Ahsan Jan Qaisar


Prof. Ahsan Jan Qaisar

Obituary of a Renowned Historian

Mohammad Sajjad*

This great scholar of Medieval Indian history and one of the iconic historians [to have been produced by the Aligarh Muslim University’s famous Department of History,the Centre of Advanced Study],breathed his last on Friday, 15th April 2011. Thanks to my teacher Mr. M. K. Zaman, I received the news of Qaisar's sad demise. It was barely two hours before his burial, and I immediately sms-ed, besides others, some of those batch-mates of mine who had been taught by him an optional course on Mughal Economy in the MA final year. Most of those students are highly placed now: two are Deputy Secretary in the Union ministry/ Parliament secretariat, another one is an author of an acclaimed book on 18thcentury western India and is teaching in an American university, and …..

Not many colleagues/ students of the late Prof. A. J. Qaisar (present in Aligarh ) participated in his last rites. The AMU’s Deptt. of History, in terms of the number of teachers, research scholars, and other students has got quite a huge strength. Then, why this small participation in his burial, despite the fact that theMuslim (emphasis intended) University claims to be agehwaarah (cradle) of a particular kind of culture-tehzeeb, tamaddun? Was it because Prof. Qaisar was a reclusive as well as a bit eccentric man? Was it because he was not a power-wielding academician who could indulge in manipulations of recruitments, promotions, ghost authorships, award of lucrative research projects regardless of the merit,…? Was it because Prof. Qaisar was not among those who run or follow lobbies of the unscrupulous power-politics within the kingdom of AMU ?

In short, this kind of treatment meted out to the death of the historian of such a high repute throws many questions about the way we the AMU people are living. We have been ‘witness’ to other such “frailties”. We are told that the death of somebody’s elephant was given the space of obituary in a well meaning newspaper and this was done by spacing out the obituary of a great historian, Jadunath Sarkar. We are also told that in AMU the death of a teacher’s daughter had failed to receive as many condolences as the death of the dog of another colleague. If that is so, then, we must admit that in the industry of knowledge, power-play hasassumed strange and draculous, and shamefulforms.
In AMU, teacher and student politics operates with considerable regional saliency. On these primordial bases, the regional satraps expect/ demand favours, privileges, votes, administrative assignments. But even these people were conspicuous by their absence, even in this election season (on 28th April 2011, elections of the AMU Teachers' Association is going to be held). Probably because, such a big historian was free from all such narrowness, chauvinism and bigotry. While teaching us, as asides, he had shared with us, “I am a votary of a specific kind of Sufism whereby
I have cocktailed it with a happy dose of Marxism”.

Gayee woh baat ki ho guftagu to kyon kar ho

Kahey se kuchh na hua phir kaho to kyon kar ho - (Ghalib, 1853)

In the MA I yr, he was my tutor of the then compulsory course of Historiography and Historical Method, taught by Prof. Shireen Moosvi.Qaisar assigned me to write a Term Paper on “Causation in History: a Case Study of the movement of 1857”. He made me show him 3-4 drafts of the Term Paper, only then it could be approved by him, that too only with inadequate satisfaction of the rigorous task-master that Prof. Qaisar was. As was his temperament, on showing each draft, he scolded me, but, needless to say, that made me learn a lot. In the MA II yr, it was this thing about him, which prompted me to opt for a course taught by him: Mughal Economy. I was a student of Modern Indian history, so he enquired a lot about my choice of a course of Medieval Indian History, apparently, only apparently, discouraging me to opt it. I stood firm. Other friends of mine followed, and the “dead” optional course became “alive” after a long time.

It was he who persuaded me to opt for a course on the Working Class Movements in Colonial India, taught by Dr Ishrat Alam, currently, Member Secretary, ICHR, New Delhi (and son of former Union Minister late Rafiq Alam of Kishanganj, Bihar). He had great expectations from Dr Alam. If memory serves me right, he had already retired and was teaching us on post-retirement employment/ extension. He shared a lot about the regressive factional politicking within the Department. Soon, he had to forego the extension to quit in angst and disgust. He warned us that in the ‘bad’ world of academics, self-respect is an impediment in the way of one’s rise, yet one must take care of one’s self-respect. It is too valuable. He had a little of stammering, but that did not come in the way of good communicator in him. One person he admired a lot was Prof. Nurul Hasan and hisbegum, who according to him showered a lot of affections. Qaisar had great regards for the couple. He co-edited a felicitation volume for Prof. Nurul Hasan (who becameUnion Minister of Education and then Governor of West Bengal). This was Qaisar's tribute to the teacher he was so fond of.

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He convinced us to develop and refine the habits of reading novels in order to comprehend and articulate history in a better way. He gifted us a copy of Lady Chatterly’s Lover (besides many copies of the journalSocial Scientist, which we gifted to the Library of the CAS History, AMU). He was very particular about his students. Students, shabbily dressed, careless about shaving etc were intolerable for him. He used to say, “most successful are the men who shave daily”.

Born in 1929 at Chapra, he did his schooling from the prestigious Zilla School of Chapra (Saran), Bihar, and then did his Intermediate Science from the Patna Science College, and then in graduation he switched over to History in AMU. As a Fulbright scholar, he got the opportunity to visit better provisioned universities of the Western world, and produced highly acclaimed works, besides others, on the history of technology, published his book, The Indian Response to European Technology, from the Oxford University Press. He had also presided over the Medieval History section of the Indian History Congress, and the lecture on the "exposure-response syndrome" became a popular expression in the Indian History. Besides the conventional sources, he made extensive as well as intensive use of the Mughal paintings to reconstruct history, meticulously and incisively dissecting/ analysing the technological devices shown in the paintings. Despite all his accomplishments, he regretted that he could not put in as much of labour as to reach somewhere the stature of Prof. Irfan Habib. He used to share anecdotes of the labour and genius of Prof. Irfan Habib, as a student, in order to inspire us.

Prof. Qaisar was nostalgic about his roots. He missed the specific dishes of Bihar like a pakwaancalled thekuwa. He led a very simple life. Once, on Baqr Eid, we visited his residence in Zakir Bagh behind the Faculty of Arts, AMU. The only thing he could offer us was honey. It was a great disappointment for us, but that is what Prof. A. J. Qaisar was.
He claimed to be a descendent of the clan of the first President of the Indian Republic, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, whose grandfather’s brother had converted to Islam, and settled in Motihari (Champaran). This is corroborated by Prof. Shakeelur Rahman’s Urdu autobiography, Aashram. They belonged to same clan. Prof. Rahman is a big name in aesthetic criticism of Urdu literature, was the vice chancellor of two universities of Bihar, where he took on a Congress bigwig, Nagendra Jha, who was a teacher in the Mithila Univ. Darbhanga, and the then Education Minister of Bihar, and Rahman, the VC, refused to bow down before the politician in 1988-89; then Rahman was elected to the Lok Sabha from Darbhanga in 1989, and went on to become Union Minister of Health in Chandrashekhar’s cabinet. It is a lesser known fact that RJD's Fatmi is Rahman’s successor in the non-Congress politics of Darbhanga.
Another member of Qaisar’s clan, Prof. Najmul Hoda, author of some books on Urdu literary criticism, is also a poet. He taught in the Bihar University, Muzaffarpur, as well as in the Madras University. Now lives in Muzaffarpur, and he is a highly respected scholar in Muzaffarpur. They have been mentioned inAashram. The Sequel of this autobiography is still awaited quite eagerly.

The late Prof. Qaisar is survived by his wife Zareena (who taught History in the Senior Secondary School of AMU), and two sons (Eeraj and Rahul), both settled abroad as successful professionals.

One recalls Shelley's poem:

You are not here!
The quaint witch Memory sees,
In vacant chairs your absent images,
And points where you once sat,
and now should be,
But are not.

*Dr Mohammad Sajjad is an AMU Alum and Lecturer at Centre of Advanced Study in History in Aligarh Muslim University (India). He can be reached at sajjad.history@yahoo.com

Dear Dr. Sajjad

Dear Dr. Sajjad
Thank you for your valuable article.It is to add that the name of the father of Professor Ahsan Jan Qaisar is Mu'ti-ur-Rahman and Dr.Shakeel-ur-Rahman is his brother and uncle of Professor Qaisar.You may see these links:



(Tanwir Phool , New York)

Professor Ahsan Jan Qaisar

Professor Ahsan Jan Qaisar and his younger brother Mohsin Jan Sarwar were the cousins (sagay MaamooN zaad bhai)
of my mother.May their souls rest in eternal peace.
Tanwir Phool(Tanwiruddin Ahmad Siddiqui)
New York

belated condolences for the family of Prof. Qaiser

Dear Dr. Sajjad,
I have just come across your moving obituary of Prof. Qaiser and was very sad to learn of his death. He was a good friend to me many years ago (in the late 1960s) when I was doing research at AMU, and I admired his important contributions to History as well as his deep commitment to social justice. I would be grateful if you could convey my belated condolences to his family and friends.

Best wishes,
David Lelyveld
Professor of History
William Paterson University
Wayne, New Jersey 07470



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