Then he finally slowed down: between 1982 and 1997 he taught at Hampshire College, where he developed a reputation as a clear-headed radical political thinker. He returned to Pakistan in 1997, and died in 1999. (A more detailed biography of Ahmad can be found here)
The highlight of the review is the account of Ahmad's criticism of the actions of the Pakistani government against East Pakistan (soon to become Bangladesh) in 1971:
In his article “Letter to a Pakistani Diplomat” that first appeared in the New York Review of Books, Eqbal responded to protests by officials against his highly critical statement to the New York Times that followed the army action in East Pakistan on March 25, 1971. First, he wrote, he had no natural sympathy either for the Bangladesh movement or Shiekh Mujibur Rahman who impressed him as being a limited man. Second, he pointed out that he himself was originally from Bihar and most of his people had migrated to East Pakistan and many were killed in the period preceding the military’s intervention. But, he said, the only viable course for West Pakistanis was to insist on the immediate termination of martial law, convening of the duly elected National Assembly and a commitment that the majority decision of that assembly shall be binding on all. Eqbal spelt out the principles underlying his position in these words: “I know that I shall be condemned for my position. For someone who is facing a serious trial in America, it is not easy to confront one’s own government. Yet it is not possible for me to oppose American crimes in Southeast Asia or Indian occupation of Kashmir while accepting the crimes my government is committing against the people of East Pakistan. Although I mourn the death of Biharis by Bengali vigilantes, and condemn the irresponsibilities of the Awami League, I am not willing to equate their actions with that of the government and the criminal acts of an organised professional army.” It would be useful to keep in mind that many similarly refuse to accept such an equation when it comes to the Israeli army and the Palestinians or the Kashmiris’ struggle against the Indian army. But few amongst us paid heed to what Eqbal wrote in those fateful days about what was happening in East Pakistan, soon to become Bangladesh.
Ahmad was right about Bangladesh in 1971; he was also right about Algeria and Vietnam. What else was he right about? I'll have to pick up the book to see.