Posts Tagged ‘South Asia’

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).


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:

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:

Altaf, Mir Anjum, 2009a. ‘On the Poverty of Indian Muslims,’ The South Asian Idea Weblog. Accessed at:

Altaf, Mir Anjum, 2009b. ‘Justice, Power, and Truth,’ The South Asian Idea Weblog. Accessed at:

Altaf, Mir Anjum, 2015. ‘Muslim Women and the 1946 Elections in India,’ The South Asian Idea Weblog. Accessed at:

Ambedkar, Bhim Rao, 1949. Speech to the Indian Constituent Assembly. Accessed at:

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:

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:

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:

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

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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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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