Posts Tagged ‘South Asia’

A Guide to Inequality

June 14, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

It is good that inequality is attracting attention in Pakistan because there are significant gaps in our understanding of the phenomenon.

What is under scrutiny in the West is economic inequality which is only one aspect and that too a rather peculiar one. Inequality has at least two other important dimensions – political and social. Political inequality refers to unequal say in choosing how one wishes to be governed and within the representative form of governance such equality is now ensured by giving every citizen a vote. Although the struggle for political equality goes back at least four centuries, its full achievement is quite recent. Very few are aware that only around 15 percent of the adult population was eligible to vote in the 1946 elections in India. Women obtained political equality as late as the 1940s in some European countries and Blacks became eligible to vote much later than Whites in the U.S.

Social inequality can be appreciated by thinking of who can share your dining table. Your uncle surely can but your cook would most likely eat in the kitchen in separate utensils. Societies stratified by status are socially unequal, caste-based systems being the most obvious examples in South Asia. Some aspects of gender and race discrimination like prohibiting women to drive in Saudi Arabia or restricting Blacks from certain schools in the U.S. are or were forms of social inequality.

Political and social inequalities have engendered protracted struggles over a number of centuries with very clear goals – the achievement of full equality. These goals have been largely achieved in the West which is why one doesn’t hear much about them anymore. The situation is quite different in South Asia where social inequality is the norm. Political equality does exist in principle but in a peculiar form because of the nature of its origin – a fallout of decolonization and not the outcome of a prolonged popular struggle. Consider how one-person-one-vote is moderated through biraderi and caste identities and how many women cast their votes as instructed by men.

Economic inequality is quite different because complete parity has never been a serious popular demand. It is relevant in restricted domains like gender and ethnicity where the call for equal-pay-for equal-work remains cogent but across-the-board equality has been espoused only by some utopian movements. Even Marxism didn’t subscribe to it – its maxim was ‘from each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.’

The reason economic equality has not been a political demand is that it contradicts the demand for freedom. Individuals wish to choose between work and leisure for themselves and since it is highly unlikely that everyone will have the same preference, income inequalities are accepted as inevitable. Political and social equality are considered birthrights but economic achievement is a function of choice as well.  

The recent attention to economic inequality in the West is not the outcome of a sudden popular yearning for parity. It has more to do with the realization by the elites that inequality might have crossed the point where it threatens both capitalism and democracy, the pillars of the current world order.

Economic inequality was not considered a threat to capitalism as long as it was believed that everyone was becoming better off albeit some more than others. This trickle-down theory has been exposed as mistaken. Since around 1980, the output of the capitalist economy has been sucked up – the richest have gained, the middle has stagnated, and the bottom has lost in real terms. This explains the emergence of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the resulting blasphemous references to socialism in the recent elections in the U.S.   

The concentration of wealth has also distorted democracy because the rich have used  money to protects their assets. It is common for tycoons to pay a lower income tax rate than their secretaries and legal mechanisms have been created to shelter wealth offshore – Trump is reported to have paid no tax for 18 years. Democracy has morphed into plutocracy with one-person-one-vote replaced by one-dollar-one-vote and a growing reaction is paving the way to right-wing populism.

Economic inequality is extreme in South Asia –  the richest 57 individuals in India are reported to own as much wealth as the bottom 70 percent of the population. However, there is no significant political mobilization because people continue to accept economic inequality as the norm. They have always known that it exists – how could they not when it is always in their face – but its wider implications for capitalism and democracy are not issues that agitate the minds of the rulers or the ruled.

Much more relevant for the individual in the economic sphere is equality of opportunity. It is a meaningful political demand that irrespective of the economic status of individuals their children should be entitled to the same opportunities as anyone else’s. This would begin to erode the cumulative accumulation of privilege and wealth that characterizes South Asia.

The real issue remains social inequality. Without gains on this front economic justice would remain unattainable. Not all South Asians have been unaware of this truth. Reflect on the words of Dr. Ambedkar, the author of the Indian Constitution: “On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality… How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life?…  If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up.”

This opinion was published in Dawn on June 13, 2017 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. For a related article, see Poverty and Human Rights.

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Just Do It

November 21, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

Let me explain.

Imagine a number of you are in a boat out at sea and a hole opens up in the bottom. If everyone waits for another to do something, everyone will drown. Someone will have to do something for a chance of survival. Right?

Now extend the metaphor to your community or your country where a number of big holes have opened up in the bottom. And there is no one plugging the holes. In fact, there are a lot of people enlarging them instead. All of you are intelligent. What do you see as the likely outcome?

The point I am making is the following. Most societies have their share of activists motivated by all sorts of reasons. Their presence makes it possible for the majority to go on with their day to day engagements confident that even if they do nothing the boat would be taken care of and steered to safety

Pakistan, unfortunately, is not in that happy predicament which is why we cannot afford to be a community of consumers. A sufficient number of us have to take on a more active role to ensure we have the kind of future in which normal lives with friends and families can be lived and enjoyed.

You can, of course, choose the domain of your activism but let me be specific about what I am looking for at this time so as to provide a concrete possibility for consideration.

As some of you know, I have been interested in cities, especially small cities, for a long time (1, 2). There are two major reasons for this interest. First, more than half the world’s population now lives in urban locations and half of that urban population lives in medium and small-sized cities. So, from an economic perspective, small cities should have a major role to play in national development. What exactly is that role?

Second, a significant amount of extremist sentiments is coming out of small cities. So, from a sociological perspective, something is going on there that we need to understand. At this time, small cities are so little studied in South Asia that we cannot even hazard intelligent guesses without doing a lot more investigative work (3).

But what kind of work do we need to do? I realized quite some time back that we cannot follow the traditional modality of top-down studies carried out to publish papers or submit reports to government departments. In Pakistan, these can help one obtain academic promotions or earn consulting fee but they do not lead to any meaningful policy interventions in the small cities themselves.

So, while we have done some work (4), our approach has been very different. We have engaged with residents of small cities to listen to their narratives, we have visited the small cities to understand the context of those narratives, we have identified issues that are common to many of the cities, and we have tried to form an association of small cities that could articulate their needs and demands from a common platform.

At the same time, we hope to create an information and communication exchange that would connect activists in each of these cities so that they could learn from each other and mobilize together. In short, we aim to energize an urban movement from below that would highlight the importance of small cities, articulate their social and developmental needs, and give them political clout by facilitating a collective voice and platform for their residents.

We have completed quite a lot of the essential work and we now have the structure to move to the next stage of linking the residents of the cities in which we have carried out the pilot phase of our work. What we need now is a core set of lead metropolitan activists who would help to trigger the movement in the cities.

As part of the launch apparatus we have two websites (5, 6) that are designed to advance the movement. While I am very pleased that the membership of these sites has continued to grow, I am disappointed that most members have opted for the role of consumers of the type I mentioned at the outset. They passively read what is added to the sites and hopefully add to their knowledge.

But that is not what we expect of them at this stage. We need at least some of the members to be our lead metropolitan activists. So, for example, if we have a member from Jhang we expect that member to identify a few dynamic residents of Jhang, say a student, a college teacher, a lawyer, a labor representative, and a health worker. We expect the member to communicate to this group what we are trying to do, to familiarize them with the instruments we have developed, and to instruct them in how to become active participants in the information exchange as representatives of their cities.

Once the association of small cities becomes reasonably active we can think of hosting a physical get-together so the activists can get to know each other better and decide for themselves where next to take the movement. At that time, we will step back from our pro-active role and just become an advisory body that would provide the technical or research input the association might require for the advocacy of its interests.

This is an ambitious and exciting agenda but without this kind of an inclusive and collective effort we cannot hope to inject some much-needed dynamism in our society. And, for this to happen, we need some people to put up their hands and assume the role of activists for a limited period of time.

I hope you will agree with me that we are not in the position of all being a community of information consumers only. Some of us have to act on that information if we are to ensure the future that we desire.

Hence, this appeal to you to contribute a few volunteers. There are enough of you to take turns so that this does not become overly onerous. In fact, it can become a very exciting opportunity to learn about the economy and sociology of the country to which we belong and to contribute to a positive transformation of its future.

Please identify yourself as a volunteer and get in touch.


  1. What Is Happening in Small Towns? – Original
  2. What Is Happening in Small Towns? – Update
  3. Perspectives on Small Cities: Part 1 and Part 2 – Presentation at Cornell University
  4. Small Cities Initiative: Listen and Learn Phase. – Study
  5. Small Cities Initiative – Facebook Page
  6. Small Cities – Website

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Governance and Human Security

July 28, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

It is useful to raise the chicken-and-egg question in connection with the link between governance and human security: does better governance improve human security or does greater human security lead to better governance? Which basket should we put more of our eggs in?

This is a debatable question and each one of us would gain by thinking it through for ourselves. My own position on the subject was shaped over twenty-five years ago by an interaction in rural Sindh. Since then I have favored the opinion that the causality runs more strongly from human security to governance than the other way around.

In a rural area whose political representative was particularly well known for his misdeeds, I asked a constituent why the voters had not chosen a more “honest” individual. The answer was patient, kind, brief, and spontaneous: “Do you think we do not know what kind of person we have elected? Do you really believe a “good” person would be able to deliver the kinds of things we need to survive here?”

There it was, the micro-foundation of our macro-situation, as it were, in a very few words. The response encapsulated the raw wisdom of those exposed to the vulnerabilities of the real world as opposed to the naive idealism or sly cynicism (take your pick) of those who exhort the election of “good” people whenever the rotten system of governance goes through the charade of a new beginning.

This was the bottom line I took away from the encounter. As long as human security is not assured, as long as fundamental rights (access to justice, access to work) are not impersonally guaranteed, the functions of social and economic protection and of political representation cannot be separated. The need for a powerful patron, the more powerful the better, would continue to dominate the calculus of rational, self-interested voters.

Take democracy as a system of governance and note how Tocqueville describes the conditions for its emergence. “Equality, which makes men independent of one another, naturally gives them the habit and taste to follow nobody’s will but their own in their private affairs…. This love of independence is the first and most striking feature of the political effects of equality…. As each [individual] sees himself little different from his neighbors, he cannot understand why a rule applicable to one man should not be applied to all the rest… and legislative uniformity strikes him as the first condition of good government.”

Talking about Americans in particular, Tocqueville observes: “As for particular privileges granted to towns, families, or individuals, they have forgotten the possibility of such things. It has never come into their heads that one cannot apply the same law uniformly to all parts of one state and all the men living in it… the idea of intermediate powers is obscured and obliterated.”

Tocqueville is very clear about the relationship of equality and independence to the system of governance: “Since in times of equality no man is obliged to put his powers at the disposal of another, and no one has any claim of right to substantial support from his fellow man, each is both independent and weak… Men’s hatred of privilege increases as privileges become rarer and less important, the flame of democratic passion apparently blazing the brighter the less fuel there is to feed it.” On the other hand, “When conditions are unequal, no inequality, however great, offends the eye.”

I am sure it is no surprise to anyone that Pakistan is characterized by extreme inequalities, by the almost total dependence of some on others, by the strong hold of intermediary powers, and also by the acceptance of these conditions by many as a part of our fate. There is not a single political party with significant following that has a sincere agenda advancing human equality and individual human rights in Pakistan. Since political parties with significant following and non-parties with claims to majority support have all had a turn at the helm of affairs, this assertion rests on strong empirical evidence.

In the absence of any advance in human security, everything else remaining the same, the political formation remains immune to meaningful reform. No matter where and how it is restarted, it reverts back to the form that is compatible with the underlying socio-economic realities—a system of patronage based on patron-client relationships. Thus “good” people rarely get elected; the same “not-so-good” people get re-elected in every round; there is always a “king’s” party; voters do not punish their representatives for switching ideologies or allegiances; and always being part of the winning group is considered a mark of great political acumen.

In this scenario the large sums of money being allocated to governance and governance reform continue to yield extremely meager returns, if any. Recent reports suggest that the quality of governance continues to deteriorate. This is no surprise given the lack of political pressure from below, a lack acknowledged by the fact that no political party considers individual human rights an issue around which voters could be mobilized.

What is to be done in the kind of situation that exists in Pakistan? Referring back to Tocqueville does not yield optimistic or practical suggestions: “All the old political powers in Europe, the greatest as well as the least, have been founded in ages of aristocracy, and they represented and were more or less willing to defend the principle of inequality and privilege. To make the new wants and interests prompted by growing equality preponderant in the government, it was therefore necessary to overthrow or coerce the established powers. This led men to make revolutions…. I do not think there is a single country in Europe where the progress of equality has not been preceded or followed by some violent changes in the status of property and of persons and all these changes have been accompanied by much anarchy and license.”

As we well know from the experience of our leftist parties, however, revolutions cannot be willed into being. The demand for individual equality from below must precede the change and be the motivation for the change. We are not yet at the stage where the demand for individual equality is a serious proposition. We are still struggling for the rights of groups, be they nationalities, ethnicities or sects. The struggle has been for Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sindhudesh, Balochistan, not for the advancement of individual human rights in any given geographical area. Despite the rhetoric, it should be no surprise that the creation of Pakistan has made little difference to the human rights of those at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

The struggle of groups and the stage of development it represents is a subject for another discussion. What does need to be reiterated is that the kind of democratic governance compatible with advances in human security rests on the unqualified acceptance of the individual as the unit of decision-making free to decide according to his or her own judgment without fear of coercion or reprisal. It is incompatible with a world in which governance is a zero-sum game between mutually exclusive interest groups whose leaders convince or intimidate their members to vote in accordance with real or presumed group interests. Democracy cannot fulfill its promise in situations where people feel unprotected as individuals and seek security in the membership of antagonistic loyalty groups.

An argument along these lines never fails to invite the inevitable comparison with India. How, in such a perspective, would one account for the continued existence of democratic governance over more than half a century in India compared to the fiasco in Pakistan? There are a number of relevant answers to this question.

First, we are concerned with the quality of governance in general and not with the form of governance in particular. So the relevant question to pose is how much better is the quality of governance in India, especially as it relates to the most vulnerable groups in society? Has India reached the stage where the dependence of one man on another has ended so that the voter can elect a political representative without thinking of his or her needs for human security and economic and social protection? A thoughtful answer is provided by Pratap Bhanu Mehta in his book The Burden of Democracy. After enumerating the many contributions of democracy to Indian life, Mehta notes that it has “not delivered millions of citizens from the abject dictates of poverty” and identifies the dimensions of the reality, as he sees it, as follows: “the impunity of politicians, the high-handedness of government, the absence of minimum reciprocity in civic life, the lurking threat of violence, [and] the weak hold of the rule of law over all sections of society.”

Mehta argues that “it is the texture of social relations in the Indian society that fundamentally thwarts us from realizing the goods of democracy… in all our social and political relationships, procedures, habits of thought, patterns of conduct, the influence of inequality is palpable.” And inequality “imposes the profoundest burden when it is seen as denying individuals the minimum regard due to them, or when it constantly puts them in situations that are humiliating.” In Mehta’s analysis this inequality remains the biggest burden of Indian democracy and the explanation for its discontents.

Second, we have to consider the various pathways that lead to the emergence of a democratic form of government along the lines articulated by Barrington Moore Jr. in his old but still relevant book Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. In the earlier discussion I have focused on the path where the demand for equality from below is a key element in the emergence of democracy, a process that unfolded, for example, in the case of England and France as successive groups (nobles, merchants) with an independent economic base sought to gain power at the expense of the central authority, usually the monarch.[1] However, a democratic form of governance could also result, especially in post-colonial societies inheriting a legacy of electoral politics, from a power vacuum at the top created by the withdrawal of the colonial power and gridlock amongst the elites when there is no one group strong enough to dominate all the others and no other resolution to conflict is possible except some form of compromise. This was the case in India where no one region, ethnic group or institution found itself with the ability or power to dominate all the others. And this has been a major differentiating factor in the comparison with Pakistan.

Mehta notes that “The desire for democracy is in part a desire to have one’s moral worth acknowledged.” But this has not been the pathway to democracy in India. “The significance of India’s democratic experiment was itself disguised by the historical process through which it came about…. It 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.” Not surprisingly, this pathway has had political positives at the top but few dividends at the bottom: “democracy’s biggest triumph is that it has proven to be an effective—perhaps the only—mechanism for holding India together. It is true that one of the reasons for the relative success of its democracy, and its hanging together as a nation has been the profoundly cross-cutting character of cleavages within Indian society that has made collective action on a large scale, to overthrow the state, quite difficult to mount.”

In elaborating this pathway to democracy in India (a la Barrington Moore Jr.), Mehta highlights the real issue bearing on the relationship between governance and human security in the subcontinent: “India’s experience with democracy is anomalous in one significant sense. India was one of the few societies where a political revolution preceded a social one… India’s social ancien regime survived into democracy relatively intact…. Therefore, the discourse of equality in Indian democracy often seeks to achieve equality between groups. It aims not at liberating individuals from groups or even necessarily eroding the structural logic of the system that makes group rankings possible in the first place.”

Thus, while the form of governance in India has been democratic for over half a century the gains to the bottom rung of the social and economic ladder in terms of human security and individual human rights have been nowhere commensurate. This is not to say that the existence of the democratic form of governance is entirely irrelevant—there is no doubt that it enlarges the political space for those at the bottom, forces a higher level of competence at the top, at least in relative terms, and helps in conflict resolution. But the fact remains that in terms of gains in human security the democratic form of governance is not sufficient or adequate in itself.

Given the above conclusion, placing the eggs in the basket of democracy in Pakistan is likely to leave civil society disappointed in terms of gains in human security. If democracy is being used as a loose codeword for restoration of civilian rule, the focus remains warranted. Civilian rule is preferable to military rule because when dictators run the charade of creating and maintaining a democratic façade it adds innumerable irretrievable complications to national life.[2] However, civilian rule, as has been proven by our experience, is no guarantee of improvements in human security and access to human rights. It only provides a slightly more encouraging starting point for the real struggle that may still not lead anywhere. The social reality is that the political ethos in Pakistan, both of the rulers and of the ruled, remains monarchical. In the age of democracy, elections are the mechanism we are forced to use to settle the succession amongst contenders (both real and the creations of king-makers) to the throne and one that usurpers need to legitimize themselves[3]; the winner of the election, manipulated to a greater or lesser extent, takes absolute control and denies the legitimacy of the opposition often using such medieval devices as forced exile. Rulers, civil or military, very quickly begin to see themselves as monarchs (kings, emperors, or caliphs), all personally anointed by the Almighty with a divine mandate to guide the nation to its salvation. This is an attitude of noblesse oblige, and without any pressure from below (indeed, often with tacit or resigned acceptance) the state has little political incentive to take seriously the issues of those at the bottom of the social hierarchy.[4]

So what is to be done beyond the struggle for civilian rule? In the absence of a political coalition to support the demand for improvements in human rights, civil society groups at the present juncture in Pakistan should look for mechanisms to strengthen the instruments of social control over governments, to weaken the latter’s control over critical areas of resource allocation, and to increase the accountability of its actions. Some aspects of globalization can help in this agenda. For example, the growing importance of the private sector in business driven by competitiveness concerns coupled with the fiscal pressure to privatize state enterprises is stripping the state of key opportunities for distributing patronage. Here, social activists must examine the contradictions in their position whereby they correctly identify the anti-people nature of the Pakistani state yet insist on the same state to deliver key services to the most vulnerable without proposing any mechanism for how this circle is to be squared. The fact remains that, in relative terms, the private sector is easier to hold accountable than the state. There is need to find effective means to enforce the accountability of the private sector. The creation of a citizen’s commission made up of eminent individuals acceptable across the spectrum of civil society groups would be a useful first step to interact with the private sector on behalf of ordinary citizens.

The citizen’s commission could also raise the profile and credibility of interaction with the organs of the state. A critical area is the rule of law where the arbitrary power of the state or of one individual over another needs to be curtailed. Mechanisms need to be found to shelter the judiciary from the predatory powers of the executive and to try to ensure easier and more equitable access to and enforcement of justice. Civil society should devote efforts to wrest a lot more input in the design and staffing of the institutions of government providing justice and enforcing the law and a lot more control over the promotion of officials within these institutions. Once again, we learn from Tocqueville that this is not likely to be an easy struggle: “Unable to do without judges, it [the government] likes at least to choose the judges itself and always to keep them under its hand; that is to say, it puts an appearance of justice, rather than justice itself, between the government and the private person.” Do we need Tocqueville to remind us of this reality in Pakistan? Nevertheless, the efforts need to be made as part of a multi-dimensional strategy to exert pressure on the state.

Other, less difficult, areas need to be identified that can serve to provide the nucleus for autonomous spaces free of state control. Universities are an obvious choice, being the breeding ground for new ideas and reasoned debate, where the legitimacy of state appointments to top positions is very weak and needs to be challenged. Similarly, state appointments to associations representing the arts and sports, do not have any serious rationale. These are areas where a much greater role for a citizen’s commission can be envisaged and advocated.

The accountability of the state can be increased by concretizing its very general promises of delivering benefits to citizens. For example, the state routinely makes the promise to deliver clean drinking water to all citizens within a stipulated time period. Civil society groups could nominate one or two districts in each province as test cases of the government’s credibility and monitor and publicize the progress there on a regular basis. Such efforts could be spread across the spectrum of public services to include health, education, justice, etc. Panels of the citizen’s commission could also strive to win the right to make independent random checks of the efficiency and quality of the public services delivered with the legal authority to make such findings public and claim compensation for damages to the lives or health of citizens.

Civil society needs to be creative in identifying the vulnerabilities of the state at the present time. It was mentioned earlier that in the absence of political pressure from below the state has no reason to take the demands of the majority of its citizen seriously. The same state, however, is much more sensitive to the projection of its image abroad as evidenced by the history of recent gang rape violations in the country.[5] This sensitivity provides a wedge for civil society to leverage its campaign for the promotion of human rights. The use of the media, both local and foreign, would be a vital tool in these struggles as it becomes increasingly more effective in the age of the Internet, cable and satellite television. Scoreboards could be created and updated to report delivery on promises and the quality of the services delivered; every instance of state failure and violation of human rights and human security could be highlighted combined with aggressive lobbying for due process and justice. This would generate an alternative source of pressure for systemic reform.

All these efforts should aim to further the creation and strengthening of a social coalition by targeting benefits and delivering tangible gains to the most vulnerable individuals in society. Even so, it will remain a difficult situation in the short run. The political demand for individual human rights cannot be artificially hurried beyond a point. The continued strong grip of religion is a handicap in this particular dimension because it encourages the acceptance of the state of affairs as divinely ordained and characterizes injustice and deprivation as a test of one’s faith that, if borne with patience, would earn its reward in the next life. Some facets of globalization and international political developments are strengthening this religious grip in Islamic countries quite unlike the weakening that occurred in Europe during the Enlightenment: a Voltaire would find it hard to survive in today’s Pakistan. The weakening of religion in Europe was a major element in the rejection of abject poverty and deprivation as divinely ordained and in the emergence of the realization that they were susceptible to political solutions.[6] Doctrines promoting the individual rights of human beings—liberty and equality, in particular—followed and were the spurs to the demands for representative governments based on the will of the people. Such forces remain weak in the subcontinent. It is still much easier to mobilize people on the elimination of a column for religion in the passport or on real or imagined insults to self-respect related to religious beliefs as opposed to the right to clean water or access to basic health and justice in the twenty-first century.

One should remain skeptical of the returns from electoral democracy in terms of improvements in human security. A creative challenge for civil society would be to examine and debate governance alternatives that might be more promising. Zakaria mentions that “One effect of the overemphasis on pure democracy is that little effort is given to creating imaginative constitutions for transitional countries. Constitutionalism, as it was understood by its greatest eighteenth-century exponents, such as Montesquieu and Madison, is a complicated system of checks and balances designed to prevent the accumulation of power and the abuse of office. This is accomplished not simply by writing up a list of rights but by constructing a system in which government will not violate these rights.”

Zakaria highlights the South African constitution as “an example of an unusually crafted, somewhat undemocratic structure [that] secures power for minorities, both those regionally based such as the Zulus and those that are dispersed, such as the whites. In doing so, it has increased that country’s chances of success as a democracy, despite its poverty and harrowing social catastrophes.” Malaysia could be considered as another example where customized power-sharing arrangements were negotiated as an alternative to pure democracy and worked to yield meaningful gains in human security.[7] This provides another area of focus for civil society groups engaged with the long-term objective of obtaining meaningful gains in human security and fundamental rights as the stepping stones to the emergence of a workable mode of participatory governance.

I have articulated the position that the political demand for equality and fundamental human rights is the prime motivation for improvements in governance. This political demand cannot be willed into being—the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment were major inputs into the emergence of such a demand in Europe and a continued struggle, as evidenced by the gradual extension of suffrage over more than a century, led to the will of all the people being incorporated into the structures of governance. In the absence of such a political demand in Pakistan, civil society needs to concentrate on locating alternative sources of pressure and exploiting the existing vulnerabilities of the state to advance the agenda for increased human security and greater respect for human rights.

End Notes

[1] A key marker of this struggle was the signing of the Magna Carta, a charter of baronial privilege, in 1215 between the English nobility and King John.  The earliest secular expression of democratic political egalitarianism was voiced in 1647 by the Levellers during the English Civil War. The idea of the natural equality of all men was a major theme from that time on (as reflected in the writings of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Kant) and were an integral part of the revolutionary movements by the end of the eighteenth century (l’egalite in France, for example, rejecting privileges based on birth).

[2] In The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, Fareed Zakaria notes that “We live in a democratic age…. Dictators such as Egypt’s Hosni Mobarak and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe go to great effort and expense to organize national elections—which, of course, they win handily. When the enemies of democracy mouth its rhetoric and ape its rituals, you know it has won the war.” Democracy may not have won the war but it is a necessary façade that has to be maintained by the holders of power.

[3] Note the procedural change from the later Mughal period, as described by G.S. Cheema in The Forgotten Mughals, in which “all ruling monarchs were ‘legitimate’ and the exercise of de facto power was sufficient to legitimize the usurpation of the most outrageous upstart.” Now we need the doctrine of necessity and subsequent elections to provide the legitimacy. Note the similarity in outcomes between elected political representatives in Pakistan and the Mughal nobles of that time: “it is interesting to note the completely apolitical nature of the Indian umara. The readiness with which great nobles switched sides, often in the midst of a battle…”

[4] This monarchical ethos is not restricted to Pakistan although here it reveals its grossest aspects. One does not have to look very far to see that the hold of dynastic rule and darbari culture in all South Asian countries is pervasive and not entirely by accident. And human security remains an outstanding issue in the entire region.

[5] Mehta’s description of the situation in India links this political manifestation with the nature of social relations: “Despite the improvements of the last decade or so, even a basic recitation of India’s human development indices, a casual perusal of their landscape, will bring home the violence built into India’s political economy with unnerving force. But the sad truth remains that we mostly pay attention to these facts, if at all, mainly because they are an embarrassment to us, not because we experience them as profoundly unjust. The fact that we are more embarrassed than outraged by these is a sign of the distances that separate us as citizens.”

[6] In his essay On God, the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski writes “Suffering has always existed, but it seems only now to have become such an obvious and compelling argument against God. It is hard to say whether this is because there is more of it now than there was before. Perhaps we just feel, nowadays, that all suffering is unfair. This, however, is the result rather than the cause of our unbelief.” Here we are less interested in arguments against the existence of God and more in the political implications of suffering being seen as unfair and thereby susceptible to change through struggle.

[7] An interesting point along these lines is mentioned by C.M. Naim in his book The Ambiguities of Heritage. He mentions that before 1947 the nationalist ulema had in mind a future constitution of India based on a pact between Muslims and non-Muslims on the pattern of the one between the Muslims and the Jews of Medina. This was a self-serving idea but one wonders if some creative variant not fixated on electoral politics could have avoided the tragedy of a million deaths and the forced homelessness of ten times as many individuals. However, the perverse politics of ascriptive groups, totally incompatible with the spirit of democracy, was too far advanced by that time for creative solutions to have found sympathetic consideration.


Cheema, G.S., The Forgotten Mughals: A History of the Later Emperors of the House of Babar, New Delhi, Manohar Publications, 2002

Kolakowski, Leszek, Freedom, Fame, Lying and Betrayal, London, Penguin, 1999

Mehta, Pratap Bhanu, The Burden of Democracy, New Delhi, Penguin Books, 2003

Moore, Barrington, Jr., Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Master in the Making of the Modern World, Boston, Beacon Press, 1966

Naim, C.M., Ambiguities of Heritage, Karachi, City Press, 1999

Tocqueville, Alexis de, Democracy in America, New York, Signet Classics, 2001

Zakaria, Fareed, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, New York, Norton, 2003

This paper was presented in December 2006 at the HRDN conference on Human Security in Islamabad. In the context of this conference human security includes both the economic and physical security of individuals. I am grateful to Professor C.M. Naim for comments on an earlier draft. At the time the author was a Visiting Fellow at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad. He is presently Vice-President and Provost at Habib University in Karachi.

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India-Bangladesh: Beyond Cricket

March 19, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

The India-Bangladesh match ended predictably but in Pakistan its off-field resonance was of greater interest. All the ambivalent feelings about India and Bangladesh that are otherwise submerged bubbled to the surface. It was a rich occasion for some casual explorations in social attitudes.

My limited sample revealed two sets of observations – those on which there was relative agreement and those where opinions were more divided. The first set comprised the following:

First, a sense of pride that four South Asian teams had made it to the quarter finals of a major world championship. It was encouraging evidence of a South Asian consciousness amongst people many of whom had not seen more than one or two cities in their own country.

Second, a fairly objective assessment of the quality of the four teams based purely on their track record. Most people ranked India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Bangladesh in that order.

Third, a decidedly calculus-based preference for a Bangladesh victory which would be “better for Pakistan” by yielding an “easier” contest in the semi-finals. It was a commentary on Pakistani optimism that its team was already projected to be in the semi-finals despite the odds of negotiating Australia in Australia. A chorus of Inshallahs settled all doubts.

The following observations belonged to the set of divided opinions:

First, on whom to support in the India-Bangladesh match independent of the implications for Pakistan? A subset didn’t want India to win under any circumstances. At the other end was the opinion that it didn’t matter who won as long as it was good fight.

Second, if India were the only South Asian team left in the semi-finals, should Pakistanis root for it to win the World Cup? Opinion was sharply divided between those who could never support India under any circumstances and those for whom regional affinities held some attraction for one reason or another.

I noted with interest the correlation of education with opinion in my limited sample of fellow viewers. The more educated in the group were more anti-India wanting it to lose every match; the least educated were open to rallying behind India if Pakistan were out of the competition and to wanting the better team to come out ahead. Opinions about Bangladesh were independent of education.

I questioned once again the widespread belief that education is the attribute that leads to openness, tolerance, and objectivity. Its veracity was not borne out in the sample of viewers and confirmed my doubts based on other independent observations. The paradox may have something to do with the changing content of our education. I was reminded of the late Asghar Ali Engineer who posed a rhetorical question (Why is the educated middle-class more bigoted than the illiterate masses?) and pithily answered it himself – “Because it is educated.”

Perhaps it is a blessing that more than half of Pakistan is still illiterate. There is still time to fix our system of education so that a cricket match is just a match and not a psychic extension of war and a means to settle scores.

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BIPS, Games, and Puzzles

August 5, 2014

By Anjum Altaf

‘BIPS’ refers to Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – the most populous countries in South Asia.

‘Games’ refers to the Commonwealth Games, the last of which concluded on the weekend in Glasgow.

‘Puzzles’ refers to the intriguing questions revealed by the Games about BIPS. The specific puzzle we explore in this post is why the performance of Indian women is so much better than that of the other countries when the human development indicators of India are fairly similar to Bangladesh and Pakistan and actually much worse than those of Sri Lanka.

For the sake of reference, the human development indicators as presented by Jean Dreze Amartya Sen are shown in the following table.

Sen Dreze HDI

At one level this post is a straightforward update of two earlier posts that had crafted a narrative from the results of the Commonwealth games up to 2010.

The first, Pakistan: Falling Off a Cliff, contrasted the steadily improving performance by India with the steady deterioration by Pakistan.

The second, The Rise of Indian Women?, highlighted the remarkable improvement by Indian women in comparison with Indian men.

The updated tables are presented below.

CWG Table 1


(For the purpose of this post, the total numbers of medals secured by Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in 2014 were one each, respectively.)


CWG Table 2

(The table above is for India. For the purpose of this post, women from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka did not win a single medal.)

The first table shows that while Pakistan’s performance continues to be stagnant, the Indian medal tally is also down sharply from 101 in 2010 to 64 in 2014. This needs to be explored further. My own guess is that this is an artifact of the specific games that are added and dropped in each version of the event. A true indicator of performance should focus only on those core games that remain constant across the years, for example, athletics and boxing.

The second table shows that the relative performance of Indian women continues to improve and by 2014 they have achieved virtual parity with the men. Starting from zero in 1990, Indian women secured close to half (45%) of the total medals won by the Indian contingent.

This is a remarkable achievement by any measure and needs an explanation. In the earlier post, I had ventured this was possibly related to the “transformation of the Indian economy starting in 1989, the rapid increase in the numbers of the middle class, the aspirations of this class for global recognition, the acceptance of global parameters of excellence and equality, the recognition of sports as one of these parameters, the resolve to be globally competitive, and the resulting reaching out for talent beyond the middle class itself.”

This continues to be relevant but the question still remains why women from the other three countries are so completely missing from the picture. Of course, one should normalize for the variation in population, but as the medals table for the Glasgow Games shows, population is not a completely determining variable  – Jamaica with a population less that 3 million has a total of 22 medals with women winning more of them (13) then the men (9).

This then is the puzzle: Why are Indian women forging ahead so much faster than women in the other South Asian countries?

Answers are welcome.

Anjum Altaf is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

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Women and ‘Feudal’ Values

June 19, 2014

By Anjum Altaf

Feudalism never existed outside of Europe. Scholars of South Asia use the term ‘feudalism’ to refer to something that in its classical form in late medieval and early modern Europe was something quite different.

That in general is the tenor of the comments I have received in response to my assertion that women in South Asia suffer under the persistence of feudal values. This is a very old debate and I don’t really have a quarrel with the criticism. It has a place in scholarly exchanges but in popular parlance in South Asia the term feudal has acquired the status of a short-cut description for a particular set of values. This set of values is well recognized and understood by participants in a discussion.

I could very easily have cast the whole argument without any reference to feudalism at all but would then have had to spell out aspects that are grasped instinctively by reference to the term. We are talking, in effect, of the contrast between two sets of values that can, without any loss, be simply termed ‘old’ and ‘new’.

These contrasting values can be appreciated quite easily by reference to monarchy. While there can be a fierce debate as to whether anything like feudalism ever existed in South Asia, none can disagree with the assertion that monarchy did. It may not have been an exact replica of the monarchies of Europe but that is not material to the argument.

The claim is that pre- and post-monarchical social values are expected to be different. These differences stem from the major features that characterize the transition – divine right to electoral accountability, subjects to citizens, courtiers to civil servants, etc.

Of course, the break is never clean and values almost always and everywhere lag the change in institutions. But, in the case of South Asia, we are advancing a stronger claim to the effect that we are not really in a post-monarchical world entirely – we have quasi-monarchies wrapped up in democratic costumes.

This may be too strong a claim for some but it would be hard to deny that vestiges of the monarchical order are everywhere to be seen. How else would one account for the persistence of dynasties and the kind of groveling that was depicted in the photograph of a Sri Lanka minister paying homage to her President?

Following from this is the argument that these practices persist because an essential feature of the social structure of South Asia – the dependence of the many on the few for access to basic rights and services – has survived largely intact. The transition from pre- to post-monarchical regimes was not accompanied by any kind of social leveling similar to what transpired in Europe. The patron-client formation remained and adapted itself to the new institutional forms, representative politics and market economics, implanted from above by the departing colonial rulers.

Subservience is an obvious accompaniment of patron-client relationships as is dynastic rule. The others are those mentioned in the post under discussion – loyalty, honor, and a peculiar sense of property in people. We are quite aware that both men and women were considered property under slavery while neither is in preset-day capitalist economies. Between the two, there is an in-between stage where women are considered akin to property much more than men. Add the fact that the body of a woman is the repository of honor and we have the predicament we described in contemporary South Asia. It is not really essential whether these values originate in a feudalism that is akin to or different from the feudalism of Europe. What is relevant is that these are values that remain alive in our region.

Some readers have suggested that the arguments presented above are unnecessary and the phenomenon under discussion could be attributed much more simply to patriarchy, an arrangement in which power is disproportionately controlled by men. I would argue otherwise. Patriarchy is an almost universal phenomenon and reading Joyce’s stories in Dubliners one can readily grasp that relations within the household in the Ireland of the time were quite as patriarchal as in other parts of the world. But this patriarchy did not extend to the public treatment of women as property associated with the honor of a family.

This is also not to argue that women in the Ireland of that time, or for that matter of today, were not seen as objects of sexual attraction inviting unwanted attention and harassment. The plot of ‘Two Gallants’ from the same collection of stories makes that abundantly clear. But the scornful, vulgar view of ‘other’ women, much like that seen in contemporary South Asia, was not equivalent to the association of family honor with a woman’s body and thereby her treatment as property to be guarded zealously quite independent of any other interest in her person as an individual.

This potent combination, a vestige of old social values to which men want to hold on, continues to torment women in contemporary South Asia. These old values are in conflict with new ones in which women wish to be liberated and to exercise choice on equal terms with men in the ownership of their bodies. This conflict is at the root of the peculiar nature of violence against women in South Asia which is quite different from the violence that continues to exist in other parts of the world.

Anjum Altaf is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. 

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Women and Men: Thoughts on the Nature of Society

June 18, 2014

By Anjum Altaf

A sentence from Dubliners leapt out at me:

He had dismissed his wife so sincerely from his gallery of pleasures that he did not suspect that anyone else would take an interest in her.

This is the narrator’s observation in the story ‘A Painful Case’ from an Ireland of a hundred years ago. My mind couldn’t help being drawn to the South Asia of today. A narrator’s observation could easily have been as follows:

“He had dismissed his wife entirely from his gallery of pleasures yet he did not cease to suspect that everyone else would take an interest in her.”

One could argue around the margins without denying a recognizable truth – a wide gulf separates the attitudes. Replace wife with any female relative and gallery of pleasures with realm of interest and one would be staring at a fair characterization of our contemporary milieu in South Asia.

Why might this be so, this stark difference of attitudes? The South Asian mind leaps straight to feudalism and, for once, it might not be wrong. Property and honor are the two of the principal attributes of feudalism and in nothing do they come together as potently or explosively as in the body of a woman. Property, no matter how unused, is to be protected, and honor, no matter how undeserved, is to be upheld. Even to steal a look at someone else’s woman could be asking for trouble.

One can explain the difference in attitudes if one believes that whatever feudalism emerged in Ireland following the Norman invasion of the twelfth century was gone by the first decade of the twentieth when Joyce was writing his early stories. In South Asia, on the contrary, it can be argued that the hangover of feudal values, if not feudalism itself, still shape attitudes and behaviors. The daily lives of women remain hostage to these values.

The persistence of feudalism in South Asia is, of course, a contentious claim. Many social scientists have argued that feudalism is dead and long gone, replaced by the values of a market economy. This, I believe, is an erroneous claim.

It can be convincingly argued that the ethos of monarchy continues to thrive in South Asia except that it is now everywhere cloaked in democratic garb. There is no other way of explaining the entrenched legacy of dynastic rule in almost all countries of the region. Nor can one explain the subservience of the ruled to the rulers without recourse to the continued survival of a monarchical culture.


The photograph above of the Sri Lankan Minister of Power and Energy, Ms Pavithra Wanniarachchi, paying homage to President Mahindra Rajapakse dramatically illustrates how subservience remains alive and well even within the ranks of the rulers. In the same vein, the following is to be noted from India as reported in the news: “Gestures perceived as sycophancy must be discontinued, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the newly elected MPs of the BJP, asking them to desist from practices such as touching the feet of senior leaders and offering to carry their bags.” (One indication that India is more advanced than Pakistan is that no such instructions could be expected in the latter – people strive to rise to the rank of bag carriers.)

Very similarly, forms of feudalism continue to survive in a market economy. One just has to look for them to unearth the neo-feudalism. The reason that both monarchical and feudal practices and values survive in South Asia today should be obvious – the hierarchical structure of social relations and the dependence of the many on the few continues unchanged. As long as a person is dependent upon another for anything, be it access to services, basic rights, or even good standing, the imperatives of patronage and the accompaniment of subservience cannot be dismissed.

It is informative to visit villages to see how modern neo-feudalism operates. The classic relations of feudalism defined by ties of mutual obligations have indeed disappeared – small peasants and landless laborers are no longer tied to particular landlords because alternative opportunities in the non-farm sector and in nearby towns and cities have emerged with the spread of the market economy. But the small peasant or landless laborer still does not have independent access to rights and services. For these, the intervention of the local big man is still needed although now the patron does not provide these in return for obligations on the manor. Rather, the services are often compensated through transactions more compatible with a market economy.

For more evidence of the persistence of the feudal value system, look no further than the primacy of its third major attribute – loyalty. Appointments to key public offices throughout South Asia are a dead giveaway (Presidents of Pakistan being a good example). If monarchy and feudalism were indeed dead one would expect to see a lot more emphasis on merit as a criterion for selection.

Democracy and the market are modern institutions superimposed in South Asia on a sub-structure characterized by hierarchy and extremes of social inequality. The imperatives of the latter determine values and drive behavior warping and distorting the institutions by their ineluctable force. It is no surprise that democracy is unable to deliver basic civil rights and the market unable to deliver a living wage to many.

There is of course a tension between the old and the new and the dislocations caused by the transition from feudal to capital values, the widening gap between acceptance and aspiration, is one reason for the increasing violence in South Asia. Almost all the marginalized struggling to improve their lives are its victims; women are just the most targeted ones because of their dual burden – they being forms of property as well as repositories of honor. Violence inflicted on women serves many more purposes in a feudal than in a non-feudal society.

Anjum Altaf is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. 

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Time, the World and the Word

March 30, 2014

By Anjum Altaf in the Economic and Political Weekly

These days, though I am reading as much as ever, I am reading much less fiction. My children tell me a person who does not read literature is as good as dead. I am touched they wish me to stay alive and want, in return, to measure up to their expectations, but try as I might, I can’t.

I have lost patience with story and plot and character. Ideas, on the other hand, fascinate me: I want to get to them as quickly and directly as possible. Could it be that at some point I shed the need for a character as an embodiment of an idea, a plot as a vehicle for its development, and a well-crafted story as the medium to sustain interest in its unfolding?

Reading for me was as natural as breathing. I was born in a house overflowing with books and magazines in Urdu and English, to all of which I had unhindered access. For a child, everything is new, a revelation, an input into an unformed mind. The stories were windows into the world, the characters lending eyes through which events beyond my own experiences were seen and connected in some inchoate manner to my thoughts – perhaps devices for ordering ideas without being aware of it. For me, the stories I grew up on might have been like the training wheels I used to learn to ride a bicycle.

My predicament falls into place in this perspective. I have retained an abiding interest in making sense of the world, something at an early age I could neither have known nor satisfied for lack of tools to do so. Education at home and school got me to the point where I was able to transition from stories, first to the long essay and then to non-fiction in general.

I must confess I am disappointed at not being the type who can enjoy literature for its own sake, but I am less agonised now that I know myself better.  It is just that all fiction does not attract me equally; I still engage with a story if it promises to challenge my world view, and there remain works of fiction I am drawn to repeatedly because they yield something new with each reading. But this set, of necessity, is smaller than the set of all fiction, and it continues to shrink as the blank slate of the mind gets written over with time.

This could explain as well my reading preferences and the way they have changed over time. I believe I was attracted early to literature about South Asia because it connected me most directly to the world I wanted to know. South Asian writing in English is now most completely displaced from my reading because, barring exceptions, it fails to sustain my interest – the windows are different but the landscape remains familiar. I continue to seek fiction in Urdu more, probably because it references dimensions of life my education has failed to connect me with, but new fiction in Urdu is limited and of uneven quality.

I wonder if an appetite for fiction could be revived by learning a new language to enter an unfamiliar world. Reading translations has not helped; people think differently in different languages, and while one can convey the gist of a story, too many of the social and cultural intricacies that shape ideas and drive actions elude capture. I sense this from reading South Asian fiction in English, much of which comes across now as translation from another language, the very edges one seeks as a mature reader flattened.  Perhaps, the picture being painted is for eyes other than mine.

What might lend the freshness of new vistas to South Asian writing in English could be the democratisation of reading. The storehouses of books in a few homes if matched by even richer ones in school libraries might bring forth writers with quite different lives to share.

Every journey is unique, but they do have aspects in common. In this case, it is that stories provide windows into the world, giving it form. That world, peculiar to every individual, needs to be negotiated and understood and enjoyed, and people do so in myriad different ways. For every path that is taken many others are given up. That much I understand. What remains less clear is the difference made by the variety of stories we encounter and the set of people we share them with. To what extent are we the stories that we read or did not read together?

Anjum Altaf is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. This essay was published in the April 5, 2014, issue of Economic and Political Weekly and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission.

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Searching for a Nobel Laureate in South Asia

February 15, 2014

I was surprised to hear how our leading educationists propose to produce a new Nobel Laureate. It was at a ceremony to celebrate the achievements of one and the encomiums were laced with the inevitable laments on how few there had been from South Asia. This brought us naturally to the ‘What-Is-To-Be-Done’ question.

And, here, in a nutshell, was the answer:

Surely, there must be, in our beautiful countries with their huge populations, somewhere, some uncut diamonds lying undiscovered obscured by grime. All we would have to do is search hard enough, with sufficient honesty and dedication, and we would locate a gem. Presto, we will have our next Nobel Laureate.

Call it the Needle-In-The-Haystack theory of locating genius.

On to the modalities: How exactly would we go about this find-and-polish routine in our beautiful countries with their huge populations wracked by poverty?

Here was the answer to that question:

We will cast a wide net reaching the furthest nooks and crannies of the countries to identify the best and the brightest high-school graduates who will then be provided free places in our elite institutions. We will do this year after year till lady luck smiles on us, blesses our generosity, and rewards our efforts.


I had two questions.

First, there are countries that contribute Nobel Laureates year after year. Do they employ this random hit-or-miss strategy? Or do they have in place cultures of knowledge in which one advance leads to another, in which groups are engaged in an ongoing collaborative quest for new discoveries.

This will immediately meet with the objection that one ought not to compare South Asia to such countries.

My second question anticipates this objection and asks if the few Nobel Laureates from South Asia were actually flash-in-the-pan discoveries?

As a matter of fact, I was led to this exploration in 2013 when the Nobel Prize in physics was awarded for the Higgs boson. My curiosity about the ‘boson’ led me to Satyendra Bose whose work in the early 1920s provided the foundation for Bose-Einstein statistics – particles that obey the statistics carry his name.

That for me was not the most important finding. What surprised me was the scientific milieu in the early 20th century of which Bose was a part. Born in a village some distance from Calcutta, he attended local schools from where he graduated to Presidency College whose faculty was studded with scientists of international renown and whose students included more than one that made big names for themselves, in turn.

After completing the MSc in 1916, Bose joined the University of Calcutta starting work on relativity and translating original papers into English from German and French in collaboration with his colleague Meghnad Saha. In 1921, he joined the University of Dhaka and produced a paper based on his research. When it was turned down, he sent it to Einstein who translated it into German himself and submitted it on Bose’s behalf to the most prestigious journal in the field.

As a result of the recognition, Bose worked for two years in Europe before returning to Dhaka in 1926. Because he did not have a doctorate, he could not be appointed a professor but an exception was made on the recommendation of Einstein and he was made the head of the department. He moved back to Calcutta in 1945 when the partition of Bengal became imminent.

Bose was well-versed in Bengali, English, French, German and Sanskrit. He devoted time to promoting Bengali as a teaching language translating scientific papers into it. And he could also play the esraj, a musical instrument akin to the violin.

The point of this long digression is to dispel the impression that scientists of the highest quality in South Asia were somehow thrown up at random by chance. One can clearly see that there was an eco-system of knowledge generation at colleges and state universities where students familiar with many languages worked with mentors of repute, communicated with leading scientists in Europe, and produced work that made a contribution at the cutting edge of their fields.

It was impossible for me grasp the standards at which the University of Dhaka must have been operating right up to 1947. And surely, the Universities of Dhaka and Calcutta could not have been complete outliers. Similar environments must have been in existence, for example, at the Government College and Punjab University in Lahore, at the University of Allahabad, and at St. Johns College in Agra.

Where have these eco-systems of knowledge and learning disappeared? If one looks at public institutions of learning in South Asia today, would we conclude that we have moved forward or backward? What has been the extent of that movement? And, do we have students coming through our schools and colleges well-versed in four or five languages, able to translate original papers, and to communicate with confidence with the authorities in their fields?

Is it any wonder that we have no recourse now but to pray for miracles while searching for the needles in the haystacks and the diamonds in the rough?

It is a much easier alternative than trying to figure out and reverse the steep decline of the culture of knowledge in our public schools and colleges. There may well be a needle in the haystack but it is the eco-system of knowledge bustling with and retaining many near-Nobel Prize winners that will produce the string of laureates we are looking for.

Information of Satyendra Bose is taken from here. Also, see information on his class-mate and colleague Meghnad Saha here.

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Can India Learn From Its Neighbours?

August 23, 2013

By Sakuntala Narasimhan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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