Archive for the ‘South Asia’ Category

A South Asian Eid

June 15, 2018

Lord Krishna sighting the Eid moon and pointing it out to a group of Muslim men and women.

Reproduction of an 18th century Rajasthan miniature.

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The Economics of Culture

October 22, 2014

By Anjum Altaf

I doubt anyone would guess right if a quiz master were to ask what Britain’s leading export was in 1997. The surprising answer: The Spice Girls, through sales of their music, attendance at their film, and related merchandising.

This confirms that culture is big business. In the same year, the US economy produced over $400 billion worth of books, films, music, TV programmes and other copyrighted products and this category emerged as the leading export for the US as well. Not only that, the sector is growing rapidly, between two to three times as fast as the overall economies in developed countries.

East Asian countries which grew by leaps and bounds during the last quarter century on the strength of low-cost manufacturing have noticed this phenomenon in their search for diversification. Almost all of them are investing heavily in promoting their own cultural output as well as in providing lower-cost facilities for the making of cultural products. Entire digital multi-media cities are being set up in a number of locations including Kuala Lumpur, Seoul, Hong Kong and Singapore with Shanghai not far behind. The Indian movie industry has started to attract external capital and looks set to follow software as a global player.

All this is a preamble to highlight an undiscovered and under-exploited source of economic growth and to motivate a discussion of what we might be doing in Pakistan. Clearly we ought to re-examine culture not as a luxury but as a source of economic growth and employment creation. The market is extensive. There is a very large South Asian diaspora with adequate purchasing power. In addition, South Asian culture is continually making inroads in Western markets building on the breakthrough provided by Ravi Shankar: just in the last year, Lagaan was nominated for an Oscar, Bombay Dreams opened on West End, Moulin Rouge paid tribute to Bollywood, and Ashwariya Rai made the cover of Time magazine. Then there is a very large Indian market itself waiting to be tapped. Just to look at one dimension: there is a ghazal craze in India and artists of the calibre of Mehdi Hasan, Ghulam Ali, Fareeda Khanum and Iqbal Bano can sweep that market repeatedly with ease.

The possibilities are manifold. However, on the negative side, we have not only failed to tap these markets in the past, we have allowed our cultural heritage to decay to an extent that we may not be able to exploit the markets when they do open up and we realise their potential. Some examples are obvious and cannot be disputed. Thus, there are no comparable replacements for Roshan Ara Begum or for Ustads Amanat Ali Khan-Fateh Ali Khan, Nazakat Ali Khan-Salamat Ali Khan, Shareef Khan Poonchwaley, Shaukat Hussain Khan, and Bundoo Khan.

It is incorrect to argue that this is so because there is no demand for classical music. We have failed to reproduce this asset base out of sheer neglect and callousness. Musical trends among the youth are no different in India yet Ustad Allah Rakha has been followed by Zakir Hussain, Ustad Vilayat Ali Khan by Shahid Parvez, and Ustad Nisar Hussain Khan by Rashid Khan, to give just a few examples. The number of exciting new stars moving up the ranks is very large. The contribution of the Indian Tobacco Company in setting up the Sangeet Research Academy in Calcutta is an eye-opener (for details see

But even if we accept that classical music is dead in Pakistan, if only for the sake of argument, we cannot say the same for the ghazal which remains immensely popular. Yet, even here we have not been able to reproduce and replace artists of the calibre of Mehdi Hasan, Fareeda Khanum and Iqbal Bano. Nor is there the semblance of a replacement for Nur Jehan Begum on the horizon.

The reason can be very simple. These artists were truly great because they had a firm grounding in classical music. New singers often have equally good voices but it is easy to tell that their sense of pitch and rhythm is nowhere the same. They can imitate some of the songs of the greats very well but whenever they sing something original their weak foundations are exposed immediately. Inadequately trained artists would survive in the home market but would find it very difficult to make a mark in a much more discriminating global one.

Given the extent of the neglect and decline, it is obvious that Pakistan cannot jump into the forefront of the market for cultural products. But a realisation that such a market exists can provide a motivation for actions that will not only reverse the decline but likely generate other positive externalities as well.

In this context, we need to remind ourselves that the value of culture extends beyond economics, something we were aware of but have seemingly forgotten. Just one Ravi Shankar has created more goodwill for India than hundreds of paid publicists could ever hope to deliver. At a time when a very negative image of the country has to be overcome, the role of culture in presenting an alternative image cannot be overlooked. Globally recognised cultural icons like Abida Parween, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, Naheed Siddiqui, Ustad Raees Khan, and Zia Moheyuddin (to name, in alphabetical order, a few of the ones who are still with us) have the power to create positive emotional resonance for a country in search of a new image.

This article can be concluded with another little-known fact. The best-selling poet in the US is Rumi in translation. This is another indicator of the surprising nature of global demand. Yet, none of the great Sufi poets from our region have been translated or marketed in a manner which caters to the global market. Is that really an impossible task? I don’t believe it is and in a follow-up article I will present for discussion a modest proposal for the revival of the arts in Pakistan.

Anjum Altaf is provost of Habib University in Karachi. This op-ed appeared in the Daily Times on 9 February 2004 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission because of a renewed interest in the economics of culture.

Can India Learn From Its Neighbours?

August 23, 2013

By Sakuntala Narasimhan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Feminism and Violence: The Short and the Long

March 20, 2013

By Anjum Altaf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


More on Violence in South Asia and the Great Jihad

March 10, 2013

By Anjum Altaf

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

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

Why is South Asia So Violent?

February 17, 2013

Trying to Make Sense in Lahore of a Rape in Delhi

By Anjum Altaf

A very high level of social violence is endemic in South Asia, so high it is invisible at most times. We see it only when the peculiarity of specific incidents throws it into sharp relief. Much hand wringing follows treating the incident as an aberration, blaming it on this or that, missing the truth by a mile, remaining as blind as ever.

The rape in Delhi is the latest such incident and we have explanations ranging from patriarchy, commoditization of the female body, decline of morals, jobs lost by unemployed men, and the like. But all these exist or have transpired elsewhere without the same kind of fallout. What we need to focus on and explain is the high level of social violence in general – there is one reported rape every 22 minutes in India and Delhi is becoming infamous as the rape capital of the world.

What we are talking of here is not ideological or political violence but structural violence built into the patterns of everyday life – the type of violence that people in positions of political, social and moral authority have to be pushed to react to. What accounts for this structural violence in South Asia?

My explanation turns on the selection of comparators. Is South Asia today more violent than the American South at the time of the slave economy or Europe in the age of serfdom? I would argue not, leaving to the reader the burden of looking up the extent and type of social violence that was the fate of slaves and serfs, men, women and children, in those times.

If South Asia is not any more socially violent than the comparator societies I have mentioned then it must share some societal attribute with them. And, indeed, it does. That attribute is the stark inequality in the distribution of power, the existence of a deeply hierarchical social formation in which whatever laws exist are designed by the powerful to maintain their power over the powerless. Recall, that in the American South it was a crime for a slave to learn to read or write.

I grant this may be hard to concede for some but bear with me. Walk with me into any upper or upper middle class South Asian home and watch the transformation in the bearing of the lord and lady of the house. The most polite couples amongst peers at the club would interact with the domestic servants in a completely different manner. It would be as if they had not contracted with but owned the latter. Yes, they would be most kind at times, taking care of the extended family if need be, but also violent and abusive and exploitative as a matter of course and entitlement. Little master, all of fifteen years old, home on vacation from school in England, would yell at a sixty-year old orderly to shut up and get out of the house with nary a contrary word from the parents.

All this is not confined within the borders of South Asia itself. Abuse of domestic staff, sexual, physical and financial, is not unheard of in homes of South Asian diplomats and bureaucrats in the most developed capitals of the world. This structural violence stems from the sense of privilege and entitlement that accompanies growing up powerful in deeply hierarchical societies.

There is a tremendous amount of accumulated, pent up violence in such societies that manifests itself in individual incidents so numerous that they become part of the pattern of everyday life – did anyone really care how many slave women were raped every day or slave men lynched or how many young girls the lord of the manor took to bed in France?

This level of violence remains a part of life in hierarchical societies till it is squeezed out by some cathartic readjustment of power – the Civil War in America or the social revolutions in Europe, for example. Once the vertical divisions of society have been leveled by the movements for social equality, and laws are much less an instrument of the powerful for the domination of the powerless, the prevalence of structural violence is drastically diminished. Not that it disappears altogether – the Dominique Strauss Kahn’s remain as a reminder of what life must have been like in those earlier times.

There has been no such cathartic squeezing out of structural violence in South Asia – the deep hierarchical divisions just wear the façade of representative systems. South Asia is perhaps the most socially divided region in the world today and within South Asia India has to contend with divisions not just of class but also of caste.

It is no surprise that representative political systems in South Asia do as little as possible to mitigate the cruelties and injustices of structural violence. The power of the vote, diminished by the power of money, provides only slow inroads into the bastions of privilege and generates its own frustrations both for those who sense a loss and those impatient for the gains. No doubt these frustrations and the ills of consumerism have added to the incidents of social violence – the frequency of rapes in India has been increasing over the years – but the additions have built upon a very high and unremarked base level.

The road to social justice for all in South Asia is going to be long and tortured. The power of the law has to be wrested from the powerful. And many of those unaffected by the violence have to break rank by reflecting on how they may be contributing to it without actually doing any wrong themselves. There are some hopeful, albeit very partial, signs of progress from India.

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


What Kind of Revolution Do We Need in South Asia?

June 21, 2012

The peculiar thing about South Asia is that it has not had a social revolution. Compare it with Europe or Russia or China where feudal, monarchical or other pre-modern forms of governance were swept away to be replaced by new ruling classes. Social revolutions preceded modern forms of governance, democratic or autocratic. South Asia moved from pre-modern to modern forms of governance, midwifed by the British, but the same social class remained in charge reinventing itself in new roles.

What are the implications of South Asia skipping a social revolution? For one, our forms of governance are modern only in appearance; their spirit remains essentially unchanged. For evidence, look at the amazing prevalence of dynastic rule across the region, from the upper echelons down to the composition of the subnational assemblies. The ethos of the region remains distinctly monarchical, both for the rulers and the ruled, with the latter now legitimizing the dynasties through the free exercise of their votes. (more…)

Brown as the Mouths of Rivers

May 9, 2012

By Hasan Altaf

Excerpts from an essay published in a special issue (A Country of Our Own – A Symposium on Re-Imagining South Asia) of Seminar, India, April 2012.


A nation cannot grow in entirely barren ground, however, and so in Pakistan we have attempted to replace “South Asia” with “Islam”: to substitute for culture, religion, in theory a straight one-to-one transfer. There is no space for chaos here, either, though; the Islam we choose to imagine is monolithic, straight-from-the-sands, brooking-no-argument; it ignores the vast diversity even among our Islams, let alone all our religions and cultures, and says that in the interests of simplicity, order, there will only be one, there has always been only one right way to go about this business.

Once again, it was the Met that put things in context. (more…)

South Asia: In Search of Roots

January 21, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

There are two theses about South Asia that I keep returning to often and feel strongly about – that democracy is alien to South Asia and that the British period was epiphenomenal. But I haven’t been able to bring the two together to my satisfaction. Oddly enough, it was a column on mathematics (Finding Your Roots) that suggested a way out of the quandary. In hindsight, it doesn’t seem all that odd; what I needed was a different paradigm, a new way of looking at my problem.

Let me first lay out the two theses. The claim that democracy is alien to South Asia was articulated clearly and early by Dr. Ambedkar and I have quoted him frequently to that effect: “Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic” and “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.”

The claim that the British period was epiphenomenal (an epiphenomenon being a secondary phenomenon that occurs alongside or in parallel to a primary phenomenon) is supported by the evidence. In Dr. Ambedkar’s analogy, one could say the Indian soil is reclaiming its place and the top-dressing is becoming thinner by the day.

In order to push my understanding of South Asia, I have kept resorting to a thought experiment. Suppose an interlocutor, with no prior knowledge of the region but familiar with European history, were to ask me to convey the essence or capture the ethos of the region in one or two descriptors, what descriptors would I choose?

Let me restrict the discussion to India for the moment simply to retain the focus on the issue of interest. Would I say ‘India is a democracy’ and assume that the interlocutor would be able to imagine a fair picture? Or would I choose the descriptor ‘secular’ and hope that the image that would form after passing through the interlocutor’s mental filter would be an accurate one?

I believe there would be agreement that these would not be the best descriptors.  If I said instead that ‘India is hierarchical’ the interlocutor might infer a better sense of the foundations of Indian society. This would capture Dr. Ambedkar’s description that “by reason of our social and economic structure, [we] continue to deny the principle of one man one value.”

If I added to that by saying that ‘India is religious’ and ‘India is dynastic,’ the interlocutor’s overlays on the foundation would also be accurate. Caste and religion based elections would corroborate the first claim and he/she could crosscheck the second by looking up a research site that showed, among other interesting facts, that every member of the lower house of the Indian parliament under the age of 30 has inherited his or her seat.

So far there is not much new in what I have said. All I have done is to buttress my claim that one would get the most accurate conception of India (indeed of South Asia as a whole) if one were to use the image of a religious hereditary monarchy as one’s starting point. The situation has evolved, of course, but this still remains the best starting point for the kind of interlocutor I introduced in the thought experiment. He/she would be able to refer to the knowledge of the religious hereditary monarchies of Europe and understand South Asia better than if the starting point had been a secular and democratic republic.

Anyone who knows South Asia well knows that the people’s representatives think of themselves as monarchs; that bureaucrats fawn over the representatives much as courtiers would fawn over monarchs; that well-off citizens respond to any attempt at accountability with the retort ‘Do you know who I am?’; and that the rest, the vast majority, think of themselves as subjects in a mai-baap culture, leaving their fate to the benevolence of the lords and at the mercy of a transcendent power.

The insight that is new to me, and that I credit to the article on mathematics, relates to an understanding of the path that we have followed since the departure of the British. For example, the database on dynastic politics mentioned above shows that only 18 percent of the members of parliament over 50 years in age had inherited their seats. The percentage rises to 47 for those below the age of 50 and to 100 percent for those below 30. So it is clear that the aristocratic system based on heredity that the British had displaced is reasserting itself – the Indian soil is pushing aside the British top-dressing; the primary phenomenon is reasserting its primacy over the epiphenomenon.

How do we understand this trajectory? In the paradigm suggested by the article on mathematics, we can think of India as a very complex system of equations. But every system of equations, no matter how complex, has a solution – in mathematical terms, a ‘root’ (of which there can be more than one). In the context of our discussion, the ‘root’ we are looking for is the true ethos, the best descriptor, of Indian society.

Let me illustrate this idea with the simplest of examples. Take the equation 3y = 21. This is easy to solve analytically; we know that the value of the unknown variable y that ‘solves’ this equation is 7.  In mathematical terms 7 is the root of the equation.

Now there are other, brute force, methods of solving equations because most equations are not this simple and are solved by machines using algorithms which are iterative processes following simple rules. Let me illustrate a brute force method for this simple equation to be employed by a dumb machine that had no prior idea of what the true root might be.

The machine can begin the solution process by choosing an arbitrary root, say 1. It will substitute 1 for y in the equation and derive the result 3 = 21. This is clearly not true. Next, the machine will note that 3 is less than 21 and infer that the value of y needs to be increased to make the two sides equal. In the next iteration, it will increment y by a fixed amount (say 0.5) and repeat the process. After a certain number of iterations the two sides of the equation would balance (21 = 21) and the machine would (triumphantly) flash the message that the true root of the equation was 7.

Now here is how I employ this paradigm. Let us keep thinking of India as the simple equation 3y = 21 (in reality it is better thought of as a complex system of non-linear equations but we don’t need to venture there). Before the British arrived everyone knew what the system was like (it was what Dr. Ambedkar characterized as the Indian ‘soil’). The ‘root’ of this system was 7. The British didn’t think much of this system; they wished it to be in the image of their ‘superior’ system – they wished to create an Indian system whose root were 1.

Now two things could have happened following the British transplant. Either the graft would have been so attractive that the system would have realigned around it and transformed into one whose  root was truly 1 (the top-dressing would take root); or the newly imposed solution would trend inevitably towards the true root (the soil would reassert itself and reject the graft). Clearly, the British had hoped for the first outcome. This was what Macaulay had in mind when he had said: “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” The outcome was less certain in Dr. Ambedkar’s mind – he finished his thought, quoted above, with the question: “How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?”

The ‘life of contradictions’ had to resolve itself one way or the other. With the benefit of hindsight we should know quite clearly the direction in which it has evolved – the drift has been towards the status quo ante, most clearly in the smaller countries in South Asia and least obviously in India which has retained the form while shedding the content.

Needless to say, things never go back to exactly where they were after a system is subjected to a shock – this we know from another concept (hysteresis) in physics. The different countries in South Asia have all followed varying trajectories and moved at different speeds in the drift towards their roots depending upon intervening events, rates of economic growth, and the quality of leadership, etc.

But notwithstanding these variations, the fact remains that a ‘religious hereditary monarchy’ remains a better descriptor of a country in South Asia than a ‘secular democratic republic’ – the reality is different from the appearance. This conclusion is not a value judgment, just a statement of fact. There is nothing inherently wrong with a religious hereditary hierarchy. In fact an argument could be made that the British epiphenomenon was harmful for South Asia; without it South Asia would have tended faster towards a political configuration that would have been much more organically rooted in its soil. Now we can only speculate on what that solution might have been like.

Postscript: A concrete example might make the argument clearer. In 1947, Mr. Jinnah said: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State.” Clearly his hope was that Pakistani society would realign itself around this secular, democratic core. Instead, it moved back fairly rapidly to its anti-secular, anti-democratic ethos. The type of liberal, secular gentlemen epitomized by Jinnah are now a dying breed and on the endangered list in Pakistan.

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Imaginings: Where is India Headed?

November 5, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

I see the future in India being shaped by the intersection of three major tendencies playing out in the context of one major trend, the difference between a tendency and a trend being that the former is reversible and the latter not. And there is one joker in the pack.

The three tendencies are increased empowerment of some of the poor via the democratic process, the recourse by the marginalized to rebellion, and the attraction of the middle classes to soft authoritarianism. The trend is urbanization. And the joker in the pack is economic growth.

Let me speculate on how these forces might make themselves felt over the next decade or so. (more…)