Special Reports

Omar Khalidi, chronicler of Indian Muslims

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By Mohammed Ayub Khan

The untimely death of Dr. Omar Khalidi leaves a huge void in the field of Indian Muslim studies in general and in Hyderabad studies in particular. The author of more than two dozen books and scores of academic articles, his contributions are many. The subjects of his books include minority rights, history, architecture, economics, demography, politics, Urdu education, military history, library science, cataloguing, etc. But he will forever be remembered as the man whose incisive writings inspired the Sachar Committee to seek a community wise census of the Indian armed forces. This fact even though officially unacknowledged is widely known.  

Born in 1953 in Hyderabad Dr. Khalidi was initiated into the scholarly world by his father, Abu Nasr Muhammad Khalidi, who was a specialist in the fields of Islamic studies and Urdu literature at Osmania University. He studied at the famous Madrassa-e-Aaaliyah High School in Hyderabad. He later on completed his BA in history at the Wichita State University, Kansas (1980), ALM from the Harvard University School of Extension Studies (1991), and his PhD from the University of Wales-Lampeter, UK (1994).  

During the 1980s he worked at the King Saudi University in Riyadh and then moved back to the United States, eventually joining the staff of Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. At the time of his death he served as the librarian at the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT.

His scholarly venture began when he wrote 'The British Residents at the Court of the Nizams of Hyderabad' in 1981. From then on he wrote or edited more than twenty five books. The most memorable book edited by him continues to be 'Hyderabad After the Fall' published twenty two years ago. The book documents the fall of the independent state of Hyderabad and its impact on the Muslim community. Before the publication of this book the events surrounding Operation Polo and its aftermath were long forgotten and undocumented. It was Khalidi who had dug up excerpts from the Pandit Sunderlal Commission report which for the first time offered a glimpse into what really happened in 1948 as Hyderabad was amalgamated into the Indian union.

Broadening his scholarly horizon Khalidi began researching the socio-economic and political issues from the early 1990s. This culminated with the publishing of Khaki and Ethnic Violence in India: Army, Police, and Paramilitary Forces During Communal Riots (2003) and 'Muslims in Indian Economy' (2006). With meticulous documentation these two books were instrumental in shining the light on the institutional discrimination against Muslims in India.  L.K. Advani had personally held Khalidi responsible for the Sachar Committee's request for a community wise census and attacked him for allegedly tarnishing the secular credentials of the army.

Dr Khalidi with MG editor

Khalidi's thesis that India is not a secular state because of entrenched Hinduism in the country's official machinery caused an uproar. Similarly, there was a nasty campaign initiated against him by right wing groups when he organised a seminar entitled 'Group Violence, Terrorism, and Impunity-Challenges to Secularism and Rule of Law in India' on April 9-10, 2010 at MIT. The right wing extremists called him anti-India and anti-Hindu. He was none of that sort and was often heard reciting 'khaak-e-watan ka mujh ko harr zarra dewata hai.' At a panel session on Indian Muslims at the Islamic Society of North America convention this year he spoke on the resilience of Indian Muslims and how they can serve as role models for other Muslim communities living as minorities. Most recently Khalidi had written a piece calling the Archaeological Survey of India as a 'Handmaiden of Hindutva' for its distorting of history. Despite his strong critiques of the Indian state machinery he had a firm belief in the idea of India as a secular, democratic, and progressive nation where the rights are guaranteed for all.  

Apart from his scholarly work Khalidi was also an activist and participated in the activities of all Indian Muslim organizations in the USA including the American Federation of Muslims of Indian Origin (of which he served as the regional Vice president), the Indian Muslim Relief and Charities, the Indian Muslim Council, and the Association of Indian Muslims. When the right wing Hindu leader Sadhwi Rithambara was scheduled to speak near Boston Dr. Khalidi wrote an article titled 'No room for extremist hate in Waltham' which was published in the Metro West Daily News. He regularly wrote for the Economic and Political Weekly, the Outlook, India Abroad, Two Circles, MG, and other print and internet media outlets.
Aisa kahan sey laiyen key tum sa kahein jisey
Toronto-based Mohammed Ayub Khan is a doctoral student in political science
Omar Khalidi died on 3 December 2010

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 December 2010 on page no. 17

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