Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

The Morning After

September 29, 2018

By Anjum Altaf

It is a fact that no one outside Pakistan considers the most recent electoral exercise to have been even-handed — some analysts have gone so far as calling it a ‘soft coup.’ This is no surprise. Most outsiders also insist that Pakistan sponsors terrorism. But while there are many Pakistanis who contest the latter, it is striking that the number believing in the fairness of the recent electoral exercise is relatively small. Even partisans benefiting from the outcome, while offering various justifications, do not really dispute the charge.

It seems that in nudging the choice, the power elite (the segment of the elite that has the ability to affect other people’s lives) may have overplayed its hand. Does this, and the intervention itself, come at a price? Recall that negating the electoral mandate of 1971 resulted in dismemberment of the country. What kind of price might we expect this time around?

First, there is a clear loss of institutional credibility. While praetorian rule in the past was attributed to individuals — Ayub, Zia, Musharraf — the narrative this time is depersonalised and centred on the uniform — slogans are in the air that have never been heard before.

Second, there are still many Pakistanis who, while accepting the reality of nudging, justify it as being for the good because the previous dispensation was allegedly so corrupt and anti-national that giving it five more years would have spelled disaster for the country. This predicament arguably legitimized the use of any available means to replace the predecessors with an upright and patriotic team. If the expectations of this segment of the population are belied yet again, it could erode the legitimacy of the power elite, and its claim to represent the national interest, for good.

Third, the probability that the above-mentioned expectations could be fulfilled is not high. Leave aside the fact that the new dispensation is peopled largely by the same individuals who were part of the erstwhile lot of the corrupt, and subscribe, for the sake of argument, to the comforting myth that an honest leader could keep them in check. There is nevertheless no escaping the reality that no leader, however upright personally, can defy the structural imperatives that define a system and circumscribe the room for maneuver.

To start with, there are structural imperatives that push from below in a society characterised by widespread poverty and the dependance of the many on the few for rights and entitlements. With a parliamentary system, and the majority of electoral constituencies having a dominant rural vote, such a configuration cannot but throw up the kinds of power brokers now characterized as ‘electables.’ The motivations of such representatives, who have dominated Pakistani politics throughout, are well known and they do not barter their loyalties for free. Let us assume, however, that a truly great leader can keep them in check.

But then there are structural imperatives from above. A leader beholden to the power elite cannot but acquiesce to its dictates which means that foreign and defence policies could remain out of bounds. At the same time, if the leader is not inclined to take on the theocracy, the internal dynamics are unlikely to change if not become more dangerous — consider the abject surrender on Atif Mian. Add to this the constraints that would accompany the recourse to the IMF that has already been signalled as inevitable and the fiscal vice would tighten some more.

Pakistani politicians are very much reduced to the status of the princes in pre-Independence India who were rulers only in name while power was exercised by the British — they can revel and indulge thier egos in their restricted domains while the real business is conducted elsewhere. It is not any fault of of the politicians, just a reflection of the reality on the ground. The princes, to their credit, left us a glorious cultural heritage of art, poetry and music that continues to enrich our lives and provide solace in trying times. Our politicians have focused on enriching themselves and adding concrete to our lives. Imran Khan may make different choices but he would nevertheless be operating at the margins turning opulent rest houses into hotels and colleges.        

This is ironic because the broad framework outlined by Imran Khan points in the right direction — the country can move ahead only if it prioritises the productive uplift of the bottom forty percent and invests heavily in its security and human capital. But will there be enough left to do that after satisfying the obligations of all the paymasters listed above — defence, debt repayments, conditionalities, luxury imports, political payoffs, and the inevitable leakages — that would leave the kitty bare and beyond the reach of minor austerities and absurdities like forbidding cheese and inviting donations to build dams?

When Imran Khan recognises these constraints, as he inevitably will, and attempts to wriggle free of any of them, he will face the same reality as all those who have had the crown placed on their heads before him. And so one might expect the cycle to repeat and the status quo sustained. But there might well be an accompanying downward drift with the continued erosion of institutions and their loss of legitimacy. Already, we are in a surreal situation in which every organ of state is carrying out the functions intended for another. This is not a lasting arrangement and the lost time in which competing economies move further ahead could exert an enormous toll.

Pakistan has a very young population, poorly educated and trained, that is looking for employment to survive. What will happen when the dreams dissolve and its survival is at stake? I suppose one could tell them to go climb one of the trees that might be sprouting by that time. On the other hand, the descent into anarchy could accelerate, the power elite flee to its foreign abodes — Dubai, Jeddah, Paris, London — and the parties that have been mainstreamed as part of the electoral engineering step in to destroy the old and rotting system once and for all. This might well be a triumph that could bear the mark of a colossal tragedy in the making.

An edited version of this opinion was published in The News on September 27, 2018 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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India, Pakistan and Cricket: To Play or Not to Play

July 23, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

Pakistan wants to resume bilateral cricketing ties with India while India refuses to play ball. How would an alien from Mars, unaffected by nationalist biases, assess the situation?

It would be hard to dismiss the Indian position outright. Think of it this way: If you live in a community and a neighbour throws his trash over your wall you would be justified in being annoyed. You might go over once for a friendly chat but if the dumping continues you would be well within your rights to protest and break off relations. The neighbour’s invitation to a friendly game of chess will clearly smack of hypocrisy in the circumstances.

Extrapolate the analogy to India-Pakistan politics. There seems little doubt that Pakistan has been abetting incidents of terrorism in India – the 2008 attack in Mumbai was the most egregious and the most explicitly linked to Pakistan. Add to that unprovoked border incursions like the one in Kargil and one ought not to be surprised if India is riled up. In such a situation the demand to suspend sporting relations with a country exporting terrorism does carry weight.

However, extending the analogy of neighbours to countries is logically incorrect.  Neighbours are humans with agency in the sense that they can decide where and when to dump trash and whether and how to retaliate. Countries, on the other hand, are inanimate entities incapable of doing anything on their own. Rather, individuals or groups, acting in their names, carry out actions. And there is never a complete consensus on any action among the individuals or groups in a country.

The implication is that just as all Muslims are not terrorists, all Pakistanis are not guilty of instigating incidents of terror in India. At the same time, it is not possible to deny that some are and openly so. Therefore, the question to ask is whether the Indian state is justified in punishing all Pakistanis for the actions of a few?

At an intellectual level the representatives of the Indian state know that some rather than all Pakistanis are involved in the incidents of terror in their country. However, their claim is that either the Pakistani state is complicit in the actions of the offending groups or, if not, is not doing enough to put a stop to their actions. Once again, on the basis of available evidence it is hard to deny that there isn’t validity to one if not both accusations. Therefore, the decision of the Indian state to suspend sporting relations continues to merit consideration.

Does this stance hurt or advance the interests of the Indian state? It would seem the latter because although it recognizes that not all Pakistanis are complicit in the acts of terror across the border, the Indian state does not discourage its media from painting all Pakistanis with the same brush, that is, to convey the impression that Pakistan is evil as an entity. This perception generates public support for a political stance which seems to be maintained for reasons other than those of pure principle.

In support of this conclusion one can cite the fact that despite the boycott, the Indian state is not opposed to contests between the two countries in multilateral competitions such as the World or Asia Cup tournaments. A principled stance that India would not play against a state promoting terror would call for a boycott of matches in such tournaments as well. There are precedents for such principled positions — many countries participated in a boycott of sporting relations with South Africa when its government practised the policies of apartheid. Similarly, Israel used to concede walkovers in global competitions if matches were scheduled on Yom Kippur.

One could be forced to conclude that there is more to the position of the Indian state than what it professes. In a period of RSS dominance, could it be too far-fetched to presume that an ideological consideration of the Indian state might actually be to punish Pakistan as much as possible while minimizing the cost of such a policy to itself?

The contradiction in the Indian position on bilateral and multilateral sporting engagements with Pakistan would seem to support the hypothesis. At the bilateral level, global sympathies are clearly on the Indian side and the finances of its sporting bodies are much stronger than those of the counterparts in Pakistan. Thus the relative economic loss from the bilateral boycott is quite asymmetric in favour of India.

The same would cease to be true if the boycott was extended to multilateral competitions. Not only would India diminish its chances of winning such tournaments by conceding walkovers against Pakistan, it would find it virtually impossible to sustain universal public support for such a position. Thus it is not surprising that Indian policymakers refer to contests at the multilateral level as ‘only a game’ while simultaneously allowing their media to paint bilateral contests in hyper-nationalist terms as an extension of war. This allows the Indian state to have its cake and eat it as well.

The Indian state can get away with this contradictory stance as long as the world believes that the Pakistani state is turning a blind eye to the promotion of acts of terrorism across the border. Given this perception the latter’s high-minded claim that sporting relations should be independent of political considerations is rightly seen as hypocritical.

Needless to say, and quite independent of anything else, the Pakistani state should be taking a much more forthright stand on restraining agents using its soil for acts of terror across its borders. However, given the mood of the moment in India, it is not clear if that would be sufficient for the Indian state to end its boycott of sporting relations at the bilateral level.

This opinion appeared in the Express-Tribune on July 22, 2017 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Pakistan and its Neighbours

July 6, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

Look at the map of Pakistan. The overwhelming length of its land border (92% of a total of 6,774 kilometers) is shared with three countries – India (43%), Afghanistan (36%), and Iran (13%). Pakistan has poor relations with each of these three neighbours.

Has anyone seriously asked the two obvious questions: Why? And, At what cost?

Before we jump on the moral high-horse and go into paroxysms of indignant self-righteousness, could we consider the following:

When George Bush asks ‘Why do they hate us?’ and answers ‘Because we are so good,’ we marvel at his intelligence. When we proclaim the same, we want to be taken seriously?

Surely, some self-reflection is in order.

Point number one: When nobody likes you, the problem could very well be with you. At the very least, intellectual honesty demands one should be open to the possibility.

Alright, there is a ready-to-serve narrative for the hostility with India. It is a Hindu country and Hindus are sworn enemies of Muslims wanting nothing better than to undo Pakistan. Ergo, we have to terrorize them from time to time lest, God forbid, they change their minds.

But what about our fellow-Muslim neighbours. Do we have semi-plausible narratives to explain our unhappiness with them?

We need to have a friendly regime in Afghanistan so we can be friends with them. Of course, this involves regime change about which we have serious qualms except when we are desperately seeking friends. And a little strategic depth won’t hurt either because when we have to pole-vault over the Indian border, we can start running from much further back.

Meanwhile, as Madeleine Albright said about the death of 500,000 Iraqis: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it.”

And Iran, don’t they belong to a different sect? In any case, the enemy of our friend is our enemy, isn’t it?

Okay, I am exaggerating (slightly) but could we put some more coherent narratives on the table and have a national discussion without being defensive or afraid. And, while we are at it, could we also discuss who the geniuses are who are making these brilliant foreign policy decisions because it is certainly not the citizens.

We do seem to have a surreal notion of how to resolve our issues. Instead of trying to get along with the neighbours we have, we seem desperate to relocate ourselves to another neighbourhood. If only we could become Bakistan and cuddle up to Saudi Arabia or attach ourselves to the udders of those wonderful ’Stans, or be an extension of China, wouldn’t everything be so wonderful?

Quite aside from the fact that moving a country is not quite the same as moving a family from quarrelsome Harbanspura to peaceful Bedian, the nice thing about counterfactuals is that they never need to be put to the test. Having made a hash of SAARC and RCD, we can boldly dream we would make a great success of CAP (Central Asia and Pakistan – seriously).

It does help to have a short memory. Didn’t we have a neighbour (a little more than a neighbour, actually) about a 1,000 miles to the east and what exactly did we do to it that it could not bear our embrace?

Is everyone in this pipedream too smoked up to keep track of the contradictions? We launched a jihad in Afghanistan because godless communists were being nasty to our fellow-Muslims and now our best friends (sweeter than honey, etc.) are godless communists who allegedly won’t allow Muslims in their country to grow beards or fast during Ramzan (sorry, Ramadan). We are sincerely upset about Kashmir but, please, could we sincerely avert our eyes from Xinjiang. Or else.

More and more this comes across as a melange of self-serving gibberish that just doesn’t hold together. But who is to say and we know who there is to hear?

And what about the benefits and costs? Every situation has its winners and losers and in almost every case two truths hold: The winners are few and the losers many; and, the winners convince the losers that everything is happening in the latter’s interest and is exactly as the Good Lord willed. How much better the reward when it is finally conferred in the Hereafter.

There’s no prize for guessing the winners and the losers. Just look for the folks whose lifestyle is immune to whatever happens on the borders and those who are laughing to the bank and onwards to the Bahamas. There go your winners. As for the losers, think of those for whom a few Rupees less in the price of food would mean two meals a day instead of one.

You may not be able to do much about it but I am sure you can figure it out.

This opinion was published in the Express-Tribune on July 5, 2017 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Faiz 5: A Tribute to Kanhaiya Kumar

March 6, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

Speak
(After Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Bol)

Now is the time to speak

Lips not sealed
Body unbroken
Blood coursing still
Through your veins

Now is the time to speak

Look
The iron glows red
Like your blood
The chain lies open
Like your lips

Now is the time to speak

Speak
For the tide of life runs out

Speak
For truth and honor shall not wait

Speak
Say all that needs be said this day

Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem can be accessed in Urdu, Hindi and Roman here.

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For the Students and Faculty of JNU

March 5, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

For the Students and Faculty of JNU
(After Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s dar-e umiid ke daryuuza-gar)

Cursing, hurling vile abuse
They came to tarnish, ravish, debase
Parade the tatters of our soul
As emblems of their rule

Hordes swarm the streets
Goose-stepping, flaunting steel
Threatening, intimidating those
Who dare refuse to keel

We collect the shreds they tore
Dyed red in our blood
Sew them back in a banner
Bigger, brighter than before

Faiz’s poem can be accessed in Urdu, Hindi, and Roman here.

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Reflections on JNU, India and Pakistan

February 19, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

The ongoing row at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) reminded me of the following statement by Vir Sanghvi: “the gap between Indians and Pakistanis has now widened to the extent that we are no longer the same people in any significant sense” (The same people? Surely not). I am not convinced of this claim and believe that the underlying social and attitudinal propensities in both countries (towards violence, religion, and nationalism, for example) remain fairly alike. It is only accidents of time and place that lead to seemingly differing outcomes in the emergent landscapes.

I explored this argument earlier in a couple of posts (How Not to Write History and Pakistanization of India?) and the response to the recent events at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) strengthens my conviction further.

Despite its very different political trajectory, India is repeating the patterns observed in Pakistan albeit with a considerable lag in time. We have already seen the injection of religion in politics and now, apropos of JNU, we are seeing manifestations of hyper-nationalism and the use of student proxies of political parties to crush dissent and intimidate opposing voices in universities and courts.

The interesting question for an outsider is why this is happening in India today. The answer points to another one of the contingent events of history. It seems that with the election of Narendra Modi a number of factors have come together in India – the rule of a party with a foundational commitment to a conservative ideology that it believes needs to be universally imposed, a visceral dislike for dissent that it deems anti-national, and the undiluted power to attempt to enforce its preferences. These elements might have existed individually or in pairs before but have never come together as they have now with the outright mandate obtained by the BJP in 2014 that relieves it of the need to placate coalition partners.

In Pakistan, the commitment to a conservative ideology was present almost from the outset, the crackdown on dissenting voices followed soon after, but it was only with Zia ul Haq that the there was a long enough period of unchallenged authority to push the ideological agenda to the maximum and change the contours of society for the generations that followed.

In this context watching and hearing what is happening in India today is like replaying an old Pakistani movie. Consider the Home Minister – stating “If anyone raises anti-India slogans, tries to raise questions on the country’s unity and integrity, they will not be spared,” attributing the incident to the Jamaat-ud-Dawah (JuD), and pressing for charges of sedition. Observe the violence in the premises of a court and the passive role of the police. Consider the sentiment of the MLA caught on video in an act of violence stating he would shoot protesters if he had a gun and articulating his understanding of patriotism: “As I was leaving the court I saw a man raising anti-India and pro-Pakistan slogans. I lost my cool, like any patriot, and asked him to shut up.” Add to that the government’s hastily passed mandate to hoist the national flag on a 207 feet mast in all central universities in order to better instill the spirit of nationalism in all who may pass thereunder. “Curiouser and curiouser” as Alice would have said.

Seventy years of very different political trajectories in the two countries seem to have yielded very little behavioral variation. To remove any lingering doubts tune in to the talk shows with their indignant anchors with flashing eyes and heaving chests and panelists flinging accusations and determined to prevent anyone from responding. Clearly both countries have yet to evolve to the state where the etiquette of debate precludes shouting. As for the JNU incident itself, going by Pakistani precedents, it would not be a surprise if it eventually transpires that the entire episode was planted and provoked in order to provide an excuse to crack down on those not towing the official line and to send a signal to dissenters in other universities.

Related to this incident, there is, of course, one obvious difference between India and Pakistan and that pertains to the size and scope of the resistance encountered by the state to the use of strong-arm tactics. Once again, this is a contingent outcome owing itself to the fact that an institution like JNU with its tradition of open discussion has survived through all these decades. Similar institutions in Pakistan had their freedoms curtailed and faculties emasculated much earlier leading to the critical loss of public space in which to challenge official dogma in relative safety. At this time it would be hard to imagine a sizable group of students in any public university in Pakistan sufficiently trained to interrogate the convictions and prejudices with which they entered the institution. That this was not always the case is exemplified by the role of students in ending the military rule of Ayub Khan in the 1960s.

This seems precisely the reason why JNU, the premier institution promoting an open investigation of history and politics in India, has been targeted. If the tide can be rolled back in JNU, India will be well on its way to catching up with Pakistan. One can deem it a tribute to JNU that three members of the student wing of the RSS at the university are reported to have resigned in protest against the response of the state. In support of the thesis advanced in this post they have expressed apprehension at the ‘Talibanization’ of India.

It is hard to avoid the impression that if the BJP had its way it would like nothing better than to crush JNU. In this endeavor it seems to have some popular support voiced by those who believe that an institution subsidized by taxpayer funds should not be allowed to question the actions of the state. Once again, this is an opinion shared with that of the majority in Pakistan. However, there does exist more resistance in civil society in India and, unlike Zia ul Haq, Narendra Modi has to go back to the electorate in a few years. What will happen in the interim is up for grabs and what will happen after the elections is unknown. With a little bit of luck it still remains possible for India to escape Pakistan’s fate although its government seems hell-bent on erasing all differences.

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Fifty Years of Activism in Pakistan: A Sea Change

January 11, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

Pakistan today is very different to what it was fifty years ago. An aspect that has changed significantly – literally turned on its head – is the nature of political and social activism, i.e., the very dynamic that leads to change in society. I describe this transformation based on my interactions with the young – as a student at the beginning of the period and as an instructor of students at its end.

Needless to say, the majority in any society is content to swim with the tide. Members of this majority may hold opinions about desirable changes but they are not involved in the process of bringing them about. On the other hand, there is always a small minority of individuals who become actively engaged in efforts to change society. Such activists mobilize varying numbers of the majority for or against in different situations but the fact remains that most internal movements are initiated by this small number of activists.

As one would expect, activists are motivated by a range of concerns and inspired by varied sets of ideas. Since both concerns and dominant ideas change over time, it is reasonable to think that the nature of activism itself might undergo changes of various kinds. The transformation in the nature of activism in Pakistan over the last half century is the focus of this discussion.

At one level, the situation fifty years ago was simple. The 1960s, with the ongoing Vietnam War and decolonization, was the height of anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist sentiment, both reflected in the popularity of Marxist-oriented alternatives. These had an appeal to those segments of the young who were open to external ideas and focused primarily on political change in the nature of the state. This orientation was supported by the influx of heavily subsidized literature from Soviet and Chinese sources.

There was another set of the young who were motivated much more by internal ideas and focused primarily on moral improvement of individuals in the belief that such moral improvement would result in a better society. These were primarily Islamic moral and religious ideas for a better future.

There were a number of important differences in these two broad categories of activists. The left-oriented political activists articulated the views of a small minority of the total population but were a fair proportion of this population. The right-leaning social activists articulated the views of a large majority of the total population but were a relatively lower proportion of this population. On balance, because of the large difference in the relative sizes of the population pools, the absolute number of right-leaning activists exceeded the number of left-leaning activists.

Other salient differences were quite obvious. Left-leaning activists subscribed to secular ideas, sought systemic political change, and attempted to mobilize collective movements to achieve their objectives. Right-leaning activists derived their inspiration from religion, focused on individual moral improvement, and furthered their objectives through schemes providing social welfare to communities. It would also be fair to say that in Pakistan left-leaning approaches were top-down while right-leaning ones were bottom-up.

Fifty years later, the situation appears significantly more complex. External ideas offering alternative models of state structure have lost much of their appeal. Marxist approaches, in particular, have little credibility to offer and various articulations of hybrids remain too vague to have sufficient resonance in large enough groups of people to be relevant. Internal ideas, on the other hand, have grown from a focus on individual moral reform to offering political alternatives of various shades supported extensively with subsidized inputs from the Middle East. These mark the transition from the Islamic to the Islamist orientation in Pakistan.

What one sees today is a world of activism almost upside down. The segment of youth that fifty years ago would have been in the vanguard of left-leaning, secular, political activism is engaged now in a very different manner. Most are involved in efforts to improve individual social welfare through NGO-sponsored community projects while at the same time being quite at ease with religious prescriptions to achieve a better society. The latter is manifested by initiatives centered on promoting inter-faith harmony.

On the other hand, the segment of youth that fifty years ago would have been in the vanguard of the right-leaning, religious, moral activism has split, with a significant element moving on to religiously inspired activism directed towards political change. (The reader would no doubt register that these are broad generalizations and not applicable to every single individual in either group.)

The bottom line is that there has been a marked rightward shift in activism in Pakistan over the last fifty years. This shift includes both the sources of ideas and the nature of the activism itself. A large proportion of the segment that earlier contributed political activists has transitioned to social welfare approaches while those who earlier contributed moral activists have split into two – a section continuing in the older tradition and another moving on to political activism inspired by internal religious ideas.

This much should be acceptable to the reader who takes the time to reflect on these changes. It is less clear, however, as to what might be the forces driving this change itself. At one level, the erosion of the credibility of externally inspired models is a convincing enough reason for the decline of left-leaning activism. In parallel, the emergence of a seemingly real clash of religions at the global level can explain the rise of right-leaning political activism.

However, there might be a less obvious factor that has facilitated this transition and helped give it the specific character we see today. This relates to the evolution of the labor market in Pakistan over the last fifty years. At the beginning of this period the balance of economic growth and the supply of labor was such that almost anyone with some education was guaranteed a reasonable employment. This assurance was sufficient to allow many young people to indulge their idealistic aspirations whether on the left or on the right.

Fifty years later, the pool of educated youth has expanded manifold and greatly outpaced the growth in the number of acceptable jobs created by a consistently anemic economy. This outcome has pushed even the better educated to struggle for decent employment which has become the over-riding priority. Idealistic aspirations are now satisfied through part-time or incidental social work. At the same time, the job market for the less well-educated is so bleak that many of them have found attractive the promise of political change that would skew the distribution of resources in their favor. One might almost claim that the activism of idealism has been replaced by the activisms of anxiety and resentment.

A counterfactual thought experiment might prove useful to probe the plausibility of this hypothesis. What would have happened if the Pakistani economy over the past fifty years had been propelled by East Asian rates of growth? Would we have seen the same patterns of activism even in the face of the decline of Marxism and the rise of the clash of religions?

If not, what might we have seen instead? Perhaps much more activism centered on human rights, participatory governance, and basic freedoms. It is plausible that the concerns could have been quite different. If so, the conclusion supports the contention that the evolution of the labor market is a factor that must be considered in understanding how our society and the nature of its activism have evolved over the preceding half century.

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Faiz – 3: A Twist in the Tail

December 30, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

My interpretation of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Kuttey was published on 3 Quarks Daily on December 30, 2015 (here).

Why

Not even dogs
Go as quietly as these men

Battered and bruised
Idle and begging
Homeless and hearthless
Stabbing each other o’er scraps
Starving in silence

Why

What myth is it
That keeps you
Divided
Amongst yourselves
That keeps you
Blind
To your strength

The original (in Urdu, Hindi, and Roman) can be seen here.

Over the course of a life there are many who nudge you in one direction or another but very few who entirely alter its trajectory. In my experience I can count four, all encountered between the last two years at school and the first two years in college.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz made me see the world beyond myself in a manner at once appealing and hopeful. Since then, Faiz has become a kind of Bible-substitute in all the manifestations of sight and sound.

Three poems – Kuttey, Bol, and Tanhai – retain a particular association because my son knew them by heart around the age of two. It was a party-stopper of the time when, leaning innocently over the shoulder of one of the parents, he would startle an unwary guest with an imperious ye galiyoN ke awaara bekaar kuttey or bol ke lab azaad hain terey. Our doubts as to whether he was a typical hafiz or knew what he was talking about were set to rest when, on one such occasion, he pointed to a departing friend with an unforgettable woh ja raha hai Bundu bhaii shab-e gham guzaar ke.

My fondness for Kuttey, for this and other reasons, notwithstanding, I continued to rethink the poem over time. For one, I did not feel it had been entirely fair to dogs. For another, and more seriously, I tossed around the issue of agency. This was not a well-articulated concern at the time Faiz was writing but since then we had been introduced to the notion by the growing critique of post-colonial theory. Early accounts in the theory conveyed the impression that the colonized were like putty to be pushed this way or that entirely at the whims and machinations of the colonists. The evolving critiques had challenged this depiction arguing that the colonized too were endowed with passions and interests and acted in their own welfare as they saw best – in a word, they also had agency in the vocabulary of the theory.

The final couplet of kuttey ran headlong into this issue. After asserting that the downtrodden could own the world (yeh mazluum makhluuq gar sar uthaye/to insaan sab sarkashii bhuul jaye) the poem concludes with koii in ko ehsaas-e zillat dilaa de/koii in kii soii huii dum hila de. This external koii, emblematic of the early Marxist vanguard, had become problematic towards the end of the twentieth century – it was the issue of agency.

My rendering of the poem frames this issue of agency in perspective and asks what it might be that keeps the wretched of the earth from acting in their interest. Among the possibilities in this regard are the various powerful myths that shape our lives and convince us that we are living in the best possible world. As one example, it is quite remarkable that only now has economic inequality even begun to be talked about as an issue of any importance in mainstream economic theory and public policy.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz continues to inspire. It remains for us to take that inspiration forward into our own times. I am convinced that is how Faiz would have liked us to honor his legacy.

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The XYZ of India-Pakistan Relations

December 17, 2015

India and Pakistan are engaged in a high-stakes game in which the outcomes (and non-outcomes) are significant for many of the players involved. The essential ABCs of this game are well known; the finer XYZs are less obvious and I aim to address some of them in this article.

It might be useful to treat the high-stakes game as just that – a game – and employ some of the features of game theory to better understand the situation.

For those unfamiliar with game theory, here is a very brief orientation.

We regularly engage in transactions in which our actions are independent of the actions of others and have no measurable impact on them either. If you go to the market to buy a cup of coffee you are engaging in this sort of a familiar independent action.

There are other situations in which the choice of your action can depend on the action of someone else. Such situations can be likened to games. Chess is a classic example of such a game in which your next move depends on the move of your opponent. Not only that, it also depends on what you believe might be his/her next few moves; these, in turn, depend on your move and his/her anticipation of your next few moves.

Since the India-Pakistan relationship is inter-dependent, this is all we need for the moment to think of it in terms of a game. But consider how extremely simple a game of chess is to appreciate the complexity of the India-Pakistan game.

  1. The rules of chess are clearly defined and fixed.
  2. There is a neutral referee to ensure that rules are not violated.
  3. No violence or physical punishment is permitted in the game.
  4. There are only two players in the game, one on each side.
  5. The responsibility for their actions rests solely on the individual players.
  6. Each player acts only in his or her own interest.
  7. During a game, the players cannot communicate with each other either directly or through intermediaries.
  8. Whatever one player wins, the other loses – think of the prize money of the match with all of it going to the winner.
  9. There are no unrelated side-games going on at the same time as the main game.
  10. The game has to be completed within a given time or a given number of moves.

Most conflicts in real life can be modeled as games but a moment’s reflection on the above list should convey how much more complex even ordinary real-life games are compared to chess. Imagine the familiar scenario in which an individual dies leaving behind a piece of land with a house or factory on it to be divided among the survivors. Most would agree that few if any of the simplifying assumptions of a pure game like chess would apply in this case even though in theory the rules of inheritance are well defined. There may be a quick outcome or there may never be one; the players might or might not trust each other; some players might desire a quick decision while others might want to drag out the process; intermediaries and arbiters might be bought out or intimidated; there may be a cooperative outcome or a non-cooperative one; all the players might gain, all might lose, or some might gain while others might lose; future gains or losses could be very much more than the present worth of the property if opportunity costs and costs of litigation are factored in.

Consider another familiar example – the game of cricket. We have seen all of the following: sub-games between factions in the same team; players preferring to lose rather than win and strengthen the position of a captain they don’t like; coaches, selectors, or administrators making key decisions instead of the captain; players throwing matches; umpires and players cheating in games; players maximizing their own interest instead of that of the team. The list can continue to be expanded.

One would rightly expect a game between two countries with a confrontational history to be much more complicated than the above examples. The aim of this article is not to propose a solution but to suggest a way in which these complications can be thought through in a systematic fashion using the template of game theory. A fuller understanding might help dissolve some of the myths that perpetuate the conflict.

The following are some salient characteristics of the India-Pakistan conflict:

  1. There is not one conflict but a set of conflicts that are at issue.
  2. There is more than one player with decision-making power on both sides. (Note: India and Pakistan are not players – they are represented by various groups with varying degrees of power.)
  3. The players formally designated as leaders in the negotiation may actually have less power that players acting behind the scenes.
  4. Because of the lack of transparency about players with actual decision-making power, there is likely to be a problem in communication between the two sides. The nominal equivalents on the two sides might have very unequal decision-making powers.
  5. The gains from resolving the conflict are huge. Not only are there actual costs imposed by the conflict (see Who Wants Peace in the Subcontinent?), there are also gains that cannot be realized unless relations are normalized.
  6. The biggest beneficiaries of such gains from normalization are the majority of the citizens of both countries for whom the costs of many essential commodities would decrease and new jobs would be created. They are stakeholders in the game but without any real power or ability to affect the outcome.
  7. The players with the power and ability to affect the outcome are materially well-off. For them the gains from normalization would not make measurable differences in their quality of life.
  8. There might actually be players who gain from a continuation of the conflict. If so, they would need to keep the conflict alive at just the right level of intensity – not so high as to upset the entire apple-cart; not so low as to be ineffective.
  9. Players who believe they would lose from normalization might undermine the credibility of other players on their own side with relatively more to gain.
  10. There are simultaneous side-games between key sub-groups on each side. The end of conflict might lead to a shift in the balance of power between these sub-groups that the negatively affected would resist even at the cost of prolonging the conflict.
  11. The passage of time might affect the two teams in different ways. The stronger team might aim to wear down the weaker one simply by delaying the resolution of the conflict and by raising its costs.
  12. Both teams influence their major stakeholders, the ordinary citizens, in various ways and for various ends, by means of state-controlled media and education and by making it difficult for them to have people-to-people exchanges.

Each of these points apply in differing degrees to both sides. The perceptive reader should have no problem extrapolating them to the reality of the India-Pakistan conflict and in identifying on the two sides the key sets of players along with their internal frictions, incentives, and likely strategies. Not every reader will arrive at the same conclusion but that is not the intention of this exercise. The objective is for the reader to analyze the conflict in a more systematic manner with the common template enabling a mutually intelligible discussion of the resulting viewpoints.

One more premise needs to be stated before the reader embarks on the analysis. In a game, all players (including sub-groups) act in their own self-interest. Any claim by a player that he/she is acting in the larger interest of someone is to be treated skeptically. There might be partial coincidence in some cases and coalitions might form but in general a player would not incur a personal loss to maximize another’s gain even when the other is on the same side. Usually players wielding decision-making power claim to act in the interest of powerless citizens. In theory, such claims are inadmissible. All evidence suggests that the same is true in reality. While saints do exist, they are not part of the games under discussion.

While every reader would arrive at a personal perspective, there are some conclusions that would likely command general agreement. Those with most to gain from an end to conflict, the citizens, lack the power to force its resolution in their interest. Those with the least to gain, and perhaps something to lose, wield effective decision-making power. There are internal conflicts over dominance among sub-groups within teams and these considerations outweigh widely distributed gains from conflict resolution. And key decision-makers might not be averse to keeping citizens misinformed to maximize personal gains.

What should citizens, the majority stakeholders, do in such a situation? That depends on the conclusions they arrive at from their analyses. Citizens do possess some leverage: the vote, the choice to reject misinformation, the space for open debate, and the ability to communicate directly with fellow citizens across borders. Some combination of these is essential to force the power brokers to end a conflict that is preventing a better life for millions of people in the subcontinent.

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Pakistanization of India?

December 7, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

India lags Pakistan in religious extremism but it seems both are headed for the same destination although by varying paths and with possibly different outcomes.

Much attention has been drawn to the rising injection of religion into politics in India spurring a number of debates in the media. Is India being Pakistanized? Is Modi India’s Zia? What accounts for the phenomenon? Where will it end? These are some of the frequently heard questions.

The dynamics of the phenomenon in the two countries appear similar but are actually different although there is an invisible underlying similarity that propels them in the same direction. A bedrock of religious prejudice exists in both countries available to be mined. In Pakistan, it has entered politics via concession and coercion while in India the drivers are manipulation and stealth. The paths in the two countries along which the phenomenon is evolving also present different constraints that shape its trajectory and growth. This premise bears some elaboration.

The Islamization we see in Pakistan today began not with Zia but with Bhutto. To extract himself from a self-created political crisis towards the end of his reign in 1977, Bhutto made some cynical concessions aimed at diffusing his opposition – the Friday holiday, prohibition on consumption of alcohol, declaring Ahmadis non-Muslims, etc. Had he survived, he might have contained the fall-out, but he didn’t.

Bhutto was replaced by Zia, the military dictator, who found riding this wave a ready means of legitimizing his rule. His equally cynical moves were not Islamization via grudging concession but through proactive coercion. Zia more or less mandated a whole host of measures – the covering of heads by female TV anchors, the use of Allah Hafiz by air hostesses and radio announcers, mandatory Friday prayers for bureaucrats, adding Islamic studies to the school and college curricula, testing religious knowledge in public service examinations, public flogging for criminals, stoning for adultery, etc., etc. Adding momentum to all this was the coincidence of Zia’s accession in 1979 with the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the Islamic revolution in Iran. These quite accidental events greatly reinforced the primacy of religion in politics.

India, on the other hand, has had no Bhutto or Zia; nor was Indian society impacted in the same way by the Russian invasion or the Iranian revolution. The primary push to inject religion into politics continues to be India’s electoral particularity, the presence of a fairly significant religious minority tagged with much historical baggage, a situation very different from that of Pakistan. The negatives of this distribution are exacerbated by the choice of the first-past-the-post modality to elect political representatives which creates incentives to divide and splinter coalitions, something to which fanning religious antagonisms readily lends itself in the Indian political landscape. While, there have been some secondary examples of concession and coercion in India – the Shah Bano case being an example of the first; banning the consumption of beef and attempting to alter history books of the second – the primary driver of religious extremism remains manipulation in the pursuit of political power.

Such manipulation reveals itself during the course of most elections in India. It was quite obvious earlier with the issue of the Babri mosque and the BJP electoral strategy in Gujarat. If it was not equally clear in the last national elections, particularly in UP and Bihar, the recently concluded state elections in Bihar removed any doubts. As the election progressed and the electoral outcome appeared shifting away from the BJP, its narrative moved in parallel from the high talk of development for all to rank communalism with the Prime Minister himself party to barely coded divisive messages about the relative rankings of the various communities included in the all.

This brings us to Narendra Modi and the element of stealth. It seems quite clear that while Modi prefers to occupy the high ground on religious tolerance, he has sanctioned a regime in which lower level functionaries, including minsters, can freely exploit or exacerbate religious differences for political or ideological ends. This is the current stealth mode of injecting religion into politics and society in India.

Where India and Pakistan are similar is that they continue to retain huge reservoirs of people for whom religion remains a very salient dimension of identity. This can remain subservient to other dimensions for prolonged periods but is among the ones that can be provoked most readily and with the greatest of ease.

Where India and Pakistan have been different is that while Pakistan has been proactively stoking religious prejudices and invoking religious nationalism for political purposes, India has been, by and large, resisting the temptations. That is till we get to Narendra Modi and the BJPs latest mandate with a dominant majority in parliament. Hence the recent spike in incidents of religious intolerance in India.

These differences between the two countries stem from the fact that while Pakistan is an authoritarian state with virtually no effective checks and balances, India is a democratic polity with a fair amount of space for dissent. Coercion can work in Pakistan while stealth is called for in India.

And this is what lends, contrary to Pakistan, considerable uncertainty regarding the likely outcome in India. The democratic space has engendered a much stronger civil society compared to Pakistan where protest under military dictatorships is far too risky and even under nominally democratic dispensations civil rights of citizens remain in abeyance. The emergence of the kind of protest by intellectuals, artists, and celebrities seen in India, of which the outpouring of awards returned was one example, is impossible to imagine in Pakistan. Even the return of one award would be a surprise; the possibility of a coordinated movement is inconceivable. How Indian civil society faces up to rising extremism and where things stand by the time the next elections come around would determine whether the recent spate of events would ebb or lead to a flood.

The lava of religious prejudice lies very close to the surface in both countries and the future rests very much on how it is managed by the interaction of political leadership and elements of civil society. Pakistani leadership lulled the population into thinking it was pursuing a low-cost strategy that was safely oriented outwards with religious nationalism targeted towards India and religious grievances towards the West. The blow-back of this short-sightedness has finally engulfed the country. Indian leadership, on the other hand, is engaged in a very high-risk strategy of fanning extremism in its domestic space, the risk heightened by the fact that its instrumentality is now tinged with elements of genuine belief in the merits of Hinduization.

In Pakistan, the battle is lost, at least for the near future. In India, the outcome remains to be determined with a lot resting on the strength of the resistance in the next few years.

Related Reading:

Electoral Choices
Pakistan-India Relations
India’s Pakistan Policy?

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