Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category

Some Reflections on the Nature of Economic, Social, and Political Change

December 20, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

[This is the text of the 16th Hamza Alavi Distinguished Lecture delivered in Karachi on December 16, 2017, under the auspices of the Irtiqa Institute for Social Sciences and the Hamza Alavi Foundation. The lecture was delivered in Urdu and does not follow the order of the formal written version. A video of the lecture is accessible at the Irtiqa Facebook page.]

An important strand of Hamza Alavi’s work was about change and the agency for change as attested by the two well-known hypotheses associated with his name – those of the middle peasantry (1965) and of the salariat (1987). I intend to use these as the point of departure to offer some tentative reflections on the nature of change and on the scenarios facing us today in Pakistan and more generally across the world.

Economics, the Importance of Rules, and Collective Agency

My own academic interest in the subject arose not with reference to politics or sociology but via a study of economics. In preparing for doctoral work, I was struck by the centrality of rules in our lives. Everything we do is governed by rules, some of which, such as those enforced by organizations and legislatures, are relatively short-lived, while others, like cultural norms, have comparatively longer lives. Any number of examples can be offered by way of illustration. The most obvious case of the application of rules to action is in the realm of games like chess, cricket and hockey. Industrial behaviour is circumscribed by laws pertaining to labour and the environment, commercial transactions by rules of taxation, social interactions by rules of inheritance and marriage, and history by rules of succession. Extending the argument, it is asserted that all institutions can be characterized as sets of rules that define and govern behaviour (North, 1990).

Once I realized the centrality of rules, it occurred to me that mainstream economic theory was limited in the way it incorporated this fact within its corpus. Recall that in the theory of the firm, for example, the highest virtue is efficiency. A producer is expected to maximize efficiency in the production process within the given set of rules applicable at the time. The last part, however, is left unstated and implicitly assumed as a datum.

I started my doctoral work abroad but my formative experiences had been in Pakistan and this conceptualization of the production process did not ring true to me. I was quite aware that producers in Pakistan cared little about efficiency while investing a lot of time and money in manipulating rules to their advantage. It was an easily observable fact that windfall gains, many times those resulting from being efficient, could be achieved by manipulation of rules. There were examples that I had experienced personally. Consider a rule change that made it mandatory for motorcycle riders to wear helmets. This could multiply the demand for helmets overnight increasing their price in the market. Consider another rule that would prohibit the import of helmets. That would yield another bonanza for domestic producers.

Given this fact, it was quite clear to me that rational economic agents would invest more in trying to change rules to their advantage than in being efficient within existing rules. It was also obvious that rules were not fixed but liable to change and often the object of conscious efforts intended to induce change and that one could differentiate various situations by the relative stability of their rule regimes (1). Based on these insights I set out to investigate how rules impacted economic behaviour by incorporating the rule regime explicitly into the theoretical framework of mainstream economics from which it had been excluded (Altaf, 1983).

A major conclusion followed immediately. The kind of rule changes mentioned above, e.g., mandating the use of helmets, cannot, in general, be engineered by any individual producer in the market. However, we encounter such rule changes quite often. This means that economic theory resting on methodological individualism, i.e., taking the individual as the unit of analysis, could not account for such dynamics. It needed to figure out a way to resolve this limitation.

But let us step back for a moment. Does the fact that an individual is unable to engineer a rule change imply that he or she has no agency? Not at all, because the individual always retains the agency to violate a rule, e.g., to not stop at a red light. The instances of individual firms violating safety and environmental rules are so flagrant that there is no need to belabor the point. Suffice it to say that the economics of cheating is a major area in its own right though not of primary importance for the subject of this discussion.

But consider the flip side – while individuals cannot change rules, groups can. In the realm of economics, these are lobbies associated with various industries like textiles, automobiles, healthcare, hedge funds, etc. Thus an economic theory desirous of incorporating the reality of rule changes would need to take the group as the unit of analysis – only then would something like the economics of lobbying become an integral part of the theory rather than an add-on.

Let us reiterate at this juncture the immense significance of rule changes. The point can be driven home vividly by reference to the mundane sport of hockey. Many people claim that just two rule changes – that of the playing surface from grass to Astroturf and the off-side rule – put paid to the dominance of subcontinental teams in favour of European and Australian ones. The changes lessened the importance of artistry and close ball control in favour of stamina and long passes in which Europeans had a comparative advantage.

In weightier domains, one can think of the differences over rules of political succession that were at the bottom of the schism in Islam right at the very outset. The inability to agree on rules of succession continued to plague Muslim empires throughout history – recall the fact that during the Mughal empire each successive emperor had to eliminate all his brothers to establish dominance. In our own times we see a recurrence of something similar in the emerging rift between Maryam Nawaz and Hamza Shahbaz – different sets of courtiers informing each of them that they are intended for the same role.

Here I would like to recall a fascinating hypothesis I heard first from the late G.M. Mehkri (Altaf, 2009a). He posed the question of why Muslims were the poorest community in India despite over a thousand years of Muslim rule. His speculation was that Muslims in India had persisted with a law of inheritance, one that was appropriate in a desert economy where reproducible assets like animals were the principal source of wealth, after migrating to an agricultural economy in which the principal source of wealth was land, a non-reproducible asset. He surmised further that the reason Memons, Khojas, and Bohras were more affluent amongst Muslim communities was because they had retained their caste laws of inheritance on conversion to Islam. While I am not in a position to validate these specific hypotheses, they do illustrate vividly the possibility of deep and long-lasting impact of rules and rule changes on society.

One of the extensions of this line of thought is the realization that some of the most important interactions in our world (‘games’ in the game-theoretic sense) are played not within given rules but over the rules that are to govern transactions. One needs only to think of global negotiations over rules of trade, intellectual property, and climate change to realize this vital truth. This opens up many issues that are of great interest, e.g., who has the power, authority and legitimacy to make rules, how do groups form and sustain themselves to challenge rules, how do groups opposed to each other interact in the struggle over rules, and what is the role of the rule-maker, often the state, in such struggles? Is the rule-maker a neutral umpire or an active player with interests of its own (2)? 

The bottom line of this argument for me was the following: that the relevant unit of analysis is the group (including the state as an identifiable group) and that groups are not averse to using all means, not just economic ones, to change rules in order to maximize their self interest. Even within the discipline of economics, restricting ourselves to Homo Economicus was to limit the analysis without adequate justification. Humans are really political animals – Zoon Politikon, in the characterization of Aristotle. Thus, for the phenomena that interested Hamza Alavi, economics, sociology and politics come together in a unified social science that sees history as the struggle over rules of games that are continuously played out amongst contending groups aiming to optimize their respective self interests.  

Consider in this light the motivations of Hamza Alavi’s middle peasantry and the salariat. At the conceptual level the characterization presented above would make sense quite independent of whether or not the groups were capable of effecting the changes attributed to them. Between the motivation and the ability there are intervening variables that we will address later in this discussion.

Provincializing Europe

Before doing so I would like to flag an issue that would hopefully nuance the discussion. This pertains to the default backdrop of Enlightenment Europe as an exemplar of the type of change we often implicitly have in mind with its salience regarding the rights of individuals – the transition to an age characterized by the transformation of subject to citizen along with corresponding notions of social contract, citizenship and civil rights. We need to remain aware that the European experience emerged out of the confluence of a very particular set of developments (Johnson, 1999) that need have almost no parallel in our part of the world. Differences matter even within the colonial context as Andre Beteille (2013) observed regarding the evolution of democracy:

“In both India and the United States (US) – unlike in England or France – democracy grew in response to the challenge of colonial rule, but the responses were not the same in the two cases. America was a new nation characterized by social conditions that were very different from the social conditions prevalent since time immemorial in India.”

Even the transformation of subject to citizen in Europe had a particular history modulated by the rise of capitalism. Marshall (1950), in a classic essay, has elaborated the peculiarity of the development in England of the civil, political and social dimensions of citizenship, in that order, each taking around one century to consolidate.

Marshall’s thesis on the sequential development of citizenship rights (Cohen, 2010) is embedded in the specificities of the emergence of capitalism in Europe with its imperatives to protect privacy (of property) and to promote individualism (to make labor a freely tradable commodity). The unintended outcome of these imperatives was the concession of civil rights extending the sanctity of property to the body of the worker, his or her primary asset. This concession of the equality of all bodies, in turn, led to a demand for political rights, an equal say in the election of political representatives. And the need to protect the capitalist system from the pressures for redistribution from below generated by the exercise of civil and political rights led to the progressive yielding of socioeconomic rights.

In the colonies, by contrast, political rights took precedence, being virtually gifted in the historical process, and are still significantly more legitimated than individual and civil rights. Khilnani (1997) observes that “most people in India had no idea of what exactly they had been given. Like the British empire it supplanted, India’s constitutional democracy was established in a fit of absent-mindedness.” Mehta (2003) adds that India’s democratic experiment “was not the object of ideological passion, it was not born of a deep sense of conviction widely shared, but it was simply the contingent outcome of the conflicts amongst India’s different elites, or an unintended by-product of the British having produced too many lawyers adept in the idioms of modern politics.”

Dr. Ambedkar (1949), the author of the Indian Constitution, was under no illusion regarding the nature of the evolution of rights in India: “In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?”

Teresa Caldeira (2000) has argued convincingly that scholars of “the history of the countries that invented the liberal-democratic model (France, England, and the United States)… have tended to generalize the history so that it becomes the history of the development of rights and discipline in general and the model of what citizenship and democracy should look like.”

“One of the effects of this generalization is to link certain elements as if they always occur together and in a certain sequence. Countries such as Brazil, but also others with different histories (usually colonial histories) and that today have disjunctive democracies force us to dissociate the elements of that history and to question their sequence. They force us to see the possibility of political citizenship without the control of violence, of a rule of law coexisting with police abuses, and of electoral democracies without civil rights or a legitimate justice system… Looking at these histories, we realize that what we think of as the norm – the European history of the control of violence and development of citizenship rights – is only one version of modernity, and probably not even the most common one. When we look at other histories we realize that multiple modernities are produced as different nations and peoples engage with various elements of the repertoire of modernity (monopoly of the use of force, citizenship, liberalism and so on).”

The European historical model of social change referred to above encapsulated what we can call a progressive expansion of the rights of individuals modulated by groups seeking to change rules to extract privileges from other groups standing in the way of their advancement. One can begin with the iconic example of the Magna Carta before progressing through social revolutions characterized by the rise of the bourgeoisie against the aristocracy, political evolution marked by the prolonged struggle of citizens to extend the electoral franchise, and economic amelioration exemplified by the efforts of workers for improved working conditions.

As opposed to the European experience modulated by the rise of capitalism and the politics of economic growth, there were no social revolutions in South Asia which moved from pre-modern to modern forms of governance, midwived by the British, with the same social classes remaining in charge and reinventing themselves in new roles. A more defining phenomenon in the colonies was the waning of imperial power and the politics of decline and economic scarcity in which dominant minorities struggled to safeguard the erosion of their privileges (3). In India after 1857, the British resorted to rule changes that would weaken the nationalist opposition by privileging the divisive salience of religion in governance. This threatened some segments of the Muslim aristocracy when governance inclined towards dependence on electoral representation. Suddenly numbers became a critical factor and the Muslim aristocracy, in turn, sought rule changes (like separate electorates and over-representation) that would protect its privileges despite its lesser numbers. In this framework, the failure to reach an agreement with the dominant community on the rules of the game resulted in the division of the subcontinent.

A similar pattern, but without a similar outcome, was repeated in Sri Lanka in the case of the Tamils and later in Pakistan with the erosion of the dominance of the Urdu-speaking group concentrated in urban Sindh, another phenomenon that was of interest to Hamza Alavi (1989). The point to keep in mind is that such rearguard movements to safeguard against the erosion of privileges, although of immense political significance, do not necessarily lead to progressive change in the rights of individuals. They can sometime, but not always, result in political fragmentation in which a smaller clone of the larger territory can exercise sovereignty within similar sets of rules.

This tendency is strengthened by the fact that civil rights remain weak in South Asia and the primary identity is not the acquired one of an individual citizen but that of subjects subscribing to ascriptive social affiliations related to religion, ethnicity, language, etc. The difference can be illustrated by reference to Marx’s appeal that formed the core of the European class struggle – “Workers of the World Unite.” While workers, an acquired identity, were not able to form coalitions across nations, they were able within nations to wrest many individual concessions encapsulated in rule changes like the length of the working day, minimum wage, unemployment insurance, etc. In the subcontinent, by contrast, the solidarity of workers was much more easily negated by the state’s recourse to divisive ascriptive affiliations of religion, ethnicity and language.

This situation, peculiar to our types of countries, has been formulated conceptually by Chatterjee (2001) in a recategorization of the population between a small civil society comprised of citizens motivated by individual rights and a large political society comprised of marginalized subjects motivated by the acquisition of collective rights. The argument is advanced that civil society has tended to align itself with the state while political society has struggled to find effective means to assert its numerical power.

The bottom line that emerges from this discussion is that in all cases there is a collective agency at play but the dynamics are very different depending on historical specificity. The changes in Enlightenment Europe were driven by the interests of rising economic powers in the context of the emergence of capitalism leading to progressive gains in a particular sequence in the rights of individual citizens. In most colonies, on the other hand, the driver of change was either rearguard action by privileged minorities to safeguard their entitlements or demands by marginalized subnational groups for collective rights leading to repression and/or political fragmentation.

It is of interest to note, if only in passing, the recent emergence of the politics of economic decline in the West consequent upon the playing out of the globalization of capital. One can see the election of Donald Trump in the US and the gains of far-right political parties in Europe in this light. The decision of the UK to quit the European Union also conforms to the predicted pattern.

By contrast, the prospects of progressive politics in present-day Pakistan seem to have faded over time. The labour movement has weakened considerably and while there are numerous disaffected groups in political society, their ability to form effective coalitions resistant to countervailing measures of the state is yet to be demonstrated.  

Here one must return to the salience of identity as a variable in the effectiveness of collective agency via the ability to craft coalitions united in a political struggle. A number of scholars (see Lilla, 2017) have noted that almost all politics in the West has now reduced itself to identity politics. But it may be this very factor that has resulted in the remarkable progress of some struggles that have overcome the barriers of co-existing primordial loyalties, the LGBTQ movement being the most recent example. The nature of the outcome is in some measure a result of the choice of identity that has traction in a particular situation, the choice arising (or being induced) because, as Amartya Sen (2006) has pointed out, identity is multidimensional. Recall that there were few takers for the concerns of the Muslim aristocracy in India till 1937 and it was only the projection of an arguably exaggerated existential threat to religious identity that gave momentum to the movement in the 1940s (4).

Prospects for Change in South Asia

What can one conclude about the prospects of change in Pakistan today? Given the nature of political society and the dominant markers of identity one can foresee the continued festering of demands for ethnic recognition and regional autonomy along lines we are familiar with in South Asia – demands of the Baloch, Seraiki and Hazara come readily to mind. These could be resolved in better or worse ways but are unlikely to proceed to the outcomes exemplified in the past by either Pakistan or Bangladesh for reasons articulated later.

As for progressive change, the prospects along stereotypical revolutionary lines appear slim.  However, there is an emerging perception that sees a different way forward in working with elements within political society (5). It has been noted that of the many disaffected groups in political society there are some, like trade and community associations, that have functioning democratic structures. A number of civil society activists are working with such associations to pressurize the state to deliver on the legitimate entitlements of the latter. Marginalized groups are vulnerable because they often have to break rules to engage the state, e.g., by encroaching on state land and then demanding the regularization of the status quo. But there are other rules defining legal entitlements that remain unimplemented. These pertain to benefits like overtime, disability pay, etc. that are evaded by employers and rights that are promised in the Constitution. The de jure representative state is forced into a delicate balancing game with such groups and it remains to be seen what will transpire if and when such movements threaten to shift the balance of power. It is still likely but not a priori inevitable that the state might be able to finesse these emerging coalitions by recourse to divisive primordial identities as it has in the past.

It is useful to highlight the existing and potential differences between contemporary Pakistan and India in the context of change. While India has also had its demands for regional autonomy they have been handled relatively better except for the states on the peripheries. Marginalized groups have achieved a measure of access to rights to education, employment, food, and information. However, the major difference could lie in the quest for social and civil rights. While one sees virtually no identity-based movements in Pakistan likely to lead to decisive progressive change, the same may not be true in India where one could plausibly envision an alternative scenario. The access to political rights via the vote and the existence of marginalized primordial caste-based identity groups (e.g., Dalits) with significant electoral power has resulted in the latter securing some economic rights through affirmative action to rise up the economic scale. These economic gains have yet to be translated into gains in social status and one can see a collective movement that could evolve in that direction in a period of continued economic growth. The recent surge of campus activism has encouraged the possibility of potential coalitions of such caste groups with more traditional factions of the Left in the struggle for civil rights.

As a necessary caveat one should note that in thinking of the prospects of change the influence of background events such as the Black Death, that hastened the end of feudalism, or the growth of capitalism in Europe cannot be ignored. Three major factors could be mentioned in the case of Pakistan. The first has been the safety valve of emigration out of the country – the actual numbers belie the psychological significance of the fact that till today both the elites and the marginalized have concentrated their efforts on trying to maximize their self-interest by leaving the country rather than fighting to change it (6).

The first academic paper I wrote (Altaf, 1982) articulated the likely political implications of this phenomenon. My conclusion was that “the process may well leave in its wake a newly arisen small-property owning class that could side more readily with narrow reaction than with progressive change.”

The second major factor, evolving under the radar as it were, is that of continuing urbanization. It could foreshadow a non-revolutionary model of change akin to that of Latin America where numerically significant urban middle-class groups demanding better access to essential services like water, power, health, and education were able to wrest concessions from the state and ultimately displace military rule with more representative governance.

The third factor is the displacement of labour from agriculture which would continue in Pakistan. In the absence of the kind of rapid economic growth that marked the Industrial Revolution in Europe or the later industrial transformations in East Asia, we might end up with a huge population parked in the never-never land between agriculture and industry. Given a demographic profile skewed towards the young, this disaffected population would be a potential agent for change but many doubt that its mobilization would be along progressive lines. Just thinking whether the ideology of the ‘revolution’ of such groups would be of the Right or the Left and whether it would be armed or not is sufficient to yield serious misgivings. A thought provoking dimension of such a prospect is the contemporaneous bankruptcy of ideas that might motivate a revolution in Pakistan today. When one thinks of the social revolutions of Europe, one is inspired by the intellectual debates of the times and the stature of the public intellectuals who participated in the debates. The entire foundation of the European Enlightenment emerged out of the contestation of ideas that are studied in academia to this day.

This thought leads me to highlight a seemingly unrelated fact – that almost all progressive change we have experienced in the world has been accompanied by a huge amount of literature in the form of treatises, novels and plays that have paved the way for the acceptance of change by the often subliminal projection of alternate realities (7). The latest example of that has been the phenomenal speed with which the LGBTQ movement has been accepted in the West by populations that were viscerally opposed to its demands on doctrinal grounds a mere few decades ago. The relative dearth of such literature in Pakistan means that a very powerful lubricant of progressive social change is missing (8). On the contrary, the hardening of regressive views continues apace (9).     

A Modest Conclusion

In conclusion, it does appear that we are in a bind. A social revolution is warranted but one can sense that the time for old-style social revolutions of the disenfranchised could well be gone; modern states have too much firepower, instruments of control, and technologies of rule at their disposal to be overthrown in the ways of the past – history rarely repeats itself like that (10). One can also sense that any revolution of the traditional types we are familiar with, in which one class upends all the rules of the game in one go, could easily end up as a horror story (11.

One can infer from this discussion that a major revolution occurred in the West with the transition of people from subjects to citizens. This transition, in turn, irrevocably altered the nature of the playing field on which future battles would be enacted. In brief, the terrain became rule oriented in which the rulers and the ruled were bound by legally protected rights and entitlements. All future changes would be marked by an struggle in this domain over the nature of rules that would be chosen to govern society.

A most vivid example of this phenomenon would be the evolution of capitalism itself. Instead of the outright overthrow of capitalists by workers, a much more gradual process followed in which workers extracted concessions one entitlement at a time. The end result, if one sees the Scandinavian countries as an exemplar, was the virtual attainment of the same quality of life of workers that was posited as an objective of the overthrow of capitalism by socialism.     

The situation in South Asia is complicated by the fact that, as Partha Chatterjee has conceptualized, society remains fragmented between subjects and citizens which means that the struggle for justice and a better quality of life would tend to be a composite of rights-based movements for change, insurrections of the kinds marked by the increasing frequency of dharnas, and more typical local modes of protest like fasts-to-death. Whether subjects and citizens, responding to quite different tensions in society, can unite in the struggle remains to be seen. Their fragmentation provides the major weapon to the ruling class to prolong the status quo via a strategy of divide-and-rule.

Given the above, it can be argued that the most optimistic scenario is for civil and political society coalitions to realize that in parallel with whatever else they may be doing, they cannot but gain by raising the stakes in a more pragmatic joint strategy focused on identifying rules for change that would yield benefits for all. It is not inconceivable that some of these, like those mentioned earlier in the context of hockey, while apparently innocuous could well trigger developments that tip the balance of forces over time. The myriad rules that go into forming the Constitution – recall that institutions are nothing but rules – could provide possible targets. As one example, changing the first-past-the-post rule for elections could well begin sending more responsive representatives into the legislature with a snowball effect (Altaf, 2008). Instead of allowing the state to insert ‘Sadiq and Ameen’ types of rules to manipulate developments to its advantage, coalitions could identify and struggle for non-controversial rule changes that could redound to their benefit.

This may sound like a less than heroic conclusion but it may be a pragmatic complementary approach and a worthwhile endeavour to be adopted in the given circumstances. It would be a decided improvement over either lamenting the existing state of affairs and giving up on the future or being dismissive of small but cumulative gains in the quest of a chimerical revolution.

End Notes

1. In the dissertation, I posited that rule regimes could be stabilized by the introduction of ‘meta-rules’, i.e., ‘rules to make rules’ that would procedurally be relatively more difficult to change.

2. The role of the state was another important strand in the work of Hamza Alavi (1972).

3. All the four theoretically possible scenarios – those resulting from economic growth and decline in developed and developing countries, respectively, are discussed in Altaf (1983). The socioeconomic processes likely to emanate from each are separately articulated.

4. Even then, not all Muslims subscribed to the position of the Muslim League (see Qasmi and Robb, 2017). For the strikingly different attitudes of Muslim women which were given short shrift in a patriarchal society, see (Altaf, 2015).

5. Private conversation with Sarwar Bari, Pattan Development Organization, 2017.

6. A theoretical formulation of this phenomenon is to be found in the celebrated ‘Exit, Voice, and Loyalty’ hypothesis of Hirschman (1970).

7. Note the salience accorded in the feminist movement to the writings of Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, Kate Millett, Shulamith Firestone, etc.

8. It is fascinating to speculate that genre might matter in this context – that genres like novels, plays, and films work on attitudes one mind at a time while poetry in a largely oral culture works on the collective psyche. Does the fact that we have a much greater output of poetry, intended to be heard not read, compared to the other genres signify anything in this context? I don’t feel competent enough to answer this question but leave it as a subject for discussion.

9. Based on limited information, my understanding is that a considerable quantity of such literature is now emerging in local Indian languages. It may also exist in local languages in Pakistan unknown to those not familiar with them. Also recall the Russian and Chinese literature that was relatively abundant in the early years of Pakistan.

10. Consider the trajectory of the Naxalite movement in India (Dey, 2017) and the ephemeral Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street Movement.

11. Along the lines of the Cambodian revolution which was initially welcomed by a number of leading intellectuals in the West. But note that in the popular conception the old style revolution remains dominant in Pakistan, kept alive in the imagination by our poets – see the classic ‘ham dekheN ge’ by Faiz immortalized by Iqbal Bano with its stirring lines “sab taaj uchaaley jaaeN ge / sab takht giraaey jaaeN ge (Kamal, 2006).


Alavi, Hamza, 1965. ‘Peasants and Revolutions,’ The Socialist Register.

Alavi, Hamza, 1972. ‘The State in Post-Colonial Societies: Pakistan and Bangladesh,’ New Left Review, I/74.

Alavi, Hamza, 1987. ‘Pakistan and Islam: Ethnicity and Ideology,’ in Fred Halliday and Hamza Alavi (eds), State and Ideology in the Middle East and Pakistan. Monthly Review Press, New York.

Alavi, Hamza, 1989. ‘Nationhood and the Nationalities in Pakistan,’ Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 24, No. 27.

Altaf, Mir Anjum, 1982. ‘The Political Implications of Migration from Pakistan: A Note,’ South Asia Bulletin, Vol. II, No. 2. Accessed at:

Altaf, Mir Anjum, 1983. The Strategic Implications of Varying Environments: Aspects of Decision-Making Under Instability, Unpublished PhD dissertation, Stanford University, Stanford, California.

Altaf, Mir Anjum, 2008. ‘Democracy in Japan – Electoral Rules Matter,’ The South Asian Idea Weblog. Accessed at:

Altaf, Mir Anjum, 2009a. ‘On the Poverty of Indian Muslims,’ The South Asian Idea Weblog. Accessed at:

Altaf, Mir Anjum, 2009b. ‘Justice, Power, and Truth,’ The South Asian Idea Weblog. Accessed at:

Altaf, Mir Anjum, 2015. ‘Muslim Women and the 1946 Elections in India,’ The South Asian Idea Weblog. Accessed at:

Ambedkar, Bhim Rao, 1949. Speech to the Indian Constituent Assembly. Accessed at:

Beteille, Andre, 2013. ‘The Varieties of Democracy,’ Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 48, No. 8, pp. 33-40.

Caldeira, Teresa, 2000. City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in Sao Paulo. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Chatterjee, Partha, 2001. ‘On Civil and Political Society in Postcolonial Democracies,’ in Civil Society: History and Possibilities, Sudipta Kaviraj and Sunil Khilnani, eds. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 165-178.

Cohen, Mitchell, 2010. ‘T.H. Marshall’s “Citizenship and Social Class”’, Dissent Magazine, Fall. Accessed at:

Dey, Debatra, K., 2017. ‘Contextualizing Five Decades of Naxalbari,’ Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 52, No. 42-43.

 Hirschman, Albert, O., 1970. Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Johnson, Ian, 1999. ‘On Hobbes’ Leviathan,’ accessed at:

Kamal, Daud, 2006. O City of Lights: Faiz Ahmed Faiz – Selected Poetry. Oxford University Press, Karachi. A rendition of the poem by Iqbal Bano can be accessed at:

Khilnani, Sunil, 1997. The Idea of India. Hamish Hamilton Ltd., London.

Lilla, Mark, 2017. The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics. HarperCollins, New York.

Marshall, Thomas Henry, 1950. ‘Citizenship and Social Class,’ in Inequality and Society, Jeff Manza and Michael Sauder, eds. (2009). W.W. Norton, New York. Accessed at

Mehta, Pratap Bhanu, 2003. The Burden of Democracy. Penguin Books, India.

North, Douglas, 1990. Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Qasmi, Ali Usman and Robb, Megan Eaton, eds., 2017. Muslims Against the Muslim League: Critiques of the Idea of Pakistan. Cambridge University Press, India.

Sen, Amartya, 2006. Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. W.W. Norton, New York.

Sen, Amartya, 2009. The Idea of Justice. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

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Partition, My Father, and His Wife

September 2, 2017

By Harbans Mukhia

I was born in 1937 or 38, in a tiny village in the Gujrat district of what is now Pakistan. No one, even in Pakistan, seems to have heard of the village Allaha, though it is on my passport to this day. Our home was a nondescript one – a one-and-a-half room structure on one side of a dusty street; on the other side was a tall, white mansion-like habitat with a weather cock on top, which fascinated us kids for hours.

We moved to Delhi before the Partition – perhaps sometime around 1941. My father responded to the Quit India call and was put in a Multan prison for six months. My mother passed away perhaps in 1943 or 44, leaving behind five young children. My eldest sister, then 12 or 13, was withdrawn from school to look after her siblings. She never held it against us when grew up and found our spaces in life.

A year or so before Partition, my father married his first cousin, his paternal uncle’s daughter, back in Allaha. The marriage procession consisted of the groom and his only son, me; the bidai procession added my new mother. It couldn’t have been simpler.

On August 2 or 3, 1947, my grandmother landed at our home in Delhi and suggested that she and my mother go back to the village and escort the rest of the extended family to Delhi, and bring with them whatever savings they had. Father was aghast at the suggestion and appealed to grandma to hold on for another 12-13 days. After independence – to which he seriously thought he had a personal claim – had been celebrated, he would go there himself, instead of two women going on such a tough mission. Even at this stage, they did not suspect any great mishap in the offing. Grandma insisted and father had to give in.

The two women left Delhi for Allaha. That was the last we ever heard about them. The members of the family they had gone out to rescue, however, found their way to Delhi. Father was heartbroken. Understandably.

Then an incident brought him some hope. He was lightly educated, but was always a stickler for reason and logic for understanding and explaining any phenomenon; God had no place in his scheme. One day, he was whiling away his time on the broad street in old Delhi then called Faiz Bazaar, now Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Road. A road show was on, where a boy lies on the floor “unconscious” and the master of the show keeps asking him about the problems facing members of the audience. Father was laughing away at the tamasha when suddenly the master asked the boy what his, father’s, problem was. To his great astonishment, the boy spelt out his wife’s name and announced that she was hiding in a building in our village, both of which he identified correctly without father even having to ask him to.

He was dumbstruck and his skepticism gave way to a faint hope – who knows, the boy might even be right. So he decided to take a chance. In around October, he travelled to Lahore and then on to the village. He was just short of six feet tall and, with a kullah (Afghani headgear), could easily pass off as Pathan. In Delhi, most of his friends in Darya Ganj, where we lived, were Muslims and he was familiar with their etiquette, besides knowing Urdu well. He faced no problem in looking up the particular building, but there was no trace of his young wife.

On his return, he wrote a short piece titled My visit to Pakistan, which was never published. But I remember some crucial parts of it. In Lahore he stayed with his Muslim friends from Faiz Bazar who had migrated to Pakistan. In the streets of Lahore, the real Pathans were shooting at street lights and in the air because there were no Hindus left to kill. His Muslim friends, who had given him shelter and support, risked their lives and properties for him. The slightest hint that they were knowingly hiding and supporting a kafir from India would give the Pathans the ‘legitimate’ right to wipe them out and plunder their house. But the truth remained with his hosts.

In the end, father couldn’t find his wife. But he was able to reaffirm the one faith he had: that as often as not, human relations override political, national and even religious dividing lines.

Harbans Mukhia is National Fellow, Indian Council of Historical Research. This memory was part of the Wire’s #PartitionAt70 series and was published there on August 15, 2017. It is reproduced with the author’s permission.

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Re-reads: The Merchant of Venice

August 7, 2017

By Kabir Altaf

In March 2017, a public prosecutor in Lahore, Pakistan, offered to acquit 42 Christian prisoners accused of murder if they converted to Islam. This prodded a re-reading of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, which also features a forced conversion—that of the Jewish moneylender, Shylock, to Christianity. 

Written between 1596 and 1599, The Merchant of Venice centers around Antonio (the titular character) and his financial dealings with Shylock. Antonio’s friend Bassanio needs money in order to woo Portia, a wealthy noblewoman. In order to raise this amount, Antonio asks Shylock for a loan of 3000 ducats. The moneylender agrees on the condition that if Antonio defaults on the loan, Shylock will be entitled to a pound of his flesh. Antonio accepts these terms, since he has several ships coming in to port soon. However, Antonio’s ships are wrecked and he is forced to default. Shylock then demands his bond. At this point, Portia disguises herself as a man and acts as Antonio’s lawyer. She cleverly uses the terms of the contract against Shylock, since the moneylender is entitled to a pound of flesh but not to a single drop of blood—making fulfilling the bond impossible. Shylock is then charged with attempting to murder a Venetian citizen–as a Jew, he does not count as a Venetian– and his estate is confiscated, with one half going to Antonio and one half to the state. Antonio then offers to renounce his half of the estate, on the condition that Shylock become a Christian. The moneylender has no choice but to accept.

Though the play is classified as a comedy, it is problematic for modern audiences. Post the Holocaust, it is difficult not to feel deeply uncomfortable with the anti-Semitic portrayal of Shylock as greedy and fixated on money. The fact that he is forced to abandon his religion also seems deeply unfair given contemporary global norms. This discomfort with the play has led some to call for its removal from school curricula and for it to be taken off the stage. However, a close examination of the play shows that Shylock is by no means a two-dimensional villain, unlike Barabas in Christopher Marlowe’s Jew of Malta (often thought to have inspired Shakespeare’s play).

Early in the play, when Antonio first asks Shylock for a loan, the moneylender recalls how the merchant has treated him:

You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Well then, it now appears you need my help:
Go to, then; you come to me, and you say
‘Shylock, we would have moneys:’ you say so;
You, that did void your rheum upon my beard
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
Over your threshold: moneys is your suit
Over your threshold: moneys is your suit

What should I say to you? Should I not say
‘Hath a dog money? is it possible
A cur can lend three thousand ducats?’ Or
Shall I bend low and in a bondman’s key,
With bated breath and whispering humbleness, Say this;
‘Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last;
You spurn’d me such a day; another time
You call’d me dog; and for these courtesies
I’ll lend you thus much moneys’? (Act 1, Scene 3)

Antonio routinely abuses Shylock, simply because of his religion. Yet now that he needs him, he has come to politely ask him for a loan. Shylock points out the merchant’s hypocrisy and asks why he should oblige him. Later, when he is asked what good Antonio’s flesh will do him, Shylock responds that it will serve as his revenge. In one of the play’s most famous speeches, he states:

Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction. (Act 3, Scene 1)

In this speech, Shylock argues that Jews are just as human as Christians and experience all the same sensations and emotions. Just as Christians seek revenge when they are wronged, he will do so as well. By having Shylock make this speech, Shakespeare humanizes him and gives him a motivation for his hatred of Antonio and his relentless pursuit of his bond. Shylock is not pure evil. Rather, he is driven to seek vengeance for the ill-treatment he has received from the majority group.

In addition to depicting Shylock as a three-dimensional character, Shakespeare also shows the faults of the Christian characters. For example, Portia is casually racist, rejecting one of her suitors, the Prince of Morocco, simply for being black. After the prince fails the test set by Portia’s father and leaves, she states “Let all of his complexion choose me so” (Act 2, Scene 7). This racism, though not uncommon in the sixteenth century, is certainly not a noble character trait.

In conclusion, The Merchant of Venice reflects the society that produced it—a society deeply hostile to religious and ethnic minorities. Such blatant prejudice is no longer acceptable in most of the world, though, as the incident in Lahore reminds us,

there are places where it unfortunately continues to exist. Modern audiences may find Shylock’s portrayal stereotypical and anti-Semitic, but it is important to remember that Shakespeare also provides the reasons for the moneylender’s desire for revenge. At the same time, it is true that a play that ends with a forced conversion cannot be said to be a comedy, at least in the view of twenty-first century audiences. However, removing the play from the stage is not the solution. Rather, students and audiences should engage with the play’s context through classroom and post-performance discussions.

Kabir Altaf graduated magna cum laude from George Washington University with a major in Dramatic Literature and a minor in Music. He is a freelance writer and editor.

[Editor’s Note: Re-reads is a new feature on The South Asian Idea in which readers reflect on literature to which they have returned after a period of time. We invite readers to submit reflections on their own favorites.]

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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: A Look into the Underbelly of Modern India

June 3, 2017

By Kabir Altaf

Ever since The God of Small Things was published to great acclaim in 1997, Arundhati Roy’s fans have been eagerly awaiting her next novel. It was a long wait—two decades—as Roy transitioned from being a novelist to being an activist and a non-fiction writer. Now, the wait has finally ended with the publication of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

The novel focuses on several characters, most of whom are outcasts from the new rising India. They include a hijra named Anjum, a Kashmiri separatist (or freedom fighter) named Musa and Tilottama, the Malayali woman who loves him. Over the course of the novel, these disparate characters encounter one another and their stories intersect, sometimes in surprising ways.

Much of the novel is set in the Kashmir Valley during the 1990s—at the height of the insurgency against the Indian state—viewed by many Kashmiris as an occupying force. Musa’s wife and daughter are killed in crossfire between the Indian Army and Kashmiri militants. Tilo herself is harshly interrogated by the Indian Army and is only let go because of her connections to an old college friend, who is high up in the Intelligence Bureau. In this section of the novel, Roy evocatively describes the brutality of life in Kashmir and the impact it has on those on both sides of the ideological struggle.

Those who have followed Roy’s non-fiction will find many resonances in this novel. Asides from the Kashmir conflict, the plot touches on rising Hindutva, the Maoist struggle in the forests of central India, and Dalit assertion against upper-caste violence. One consequence of such a large canvas is a certain fracturing of the narrative. For example, when the narrative moves to Kashmir, Anjum has to be abandoned in Delhi. Although Roy convincingly brings the characters together at the end, there is a sense of disconnect while reading the story.

At times, the overt political focus detracts from the literary quality of the novel. Roy seems less interested in portraying her characters’ inner feelings than in using them to develop a polemic against what she sees as the dark side of contemporary India—increasing religious intolerance, casteism, and human rights violations.

There is no inherent reason that such an intense political focus should detract from literary accomplishment. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance deal powerfully with subjects such as Partition and Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. Roy’s own The God of Small Things is equally political, focusing on inter-religious and inter-caste relationships as well as untouchability. However, in these novels the story is primary and the politics emerges organically from the plot. The characters are fully developed and one feels the authors are invested in their lives. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, in contrast, is much more polemical. The plot seems to be an excuse for Roy to express her ideas on the subjects that have consumed her for years. An ambitious and honest portrayal of the heart of darkness at the center of contemporary India, the novel is likely to underwhelm many readers who are not Ms. Roy’s devotees.

Kabir Altaf graduated magna cum laude from George Washington University with a major in Dramatic Literature and a minor in Music. He is a freelance writer and editor.

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Nowhere to Go

May 4, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

I am intrigued by the thought that for an ambitious youngster, passionate about the arts and with a compelling belief in himself or herself, there may be no place in Pakistan to run away to.

The thought occurred to me on reading the biography of Naushad, one of our great music directors. Born in Lucknow, he became fascinated with music early in life. Told by his father to choose between home and music Naushad ran away to Bombay at the age of 18. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Bombay of those times was the place to run away to for the passionate young. Naushad was not the only one. There were literally hundreds of others from cities as far away as Peshawar and Madras and towns and villages scattered across the subcontinent. It was a magnet not only for those interested in music but in dance, theater, films and writing – a mecca for aspiring artists whose talents and ambitions were either thwarted or had no prospects of fruition in the milieus in which they were born and raised.

Bombay was a magnet because it also had the ecosystem of peer groups, mentors and patrons in which a young runaway could hope to find a niche and be accommodated. Naushad, after sleeping on footpaths for a while, found Ustad Jhande Khan (himself from Gujranwala) who became a guide and a link to others who could recognize, appreciate and nurture a precocious talent.

Thinking along these lines brought home to me that such artistic meccas exist in many countries. New York City is the quintessential example. Reading the biographies of celebrated American artists one is struck by how many of them gravitated there from small towns, rural districts and depressed areas thousands of miles away and how the city provided the nourishment for their talents to be realized.

London, Paris and Vienna are well-known examples from other countries. It is cities like these that keep culture alive and vibrant within countries and serve as beacons of hope for those who feel the overpowering urge to become a part of that culture.

One might wish such ambitions to find nourishment for their fulfillment anywhere in a country but that is an impossibility because of the economies of scale and agglomeration. Much like clusters of industry there are clusters of the arts where nourishing ecosystems become established. Some countries have more than one. In the US, for example, one can consider New Orleans and Los Angeles in a similar light. Young people attracted to jazz head to New Orleans while those hoping to make it in the world of film are drawn to Los Angeles.

Does it matter that there is no such place for the young to run away to akistan? Is the artistic culture of the country being impoverished or not being rejuvenated sufficiently or being confined to those who have privileged access to it by being born in the right home in the right place?

Young men from Charsadda and Skardu and Turbat do move to Karachi for jobs but does one know of budding musicians or artists or actors heading there from similar places with a hope that a nurturing haven would be found in the metropolis.

Lahore could have been considered a mini-Bombay in the decades when it had its major film studios and the Pak Tea House as the abode of writers. But that seems no more the case. Even then, at the Tea House it was only local students who could become part of the intellectual circle. There is no evidence of a regular influx of outsiders turning up with burning ambition and the hope of learning enough to make a living from their passions.

I hope I am wrong and wish someone will identify such places in the country. Perhaps some shrines, especially in Sindh, serve a similar function though I wouldn’t put them in the same category as a place like New York where something new is always in the process of being born.

I am also sobered by the thought that over the last few decades places to run away to in Pakistan might have emerged for the young moved by religious fervor. Depending on preference they could head to Raiwind or Akora Khattak or Karachi with the knowledge that they would find a haven with refuge and nurturing.

Some of these havens have acquired international recognition and youngsters have started streaming to them from the far corners of the globe. In a sense they have attained the stature of the Paris between the two wars when it became the destination of choice for aspiring artists from the world over.

Could this be a reason that Pakistan has become known in the world as the center of Jihadi culture while its artistic evolution continues to shrivel?

This opinion appeared in Dawn on April 30, 2017 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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Sehwan, Sheema and Faiz

February 24, 2017

By Anjum Altaf


For Sheema Kermani – because she went


(After Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Aaj Bazaar meiN Pa ba JaullaN Chalo)

Unwept tears, inner torments
Hidden desires, silent accusations

Flaunt your fetters in the street
Arms aloft, enraptured, intoxicated
Disheveled, blood stained
Lovers are yearning for your love

Tyrant and crowd
Slings and stones
Sorrows and failures

Who else is left to love
But you
Who else is left to fight
But you
Who else is left to die
But you

Arise and go
For love’s honor



Sehwan is home to the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, a major sufi saint in Sindh, where a suicide bombing killed 88 devotees on February 16, 2017.

Sheema Kermani is a symbol of defiance in Pakistan as a dancer who has continued to perform in public all through the rise of fundamentalism and suppression. She went to the shrine to join the devotees on February 20.

The news story is here.

This poem appeared first on 3 Quarks Daily  on February 23, 2017 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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On Not Owning a House

January 5, 2016

Last week I attended a memorial service and was impressed by the event. It was in stark contrast to our ceremonial mourning which, in a footnote in the Arabian Nights, Sir Richard Burton characterizes as “the visits of condolence and so forth which are long and terribly wearisome in the Moslem east.” Instead, the event was intended as a celebration of the full life of the deceased.

Everyone in the audience who wished to offer a reflection was allowed time to do so and while none of them were truly inspiring, the purpose of sharing remembrances was fully served. There was, however, one recurring mention that finally began to strike me as incongruous – that the deceased had lived all his life in rented quarters, did not own a house, and had not accumulated any riches.

I too had known the individual and was a member of the fan club having admired him immensely for his breadth of knowledge, his passion for the arts, his commitment to perfection, and his dedication to the highest ideals of humanity. I did not know whether he had owned a house or not nor had it occurred to me that it was a piece of information relevant to my evaluation of his contribution.

The repeated mention of this fact at the memorial service forced me to rethink this opinion. Why was not owning a house considered such a badge of honor in our society? Did it imply that there was something the matter with those who did own houses? If so, why, and for what reason?

To my mind, this was a personal decision. After all, living in a rented house does not come free – one pays in rent what one would have paid in interest on the loan required to purchase a house. If calculated right, the lifetime cost of renting a house would end up higher than that of owning one. The personal decision could stem from any number of reasons including the very plausible one in the case of the deceased that individuals like him could not take away time from their passions for the mundane necessities of everyday life.

It is true that in our economy, without a well-developed institution for housing finance, the lump-sum required to acquire or build a house is a formidable barrier for many but I really doubt this was the determining reason for the deceased. And so, the implication that not owing a house was somehow an indicator of honesty and integrity struck me as misplaced. It was simply a personal choice and ought to be left at that.

It is nevertheless true that in every society there are individuals who have acquired assets by unfair means. Some have built houses with those riches while others have consumed them differently. It is also true that the prevalence of unfair acquisition seems to have increased over time. Still, it does not follow that all those who have built houses are tainted and guilty of some malpractice or the other. Nor, in a country in which over the half the population is poor and without financial assets, can it imply that all such individuals are paragons of moral uprightness.

Two aspects of this conflation, one general the other personal, struck me in particular. First, looking around at the audience, I saw many who owned houses applauding the mention of non-ownership of a house by the deceased. I was aware that some of them owned more than one house and that a few of the houses were so extensive that it would take a fair number of hours to walk through them from end to end. I couldn’t quite figure out what exactly was the motivation for their applause except that it was being joined ritualistically without really thinking through the subtext.

Second, at a personal level, I was surprised to observe that what was deemed a mark of honor for the dead was not considered so for the living. I saw applauding vigorously people who had been castigating me for decades for not owning a house. I recalled all the names I had been called and all the character defects attributed to me for being so callous as to deprive my family of a home. I must admit that in my case there was no very noble reason for this choice. Rather, it was a combination of procrastination and a fearful inability to deal with the transactional nature of life.

Be that as it may, we had arrived at the point where I had acquiesced in the judgement of my massive failure as a human being, the immense stupidity of my intellect, and the sheer callousness of my neglect of those unfortunate enough to have become dependent on me. All the misfortunes of life it seems stemmed from that brick not laid – a huge burden to carry for any one individual. Day and night now I was haunted by just one prayer – give me a house or give me death.

In that sense, the memorial service offered a flicker of hope. Forgiveness, it seems, does accompany death – a bit too late to savor but something to anticipate with relief.

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The Remove

July 4, 2015

By Zulfikar Ghose

The Sikh from Ambala in East Punjab,
India, formerly in the British Empire,
the Muslim from Sialkot in West Punjab,
Pakistan, formerly British India,
the Sikh boy and the Muslim boy are two
of twenty such Sikhs and Muslims
from East Punjab and West Punjab, which
formerly were the Punjab,
standing together in assembly, fearfully
miming the words of a Christian hymn.

Later, their firework voices explode
in Punjabi until Mr Iqbal –
which can be a Sikh name or a Muslim name,
Mohammed Iqbal or Iqbal Singh
who comes from Jullundur in East Punjab
but near enough to the border to be almost
West Punjab, who is an expert in
the archaic intonations of the Raj,
until the three-piece suited Mr Iqbal
gives a stiff-collared voice to his
Punjabi command to shut their thick wet
lips on the scattering sparks of their
white Secondary Modern teeth.

Mr Iqbal has come to London to teach
English to Punjabi Sikhs and Muslims
and has pinned up in his class pictures
of Gandhi and Jinnah, Nehru and Ayub
in case the parents come to ask in Punjabi
how the kids are doing in English.

And so: twenty years after
the Union Jack came down on Delhi
and the Punjab became East Punjab and
West Punjab and the Sikhs did not like it
and the Muslims did not like the Sikhs
not liking it and they killed each other
not by the hundred nor by the thousand
but by the hundred thousand, here then
is Mr Iqbal with his remove class of
twenty Punjabis, some Sikh and some Muslim,
in a Secondary Modern School in London,
all of them trying to learn English.

Back home the fastidious guardians of freedom,
the Sikh army and the Muslim army, convinced
that East is East and West is West etcetera,
periodically accuse each other of aggression.

First published in The Violent West (Macmillan, London, 1972) and reproduced here with the generous permission of the author.

I find this among the most poignant commentaries on the partition of India after reading which nothing is left to be said.

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Beyond Grief

January 31, 2015

By Anjum Altaf in Economic and Political Weekly

If grief were cumulative we would have been crushed under its weight by now. Not that one wishes it so. I would go as far as to say that grief should not become a permanent burden.

Therefore I have mixed feelings when I hear the young at vigils vowing never to forget. How much can they remember and what will come of all this remembering?

I feel fortunate we can regroup because only then do we have the strength to act – that is, if we wish to and know how.

Grief has power because it binds us together, gives collective voice to our outrage, and infuses in us the desire to fight back. But the outrage should avoid being channeled into feelings of anger or vengeance. Grief born of violence begetting yet more violence traps us in an endless cycle. It is too easy in that it asks nothing meaningful of us.

Grief will not undo anything but something beyond grief might break the chain of tragedies that have come to dominate our lives. Grief is not the end of reckoning; it can only be the beginning of a quest to bring honor to the lives that have been lost.

Our collective outrage needs to be transformative, leading first and foremost to reflection and a dialogue with ourselves. Now, more than ever, we need to reflect on the nature of violence, its place in our lives, and in our society.

I worry when I see cries for vengeful action. They suggest we are not really opposed to violence, just to violence by people we don’t like. Given a chance to inflict it ourselves, we would have no qualms if we felt it was needed for the success of our cause. Every cause has its adherents and believers and therein lie the seeds of strife without end.

It seems that violence is deeply embedded in our psyches. Otherwise reasonable people have little hesitation in wanting to make examples of those they disapprove of – stringing people upside down or lining them against a wall to be shot are commonplace off-the-cuff recommendations.

This easy relationship with violence stems from our lack of regard for civil rights, a notion that seems remarkably foreign to us. We have not yet come to terms with the fact that every individual, even one accused of a crime, has, or ought to have, a modicum of civil rights. Persons accused and convicted of wrongs can only be assigned penalties commensurate with their transgressions. They cannot be made ‘horrible’ examples to deter others from committing crimes and we cannot cheer or rejoice in such spectacles.

But it seems we believe very strongly in the redemptive power of punishment and in the locus of human body as the most appropriate site for that punishment. This is quite obvious in the way we deal with women who defy patriarchal norms, in the fashion we discipline children who displease parents, in the manner we reprimand administrative staff in offices, and in how we berate servants in the home. Verbal or physical abuse is considered necessary to keep ‘them’ in their place – ‘them’ being anyone who deigns to defy our desires.

We will not be able to limit violence till we internalize the norm of individual civil rights and accept the sanctity of the human body. The other’s body is off-limits, at all times, and under all circumstances except with consent or when the law sanctions the contrary in self-defense. The temptation to punish all those we don’t like needs to be purged. That we can oppose but not eliminate is a profound lesson that remains to be learnt in our social and political lives.

We will also not be able to limit violence till we come to terms with the fact that there are no ‘others,’ that every human life is equally valuable and equally inviolate. I am saddened to recall that December 16 marks another tragedy in which the lives of students were also extinguished in just as evil a manner in a university in another part of our country. On our side, there was very little grief, not enough condemnation, and no reflection whatsoever.

Why? If our reflection can force us to honestly answer that question today, we will have taken a small step towards a less violent society.

Anjum Altaf is the provost at Habib University. This reflection appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly on January 24, 2015 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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Honour and Ignore

November 6, 2014

By Hasan Altaf in Economic and Political Weekly

Excerpts – The complete article is here.

A Pakistani winning a Nobel Prize: This year, Malala Yousafzai has entered a very select club. There’s only one other member. Amid all the celebration of this achievement, his story should be remembered now, for the warning it offers to the Nobel committee, the optimistic international community, the hard-working activists, the Twitter-happy politicians, and all those hopeful schoolgirls cutting cakes in Mingora. It might, on the other hand, provide some comfort to those who are unhappy with the decision.


In the meantime, though: Yousafzai still cannot return safely to the country rushing to bask in her aura. Her book remains banned by many institutions. The Government of Pakistan spends less than almost any other in the world on the education of its children. Its legal, political, cultural and social systems continue to denigrate, weaken, and humiliate women at almost every turn. In court, a woman’s testimony is not granted the same weight as a man’s; only one province has even introduced legislation regarding domestic violence; Pakistan is the second-worst country in the world in terms of gender disparity. As they did with Dr Salam, the government and society can take pride in their new laureate, celebrate, and then put her on a shelf and move on.


Pakistan needs hope, in spades, but seems to have forgotten that it is a tool. Instead, Pakistan treats hope as lucre: The temptation is just to get it, hoard it, maybe put it on a stamp. In this country, hope is what you collect to insulate yourself from everything else in Pandora’s box. It is becoming a commodity as invaluable and expensive as a generator in a country where utility companies are notorious failures; you have to be able to flip your own switch. The Nobel is, for Yousafzai, an honour; a Nobel for Yousafzai is, for Pakistan, just another shipment of fuel. It’ll keep the lights on a little while longer.

This comment appeared in Economic and Political Weekly on November 1, 2014.

Hasan Altaf is a writer currently based in Lahore whose work has appeared in Guernica, Dawn and Seminar.

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