Posts Tagged ‘Politics’

Pakistan and its Neighbours

July 6, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

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

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

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

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

Surely, some self-reflection is in order.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Education and Politics

December 11, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

I wonder what the concerned students would be thinking of the government’s directive to some teachers of the Pak-Turk school system to leave the country. I guess they would consider it political interference. If so, they would be wiser than the experts who look upon education and politics as separate domains.

The real lesson that the affected students need to internalize is that the incident involving their teachers is not unique. Since schools are not teaching students how to think, exploring what has been happening to schools might induce some much needed reflection.

The reality is that education has always been subjected to political interventions. That may be one reason why history is no longer taught in our schools. The less one knows of the past the less likely it would be to decipher the ways in which education is manipulated to advance political interests.

Some political interventions can be considered incidental to education. The deportation of the Turkish teachers falls in that category. The sole objective of the government was to please one man and it was mere coincidence that the cause of the latter’s disapproval was associated with schools. The personnel could just as easily have been part of another industry, say health. Even so, given that the foundation operated only about two dozen schools, the impact on education as a sector remains marginal.

Another political intervention of this type was the outright nationalization of educational institutions schools in 1972. An ideological rationale, which had its supporters and detractors, was offered for the intervention. In this case, however, the impact was spread across the sector and most educationists consider it one cause of the subsequent decline in the quality of education in the country.

A second type of intervention pertains to what students are allowed to do in educational institutions. It is deeply ironic that those who lauded the intense politicization of students at Aligarh University during the Pakistan Movement concluded it was not such a good idea after all once Pakistan was achieved. Not surprisingly, interventions in education remain subservient to political ends.    

A third, quite different, type of political intervention has to do with influencing the purpose of education itself. One may consider Macaulay’s intervention in 1835, changing the medium of instruction in British India from local languages to English, to be a classic case of such an intervention – the stated purpose being to form a “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” It is ironical that those who vilify Macaulay have done nothing to reverse the intervention after the British departed. The politics of that contradiction remains to be fully explained.

Ziaul Haq’s contribution, infusing education with morality and nationalism, is another example of such a political intervention. Yet another is the funding from the Middle East to promote an alternative education in support of a political ideology. And how many people know that in the mid-1980s textbooks for schools in Afghanistan promoting jihad were produced in America under the auspices of the U.S. Agency for International Development at the University of Nebraska and routed through Pakistan. Whatever one’s position on these interventions there is little doubt that they have quite significantly altered the very nature and purpose of education in the country.

All kinds of political interventions are of interest but the third type merits special attention. A botched nationalization of education can be reversed, as it has in Pakistan, and sensible measures can retrieve the institutional damage. Student unions can be re-introduced in colleges. But altering the nature and content of education has much longer-lasting consequences – it produces cohorts of decision-makers who by virtue of their orientation rule out the very possibility of certain types of policy reversals.

An obvious example is the production of the class of persons envisaged by Macaulay. It was unsurprising that the departure of the British witnessed no radical discontinuity in the colonial system of education – the class whose privileges rested on the knowledge of English had little incentive to empower speakers of native languages.

Similarly, Ziaul Haq’s ‘children’, now ensconced in key positions have virtually taken curriculum reform off the table. No amount of studies demonstrating problems with the existing curricula and pedagogy can get past the mindset generated by that intervention.

These examples should make clear why education is such a fiercely contested political domain. The most vital resource of a country are its students who will graduate to become the next generation of decision-makers – they are virtually its future. Whoever controls what these students believe and how they think (or do not think) controls the future as well barring unforeseen events or unintended consequences. The stakes are very high; not surprisingly, interventions to mould education to political ends are endemic.      

One should keep in mind that countries that are globally competitive, or aspire to that status, are forced to promote scientific and technological innovation which, by its very nature, requires the freedom to think openly. Hence the existence of top-tier educational institutions in the US, for example. But the outpouring of innovations comes mixed with intellectual questioning which is an outcome of the same freedom to think openly.This  dissent has to be tolerated and managed with sensitivity.

Rulers in countries like Pakistan with a primary focus on maintaining the status quo and no real intent to be globally competitive see no reason to promote open minds that can only result in the citizenry asking difficult questions. Hence the continued interventions in education to stifle the promotion of critical thinking and muzzle the possibility of any dissent that could threaten the political status quo.

If our students had read Bulleh Shah or Kabir at school they would have been equipped with the tools for self-reflection. The fact that they do not is as telling a clue as one might need to figure out the purpose being served by our present-day system of education.

This op-ed appeared in Dawn on Saturday, December 10, 2016, and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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For the Students and Faculty of JNU

March 5, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

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

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

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

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

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

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Fifty Years of Activism in Pakistan: A Sea Change

January 11, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reading the Elections in Bihar

November 13, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

Could the 2015 state election in Bihar signify anything about the future of politics in India? It could, and I want to draw out that possibility by linking this analysis to a previous one related to the equally surprising outcome in Delhi earlier in the year (Electoral Choices). Very briefly, the point made was that while the BJPs share of the vote between the elections of 2014 and 2015 in Delhi remained the same, about a third, its share of the seats dropped sharply from 52 percent to 4 percent. This, it was argued, was a vagary of the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) method of election in vogue in a very few countries in which the candidate with a simple plurality of the votes in a constituency is declared the winner.

Now look at the parallels in Bihar between the results of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the 2015 state elections. For the BJP, the share of votes dropped from 29 percent to 24 percent while its share of seats dropped from 55 percent to 22 percent. For the RJD, the share of votes dropped from 20 percent to 18 percent but the share of seats increased from 20 percent to 33 percent. For the JD-U, the share of votes increased from 16 percent to 17 percent while the share of seats increased from 10 percent to 29 percent.

It is clear that while the vote shares remained relatively stable, the share of seats was much more volatile. Once again, the outcome was dependent on the idiosyncrasy of the FPTP system. The simple explanation is that in 2014 the RJD and JD-U votes were divided while in 2015 they were pooled.

This highlights very starkly the ugly underside of the FPTP system in a country like India and the almost exclusive focus it directs towards the making and breaking of electoral coalitions by foul means or fair. This was clear even in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections where the BJP engineered communal tensions in the swing states of UP and Bihar to break opposing coalitions. It became even clearer in the 2015 state elections in Bihar. As soon as the BJP felt its development plank failing to resonate with voters it fell back on the tactic of attempting to split the opposition by lighting communal fires. First, the task was outsourced to the second-tier leadership which came up with some truly bizarre scenarios but when the margin continued to shrink the sab ka saath Prime Minister himself weighed in with references to the appeasement of some communities at the expense of others. In doing so, he became a fellow traveler, very ironically, of none other than Bibi Netanyahu with the latter’s fear mongering of the other community voting in droves and even being responsible for the Holocaust itself.

Be that as it may, our emphasis here is less on the collateral damage and more on the likely implication of the Bihar outcome for the future of electoral politics in India. Now that it has become obvious beyond doubt that the way to best the BJP is by putting together strong coalitions, one is quite likely to see a repeat of the same in elections to come. Here, one must note that the stability of the winning coalition in Bihar required that personal egos be set aside – the RJD agreed up front to yield the leadership to the JD-U and the once-mighty INC was content with being a junior partner.

While this could set the pattern in the state elections to come, there is no straightforward extrapolation to elections to the Lok Sabha where one might be faced with the incongruous situation of not having a single party with a significant national following. The INC has already been decimated and there are no signs of its early revival. The Left parties are also on the ropes. If the BJP loses popularity by virtue of faltering on its development promise, which is quite likely given the mismatch between the urgency of expectations and the time it takes to turn around a country of the size of India, there will be not a single party remaining with a national mandate. Even if there is partial success on the development front, the model the BJP has adopted of economic growth delinked from social welfare does not augur well for its popularity. This could well be a repeat of the ‘Shining India’ debacle.

If this scenario of the absence of any party with a national mandate does transpire one could foresee an India of stable regional parties attempting some very unwieldy coalitions at the center. It is difficult to say at this time whether that would work or not. Quite intriguingly, it could take India back to its norm of being a landmass governed by many quasi-independent rulers tied together in shifting arrangements. After all, in its very long history, India has only really been united for brief interludes under Ashoka, Akbar, and Victoria. The Victorian legacy has now had a seventy-year hangover. Has the pendulum begun to swing the other way?

We will find out sooner rather than later. One thing to watch would be the strategy of the BJP from here on. From a rational perspective one might think it would read the tea leaves and adjust towards a more inclusive and welfare-oriented stance. But politics is rarely ever rational. It is more than likely that the BJP would harden its stance while simultaneously becoming unable to control the fringe elements it has unleashed as part of its tactics. If that happens, not only might there be a regression to the mean, it could be accompanied by a lot of unpleasant tremors.

Let us hope better sense prevails. India’s strength is its civil society and its remarkable response to the unraveling of the social fabric gives hope that some corrective action, whose exact nature is unclear at this time, would right the situation before it swings too far out of control.

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Mr. Modi: Good for Pakistan, Bad for Muslims?

June 4, 2014

Early on in Ulysses, Joyce has Stpehen Dedalus harking back to Aristotle and thinking the following thoughts:

Had Pyrrhus not fallen by a bedlam’s hand in Argos or Julius Caesar not been knifed to death? They are not to be thought away. Time has branded them and fettered they are lodged in the room of the infinite possibilities they have ousted. But can those have been possible seeing that they never were? Or was that only possible which came to pass? Weave, weaver of the wind.

We are at that momentous point in South Asia where all of a sudden there is a burgeoning of potentialities only one of which will turn into reality – the actuality of the possible as possible in Aristotle’s formulation.

I have no way of knowing which of those possibilities will become the reality we will look back on ten years from now. What I can do is sift through them and palpate the one that, a priori, seems more than likely to oust the rest.

So let me weave and explicate the thesis that Mr. Modi could be good for Pakistan and bad for Muslims.

First, there are the things that Mr. Modi has come to believe about himself: that he is decisive and that he is a manager par excellence. Whether he is or not, whether he has always believed so, or whether he is the victim of his own sustained rhetoric, is now irrelevant. His reputation and his legacy rest on his acting out that role and delivering on his promise of development and economic growth.

This could be good for Pakistan because he will be decisive in bilateral relations but not so decisive that it comes in the way of the economic development of India.

At one level this is obvious enough, at another slightly more nuanced. Why might Mr. Modi’s decisiveness in bilateral relations be good for Pakistan? Look at it from Pakistan where the state is accountable neither to its people nor to anyone else. No amount of carrots, cajoling, or appeals to common sense can make it alter its ways that rest on fooling all the people all the time. It is only the stick that can possibly impose any kind of constraint on its behavior.

Think of the scenario with regard to polio. The Pakistani state has absorbed billions of dollars in aid and advice and yet remains amongst the only sources of the virus in the world. For years it has fudged the figures and laughed its way to the bank. Only when the world has finally imposed restrictions on travel that inconvenience the rulers has there been any acknowledgement of the seriousness of its irresponsibility.

What holds for polio holds just as well for terrorism. No amount of argumentation is likely to come in the way of what has become an integral strategy to prevent a durable peace that would undercut the control of vested interests. Only the threat of a decisive retaliation could force a rethink of this strategy.

This, of course, would call for a very fine balance. Irrationalities in Pakistan have spawned to such an extent and control over violence become so fractured that nothing can be ruled out by way of likely actions. A decisiveness that discourages but does not push over the edge would be good for Pakistan; a misstep could be a disaster for South Asia.

At the same time, the quickest boost to development of at least the western parts of India would come from a quantum increase in trade with Pakistan. Given Mr. Modi’s imperative to deliver development, and that too in short order, this might be one of the pills he would be willing to swallow. And any increase in trade would be disproportionately beneficial for Pakistan by virtue of its much smaller economy and land mass.

But second, and counterweights to the above, are the things about Mr. Modi that are unlikely to change even if he tries to change them. Mr. Modi has a communal and majoritarian perspective and just as the overt promises of development have to be delivered, so have the winks and nods to his core constituency be made good. He would be held equally to both poles of the bargain he has entered into with his supporters.

The concessions to Pakistan that might be necessitated by the imperative of development could well be compensated by the narrowing of space for Indian Muslims, more so because Indian Muslims wield very little countervailing power. Mr. Modi’s party has no representative from the community and the Lok Sabha as a whole the lowest representation ever. Pakistan, of course, would care little for the fate of Indian Muslims; it never has. They will be entirely at the mercy of Mr. Modi and Mr. Modi is not a sympathetic man.

As I said at the outset, I have no way of knowing if it is this particular possibility that would be actualized though it does seem plausible. I can only hope I am right about the first part and wrong about the second.

One might ask what is to be gained by displaying such displeasing weaves and airing such unpalatable thoughts. It is the hope that looking the implications of a possibility square in the face could well lessen the likelihood of its actualization. In the room of infinite possibilities, another, more benign one could take its place. It is up to us to articulate the possibilities and be part of the movement that stands in the way of one and lends a helping hand to the other.

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Theater as a Matter of Life and Death

March 31, 2014

By Kabir Altaf

In the US and in other developed countries, theater is often seen as a leisure activity, engaged in primarily by those with disposable income and enough time to spend two hours watching a play.  However, in many countries around the world, the importance of theater goes beyond entertainment. Rather, theater is a matter of life and death.

As part of its “World Stages” festival, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts recently hosted a panel discussion entitled Recasting Home: Conflict, Refugees, and Theater”. Moderated by Ambassador Cynthia Schneider, a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and the co-founder of the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, the panel featured artists from Syria, Pakistan, Palestine, and the US.  All the panelists discussed the ways in which theater was essential to helping individuals cope with extremely difficult situations, including occupation and civil war. As Derek Goldman, a professor of theater and performance studies at Georgetown, commented, “In the US, ‘home’ is seen as a safe space, a haven. In contexts in which home is fraught and chaotic, theater becomes a kind of home.”  Theater provides a platform in which “the unspeakable becomes spoken”.

Nabil Al-Raee, the artistic director of The Freedom Theatre in Jenin, a city in the West Bank, described the role of theater as a means for Palestinians to resist the Israeli Occupation.   The theater is located in Jenin refugee camp, which dates from 1948, soon after the creation of Israel. 17,000 people live in one square kilometer.  The theater draws its inspiration from the work of Arna Mer Khamis, a woman of Jewish origin who devoted her life to campaigning for freedom and human rights, particularly in Palestine.  During the First Intifada, Arna developed a project called “Care and Learning”, which used theater and art to address the fear, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder experienced by children in the refugee camp. In 1993, Arna won the Right Livelihood Award for her work and used the award money to build The Stone Theatre, which was destroyed in 2002 during the Israeli invasion of the refugee camp.   The Freedom Theater was founded in 2006 by Juliano Mer Khamis, Arna’s son, who had returned to Jenin during the Second Intifada to continue his mother’s work.  Juliano was the General Director of the theatre until 2011, when he was assassinated.  The theatre continues to carry forward Juliano’s legacy and aims to promote freedom—not only for Palestinians but for all human beings.

Nabil commented that theater and other performing arts serve as a very important tool to help people understand themselves and to resist their situation in a non-violent manner, through art.  He recounted a remark made by an audience member in Gaza at a performance by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, founded by Israeli musician Daniel Barenboim and Palestinian academic Edward Said as a collaboration between Israeli and Arab musicians.  The audience member noted that “People provide us food and shelter but you would do that for animals. By bringing us music, you have treated us like human beings.”

Just as theater plays a role in helping Palestinians cope with the Israeli Occupation, it is important in helping Syrian refugees confront the violent conflict in their country.  Liwaa Yazji, a Syrian playwright and filmmaker, described the situation facing her countrymen, both in the areas controlled by the Assad government and in those that are “free”.  She noted that in areas controlled by the regime, artists cannot depict war or revolution on stage.  In areas in the north of the country, which are outside of regime control, artists often come under threat from Islamists.  Liwaa described how activists and professionals are conducting workshops with Syrian youth to help them cope with their experiences during the war.  She described how during a performance of “Little Red Riding Hood”, a child asked her “Who is the wolf? Is it Bashar Assad or the Islamists?” Clearly, the arts have a role to play in helping refugee children confront what is happening to them.

Though the situation in Pakistan cannot be compared to that in Palestine or Syria, artists are still playing an important role in a society confronted with rising levels of extremism. Shahid Nadeem, one of the country’s leading playwrights and the founder of Ajoka Theatre, described how Pakistanis have become “cultural refugees”, forced to disassociate themselves from much of their traditional culture, because it is “tainted” by association with India and Hinduism.  He recalled that when he was growing up, he was told that the arts are un-Islamic and have no place in Pakistan.  Through its plays, Ajoka has been striving to reclaim Pakistan’s traditional heritage.  By using humor and music to keep audiences engaged, the plays address serious issues such as women’s rights and the rise of fundamentalism.  Because they often deal with controversial issues, the group’s performances have at times been banned by the Pakistani government as well as received threats from religious extremists. Theater thus serves as an important platform in the fight for greater social justice and for progressive values.

Overall, the discussion highlighted the relevance of theater in extremely difficult contexts, not usually associated with the arts.   Far from being merely entertainment for the well-to-do, theatre is vital for helping individuals across the world cope with violence, war, and conflict.

Kabir Altaf attended the Lahore University of Management Sciences and graduated magna cum laude from George Washington University with a major in Dramatic Literature and a minor in Music.

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Where Will Change Come From?

September 18, 2013

By Anjum Altaf

To want new things in old ways is to consign oneself to despair, frustration, anger and impotence.

That at least was my conclusion after attending an event organized by activists to deliberate on poverty and the rights of citizens. As the meeting progressed, I sensed a shadow descending between the desire and plan for its realization.

The event commenced with a presentation of economic and social data – growth, employment generation, cost of living, income inequality, poverty estimates, access to services, allocations to the social sectors, etc., etc.

There followed a discussion that more or less ignored all the nuances of the presentation save a generalized sense that the situation was terrible and unacceptable. One after another speakers engaged in extended rants excoriating all governments for exploiting people and pillaging the country’s resources for personal ends.

Many heartbreaking incidents were narrated and, as is natural in such gatherings, people felt compelled to top one gruesome anecdote with another.

One could not help concluding there was an enemy whose identity was clearly recognized, whose motivations were thoroughly exposed, and whose callousness was never in doubt. Even those who had served governments joined in the affirmations.

Having thus exhausted themselves, the participants were relieved by the announcement for tea. Refreshed and recharged, they returned with new vigor for the next round.

The objective of the meeting, we were informed, was to prepare a charter of demands on behalf of citizens to be presented to the government. It was here that I felt the first pang of doubt but there was no time to indulge it as the discussion had picked up.

The speakers took turns again and most alluded to human and civil rights in the West as models for what was needed in Pakistan. It was a long list. After a relatively orderly discussion, a period of panic ensued when several participants feared their constituency might be ignored. Distressed cries to add various motley items emanated from nooks and crannies and were duly accommodated.

It was now time for the concluding session when the strategy to obtain the aforementioned rights was to be debated. It was here that my doubts came flooding back.

The talking began anew and speaker after speaker, most of them ardent and veteran trade unionists, indulged in equally emotional rants about what the government should or ought to do for their constituencies. Suggestions covered the entire spectrum of the demands that had been listed in the earlier round – the government should provide education, health, clean water, public transport, unemployment benefits, social security, justice, etc., etc.

It became hard for me to reconcile the pre- and post-tea discourses, the identification of the enemy and the calls to it for amelioration. The first thought that crossed my mind was courtesy of Mir Taqi Mir pointing to the naiveté involved in seeking a cure from the very person who made one ill:

Mir kya saada hain biimaar huuay jis ke sabab
usii attaar ke laundey se dawa letey hain

Literature often provides an anchor for a perspective that the social scientist can then explore for further insights. I reflected on the happenings of the day as I filtered out with the crowd after a crowning cup of tea amidst much bonhomie and backslapping.

My overwhelming sense was one of disorientation. It was as if I were in two worlds at the same time, my desires emerging from the present and my responses from the past. The world had changed while attitudes seemed lagging behind.

In the case of the event being described, it seemed that the evolution of citizenship rights in the West had a profound influence on the aspirations of the participants. At the same time, the mechanisms for the realization of those aspirations remained deeply rooted in the monarchical traditions of South Asia.

The whole process of which I had been a witness could well have been enacted during the Mughal Empire – subjects frustrated with an uncaring ruler pleading for redress of their grievances, the grievances themselves listed, in no particular order, on a scroll to be presented to the ruler in question. The image was hard to shake of the golden chain of justice with its sixty bells that any subject could pull to summon Emperor Jahangir himself to a hearing.

Notwithstanding our traditions, it was still disconcerting to find hardened trade unionists whose life had been spent mobilizing labor against employers, looking up to and pleading with a sovereign to grant them their rights, the same sovereign they had castigated in such categorical terms just moments earlier.

There seemed scant realization that like Europe we too now exist in a post-monarchical age, one characterized by sovereignty of the people and representative government. And, that in such an age, one looks to citizens, not rulers, for the dynamic of change.

We live in the age of citizens, not subjects, and politics, not pleading, is the instrument for change in our times. The information culled from the presentation of economic and social data needs to be turned not into a charter of demands but a compelling narrative for the voters. And trade unionists and political activists need to busy themselves mobilizing voters around that narrative.

Only when citizens articulate their needs, understand the causes for their remaining unfulfilled,   and use the power of the vote to transform them into effective demand, would the state feel compelled to pay heed to them.

The meeting that had started with a bang had ended with a whimper. The chain of justice is gone while the power of the vote remains unused. Our activists are looking up when they should be looking down.

Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on September 17, 2013 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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What Governments Do and Why

August 28, 2013

By Anjum Altaf

A seminal book of the 20th century, at least for academics, was An Economic Theory of Democracy, published in 1957. In it, Anthony Downs applied economic theory to the study of politics and, among other things, inferred what a rational government would do given its incentives.

At its simplest, the theory claims that a government aims to stay in power and therefore, if it is democratic, adapts its policies and actions to appeal to a majority of the electorate. For example, in the current run up to the elections in India, the general wisdom is that the ruling party would spend extensively in rural areas to negate a likely swing to the opposition in urban ones. (Contrary to Downs’ prototype, though, it seems it is not the effectiveness of expenditures that matters most to voter sentiment in India – it is the courting that is important.)

Incentives are the key variable in Downs’ proposition and in normal circumstances a government’s incentives are aligned with the objective of retaining power. Having observed Pakistani politics for decades, however, a circle of friends has inferred a variation that might better explain outcomes in the country. It might also illustrate the nature of the gulf that has opened up between the politics of India and Pakistan.

The essence of the variation is that the incentive of a typical Pakistani civil government (as a whole, not of rogue individuals within it which is a more universal phenomenon) has not been re-election but the maximum accumulation of wealth during any period in which it is in office. For one, the duration of its rule in any given period was highly uncertain given that real power was wielded behind the scene by actors other than itself. Therefore a strategy to satisfy the wants of any part of the electorate might yield no returns whatsoever. For another, it knew, given the paucity of political alternatives, that in the merry-go-round of Pakistani politics its turn would eventually come again. Thus it made strategic sense to build up a war chest to sustain it during its period in wilderness and be available when re-entry appeared possible.

This strategy was abetted by globalization when virtually all Pakistani leaders arranged safe havens abroad to recuperate when out of power or to which to escape when things got hot. Some are foreign nationals ruling by proxy from abroad; others shift abodes as and when the situation demands.

One consequence of the safe havens was that the leaders parked all their capital assets abroad and retained just running expenses in local currency. The operating game plan was then entirely tactical and risk-free – to do whatever was needed to extend their resource-extracting rule in the short term till such time when the music stopped. At that moment, they could take flight literally with the clothes on their backs and await some patron or the other to engineer their return.

With such incentives there was little need or time to do anything for the electorate barring the incidental byproducts of the process of making money (large infrastructure or service contracts, for example). This was quite unlike India where electoral strategy demanded the amelioration of some constituency at the very least. Governments could guess wrong (as with the Shining India strategy) but none could afford to ignore all the constituents all the time.

The complete apathy towards citizen needs in Pakistan is plausible in this perspective. A victim is the democratic process itself. Unlike in India, the real opposition is no longer represented by alternate political parties but increasingly by groups that reject the worldview of electoral politics altogether. The rejection also removes compunctions about the destructive economic consequences of their actions. They can survive on the bare minimum and believe everyone should too till the desired alternative is attained from which the nation would rise purer and stronger.

In exploring the fundamental divide in the politics of India and Pakistan, I often think back to the 300 years of the Mughal Empire. Half this period was dominated by the six Great Mughals whom everyone recognizes. The other half was populated by dozens of emperors most of whom few can recall. This was the period dominated by behind-the-scene king-makers who shuffled puppet emperors at will, retaining them only for the legitimacy they conferred.

This could explain how democratic India and Pakistan both remain overwhelmingly dynastic and yet on different political trajectories. I am tempted to conclude that Indian politics is a continuation of the first half of the Mughal Empire while Pakistani politics resembles more the second – the rule of kings versus that of king-makers.

Of course, in the age of democracy kings don’t rule till they die or are deposed – they can take turns in office. From the viewpoint of incentives it makes a huge behavioral difference if a leader knows he has to remain at home when out of power as opposed to one prepared to flee abroad to seek a patron.

These contrasting imperatives, incentives, and strategies have led to divergent political trajectories in Pakistan and India and thereby to the different fate of their citizens – the one ignored, the other appeased.

The first completion of the political term of a civilian government in Pakistan could signal a change. Constraining further the power of king-makers could bend the Pakistani trajectory towards the Indian model, itself a variant of the Downs prototype. When that happens, Pakistani citizens would attain parity with their Indian peers. It would make little difference in their immediate conditions but place them on a better political platform for the long struggle ahead.

Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He would like to thank Nadeem ul Haque for discussions on this topic. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on August 27, 2013 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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Social Services: Asking the Right Questions

August 19, 2013

By Anjum Altaf

It is remarkable that the governments of Pakistan and India have not been able to ensure essential social services for citizens – public health and education are in shambles. As a consequence, ill health and illiteracy mar the lives of millions – a human capital deficiency that diminishes the potential of all. The resources diverted to sustaining an ailing population are no longer available for productive investment.

This is not a far-fetched claim. Think of individuals who have to spend a good part of their income to buy treatment – they would have that much less left to invest in their own nourishment or in their children’s education.

What holds for individuals holds for countries as well. A recent study examines what has been termed the calorie consumption puzzle in India – real rural household incomes and expenditures have risen but malnutrition remains higher than in most sub-Saharan African countries that are poorer and slower growing.

Empirical analysis reveals that rapidly rising expenditures on essentials like health care, education, and transport absorb all the increases in total expenditures leaving money available for food unchanged. And expenditures on non-food essentials are rising because of declining supply of social services by the state – private substitutes being more expensive.

The consequences are visible – over 40 percent of children born in the Subcontinent suffer from stunting.

This gross negligence of the state prompts two questions. The first asks why the state has failed to ensure essential services. Many explanations do the rounds – incompetence, absence of political will, and lack of resources being the most popular. Any serious examination renders these implausible. A simpler explanation is that the provision of services remains a low priority for the state and the absence of effective political action has failed to raise the priority – in effect, ‘don’t ask, don’t get.’ We remain trapped in an equilibrium marked by empty state rhetoric and ineffective political action from or on behalf of citizens.

Take as an example the provision of clean water, something everyone knows is vital for good health and whose self-provision diverts household time and income from more productive uses. For years the state has promised clean water and for years citizens have acquiesced in the status quo.

Those who ignore the first question jump immediately to the second – How could services be better provided? Given the disillusion with the state, the answer almost inevitably is the private sector. The debate then gets hopelessly entangled in the ideological pros and cons of privatization.

Asking who should provide social services is misleading because it is an incomplete question. An example should help grasp the point. We often hear the question ‘What is the best diet?’ Any competent dietitian would caution that the appropriate question is ‘What is the best diet for each unique person?’

The same holds for privatization. The wrong question is ‘Who should provide a particular service?’ The right question is ‘How a service might best be provided under existing conditions?’ It is the context that is central – as it varies, so should the answer.

It is here that we run into a major problem that plagues our public policy – borrowing the ‘best practice’ of the day from the West and expecting the same results free from contextual constraints.

A brief history of the provision of water in London should illustrate the importance of context. Till the end of the 19th century, multiple private companies served various parts of the city. They were nationalized at the beginning of the 20th century and the state assumed responsibility for service provision. Towards the last quarter of the century the service was privatized again.

At the very least, one could conclude that there was no single solution deemed best for all times. Each alternative provided a solution good for the moment but gave rise eventually to issues that could not be resolved within the system itself. There were objective conditions that dictated changes in the modes of service delivery.

Summarizing drastically and emphasizing just one dimension for illustrative purposes, the evolution was as follows: There was local private response to localized heterogeneous demand; inevitably private providers cut corners to maximize profit leading to consumer complaints; the inability to regulate forced the state to take over operations; after an interval, bureaucratic inefficiencies led to deteriorating service, higher tariffs, and investment needs; privatization was the solution to overcome these. The major differences between stages one and three were that private firms had grown into global corporations, technological advances had made effective regulation possible, and the state had developed the competence to regulate the private sector.

We can ask the obvious question: Does the state in Pakistan and India that is unable to provide services itself have the wherewithal or the incentives to regulate effectively a profit-oriented private sector not comprised of angels? If not, would the cure not be worse than the disease?

It is not that there are no solutions; there are just no off-the-shelf ones that can be borrowed readily from other places. The bottom line is that the public needs to demand good service and policy makers need to comprehend the realities on the ground. They need to know the local conditions – social, economic, political, legal – to determine what is likely to work or not and they need to be faced with real consequences for poor performance.

Ideological hopes and preferences are not enough; neither are technological fixes. The political process needs to drive demand, educated analysis is required to respond to it, and accountability is necessary to provide the impetus for improvement. All three are weak at this point.

Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on August 18, 2013 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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