Posts Tagged ‘Modernity’

What the Fishermen are Telling Us

May 25, 2014

Here is a headline from today’s newspaper:

Pakistan frees 151 Indian fishermen ahead of Sharif’s Delhi visit

What can we infer from this headline about the world we live in?

Recall the stories of bygone times that marked auspicious occasions:

It was the king’s birthday – he ordered 100 prisoners to be released.

The queen gave birth to an heir – the dungeons were emptied.

The heir apparent got married – all death sentences were commuted.

Are we living in bygone times or have the bygone times never left us?

King Sharif?

I am going to India – let us free 151 fishermen.

Not only that, let us drive them from Karachi to Wagah in an air-conditioned bus. Let us give the ‘poor’ fishermen royal treatment because we are particularly pleased by the invitation – phooley nahiiN samaa rahey.

Remember Diwali last year? We celebrated by releasing 15 fishermen as a gesture of our goodwill.

We still have 229 fishermen and 780 boats in our custody.

We will release them on the days we are feeling particularly good or have something to celebrate – like when we win a cricket match against India or have a chairman of the cricket board we really like.

You get the point.

Is this how things are supposed to work in the 21st century?

Is there anything akin to due legal process in our land?

Here are these poor fishermen arrested for violation of some international law related to territorial waters. Can their cases not be processed expeditiously and decided one way or the other?

Have any cases ever been decided?

Or do they exist only to serve as gestures of goodwill for our monarchs?

Since we don’t feel good all that often these days – what with ungrateful Talibaan and all – many have died in custody before they could be released.

But their bodies have been handed over as gestures of our magnanimity.

Now that we are thinking of ‘poor’ fishermen, how many have trespassed into alien waters on their own volition? Who is sending them fishing across the line and not caring if they are arrested or not because there is an endless supply of poor fishermen?

Why not go after the big guys? Why take it out on the ‘poor’ fishermen and their poor families?

And, for that matter, why not go after the big Japanese trawlers? Is that because they can’t be grist to the goodwill mill?

Think too of all the poor farmers rotting in jails on charges of crossing the land borders for spying? Who is sending them across the border and not caring if they are arrested because there is an endless supply of poor farmers? Why not go after the spymasters?

The farmers can’t be released as gestures of goodwill because spying is serious business unlike the stealing of fish. Only their dead bodies can be released as gestures of magnanimity.

Sometimes when we are feeling particularly satiated, like after an extra special dish of siri paaye, we might, with an appreciative belch, allow a visit by the wives and daughters and transport them in air-conditioned buses.

But we can never release them. And, of course, the thought of trying them has not occurred to us.

Okay, Okay. You don’t really expect us to telescope into the modern age all of a sudden.

But here is a suggestion.

If we are playing this tit-for-tat game of goodwill, why not keep exchanging the poor fishermen and poor farmers as soon as we arrest them?

That way we will remain on a perpetual goodwill high.

And the modern world would be dumbfounded by the extent of our old-fashioned magnanimity.

Loag ash ash kar utheN gey.

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Pakistan’s Problems: Letter from Berlin

July 3, 2011

By Bettina Robotka

Dear Anjum,

First, a word about that unspeakable article of Hitchens. He obviously has never lived in Pakistan and doesn’t know anything about its people in reality. Part of his argument is emotional – an emotion that is negative, an emotion of ridiculing and contempt. Whosoever has lived in Pakistan knows that the people on the ground in their majority are neither humorless nor eager to take offense, but warm, hardworking, hospitable and very much tolerant. Actually I always thought that they are too tolerant, they should take offense much earlier. I think they are not very brave in the sense that they go and risk in order to fight injustice, but that is also related to the fact that they are not individuals who think and care only about themselves and that their right and welfare was most important but they are family people who feel responsible for those depending on them and would not want to endanger the welfare of the family for some abstract or concrete injustice. They have accepted me without much asking; have taken me into their custody though I was nobody to them. One should never analyze a society without knowing the sounds and smells of it. (more…)

India: A View of People

October 11, 2010

And Why It Matters

Suresh Kalmadi has something to answer for to the Indian people for the chaotic run up to the Commonwealth Games. But given his belligerent stance it seems he feels he doesn’t have to. This would not be a surprise because in India many have gotten away with much more.

What I do find surprising, however, is that he has not even been called up for something that, in my view, no one should be allowed to get away with in this day and age. With reference to the lack of spectators at the Games, Kalmadi is reported to have said: “We are working on the children from schools, already steps have been taken in that direction…. And also from the low level of society, we have been distributing a lot of tickets.” (more…)

French Salons and South Asia

November 13, 2009

Maupassant provided us the opportunity to reflect on the social pecking order in South Asia and Kabir’s comment has pushed the door wide open. There is so much space for speculation that it needs a post by itself to fill. In doing so we can bring together a number of themes that have figured prominently on this blog – in particular those of modernity and democracy in South Asia.

A lot has been written about French salons and there remain disagreement on the details – I will choose selectively to motivate the discussion:

A salon is a gathering of intellectual, social, political, and cultural elites under the roof of an inspiring hostess or host, partly to amuse one another and partly to refine their taste and increase their knowledge through conversation. (more…)

Ghalib -29: On Being Modern

June 28, 2009

Brilliant. Brilliant. Brilliant. We have been struggling with the notion of modernity in South Asia and wondering how “modern” modern South Asians are. And here is Ghalib providing an excellent illustration of what being modern might, at least in part, entail:

kyaa farz hai kih sab ko mile ek-saa javaab
aa’o nah ham bhii sair kareN koh-e tuur kii

Is it necessary that everyone would get the same answer?
Come! Why don’t we too go for an excursion to Mount Sinai

The first thing to note is that being modern does not been mean being ignorant of tradition or history. Ghalib motivates his argument by leveraging the story of Moses going to Mount Sinai and asking to see God; and God responding to Moses that you would not have the strength to withstand the vision. (more…)

Has Islam a Place in a Modern World?

November 11, 2008

By Bettina Robotka 

The question of whether there is any positive role for Islam or for religion as such in a modern world is gaining urgency in the light of an ongoing “War against (Islamic) terror” and the spread of militant and conservative interpretations of Islam. The picture which this Islam tends to paint of an ideal Muslim society is that of a patriarchic, male-dominated community inhabited by intellectually unquestioning Muslims who live in closely knit kinship relationships including tribal, biradri and caste units, who accept existing society as given, and who are supposed to follow what the state defines as right or wrong through its laws. There is limited place for individuality, no place for questioning of the basics of social, political and economic life and the task of moral, political, economic and spiritual guidance seems to be left to a small group of Islamic scholars and mullahs who have no worldly knowledge, who are neither elected nor responsible to the public, only to God when the Day comes and who have the monopoly in understanding and interpreting Islam.

On the other side of the divide, by the West we are told that modernity means the application of reason and rationality, men in their individual capacity are the lords of the world and the ones who decide what is right and what is wrong and which way to go. Religion has no place in that set-up, because religion has proven to be irrational by refusing to accept the scientific facts researched by scientists like Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and by refusing to adjust the religious dogma to fit the realities of the material world. God is thought to be irrational; knowing and believing seem to exclude each other. Secularism, the division between the church and the state, between blind dogma and the human quest to know, to discover the material world and to rule this world through that knowledge, has been declared “progress”.

How should we deal with this? Do we have to choose between religion and modernity, between backwardness and progress?  My answer to it is in the negative. Western modernity has produced unbelievable scientific and technological advancement. But alongside with that, it has produced two world wars and umpteen local wars killing an uncounted number of people; it has produced Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it has created affluence for few, hunger and poverty for many; it is destroying the environment in its race for more material goods, the hold over natural resources and more consumption for a minority. It is threatening the very survival of human life and has failed so far to solve the basic problem of humanity – to provide a humane society for all which is in balance with nature and the universe.

The reason for this I see is the abolishing of religion and the belief in God. It is religion which provides man with morality; it teaches us what is right and what is wrong, it gives us direction and guidance. By abandoning religion and concentrating on material advancement only the moral basis of human society has been lost. But “progress” understood as material and technological progress only is dangerous. It amounts to defining progress as being able to kill more people in a shorter time because of more sophisticated technology. Knowledge acquired without the moral values to handle it has proven to be destructive.

One of the reasons (among others) why communism didn’t work was that the moral attitude one needs to work for the good of all society rather than for money or material gain was lost by banning religion and it could not find another adequate ethical basis. Communism as a materialist idea only did not work. Neither does the Western model of modernity designed as a materialist outlook. So far no substitute for giving a moral basis to human society apart from the belief in God has been found and practiced convincingly. Even in secular Europe whatsoever ethical values are there originated from Christianity even though the majority of the Europeans are not members of a church and do not believe in God. This truth has been realized in the wake of the discussion about European values which had to be part of the draft for a European constitution.  Since then we are witnessing a resurgence of religion over there.

If we look into the history of humankind all societies have developed a religion, a belief in a Power that is greater than us and to whom we are responsible. Religion is intrinsic to man, that is what Karen Armstrong said in one of her interviews. Islam is the last of the revealed religions and it is a valid guide towards the Truth which is a balanced and happy life for human society. In Islam there is no discrepancy between knowing and believing, between the material and the spiritual sides of the world. Belief (Islam) and knowledge (the world) – both come from the same Source, that’s why both can not contradict or destroy each other. Islam is rational and it wants us to use our reason when studying the stars, the sun and the moon, the change of the seasons and the histories of former civilizations. It wants us to go even to China for more knowledge. God wants us to know (Him) and one of the ways for that is by studying His creation. The Christian West has so far missed this point which must be valid for Christianity also because it guides towards the same Truth.

Therefore, the question is not if Islam or religion has a role to play in a modern society but how to read and understand Islam in the light of the realities around us. The problem is not with Islam, it’s with the Muslims.

Bettina Robotka is presently teaching in Karachi.

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Do Devotion and Brutality Go Together?

September 17, 2008

First, let me quote a passage. Then you try and guess what it refers to. And then we will talk about it together.

A race absolutely alien to God has invaded the land of the Christians, has reduced the people with sword, rapine and flame. These men have destroyed the altars polluted by their foul practices. They have circumcised the Christians, either spreading the blood from the circumcisions on the altars or pouring it into the baptismal fonts. And they cut open the navels of those whom they choose to torment with loathsome death, tear out their most vital organs and tie them to a stake, drag them around and flog them, before killing them as they lie prone on the ground with all their entrails out. What shall I say of the appalling violation of women, of which it is more evil to speak then to keep silent?

On whom, therefore, does the task lie of avenging this, of redeeming this situation, if not on you, upon whom above all nations God has bestowed outstanding glory in arms, magnitude of heart, litheness of body and strength to humble anyone who resists you.

Let me pause here while you reflect on what this is all about.

Is this for real?  Is this some madman frothing at the mouth?

Hold your breath. The year is 1095; the place is Clermont, France; the speaker is Pope Urban II.

This was the speech that launched the First Crusade as Pope Urban “called upon Catholic Europe to take up arms and prosecute a vengeful campaign of reconquest, a holy war that would cleanse its participants of sin” with the promise “that those fighting as ‘soldiers of Christ’ would be purified by the fire of battle.”

Pope Urban’s impassioned description of the barbarity of savage Muslims propelled “some 100,000 men and women, from knight to pauper, to take up the call – the largest mobilization of manpower since the fall of the Roman Empire” – and march 3,000 kilometers to Jerusalem “leaving the air afire with their battle cry: God’s will! God’s will.”

This is the quote that begins the remarkable and highly acclaimed account of the First Crusade by Thomas Asbridge (The First Crusade: A New History, Oxford, 2004).

And here is Thomas Asbridge’s punch line on page 3 based on his meticulous research:

The image of Muslims as brutal oppressors conjured by Pope Urban was pure propaganda – if anything, Islam had proved over the preceding centuries to be more tolerant of other religions than Catholic Christendom.

And here is the psychological puzzle:

How could the crusaders demonstrate a capacity for “intense religious devotion” as well as “appalling brutality” at the same time?

Why are these things relevant for us today?

Because nothing much has changed except the geography. In an earlier post (How Far Behind is South Asia?) we had estimated that South Asia was about 150 years behind Europe as measured by material development indicators. But when we look at it from the perspective of mental attitudes could we say that the gap is as much as a thousand years.

Here we are almost 1,000 years after 1095 and we have Osama bin Laden telling the same types of exaggerated untruths about Christians and Jews and an army of believers willing to blow themselves up for the cause – intense religious devotion mixed with appalling brutality.

And what about the amazing happenings of the 1947 partition of British India? Neighbors who had coexisted for decades suddenly decided to demonstrate devotion to their faith by massacring those belonging to a different one. Is that how one shows devotion to the truth? (See the excerpt from Urvashi Butalia’s book in the post Ghalib- 8 and read Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan.)

There is always someone inciting people to a holy jihad and there are always followers available to answer the call mixing intense religious devotion with appalling brutality.

Why are people so ready to be conned so easily? How come people see devotion in brutality? Any answers?

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How Far Behind is South Asia?

September 12, 2008

South Asia is considered a developing region; in earlier times it would have been called an under-developed one.

So, the question is: How under-developed is South Asia and what is the nature of its under-development?

We have been interested in this question for some time and have not found it easy to answer given that development is such a multi-dimensioned concept and South Asia such a diverse region.

A limited but still interesting exercise is to take some standard indicators (like literacy, infant mortality, and life expectancy) and find out how long ago the now developed countries were at the same stage as South Asian countries are today. That would provide a starting point for discussion based on objective measures.

It turns out even this is not a simple task as there are no readily available data to look up. Our enquiries led us to a paper in economic history yielding a broad generalization that the India of 1990 could be considered comparable to the Germany of 1870 based on the average values of the type of indicators mentioned above.

In this perspective, India is 120 years behind Germany. And since Pakistan lags India on all these indicators we can suggest that Pakistan is now where Germany must have been about a century and a half ago.

In looking at the statistics in this way, one would have to be conscious of the variations across space. We doubt that the variations in Germany 150 years ago could have been as large as they are in South Asia today. Thus while the average literacy in Pakistan may be 50 percent, it is a whole lot less in Balochistan or in the tribal areas of India. In fact, some parts of South Asia do not seem to have advanced much beyond the 17th or 18th centuries in Europe.

So, could one argue that some small islands in South Asia are as developed as Europe is toady, the vast majority is about 150 years behind, and peripheral marginalized areas lag by about three centuries?

And does this extraordinary variation, quite unlike what must have been the case when Europe was developing, constitute a problem in itself?

Of course, we have not said anything in this discussion about social indicators (gender equality, for example) or about attitudes (towards hierarchy, for example). These are issues we had raised earlier in the posts on modernity in South Asia. 

Does this way of looking at under-development come across as useful to readers? If not, could you offer an alternative perspective for discussion?

Economic historians have used the Human Development Index as an index of historical living standards. Readers interested in this subject would find the following paper useful:

The Human Development Index, 1870-1999: Some revised estimates by Nicholas Crafts (European Review of Economic History, 6, 395-405, 2002).

The HDI has three components: education, income, and life expectancy. For our purposes it would be better to compare only education and life expectancy but the paper is adequate to initiate questions along lines that interest South Asians.

The reference to the paper is courtesy of Karin Astrid Siegmann at the Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands.     

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What’s Happening in Nepal?

September 9, 2008

We must confess our incomplete knowledge of what is really happening in Nepal but this is certainly a phenomenon that warrants close attention. Let us try and sketch a big picture and hope that readers with more details can fill in the gaps that are inevitable.

In a series of posts on modernity in South Asia (see under the theme on the main page) we have repeatedly gone over the sequence of events in Europe that marked the change from the old feudal order to the new era of democratic governance. We highlighted the key markers: the emergence of a realization that all men should be equal; the embedding of these ideas in the thinking of the times; a social revolution nurtured by these ideas that overthrew the hierarchical aristocratic order to force the recognition of equality; and the gradual emergence of democracy as the form of governance most compatible with a society comprised of individuals equal in all fundamental attributes.

We contrasted this sequence of events with the process in South Asia where representative governance preceded a social revolution, the ancien regime survived intact, and notions of individual equality still remain alien to dominant ways of thinking. Our last post along these lines was Democracy in India – 7 where we argued that the Indian case represented a complete contrast to the European sequence. It is in the democratic arena that the battle for equality is being fought and it might ultimately yield the desired outcome of social equality.

But Nepal has been under the radar all along. And Nepal looks like a phenomenon much closer in spirit to Europe than the rest of South Asia. Here we have a revolt against feudal oppression, a people’s struggle culminating in the replacement of a monarchy by a republic, the transformation of the revolutionaries into an element in electoral politics, the formation of a constituent assembly, and the introduction of proportional representation to give voice to previously excluded groups in society.

It is impossible to predict the future because the one thing that did not exist at the time of the European transformations, at least to the same extent, was the power of external intervention. Today, it is a key ingredient of any process of social change be it Cuba, Nicaragua, Cambodia or Afghanistan. Perhaps Nepal has been fortunate to escape the worst excesses of external interference for reasons to do with its geography.

Whatever the reasons and whatever the future, it does seem that the parallels with the European model are quite striking. Should this make us rethink our position on the nature of social change in South Asia? India too has a growing Naxalite movement. But is India too large for a Nepal-like outcome to be possible? Does India lack the single monarchical symbol against which a majority of its oppressed can unite? And will the sizable pockets of prosperity in India prove too strong an opposition for the revolutionaries to overcome?

That is what it looks like at the moment. But let us hear some arguments to the contrary. And let us also invite readers to correct our impressions of what has been happening in Nepal.

The September 2008 issue of Himal SouthAsian magazine is dedicated to the topic of contemporary armed struggles in South Asia. Readers interested in further details and more advanced analyses are recommended to read the articles in the magazine.

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Democracy in India – 7

July 26, 2008

Let us put the big question on the table.

Modern democracy as a form of governance has evolved following the emergence of the belief that “all men are created equal.”  How do we look at Indian democracy in this context? Do Indians believe today that all men are created equal? If not, how does it affect the nature of democracy in India?

In the West it took social revolutions to force the acceptance that all men were created equal. So the sequence of events was the following: the emergence of a realization that all men should be equal; a social revolution overthrowing the hierarchical aristocratic order to force the recognition of that equality; the gradual emergence of representative governance (the franchise was extended very slowly with women becoming “equal” much later than men) as the form of governance most compatible with a society comprised of individuals equal in all fundamental attributes.

On can start with the Enlightenment thinkers to understand the social conditions out of which the aspirations for equality emerged – we have done that in earlier posts. But the quickest summary of the second phase can be gained by looking at the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59) who sought to persuade his fellow intellectuals to accept the legacy of the French Revolution warning them that it was impossible to turn the clock back.

De Tocqueville pointed out that the growing equality was inevitable and urged a focus on how liberty could be preserved in an egalitarian age  (one of de Tocqueville’s major fears was that democracy would degenerate into despotism). Equality of course meant political equality by definition because every man would have an equal vote. But more than that, de Tocqueville kept referring to the growing “equality of condition” which was not the same thing as economic equality. It meant that men had started viewing each other as social equals and wished to be treated as such irrespective of the differences in their income levels. To translate that into our frame, there were no longer any institutions or places (including the kitchen table) to which an individual could be denied access because of his birth or level of income.

In an excellent primer (Democracy: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2002), Bernard Crick distinguishes three dimensions of democracy: democracy as a principle or doctrine of government; democracy as a set of institutional arrangements or constitutional devices; and democracy as a type of behavior (say the antithesis of both deference and unsociability). And he points out that “they do not always go together.”

Crick elaborates the third dimension as follows: “democracy can be seen as a recipe for an acceptable set of institutions, or else as a ‘way of life’ in which the ‘spirit of democracy’ becomes at least as important as the peculiarity of the institutions. For some think that the hallmark of such a way of life lies, indeed, in the deed and not the word: people acting and behaving democratically in patterns of friendship, speech, dress, and amusements, treating everyone else as if they were an equal” (pages 9-10).

Let us now come back to India. It satisfies Crick’s first two dimensions but not the third. And this is the peculiarity of Indian democracy. The historical sequence mentioned above has been reversed. Democracy with universal suffrage has arrived before a social revolution that removed a hierarchical aristocratic order. In fact, even the idea of equality itself is not fully grounded in the polity.

Thus almost all comments about Mayawati feel it necessary to include the reference to her being an “untouchable;” there are quite unselfconscious remarks about the voting behavior of the “lower orders;” and one comes across journal articles with titles like the following reflecting the reality of contemporary Indian life: They dress, use cosmetics, want to be like us’: The Middle Classes and their Servants at Home.

Visionary leaders were quite well aware of these contradictions. Here is what Dr. Ambedkar had to say in 1949:

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?

It takes a long time to change structures and it is very messy. What one is seeing in India today is unique in human history – democracy and the vote being used to both bring about equality and to force the acceptance of a belief in equality. Democracy is the instrument that will accomplish what the Enlightenment and social revolutions did in the western world. But, in doing so, will it degenerate into the despotism that de Tocqueville feared?

It is history turned on its head and a fascinating process to watch and be part of.

The journal article mentioned in the text is to appear in Amita Baviskar and Raka Ray, eds., The Middle Classes in India: Identity, Citizenship and the Public Sphere.

The quote from Dr. Ambedkar is from Sunil Khilnani, The Idea of India, page 15.

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