Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Constructing the Enemy

April 8, 2019

By Faizaan Qayyum

They claimed to have invaded the sovereign territory of an enemy country. They had dropped bombs, they said, and hit a terrorist camp that involved no military or civilian targets. In the days that followed, we retaliated: we intruded enemy-controlled territory, chose to strike near enemy targets, and took an enemy combatant prisoner after downing his fighter jet.

No truth is more apparent than our enmity as modern nation states. Indeed, India and Pakistan have followed a largely cyclical process of escalation and de-escalation. Before nukes came into play, we went to full-scale war thrice. In the years since, we have had countless skirmishes. Most of these conflicts have stayed within areas internationally recognised as disputed, and therefore stopped short of the absolute destruction that all-out nuclear war can bring.

The creation of the enemy is central to this story of hostilities and conflict. For this article, I will focus on two elements of this enmity: the nation-state enmity, involving India and Pakistan at the level of the state, and the communal enmity, rooted in the two-nation theory and dependent on creating distinct Indian-Hindu and Pakistani-Muslim communal identities. The Abhinandan saga and Fayya­zul Hasan Chohan’s frequent foot-in-mouth mom­ents mean that both merit some serious reflection.

Let’s start with the nation state. First, the obvious: India is our sworn enemy. It is involved in fermenting unrest, promoting violence and militancy, and trying to break Pakistan through multiple strategies and generational warfare. It is belligerent on the borders, especially the Line of Control, and frequently targets military and civilian targets on the Pakistani side. India is also consuming our share of water from the Indus river system. To counter them and keep our national honour and integrity intact, we must teach India a lesson.

But for ordinary Pakistanis, what is this ‘India’ and how do we identify our enemy? Perhaps more importantly, how are we supposed to behave when in close contact with an enemy?

For the military, the rules are relatively straightforward. Professional ethics and the Geneva Conventions define combatants and non-combatants and prescribe ways to deal with injured enemy combatants as well as access to and safety of humanitarian organisations like the Red Crescent. This professionalisation of enemy treatment was demonstrated when Abhinandan was captured: military personnel whisked him away from a charged mob, provided first aid, maintained a hospitable environment, and ensured the prisoner was not physically tortured. They asked him questions, several of which he refused to answer, and even served him some fantastic chai. All of this before he was released, upright, on his feet, and well dressed, within days.

But what of civilians? The mob reaction that Abhinandan first witnessed, before Pakistan Army troops rescued him, should cause us to step back and reflect deeply. Granted, Abhinandan is an enemy soldier and Kashmiri locals are understandably irked by years of ceasefire violations and constant unrest they create. But when his jet was shot down and he was visibly injured, did we require the locals to continue to treat him as a combatant and beat him up?

And then, what of non-combatant enemies? Never in my life have I witnessed ordinary Pakistanis abuse or humiliate Indian visitors. In fact, the feeling is often one of pride in having them visit us. What does that mean about how we see ordinary Indians; are they not our enemies? Or are the Indians we meet in Pakistan the ‘good ones’? This also begs another question: if we must teach India a lesson, are the ‘good’ Indians legitimate collateral damage in that battle?

This leads to the second, communal dimension of our enmity. Muslims and non-Muslims could not live together under a Hindu regime because they were fundamentally different — this is why we fought for and pried a separate homeland from the hands of colonial and Hindu forces who controlled the Indian subcontinent. But what does the same mean today, when there are more than 180 million Muslims in India and more than 4m Hindus in Pakistan?

The two-nation theory would lose its validity if it was meant to be constricted in time. Does it still apply today, when Muslims have a separate state? If so, how should we expect Muslims to be treated in India, and how should we treat non-Muslims (especially Hindus) in Pakistan?

The question of combatants and non-combatants, especially families, is especially troubling here. Of more than a billion Hindus in India, only a fraction includes active combatants against the state of Pakistan. Similarly, only a small fraction supports communal agendas that seek to target Muslims. In our construction of the enemy, are women, children, the elderly, and other non-combatants who have no wish to fight clubbed with Hindu militias and the state military?

Even more critically, we should introspect how the communal construction of enemies shapes our treatment of non-Muslim (specifically Hindu) Pakistanis. It is shameful that a provincial minister would use religion, instead of the state, to denigrate the enemy. The horror is amplified when we imply that Pakistani Hindus must demonstrate their allegiance to the country more vigorously than Muslim Pakistanis. The standards that we hold for Indian ministers and treatment of Muslims in India applies with greater vigour to our own ministers and our own populations before we apply them to the enemy.

Perhaps most telling in this entire saga is the question Abhinandan reportedly asked after he landed: am I in India or in Pakistan? The civilian population of the enemy was indistinguishable from his own, even to a trained enemy combatant. Maybe we should question the historical circumstances that led to the creation of our enmity, and in doing so try to identify who is actually responsible for leaving us in this position.

The writer is a PhD student in urban/regional planning at the University of Illinois. This opinion was published in Dawn on March 16, 2019 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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The Warfare State

March 6, 2019

By Anjum Altaf

Pakistan should be a welfare state. With millions of people straddling the poverty line, there is no other way forward. Those who believe the market will offer a solution are driven by ideology, blind fundamentalists in the same category as religious fundamentalists.

Only the state can cater for such destitution and the fact that a state has no interest or ability to do so does not mean that the task should be turned over to the market. The plain truth is that the market cares nothing for those without the ability to pay and there are many more in that category than should be acceptable. Not just that, without a strong state the market doesn’t trickle wealth down it siphons it up. The only viable alternative is to force the state to deliver on its responsibility and in the long run the only peaceful weapon citizens have to achieve that is the power of their votes. Let not this power be exhausted by either subverting it or ignoring its claims. The demand for bread can be fobbed off only so long with the promise of cakes.

We should pay heed to the fact that instead of moving towards a welfare state we are consciously turning into even more of a warfare state than we already happen to be. It is in this context that one should consider the most astounding decision of the cabinet delivered without any sense of irony by the Minister for Information at the time of the recent mini-budget: “The country’s defence budget is already low as compared to other states in the region, and therefore it should be increased.”

Hello, Mr. Minister. The country’s budget for everything else — health, education, public transport, environmental sanitation, you name it — is also already low as compared to other states in the region. So why just the privileging of defence? On the contrary, the budget for everything else is being reduced even further to make up for the increase.

The deficit is intended to be made up “through the generation of more revenue” but given that no elite has ever taxed itself voluntarily except under extreme duress, this burden of taxation is also likely to fall on the middle and lower classes through dubious withholding taxes on cell phones and the like.

In actual fact the deficit is being made up by scrounging around for a billion here and a billion there on terms that cannot be disclosed to citizens and by printing money like there is no tomorrow. All that the printed money is causing is inflation that is eroding the purchasing power of the helpless even further. I am sure the poor are ready to sacrifice for the nation but what does the interest of the nation entail? Is it always more guns at the cost of butter? And will the sacrifice ever be equitably shared or will one category continue to be evicted from tiny plots where they have lived for decades while others are allotted plots on which pets live better than the humans who feed them?

Where is the sense of irony in all this? Recall the out-of-the-box policy of some wizard in the Economic Advisory Committee who advocated a ban on imported cheese with the justification: “Does a country that has no foreign exchange afford to eat cheese?”

Hello, again, Mr. Jack-in-the-Box. Granted a country that has no foreign exchange ought not to eat imported cheese but can its leaders still afford to fly around in helicopters and ride in SUVs? Why doesn’t the cabinet set an example by getting to work on camels and setting up offices in tents instead of sprawling complexes with perpetual air-conditioning? And while they are demonstrating how people — all people — ought to be living in a country with no foreign  exchange, why don’t they turn off the hot water as well since that has now been declared a luxury in the New Pakistan?

Have we learned nothing from history? The Soviet Union collapsed ballooning its defence budget while making people wait in endless queues for the necessities of life. Countries that neglect the minimum welfare of their citizens and fight endless futile wars get hollowed out from within and ultimately implode. This insight was obvious even to a President like Reagan who was otherwise not a very bright man. All the US had to do was to engage the Soviet Union in an endless arms race and the latter ran out of space.

Modi is a much sharper politician and he is following the exact same strategy with Pakistan — no negotiations till the room for maneuver disappears. And we are blithely helping him along. When two countries are developing at radically different rates, every day that passes weakens the negotiating position of the laggard till the only recourse left is capitulation or the madness of mutual destruction.

Verily it is said that those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad. And when they wish to destroy completely, they make them madder still.

This opinion was published in Dawn on March 3, 2019 and is reproduced here with  permission. Anjum Altaf is the author of Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz published recently by Aakar Books, Delhi.

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Ali Baba and Robin Hood

November 21, 2018

By Anjum Altaf

Daniel Kahneman (2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics) has a lovely book called Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) in which he distinguishes between the two modes of thought. Fast thinking is instinctive and emotional and subject to many cognitive biases; slow thinking is deliberative and logical and much to be recommended when stakes are high and situations are unfamiliar.

In Pakistan, we have succumbed over time to fast thinking and the graver the situation the more instinctive and emotional the thought process tends to become.

It’s time to take a deep breath.

Look at the current situation which offers a surreal scenario of a major country reduced to a farcical contest between Ali Baba and his forty thieves on one side and Robin Hood and his merry men on the other. Ali Baba’s gang purportedly looted the people and got phenomenally rich under the protection of earlier kings while Robin Hood and his gang are vowing to get it all back to the poor with the support of the reigning monarchs.

Those with the luxury to enjoy the spectacle can let their imaginations roam and fill in the secondary characters of King Richard, Maid Marian and the Sheriff of Nottingham but the poor who have been looted and to whom the loot is to be putatively returned are paying a very heavy price for the fast thinking.

This fast thinking incorporates a number of biases. The Ali Baba-Robin Hood frame assumes that there is a fixed pot of money in the economy that has to be in one set of hands or the other; that nothing can be done till this money is recovered; that all those on one side are thieves while all those on the other are saints; and that the end of corruption is the precondition for development.

All these assumptions are flawed as even a cursory look at any real world economy would reveal. There is no country in which corruption has been completely uprooted and there are vibrant neighboring economies in which the size of scams is much bigger than those in Pakistan. Corruption exists in developed countries like Japan and Korea where prime ministers have gone to prison, as well as in China, India, and Bangladesh. Nowhere has life been put on hold till the end of corruption. China and India have been growing at unprecedented rates for extended periods and even the Bangladeshi economy is growing faster than Pakistan’s despite being rated more corrupt than the latter.

There is no argument that corruption is a problem to be addressed but it is also an ironic fact that its extent is often a good indicator of the size of the economy. Fast-thinking attempts to go after corruption can often strangle the economy or, like similar perennial attempts to purge prostitution, spread it even further into the interstices of society. Slow thinking would force one to balance the difficult choice between a fast growing economy with some corruption and a land of the pure that is mired in equitably shared poverty.  

It is also silly to posit that saints and sinners are distributed non-randomly in the world. Here we do not even have to look beyond our borders. How can it be when so many of Robin Hood’s merry men were earlier members of Ali Baba’s set of heartless thieves? And what does one make of the fact that our Ali Babas and Robin Hoods share the same set of ever-ready advisers, a phenomenon that would have been quite alien in Sherwood Forest.

Slower thinking would help absorb the reality that the primary task of any government dedicated to the welfare of the poor is to make the economy grow, even at the cost of some corruption, and to understand the concept of sunk costs and let bygones be bygones as the price of moving ahead. The biggest impediment to that realization is the obsession with purity, proving oneself holier than thou and chasing the mirage of hidden wealth and looted plunder. This instinctual urge to move money from one pocket to another, a corollary of fast thinking, is consuming precious time that should go into formulating policies to move the economy forward.

A deliberative stocktaking is also part of slower thinking. China and India both commenced their historic trajectories of rapid growth, in 1979 and 1991 respectively, following major innovations in their policy regimes. Neither owes its economic success and poverty alleviation to ending corruption, recovering looted wealth, or indiscriminate harrassing of non-filers of income tax in countries where vast majorities do not even earn enough to be liable for taxation.

All these are lessons that are there for the learning, preferably sooner than later, but it would be much more ominous if the fast thinking on display masks a lost ability to think slow in policy terms. If that turns out to be the case, the merry men would push the country over into a certain catastrophe.    

This opinion was published in Express-Tribune on November 16, 2018 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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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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