Remembering Imtiaz Ahmad, Who Heralded a New Era of the Social Sciences in India

With the passing away of Imtiaz Ahmad, a retired professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and a noted political sociologist and social anthropologist, on June 19, 2023, at the age of 83, an era has also passed in the social sciences.

An unassuming and pleasant personality, he joined JNU in the early 1970s when it had just been founded. Ahmad taught at the Centre for the Study of Political Development in the School of Social Sciences, which was renamed the Centre for Political Studies in 1973.

As a teacher and research supervisor, he mentored students with scholarship and a keen analytical perspective, and his erudition has helped his field to blossom globally. This will endure.

I could become a familiar name on issues relating to police, public security and institutions in the social sciences only because he mentored and encouraged me as my teacher and guru. I do not remember when I started calling him ‘Guru ji’, but I remember how he accepted it with a rare, affectionate simplicity. I did two courses with him for my MA (1973-75), which turned out to be rewarding detours into how sociology fuses with politics. Working with him on an MPhil and PhD was like looking at the police (for the MPhil) and urban politics (PhD) through bifocal glasses.

He discovered me in 1975 when, looking for guidance for my MPhil dissertation, I was distraught by the unexpected indifference of the faculty at the Centre.

One day, at the Centre’s office, he smiled and asked, “Topic chuna (did you pick a topic)?’

I unburdened my woes.

He said, “Kal mere office mein miliye (meet me at my office tomorrow)”.

The next day, after encouraging me to aim for a PhD ― though I did not have a fellowship ― he said, “Kuchh naya keejiye (do something new).” And he suggested the police, the Army and the cinema.

I selected the police, because my father was in the Bihar Police. He smiled reassuringly, “Phir police pe keejiye (then do it on the police).”

Thus began a relationship that transformed into a bond, academically, personally and emotionally. Eventually, his family virtually adopted me. While Professor Karuna Ahmad, nee Chanana, showered the affection of a motherly elder sister (which she still does), the two adorable kids became fond of ‘Ajay Uncle’. Their home was an ashram, where any student could walk in at any time and the couple entertained them with a smile. Unfortunately, they separated in 1983. But even when he lived alone, he always welcomed students with a smile.

The training in research that I received for my dissertation and thesis was in asking questions, making questionnaires, being observant while conducting field work and noting details, recording facts and disaggregating and analysing data before drawing appropriate conclusions. Yet, both my drafts returned with substantial editing ― he had gone through every sentence. He encouraged me to send my thesis to SAGE, the publisher. The book appeared in 1991 and received rave reviews, despite the Centre for Political Studies creating difficulty from beginning to end.

He was a thoughtful and devoted writer, whether for the media or the academic press. His landmark chef-d’oeuvre appeared in 1973. Derisively described by some jealous colleagues as just an edited volume, the carefully crafted collection of essays titled Caste and Social Stratification Among the Muslims, with thematic contributions from fieldwork, broke stereotypes of Muslim homogeneity. It was a revelation that caste persists and is practised among Indian Muslims, though Islam has no place for it.

Three more volumes followed ― Family, Kinship and Marriage Among Muslims in IndiaRitual and Religion Among Muslims in India and Modernisation and Social Change Among Muslims in India. These four empirical volumes containing intensive field research by diverse authors were redrafted and woven into sociological theory in the text. Their introduction laid bare the fact that no macro-generalisation was appropriate, not only about the Muslims of India, nor of South Asia alone, but for most communities. I remember his meaningful smile when, during my first field-work in Delhi’s Jama Masjid area, I reported to him that my own stereotypes about Muslims were breaking.

He argued thus for a distinct sociology for India in an article in 1972: “A better criterion would be whether the available literature tells us as much about the structure of non-Hindu groups, and socio-cultural processes that have been operating amongst them, as it does about Hindus.”

Rest in peace, Guru ji.

You would be remembered as much for your monumental contribution to the social sciences and the world of knowledge, as for leaving behind several students of social sciences who would carry on the tradition of intensive research. Your legacy will nurture future generations in the rediscovery of society and politics in India, and across the globe.


Ajay K. Mehra is a political scientist. He was Atal Bihari Vajpayee Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library 2019-21 and Principal, Shaheed Bhagat Singh Evening College, Delhi University.

This piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.