Posts Tagged ‘Revolution’

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

December 20, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

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

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

Economics, the Importance of Rules, and Collective Agency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Provincializing Europe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prospects for Change in South Asia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Modest Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

End Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

Altaf, Mir Anjum, 1982. ‘The Political Implications of Migration from Pakistan: A Note,’ South Asia Bulletin, Vol. II, No. 2. Accessed at: https://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/2010/06/27/imaginings-retrospective-on-pakistan/

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

Altaf, Mir Anjum, 2008. ‘Democracy in Japan – Electoral Rules Matter,’ The South Asian Idea Weblog. Accessed at: https://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/2008/02/22/democracy-in-japan-%E2%80%93-electoral-rules-matter/

Altaf, Mir Anjum, 2009a. ‘On the Poverty of Indian Muslims,’ The South Asian Idea Weblog. Accessed at: https://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/2009/05/23/on-the-poverty-of-indian-muslims/

Altaf, Mir Anjum, 2009b. ‘Justice, Power, and Truth,’ The South Asian Idea Weblog. Accessed at: https://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/2009/10/18/justice-power-and-truth/

Altaf, Mir Anjum, 2015. ‘Muslim Women and the 1946 Elections in India,’ The South Asian Idea Weblog. Accessed at: https://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/2015/10/16/muslim-women-and-the-1946-elections-in-india/

Ambedkar, Bhim Rao, 1949. Speech to the Indian Constituent Assembly. Accessed at: http://indialawyers.wordpress.com/2010/01/24/speech-of-bharat-ratna-dr-bhim-rao-ambedkar-detailing-the-accomplishments-of-the-constiuent-assembly-of-india/

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

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

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

Cohen, Mitchell, 2010. ‘T.H. Marshall’s “Citizenship and Social Class”’, Dissent Magazine, Fall. Accessed at: http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/t-h-marshalls-citizenship-and-social-class

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

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

Johnson, Ian, 1999. ‘On Hobbes’ Leviathan,’ accessed at: http://records.viu.ca/~johnstoi/introser/hobbes.htm

Kamal, Daud, 2006. O City of Lights: Faiz Ahmed Faiz – Selected Poetry. Oxford University Press, Karachi. A rendition of the poem by Iqbal Bano can be accessed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dxtgsq5oVy4

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

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

Marshall, Thomas Henry, 1950. ‘Citizenship and Social Class,’ in Inequality and Society, Jeff Manza and Michael Sauder, eds. (2009). W.W. Norton, New York. Accessed at http://delong.typepad.com/marshall-citizenship-and-social-class.pdf

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

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

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

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

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

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Revolt and Revolution in Pakistan

October 25, 2014

By Anjum Altaf

In Pakistan, revolution is confused with revolt. A revolution sweeps away the old order; a revolt just replaces the faces at the top. As we have discovered, a revolt is not enough. No matter how often the system is restarted by new saviors, it converges to the same outcome that is compatible with the attributes of the old order.

The principal attribute of the old order is stark social inequality in which the majority is dependent on a tiny minority for access to services and basic rights. This kind of hierarchical order is compatible with patron-client forms of governance which is really what we have had in the guise of democracy. Everything we observe confirms that our rulers consider themselves monarchs while the ruled think of themselves as subjects.

Years ago I asked a peasant why they did not elect an honest representative instead of the incumbent criminal. He took about a second to pose a counter question: Would the honest person be able to get his son out of the police lockup or employed in public service? People are not stupid; they understand well the distribution of power in which they have to survive.

A revolution would transform subjects into sovereign citizens; monarchs into accountable representatives. This kind of revolution has yet to occur in Pakistan. The political order has not changed; the departing British left the reins in the hands of the same social class that held power under it.

Is a revolution a la the French Revolution possible in Pakistan? No, because there is no intellectual ferment that accompanies and energizes systemic change. Adrift between faith in divine providence and charismatic saviors, Pakistan seems set to follow its pied pipers into anarchy and oblivion.

This comment appeared in the September issue of Herald Magazine and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. At the time Anjum Altaf was dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

For more on this subject, see What Kind of Revolution Do We Need in South Asia?

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What Kind of Revolution Do We Need in South Asia?

June 21, 2012

By Anjum Altaf

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.

It is no surprise then that we are saddled with the social outcomes of monarchical rule – a narrow elite enjoying the highest standards of living (a la the opulent royal courts of yore) with the majority of the population completely marginalized. For evidence, look no further than the paradox of India – uninterrupted democratic rule and aspirations to global leadership combined with grinding poverty and malnutrition in children worse than almost anywhere else in the world.

It is social conditions like these and the virtual disregard for the misery of the poor that prompt our question about revolution. Will this callous disregard ever cease without the sweeping aside of a royal class masquerading as representatives of the people?

Perhaps not, but then again, a revolution is no picnic, at least a revolution of the type we have been referring to. Just thinking whether the ideology of the revolution would be of the Right or the Left and whether it would be armed or not is sufficient to yield serious misgivings. The scariest aspect of such a prospect is the contemporaneous bankruptcy of ideas that might drive any revolution in South Asia today. When one thinks of the social revolutions of Europe, one is inspired by the intellectual debates of the times and the stature of the public intellectuals who participated in the debates. The entire foundation of the European Enlightenment emerged out of the contestation of ideas that are studied in academia to this day.

Contrast the above with the intellectual bankruptcy of present-day South Asia. Whether it is the Maoists in India or the Islamists in Pakistan, their angst can be defended but their passions are full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Watching our public intellectuals on TV is a foreshadowing of the future if their ideas were to be turned into reality. There is little doubt that the cure would be worse than the disease.

So we are in a bind. We need a social revolution but can see quite clearly that any traditional revolution would likely be a horror story that would make Pol Pot look good. In any case, the time for old style social revolutions of the disenfranchised could well be gone; modern regimes have too much firepower and control at their disposal to be overthrown in the ways of the past – history rarely repeats itself like that.

What, then, is to be done? One suggestion is to aim for an intellectual revolt, a revolution of the minds, an overthrowing of the thrall in which our rulers have enmeshed us for decades – a declaration that from today we cease to believe the lies on which we have been fed, nurtured and reared.

Let me explain. Every country of South Asia has a dominant narrative, one that has been cultivated at great expense, and one to which the majority of the populations have subscribed without question. We have not arrived at these beliefs as a result of our own independent thinking. Rather, we have imbibed, like mother’s milk, the narratives that have been made available to us. Had it been otherwise, we would not see the majority of Indians and Pakistanis, say, holding such completely contrary and polarized perceptions of each other.

Why do we subscribe to these narratives? We are more than ready to argue, with passion and conviction, that the ruling class of the US, for example, has misled its population with a completely false narrative about Iraq, one resting on nothing but blatant lies and misrepresentations. If we believe that, what logical basis do we have for arguing that our own rulers cannot use similar narratives to mislead us in order to further their narrow self-interests? Are we seriously arguing that our rulers are more moral, made of better stuff, when at the same time we castigate them for the most venal types of malfeasance and corruption?

Clearly this is an indefensible position, an acknowledgement that we have forsaken independent analysis, allowed our selves to be brainwashed, and turned into our own enemies. The false patriotism stoked by hyper-nationalism has turned us against each other and ultimately against our selves.

So the starting point of our revolution is the declaration to our respective rulers – WE DO NOT BELIEVE ANYTHING YOU SAY – WE WILL FIND OUT FOR OURSELVES.

And then, let us use the power of the new technologies to really find out for ourselves. Each one of us should set aside his/her biases and prejudices and seek out a partner from across the border. Let us enter into a myriad conversations unmediated by the rulers or the pundits on TV. Let us talk as one human being to another; let us educate ourselves about our lives; let us generate a new narrative from the ground up.

Imagine this hypothetical scenario – a hundred thousand cross-border marriages! Do you believe that would change the social and political dynamic of South Asia? It is a hypothetical proposition, but can a million conversations begin to have the same impact?

THINK. We need a new revolution for new times. We have nothing to lose but our prejudices. We might just lose our rulers as well and would that not make for a better world?

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Pakistan: What the Bleep is Government For and What is to be Done?

May 17, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

I hired a guard to secure my home and found him asleep when the robbers came. I fired him on the spot. I hired a driver to transport me from here to there and found him stealing the petrol. I fired him on the spot. I hired a tutor to teach my children logic and found him imparting them theology. I fired him on the spot. I am (all of us are) so decisive when it comes to firing private servants who are found to be incompetent or dishonest or devious – khaRey khaRey nikaal diyaa is the phrase of choice. And yet, and yet…

We can’t do the same when we find public servants to be incompetent and dishonest and devious. What, after all, is government for if not to provide the citizens with security, direction and development?  And what greater evidence do we need that our governments have failed at each of these responsibilities? Why can’t we fire these incompetent, dishonest and devious public servants on the spot?

Why not, when we know full well that this is just the tip of the iceberg? Not only are the guards asleep, they are in league with the robbers; not only are the drivers stealing the petrol, they are driving us in a direction far from where we wish to go; not only are the tutors teaching our children theology, they are abusing them mentally as well. To boot, they are charging us half our incomes for their upkeep and funneling our remaining assets into their private accounts.

And what about those who dismiss the servants we have chosen and appoint themselves our saviors by divine instruction and get others like themselves to bless their appointments? What about them?

Imagine if this travesty of governance had been perpetrated by an occupying army. The nation would have been up in arms; there would have a nationalist movement, perhaps even a jihad, backed by appeals to rights and honor and sovereignty. What is it that changes just because the occupiers pretend they look like us, talk like us, walk like us? (Look closely, they don’t – un ke muunh par phitkaar barastii hai is the phrase of choice.)

Why can’t we fire these public servants who are really occupiers and have invaded our country? What changes from the individual to the collective domain? Is it because we don’t want to? Is it because the one looks so straight, the next so humble, the third so enlightened? Is it because we always see a silver lining to the blackest of clouds? Is it because democracy needs time to mature? Is it because the public domain is not our headache? Is it because there must be some reason to this madness? Is it because it is God’s will?

Or is it because we are unable to? We know they are all thieves – yeh sab chor haiN is the phrase of choice – but we can’t collectively find a way to get rid of those whom we have imposed upon ourselves and are condemned, at best, to rotate their marauding turns.

No doubt it is a bit of both but my guess is that the balance is tilting in favor of the second camp. There are now fewer willing to give such governments another chance and more wishing, albeit helplessly, to replace them with something that works for the owners of the country. So how do we put this desire into action? What is that we have to figure out and what is the first step towards a better future?

Clearly, the system we have is deeply flawed if we ourselves are responsible for elevating thieves to positions of power only to be unable to get rid of them; or if we are helpless when God’s angels take over the reins of power; or when high priests and guardians of the faith, unbearded and bearded, accord their blessings to the thieves. There is no way we can leverage this system to achieve meaningful change. The thieves have us by the short and curlies; they are thoroughly amused at watching us squirm and are laughing all the way to the bank.

There is no opening for an opposition of the traditional type embodied in a political party with a ‘good’ leader. For one, money talks and the thieves have the bulk of the money; for another, an hierarchical society is dominated by ‘influentials’ and the ‘influentials’ are the ones lording over us; for yet another, the incumbents have the monopoly of devious means that can undermine a movement of the traditional type; and, fatally, it takes little time for a ‘good’ leader to turn ‘bad’ if nothing else changes in the system.

There is no opening either for an insurrectionary engagement of the familiar type embodied in an armed revolution. For one, the thieves have the monopoly of force they would not hesitate to let loose on their opponents; for another, there are no revolutionaries who can provide a common platform for an ideologically divided polity.

The only way left is a people’s movement, a swelling of the people’s voice that gets so loud it overwhelms the bastions of power and prepares the ground for a new and different order. What is needed is a wave of the popular will that proclaims ‘Enough’ and carries so much momentum it washes away the status quo.

Almost a century later we are back to civil disobedience as the weapon of last resort. We need a unified movement without the need of a unified leadership. We need citizens motivated by the common desire to connect with each other to figure out a way to make their numbers felt without the need for political parties or political violence.

It can be done; it must be done. It needs fresh minds, young hearts, a new vision, a new modality. Let the first few get together and create ‘The Voice of the Pakistani People’ as a forum for collective thought and decentralized action at the individual, household and neighborhood levels that comes together at the village, town, city, province and finally the national level. Let us add our names to the forum till the scroll stretches from one end of the country to the other, from Pasni to Peshawar. Then we will figure out how to make our numbers count and translate our desires into reality.

There is always a first drop the marks the beginning of every flood. There are many willing to unleash a storm – baiThe haiN ham tahhiiyaa-e tuufaN kiiye hue; it awaits a chain reaction to sweep aside the floodgates.

 

Pakistan after the Arab Insurrections

February 7, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

What do the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt portend for Pakistan? The question is on many minds. One approach to attempting an answer might be to try and infer it from below by investigating the morphology of Pakistani society and noting any significant similarities and differences in the process.

A convenient point of departure is the elementary error that most people make in their characterization of Pakistani society. It is often argued that the portrayal of Pakistani society as religious is incorrect because people do not vote for religious parties in elections; the latter hardly ever get more than five percent of the votes cast.

This error flows from an uncritical conflation of religious beliefs and voting behavior. The fact that people are religious does not mean that they are oblivious to their material interests. A defining characteristic of Pakistani society is that it is hierarchically structured along relationships of dependence. People do not have impersonal access to their fundamental rights, social protection, services, justice, or employment. The individual who represents them politically also acts as one of the patrons who negotiate their interactions with the state.

It is therefore not surprising that in electing a representative people opt for the patron with the most leverage vis a vis the state. Such leverage, by and large, is possessed by the owners of capital (land in the rural constituencies) and not by the clerics. Hence, individuals from the same politically influential families are chosen in election after election. Voters do not mind if their representatives change political affiliations as long as they retain their access to privilege and patronage.

The fact that voters prefer a particular set of political representatives does not mean, however, that they are under any illusions regarding their moral probity. On the contrary, virtually every voter characterizes the representatives as thieves – “they are all thieves” is the most frequently heard phrase in the country. Even staunch supporters of a party do not disagree with this verdict; they just prefer their own set of thieves to someone else’s.

Given this perception, what form of governance would the people prefer instead? It is here that things get complicated and the main differences from Egypt and Tunisia become clear. Pakistan has not been frozen in time under authoritarian rulers who have been around for three or more decades, who routinely get elected by over 90 percent of the vote, who have crippled all secular opposition, cracked down on the religious parties, and muzzled the expression of popular opinion.

Quite the contrary: the media are free, political parties form and disband at will, elections are held from time to time, and religious elements are patronized and given extensive leeway in the service of power. Over the 60-plus years of its existence virtually all modes of governance have been tried in Pakistan – feudal, military, populist, left socialist, Islamic socialist, technocratic, corporate, etc. All have failed to deliver tangible benefits to the vast majority of the population that in economic terms is now gasping for survival.

One implication of this is that the overwhelming yearning in Pakistan, unlike the Arab countries, is not for freedom or release from suffocation. People in Pakistan are quite free – they may be free to die of many preventable causes but they are free nonetheless. The latent demand is for good governance.

At the same time, since the mid-1970s, a major investment has been made in the Islamization of Pakistani society and institutions of ideological reproduction ceded to religious forces by so-called secular rulers. Over three decades of indoctrination have limited the intellectual vision of the kind of change conceivable in Pakistan. It is now religious dogma that drives the political imagination and the ensuing vision harks back to the golden age of Islam.

It is this imagination that has fueled the surge in fundamentalism, the emphasis on rituals and the insistence on literal adherence to divine commands. Pakistani society is religious in the sense that an overwhelming majority would, if asked, approve of stoning for adultery, amputation for theft, the separation of the genders, the restoration of the caliphate, etc. This is not to say that individuals would not accept alternatives or are any more pious in their daily lives than they used to be – many Quranic injunctions are casually violated where personal gain is involved. The crucial point is that the normative vision of the desired society is now couched in a religious idiom and confined to the one that flows from dogma.

As a consequence, the situation differs from Tunisia and Egypt where the lead has been taken by the young demanding freedom with religious forces having to adapt to the popular sentiment or risk being marginalized. Pakistanis have not agitated for freedom or jobs; they have protested to demand death for blasphemy, for declaring various groups un-Islamic, for promulgation of Shariah, and for recording religion on passports. It is the secular elements that have had to adopt the religious discourse couching their message in the language of Islamic values – truth, justice, and compassion – consonant with their platforms.

In this context the situation in Pakistan is much closer to Iran before 1979 than to Egypt today – the secular groups are in the slipstream of a latent religious challenge to authority. But there is crucial difference as well – unlike Iran there is no unified theocratic hierarchy that leads the religious challenge in Pakistan. If and when the Pakistani population is forced into the streets by unbearable economic realities the dominant ideology would be that of Islam but without a united leadership to channel the energy.

Like Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the Soviets, the various Islamic factions would be unlikely to agree with each other or over any one interpretation of the divine message. A period of chaos would ensue that would most likely be ended by the intervention of external forces and the imposition of a Karzai-like figure to provide the breathing room for more feasible solutions to be explored.

This analysis of the morphology of Pakistani society acknowledges the likelihood of popular unrest but concludes that its nature would be different from what is being observed in the Arab world. The initial trajectory would likely follow the Iranian pattern but in the absence of a united religious hierarchy it would lack stability and dissolve into chaos. In brief, a period of anarchy centered in religious strife seems to be looming for Pakistan.

This article was cross-posted on 3 Quarks Daily on February 13, 2011.

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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…)

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…)

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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A Middle Class ‘Revolution’

December 16, 2007

By Ahmed Kamran 

Curiously, Pakistan passes through a cycle of political tumult and unrest after about every ten years that somehow leads to a change of the ‘faces’. After the political upheavals of 1958, 1968, 1977-78, 1988, and 1998-99 we are about to enter into 2008 with yet another ‘middle class revolution’ brewing in some urban areas. 

Politics is much like Plato’s allegory of a cave where we do not see the real world but only the images of the people outside the cave being formed on the wall. Likewise, on the Pakistan political stage, we do not see the ‘reality’ but only the ‘images’ that are being projected onto the screen, now immensely powerful images with global satellite TV.

Sentimental viewers of mostly middle classes tend to get so much emotionally involved in the play that they start ascribing their own latent ‘dreams’ and memories of their own unfulfilled youthful desires to the different ‘players’ on the screen.

All politics is essentially the interplay of some conflicting powers competing for expanding or protecting their interests. Modern politics is also the art of camouflaging this conflict in some more ‘popular’ garbs. We are at times at a loss to discern the real conflict beneath the multiple layers of covering.

Let’s attempt to see what is happening around us and who the real ‘players’ are?

Today, in our political life we are witnessing mainly five contradictions interacting with each other on different planes:

(i)    The underlying conflict between the US-led western powers’ hegemonic interests in the south and central Asian region and a powerful and politically dominant Pakistan military that is now armed with nuclear weapons. Currently, this conflict has become the main driver of most political happenings in the country and is directly impacting all other conflicts in our society.

(ii)  The conflict between the directly ruling military and the political power blocks of ruling elite who aspire to extract their pound of flesh in the plunder of national wealth. This conflict has been generally the most dominant factor in our national politics till 1988.

(iii) The internal conflict among political parties representing coalitions of different power blocks competing with each other for a power and wealth sharing role with the military and in the process seeking blessings and patronage of the western imperial powers. 

(iv) The aspirations of the expanding middle classes for a greater role for themselves in the governance and the system of patronage currently dominated by only a small ruling elite. These aspirations are usually expressed in Op-Ed pages and Letters to Editors in English Newspapers and on electronic media in terms of demands for more social and political ‘freedoms’ in line with western democratic political models, The middle class aspirations of at least the urban areas of Sindh have found an independent political representation in the form of MQM. A rising middle class of Punjab has yet to find an independent political representation.

(v)  The burgeoning desires and demands of common men and women and the toiling masses of the country for emancipation from oppressive poverty and an unfulfilled dream for better living that can meet their basic needs of shelter, health and education have not yet found any voice and political representation.            

In the world arena, G8 powers and China are simultaneously competing and collaborating with each other for expanding their economies. The US has taken an outright aggressive posture to dominate the world economy with brute force and is prepared to unleash new wars to demonstrate its capability to do so for gaining exclusive control of the world’s energy resources to ensure its continued hegemony. The world’s largest oil and gas reserves, so critically vital for the industrially developed economies having the ambition of playing the role of global powers, are located in and around the regions of the Middle East and the Central Asia. Most of the oil supplies pass through the Persian Gulf. Pakistan with its large standing army and nuclear weapons is located too dangerously close to these prized regions. China critically needs an outlet in this area through Pakistan to resist any blockade of its vital energy supplies. This global conflict has now become a predominant factor in the politics of many weaker economies like Pakistan which happen to be located in the vortex of this global energy game. Earlier, before the development of colonial and post-colonial world, international conflicts seldom played this high level of disturbing influence on the local politics and domestic power conflicts usually played dominant roles in the societies. Now for a long time the local interest groups of the ruling classes do not have sufficient political and military strength to challenge the global players and have no choice but to compete among themselves for seeking a role to serve one or the other dominant player in the bigger global power game and during the currency of this ‘appointment’ skim off some national wealth for themselves in awarding state controlled contracts and in the deals for procurement of weapons from their masters.

In 1947 Pakistan was founded in areas with predominantly agrarian and tribal socio-political structures and matured political institutions were conspicuous by their absence. The only state institution in this part that was fairly matured and developed was the military that was mostly recruited by the British colonial administration from the Punjab and parts of NWFP. The Pakistan army having strong and disciplined institutional support system soon gained preeminence in the newly formed state structures in early 1950’s and finally established its direct rule in 1958, ruthlessly suppressing the nascent political evolutionary process. The landed aristocracy and the merchant bourgeoisie soon assumed the role of junior collaborators and quickly learnt the politics of gaining economic benefits through patronage of military generals. Building its own independent extensive revenue-generating economic base, Pakistan military became the sole negotiator for the country in the international power game during the cold war. The rising imperial power in the Asian theater, the US swiftly developed direct links with a strong standing army in south Asia to counter balance the Soviet Union and China’s growing influence in the region and the Middle East.

Exploiting the opportunity provided by China’s breaking away from the Soviet Union’s camp in early 1960’s, the Pakistan army clearly tilted towards China to seek protection from a possible pincer attack of soviet dominated powers; from India on its eastern border and from Afghanistan on the west. The China card also provided a timely lever to the Pakistan army for bolstering its position in its negotiations for more military aid from the US and European powers. Extra-ordinarily warm Pak-China Friendship in 1960s and 1970s was the need of Pakistan army to mitigate the fear of betrayal from the US and the West in Pakistan army’s attempt to resist Indian hegemony in south Asia.    

During the process of the economic growth in the last about 50 years the middle classes have steadily expanded in numbers, increasing disposable incomes and social influence while accumulation of wealth in large urban areas has dramatically increased in the last about 10 years. Sharing of some benefits of the economic growth during military’s first direct rule in Ayub’s era produced first signs of middle class gaining strength and consequently asking for more political freedoms and greater role in governance. Primarily the youth of those middle classes who actually benefited from the magic of state sponsored capitalism came out on the streets demanding freedoms in 1968, a beginning of the first radical students’ movement in the country. Triggered by the students’ agitation, the first (and, perhaps, the last) mass political upheaval was witnessed in Pakistan when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto cleverly exploited political discontentment of the middle classes and successfully agitated the urban poor by inviting them for ‘gherao aur jalao’ raising a radical slogan of the promise of ‘roti, kapra, aur makan’!        

Contrary to general belief, barring a few marginal concessions, this haphazard demonstration of the street power and ‘labour agitation’ did not yield any fruits in the form of meaningful ‘political freedoms’. In fact, as usual, it resulted in a ‘counter-revolution’ from the army, which again assumed the role of ‘direct ruler’ with Yahya Khan imposing another martial law. It was the subsequent humiliating defeat of Pakistan army in the East Pakistan and the eastern part winning its independence in December 1971 that, in fact, forced the Pakistan Army to concede to the civilian rule by handing over the political power to populist Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.      

Unfortunately, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto squandered this first and probably the last opportunity to permanently lay the foundation of a civilian political rule in Pakistan and soon succumbed to his own complexes and in pursuit of his personal whims and political vendetta he unwittingly helped resurrect the arbitrary powers of the military. Army soon recouped its strength and struck back in vengeance in 1977. Bhutto, a populist elected Prime Minister from the political elite of the country, was hanged essentially for the unpardonable crime of personally humiliating the Pakistan army. 

Soon a major event occurred on the western borders of Pakistan. Soviet army walked into Afghanistan in 1979 to bolster the tottering pro-soviet regime. Pakistan army became the darling of the west and billions of US dollars were pumped by the West and the Saudi Arabia through Pakistan army to whip up an Islamic Jihad against godless communists – a US backed proxy war against Soviet Union. Intoxicated with dreams of establishing a pure Islamic Caliphate, Islamic Jihad volunteers were recruited by CIA from all over Muslim world and trained and equipped to fight a guerrilla war in Afghanistan. Pakistan army gained immense regional influence while few individual generals amassed huge wealth by skimming off the weapons supply line. To consolidate its tight control over domestic politics, with a green light from Washington, Pakistan army succeeded in creating ‘constitutional safeguards’ of assuming an arbitrator’s role by obtaining the indirect power through the office of the President to dissolve the elected parliament whenever it feels the ‘integrity’ of Pakistan is threatened. The political structure of the country was thus permanently skewed. The political landscape of south and central Asia significantly changed after the withdrawal of Soviet Union from Afghanistan and signing of the Geneva Accord. After successfully inflicting fatal wounds to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the USA wished to ‘pack up’ and leave like shooting of a Hollywood movie coming to an end. But in the words of Zbigniew Brezinski ‘some stirred up’ Islamic Jihadis and Pakistan army were not too pleased with the idea. Soon Pakistan army chief and President General Zia ul Haq and a galaxy of key military generals together with the US ambassador were blown up in a mysterious military plane crash near Bahawalpur in 1988.

The army temporarily suffered a shock and stepped back. The power was transferred to a pliant civilian set up under Benazir Bhutto, the daughter of hanged Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Thereafter, it is a long and sad story of corrupt and inept politicians coming and going, in a merry-go-round one after the other, at the pleasure of real power brokers as part of the ‘permanent establishment’, and in the process amassing enormous wealth for themselves and their cronies in a state sponsored plunder of national wealth.

After the collapse of the Soviet empire, the global political landscape has changed significantly. The US backed Iraq-Iran war had come to an end in 1988 without a conclusion. The US lured its protégé Saddam Hussein walking into Kuwait and then immediately unleashed a ‘Desert Storm’ in the Middle East and successfully destroyed the Iraqi Army, a war machine becoming quite strong and well equipped during the previous war. Pakistan army is another politically well entrenched, well-oiled and fully equipped war behemoth in this sensitive region that needed to be cut down to the size. Pressure on GHQ was gradually mounted while at the same time collaborating on many vital matters of mutual interest. Meanwhile, Pakistan army succeeded in gaining some strategic depth by carving out an area of influence in Afghanistan with the help of Taliban that it created in its religious-military training schools in Pakistan. After initial enthusiasm of the US for a stable regime not hostile to their designs for access to oil in the region (who cares if it was openly trampling democratic and women’s rights in the name of mediaeval Islamic Caliphate), the obstinate Taliban in collusion with Pakistan army were turning out to be a hard nut to crack. For the US strategic planners, the genie of Islamic Jihadis that they had gleefully created was not prepared to roll back into the bottle. On top of it, Pakistan defiantly exploded its nuclear devices in 1998 in response to India’s nuclear detonations. A dangerous missile race for acquiring long range nuclear devices delivery capability ensued in the region making it even more volatile and explosive. Eventually, the birds came back to roost. On the morning of infamous 9/11 the Taliban-protected Al-Qaeda struck like lightening at the US symbols of hegemony by destroying World Trade Centre in New York and damaging the Pentagon in Washington. The world was not to remain the same.

A ‘War of Terror’ in retaliation was unleashed with full US imperial military might in Afghanistan, leaving little choice for other allies including next door Pakistan but to acquiesce or being ‘thrown back into the stone age’. Pakistan hurriedly complied. Next target of full frontal attack was beleaguered Iraq, which is now practically dismembered and only rubble has remained there to bounce, reminding the destruction of Baghdad by the Mongol hordes of Helegu Khan in 1258. Saddam Hussein is executed to make a horrible example for others and a strategic control over enormous oil wealth in the region is successfully demonstrated to terrorize the whole world. Sabers are now rattling for the next target in Iran and again Pakistan army’s role in future in the new war game would be critical.   

For some time now US think tanks like Carnegie Endowment Institute of International Relations have been building up a case that Pakistan army has long been using the bogey of Islamic Fundamentalists under its own patronage to scare the Western world and every time succeeds in negotiating a ‘deal’ for itself when pressures are mounted. Suggestions are being made to finally call the bluff and sort out this matter once and for all. It is, however, ironic that both the adversaries successfully use these Islamic Fundos (some of them are truly misguided and some are downright corrupt) towards scoring points over each other. Now the full steam is on. Diplomatic pressure was put on Pakistan military to come to terms with chosen ‘political leadership’ of Benazir Bhutto, who is obviously too eager to play the game at whatever terms. Amusingly reminiscing his association with Benazir Bhutto in Oxford, Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) President Richard Hass introduced her recently in August 2007 to a galaxy of real global power brokers in a gathering in Washington as the selected candidate for the new job in Pakistan. We know CFR is the most influential body of the powerful policy makers in the USA. Most of the US doctrines that have had significant impact on the course of world history were always first expressed in CFR and its organ Foreign Affairs. The recent notable example is Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations (on the intriguing origins and history of CFR and its likes sometime later). Pak-Iran oil refinery, Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, and other gas pipeline projects in the region are scuttled under pressure from the US. China came to the rescue of Gwadar Port project and is investing significant sums to gain a strategic outlet for its oil supplies and trade routes from the region. No wonder, there was a sudden upsurge in an almost dead horse of Baloch nationalist movement operating from its bases in Afghanistan and most of the project work in the province came to a stand still. Full sympathy to a genuine movement for Baloch national rights and for equitable distribution of their natural resources, but a sudden championing of this ‘national cause’ by likes of Akbar Bugti was a little more then what the eyes can see on the media. When army brutally eliminated the irritating thorn of Akbar Bugti and his militia in a ‘clinical operation’, a Pakistani Taliban commander Abdullah Mehsud who spent five years in Guantanamo Bay and was handed over to the US backed Karzai regime in Afghanistan, reappears and abducts two Chinese engineers of whom one was later killed. There is a simultaneous rise in militant Jihadi movements in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan soon spreading into otherwise settled areas of Swat and adjoining territories. Reportedly, India has set up more Consulate offices in Afghanistan then in any other country in the world, all of them in the eastern provinces bordering Pakistan. Both Baloch liberation movement activists and Red Mosque militant Jihadis in Islamabad and other towns in the northern areas started specifically targeting Chinese nationals, leaving all American and European nationals undisturbed. It is a strange and unexplainable phenomenon in view of the long tradition of almost sentimental Pak-China friendship traditions. Dubious Islamic Jihadi groups defiantly challenged government writ in the heart of Islamabad and in Swat and strangely, otherwise quite liberal media, suddenly started unleashing a blitzkrieg in sympathy of the antics of fundamentalist militant Jihadis. Western media power and the local and foreign NGO groups and Internet groups are all in unison and an unusual display of global sympathy with the fighters of democratic rights on the streets of Pakistani towns out of the whole world is too good to believe.                                      

In this backdrop higher judiciary also started displaying an over enthusiastic activism that was almost bordering on sheer adventurism in the given state structures, though, undoubtedly taking up very valid causes, specially those that are very close to the hearts of the middle classes and the Intelligentsia of the country. There was a marked increase in suicidal bomb attacks at different military and civilian targets inside cities and towns of Pakistan.

As expected, the besieged Pakistan army struck back in retaliation and ruthlessly crushed Islamic Jihadis in Islamabad and took draconian measures against recalcitrant judiciary and the media. Eventually, emergency is declared in the country suspending the fundamental and human rights and most of the activist judges of the superior courts have been summarily dispensed with. Some sections of the Intelligentsia, particularly the lawyers and journalists have come out on the streets to protest against government’s high-handedness and strict measures. The new and affluent middle class developing in Punjab is particularly agitated, quite vocally giving it an ethnic undertone. For the first time in history otherwise completely apolitical students of elite educational institutes like LUMS and FAST in Lahore, where mostly sons and daughters of affluent classes are enrolled, have shown some signs of political agitation on their campuses.

But no intelligent observer can escape noticing that the common men and the masses are conspicuously absent from this drama being played on the streets of Lahore and partly in Karachi ostensibly for the peoples’ ‘democratic rights’. A common man has apparently learnt its lessons in the street agitations of 1968 and in 1977, which were nothing more then stage shows organized by some powers to topple one set of rulers and bring other more pliant cliques, eagerly bidding for a new role in the changed circumstances. No wonder, all agitation is specifically for the change of faces only. Even the rhetoric is ostensibly for western democratic rights that are more suited to warm up the affluent middle classes and the influential opinion makers in Intelligentsia and no promise for the change of common men’s life is forthcoming. Street demos ‘organized’ in some large urban centres are typically characterized by pretty faces of some well-fed women wearing designer dark glasses gleefully holding placards and banners with slogans all written in English where only a minority can read or write even Urdu, let alone chaste English language! Photographs of these demos, perhaps, have better ‘news value’ for the next morning local and international newspapers. In street power shows mostly filled with hired workers dancing mechanically atop large contract vehicles and curious onlookers in the sides, the same old tried and tested faces of corrupt politicians bejeweled with diamond studded accessories and protected by bullet-proof vehicles and rings of private security guards appear masquerading as ‘champions of democracy’. It is said, history repeats itself; first time as a tragedy, second time as a farce. All political parties have conveniently forgotten to even talk about the solutions for real issues faced by toiling men and women every day in our cities, small towns and the villages. It seems having learnt their lessons of the powerful mass appeal of the slogans of 1968 agitation, army and the ruling elite have agreed not to raise that genie again in Pakistan’s politics. There is a consensus on a clear shift from the real issues.

It seems currently a war of nerves is being fought between Pakistan army and the global powers bent upon gradually putting it in a tight corner and clipping its wings. Each party is scoring winning points over the other in each successive covert battle. Though, Musharraf regime is generally accused of selling its soul to its American masters in the ‘war on terror’, the indications are that while collaborating with the US led coalition in its broad policy objectives, it seems to have taken a posture of ‘strategic defiance’ in terms of domestic political affairs and its relations with China and Iran. To put international opinion pressures, a well orchestrated media war has been unleashed in the West to embarrass Pakistan. There is an unusual display of clear and direct interference in the domestic political affairs by the US and other European diplomats. There is a flurry of publicly admonishing statements and frequent arrivals in the country of plenipotentiaries of imperial west ‘advising’ how to behave. Strangely, US Ambassador is openly visiting the houses of leading lights of the protest movement against sitting government. Apparently, it is a delightful moment for a slavish middle class Intelligentsia. It is, however, ironic that the elite civic society which accuses the government of succumbing to the pressures of the US masters after 9/11 and becoming a stooge in the hands of US and the west in their fight against terror and killing its own people, in the same breath, is taking immense pride in these acts of the viceroys of the west. Gleeful acceptance of such brazen foreign interference in the internal political affairs of the country is setting a bad precedent that will continue to haunt this nation for a long time. We have lost our national pride and don’t even notice it. Last such shameful interference was only seen in 1977 when a beleaguered Bhutto agreed to let then Saudi Ambassador act like a supreme arbiter with a whip in his hands deciding matters between the interlocutors of PPP government and the arrested PNA leaders in Sihala Rest House near Islamabad in the wake of violent anti-government agitation on the charges of Bhutto’s rigging of the elections.                  

In politics and international relations there are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies. Those who have today locked their horns defending own turfs on some disagreements may tomorrow become friends and collaborators and turn against those who are happily siding with either of the two. This has been amply demonstrated in the last 60 years of the history of Pakistan politics and the last more than 2,500 years of world history. No need to get emotionally trapped in a particular moment in time and space. We need to take, using a modern term, ‘Google Earth’ view of the global events of history in a larger perspective, moving in time.

What options do we have?

To be fair, I am at a loss. On the one hand we have an army that has dominated the politics in our country for the last about 50 years and has been ruling us directly or indirectly. Taking advantage of its paramount political power, it has also greatly expanded its own business empire directly competing with civic society and continues to drain better part of our national resources on unproductive activities to the clear disadvantage of public health, education and common well being. All saner elements of our society wish to see army limiting itself to its primary job of defending the borders; political institutions to be built and democratic rights of the people to be restored; and a fair and equitable distribution of fruits of the economic growth among all classes of society to ensure shelter, gainful employment, education and health facilities for everyone. We all know that no one voluntarily relinquishes its power and privileges and bestows equal rights on others as a gift. One must fight for it.

On the other hand we have an aggressive juggernaut of US expansion in the region trampling national sovereignty of countries under its feet with impunity. It wants to maul Pakistan army not for any love of the people of Pakistan or for its compulsive desire for restoration of democracy in every country. For global powers nuclear assets in the hands of a politically dominant strong standing army with some ‘stirred up’ Islamic fundamentalists lurking around is too big a risk for their designs in the region. They have clearly reserved greater roles for India to play in the region, which seems too eager to play ball with them. They are out for grabbing resources for themselves and preventing others (China) from gaining any strategic control over them. If there are few irritants on their way like Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan or may be Iran or Pakistan tomorrow, they wouldn’t hesitate to obliterate them, if required. They are known to support and bolster ruthless tyrants and military dictators as long as they serve their purpose and then hang them on the streets. Inviting foreign tyrants and military powers to settle scores with domestic adversaries has never been a wise course of action. Abbasi caliph in Baghdad was foolish to invite Changez Khan to restore his power against oppressive Seljuq Turks. Mongol hordes came happily with a blazing trail of blood and destruction behind them. Some Iraqis who had thought that US and NATO forces will come and deliver them from the oppression of tyrant Saddam Hussein by handing them over a democratic Iraq on the plate must be cursing the day the US forces landed in Iraq to restore ‘democracy’ in the country, which has unfortunately witnessed its own destruction at the hands of invading armies more than any other country in the world.             

Should we support and countenance all draconian measures and undemocratic actions of our military rulers? Not really. We need a long-term and sustained struggle for restoration of democracy, good governance and establishment of a fair economic system in our country. This is going to be a long journey. No heroic short cuts are there. There is no point in raising a premature counter-productive storm that cannot be sustained. Infantile adventurism in total disregard of given situation and relative strengths of different institutions and interest groups in the society will only lead to more repressive counter-measures and loss of even those meager gains that were made earlier over a period of time. In a misplaced enthusiasm of few of us who genuinely believe that a revolution has begun that will usher in a new era for replicating a matured European or US political governance model in a country where tribalism and feudal culture is still dominant even among the middle classes, we may unwittingly end up playing assigned stage roles for others. We should not be deceived by looking at ‘images’ formed on media and ascribing our own noble thoughts and imaginary ‘role models’ to them. Common men and women are perhaps more pragmatic and with their lessons learnt in the past can see better through the colorful political fog spread through media and have understandably abstained from it. Though I hate to draw this parallel, but for those who believe in peoples’ democratic rights I would remind that the democratic rights’ score card of its many champions including present day ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ is not very encouraging either.

Such are, perhaps, the realities of life.

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