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...

Politics / 25.10.2014

By Anjum Altaf In Pakistan, revolution is confused with revolt. A revolution sweeps away the old order; a revolt just replaces the faces at the top. As we have discovered, a revolt is not enough. No matter how often the system is restarted by new saviors, it converges to the same outcome that is compatible with the attributes of the old order. The principal attribute of the old order is stark social inequality in which the majority is dependent on a tiny minority for access to services and basic rights. This kind of hierarchical order is compatible with patron-client forms of governance which is really what we have had in the guise of democracy. Everything we observe confirms that our rulers consider themselves monarchs while the ruled think of themselves as subjects. Years ago I asked a peasant why they did not elect an honest representative instead of...

South Asia / 21.06.2012

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...

Politics / 17.05.2011

By Anjum Altaf I hired a guard to secure my home and found him asleep when the robbers came. I fired him on the spot. I hired a driver to transport me from here to there and found him stealing the petrol. I fired him on the spot. I hired a tutor to teach my children logic and found him imparting them theology. I fired him on the spot. I am (all of us are) so decisive when it comes to firing private servants who are found to be incompetent or dishonest or devious – khaRey khaRey nikaal diyaa is the phrase of choice. And yet, and yet… We can’t do the same when we find public servants to be incompetent and dishonest and devious. What, after all, is government for if not to provide the citizens with security, direction and development?  And what greater evidence do...

Politics / 07.02.2011

By Anjum Altaf What do the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt portend for Pakistan? The question is on many minds. One approach to attempting an answer might be to try and infer it from below by investigating the morphology of Pakistani society and noting any significant similarities and differences in the process. A convenient point of departure is the elementary error that most people make in their characterization of Pakistani society. It is often argued that the portrayal of Pakistani society as religious is incorrect because people do not vote for religious parties in elections; the latter hardly ever get more than five percent of the votes cast. This error flows from an uncritical conflation of religious beliefs and voting behavior. The fact that people are religious does not mean that they are oblivious to their material interests. A defining characteristic of Pakistani society is that it...

South Asia / 05.11.2010

By Anjum Altaf I see the future in India being shaped by the intersection of three major tendencies playing out in the context of one major trend, the difference between a tendency and a trend being that the former is reversible and the latter not. And there is one joker in the pack. The three tendencies are increased empowerment of some of the poor via the democratic process, the recourse by the marginalized to rebellion, and the attraction of the middle classes to soft authoritarianism. The trend is urbanization. And the joker in the pack is economic growth. Let me speculate on how these forces might make themselves felt over the next decade or so.
Reflections / 13.11.2009

Maupassant provided us the opportunity to reflect on the social pecking order in South Asia and Kabir’s comment has pushed the door wide open. There is so much space for speculation that it needs a post by itself to fill. In doing so we can bring together a number of themes that have figured prominently on this blog – in particular those of modernity and democracy in South Asia. A lot has been written about French salons and there remain disagreement on the details – I will choose selectively to motivate the discussion: A salon is a gathering of intellectual, social, political, and cultural elites under the roof of an inspiring hostess or host, partly to amuse one another and partly to refine their taste and increase their knowledge through conversation.
Nepal / 09.09.2008

We must confess our incomplete knowledge of what is really happening in Nepal but this is certainly a phenomenon that warrants close attention. Let us try and sketch a big picture and hope that readers with more details can fill in the gaps that are inevitable. In a series of posts on modernity in South Asia (see under the theme on the main page) we have repeatedly gone over the sequence of events in Europe that marked the change from the old feudal order to the new era of democratic governance. We highlighted the key markers: the emergence of a realization that all men should be equal; the embedding of these ideas in the thinking of the times; a social revolution nurtured by these ideas that overthrew the hierarchical aristocratic order to force the recognition of equality; and the gradual emergence of democracy as the form...

Politics / 16.12.2007

By Ahmed Kamran  Curiously, Pakistan passes through a cycle of political tumult and unrest after about every ten years that somehow leads to a change of the ‘faces’. After the political upheavals of 1958, 1968, 1977-78, 1988, and 1998-99 we are about to enter into 2008 with yet another ‘middle class revolution’ brewing in some urban areas.  Politics is much like Plato’s allegory of a cave where we do not see the real world but only the images of the people outside the cave being formed on the wall. Likewise, on the Pakistan political stage, we do not see the ‘reality’ but only the ‘images’ that are being projected onto the screen, now immensely powerful images with global satellite TV. Sentimental viewers of mostly middle classes tend to get so much emotionally involved in the play that they start ascribing their own latent ‘dreams’ and memories of their...