When Amar Farooqui started his career as a lecturer in history at Hansraj College in 1983, the Indian historical firmament was making sense of the jolts created by the Subaltern Studies Collective, which sought to focus on history as a study of the people rather than the elite. Farooqui had just completed his MPhil in History at Delhi University the previous year and would remain steadfast in his commitment to a pursuit of researching and teaching history that was not subservient to any pre-defined endpoint.
His conviction and commitment to a communist politics and worldview and history writing free of hate and pettiness shine through his career. He was born into a family with deep roots in the Indian communist movement. His father, Muqimuddin Farooqi, had joined the Communist Party of India in the late 1930s, rubbing shoulders with the likes of party general secretary PC Joshi. He served as the national secretary of the party for more than two decades. On his death in 1997, The Independent called him “one of the last Indian Communist leaders”.
In 1940, Farooqi Senior was rusticated from St Stephen’s College for his protests against the arrest of Jawaharlal Nehru. Farooqui Junior, however, never even mentioned that he attended St Stephen’s College either on his CV or in his conversations with students. He stayed on in Delhi through his entire career, earning a PhD in 1990 from Delhi University and a fellowship from the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. In 2004, he was given a professorship in the history department at Delhi University, where he would teach a generation of students and write his many monographs.
Farooqui was one of the few modern Indian historians who taught both master’s first-year and second-year students at Delhi University while I was a student there, initially as an MA student and then a doctoral candidate under his supervision. He was unparalleled in his reading and erudition, and his knowledge of the world, African, and European history was remarkable.
Only he could teach us the history of South Africa and make us see how historical processes and actors exceeded territorial spaces that they are often ascribed to. It was not just Mohandas Gandhi’s trials and tribulations in South Africa that needed to be studied, but the deliberate and dehumanising strategies of colonial rule in a racialised society and its telling consequences in South Africa.
Learning extra-Indian history through the classes of Amar Farooqui, Arup Banerji, Sreemati Chakrabarti, Denys Leighton, Madhavi Thampi and others were to prime us for a closer study of India in the second year. The history of the non-Indian world seemed thereby incidental and not central to the academy we were trained in or the projects that we sought to pursue.
Farooqui stood out in stark contrast to the rest of the historians precisely for his encyclopedic knowledge of world history and for the evolution and development of modern civilisations and states, some of which he captured in his most-sold book Early Social Formations. This book has had the singular distinction of educating generations of students in the civilisational evolution of the world. The fact that Farooqui taught in Hansraj College for two decades helped him write a book with a college student in mind, and the continuing status of that book as a fixture in college syllabi, even in the era of the internet, shows the depths from which it was moulded.
Farooqui believed in approaching history as a world discipline. He was, arguably, the most versatile scholar on British colonialism in India, particularly on the political economy of the Malwa region and the transformation of Delhi under the last Mughal emperor and the British.
In his well-known book, Smuggling as Subversion: Colonialism, Indian Merchants, and the Politics of Opium 1790-1843 (revised edition 2005), he brought to life the ramshackle world of the British trade in Malwa opium at the turn of the 19th century. Through meticulous and painstaking archival research, Farooqui showed us the complex world of the British opium trade in China, where the trade happened in the garb of illicit trade and smuggling as the opium trade was formally banned by the Qing Emperor.
The Malwa opium and its presence in the illicit channels significantly challenged the British monopoly over the commodity. During 1840–’90, about 15% of the total revenue of the British came from opium trade, and hence as Farooqui shows, the British opium trade not only oiled the colonial state machinery but also enabled primitive accumulation, the rise of a native capitalist class, and the development of new urban, entrepots like Bombay.
He extended his study of Mumbai in his 2006 book Opium City: The Making of Victorian Bombay. While the importance of raw cotton and opium in the rise of Bombay and its capitalist class was already known, he argued that opium linked Bombay with the west coast of India and the international capitalist economy like no other commodity. And in this process, Mumbai, as we know it, was made.
While researching on the opium trade, Farooqui learned Portuguese to consult the archival records in Goa and other erstwhile Portuguese territories. He learned the language with so much promise that he was offered a fully-funded scholarship to go to Lisbon to pursue advanced courses in the language. As he was a full-time faculty at Hansraj College then, the offer was not taken up. But his commitment to studying Portuguese history and colonialism in India continued, with him being an important member of the International Seminar on Indo-Portuguese History, founded in 1978 at Panjim, Goa.
Farooqui roped in many of his graduate students, (including myself) who were pursuing research on modern India, to attend the 14th conference of the International Seminar on Indo-Portuguese History held in New Delhi in February 2013. Along with Lotika Varadarajan and Pius Malekandathil, he edited the papers presented at this conference into a two-part volume called India, the Portuguese and Maritime Interactions.
As the editors noted in the preface to the second volume, “the Portuguese presence in Asia was far more extensive than is indicated by their territorial possessions,” for the underbelly of the Portuguese empire consisted of “adventurers, mercenaries and all manner of human flotsam”.
As someone who grew up seeing the changes in the Indian Communist movement from close quarters, Farooqui showed a profound intellectual commitment to the movement through his scholarship. While not only did he show an incredulity toward any predefined notion of state or nation, but he saw them as being actively shaped by historical processes and socio-economic conditions.
In 2000, for the People’s Publishing House, he edited a two-part volume on the selected writings of Gangadhar Adhikari, a preeminent communist who saw the Indian nationality problem as a problem of self-determination. Adhikari thought that the solution to the Indian problem lay with the people (bottom up rather than top down) and in having a federated, united polity where nationalities such as the Muslims could exercise self-determination within a united India.
As the edited volumes show, Adhikari was an influential and sophisticated thinker in decolonising India, whose vision of future India as a federated polity with self-determining nationalities, much like communist leader MN Roy and some of his supporters imagined, did not come to pass.
It was in Farooqui’s class, Strategies of Imperial Control, that we learned the nuances of the British imperial project in India. He taught us methodically and systematically about the institutions and techniques of British rule. He is one scholar who would know almost every book written on the police, bureaucracy, and the army in colonial India.
He dwelt a great deal on the princely states, which was often a rarity in courses on Indian history. As a historian of princely states, I owe it to Farooqui’s lectures for instilling an interest in the princely states, which, contrary to nationalist and colonial narratives, were actually places where politics occurred, and colonial sovereignty was invoked and resisted.
More importantly, princely states were territories quite unlike British provinces, as there was no British police or bureaucrat who controlled the people. They had native rulers and were not under the legislative ambit of the British Parliament. Even today, after a resurgence of scholarship on the princely states, little is known about the princely states compared to the British provinces.
Farooqui is an expert with a deep familiarity on the archives on the princely states. He is the person I go to when I look for a reading suggestion, either on the princely states or about the political history of late colonial India. His commitment to the history of the princely states was not confined to the classrooms. He authored Sindias And The Raj, one of the most authoritative works on the history of the British subjugation of the Marathas and the making of Gwalior into a treaty state.
He showed, with his characteristic clarity, that British subjugation was not a one-time event but a protracted process that went on long after the conclusion of the Third Anglo-Maratha War in 1818. He saw the rise of British power in India as an essentially violent project and sought to distance himself from viewing the British states as mere successors to the earlier states that they displaced. He called the massacre of Indians by the British in the wake of the 1857 revolt “genocide” and dwelt in particular on the British attempts to erase the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, from indigenous memory.
Beyond all his accomplishments as a well-read and astute scholar on the colonial history of India who focuses on regions and nuances that are often left out, he is the most generous and compassionate teacher-mentor one might encounter. I often wondered what made him so human and so humble. In a place like Delhi University, where wearing one’s privilege or knowledge or accent on the sleeve does not do any harm (perhaps, helps you along the way), his self-effacing character and detached attitude toward scholarship and teaching (not expecting fame or rewards) were refreshingly radical.
He did not hanker after foreign journals or publishers but published with local presses and journals all his career. He stayed close to the historical profession by not only working for the Indian History Congress but also by editing its proceedings, where many researchers from regional, vernacular, and non-elite universities regularly present papers. In working for the Indian History Congress and in publishing with People’s Publishing House and other leftist publishers, Farooqui found both political and intellectual purposes.
He was gifted with perspicacious and minimalist prose, shorn of jargon, that could shine and speak to readers all the same in both local and prestigious international presses. The number of book reviews he has written is a standing testimony of his attitude toward the historical profession: generous engagement and respectful dissent combined with boundless humanity.
Writing book reviews is a professional commitment that very few historians of his seniority or rank take pleasure in doing or have the time for. He once told me that book reviews are a great form of writing, exemplified no less by historians like AJP Taylor. Every time I write a book review, I remember those words. He rarely traveled abroad to conferences or to deliver lectures but remained committed to his everyday life as a teacher and scholar.
He brought the world home through his reading and writing and let that outside world remain an understatement in his life. His commitment to communism never stood in the way of engagement with different ideologies, historians, or students. I often wondered how his communism might impact his relationship with students or his mentorship. When I was a doctoral student under his supervision, I chose to work on the independent Travancore movement that is most associated with CP Ramaswamy Aiyar, the last Dewan of Travancore. Aiyar was openly anti-communist and sought to repress the movement in Kerala. The governments of both the Congress and the Left have done little to understand what Aiyar did outside of his anti-communism in the state. It was precisely that point that interested me about Aiyar.
Rather than dismissing him as an anti-communist demagogue, Farooqui prodded me to understand his politics, his legal and constitutional ideas, his federalist ideas, and vision for a future India, all of which acted as a window for me to study the history of federalist ideas in late colonial India at the University of Chicago later. I learned from him that a historian’s commitment to ideologies or political causes should not stand in the way of seeing all sides of an argument and, most importantly, of an individual.
It took me years to get to know Farooqui at a personal level or even to appreciate what he did for generations of students, especially Hindi-speaking students. He had famously shunned the use of mobile phones and social media and started to use both only in the last year. The ease of WhatsApp messages has made a huge difference in keeping abreast with his activities.
Having been in the United States for almost a decade, I cannot help but see the contrasts: a professor of Farooqui’s rank and output in an American university might teach half as many courses as he did (that too with the help of teaching assistants) and would just teach perhaps a third or a quarter of the students he taught as class sizes tend to be small in leading research universities.
He taught hundreds of students every year and laboriously went through “correcting” their exams all by himself. Amidst this labour-intensive teaching job, he produced book after book and article after article and kept abreast of the recent developments in scholarship. This makes me look at Western academia quite differently, even as there are academies in the West where Farooquis exist and work under similar inequitable conditions.
This labour-intensive job of a teacher is what he faithfully carried on for almost 40 years, even as its physical and mental rigors had started to weigh him down in the last few years. His retirement from formal teaching should be bittersweet; bitter, for we have lost a teacher with immense influence; sweet, for he will have the much-needed time and rest to read and write more.
I hope there is a long productive phase left in him and that he continues to remain a pillar of support for students who need him, and to act as a reasoned voice in all the too shrill academies of the present. Farooqui’s career teaches us that rigorous historical research, commitment toward an egalitarian pedagogy and education, and a radical political commitment have great potential to make profound changes not only in our public education system but also in the writing of credible histories.
Sarath Pillai is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania.