By Anjum Altaf
Christopher Hitchens had offered a hypothesis in Vanity Fair that Pakistan’s problems stemmed from deep-rooted sexual repression. The evidence for this was the occurrence of honor killings, and the consequence other morbid symptoms that transformed the country into one that was “completely humorless, paranoid, insecure, eager to take offense, and suffering from self-righteousness, self-pity, and self-hatred.”
Even if one were to accept the broad characterization as correct, it is difficult to take the hypothesis itself seriously. In my response, I had assumed that just a cursory consideration of the fact that honor killings occurred in India as well would have been enough to discredit the hypothesis because none of the morbid consequences are to be observed in India.
However, for various reasons, that did not turn out to the case and I had to spell out the hypothesis and how it could be tested in greater detail. I am reasonably sure that no support would be forthcoming for the hypothesis and we can move on to propose more plausible explanations for the problems that undoubtedly exist in Pakistan.
In doing so, I am leaving aside the issue of what might offer a better explanation for honor killings themselves. Readers interested in this phenomenon are invited to submit a guest post to the blog to continue the discussion (it can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org).
In my response to Hitchens, I had quickly moved on to what I considered a considerably more plausible hypothesis, one similar to that offered by Lawrence Wright in his article in the New Yorker: that American aid undermined the strategic relationship between the US and Pakistan and “created monstrous contradictions within Pakistan itself” (this can be called the Wright hypothesis for purposes of this discussion).
It is interesting to note that after the sensational introduction of his sexual repression hypothesis, Hitchens himself abandoned it and devoted the bulk of his article excoriating the US and holding it co-responsible for the unacceptable outcomes of the US-Pakistan strategic relationship.
However, a careful reading would suggest a critical difference between the Hitchens and Wright hypotheses: In the Hitchens hypothesis, the US embraced a state that was already degraded because of sexual repression; in the Wright hypothesis, it was the US embrace that was responsible for the degradation. There is a crucial difference in causality and if the Wright hypothesis is correct, it was quite fortunate that the US did not embrace India instead and that the Indian leadership was wise enough to reject any such overtures if they were made.
Since we have already rejected the Hitchens hypothesis, we are left to evaluate the Wright hypothesis with more care. In my response to Hitchens I had suggested that the Wright hypothesis could only be part of the story. Since the US never embraced the people of Pakistan, only its ruling apparatus and often only a military dictator, its impact could well explain the perversities and deformities of the Pakistani state but could not explain the degrading conditions that include honor killings, gender violence, absolute poverty, malnutrition, children out of schools, etc. There has to be some other or additional explanation for these conditions.
Given that these conditions exist to varying degrees in India as well, and leaving aside the fact that they are being addressed with a great deal more seriousness, it should be clear that the American embrace alone cannot account for their presence in Pakistan. I had suggested two other explanations. First, I suggested that colonial interventions in Third World countries had interrupted the processes of indigenous industrialization and urbanization that were the critical underpinnings of social change in the ‘first movers’ that had themselves not been hampered by external interventions.
As a result, the social revolutions and the leveling of social hierarchies that marked the transition from monarchy to representative governance in Europe never occurred in India. The hierarchical social structures survived intact and it is now the democratic process that is working to achieve the effects that social revolutions did in Europe. But an evolutionary process is inevitably much, much slower than revolutionary change. Thus it is not surprising that social inequalities along with their manifestations continue to persist in Third World countries.
Second, almost since the independence of India and Pakistan, the world entered a neo-liberal global order in which the problems of the poor were accorded a much lower priority compared to maintaining a high rate of economic growth; the fruits of latter was assumed to trickle-down to the poor via the magic of the market. The Ayn Rand ideology of the free market in fact shifted, in practice if not in words, the blame for the problems of the poor on to the poor themselves.
These meta-hypotheses can go some way to explain the common existence of extreme social maladies in both India and Pakistan and their very slow redress while the American embrace can explain the additional deformities of the Pakistani state that are not shared with India. Of course, the deformities of the Pakistani state and its attempts to legitimize itself have a harmful feedback effect on the attempts to address social maladies which is why the direction of change is negative in Pakistan while it is positive in India and the trajectories of the two countries continue to diverge.
These hypotheses are tentative and offered merely to catalyze the discussion that is necessary to improve our understanding of the economic, social and political changes taking place in South Asia. Such an understanding is also needed to fully appreciate the very pressing needs of the majority of the citizens in the region.