21 Jun What Kind of Revolution Do We Need in South Asia?
By Anjum Altaf
The peculiar thing about South Asia is that it has not had a social revolution. Compare it with Europe or Russia or China where feudal, monarchical or other pre-modern forms of governance were swept away to be replaced by new ruling classes. Social revolutions preceded modern forms of governance, democratic or autocratic. South Asia moved from pre-modern to modern forms of governance, midwifed by the British, but the same social class remained in charge reinventing itself in new roles.
What are the implications of South Asia skipping a social revolution? For one, our forms of governance are modern only in appearance; their spirit remains essentially unchanged. For evidence, look at the amazing prevalence of dynastic rule across the region, from the upper echelons down to the composition of the subnational assemblies. The ethos of the region remains distinctly monarchical, both for the rulers and the ruled, with the latter now legitimizing the dynasties through the free exercise of their votes.
It is no surprise then that we are saddled with the social outcomes of monarchical rule – a narrow elite enjoying the highest standards of living (a la the opulent royal courts of yore) with the majority of the population completely marginalized. For evidence, look no further than the paradox of India – uninterrupted democratic rule and aspirations to global leadership combined with grinding poverty and malnutrition in children worse than almost anywhere else in the world.
It is social conditions like these and the virtual disregard for the misery of the poor that prompt our question about revolution. Will this callous disregard ever cease without the sweeping aside of a royal class masquerading as representatives of the people?
Perhaps not, but then again, a revolution is no picnic, at least a revolution of the type we have been referring to. Just thinking whether the ideology of the revolution would be of the Right or the Left and whether it would be armed or not is sufficient to yield serious misgivings. The scariest aspect of such a prospect is the contemporaneous bankruptcy of ideas that might drive any revolution in South Asia today. When one thinks of the social revolutions of Europe, one is inspired by the intellectual debates of the times and the stature of the public intellectuals who participated in the debates. The entire foundation of the European Enlightenment emerged out of the contestation of ideas that are studied in academia to this day.
Contrast the above with the intellectual bankruptcy of present-day South Asia. Whether it is the Maoists in India or the Islamists in Pakistan, their angst can be defended but their passions are full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Watching our public intellectuals on TV is a foreshadowing of the future if their ideas were to be turned into reality. There is little doubt that the cure would be worse than the disease.
So we are in a bind. We need a social revolution but can see quite clearly that any traditional revolution would likely be a horror story that would make Pol Pot look good. In any case, the time for old style social revolutions of the disenfranchised could well be gone; modern regimes have too much firepower and control at their disposal to be overthrown in the ways of the past – history rarely repeats itself like that.
What, then, is to be done? One suggestion is to aim for an intellectual revolt, a revolution of the minds, an overthrowing of the thrall in which our rulers have enmeshed us for decades – a declaration that from today we cease to believe the lies on which we have been fed, nurtured and reared.
Let me explain. Every country of South Asia has a dominant narrative, one that has been cultivated at great expense, and one to which the majority of the populations have subscribed without question. We have not arrived at these beliefs as a result of our own independent thinking. Rather, we have imbibed, like mother’s milk, the narratives that have been made available to us. Had it been otherwise, we would not see the majority of Indians and Pakistanis, say, holding such completely contrary and polarized perceptions of each other.
Why do we subscribe to these narratives? We are more than ready to argue, with passion and conviction, that the ruling class of the US, for example, has misled its population with a completely false narrative about Iraq, one resting on nothing but blatant lies and misrepresentations. If we believe that, what logical basis do we have for arguing that our own rulers cannot use similar narratives to mislead us in order to further their narrow self-interests? Are we seriously arguing that our rulers are more moral, made of better stuff, when at the same time we castigate them for the most venal types of malfeasance and corruption?
Clearly this is an indefensible position, an acknowledgement that we have forsaken independent analysis, allowed our selves to be brainwashed, and turned into our own enemies. The false patriotism stoked by hyper-nationalism has turned us against each other and ultimately against our selves.
So the starting point of our revolution is the declaration to our respective rulers – WE DO NOT BELIEVE ANYTHING YOU SAY – WE WILL FIND OUT FOR OURSELVES.
And then, let us use the power of the new technologies to really find out for ourselves. Each one of us should set aside his/her biases and prejudices and seek out a partner from across the border. Let us enter into a myriad conversations unmediated by the rulers or the pundits on TV. Let us talk as one human being to another; let us educate ourselves about our lives; let us generate a new narrative from the ground up.
Imagine this hypothetical scenario – a hundred thousand cross-border marriages! Do you believe that would change the social and political dynamic of South Asia? It is a hypothetical proposition, but can a million conversations begin to have the same impact?
THINK. We need a new revolution for new times. We have nothing to lose but our prejudices. We might just lose our rulers as well and would that not make for a better world?