In memory of my teacher
It is, indeed, a great pleasure for me to avail myself the opportunity to say a few words on the occasion of the 100th birthday of the late Professor A. K. Nazmul Karim, who was my teacher, supervisor and colleague at the Department of Sociology, University of Dhaka since the mid-1960s. He taught me "Social Thought" and "Introduction to Sociology" at the undergraduate level during 1966-69 and "Theory of Social Change" at the Master's level during 1969-70.
Incidentally, he also took a course on "Theory of Social Change" with Professor Herbert Marcuse during 1952-53 at Columbia University, New York. However, in his course outline at the University of Dhaka, where he taught us the course, he did not introduce any strand of Marcuse or Frankfurt/Critical School. In that way, we missed a great opportunity to hear about Marcuse's Eros and Civilization (1955) and One-Dimensional Man (1964) from one of Marcuse's students to whom we had easy access. Notwithstanding, Professor Karim's introduction to Freud's Civilization and its Discontents (1930) in that course created a lasting impression on my nascent sociological imagination and I remained ever grateful to him for that.
Odd enough, when I returned to the University of Dhaka in 1986 after obtaining my PhD from York University, I was asked to teach Professor Karim's favourite course "Theory of Social Change" in his mortal absence. I felt strange. As of today, I am still teaching this course and I am grateful to the Department of Sociology, University of Dhaka to allow me to teach this course for the last 36 years at a stretch.
I also found a strange tie on another count: both Professor Karim and I had one common thesis supervisor, T. B. Bottomore, the leading British sociologist at that time. We also had an almost common thesis topic. He supervised Professor Karim's PhD thesis, "The Modern Muslim Political Elite in Bengal" (1964) at the London School of Economics & Political Science. After more than a decade, Professor Bottomore supervised my Master's thesis, "Political Elite in Bangladesh" (1976) at Dalhousie University.
During 1969-70, I was researching Swami Vivekananda as my Master's thesis at the University of Dhaka under the supervision of Professor Karim. At that time, he was the Head of two Departments, Sociology and Political Science. I found my friends from Political Science unhappy about this.
It was never easy to enter into a "communicative action" (to borrow a phrase from Habermas) with Professor Karim: he appeared to us as an intellectual high priest and we felt dwarfed by his physical presence. This produced a general fear and anxiety coupled with a feeling of intellectual inadequacy. In the still of the summer noon, his voice sounded like a Upanishadic rishi in his colonial-style office, and I tried my utmost to grasp his advice and comments.
The only fond memory that I have is my autumn evening appointment at his Isa Khan Road residence for a discussion on my thesis. I was offered plenty of snacks and we had a long and fruitful discussion. Probably that was the only fearless simulacrum I could construct across time. His insights thrown on me in his characteristic manner on the social structure of Bengal were immensely beneficial in understanding my research problem. I was motivated to explore the colonial social structure of Bengal. Finally, I could locate Vivekananda sociologically: he wrote the autobiography of his own age.
As a stroke of luck, I became Professor Karim's colleague at the Department in early 1973, after a year of post-liberation transitional teaching in a college in Dhaka. He routinised a weekly seminar presentation in his office followed by tea for the young teachers for their skill development. When my presentation caught his attention and I received a few comforting words from him, my years of cumulative trepidation and agony suddenly left me. Then I began to prepare for higher studies and upon receiving Fellowship and Teaching-Assistantship, left the University of Dhaka for Dalhousie University, Halifax. But I kept on communicating with him from Halifax and later, from Toronto. The news of his departed soul received in Toronto left me shocked. Myriad of images down the memory lane flashed and nostalgia gripped me. Cinematographically, I began to walk around the corridor of the Arts Building from where I began my journey to the world of learning.
My first impression of Professor Karim comes from his two articles, "Evolution of Religion and Marxism" (Aroni, Kolkata, 14 April 1944) and "Geography and God" (Dhaka University Annual, 1946). By that time, I finished reading R. M. MacIver and P. Sorokin and could see a strong influence of them in his ideas. The radical thinking reflected in those articles never found its expression in his later work, Changing Society in India and Pakistan: A Study in Social Change and Social Stratification (1956) and The Dynamics of Bangladesh Society (1980), which were his Master's and PhD theses respectively. Thus, in Changing Society, Karim described the nascent development of "class consciousness" in colonial India and Independent Pakistan. Later, he shifted to "political consciousness" of purposive associations and political parties to assert that political parties are the democratic translation of class struggle.
The non-development of class consciousness in our society is never explained theoretically. For the Western society, György Lukács emphasised on 'commodity fetishism' and 'reification' in History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (1923) and Marcuse highlighted 'instrumental reason' in One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (1964). Similarly, in The Dynamics, Karim could continue his earlier radical tradition to show the relationships between class and elites as C. Wright Mills did in The Power Elite (1956).
His use of historical method in both works is extremely useful for the development of Bangladesh's social history, if not sociology. The utility of this method increases manifold and becomes sociologically essential, if combined with dialectics as in Theodor W. Adorno's Negative Dialectics (1966) and Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947).
Established in 1957 with the assistance of UNESCO, the Department of Sociology was colonized by neocolonial Pakistan — it was recommended by Claude Lévi-Strauss, UNESCO Commission Chief, first chaired by Pierre Bessaignet (1957-58), and taught by John Owen and Co Pot Land. The UNESCO assistance continued for a decade. Later, in neoliberal Bangladesh, to the utter disgust of its architect, the Department of Sociology has become completely NGOized in the general rubric of "commodification of knowledge" as asserted by Jean-François Lyotard. The failure of the Department of Sociology, University of Dhaka to decolonise pedagogy of the colonisers and bring about an epistemic shift in the form of European Enlightenment, is the fiasco of Bangladeshi sociologists to grasp the importance of historical method [dialectical added] for the study of sociological phenomena as emphasised by Professor Karim.
A. I. Mahbub Uddin Ahmed is a Professor at the Department of Sociology, University of Dhaka.