Javeed Alam, a Marxist Who Never Let Go of His Principles

The professor's life was an ethical-moral compass for many, as he embraced simplicity and actively stayed away from power.

Professor Javeed Alam passed away on the morning of December 5 at his home in Hyderabad. I have had the honour of knowing him for a very long time – as a close friend, an ethically committed person, serious social scientist and thinker, and above all as a warm and caring human being. He was 73 and had been ill for some time, but it still came as a shock that he was actually gone. I personally had been expecting him to come up with his next book – on the ‘indispensability of secularism’ – that he had been working on for some time. Unfortunately, that was not to be.

Javeed was also my teacher – though he always vehemently denied this. It is true that I never sat in his class, but it is also true that I first met him as the external examiner for my MPhil dissertation at Jawaharlal Nehru University, where I had registered for a second time after a ten-year absence from academics. Javeed conducted my viva not really like an examination but as a long and engaged discussion of ideas. We became friends after that. That was in 1993.

Though that was my first formal meeting with him, in a strange way, I had actually known him for much longer. The story goes back to early 1971, sometime before the general elections. I was a little over 13 years old and we lived in New Rajendra Nagar in Delhi.

One evening, my mother returned from work fuming and cursing about some people she referred to as ‘Sanghis’. I had heard the word before and had also encountered some of these rabid characters in the school where I had enrolled after coming to Delhi. She said that she had come across posters pasted all over the locality by ‘these Sanghis’, which read: ‘Hindu ladki ke saath shaadi hai ya uska apaharan? (Is it a wedding to a Hindu girl or an abduction?)’ Apparently, a young Muslim lecturer in Salwan College, just across Shankar Road, had enticed a Hindu Bengali girl and ‘abducted’ her in the name of marriage. The name of the lecturer, I later learnt, was Javeed and that of his lady love, Jayanti Guha. The names stayed with me, as did my opposition to the Jan Sangh, thanks to that episode.

The political controversy generated by this very early ‘love jihad’ reverberated in parliament as well. And to cap it all, the Jan Sangh/RSS-dominated managing committee of Salwan College ensured that Javeed lost his job. I ended up attending rallies organised by the Congress, which in 1971, still had the guts to defend this marriage. Years later, I often joked with Javeed that he had even made me campaign for the Congress!

As I think back on my long association with Javeed, memories crowd in, of a man ill at ease with his place in the world, a man restlessly trying to make sense of the strange world he was thrown into. How else can I describe this man who never saw himself as a Muslim, being reduced to that identity, relentlessly, with each passing day, especially in the last two and a half decades? Despite that, Javeed remained quintessentially Marxist, never willing to give up on his secular, modern beliefs. And yet, his sense of being ‘modern’ always bore a ‘creeping sense of shame’, as he put it memorably in his book India – Living with Modernity. In that important book, he made an significant attempt to extricate the modern project from its actually existing avatar, by distinguishing between what he called ‘entrenched modernity’ and its ‘disembodied surplus’. ‘Entrenched modernity’ was bourgeois, thoroughly implicated in the capitalist project and had to be rejected. Javeed, however, argued that there was much more to the project of modernity, which needed to be preserved.

In other words, Javeed was not among those Marxists who thought these ideals could be simply defended in the old way, as though they had nothing to answer for. He was not simply ill at ease with his ascribed Muslimness but also with his voluntarily-espoused Marxism and modernism. I remember long discussions deep into the night, over Old Monk rum, where Javeed would suddenly let his defences drop and exclaim: ‘Let me tell you this as a Jew…’ That was the decade of the 1990s, when Babri Masjid had already been demolished, leaving behind a trail of blood in its wake. And there was no way of making an even-handed statement about it, for the blood spilt was Muslim and, occasionally, Christian. That was when the secular Marxist would suddenly claim to speak in the voice of the ‘Jew’, as the figure of a universal experience of being out of place. Clearly, Javeed’s Jew was the Jew of the Holocaust and not the Zionist who dons the mantle of his/her own oppressor.

Javeed was a life-long and proud communist. An active member and leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), he had also had a sterling role to play in guiding and nurturing many youthful leaders of the party in Himachal Pradesh, where he spent most of his active life teaching political science at Himachal Pradesh University.

Being a member of the CPI(M) did not, however, prevent Javeed from maintaining the most cordial and friendly relations even with his intellectual adversaries. What is more, he continued to maintain close intellectual relations with scholars in institutions like the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), in Delhi, even though his party in particular, had always viewed it with great suspicion. In the mid-1990s, following the end of the Cold War and Soviet bloc collapse, Javeed joined CSDS as a visiting fellow, starting a new phase in CSDS’s relationship with the broader Left public at large. To an extent, an opening had already been created by Rajni Kothari in the immediate aftermath of the Emergency, but this inaugurated a new phase for which other senior scholars like D.L. Sheth and Ashis Nandy were no less responsible. Javeed’s presence, along with that of a younger generation of faculty members, introduced a new vibrancy into the institution.

I cannot end this tribute to my old friend and teacher without mentioning one more thing. Javeed’s life was an exemplary one where he often became the ethical-moral compass for some of us. Unlike many intellectuals who are very comfortable in the vicinity of power, Javeed deliberately stayed away from those spaces. He lived a life of extreme simplicity. He never, on principle, bought a car, even when in neoliberalising India, the consuming middle class was created and he could afford one. He was by no means an ascetic but he was clear about his allegiances – and these were never abstract. Once, after years of agonising about whether to buy an air-conditioner or not, I asked him for his opinion. His answer was simple: “Don’t. For every step like this that you take, you move one step further from the lives of ordinary people in our country.” Many years later, I succumbed. But he never did.