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Miscellaneous / 22.02.2018

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s The Sun That Rose From the Earth: Insights into the world of Urdu poetry in the Late Mughal Era By Kabir Altaf South Asians continue to be fascinated by the Mughal period. Whether one sees this period as the origin of North India’s high culture (the view of most Pakistanis and partisans of the Islamicate culture) or as hundreds of years of slavery under the Muslims (the view of the Hindu Right), it is clear that the Mughals remain central to India’s history and to the country’s conception of itself. This period was also the time when there was a great flourishing of the arts, including music and poetry. For example, it was during the reign of Muhammad Shah “Rangila” (r. 1719-1748) that khayal gaiyki—presently the main style of classical vocal music in North India—was developed. Some scholars also state that it was in...

Democracy/Governance / 21.01.2018

By Anjum Altaf It should be obvious that alternative ways of drawing constituency boundaries can significantly influence electoral outcomes. An historical example can make the point: the 2003 redistricting (the term used in the U.S.) in Texas, spanning the 2002 and 2004 elections, changed the composition of its delegation to the U.S. Congress from 15 Republicans and 17 Democrats to 21 Republicans and 11 Democrats (1). It is no wonder that redistricting is a hot issue in the U.S. whose fairness has been the subject of repeated Supreme Court reviews. There the deliberate manipulation of boundaries to influence electoral outcomes, termed gerrymandering, is along two lines - favouring one party over another, as in the case mentioned above, or attempting to reduce the representation of racial minorities (2). In this context it is surprising to find no analysis of past practise in Pakistan nor much interest now that...

Religion / 13.01.2018

By Kabir Altaf One of the frequent topics of debate among those interested in South Asia is the caste system and whether it is unique to Hinduism or features in other South Asian religions as well. Hindu society has traditionally been divided into four castes (or varnas): Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (rulers, administrators and warriors), Vaishyas (merchants and tradesmen), and Shudras (artisans, farmers and laboring classes). A fifth group consists of those who do not fit into this hierarchy at all and are considered “untouchable”. What separates caste from other systems of social stratification are the aspects of purity and ascribed status. Upper-castes consider lower castes to be “impure” and have rigid rules about the kind of social interaction they can have with them. For example, upper castes will not accept food from those of a lower caste, while lower castes will accept food from those above...

Miscellaneous / 07.01.2018

By Ibn-e Eusuf The front door having been left ajar, the breakfast table was buzzing with flies. Instinctively my hand reached for the swatter (makhii maar) strategically parked for just such an occasion. I was right on target the first couple of times and smugly congratulating myself on the amazing ability to outwit a fly when my hand froze in mid-air. It struck me like a bolt: Was I in compliance with the sharia? Putting the swatter aside I began to wonder why God had created something whose very sight made one think of murder. I asked a few friends without being satisfied and then put it to my staff who had much deeper convictions on such matters. I proposed I would reluctantly continue swatting flies till such time as one of them came up with a convincing injunction for doing otherwise. This literally set the staff abuzz...

Reflections / 20.12.2017

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...

Development / 05.11.2017

By Anjum Altaf Rather than asserting that the military and the judiciary could be criticized if criticism was merited, a distinguished minister has taken the position that parliament is just as sacrosanct and hence above being challenged. In anticipation of what is likely to follow, this being Pakistan, one cannot afford to lose any time taking to task another minister who has asked for the treatment. I am referring to a news item in which the Minister for Industries, Commerce and Investment has informed the Punjab Assembly that there would be “no tomato import despite mafia’s manoeuvring.” The minister is said to have elaborated that “now tomatoes from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were being sold at Rs. 70 per kilo in the city and would continue to be sold till prices get further stabilized with supplies from Sindh arriving in the local market.” The justification for the policy is contained...

Terrorism / 12.10.2017

By Anjum Altaf Could it be argued that there are good and bad extremists just as there are good and bad Muslims? If so, the proposal to identify extremists in universities might be misplaced. Extremism has become conflated with violence and terrorism which is a partial interpretation. The dictionary defines extremism as “belief in and support for ideas that are very far from what most people consider correct or reasonable” which widens the scope for a more nuanced understanding. Put that neutral definition together with the observation of Bertrand Russell that “the tyranny of the majority is a very real danger” and that “it is mistake to think that the majority is necessarily right” and one can argue that almost all human progress has been due to extremists who have challenged the moribund ideas of majorities. Think of Galileo  or of the injunction to learn even if...

Miscellaneous / 23.09.2017

By Kabir Altaf Imagine what Antigone would be like if the action was transported from ancient Greece to today’s London and the main characters were British-Pakistanis.  This premise forms the basis for Kamila Shamsie’s most recent novel Home Fire, which updates Sophocles’ tragedy and sets it in the contemporary context of the War on Terror and the struggle of European countries to deal with their citizens who join the “Islamic State”.  Though ultimately a derivative work—one that doesn’t stand alone without reference to the original—the novel has some interesting insights on what it means to be British and on Islam’s place in today’s UK. Sophocles’ tragedy centres around the conflict between Antigone and Creon, her uncle and the ruler of Thebes. Antigone desires to bury her brother Polyneices according to religious law while Creon refuses to grant permission since he considers him to be an enemy of...

Analysis / 08.09.2017

By Anjum Altaf Much as many are finding it hard to say anything good about Donald Trump, it cannot be denied that he has delivered the world a much needed wake-up call. Gone is the complacency about a whole host of topics that had seemed firmly settled - democracy, capitalism, globalization, trade, to name a few. Fresh thinking has been unleashed on a number of other issues - climate change, identity, immigration, terrorism, among them. There was dire need to rethink many of these and if the world required Trump to revitalize the debates, it has only itself to blame. In large measure, Trump is an outcome of not paying heed to what was going on under our noses but escaped attention because of the ideological biases of prosperous and uncaring ruling elites. The ‘boiling frog’ analogy comes to mind: a frog dropped in boiling water will...