A student’s tribute to a rare teacher, Professor Kunwar Refaqat Ali Khan

One of the stalwarts from the Department of History and Culture in Jamia Millia Islamia, Professor Kunwar Refaqat Ali Khan, 82, passed away in Delhi this week

Professor Kunwar Refaqat Ali Khan
Professor Kunwar Refaqat Ali Khan

Razi Aquil

One of the stalwarts among teachers in the Department of History and Culture in Jamia Millia Islamia, Professor Kunwar Refaqat Ali Khan, 82, passed away in Delhi on Tuesday, 8 June 2021. He would say while theology was fine for believers, who were often jaahil, sometimes even critical historians were qaabil!

In the Indian situation, he would gently and with good humour point to Mai-Baap's aggressive patronage which was necessary for even the best of historians; those who lacked that patronage were marginalised as kabir-dabir, despite all the talents and sparks they might show as researchers and scholars. He would often give examples of what happened in his time and afterwards at his alma mater, Aligarh Muslim University, and lamented the decline of openness required for sustaining academic growth and scholarly excellence.

He himself was grace personified and was content with his own early work on Mughal-Kachhwaha relations under Akbar and Jahangir, with a book based on his doctoral thesis from the Marathwada University, Aurangabad (published by Kitab Publishing House, Delhi, 1976). He presented it as something of an extended family history, ancestors converting to Islam in the 16th century. As a proud Rajput, Kunwar was prefixed to his name and he insisted on spelling his name as Refaqat (and not careless Rafaqat or Rifaqat), meaning companionship or camaraderie.

In the university and with the academic fraternity, he worked with distinction and authority. He also intervened in political debates on history and worked for its dissemination in the public domain - writing the script of Sanjay Khan's television serial on Tipu Sultan, among his other contributions.

He was kind to students, which was reflected in many ways. For those who bunked classes, he expected them to be around in the campus and attend the class at least on the last day of the month, so that he could mark their attendance. He said he believed that 'sports quota' students were supposed to be on the ground, not in the class, and was also indulgent to fun loving guys in Mullaji's canteen, Jamia store (a historic cluster of joints for addas) and the nearby hip NFC CC.

For those who showed interest in studies, he brought books from elite libraries and lent them to the students. At the end of the annual session, he would also hand out his own meticulously prepared handwritten notes on important topics, the value of which he would emphasise. For instance, he insisted we would not understand the charismatic emergence of Islam in Arabia without a proper appreciation of the dynamics of tribes and clans which Prophet Muhammad knew better than anyone else. The same he said held for castes and tribes in our country, with modern forms of old jagirdari and zamindari and opium of religion making the condition all the more complex and difficult to handle.

Such exceptional professors are now rare. They work silently, passing on their scholarship, experience and wisdom to generations of students. Refaqat Saheb's sense of service to society and humanity varied depending on what needed to be done.

For many years he would drop his wife at Ring Road's Maharani Bagh crossing. Madam, a distinguished professor of English literature at Miranda House, would take an early morning U-Special for Delhi University. While returning he would offer lift in his car to several people waiting at the bus stop who wanted to come towards Jamia. This was, he emphasised, especially helpful to old people at that hour of winter mornings, when temperature might still be at chilling 5 to 6 degrees.

Post-Jamia, I would meet him may be once in 10 years, and he would remind me: kitne din huye tum mujhse mile nahin ho....adding smilingly that an old teacher of his in Aligarh used to say that no matter where the students go, they can't run away from their teachers forever!

I am remembering many of the fascinating anecdotes narrated by him, which still serve as guiding principles for his students.

My condolences to his family and friends in Jamia.

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