The 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 Saud 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 Programme 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 25 books. The most memorable book edited by him continues to be Hyderabad After the Fall published 22 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.
Khalidi’s thesis that India is not a secular state because entrenched Hinduism in the country’s official machinery caused 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 wrote a piece calling the Archaeological Survey of India 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.
He regularly wrote for Economic and Political Weekly, Outlook, India Abroad, TwoCircles, and other print and internet media outlets.
For myself Dr. Khalidi’s death is a personal loss for he was a friend, mentor, and guide. Despite being much senior he was always eager to know my thoughts on various issues. He had no hesitation in revising his own opinions and discussed all issues in a jovial and friendly manner. In our lengthy conversations never once did he discuss personalities. He always talked about issues and the ways of rectifying them.
The last time we spoke he informed that he was working on a book on Urdu medium schools in India and was eagerly looking forward to attend a conference organised by the Department of History, Osmania University. He was also planning on bringing out a book on Hyderabadi Muslims since 1948 and had asked me to collaborate. His unfinished work will be greatly missed.
The void left by Dr. Khalidi will be long felt by the global Indian Muslim community. For quite some time there will be no one to take to task the might of the anti-secular forces in India on an academic level. May God bless his soul and grant him the highest stations in jannah.