Development / 26.08.2011

By Anjum Altaf Is there an alternative to taking sides on the Anna Hazare controversy? Could one step back and gainfully employ an historical and institutional perspective to understand it better? Would it help to argue that the mismatch in speeds at which economic and political institutions have rooted themselves in Indian society is contributing to a disorienting disconnect between modern ends and pre-modern means? The supply and demand of goods and services is mediated through the economic market and Indians have been dragged into it whether they liked it or not; they had no choice. The theory of perfect and imperfect economic markets is well known. In brief, markets can exhibit friction, they can fail, and they can exclude large segments of the population without effective demand. In all such cases, the state has to step in thereby creating the interface between economics and politics.
History / 14.05.2011

By Anjum Altaf We read not just to be informed but to be provoked, to have our certainties challenged, our biases questioned, and often to have our entire worldviews turned upside down. The texts I cherish most are precisely those that set me off on new lines of thought. It is in this context that I acknowledge a debt to Joseph Lelyveld’s juxtaposition of Gandhi and bin Laden in his biography. As I mentioned in the earlier post, the connection would not have occurred to me. But having thought about it, I find I have far from exhausted the ideas that have begun churning in my head.
Politics / 12.05.2011

By Anjum Altaf The thought of any connection between Osama bin Laden and Gandhi would not have occurred to me were it not for a remark in the much talked about biography of the latter by Joseph Lelyveld. At one point in the book, I am told, Lelyveld writes that “it would be simply wrong, not to say grotesque, to set up Gandhi as any kind of precursor to bin Laden.”  The remark piqued my curiosity especially given the fact that it was written before the recent discovery and elimination of Osama. Clearly, Lelyveld was not cashing in on a coincidence. So what was it that provoked the comparison even if it were to be dismissed? Let me state my conclusion at the outset: the personalities bear no comparison but the contextual similarities highlight major political issues that bear exploration and attention.
Reflections / 14.09.2010

By Anjum Altaf A year ago, a post (September Eleven) on this blog used the story of Coalhouse Walker in E.L. Doctorow’s novel, Ragtime, to argue that humiliation and injustice were powerful motivators for vengeance that can border on insanity. The post triggered an extended conversation that extracted the following central observation for further discussion: It is not enough to give historical/sociological/political explanations for vengeful responses to acts of humiliation. These are important but one also has to ask simple questions like: If A insults B, is the best course of action for B to insult A or simply to kill A? What leads B to make a choice? In other words, one has to be analytic and moral as well.
History / 31.08.2009

Jaswant Singh's book provides the excuse for this post. We are going to move away from narratives that seek a villain in the story. Rather, we will present a sequence of events that increasingly predisposed the outcome towards a division of the subcontinent. Along the path marked by these events, there were a number of crucial turning points at which different decisions could possibly have led to different outcomes. These remain the big what-ifs of our history.In this narrative we present just the big picture and the key highlights. Each of the turning points needs a chapter to itself but it is useful to sketch an overview before we begin to start filling in the details. We hope to use the commentary for that purpose.The British become masters of IndiaThe story can start at any number of points but let us begin it in 1803....

Music / 07.08.2009

By Anjum Altaf Is architecture frozen music? I asked this question because it consumed many years of my life and in arriving at an answer I discovered things about myself that I now wish to explore because they have a bearing on who we are, where we come from, and how we see the world. Think back to Macaulay’s child, the babu-in-the-making, desperately looking for architecture in music. Taught only reading, writing and arithmetic (in English) with a polishing of calculus and Fourier transforms, it was natural to assume that music was music was music and it was only a matter of diligent search that would reveal to me the architecture that Goethe had seen. And so it was a blinding (to an idiot) flash that opened up the possibility that there could be music and there could be music and that the two could differ and therefore the metaphor that applied to one need not apply to the other.
Education / 05.04.2009

Two books have come out within a year pointing to a serious problem common to India and Pakistan.

Before describing the books let us note that we are now talking about what is common between India and Pakistan. This makes a lot more sense than debating whether Indians and Pakistanis are similar. Indians and Pakistanis have so many differences within their own communities that it is futile to try and reduce them to a single dimension that can then be compared. To take a very simple illustration: there are secular Indians and communal Indians just as there are secular Pakistanis and communal Pakistanis. There is no one type of Indian or Pakistani.