Posts Tagged ‘South Asia’

Women and ‘Feudal’ Values

June 19, 2014

By Anjum Altaf

Feudalism never existed outside of Europe. Scholars of South Asia use the term ‘feudalism’ to refer to something that in its classical form in late medieval and early modern Europe was something quite different.

That in general is the tenor of the comments I have received in response to my assertion that women in South Asia suffer under the persistence of feudal values. This is a very old debate and I don’t really have a quarrel with the criticism. It has a place in scholarly exchanges but in popular parlance in South Asia the term feudal has acquired the status of a short-cut description for a particular set of values. This set of values is well recognized and understood by participants in a discussion.

I could very easily have cast the whole argument without any reference to feudalism at all but would then have had to spell out aspects that are grasped instinctively by reference to the term. We are talking, in effect, of the contrast between two sets of values that can, without any loss, be simply termed ‘old’ and ‘new’.

These contrasting values can be appreciated quite easily by reference to monarchy. While there can be a fierce debate as to whether anything like feudalism ever existed in South Asia, none can disagree with the assertion that monarchy did. It may not have been an exact replica of the monarchies of Europe but that is not material to the argument.

The claim is that pre- and post-monarchical social values are expected to be different. These differences stem from the major features that characterize the transition – divine right to electoral accountability, subjects to citizens, courtiers to civil servants, etc.

Of course, the break is never clean and values almost always and everywhere lag the change in institutions. But, in the case of South Asia, we are advancing a stronger claim to the effect that we are not really in a post-monarchical world entirely – we have quasi-monarchies wrapped up in democratic costumes.

This may be too strong a claim for some but it would be hard to deny that vestiges of the monarchical order are everywhere to be seen. How else would one account for the persistence of dynasties and the kind of groveling that was depicted in the photograph of a Sri Lanka minister paying homage to her President?

Following from this is the argument that these practices persist because an essential feature of the social structure of South Asia – the dependence of the many on the few for access to basic rights and services – has survived largely intact. The transition from pre- to post-monarchical regimes was not accompanied by any kind of social leveling similar to what transpired in Europe. The patron-client formation remained and adapted itself to the new institutional forms, representative politics and market economics, implanted from above by the departing colonial rulers.

Subservience is an obvious accompaniment of patron-client relationships as is dynastic rule. The others are those mentioned in the post under discussion – loyalty, honor, and a peculiar sense of property in people. We are quite aware that both men and women were considered property under slavery while neither is in preset-day capitalist economies. Between the two, there is an in-between stage where women are considered akin to property much more than men. Add the fact that the body of a woman is the repository of honor and we have the predicament we described in contemporary South Asia. It is not really essential whether these values originate in a feudalism that is akin to or different from the feudalism of Europe. What is relevant is that these are values that remain alive in our region.

Some readers have suggested that the arguments presented above are unnecessary and the phenomenon under discussion could be attributed much more simply to patriarchy, an arrangement in which power is disproportionately controlled by men. I would argue otherwise. Patriarchy is an almost universal phenomenon and reading Joyce’s stories in Dubliners one can readily grasp that relations within the household in the Ireland of the time were quite as patriarchal as in other parts of the world. But this patriarchy did not extend to the public treatment of women as property associated with the honor of a family.

This is also not to argue that women in the Ireland of that time, or for that matter of today, were not seen as objects of sexual attraction inviting unwanted attention and harassment. The plot of ‘Two Gallants’ from the same collection of stories makes that abundantly clear. But the scornful, vulgar view of ‘other’ women, much like that seen in contemporary South Asia, was not equivalent to the association of family honor with a woman’s body and thereby her treatment as property to be guarded zealously quite independent of any other interest in her person as an individual.

This potent combination, a vestige of old social values to which men want to hold on, continues to torment women in contemporary South Asia. These old values are in conflict with new ones in which women wish to be liberated and to exercise choice on equal terms with men in the ownership of their bodies. This conflict is at the root of the peculiar nature of violence against women in South Asia which is quite different from the violence that continues to exist in other parts of the world.

Anjum Altaf is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. 

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Women and Men: Thoughts on the Nature of Society

June 18, 2014

By Anjum Altaf

A sentence from Dubliners leapt out at me:

He had dismissed his wife so sincerely from his gallery of pleasures that he did not suspect that anyone else would take an interest in her.

This is the narrator’s observation in the story ‘A Painful Case’ from an Ireland of a hundred years ago. My mind couldn’t help being drawn to the South Asia of today. A narrator’s observation could easily have been as follows:

“He had dismissed his wife entirely from his gallery of pleasures yet he did not cease to suspect that everyone else would take an interest in her.”

One could argue around the margins without denying a recognizable truth – a wide gulf separates the attitudes. Replace wife with any female relative and gallery of pleasures with realm of interest and one would be staring at a fair characterization of our contemporary milieu in South Asia.

Why might this be so, this stark difference of attitudes? The South Asian mind leaps straight to feudalism and, for once, it might not be wrong. Property and honor are the two of the principal attributes of feudalism and in nothing do they come together as potently or explosively as in the body of a woman. Property, no matter how unused, is to be protected, and honor, no matter how undeserved, is to be upheld. Even to steal a look at someone else’s woman could be asking for trouble.

One can explain the difference in attitudes if one believes that whatever feudalism emerged in Ireland following the Norman invasion of the twelfth century was gone by the first decade of the twentieth when Joyce was writing his early stories. In South Asia, on the contrary, it can be argued that the hangover of feudal values, if not feudalism itself, still shape attitudes and behaviors. The daily lives of women remain hostage to these values.

The persistence of feudalism in South Asia is, of course, a contentious claim. Many social scientists have argued that feudalism is dead and long gone, replaced by the values of a market economy. This, I believe, is an erroneous claim.

It can be convincingly argued that the ethos of monarchy continues to thrive in South Asia except that it is now everywhere cloaked in democratic garb. There is no other way of explaining the entrenched legacy of dynastic rule in almost all countries of the region. Nor can one explain the subservience of the ruled to the rulers without recourse to the continued survival of a monarchical culture.

Rajapaksa

The photograph above of the Sri Lankan Minister of Power and Energy, Ms Pavithra Wanniarachchi, paying homage to President Mahindra Rajapakse dramatically illustrates how subservience remains alive and well even within the ranks of the rulers. In the same vein, the following is to be noted from India as reported in the news: “Gestures perceived as sycophancy must be discontinued, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the newly elected MPs of the BJP, asking them to desist from practices such as touching the feet of senior leaders and offering to carry their bags.” (One indication that India is more advanced than Pakistan is that no such instructions could be expected in the latter – people strive to rise to the rank of bag carriers.)

Very similarly, forms of feudalism continue to survive in a market economy. One just has to look for them to unearth the neo-feudalism. The reason that both monarchical and feudal practices and values survive in South Asia today should be obvious – the hierarchical structure of social relations and the dependence of the many on the few continues unchanged. As long as a person is dependent upon another for anything, be it access to services, basic rights, or even good standing, the imperatives of patronage and the accompaniment of subservience cannot be dismissed.

It is informative to visit villages to see how modern neo-feudalism operates. The classic relations of feudalism defined by ties of mutual obligations have indeed disappeared – small peasants and landless laborers are no longer tied to particular landlords because alternative opportunities in the non-farm sector and in nearby towns and cities have emerged with the spread of the market economy. But the small peasant or landless laborer still does not have independent access to rights and services. For these, the intervention of the local big man is still needed although now the patron does not provide these in return for obligations on the manor. Rather, the services are often compensated through transactions more compatible with a market economy.

For more evidence of the persistence of the feudal value system, look no further than the primacy of its third major attribute – loyalty. Appointments to key public offices throughout South Asia are a dead giveaway (Presidents of Pakistan being a good example). If monarchy and feudalism were indeed dead one would expect to see a lot more emphasis on merit as a criterion for selection.

Democracy and the market are modern institutions superimposed in South Asia on a sub-structure characterized by hierarchy and extremes of social inequality. The imperatives of the latter determine values and drive behavior warping and distorting the institutions by their ineluctable force. It is no surprise that democracy is unable to deliver basic civil rights and the market unable to deliver a living wage to many.

There is of course a tension between the old and the new and the dislocations caused by the transition from feudal to capital values, the widening gap between acceptance and aspiration, is one reason for the increasing violence in South Asia. Almost all the marginalized struggling to improve their lives are its victims; women are just the most targeted ones because of their dual burden – they being forms of property as well as repositories of honor. Violence inflicted on women serves many more purposes in a feudal than in a non-feudal society.

Anjum Altaf is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. 

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Time, the World and the Word

March 30, 2014

By Anjum Altaf in the Economic and Political Weekly

These days, though I am reading as much as ever, I am reading much less fiction. My children tell me a person who does not read literature is as good as dead. I am touched they wish me to stay alive and want, in return, to measure up to their expectations, but try as I might, I can’t.

I have lost patience with story and plot and character. Ideas, on the other hand, fascinate me: I want to get to them as quickly and directly as possible. Could it be that at some point I shed the need for a character as an embodiment of an idea, a plot as a vehicle for its development, and a well-crafted story as the medium to sustain interest in its unfolding?

Reading for me was as natural as breathing. I was born in a house overflowing with books and magazines in Urdu and English, to all of which I had unhindered access. For a child, everything is new, a revelation, an input into an unformed mind. The stories were windows into the world, the characters lending eyes through which events beyond my own experiences were seen and connected in some inchoate manner to my thoughts – perhaps devices for ordering ideas without being aware of it. For me, the stories I grew up on might have been like the training wheels I used to learn to ride a bicycle.

My predicament falls into place in this perspective. I have retained an abiding interest in making sense of the world, something at an early age I could neither have known nor satisfied for lack of tools to do so. Education at home and school got me to the point where I was able to transition from stories, first to the long essay and then to non-fiction in general.

I must confess I am disappointed at not being the type who can enjoy literature for its own sake, but I am less agonised now that I know myself better.  It is just that all fiction does not attract me equally; I still engage with a story if it promises to challenge my world view, and there remain works of fiction I am drawn to repeatedly because they yield something new with each reading. But this set, of necessity, is smaller than the set of all fiction, and it continues to shrink as the blank slate of the mind gets written over with time.

This could explain as well my reading preferences and the way they have changed over time. I believe I was attracted early to literature about South Asia because it connected me most directly to the world I wanted to know. South Asian writing in English is now most completely displaced from my reading because, barring exceptions, it fails to sustain my interest – the windows are different but the landscape remains familiar. I continue to seek fiction in Urdu more, probably because it references dimensions of life my education has failed to connect me with, but new fiction in Urdu is limited and of uneven quality.

I wonder if an appetite for fiction could be revived by learning a new language to enter an unfamiliar world. Reading translations has not helped; people think differently in different languages, and while one can convey the gist of a story, too many of the social and cultural intricacies that shape ideas and drive actions elude capture. I sense this from reading South Asian fiction in English, much of which comes across now as translation from another language, the very edges one seeks as a mature reader flattened.  Perhaps, the picture being painted is for eyes other than mine.

What might lend the freshness of new vistas to South Asian writing in English could be the democratisation of reading. The storehouses of books in a few homes if matched by even richer ones in school libraries might bring forth writers with quite different lives to share.

Every journey is unique, but they do have aspects in common. In this case, it is that stories provide windows into the world, giving it form. That world, peculiar to every individual, needs to be negotiated and understood and enjoyed, and people do so in myriad different ways. For every path that is taken many others are given up. That much I understand. What remains less clear is the difference made by the variety of stories we encounter and the set of people we share them with. To what extent are we the stories that we read or did not read together?

Anjum Altaf is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. This essay was published in the April 5, 2014, issue of Economic and Political Weekly and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission.

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Searching for a Nobel Laureate in South Asia

February 15, 2014

I was surprised to hear how our leading educationists propose to produce a new Nobel Laureate. It was at a ceremony to celebrate the achievements of one and the encomiums were laced with the inevitable laments on how few there had been from South Asia. This brought us naturally to the ‘What-Is-To-Be-Done’ question.

And, here, in a nutshell, was the answer:

Surely, there must be, in our beautiful countries with their huge populations, somewhere, some uncut diamonds lying undiscovered obscured by grime. All we would have to do is search hard enough, with sufficient honesty and dedication, and we would locate a gem. Presto, we will have our next Nobel Laureate.

Call it the Needle-In-The-Haystack theory of locating genius.

On to the modalities: How exactly would we go about this find-and-polish routine in our beautiful countries with their huge populations wracked by poverty?

Here was the answer to that question:

We will cast a wide net reaching the furthest nooks and crannies of the countries to identify the best and the brightest high-school graduates who will then be provided free places in our elite institutions. We will do this year after year till lady luck smiles on us, blesses our generosity, and rewards our efforts.

Well!

I had two questions.

First, there are countries that contribute Nobel Laureates year after year. Do they employ this random hit-or-miss strategy? Or do they have in place cultures of knowledge in which one advance leads to another, in which groups are engaged in an ongoing collaborative quest for new discoveries.

This will immediately meet with the objection that one ought not to compare South Asia to such countries.

My second question anticipates this objection and asks if the few Nobel Laureates from South Asia were actually flash-in-the-pan discoveries?

As a matter of fact, I was led to this exploration in 2013 when the Nobel Prize in physics was awarded for the Higgs boson. My curiosity about the ‘boson’ led me to Satyendra Bose whose work in the early 1920s provided the foundation for Bose-Einstein statistics – particles that obey the statistics carry his name.

That for me was not the most important finding. What surprised me was the scientific milieu in the early 20th century of which Bose was a part. Born in a village some distance from Calcutta, he attended local schools from where he graduated to Presidency College whose faculty was studded with scientists of international renown and whose students included more than one that made big names for themselves, in turn.

After completing the MSc in 1916, Bose joined the University of Calcutta starting work on relativity and translating original papers into English from German and French in collaboration with his colleague Meghnad Saha. In 1921, he joined the University of Dhaka and produced a paper based on his research. When it was turned down, he sent it to Einstein who translated it into German himself and submitted it on Bose’s behalf to the most prestigious journal in the field.

As a result of the recognition, Bose worked for two years in Europe before returning to Dhaka in 1926. Because he did not have a doctorate, he could not be appointed a professor but an exception was made on the recommendation of Einstein and he was made the head of the department. He moved back to Calcutta in 1945 when the partition of Bengal became imminent.

Bose was well-versed in Bengali, English, French, German and Sanskrit. He devoted time to promoting Bengali as a teaching language translating scientific papers into it. And he could also play the esraj, a musical instrument akin to the violin.

The point of this long digression is to dispel the impression that scientists of the highest quality in South Asia were somehow thrown up at random by chance. One can clearly see that there was an eco-system of knowledge generation at colleges and state universities where students familiar with many languages worked with mentors of repute, communicated with leading scientists in Europe, and produced work that made a contribution at the cutting edge of their fields.

It was impossible for me grasp the standards at which the University of Dhaka must have been operating right up to 1947. And surely, the Universities of Dhaka and Calcutta could not have been complete outliers. Similar environments must have been in existence, for example, at the Government College and Punjab University in Lahore, at the University of Allahabad, and at St. Johns College in Agra.

Where have these eco-systems of knowledge and learning disappeared? If one looks at public institutions of learning in South Asia today, would we conclude that we have moved forward or backward? What has been the extent of that movement? And, do we have students coming through our schools and colleges well-versed in four or five languages, able to translate original papers, and to communicate with confidence with the authorities in their fields?

Is it any wonder that we have no recourse now but to pray for miracles while searching for the needles in the haystacks and the diamonds in the rough?

It is a much easier alternative than trying to figure out and reverse the steep decline of the culture of knowledge in our public schools and colleges. There may well be a needle in the haystack but it is the eco-system of knowledge bustling with and retaining many near-Nobel Prize winners that will produce the string of laureates we are looking for.

Information of Satyendra Bose is taken from here. Also, see information on his class-mate and colleague Meghnad Saha here.

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Can India Learn From Its Neighbours?

August 23, 2013

By Sakuntala Narasimhan

A report published earlier this month says the number of cases of dengue in Karnataka has tripled during June-July, with Bangalore accounting for a majority of victims. Even residents in upper middle class neighbourhoods are succumbing, thanks to a huge garbage pile up that made news even in newspapers in the US. In the first six months of 2013 alone, Karnataka saw 3243 cases of dengue (the official figure – the real numbers are thought to be higher).

Lahore, the second largest city in Pakistan, too had over 21,290 cases of dengue in 2011. Around 350 died. As in Bangalore, the Lahore authorities too tried fogging to kill larvae, but what really helped was the innovative use of smart phones, to trace locations and clusters of incidence, and focusing on those neighbourhoods. Result: last year there were no dengue deaths. It took just 1500 mobile phones in the hands of community volunteers to also monitor implementation of various other public works projects and reduce corruption.

The fact that smartphones were recording actual implementation work on the ground helped to rein in malpractices. Random calls made to these numbers by overseers help keep track of the quality of service to the public. Given that we had (at last count) nearly 800 million mobile phones in India (for a population of 1.2 billion) has anyone thought of taking a leaf out of the Lahore experiment, and tackling dengue as well as complaints of deteriorating infrastructure? Why not? The use of mobiles also bypasses the handicap of low literacy, as Lahore has discovered.

Though we have had small NGO initiatives using mobiles (to reach rural women in Andhra, for instance, or connecting tribals in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh to help them fight official apathy or harassment) we could perhaps learn a lot more by looking at our neighbouring countries. Why do we look always to the West, assuming that they know best, ignoring simpler and more workable solutions that we could borrow from our own neighbours?

Can activists on either side learn from each other, instead of reinventing the wheel and wasting resources, including costly aid from abroad, in the process? Whether it is micro finance schemes, or employment generation projects for illiterate women, or tackling domestic violence, the matrices are the same – and so solutions could also be replicated.

How does Sri Lanka do better in terms of health indicators and literacy, and how did Bangladesh address the issue of reducing irrational formulations of drugs despite pressure from multinationals? If we can think of a BRIC bank on the lines of the Asian Development bank, why not other initiatives for learning and benefiting from the experiences of our neighbours even if they are, like us “developing” countries with scarce resources? Is the problem one of lingering colonial mindsets that sees us turning to the rich West, even for issues that are specific to our own parameters?

I am reminded of the comment that an American feminist researcher made at a recent conference on wife battering and dowry in India. “Why doesn’t the woman just leave him?” she said naively, forgetting that we do not have public shelters for battered women as in the US, or social security that will help the woman survive and feed her children. Where does an Indian woman go? An Asian academic would never make such a comment. Foreigners, being alien to our socio-cultural environment, can only come up with academic-bookish solutions. A Pakistani or Bangladeshi activist, on the other hand, might understand the ramifications of gender – or poverty – issues better.

Professor Anjum Altaf, an academic in Pakistan, in his recent blogs “What plagues development in South Asia” and “Wanted, a real people’s party” (at http://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/) points out how Amartya Sen’s description of India as “pockets of California existing amidst a sea of sub-Saharan Africa” applies equally to our neighbour across the border to the west (and also to cities like Bangalore) – incremental incomes and better facilities go to the affluent, rather than to the deprived sections, even if GDP rises.

In terms of social indicators, if Pakistan and India are at the bottom of the table for South Asia (with even Bangladesh and Sri Lanka doing better, despite handicaps in terms of social unrest and/or insufficient resources), it is not merely because of lack of democracy in Pakistan. India is a democracy but is equally stunted due to poor performance in distributive justice and poverty eradication. Could both countries learn from each other’s experiences? We share not just borders, but also many identical problems.

At an international conference in Islamabad, a research study presented by a Pakistani academic about gender issues in the northern regions of Pakistan came up with comments that could have applied equally, word for word, to rural women in the northern regions of India too. The socio-cultural handicaps are, after all, similar. True, we have had problems with Pakistan, even recently along the line of control, as also six decades of political hostility. But why should that stop us from emulating success stories or copying strategies that have worked on the other side of the political fence?

People-to-people, the sentiments are extremely friendly, as I found during my three visits. On the day we became independent, in August 1947, I was a tiny tot in Delhi, but can remember being dressed, doll-like, in a white mini-sari with a tricolour border, and eating sweets that my father bought from the Bengali Market. My favourite was Karachi halwa, with its jewel-tinted red and green and golden yellow slabs, so I asked, nostalgically, for Karachi halwa when I went shopping recently in Karachi. The shopkeeper gave me a broad smile and said, “Apa (sister) my shop specialises in Delhi halwa, it is our speciality, why don’t I give you some of that?” And he wouldn’t take money for it either – his grandfather grew up near where we had lived in Delhi.

It’s time we separated politics from socio-economic concerns, and got on with what needs to be done for tackling our problems, whether it is dengue or illiteracy or gender discrimination. Solutions, wherever they are from, carry no caste, religious or political tags.

Sakuntala Narasimhan is a Bangalore-based writer, musician and consumer activist. This article appeared first in India Together on August 20, 2013 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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Wanted: A Real People’s Party

July 31, 2013

By Anjum Altaf

It would be hard to find citizens in Pakistan or India who believe their governments really care for the people.

The Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen, has repeatedly termed India a disaster zone in which pockets of California exist amidst a sea of sub-Saharan Africa; where millions of lives are crushed by lack of food, health, education and justice. Sen wants India to “hang its head in shame” contrasting its performance with China where massive investments in health and education in the 1970s laid the foundation for sustained economic growth.

Sen points out that even within South Asia, barring Pakistan, India is at the bottom in terms of social indicators. Bangladesh is doing better with half the per capita income of India.

This juxtaposition of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and China allows some myths to be laid to rest in explaining this outrageous neglect of people.

First, Pakistan’s social problems are not due to the bogey of over-population. Bangladesh has a similar sized population and China’s is over five times larger.

Second, Pakistan’s problems are not due to its interrupted democracy. India, with uninterrupted democracy since 1947, is socially speaking an embarrassment of colossal proportions with some of the worst human development indicators in the world.

Third, China’s success is not just due to its authoritarianism. Decades of authoritarianism in Pakistan made things worse not better.

Fourth, Pakistan’s problems do not stem from a lack of money. Bangladesh has forged ahead with fewer resources.

What then is the answer and where is the source of optimism for a better future?

Sen believes India suffers from the absence of vision and the political will to implement it. He puts his faith in the middle class and wants to shame it into shedding its indifference to the wretchedness of its fellow citizens. Pointing to the response to the recent rape in Delhi, he believes the middle class can be moved and once it is positive political action would follow.

Many in Pakistan subscribe to the same perspective but this begs a number of questions.

First, how does one explain the lack of vision? Why does China, or Bangladesh for that matter, have a better vision than India and Pakistan? Sen himself expresses befuddlement as to how governments and the middle classes can’t see the economic and ethical costs of not investing in people.

Second, what is the basis for reposing faith in the middle class? Sure, there will always be members of the middle class who would align themselves with the people in the struggle for rights. But would the middle class really be a part of the political vanguard?

The evidence is not convincing by any means. Arundhati Roy seems more on the mark when she observes that the upper and middle classes are seceding from the rest of the country. Her characterization of this secession as vertical and not lateral is particularly evocative – “They’re fighting for the right to merge with the world’s elite somewhere up there in the stratosphere.”

This trenchant observation ties in quite seamlessly with Sen’s characterization of India as pockets of California amid a sea of sub-Saharan Africa. The middle class wants more pockets of California – without load-shedding and low pressure gas supply, with clean water and secure perimeters – and it doesn’t really mind if that comes at the expense of the people. If the latter’s habitats need to be razed for development, so be it.

History seems to validate Arundhati Roy and not Amartya Sen on this count. People have never been given their rights by a benevolent and visionary upper or middle class. On the contrary, people have extracted their rights through protracted struggle with the assistance of committed members of the upper and middle class.

Whether one looks at the French Revolution, where extended dissemination of ideas about human equality, liberty and fraternity paved the way to an end to the rule of privilege, or Brazil today, where citizens are in the streets demanding better services, the lesson is the same – people have to mobilize for effective political action.

It is that kind of a mass movement which changes the orientation of society, realigning it from a vertical patron-client axis to a horizontal one, in which all citizens are politically equal. In fact, it is that kind of movement that transforms a subject into a citizen which could well be considered amongst the most profound transformations in human history.

Only on that foundation of political equality can be built the edifice of representative governance in which representatives are accountable to citizens. Without that equality, governments would revert, in one way or another, into caricatures of the monarchies that they never outgrew.

The transformation from subject to citizen has yet to occur in India and Pakistan where the old privileged elites remain in dynastic control. To some degree, and with all its peculiarities, it has transpired in China with the People’s Revolution and in other countries in East Asia that were forced to undertake extensive land reforms to forestall the threats of popular insurrection.

Sen concedes this reality. In his latest book, An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, the last chapter is poignantly titled ‘The Need for Impatience.’ And there is a telling quote in the book: “Patience is a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.”

It is said that the only photograph in Sen’s study in Cambridge is that of Rabindranath Tagore who named him Amartya. But now, towards the end of his incredible intellectual journey marked by an exemplary gentility, he expresses a grudging admiration for Kazi Nazrul Islam.

Tagore was too patient, he says; Nazrul Islam urged action.

The author is indebted for anecdotes and quotes to Madeleine Bunting’s review of An Uncertain Glory in the Guardian.

Sen and Dreze have held these positions for a considerable length of time. See the reference here to California and sub-Saharan Africa in Ramachandra Guha’s 2007 book.

Sen and Dreze provide a comparative table of human indicators for South Asia and China here. This article is archived in The Best from Elsewhere section of the blog (#80).

For two comments on Sen’s earlier book, The Idea of Justice, see here and here.

Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on July 30, 2013 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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Poverty and Human Rights

June 5, 2013

By Anjum Altaf

Is poverty a violation of human rights? I was asked recently to speak on the subject and faced the following dilemma: If I convinced the audience it was, would that imply the most effective way to eliminate poverty would be to confer human rights on the poor?

Two questions follow immediately: First, if that were indeed the case, why haven’t rights been conferred already? Second, over the entire course of recorded history, has poverty ever been alleviated in this manner?

Likely answers to both suggest it would be more fruitful to start with poverty than with rights. Poverty has always been with us while the discourse of rights is very recent. Studying the experiences of poverty elimination could possibly better illuminate the overlap with rights and yield appropriate conclusions for consideration.

We can begin with the period when sovereignty rested in heaven and monarchs ruled with a divine right beyond challenge. For centuries under this order a very small group of aristocrats and clergy lived atop impoverished populations existing at bare survival. This did not mean the kingdoms were poor or lacked sophisticated cultures, just that they were characterized by extreme inequalities and poverty was considered a natural condition, an element of a divinely ordained order, not a social problem. At best, it was to be ameliorated through alms and charity which were deemed moral obligations.

[Since poverty is an ambiguous concept whose definition has changed markedly over time, it is useful to employ a simple characterization for purposes of this discussion. Consider as poor anyone not being able to afford ownership of a motorized vehicle (substitute horse-and-carriage for the age of monarchy). This indicator of ‘transport poverty’ can serve as an adequate proxy for poverty itself as also for economic transformation.]

The first major change in the monarchical social and moral order occurred in Europe, beginning in the 17th century, and over 300 years absolute poverty in Western Europe and its settler colonies disappeared for good. Poverty was next eliminated in Eastern Europe beginning with the revolution in Russia in the early 20th century. Parts of East Asia followed starting around the mid-20th century with Japan starting earlier and China still in process. The last region to join was parts of Latin America beginning in the late 20th century.

The point to note is that these various eliminations of absolute poverty had very little systematic relationship with human rights. Only in Western Europe did the process proceed in parallel with the acquisition of rights as subjects were transformed into citizens bound in a social contract. But even here, rights had to be wrenched from the aristocracies: civil rights via social revolutions (the French Revolution, for example, with its explicit call for equality); political rights via the struggles for suffrage; and economic rights via the pressure of labor unions.

In Eastern Europe and East Asia, poverty elimination through accelerated industrialization was accompanied by gross violations of rights and in Latin America the sharing of wealth continues to face a violent backlash by entrenched elites and their allies.

The causes for these transitions were equally varied. In Western Europe, the first mover, they included infusion of colonial wealth (involving violation of rights of natives), emergence of capitalism (with exploitation of labor including children), replacement of communitarianism with individualism through urbanization, wars of religion discrediting divine sovereignty, and the need to protect capitalism itself from its worst excesses and its challengers.

In Eastern Europe the spur was to compete and catch up with the first movers. In East Asia, social insurgencies hastened preemptive land reforms followed by the challenge to compete globally. In Latin America, urbanization finally strengthened the hands of citizens wielding the power of the vote.

Countries with significant absolute poverty today are overwhelmingly in Africa, South and West Asia. In South Asia several characteristics are salient: communitarian identities with weak tendencies to individualism; quasi-monarchical ethos with strong dynastic traditions; sovereignty in some countries still reposed in heaven; leaders aspiring or believing in divine right to rule; populations still more than half rural; negligible economic aspirations to be globally competitive; weak labor unions; poverty still considered a natural condition with charity the preferred route to amelioration; moral crusades retaining precedence over political action.

Given this characterization, South Asia seems barely at the point where poverty is considered a social or political problem; the poor have yet to mount a sustained challenge for the acquisition of civil or economic rights – the few attempts to date having been brutally crushed. The only right, conferred by departing colonial masters, is the political right to vote and entrenched elites are determined to dilute, fracture and negate that by any means foul or fair including in places overturning the electoral verdict by force or manipulation.

It seems a mistake to extrapolate from the Western European experience and associate democracy unambiguously with human rights and poverty alleviation. The relationship is a function of the specificity of history and context. In South Asia, where the power to vote has preceded social equality and civil rights, a prolonged, bitter and often violent and anarchic struggle is very much on the cards – think of the Naxal revolt in India, the secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan, or the civil war in Sri Lanka.

Poverty in South Asia, much like anywhere else in the world, is unlikely to be eliminated by a voluntary conferral of human rights simply because the form of governance happens to be democratic. The reality is a lot more complex than that.

Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on June 4, 2013 and is reproduced here with permission of the author. It is a summary of a talk presented at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in April 2013.

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Comparing Small Towns in South Asia

May 26, 2013

A Citizens’ Initiative

By Anjum Altaf

The presence of international borders that are closed is unfortunate in many ways. However, to a social scientist they present the possibility of fascinating natural experiments in which locations close to each other but separated by the border can be studied to advantage.

For example, the Punjab border separates Kasur in Pakistan from Ferozepur in India by a distance of 39 miles. One would not expect much to change over such a short distance except for policies that are decided at the national or regional levels, e.g., those related to land, taxation, subsidies, etc. If we study the two cities in depth perhaps we might be able to infer the impact of such policy differences on the prospects of the cities and the lives of their residents.

It was such a thought experiment that prompted me to propose a study along these lines. The study could include small cities across any or all of the following international borders in South Asia.

Indian Punjab – Pakistani Punjab
Rajasthan – Sindh
Gujarat – Sindh
Indian Occupied Kashmir – Pakistan Occupied Kashmir

Bengal – Bangladesh
Meghalaya – Bangladesh
Tripura – Bangladesh

Uttar Pradesh – Nepal
Bihar – Nepal

Assam – Bhutan
Tamilnadu – Sri Lanka
Kerala – Maldives

The exciting aspect of this proposal is that the academic motivation is only an incidental part of the exercise. We wish to build knowledge slowly from the bottom up leaving behind a lot of interest, awareness, and capacity for sustainability. What we are hoping to do is to link college students and instructors who would carry out the studies in these sister cities over an extended period of time. The students and instructors from paired institutions would exchange periodic visits to participate in each other’s work.

In this way we will diversify the development of people-to-people understanding away from metropolitan centers and elite institutions, something which is essential if the movement has to build an appeal with broad support. At the same time young citizens would go beyond the stage of expressing good intentions and be involved in collaborative work accumulating useful information for research and teaching purposes. In the process they would get to know each other in more intimate ways.

The study of matched pairs of cities would yield comparisons across international boundaries and across regions within some countries as well.

We will draw up simple baseline profiles of these towns using a few key indicators to be spelled out later. The preparation and regular updating of these profiles would be assigned to local academic institutions who would integrate them as class assignments for students of these institutions. The capacity of a core group of teachers would be enhanced to manage these profile updates over a five-year period.

At the end of the period we would know better what is going on in small towns and why. We would understand what are the commonalities and differences and what might account for them. In the process we would have built up a lot of local capacity and involved local students in research on local issues.

Based on these profiles we would put together an informed research agenda for the future.

What we are looking for now are suggestions from readers on how to finalize such a study and to put it into practice. It can be started with just one matched pair so we are looking for individuals who would volunteers to take charge in individual cities. As soon as we have a matched pair, we will specify the details of the next steps.

Note: The original idea for such a study was proposed in this post: What’s Happening in Small Towns?

We have already carried out a pilot study of small towns in Pakistan centered round Lahore – see schematic below (click to enlarge). Some of the readers might be surprised to know that Amritsar is just 30 miles from Lahore, an easy drive for lunch!

Small cities map

Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

Students have set up a Facebook group to share their research findings: http://www.facebook.com/groups/smallcitiesinitiative/

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Feminism and Violence: The Short and the Long

March 20, 2013

By Anjum Altaf

March 8 was International Women’s Day about which I have two stories to narrate. They are from the heart of affluent Pakistan by virtue of the accident that I live on a university campus situated in an upscale urban residential district of Lahore.

The first story, the short one, is situated in what is generally acknowledged as the premier private university in the country. A group of students organized the ‘I Need Feminism…’ campaign in which individuals complete the sentence on a placard before uploading a photograph on social media. ‘I Need Feminism because I want to wear shorts in public’ was one of the placards that went up briefly before it was taken down because of threats to the bearer and the organizers from inside and outside the university.

The second story, the longer one, involves a woman who works in the complex of campus apartments and lives in a low-income pocket in the high-income district (this being how some cities adapt to the lack of public transport). On March 8 she arrived much later than usual because her mother had been beaten in the morning. The perpetrators of the violence were a group of women of a neighboring community from which a woman had eloped with a young man related to the victim. The runaway’s relatives had identified a girl from the man’s family in exchange as settlement which the family of the latter and their neighbors felt was a just demand; only the victim asked why the girl had to pay the price, whence the violence. (The husband was unable to defend the wife as it was against the norm to touch unrelated women.) After the violence, the transaction was accepted. On being asked if this outcome was right or wrong, the narrator indicated she was unable to say but ventured that this was a common occurrence.

What can these two stories tell us about feminism and violence and our attitudes to them?  Let us first place the concepts in context.

In every society at any given point in time there exists a social order selected aspects of which are considered normal, right, and proper by the majority. Any deviation from normalcy is feared as a potential source of disorder and violence can be employed to prevent such deviations. One example of this is the attitude of men towards women and the attempt to regulate what the latter can or cannot do. Gendering is the social process through which the proper behavior of men and women is reproduced by the enforcement of norms and rules whose legitimacy is considered beyond question.

Inherent in every social order is a distribution of power – power is concentrated in the center while the peripheries are inhabited by the powerless. One can easily note the distribution of power by gender in our social order. Power, however, stems from other sources as well, one of which is class. Thus, for example, a woman within her class would often have less power than younger males but across class a younger women would have more power than older servants, male or female. In general, however, women in South Asia have relatively less power than men and have many more constraints on their choices.

How do social orders evolve and change? In every social order, there are the powerless at the margin; the majority may have internalized the normalcy and propriety of their positions but some do strive for change. At the same time, there are privileged individuals at the center of power who can imagine themselves in the shoes of the powerless and join them in the struggle. A feminist is a person who can exercise this imagination with respect to the gender dimensions of the social order. To adopt feminism as a political stance, for a man or a woman, is to take a stand against the gender privileges that stem from the unequal distribution of power in society. To be a feminist is also to believe that change is possible and that it is necessary to work for that change through all means that are available and possible.

We can now go back to the two stories. In the first, a student expressed an opinion about what she would like. This was immediately met with a threat to desist. Even the expression of an opinion, let alone the act itself, was considered a threat to social order – the term floating around was fitnah, the source of disorder in society. Keep in mind that the expression of an opinion is not a violation of the law but the issuing of a threat is. The proper recourse in such a situation is to charge those issuing the threat with a breach of conduct and to adjuticate under the existing rules. However, the internalization of the social norms is such that the officials in charge might themselves believe that the expression of such an opinion was not judicious in our society.

The male prerogative is marked by ironies. It is quite possible that individuals issuing the threat might have felt at one time that co-education itself was not proper. Yet, the attraction of an education at one of the best institutions in the country could have overcome the qualms. It is equally likely that the same individuals would be seeking scholarships in countries where wearing shorts is the norm for females. There, existence in the midst of fitnah would be deemed acceptable under some plausible rationalization.

In the second story, one can observe the power of internalization of norms at the periphery. There was a sole voice protesting the injustice of offering for settlement a girl who had nothing to do with the incident. This resistance was crushed with violence perpetrated by women themselves and the settlement was considered fair by the community.

The two stories highlight the nature of the struggle ahead. In the most upscale urban district, the affluent promoting International Women’s Day on social media act quite contrary to its spirit as soon as their sense of propriety is challenged. And within the affluent district itself live people quite unaware of International Women’s Day reproducing a social order that is oppressive to them and their weaker members.

Feminism and violence stare at each other around the specificities of our social order and leave us with many questions to ponder. Where do we go from here? The first step is to recognize that holding contrary opinions is protected under the law and that violence or the threat of violence is a violation of the law. The second is to draw strength from the fact that social orders do change – one just has to reflect on the norms that were prescribed for women a hundred years ago to realize that nothing stays constant. That is why the struggle must go on.

For the conceptual elaborations in this post I am indebted to Professor Nivedita Menon whose excellent book ‘Seeing Like a Feminist’ was published in 2012 by Zubaan-Penguin Books, New Delhi.

***

I have two favorite texts on change which illustrate how strongly we believe that what exists at the moment is what is right and proper for all times and how we are proven wrong again and again. Yet we do not learn from history.

The first, Taleem-e-NiswaaN, is an essay on the education of women written around a hundred years ago reflecting the liberal progressive perspective of the time. The author, Muhammad Sajjad Mirza Baig Dehalvi (1876-1927), was a professor in the Nizam’s College in Hyderabad. The premises and assumptions taken for granted then are now only a source of amazement which should be a cause for humility – what we believe to be the ultimate truth at this time could well be considered amazing a hundred years from now. The essay is included in Sarmaya-e-Urdu by Hafiz Mahmood Shirani. The book was reissued by Sang-e-Meel in 2004 and is available in the market for Rs. 300.

The second is an excerpt (from Intizar Hussain’s classic novel Basti) which describes the arrival of electricity in a village. The following English translation is by Frances Pritchett:

Bi Amma had undoubtedly lived a long time. She always told how in her childhood only one torch, in the Small Bazaar, was lighted at night. Everywhere else, in the streets, in the lanes, was darkness. Before her very eyes the torch vanished, and lanterns appeared in the streets and lanes; and now in their places poles were standing, and here and there on the streets electric light could be seen.
Electricity had now begun to be installed in the mosque as well, but Abba Jan had thrown a spanner into the works. “This is ‘innovation.’” And equipping himself with a cudgel, he stood on guard in the doorway of the mosque. The electricians came, received a reprimand, and went away. Hakim Bande Ali and Musayyab Husain tried very hard to convince him, but he gave only one answer: “This is ‘innovation.’”
On the third day of his guard-duty, Bi Amma fell ill; her breathing became fast and shallow. Abba Jan, giving up the guard-duty, hurried home; but Bi Amma did not wait for his arrival.
The next day when Abba Jan went to the mosque for the dawn prayer, he saw that the electricity had already been installed. When he saw this he came right back, and for the first time in his life offered the dawn prayer at home. From then on he never entered the mosque, and never offered his prayers except at home. Though for many days he did go, morning and evening, to Bi Amma’s grave, and recited verses from the Quran there.
How hard Abba Jan tried to halt the spreading ‘innovations’ in Rupnagar! During Muharram, when big drums began to sound, he seized them and ripped out the drumheads. “Playing drums is forbidden by the Shariat. I won’t permit them to be played in any majlis or procession!”
“But in Lucknow, they play drums in every procession!”
“Let them play. The Lucknow people have no power to change the Shariat!”
That year drums were in fact not played in any majlis or procession, but by the next year, Abba Jan’s power had been broken. Every procession was accompanied by drums except the one that left from the Khirkivala Imambarah, for that was Abba Jan’s family imambarah and he had power over it. And also because that procession, which was in honor of Hazrat Hur, was recognized as the quietest of Rupnagar’s Muharram processions. No small drums, no big drums, no singing of elegies — for Abba Jan declared elegy-singing too to be contrary to religious law. Abba Jan had taken a firm stand against elegy-singing, but the results were the same as in the case of his other firm stands.
Abba Jan’s grip on Rupnagar was loosening. Bi Amma had been called home by God, and electricity had come to the town. Abba Jan couldn’t prevent electricity from being installed in the mosque, just as he couldn’t prevent drums from finding a place in the Muharram processions. His firm stand against electricity was the last of his firm stands against the ‘innovations’ of the time. After that, he retired to his room.

 

More on Violence in South Asia and the Great Jihad

March 10, 2013

By Anjum Altaf

Why is there so much more political and ideological violence in South Asian countries compared to, say, France? This may seem like a simplistic or irrelevant question but the typical answers that it elicits could help uncover the complexities inherent in the phenomenon.

The discussion in this post is focused on the violence that is inflicted within a country by one set of individuals on another for reasons to do with differences in political ideas or ideological beliefs. We are sidestepping the type of violence that was covered in an earlier post, violence that has less to do with differences in ideas and beliefs and more with the exploitation, for personal gain or satisfaction, of an imbalance of power – violence against women, children, and workers being typical examples. (more…)


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