A man of compassion

Print edition : April 11, 2003

Iqbal Ghani Khan, 1953-2003.

IQBAL GHANI KHAN, Reader in History at the Centre for Advanced Study in History of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), a historian of both attainment and promise, trade union activist, and a person well loved in Aligarh for his humanity and compassion, was brutally killed by unknown assailants on February 14. He had just dropped his wife, Dr. Zulfia Khan, chairperson of the Department of Community Medicine, at the J.N. Medical College Hospital in the morning on his way to the History Department for a class, when he was reportedly accosted by three persons and abducted in his car. The assailants took him to an isolated spot near the village of Akrabad,15 kms from Aligarh where, after hitting him with a blunt weapon, shot him twice in the head. His body was found by the village residents. The police have not found any clues leading to the murderers; even his car has not been traced.

His brutal killing has caused deep shock and anger in Aligarh, both within the university community and in the city at large. All segments of this communally sensitive town came together in a massive display of indignation and grief at his death. The cycle rickshawpullers whom he had organised in a strong union, called for a massive strike in the city on February 17, and took out a large procession to the District Magistrate protesting against the delay in tracing the murderers. On February 18 there was a total strike in the AMU. Over 500 teachers of the University marched to the office of the District Magistrate and when they failed to find him there, marched over a mile to block traffic on the Grand Trunk Road in the middle of the city. The District Magistrate assured them of results in the investigation in 36 hours. When this did not happen, the AMU Teaching Staff Association went on a strike from February 24. It was only suspended (in the interests of the student community) after the Uttar Pradesh government agreed to their demand for a time-bound inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). This demand had been supported in resolutions of condolence and protest by more than 65 organisations in the town. A team of five MPs visited Aligarh. A petition signed by over 40 MPs had been submitted to Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani asking him that the case be handed over to the CBI.

I.G. KHAN was born in 1953, and passed his M.A. in History from the AMU in 1974. Thereafter, he spent several months in Iran, where he obtained considerable fluency in Persian. He obtained his doctorate from the London School of Oriental and African Studies under Dr. Peter Robb in 1990. He was awarded a Fulbright Postdoctoral Scholarship at North Carolina University, U.S., 1993-94, and a French government Visiting Scholarship at the Centre for Comparative History of the Orient, Paris, 1992-93. Last year he attended the International Persianate Conference at Dushanbe, Tajikistan, 2002.

I.G. Khan's special field of research and interest was the history of medieval Indian science and technology. His M.Phil and Doctoral thesis explored important themes from this field (`Science in the A'in-i Akbari' and `Agriculture, Warfare and Knowledge of 18th century Elites'). While these still remain unpublished, he published some 16 papers in edited volumes which were published from Delhi, Cambridge and Leiden. Many of his papers were published in the Proceedings of the Indian History Congress. In these papers he extended his inquiries to pre-colonial historiography and ethnographic history. I.G. Khan was also an active member of the U.P. History Congress; he was on its Executive Committee when he died.

There was an outpouring of grief in Aligarh at his untimely death. Thousands of persons - teachers, students, friends, workers - joined his funeral procession. I.G. Khan had the ability to establish immediate rapport with all kinds of people, and charmed everyone he met. Long since a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), he had a deep sense of compassion for any individual in trouble. He was a popular leader of the cycle rickshawpullers in Aligarh whom he unionised and whose interests he did his utmost to protect. There are 30,000 cycle rickshawpullers in Aligarh, and he knew hundreds of them by name. He had created a trust for poor patients, and was always ready to help them financially.

"Having I.G. Khan as a colleague in the cause of the Left, and as a friend, was a continuous pleasure," Irfan Habib, former chairman of the Department of History told Frontline. "Unlike many of us who think of classes in the aggregate, he saw the individuals who make up the toiling and exploited classes and addressed their needs. In that sense he was a different sort of trade unionist, a person imbued with a deep sense of compassion," he said. Nalini Taneja, Reader in History at Delhi University, and a former colleague, spoke of his ability to reach out to people. "There are many people whose lives he would have touched with small spontaneous gestures and who would now remember his goodness with fondness and gratitude," she said.

In a condolence message, the Aligarh Historians Society, of which I.G. Khan was a founder member, made particular mention of his active role "in opposing all hues of communalism, being particularly active in the campaign of resistance against the recent attempts at the saffronisation of History".

The brutal act, they said, "has left the community of Indian historians decidedly poorer. For our Society, the loss is irreparable. But we are determined to carry on the cause to which our late colleague was so single-mindedly devoted".

I.G. Khan leaves behind his wife, Dr. Zulfia Khan, a daughter and son.

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