• By Anjum Altaf Dear Parent, In my last letter, I had spelled out the way a child learns his or her first language so well at home before even getting to school. This process needed to be articulated because, while it is so obvious, it does not get the attention it deserves as it takes place on its own without any need for experienced teachers. For the same reason, because it is so successful, it should serve as the model for how new languages should be taught at school. You would recall that the four essential stages in this learning process are LISTENING, SPEAKING, READING, and WRITING. Equally importantly, they must be IN THAT ORDER. For home languages, this order is imposed by nature — a child does not begin to speak till at least six months of age and is immersed in listening to...

  • In this conversation Dr. Anjum Altaf talks to Dr. Amit Basole, Director of the Centre for Sustainable Employment at the Aziz Premji University in Banglaore. Dr. Basole is the lead author of the report The State of Working India 2021: One Year of Covid-19 presents the findings of research on the impact of the pandemic on labour in India. The complete report is available here. This the second conversation arranged under the auspices of Irtiqa Institute for Social Sciences, Karachi. The first conversation with Dr. Jayati Ghosh (The Post-Covid Economy: What We Want and How We Can Get It) can be found here. An excellent interview with Dr. Basole on the findings of the report is here.  

  • By Anjum Altaf Dear Parent, With regard to the teaching and learning of English in Pakistan, I have been making six points: First, that as long as the present socioeconomic system in Pakistan remains unchanged, the learning of English is a necessity for those who aspire to higher education and certain types of jobs in the public and private sectors. Whether the system needs to change so that brilliant students who are not adept at English are not penalized is a separate question that I will address in a subsequent letter. For the moment, keep in mind that that is also an alternative which exists in countries like China, Taiwan, South Korea, Turkey, and Iran, all of which are more advanced and more prosperous than Pakistan. Don’t be fooled by the argument that we will be left behind if we do not learn English —...

  • By Anjum Altaf Dear Parent,  In my last letter I had asked you to think whether your child would learn anything at school if, from his or her first day in Grade 1, everything was taught in a foreign language, say Arabic. Related to this thought experiment, I came across something relevant in an Urdu short story by Bilal Minto, an excerpt of which I am going to reproduce today. There are two reasons for this. First, in my own life I have gained more from fiction than from textbooks. For example, I have read a lot of books on the history of the subcontinent but nothing has yielded as clear as understanding of some aspects of it, especially the social ones that deal with real people, than the novels of Quratul Ain Haider. Second, these stories by Bilal Minto are among the most refreshing...

  • By Anjum Altaf Dear Parent, Let me summarize the main points of the discussion thus far: First, and most importantly, no one is suggesting that children in Pakistan should not learn English if they or their parents want them to. But, experts recommend that early childhood education should be in a language that a child understands and is able to communicate in easily. Here, one must be very clear about the difference between learning a foreign language as a SUBJECT and using it as a MEDIUM OF INSTRUCTION, i.e., using it to teach other subjects like arithmetic, science, etc. Parents often overlook the great significance of this difference and its implications for learning. Children can start learning English as a subject from Grade 1 although that early a start is not recommended for students whose home language is not English. The best practice recommended for...

  • By Anjum Altaf Dear Parent, We are dealing now with what is perhaps the trickiest issue in early childhood education in Pakistan, one which probably has the most impact on what a child learns at school. It is the place of the English language in school education. You need to pay special attention to this because the responsibility for what exists is laid squarely on the shoulders of parents. All questioning is countered with: What can anyone do when this is what parents want? Even those who concede that the way English is being used is not good for learning shrug their shoulders and pass the blame on to parents. Let us look at this argument in several different ways. First, parents want a lot of things. They want clean water, safe sanitation, less pollution, better public transport, more accessible health care, cheaper and more...

  • By Anjum Altaf Dear Parent, I have been arguing that you need to watch out for the interest of your child because, unfortunately, no one else is doing so. No one else cares whether the education your child is getting is good or bad and whether you are getting a fair return on the money you are investing in your child and paying out to schools as fee or to private individuals as extra tuition to make up for what is being taught badly or not being taught in school at all.  You should be asking yourselves this question: Why do you need to pay extra for private tuition when this was not the case in the past? Isn’t it a sign that schools are doing a poor job of teaching? This is the second aspect I have tried to bring to your attention —...

  • By Anjum Altaf Dear Parent, I have been trying to convince you that you need to pay attention to the quality of the education your child is receiving in return for the money you are paying for it. I have also alerted you to the fact that, based on all available evidence, one can make a strong claim that the general quality of education being provided to children in Pakistan is quite poor. In this connection, I had mentioned in my last letter that there were some things that are being done completely wrong in our method of education and unless they were identified and corrected no improvement in inputs like the quality of teachers and textbooks is going to make a significant difference. In this letter, I will start with one thing I believe is completely wrong and that is the LANGUAGE in which...

  • By Anjum Altaf Dear Parent, So far, I have made the two following points: Education is like any other commodity that you buy for your child by paying money for it. It is up to you to find out if the quality of the education you are buying is good or bad. The future of your child, and collectively of the country, depends on the care parents exercise in this choice. In general, the quality of education being provided is poor and below an acceptable level. The evidence for this is the huge learning gap — students in grade 5 knowing only what a child in grade 2 should know. Add to this the very high number of children who are not even in school, and this amounts to a national crisis that no one is paying attention to — not parents, not teachers, and...

  • By Anjum Altaf Dear Parent, In my previous letter, I made one central point — that, just as for any other product you purchase, you pay money to buy education for your child. And just as you are careful in buying other products, you should be careful to make sure that the education you buy is the best for the money you spend. You should be concerned about the QUALITY of the product. We live in a market economy and just as there is adulterated milk, adulterated medicines, and low-quality merchandise, there is a lot of variation in the quality of education available. But it is much harder to judge the quality of education compared to that of milk. Unfortunately, there is no agency that protects you or watches out for your interest. You are on your own and the future of your child depends...

  • By Anjum Altaf Dear Parent, I am writing directly to you because you care about your child more than anyone else. You, more than anyone else, want your child to be successful in life which his why you invest a lot of your hard-earned income in his or her education, not just in school but in private tuition as well. You invest this money in your child’s education because you believe that for the majority of people a good education provides the best chance for success and upward mobility, for your child to have a better life than you have had. If you did not believe this you would have apprenticed your child to a tailor or a mechanic to learn a trade which would not only guarantee a steady income for life but also add to the households income during training. Real money would...

  • By Anjum Altaf How convenient it is for people to earn brownie points at the cost of others and with no cost to themselves. The neocons in the United States postured as super-patriots while sending young people to die in Iraq using fabricated evidence on weapons of mass destruction. Our legislators have at hand an equally easy way to earn free hasanat at the cost of children by posing as champions of Islam. The Senate approved, with just one dissenting vote, the Compulsory Teaching of the Arabic Language Bill 2020 mandating the teaching of Arabic in primary and secondary schools in Islamabad. Within six months, the language will be taught in all schools in the city from grades 1 to 5 while its grammar will be taught through grades 6 to 12. The proposer of the bill claimed that “we would not go through the...

  • By Anjum Altaf I have to disagree with the opinion on language and the medium of instruction expressed by M. Zeb Khan (Talking Language, The News, January 28, 2020). The author has identified the key issue but then let his attention deviate dangerously from the main point. The author begins with the very important issue that needs attention and bears reiterating: “Like many other unresolved perennial issues in Pakistan, the question of which language to use as medium of instruction during the formative years of school-going kids remains unpacked and hence unaddressed.”  The author then unpacks the issue in a peculiar manner. Instead of remaining focused on the child and assessing the impact of the use of different languages as mediums of instruction on his or her learning, he ventures into the entirely unrelated adult domains of culture, politics, and political uses of language. The...

  • By Anjum Altaf Does the left hand know what the right one is doing? I was forced to ask this question on being updated on recent measures to counter terrorism in the country (Countering extremism, Dawn, December 20, 2020).  I learnt that the government has set up a commission “for implementation of national narrative and development of structures against violent extremism and radicalisation” one of whose objectives is “establishing a centre of excellence to conduct degree and diploma courses in CVE [countering violent extremism] and CT [countering terrorism]. Another objective is “promoting awareness [of extremism and terrorism] through print and electronic media, publications, seminars, conferences, etc.” This reminded me of the bizarre state of modern medicine. If you go to a doctor with a general malaise he/she would, if you are lucky, have your blood pressure measured and, if it turns out high, would prescribe...

  • By Anjum Altaf I recently visited public high schools in two villages in Mandi Bahauddin district. I was impressed by the insights of their heads on the merits of various languages of instruction. They regretted not being consulted on the matter and I couldn’t agree more with them. I had one incongruous visual impression pertaining to the names of the schools that might seem peripheral to many. In villages with every student a native speaker of Punjabi and Urdu the medium of instruction, the names of schools, written in both Urdu and English, were comprised entirely of English words — Government, Girls, High, and School.  I wonder if this strikes anyone as odd? It would be fine to refer to a school thus in a report written in English but shouldn’t it have an indigenous name as well? In India, one comes across ‘kendriya vidyalaya’...

  • By Anjum Altaf The 2020 Global Teacher Prize sponsored by the Varkey Foundation and UNESCO worth a million dollars has been awarded to Ranjitsinh Disale, a primary school teacher in a village in Maharashtra where he teaches girls from tribal communities. There were more than 12,000 contenders from over 140 countries.  Two things stand out about the winner. First, Ranjitsinh learnt the local language to translate class textbooks into his pupils’ mother tongue. Just this confirms that he is wiser than all our ministers of education and policymakers put together which makes him deserving of the highest recognition. Second, Ranjitsinh belongs to the rare category of those who think beyond themselves. There were ten teachers on the shortlist from which he was declared the winner. Ranjitsinh gave away half the million-dollar prize to the other nine on the list because “Their incredible work is still...

  • By Anjum Altaf The real elephant is gone but the one in the room is still there and as invisible as ever. It doesn’t strike anyone as odd that the courts declared Kavaan to be living in an inhuman habitat, “no less than a concentration camp,” there was a years-long global campaign to make his life less miserable, Cher herself came to cheer him up, the President and his spouse serenaded him, special equipment was devised to provide him decent transport, and a chartered plane to took him from elephant-hell to elephant-heaven. What about the millions of human beings living in much more inhuman habitats than Kavaan? There are no similar court decrees to make their lives less miserable, no global campaigns to argue for their rights, no one there to cheer or serenade them, no decent transport, and no escape to a more livable...

  • By Anjum Altaf I sent my last column (Thought experiment, Dawn, November 15, 2020) to Professor Noam Chomsky. Just as Ludwig Wittgenstein, whom I had cited in that column, was the leading philosopher of language of the first half of the 20th century, Chomsky is the leading theorist of language acquisition and cognitive development of its second half. I solicited his opinion as a linguist on the choice of language for early childhood education. Here is the relevant part of Professor Chomsky’s reply: “There’s no doubt that instruction is more successful in the native language, and there are obviously also important reasons to gain fluency in an international language. Should be possible to balance these needs. Linguistics doesn’t tell us much beyond what common sense provides.”  The important message in this response is that there is really no need for any sophisticated theories to address...

  • By Anjum Altaf On November 14 I participated in an event jointly organized by the Ma Boli Centre of the Institute for Art and Culture and the Trust for History, Art and Architecture of Pakistan (THAAP) at the latter’s serene premises in Lahore to discuss various aspects of native languages including their contribution to the creative process as also their future in Pakistan. The event, besides being informative and entertaining, succeeded in its objective by provoking many thoughts and raising many questions. I explore some of them to include those who might be interested in the issues but were unable to join for one reason or another. To start on an incongruous note, I was struck by the fact that in an event aiming to highlight native languages the opening addresses leaned on English with forays into Urdu when emotions welled over. This recalled Khaled...

  • By Sakuntala Narasimhan For Sakuntala Narasimhan’s generation born before Independence, Lahore and Karachi were part of India. With Partition seven decades ago, new geo-political borders were put in place, but there are thousands of families that have close relatives on both sides of the border. The people-to-people equations between Indians and Pakistanis are nothing but friendly, as she discovered on each of her three visits “My aunt lives in India,” says a Pakistani friend, while another friend, living in Karachi, says her mother is from a royal princely family of central India, and she has cousins living in India. And so it goes — one brother choosing to settle in Pakistan after Partition, while another preferred to stay back in their ancestral village in Haryana or Uttar Pradesh. Examples abound.  The young waiter at the hotel in Islamabad where I stayed, sidled up to me...

  • By Anjum Altaf Sometimes an extreme example is useful to make a point and I am going to rely on one to argue about the language of instruction in early childhood. Imagine a girl in a village in Baltistan where no one speaks any other language than Shina. Now imagine someone deciding that Chinese ought to be the medium of instruction there because it is the language of the future. In order to rule out extraneous considerations, imagine the most competent Chinese instructor deployed there with the best texts in the Chinese language. The girl would receive the best education in Chinese and be tested in it. Reflect on this scenario and decide whether there would be any difference in the girl’s ability to learn about herself and her world based on two different mediums of instruction — Shina and Chinese.  This stylized scenario is...

  • By Anjum Altaf The global economy has been brought to a halt by the lockdowns necessitated by the spread of the COVID pandemic. Governments have pledged billions of dollars to reopen and restore their economies. The big question facing progressive activists is whether they wish a return to the economy as it existed before the pandemic. This would be a contradiction because progressives have all along been critiquing the neoliberal economic structure for its many flaws. The pandemic has also laid bare its grievous unjustness and inequalities most dramatically by the plight of the migrant workers in India. Do we wish to return to an economy where workers would be treated exactly as before?  The pandemic provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reform the economic structure in favour of labour. This could be via changes in the process of production or through enhanced welfare arrangements.  In...

  • By Anjum Altaf A book that left a lasting impression on me was Micromotives and Macrobehavior (1978) by Thomas Schelling who was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics in 2005. Its central message remains unforgettable — what is good for an individual can often be bad for the group. Microsense can be macromadness. I recalled this phenomenon because of current debate on the language of instruction in early childhood. I have noticed that no matter how much rigorous evidence is presented in support of the mother tongue, the exact same objections are repeated without fail — one, we would be left behind in the world without teaching toddlers in English and, two, parents want to educate their toddlers in English. The first objection is negated by so much real-world experience that it can only be characterised as silly — despite teaching in English, we...

  • By Anjum Altaf As an academic, I welcome the defence of the Single National Curriculum (The SNC as ‘the way forward’, The News, October 15, 2020) offered by Mr. Zulfiqar Ali Shaikh, an assistant advisor in the Ministry of Education. It provides a ‘teaching moment’ illuminating not just the SNC but other more important things besides. Let me deconstruct it piece by piece, and leave it to the readers to derive the lessons. The opening paragraph says a lot: “Facts take a backseat when a handful of people view well-intentioned developmental agendas through lens smeared with suspicion and an urge for professional recognition.”  One sentence reveals so much about how our governments act — Ignore the argument; attack the character, integrity, and motivation of those asking questions.   Think through the charge that has been leveled: Those who disagree with the SNC are distorting facts in...

  • By Anjum Altaf I wrote an opinion (Knowledge and power, The News, October 16, 2020) questioning the choice of English as the language of instruction in schools. In support, I had quoted John Stuart Mill’s disagreement with Macaulay based on his view that it was impossible “to expect that the main portion of the mental cultivation of a people can ever take place through the medium of a foreign language.” I am intrigued by the response to the opinion from readers in Pakistan and India that has centered, not on the logic of the argument, but on the language in which it has been expressed. One reader considered it ironic that “what you are saying in your article is written in English, for an English language paper, to be read by English speaking Pakistanis, and you and I are conversing in English.”  Another wrote: “Essays...

  • By Anjum Altaf Policy-making can be based on self-interest, whim, opinion, dogma, or evidence. The choice we exercise says a lot about us. Take the language of instruction that is in the news once again. There is less self-interest on display here than there is in the case of sugar and sweets and other such things. But we have seem whim at play many times. Among the most egregious was the case mentioned recently by Zubeida Mustafa (Dawn, Which language, September 25, 2020).  Referring to the 2006 White Paper on Education (2006) as “the only thoroughly deliberated official policy document on education that I have read in Pakistan” she recalled how the education minister at the time (an ex-army general) rejected it because “it recommended the mother tongue to be used as the medium of instruction.” I recall the rationale that was proffered — I...

  • By Anjum Altaf Everyone interested in education knows Macaulay and his Minute on Education, the basis of the English Education Act of 1835, that determined to give the native population of India “a knowledge of English literature and science through the medium of the English language” because no one “could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” Virtually no one knows the views of the philosopher and political economist John Stuart Mill who, for almost half his life, was associated with the East India Company. In 1836, he submitted a report titled Recent Changes in Native Education, which was approved by the Company’s Court of Directors but dismissed by the President of the Board of Control. His comments, locked away for more than 100 years, expressed his belief that it was impossible...

  • By Anjum Altaf Consider the state of Pakistan today. There is a crisis when it doesn’t rain. There is a crisis when it does rain. If it is not the season of drought it is the season of flood. In each, foreigners are beseeched to dole us out. In seventy years citizens have not been provided with clean water, with decent education, with basic health, with adequate transport. Half the population is illiterate. Half the children are stunted. Half the young are jobless. Five thousand years ago, Mohenjodaro functioned better than our cities. The sight of Karachi drowning was a disgrace. Parts of Lahore were no better. Is building new cities an acceptable response? If the old ones cannot be held together why would new ones be run better? Especially when every new cohort of managers, on average, is worse trained than the one before....

  • By Anjum Altaf Almost every account of colonialism describes how the colonists planned to use education as a means of stabilizing and strengthening their rule. There was one system of education for those who were to rule and their abettors and quite another for those who were to be ruled. This narrative, undisputed in the colonies, is not extended to the postcolonial era where the aim of native elites remains unchanged — to use education as a means of stabilizing and strengthening their rule. In Pakistan, the grossly inept, iniquitous, and corrupt monopoly on power can only be sustained on the back of an unquestioning, dumbed-down population. Hence there is one curriculum for the masses while the ruling class is reproduced by schools outside its ambit. This starkly obvious reality is muddled by airdropping several myths into the discourse none of which can bear the...

  • By Anjum Altaf Khaled Ahmed has made a perfectly rational critique of the Single National Curriculum (Obsession with Uniformity, Newsweek Pakistan, September 9, 2020) but then taken a surprising stance on the varying rationality of different languages. I have great respect for the erudition of Khaled Ahmed so I wish to engage him by pushing back in order to come to a better understanding of his position. But first, let me reiterate Khalid Ahmed’s critique of the SNC with which I agree completely. The entire premise of the SNC is flawed: “perceptual differences” are the cause of “conflict in society” and these perceptual differences are outcomes of the different types of schools in the country. The SNC will lead to “uniformity of thinking” and this would yield a “stable society.” This confuses the symptoms with the disease. The different types of schools were not created...

  • By Anjum Altaf The Single National Curriculum has some very laudable objectives including raising good human beings and promoting inclusiveness and tolerance. It has decided on a methodology to achieve these aims. For the sake of discussion, I am suggesting an alternative to the proposed methodology. The chosen methodology leans heavily on religion as the vehicle for raising good human beings. Muslim children will be introduced to Ahadees, Ayaat and Quaranic injunctions in support of habits that include speaking the truth, respecting one’s elders, being kind to fellow humans and animals; and of beliefs that all citizens have an equal standing in society regardless of religion, ethnicity, language, gender and colour. Muslim children will be learning these good things by memorizing the relevant Ahadees, Ayaat, and Quranic injunctions and will be tested on them. While Muslim children are attending the class on their religion, all...

  • By Anjum Altaf Neelam Hanif has mounted a passionate defence of English as the medium of instruction (SNC and the language question, The News, September 12, 2020) but I fear the passion is misspent. Look at the beginning: “English… is part of the colonial baggage we carry. From aspiring to be fair-skinned to being fluent in this historically contentious language is our most coveted wish.” And now consider the end: “This language has been part of our culture and heritage for the past two hundred years. It is time to own it, and use it to our advantage in training our children to face the challenges of our collective global future.” How can the two be reconciled? Just these two sentences let loose a flood of questions both cynical and serious. If English is a “colonial baggage” why is it time to “own it”? Isn’t...

  • By Anjum Altaf An argument is being advanced that the madrassah is just another type of school and that the objective of the state is to integrate it into the mainstream of the educational system using the newly announced Single National Curriculum. There is some support for this narrative from those who assert that the madrassah is here to stay and it would be to the advantage of society to facilitate its mainstreaming by offering help in the teaching of subjects like mathematics, English, etc. There are some grey areas in this narrative that can be best illustrated by considering schools run by orders of other religions. There is no dearth of such schools in Europe, North America and  South Asia. The most salient point to note is that while these schools are run by religious orders, they are regular schools in every sense of...

  • By Anjum Altaf The Minister for Education has written an opinion defending the Single National Curriculum (Debating the SNC, The News, September 8, 2020). It fails in its objectives but I am grateful to the Minister for providing a revealing insight into what governments in Pakistan think and desire and how they work. First, the latter, taking the SNC as illustrative of policy making — substituting the chicken-and-hen scheme or CPEC just reiterates the point. Governments make policy behind closed doors with a manufactured consensus and announce it as a done deal. If there is a storm of protest, it is considered a substitute for the debate that should have taken place during the deliberation on the policy. The so-called ‘debate’ is negotiated with a lot of handwaving, parrying every question with an answer, usually incoherent and mutually contradictory, confident in the knowledge that given...

  • By Anjum Altaf In an otherwise balanced critique of the Single National Curriculum (Single National Curriculum is a diversion. Quality and access to education is what matters, Naya Daur, August 26, 2020), Mr. Amjad Nazeer makes some claims about the medium of instruction that warrant a debate.  The issue becomes clouded by the way he sets up the problematic: “Urdu is proposed by the champions of supra-nationalism, English by the wealthy elite and mother languages by the ethno-nationalist stalwarts and dissenters.” This is tantamount to asserting that the advocacy of a medium of instruction is based on nothing more than the maximization of parochial and selfish group interests? But is this correct? If so, Mr. Nazeer would be unjustly accused of being a partisan himself for advocating English. It would mean that the years of research on the efficacy of the first language as the...

  • By Anjum Altaf The Single New Curriculum (SNC) is the latest big thing and, like many of the big things before, it will end with a whimper, losing air and falling limp leaving us to tot up the costs. But while it lasts it will yield a load of laughs much needed in these times marked by amazingly smart lockdowns, miraculously flattened curves, invisible deaths, and dire warnings. The other day I watched a discussion in which one of the experts responsible for the SNC described in awe how the 400 members assembled for the task spent hours discussing the gargantuan problem of population explosion and how grades 1 to 5 students needed to be made aware of it. This profound conclusion was modified partly when members from Balochistan pointed out their small population, immense resources, and abject poverty. Grades 1 to 5 students might...

  • By Anjum Altaf To figure out how we have to come to consider an upside-down world as right-side up, you could do no better than become a fly-on-the-wall in an upscale architect’s office. You will observe, repeatedly, an upright, highly-educated gentleman accompanied by an equally becoming spouse arrive to go over the design of their dream house to be built on 1,000 square yards in what is deemed the ‘ultimate’ community. (The couple, having purchased the ‘plot’ — that ubiquitous word — at the going market price would be unaware that it was the patrimony of a dispossessed peasant from whom it was ‘acquired’ at a firesale price to be flipped over by a highly deserving beneficiary. And even if they did, they would consider it a part of the rightful process of development in which resources are transferred from those who do not know...

  • By Anjum Altaf The COVID-19 pandemic has hit education hard. Schools and colleges have been closed since March which has resulted in a lot of hand-wringing with both educationists and students deploring the time wasted. Pressure is building up to reopen and the government has announced September 15 as the likely date of resumption.  This decision is based partly on the determination that the pandemic has been controlled in Pakistan but experience from many countries that had thought likewise has shown that such relaxation can be premature. Across the world, educational institutions have opened only to be closed again because of the emergence of infection clusters. This is not surprising because the virus has not been eliminated anywhere. It has been successfully localized in many places but as soon as large scale movement is permitted across locations, it has shown a propensity to cross borders...

  • By Anjum Altaf As an educationist, I am appalled by the Single National Curriculum. As a Pakistani, I am disappointed but not surprised. I have articulated my reservations in a series of opinions. They have to do with the process (non-transparent and non-participatory, excluding the principal stakeholders) and the pedagogy (old-fashioned, privileging memorization over thinking). But it is equally important to explore why the SNC has taken this particular form. I was discussing the SNC with a successful, well-educated executive and asked if she would put a child she was responsible for, say a grandchild, into a school teaching from the SNC. Absolutely not, she said without a moment’s hesitation and with a shudder of dread. I asked if, in her opinion, any senior bureaucrat in grades 20, 21, or 22 would enrol a grandchild in a SNC school. Absolutely not, she said again. She...

  • By Anjum Altaf Before I list my problems with the Single National Curriculum (SNC), let me accept that its proponents are completely well-intentioned and want the best for our children. But let me also add the caveat, to which all reasonable people would agree, that good intentions by themselves are never sufficient as a justification. Good intentions can also lead to terrible disasters. No one can doubt the good intentions of Mr. Jinnah. Yet his decision to impose a single national language set a tragedy in motion. Such disasters do not distinguish between the secular and the religious. Zia ul Haq was the most Islamic of our rulers as well-intentioned as anyone else. History will be the judge of what his educational interventions have done to this country. The liberal Mr. Musharraf was no doubt well-intentioned when he led the country into Kargil turning it...

  • By Anjum Altaf Economics is strange, full of odd things that are rarely challenged. It is a bit like religion that one is supposed to accept without asking any questions. When I was studying the subject in college, we were told that there were three factors of production — land, labour and capital — of which the first was fixed and the other two were mobile. In simple terms, this meant that while your piece of land stayed where it was your body and your money were not rooted in the same way. Out of college, one got to appreciate the difference between something being mobile and the same thing being freely so. Thus, while labour and capital are technically not fixed to one place, their movement can be restricted in any number of ways. The movement of capital can be constrained by border controls...

  • By Anjum Altaf Frankly, the Single New Curriculum is so absurd that one would have to be a masochist to wade through its details. Trust our governments to come up with ridiculous things that are completely without merit but that consume so much time that could be better spent resolving the real issues of real people. Nevertheless, education is a matter of vital importance and one has to engage if only to prevent our children having done to them in spades what Zia ul Haq did to their parents. That, indirectly, should also tell you where this curriculum is coming from and how brilliant Zia Ul Haq’s children have turned out to be. It would only be a very slight exaggeration to liken this curriculum to a suicide bomb that would be lobbed not just in one school, like the APS, but in all the...

  • By Anjum Altaf Official figures suggest that the pandemic has abated in Pakistan. This is welcome news but we need to be sure. It would be unfortunate either if the verdict is wrong or if real gains are undone through premature relaxation.  I have some misgivings based on observations since the beginning of the epidemic. At the outset I noted the remarkably casual attitude of individuals implementing measures to control the disease with many not following SOPs themselves.  I then tracked the case of a neighbour who tested positive for Covid-19 in a house with eight other residents. No one from the local health authorities called for contact tracing. A few days later the person died in a hospital. Still, no one in the house was traced and tested. I encountered families who let symptomatic elders die at home rather than visit a hospital or...

  • By Anjum Altaf At its most basic, education has two dimensions — what is taught and how it is taught. Everyone would agree that the most excellent content can be taught very poorly. It is less obvious that good pedagogy can overcome the handicap of indifferent content by enabling students to self-learn, a skill they can use to find content that meets their needs. This reflection should lead to the conclusion that how we teach is more important than what we teach. Even more so in an age when old content dates rapidly and new content is added daily. In such times the only skill that ensures survival is that of self-learning beyond the classroom. We no longer live in times in which students were prepared for careers that lasted lifetimes and for which they required foundational training to which they added incrementally by learning...

  • By Anjum Altaf The mandate of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) should now be to save higher education in Pakistan but quite asides from the fact that past actions of the HEC are themselves responsible for the present state, I think the tipping point, much like that for climate change, has been crossed. Mir Taqi Mir would have equated the proposition with seeking a cure from the same apothecary’s son responsible for the ailment  Now when I think of either, I can’t help thinking of Fitzgerald’s rendering of Omar Khayyam’s quatrain: The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it. I have said it before and have no reason to change my mind that disastrous as operations like Gibraltar, Searchlight,...

  • By Anjum Altaf Now that we have discovered all the “essential” workers who were invisible to us, or to whom we had closed our eyes, what are we going to do? I mean, the people who keep our cities and buildings and homes clean and functional. Is it really alright for them to live the way they have been living all these years — in some hovel, making barely enough to eat, working Sundays so they can accumulate enough leave to visit every four months, for a week, their parents, wives, and children forsaken in some faraway village? Is it really alright and acceptable to you? Is it mandated by some God on high? I know it before you can say it. We are back in the days of the Roman pantheon and there is a Market God except that now he doesn’t stay atop...

  • By Anjum Altaf For the life of me I can’t figure out why Aitchison College students still have to wear those things on their heads. I was reminded of them when a retired teacher shared a chapter of the autobiography he is writing adorning it with the picture of a bevy of boys milling around him all capped in that anachronistic headgear. Before jumping to conclusions I decided to check with a former student and was educated about the origins of the institution as the Punjab Chiefs’ College in 1886. I was informed that this headgear was part of the proper attire of the Punjab chiefs of the times and it was only natural that their offspring, the future chiefs, would continue the tradition.  That much made sense except that very soon after, the British renamed the college for a wannabe chief of their own,...

  • By Anjum Altaf What, I thought, would be our reaction, those of us living along the heretofore unimaginatively named Avenue 2, if some overenthusiastic brigadier, inspired by our vaunted Prime Minister, were, in the spirit of bravado, to rename it Osama Bin Laden Shaheed Road? It’s bad enough living in the Defence Housing Authority but by now our senses have been numbed to that offense. We are able to call friends and tell them to come to our Defence but to have to direct them to continue straight on Osama Bin Laden Shaheed Road would be a bit much to stomach.  My thoughts on this are informed by the heated debate that erupted in 2015 when Aurangzeb Road in Delhi was renamed Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Road. This is what I wrote then about how one might go about such a renaming: “It doesn’t seem...

  • By Anjum Altaf I read a strange proposal the other day — that Tipu Sultan’s famous tiger, safely ensconced in the British museum, ought to be returned to Pakistan because Pakistan is the Muslim successor state to Colonial India and also because the tiger is a symbol of resistance. This is just so problematic at so many levels. First of all, Bangladesh is just as much a Muslim successor state of Colonial India as Pakistan and the fact that it has (wisely) not lodged such a preposterous claim should not be held against it. Given the fact that there are two successor Muslim states, how would a Solomon allocate the trembling tiger? Would the head be assigned to Pakistan as the senior successor state and the tail to Bangladesh for having arrived late on the scene?   And why should a Muslim successor state be privileged...

  • By Anjum Altaf The Coronavirus pandemic is bad enough but, as dozens of countries have demonstrated, it can be controlled — there were just 3 new cases in Sri Lanka on June 12. Even in places where the number of infected persons was very large before the alert was sounded, Italy for example, new cases per day have dropped from 6,557 on March 21 to 163 on June 12. In Pakistan, they continue to rise — from 144 on March 21 to 6,397, the highest to date, on June 12. What makes the pandemic so recalcitrant in Pakistan, where the initial cases were minimal for lack of tourists, are the epidemics within the epidemics.  The first of these is the blight of ignorance. A country where the majority cannot verify information for itself is hugely handicapped. All it should take is a visit to one...

  • By Anjum Altaf While the pandemic has months to run, enough time has passed since its inception to render an interim judgement on its management in Pakistan and India. Despite giving the governments as much benefit of doubt as I possibly can, I am afraid I have to assign both a failing grade. The governments would no doubt contest this award so let me justify my verdict. As always, the proof of the pudding is in the eating so let us look at the actual situation at this time. Both countries are reporting the highest number of deaths per day to date — Pakistan over a 100 and India close to 400. Despite everything they have thrown at it, the graph of new cases continues to rise and their number exceeds the number of new recoveries so the load on hospitals continues to grow. Unlike...

  • By Anjum Altaf Introduction Mr. Javed Jabbar has posted a public video titled “Two Nation Reality” to refute certain statements about Pakistan by Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy. I feel the issues raised in this exchange are worthy of a detailed analysis. In this introduction I wish to explain my motivation for undertaking this analysis and laying out how I have organized it. The video was forwarded to me with a ‘must-watch’ label by someone whose opinion I respect. He was impressed by how Javed Jabbar had successfully refuted Pervez Hoodbhoy with infinite gentility. That statement intrigued me sufficiently to make an exception to my standard policy of deleting, without watching, all videos sent to me via social media. The issues debated in the exchange go to the heart of the controversies that are generally avoided in Pakistan much to our disadvantage. Mr. Jabbar’s initiative is therefore...

  • By Anjum Altaf When I was young, growing old was an amusing idea — Prufrock’s “I grow old. I grow old. I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled” — entailing a quaint adjustment. Parting one’s hair behind or daring to eat a peach didn’t seem all that onerous and walking along the beach in white-flanneled trousers seemed actually quite suave to one who had encountered neither. Prufrock was worried that the mermaids wouldn’t sing to him but given that they had not ever sung to me, I didn’t envisage that as a particularly major loss. Those were days in the life of the country when one could still have a cosmopolitan education. My father was a MA in English in the 1940s from Lahore’s Government College and his library continued to occupy the bookcases and shelves in all the houses we moved in...

  • By Anjum Altaf How amazing that governments all over the world that could not find any money for public health or education have now, all of a sudden, discovered they can conjure up over ten percent of GDP to revive the economy after the COVID pandemic. What this means is that we don’t have to worry where the money will come from. Governments have signalled they have it and presumably they have figured out how they will pay for it — by monetizing the debt or growing out of it or inflating it away. What this does mean is that we can move on to thinking about the economy that is to be revived with all this money. Are we aiming to restore the wretched economy that was damaged by the pandemic? Was that economy really all that great? Weren’t we fighting against its inequities...

  • Anjum Altaf, Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Delhi: Aakar Books, 2019; Karachi: Liberty Books, 2020. Transgressions, by Anjum Altaf, is a book of poetry that is a comment on the nature of translation more than anything else. This commentary is made all the more poignant since the book is not a work of translation in the first place, but is rather reflections on the poetry of the late, great master of Urdu poetry, Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Described on its cover as a book of ‘Poems inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz,’ Anjum takes on the task of picking different poems by Faiz, and writing poetry inspired by those poems. He insists, and correctly so, that these are not translations. Instead, it is a very humble offering. The act of making another poet your muse is not just rare, but also a nod and an...

  • By Anjum Altaf The relatively low number of Covid-19 deaths reported in South Asia continue to puzzle analysts. While the low numbers might be true for reasons yet to be fully confirmed, there are now serious charges of undercounting.  Reports of undercounting have been circulating in India for a while but now an investigative piece in the London Telegraph has leveled charges of deliberate malfeasance. It claims to have seen written orders to a West Bengal hospital that in case of Covid-positive determinations, the cause is not be recorded on death certificates. A doctor at a government hospital in Cooch Behar is reported as saying: “We were ordered to strictly refrain from using the word ‘Corona’ in the death certificates until it gets a nod from the state government’s opaque committee.” In Pakistan, doctors told the newspaper that “deaths were being undercounted because of stigma...

  • By Anjum Altaf Many are having a hard time comprehending the coronavirus in Pakistan. They have not seen it before; it has no distinctive symptoms; there have been very few deaths in most communities; it hasn’t yet penetrated rural areas where half the population lives. This lived experience makes it hard to relate to what they are being told by the rest of the world — that they are threatened by a lethal pandemic that calls for extreme constraints on how they live. Mixed messages from political and social leaders have fed the doubts. From the Prime Minister down, many in government have underplayed the threat likening it to the flu and comparing the number of deaths to those from road accidents. The Chief Justice has turned denier-in-chief, ordering the immediate opening of markets for Eid shopping. Partisan infighting has convinced many that this is...

  • By Anjum Altaf The amazing thing about Faiz Ahmed Faiz is that you can never leave him behind. Witness how he emerged in the midst of the recent protests in India with ‘hum dekhenge’ being sung in half a dozen languages to the point where flummoxed authorities were forced to treat a man, dead for a good 35 years, as a threat to national security. These days the title of one of his poems, ‘yahan se sheher ko dekho’ (Look at the City from Here) has gotten into my head and is driving me insane. That is because, if you think about it, the ‘here’ in the title can blow your world apart. What it is telling you is that the city looks different from ‘here’ than it does from ‘there.’ And, knowing that can forever change the way you look at your city. I...

  • Anjum Altaf’s renderings are elegant, and often melancholic, exploring Faiz as a poet of solace for those licking their wounds in the aftermath of inevitable injustices. Urdu poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz. By Vipul Rikhi in The Wire on 18/May/2020 “Not even dogs Go as quietly as these men Battered and bruised Idle and begging Homeless and hearthless Stabbing each other for scraps Starving in silence” The nightmare unfolding on Indian highways through the abruptly-imposed ‘lockdown’ – of migrant labourers, rejected by the cities they served, walking hundreds, sometimes thousands, of kilometres home to their villages, often without food and water, under the hot, unsparing sun of the Indian summer – reminds us in stark visuals of the cruelty of visited by one class of humans on another. A cursory look at history reveals that such cruelty is hardly new. ‘Why’, the opening poem in Transgressions, Anjum...

  • By Anjum Altaf Between the commencement of Ramzan and the easing of the lockdown, I was at the wrong end of a rant for advocating the avoidance of congregations in mosques. A gentleman accused people like me of hypocrisy for continuing to drink at the Punjab Club while keeping the devout from visiting the House of God. I am not a member of the Punjab Club but was sufficiently intrigued to investigate what was going on there. I was informed that everything was closed except for the bakery and that home deliveries were continuing for members who wished to entertain and had sent their cooks home. It also came out that tennis had been restarted but a couple of days later a rather urgent message affirmed it was discontinued. This was the first time I had influenced an action in Pakistan though undoubtedly the outcome...

  • By Enum Naseer In his new book, Anjum Altaf revisits the works of Faiz Ahmed Faiz The French essayist, poet and philosopher Paul Valéry once said of poems, that they are never finished, merely abandoned. If it were possible, a poet could spend an entire lifetime perfecting a poem. To some degree, poems do not provide the closure that prose can afford. Instead, they complicate the worlds that we inhabit to mirror our rich and complex lived realities. Anjum Altaf undertakes a gargantuan task in Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz by revisiting the work of one of the most celebrated revolutionary poets of South Asia. At the outset, he lays out the purpose of his work – his poems aren’t translations, instead, they are “transgressions” as the title quips – musings on Faiz’s verse, poems “borrowed and reworked as a tribute to a...

  • By Anjum Altaf Whoever is advising the leadership on the Coronavirus epidemic is doing a poor job. The Prime Minister is reported as saying that the lockdown has been imposed by the uncaring “elites” because they feared the poor would carry the infection with them into the posh areas. However, he is said to have added that the outbreak has shown the disease does not discriminate; it affects everyone whether rich or poor implying that the “elites” are not just uncaring, they are also stupid.  Personally, one can agree that the “elites” (whoever they are) are uncaring and indifferent whenever anything outside their personal interests is involved. One can also agree that the lockdown, in the form it was implemented, was a bad decision; it was premature, driven by panic, and not sensitive to the specificities of local conditions. In particular, to the fact that,...

  • By Anjum Altaf Pakistan, like many other countries, is flying dark in this Coronavirus pandemic. Very little is known for certain and what little is becoming known is not being factored into the decision-making. As a result, policies are are almost entirely reactive, based largely on fear, the happenings of the previous day, the push and pull of various influential lobbies. Given this muddle, the most blunt and expensive set of measures built around a country-wide lockdown have been imposed in the country in a knee-jerk mimicry of actions taken in countries like Italy where the virus spread with great rapidity.  There was not much contextual analysis of how feasible these set of measures might be in a country like Pakistan. To start with, a complete lockdown is an impossibility, a truth that can be confirmed by just venturing out to any market on any...

  • By Anjum Altaf A number of congratulatory articles have lauded the containment of the Covid epidemic in Pakistan based on the relatively smaller number of deaths to date (222) compared to those in the USA (47,973) and Italy (25,085). The authors have also offered a number of explanations for this difference ranging from outstanding management to contextual variations.  I would love these people to be right but would urge caution. The conclusion could be premature owing to a lack appreciation of the nature of exponential growth. Take a look at the number of Covid-related deaths in Pakistan. The first two were reported on March 18. Since then, the cumulative numbers at weekly intervals up to April 21 are as follows: 7, 26, 55, 96, 192. Ignoring the initial turbulence, the number of deaths are doubling roughly every seven days. The lockdown along with its associated...

  • By Anjum Altaf How one wishes there was a team competent modellers in Pakistan who could present the worst-case (do-nothing) scenario, the most likely response given the existing state of affairs, and the best-case outcome if appropriate measures were put in place.  I say this after the model run by London’s Imperial College became decisive in drastically changing public policy in the UK. Unfortunately, it is not the case, one to which we are addicted, that a foreign model can be imported and run here to determine our choice of public policies. Too many parameters are different and would need to be normalized to our circumstances. Take the most obvious one first. The degree of compliance with directives is much lower than in the UK — I walked past a padlocked park where the ground staff were huddled together under one canopy sharing a cigarette....

  • By Anjum Altaf Every single person is at risk — Prince Charles and Boris Johnson have tested positive — which makes this a crisis unprecedented in living memory and a supreme test of leadership. No one will get everything right but no one can afford to get everything wrong. Where leaders come out on the spectrum will determine how many live or die in each country. And the number of days it takes to arrive at the right decisions will determine the quantum of avoidable deaths. Regimes can be characterised by a set of attributes — integrity, transparency, competence, legitimacy, authority. An ideal regime would possess all — it would be honest, transparent and competent, trusted by citizens and with the authority to get things done. In the real world we have to make do with some mix that allows countries to muddle through for...

  • By Anjum Altaf Many South Asian men have been unable to come to terms with this slogan which is too bad for them. They are fighting a rearguard action because the arc of history has been bending towards equality. In the West, slaves have gained equality as have Jews while people of colour and women have made significant gains. In South Asia, Dalits continue to advance their rights. Contrary cases of infringement of minority rights invite universal condemnation. So, it is only a matter of time before women effectively obtain the rights that are guaranteed to them under most constitutions. Objections against the slogan raise interesting issues. Consider the men who protest their support for women but suggest more appropriate slogans. The irony in doing so is lost on them. This is precisely the suffocating embrace of patriarchy the women are contesting. By subjecting the...

  • By Kabir Altaf William Dalrymple is one of the foremost historians of colonial India, known for works such as White Mughals, The Last Mughal, and Return of a King.  His latest work — The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of The East India Company (Bloomsbury 2019) — continues in the tradition of popular history, telling the story of the East India Company’s conquest of India following  Lord Clive’s 1757 victory over Siraj ud-Daula, the Nawab of Bengal, at the Battle of Plassey. The book ends with the Company’s conquest of Delhi in 1803 and the defeat of the Marathas — the last Indian power capable of resisting the British. The Company would rule India until the aftermath of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, when governance was transferred directly to the British Crown.  While we commonly speak of the “British conquest of India,” Dalrymple notes that it...

  • By Sayed Amjad Hussain in The Friday Times, February 7, 2020 The Urdu poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz has been translated by many writers including Khalid Hasan, Victor Kiernan, Shiv Kumar and Daud Kamal, among others. The small volume under review, while coming under the rubric of translation, is much more than literal translation of the original. Each poem is identified by its original Urdu title, making it easier to find the poem in Faiz’s published poetic works. In addition the author, in the footnotes, gives the names of others who have translated the particular poem and mentions the trigger that prompted him to translate the poem. Title: Transgressions Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz Author: Anjum Altaf Pages: 80 pp Published by: LG Publishers Distributors, Delhi Price: Rs. 660.25 Anjum Altaf is a well-known Pakistani academic. He has served as Professor of Economics and Dean...

  • By Anjum Altaf Democracy has been knocked down from the lofty pedestal on which it was ensconced not so long ago as the endpoint of humankind’s search for the ideal form of governance. This has followed on Trump’s election in the most powerful democracy on earth, Modi’s in the largest democracy in the world, and Boris Johnson’s in the birthplace of democracy. How should one reassess democracy in the light of these choices by electorates, choices that would have been considered inconceivable just a decade ago? Keep in mind that one is talking of democracies that pass almost all the tests of qualification — fair elections, rule of law, independent institutions, and civil liberties — although India under Modi is heading in the wrong direction. Authoritarian regimes and illiberal democracies that cloak their rule in democratic garb are excluded from the analysis.  Also to be...

  • By Muneeza Shamsie in Dawn, Books and Authors, Sunday, February 1, 2020. Urdu poetry is celebrated for its multi-layered resonances which transcend time and age. Whether written in the 18th century or the 21st, it can be quoted in political meetings, debates and daily conversations to make an apt comment on current events, public or personal. In recent weeks, Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s famous poem Hum Dekhein Gey [We Too Will See] — which was written as a critique of the Zia regime and rings out with its universal message of protest against tyranny, repression and injustice — has been chanted by huge crowds in India against the brutal attacks at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi. The power of Faiz’s poetry and its ability to reach out across languages, cultures and nations is central to Anjum Altaf’s unusual collection of English-language verses, titled Transgressions: Poems Inspired...

  • By Anjum Altaf What should be the allowance for discretion in the application of rules? This ought to be a contextual determination and one can use recent events in the worlds of cricket and politics to argue where the line ought to be drawn in Pakistan. Healthy institutions rely on discretion to take advantage of unforeseen opportunities when changing rules would consume valuable time causing opportunities to be lost. But there is a huge caveat in this simple formulation: that discretion is to be employed for a higher purpose and not self-interest. The more upright the office-bearers of an institution, the more the availability of discretion can lead to gains in efficiency and achievement. But what happens when office-bearers cannot be trusted to place institutional gains over self-interest? The damage from the abuse of discretion can result in losses far outweighing any possible gains from...

  • By Sakuntala Narasimhan : Two thousand nineteen marks the hundredth anniversary of the passing away of a remarkable Indian whose seminal contributions to our heritage in the classical arts merit reiterating as a new set of ministers takes charge of shaping our country’s cultural destiny in the next five years. Born in 1859, Abraham Pandithar was – as his name indicates – a Christian. He was a practitioner of traditional (Siddha) medicine in Tirunelveli and became a teacher. He studied western classical music and not only established a music organisation but also published research papers on Tamil music. His book on music, Karunamrutha sagaram, a tome of 1,356 pages, remains, according to experts, “a seminal work on music till today.” He translated kritis (which are usually in Telugu or Sanskrit ) into Tamil, which must count as an extraordinarily pioneering experiment during those days. He...

  • By Anjum Altaf The Prime Minister has praised his economic team for an ‘economic turnaround’ that comprises declines in the current account and fiscal deficits and increases in foreign direct investments and remittances. Unfortunately, all these are misleading indicators but one in particular is especially egregious and contradictory. Why is the increase in remittances considered a part of the economic turnaround and something that governments consider an achievement worthy of praise? Consider an anguished airport conversation with a Pakistani working in Italy and supporting a wife and two children in Pakistan. He used to send the equivalent of Rs. 50,000 per month in lira for family support; now the equivalent of Rs. 80,000 is needed to sustain the same expenditures. The increase in remittances is an outcome of greater economic distress in Pakistan. It is a false signal reflecting economic failure, not success. Before patting...

  • By Anjum Altaf When the choice is to either cry or laugh, I prefer the latter. Therefore I am compiling a book of political jokes. I am in a rush as I don’t believe these bounteous days can last but I can’t complain because a few prolific contributors are fast filling up the pages.  I had hoped to keep this initiative secret for fear the sources would dry up if they caught on. But it seems they can’t help it even if they try, probably because they consider them profound pronouncements on the state of the world. I mean, take something like “We will never leave Kashmiris alone.” Is that a joke, or what?  I am making a full disclosure because while most other countries have moved ahead, we are still in 1984. Someone is surely reading the lines as I write and given that...

  • By Anjum Altaf For weeks we have not seen the sun in Lahore. There is light without sunshine, diffused as through a dull haze. And we are trudging along as if this is the norm, an inevitable part of our fate. In Lahore, nobody cares enough to even tell us what we are living through but we can get some sense from the news filtering out of Delhi — so near and yet so far — where the Chief Minister has labelled the city a ‘gas chamber.’ A public health emergency has been declared, five million masks are being distributed in schools which have been closed for two days, construction work has been halted for a week, an odd-even scheme imposed to cut traffic pollution, and many firms are advising their employees to stay home. The level of dangerous particulates in the air is about...

  • By Anjum Altaf Once again, claims are flying around about the astounding results achieved by the Higher Education Commission (HEC) in an earlier period and attempts are being made to return to that dispensation with promises of a revved-up ‘knowledge’ economy that will propel Pakistan into the future. Such claims need to be taken seriously because of the importance of education for the progress of the country.  There are many who remain deeply sceptical of these claims. While wars like those of 1965 and 1971 and incursions like Kargil have caused immense setbacks to Pakistan, it is possible for a country to recover from such disasters. But the combined havoc wreaked by the nationalization of schools by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, their Islamization by Zia ul Haq, and the quantification of higher education by the HEC under Pervez Musharraf has done damage that is well-nigh irreversible....

  • By Faizaan Qayyum YEARS after Uber and Careem gained popularity, there is a new service in town: Airlift. Unlike existing services, which would essentially function as online marketplaces for private commute, this service links up many more people by selling seats in larger vehicles. And if you were to believe their founders, it is the answer to our people’s transit woes. Almost as if on cue, there is competition. Swvl, another startup that originated in Egypt, has entered the market, and existing services like Careem are working on similar models to retain their share of commuters. But is a surge in capitalist interest sufficient to establish the positive value of these services in our cities? One thing is certain: services like Airlift and Swvl can significantly improve the plight of urban commuters just by virtue of their operational model. Where commuters could book a car...

  • By Anjum Altaf I don’t believe there can be a way forward on our taxation problem unless taxpayers are given a fair and patient hearing and their concerns are allayed in a convincing manner. Let us consider the period from 1988, when the PPP came into power under Benazir Bhutto, to 2018, when the PML-N lost power under Nawaz Sharif. These two parties shared power during this entire period of 30 years except for the ten-year takeover by Pervez Musharraf from 1999 to 2008. Now consider the fact that no less than the Supreme Court of the country characterised the rule of the PML-N as that of a mafia and that Nawaz Sharif, currently in prison, was accused of siphoning money abroad and buying properties there with unaccountable funds. Consider also the fact that since 2018, the new government has spared no effort to tar...

  • By Anjum Altaf We will not figure out education if we continue to use it as a catch-all term without distinguishing its different aspects — knowledge (‘ilm’), skills (‘hunar’), and credentials (‘sanad’). These distinctions are best elucidated with an example. I take my car for repairs to a ‘Chota’ who was apprenticed early to an ‘Ustad’ and acquired exceptional expertise. Chota is also street-smart and wise. Yet no one would consider him educated. Why not? The notion of being an ‘educated’ person has become imprecise today with much variance in its perception. The traditional view equated being educated with being knowledgeable which manifested itself in the ability to engage in intelligent conversations on subjects unrelated to professional expertise or occupation. To do that a person had to be well-read and fluent in at least one language in which to compose and express his/her thoughts coherently....

  • By Anjum Altaf How much do we lose when we lose literature. We confuse ideas, reinvent things that have existed for centuries and claim credit for them, yield ownership to others for what is really ours, fail to recognize what is happening in front of our eyes, lose track of the founts of knowledge and make fools of ourselves. That, and so much more, has happened since schools dropped the teaching of literature in Pakistan. Let me illustrate the point with two examples. What a wonderful idea it was to end poverty in Pakistan once and for all by distributing a cock and four* hens to every household. For no good reason of logic but simply political angst, the idea was ridiculed across the board and various chicken memes proliferated across the screens. Valiant attempts by the Ministry of Truth to link the idea to...

  • By Anjum Altaf It is undeniable that the entire conversation about Kashmir has been marked, from the very beginning, by calculation instead of reflection. Between ‘Kashmir will become Pakistan’ and ‘Kashmir is an integral part of India’ there has been a shameful scramble for real estate without any care for the inhabitants of the land. No one has even bothered to ask what they might have wanted for themselves. Salman Rushdie’s brilliant new novel, Quichotte, is set primarily in America but is also a telling reflection on the tenor of our times. Consider these three dialogues (the first in the form of question and answer) and apply them to Kashmir to get a sense of their scope and relevance. — “I’ve only been around for a short time… but in that period I have noticed that conscience isn’t a major requirement in human affairs. Ruthlessness,...

  • By Anjum Altaf Position yourself at a traffic light or a roundabout in a Pakistani city today and you will witness every possible violation of the traffic code quite independent of the status of the violator and the presence of one or more policemen. The free-for-all encompasses the entire range from glitzy cars to rundown bicycles. Reflect a little on this seeming chaos and you might be able to infer that it all follows from one simple rule — the desire of every individual to find the shortest route from here to there unimpeded by any constraints in the way.     Such a rule is called a shortcut and although I have reflected on this particular shortcut for some time and deem it important, I refrained from raising the issue out of a sense of its ranking in the list of catastrophes enveloping our country. It...

  • By Anjum Altaf Here is a question of pricing for you to consider. Imagine the following scenario: You are getting ready to travel from Lahore to Islamabad when by chance X stops by at your house. X is also making the same journey driving his own car. X offers to give you a ride and you accept. Consider X to be one of the following in different versions of this encounter: 1. Your student 2. Your good friend 3. Your brother-in-law with whom you are on speaking terms 4. A distant relative 5. A colleague at work 6. A neighbor whom you know but are not close to 7. A stranger who stopped at your house by mistake If you had traveled on your own as planned, the trip would have cost you Rs. 2,000. For every case of X (from 1 to 7) answer...

  • By Anjum Altaf Almost everyone with more than a passing acquaintance of Naipaul has written about their interaction with him, deservedly so, since Naipaul was, without doubt, a great writer. The accounts range from the banal to the truly insightful. Among those of particular interest to Pakistanis, the one by Hanif Kureishi, himself a writer of repute, stands out for two reasons. First, it is one of the few that doesn’t display a knee-jerk reaction to Naipaul’s non-fiction, in particular his observations about Islamic countries. And second, because of Hanif Kureishi’s oblique relationship with Pakistan, the reflection has dispassionate things to say about the country as refracted through Naipaul’s lens. Hanif’s connection to Pakistan, for those who know, is through his father’s brother, the iconic Omar Kureishi — legendary cricket commentator, popular manager of the test team, the person with whom PIA became the airline...

  • By Anjum Altaf I have lived in the US for long periods but earlier this year was the first time in over two decades that I stayed in the UK. I noticed immediately that the quality of edible products was much better in the latter although my purchases were from a corner store as compared to the US where I used to shop at a high-end organic market. This intrigued me no end since both are advanced countries with consumers conscious of what they eat. What might account for this noticeable difference in quality at least as far as taste was concerned? I decided on some amateur sleuthing and the findings revealed much of interest. While these may not account for the actual explanation, the conclusions are of enough general interest to merit discussion in Pakistan. The key to the puzzle may lie in the...

  • By Anjum Altaf People often insist that Pakistan’s lack of development requires investing in education. They should reconsider this relationship.  Consider the following arguments: In countries we consider developed today, mass education followed development not the other way around. Countries did not wait till they were fully educated before they began to develop. Rather, they began to develop which created the need for the spread of education. Great Britain became a global empire when there was relatively little mass education. Today, with universal education, it is a minor player in the global system. There is no linear relationship between education and development and certainly the former does not cause the latter. Apply this framework to British India. There was little mass education when the British took over but because there were so few they needed local intermediaries to help administer the colony in ways familiar...

  • By Anjum Altaf It is difficult to support any political party in Pakistan for an obvious reason. They are so full of corrupt, uncaring and incompetent leaders that associating with them comes across either as opportunism or stupidity. Those who manipulate political leaders are even less to be admired. The kings and kingmakers have now led the country into very dangerous territory. It is a fact that Pakistan entered a moral decline early on when its value system was buffeted by Partition. Only one dimension of this decline need be mentioned to make the point — the land grab. It ensued at the outset, initiated by bureaucrats entrusted with the trust of abandoned properties, was followed by the rampaging era of land mafias, and continued by the legalized involvement of state institutions. This created a worldview in which the only way to get ahead was...

  • By Anjum Altaf I admire Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy for not giving up on education in Pakistan. In a recent article  (HEC — stormy times up ahead, Dawn, May 25, 2019), he suggested a debate on the contrasting visions for higher education offered by Dr. Tariq Banuri, the current head of the HEC, and Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman, who held the position earlier. Since then Dr. Rahman has also articulated his vision (Higher education in turmoil, The News, June 1, 2019). It would therefore be a lost opportunity to not discuss the issue further given the centrality of education to the future of the country. Needless to say, in countries that hope to progress each succeeding generation must be better educated than the one preceding it, building and improving on the latter’s achievements. The terms of the debate are provided by the two contrasting visions as summarized by...

  • By Anjum Altaf The overwhelming triumph of the BJP in the recent elections is being interpreted by many as the death of a liberal, plural, and secular India. This is a misreading of history. Two distinctions are relevant. First, while post-1947 India was indeed characterised by the ideas of liberalism, pluralism, and secularism, these were ideals towards which Nehru wanted to move the country, not necessarily what India was actually like. Second, the long sweep of social history being unaffected by arbitrary dates on the calendar, there is no compelling reason to base our understanding of India solely on what transpired after 1947. Pakistanis should have no difficulty grasping the first point if they recall Jinnah’s much celebrated 1947 address in which he said: “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed, that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”...

  • By Anjum Altaf There is something intriguing about the use of script and language in Pakistan that is crying out for an explanation. My observations of the phenomenon began in the metropolis before being extended to small cities and rural towns in the Punjab but the story is more interestingly narrated in the reverse order. Next time you are in a rural town in the Punjab raise your eye-level from the cell phone to the shopfront and you shall see virtually all the shop signs in the Urdu script. This is to be expected as very few people in such places can read English. But look again — almost every sign is a transliteration into Urdu script of an English name. The most humble khoka is a ‘Cold Corner’ or a ‘Jus Shop’ written, of course, as pronounced in Urdu — kaarner for corner and...

  • This collection of poems was published in hardback by Aakar Books, Delhi in 2019 with strong endorsement from Professor Harbans Mukhia, Professor Emeritus of History, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. December 23, 2018 · Some superb poetry of protest by Anjum Altaf who identifies himself as a South Asian living in Lahore. Poems inspired by Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Anjum Altaf was Professor of Sociology in Lahore and Karachi. First published in India by LG Publishers, a subsidiary of Aakar Books, Delhi. January 15, 2019 ·      A great poem inspired by Faiz Ahmad Faiz and triggered by “attacks on JNU students and faculty in 2016 and dedicated to them” by Anjum Altaf, Professor of Sociology and “A South Asian residing in Lahore.” From his collection Transgressions, published by Aakar Books, Delhi, 2019. The collection is now available online from North America, India, and Pakistan. North America:...

  • By Ibn-e Eusuf The political scenario in Pakistan is so surreal that only a seemingly far-fetched analogy can highlight its unreal realities. Imagine the MI5 in the UK, fed up with the incompetence of Conservative and Labour politicians over Brexit, conspiring to install Sir Ian Botham as Prime Minister and selling him as the Great White Hope because he had been a hugely successful and popular cricketer. Now imagine a lady, from deep in the Yorkshire moors, emerging to declare Sir Ian Botham not only great and popular but specially sent by the Almighty to save the British nation from itself and lead it from hell to heaven. Sir Ian Botham weds the miracle-bearing lady, the union accompanied by a huge resurgence of otherwise agnostic people praying in churches for the health of the couple and the nation. A delighted Archbishop of Canterbury declares it...

  • By Faizaan Qayyum They claimed to have invaded the sovereign territory of an enemy country. They had dropped bombs, they said, and hit a terrorist camp that involved no military or civilian targets. In the days that followed, we retaliated: we intruded enemy-controlled territory, chose to strike near enemy targets, and took an enemy combatant prisoner after downing his fighter jet. No truth is more apparent than our enmity as modern nation states. Indeed, India and Pakistan have followed a largely cyclical process of escalation and de-escalation. Before nukes came into play, we went to full-scale war thrice. In the years since, we have had countless skirmishes. Most of these conflicts have stayed within areas internationally recognised as disputed, and therefore stopped short of the absolute destruction that all-out nuclear war can bring. The creation of the enemy is central to this story of hostilities...

  • By Anjum Altaf Pakistan should be a welfare state. With millions of people straddling the poverty line, there is no other way forward. Those who believe the market will offer a solution are driven by ideology, blind fundamentalists in the same category as religious fundamentalists. Only the state can cater for such destitution and the fact that a state has no interest or ability to do so does not mean that the task should be turned over to the market. The plain truth is that the market cares nothing for those without the ability to pay and there are many more in that category than should be acceptable. Not just that, without a strong state the market doesn’t trickle wealth down it siphons it up. The only viable alternative is to force the state to deliver on its responsibility and in the long run the...

  • By Anjum Altaf The lessons from Brexit for democracy and the democratic process are significant and general enough to repay attention even for those whose interest in British politics might be quite limited. First, it should be quite clear that meta-issues involving complex economic and political dimensions with uncertain outcomes are not suitable for referenda offering binary YES or NO choices. Representative democracy exists for the sensible exercise of judgement on such issues by those elected by the voters to act in their interest. If the latter conclude that their interests are being ignored for any reason, they can change their representatives rather than take decisionmaking into their own hands. Consider also how unstable the outcome of such a referendum can be with just a slight alteration. Suppose the choices to be voted on in the case of the UK had been, instead of a...

  • By Anjum Altaf The more I read about sustainability the more I am puzzled by what it reveals and what it hides. At one level, this is a new buzzword in the global discourse that all sorts of shysters are milking for what it is worth while distracting the gullible into futile avenues and dubious career paths. Take the endless refrain about sustainable cities. Every day one reads a scare-laden screed about how our major cities are unsustainable. But what exactly does that mean? Lahore has been around for many centuries — Al-Biruni referred to it in the 11th Century and Xuangzang identified it in 630 CE. Delhi is even older — its history goes back to 50 BCE. Despite their survival through all sorts of calamities and troubled times, we are being told that they are not sustainable anymore. What exactly has changed? Many...

  • By Anjum Altaf Oxfam presented its new report at Davos whose main takeaway for India is that: “Indian billionaires saw their fortunes swell by Rs 2,200 crore a day last year, with the top 1 per cent of the country’s richest getting richer by 39 per cent as against just 3 per cent increase in wealth for the bottom-half of the population.” https://theprint.in/economy/richest-indians-got-wealthier-by-39-worlds-poorest-saw-their-fortunes-dip-by-11-in-2018-says-oxfam-study/180630/ Shekhar Gupta at The Print has castigated this report in very strong terms as methodologically flawed and politically motivated. Please read the news item and watch Gupta’s critique then write a comment with your own analysis. Where do you come out on this issue? [I wish he would stay still while speaking — it is tortuous to watch] Here is a set of expert opinions solicited by The Print: https://theprint.in/talk-point/oxfam-inequality-study-skewed-parameters-to-assess-wealth-or-disbalanced-

  • By Anjum Altaf Education is a big-ticket item. Clarity is needed about its relationship to economic growth and development before betting the house on it. Otherwise a lot of resources would end up being misallocated. It is in this context that I respond to Mr. Miftah Ismail’s diagnosis and prescription presented in his opinion in this newspaper (‘Educating Pakistan,’ December 5, 2018). Mr. Ismail begins by asking why any country is richer than another and answers with the assertion that “education is probably the most important factor in determining the wealth of nations.” From this follows the prescription that the path to richness is education. I offer some cross-country evidence using literacy rates as a proxy for education and GDP per capita as a proxy for wealth — for each country the data that follows in parentheses shows percent of adult population that is literate...

  • [Editor’s Note: Imran Khan’s suggestion to alleviate rural poverty by giving chickens to women was greeted with much ridicule but is there the germ of an idea there that public policy wanks can shape into a viable scheme? On the contrary, is there a convincing enough critique that can show how and why the idea might be infeasible. Myrah Nerine Butt took the first step in a blog published in Dawn on December 5, 2018 and I requested Faizaan Qayyum to comment on her article. Myrah and Faizaan were Teaching Assistants for a course (ECON 100: Principles of Economics) I taught at LUMS in 2013 and it is gratifying to see them both emerge as articulate public policy practitioners.  Myrah completed a MA in Poverty and Development from the University of Sussex and Faizaan a MA in Urban Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where...

  • By Anjum Altaf Daniel Kahneman (2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics) has a lovely book called Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) in which he distinguishes between the two modes of thought. Fast thinking is instinctive and emotional and subject to many cognitive biases; slow thinking is deliberative and logical and much to be recommended when stakes are high and situations are unfamiliar. In Pakistan, we have succumbed over time to fast thinking and the graver the situation the more instinctive and emotional the thought process tends to become. It’s time to take a deep breath. Look at the current situation which offers a surreal scenario of a major country reduced to a farcical contest between Ali Baba and his forty thieves on one side and Robin Hood and his merry men on the other. Ali Baba’s gang purportedly looted the people and got phenomenally rich...

  • By Anjum Altaf It is a fact that no one outside Pakistan considers the most recent electoral exercise to have been even-handed — some analysts have gone so far as calling it a ‘soft coup.’ This is no surprise. Most outsiders also insist that Pakistan sponsors terrorism. But while there are many Pakistanis who contest the latter, it is striking that the number believing in the fairness of the recent electoral exercise is relatively small. Even partisans benefiting from the outcome, while offering various justifications, do not really dispute the charge. It seems that in nudging the choice, the power elite (the segment of the elite that has the ability to affect other people’s lives) may have overplayed its hand. Does this, and the intervention itself, come at a price? Recall that negating the electoral mandate of 1971 resulted in dismemberment of the country. What...

  • By Anjum Altaf Some lessons are very hard-earned and stand out for their stark truth and searing honesty. Ivan Klima, a well-known Czech novelist, was transported to a concentration camp at the age of ten and was there for four years till the end of WWII in 1945. Many who accompanied him did not survive their internment. In a deeply-felt memoir of that experience (“A Childhood in Terezin”), Klima recalls two lessons that stayed with him. First, that “Every society that is founded on dishonesty and tolerates crime as an aspect of normal behaviour, be it only among a handful of the elect, while depriving another group, no matter how small, of its honour and even its right to life, condemns itself to moral degeneration and, ultimately, to collapse.” And, second, “that often it is not the forces of good and evil that do battle...

  • By Anjum Altaf What is to be done when we believe strongly that the present in which we live falls very much short of what it ought to be? Clearly, we don’t need to prove that that is indeed the case —  widespread poverty, hunger, marginalization, discrimination, and exploitation stare us in the face every day. While almost everyone, especially in countries like ours, agrees on the discontents of the present, there is a very clear split when it comes to thinking of what is to be done. There is a segment of the population that believes the solution lies in going back to a past in which all these problems did not exist. And there is a segment that believes that such a return is not possible simply because one cannot step into the same river twice — too many things have changed to...

  • By Anjum Altaf It was back in the time of one of the dictators who was giving the Pakistani political system one of its fresh starts. He had given a message to the people to take advantage of new elections and replace dishonest incumbents by voting for “good” people. At the time I was doing fieldwork in rural Sindh in a constituency where the incumbent was a known criminal and I put the proposition to a peasant asking him if he would vote for a “good” candidate. The illiterate peasant took all of three seconds, looked me in the eye, and replied: “Saeen, will the good man get my son out of prison?” Therein lies the insight that goes to the heart of the Pakistani political system. It is obvious to illiterate voters but escapes many a sophisticated analyst. In our deeply hierarchical society, most...

  • By Anjum Altaf Urban productivity is determined by a number of variables, including population size and urban sprawl. With effective infrastructure investment, cities can enable more workers to access available jobs, creating integrated labour markets and increasing urban productivity. From an economic perspective, the concept of a metropolitan area is related to the existence of an integrated labour market. If the labour market extends beyond the municipal boundaries of a city, it becomes part of a metropolitan labour market. Metropolitan labour markets are important because output per worker increases with the size of the labour market; increased population density leads to a higher number of economic interactions per unit of area. However, the population size of a city is only one determinant of its productivity. The other critical determinant is urban sprawl, which takes into account how far jobs and residences are located, and the speed...

  • Lord Krishna sighting the Eid moon and pointing it out to a group of Muslim men and women. Reproduction of an 18th century Rajasthan miniature. More at: https://swarajyamag.com/culture/krishna-through-the-hands-of-muslim-artists

  • By Anjum Altaf There was a time not too long ago when the burden of disease seemed disproportionately biased against the poor. That someone was always dying among ‘these’ people was the irritated refrain of many an exasperated ‘Begum.’ ‘Fauteedgi’ (an event of death) was a dreaded word that came to be interpreted as a ready excuse to buy a few days off for the staff. Times have changed. It is hard now to find an affluent family without its own share of prolonged and painful illnesses and ‘fauteedgis,’ often premature. The speed at which graveyards are filling up in rich communities tells a story if anyone is willing to listen. What happened? Simply, money reached its limit in the ability to buy health. It could protect against many of the factors that caused the most mortality amongst the poor but lost its edge once...

  • By Samia Altaf Two recent reports about Pakistan’s health system tell of deficiencies of far reaching significance. The first, from UNICEF, confers on Pakistan the dubious distinction of registering the highest number of deaths in newborns (neonatal mortality) in the past decade. It is now number one in the world, climbing from number three, and ahead of Afghanistan and the Central African Republic. The second, a National Nutrition Survey, informs that 45% of Pakistan’s children are stunted, suffering from chronic, extreme, and irreversible malnourishment that causes permanent physical and cognitive deficiencies. What would this half of future generations be capable of with its severely limited capacity to learn even if the opportunity for education is available? It would fall sick much quicker and get better a lot slower creating a permanent burden on the already constrained health service delivery system. The situation in other areas...

  • 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...

  • 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...

  • 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...

  • 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...

  • 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...

  • 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...

  • 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...

  • 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...

  • 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...

  • By Harbans Mukhia I was born in 1937 or 38, in a tiny village in the Gujrat district of what is now Pakistan. No one, even in Pakistan, seems to have heard of the village Allaha, though it is on my passport to this day. Our home was a nondescript one – a one-and-a-half room structure on one side of a dusty street; on the other side was a tall, white mansion-like habitat with a weather cock on top, which fascinated us kids for hours. We moved to Delhi before the Partition – perhaps sometime around 1941. My father responded to the Quit India call and was put in a Multan prison for six months. My mother passed away perhaps in 1943 or 44, leaving behind five young children. My eldest sister, then 12 or 13, was withdrawn from school to look after her siblings....

  • By Kabir Altaf In March 2017, a public prosecutor in Lahore, Pakistan, offered to acquit 42 Christian prisoners accused of murder if they converted to Islam. This prodded a re-reading of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, which also features a forced conversion—that of the Jewish moneylender, Shylock, to Christianity.  Written between 1596 and 1599, The Merchant of Venice centers around Antonio (the titular character) and his financial dealings with Shylock. Antonio’s friend Bassanio needs money in order to woo Portia, a wealthy noblewoman. In order to raise this amount, Antonio asks Shylock for a loan of 3000 ducats. The moneylender agrees on the condition that if Antonio defaults on the loan, Shylock will be entitled to a pound of his flesh. Antonio accepts these terms, since he has several ships coming in to port soon. However, Antonio’s ships are wrecked and he is forced to...

  • By Anjum Altaf Every so often someone promises to turn Pakistan into an Asian tiger. It is not a bad ambition but it hasn’t happened yet. Not just that, we don’t seem to be moving forward much. All the more reason for an honest examination because knowing where one is starting from is just as important as knowing where one wants to go. With help of some illustrative numbers one can establish three points. The Pakistani economy is existing at a low level; it is in relative decline; and too many of its citizens are struggling at or below subsistence level. Getting from here to Asian tiger status would require something beyond more of the same. First, the state of the economy. The Federal Bureau of Statistics website shows that in 2015 per capita income in current prices was Rs. 153,620 per year or about...

  • By Anjum Altaf Pakistan wants to resume bilateral cricketing ties with India while India refuses to play ball. How would an alien from Mars, unaffected by nationalist biases, assess the situation? It would be hard to dismiss the Indian position outright. Think of it this way: If you live in a community and a neighbour throws his trash over your wall you would be justified in being annoyed. You might go over once for a friendly chat but if the dumping continues you would be well within your rights to protest and break off relations. The neighbour’s invitation to a friendly game of chess will clearly smack of hypocrisy in the circumstances. Extrapolate the analogy to India-Pakistan politics. There seems little doubt that Pakistan has been abetting incidents of terrorism in India – the 2008 attack in Mumbai was the most egregious and the most...

  • By Anjum Altaf The other day I read an article on indigenous languages. I admired its spirit but was dismayed by its logic relating language and learning. The article mentioned there are 17 languages spoken in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa of which only two, Pashto and Hindko, will be explicitly recorded in the forthcoming census. The rest will be categorized as ‘Other.’ The author feared these languages would decay and urged the government to preserve them for posterity. So far, so good as the fate of minor languages is a global concern. But the article included a paragraph that needs to be quoted in full: There are some experts who argue that a child should be taught in the mother tongue till a certain grade before opting for any other language at an advanced stage. The argument seems to be flawed since languages become harder to learn...

  • By Anjum Altaf Look at the map of Pakistan. The overwhelming length of its land border (92% of a total of 6,774 kilometers) is shared with three countries – India (43%), Afghanistan (36%), and Iran (13%). Pakistan has poor relations with each of these three neighbours. Has anyone seriously asked the two obvious questions: Why? And, At what cost? Before we jump on the moral high-horse and go into paroxysms of indignant self-righteousness, could we consider the following: When George Bush asks ‘Why do they hate us?’ and answers ‘Because we are so good,’ we marvel at his intelligence. When we proclaim the same, we want to be taken seriously? Surely, some self-reflection is in order. Point number one: When nobody likes you, the problem could very well be with you. At the very least, intellectual honesty demands one should be open to the possibility....

  • By Ahmed Kamran Chapter Four: The Road to Pakistan – (Continued) Formation of the Communist Party of Pakistan The Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) was formally established in the Second Congress of the Communist Party of India (CPI) held in February-March 1948 in Calcutta It was in line with the decision taken in the central committee of the party in July 1947 when the policy switch took place between losing P.C. Joshi group and the rising B.T. Ranadive group in the party. Out of about 800 delegates to the Congress only three members represented the areas now forming Pakistan. These included Prof. Eric Cyprian from Punjab, Muhammad Hussain Ata from NWFP (now KPK), and Jamaluddin Bukhari from Sindh. Two other nominated delegates from Punjab, Mirza Muhammad Ibrahim and C.R. Aslam couldn’t attend the Congress as they were reportedly caught in the last moment organising a...

  • By Sara Fatima This post is in response to a recent article by Professor Mohammad Waseem (‘An ignoramus par excellence,’ The News, June 11, 2017) in which he argues that the majority of the professional, political, bureaucratic and military elites of Pakistan are uninformed about the larger issues pertaining to our social, national and global life. Some of the issues he mentions are the weakness of our foreign policy, increasing social violence, population explosion, water shortage and cultural practices oppressing women and minorities. Professsor Waseem attributes this outcome to an insularity of vision and thought which, in his view, stems from a lack of exposure to the social sciences in our educational system. In elucidating this weakness of Pakistan’s educated elite, Professor Waseem compares the typical Pakistani school graduate with one in the West. He asserts that in the West a school graduate is introduced...

  • 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...

  • By Anjum Altaf In connection with the much discussed concerns with the performance of the civil service in Pakistan, I have suggested that in addition to obvious factors like the quality of education in the country and the terms and conditions of employment during service, it might be useful to look at the particulars of the selection test itself. The objective would be to assess how the test impacts the behavior of candidates and whether it encourages self-selection of particular types of candidates. The argument can be motivated with one illustrative question from the compulsory Islamiat paper downloaded from the version of the 2015 CSS examination available on the website of the Federal Public Service Commission. The question is as follows: “Highlight the importance of Zakat and prove that economic stability of a society can be ensured through its effective implementation.” Now consider the implications...

  • By Ahmed Kamran Chapter Four: The Road to Pakistan – (Continued) Political Awakening Like many other riverine societies, the political and economic life of Sindh essentially revolved around the only river flowing through its lands – the mighty Indus. Unlike Punjab with its multiple rivers and located inside the Monsoon catchment area, Sindh is almost out of this rain system. Its economic life is almost wholly dependent on the perennial Indus river which bisects its land and empties itself into the Arabian Sea, forming a large delta east of Karachi. Most of the population traditionally lived along the Indus cultivating only Kharif crop in summer for its living in the silt brought in yearly floods during Monsoon inundating its lands. Traditionally, there was very limited Rabi (winter) crop in Sindh. Others lived a semi-nomadic life in pasture lands. The country was poor and the life...

  • Kabir Altaf Ever since The God of Small Things was published to great acclaim in 1997, Arundhati Roy’s fans have been eagerly awaiting her next novel. It was a long wait—two decades—as Roy transitioned from being a novelist to being an activist and a non-fiction writer. Now, the wait has finally ended with the publication of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. The novel focuses on several characters, most of whom are outcasts from the new rising India. They include a hijra named Anjum, a Kashmiri separatist (or freedom fighter) named Musa and Tilottama, the Malayali woman who loves him. Over the course of the novel, these disparate characters encounter one another and their stories intersect, sometimes in surprising ways. Much of the novel is set in the Kashmir Valley during the 1990s—at the height of the insurgency against the Indian state—viewed by many Kashmiris as...

  • By Anjum Altaf A diagnosis of the alleged ailments of the Central Superior Services (CSS) requires an evaluation of three independent but interrelated aspects: the quality of the pool of candidates interested in the service; the test that identifies the qualifiers for the service; and the working conditions of the selectees once they join the service. The average ability of the intake pool is obviously a function of the general quality of education in the country which is considered to be declining. However, given Pakistan’s large population, there is little doubt that more than a few thousand outstanding students graduate each year from the leading educational institutions. This number greatly exceeds the three hundred or so places to be filled in the CSS per annum. The real issue is that these outstanding graduates are no longer attracted to the CSS. There used to be a...

  • By Ahmed Kamran Chapter Four: The Road to Pakistan – (Continued) Sindh – Developing a Rural-Urban Divide In early 1840s, the British had finally conquered Sindh to clear the way for their undisturbed approach for military expeditions to Afghanistan and Iran via Balochistan for countering the threat of Russian Czar’s southward thrust in the Central Asia. First, the British military vessel Wellseley took control of Manora and the small harbor at Karachi on 1 February 1839, without a gunshot being fired. Manora had a small fort and a few rusty canons brought from Muscat were installed there. Unfortunately, Talpur rulers of Sindh at Hyderabad (160 Km north-east from Karachi) were sunk in deep torpor, unable to even fully appreciate the implication of this British move. Since the end of Sindhi ruling dynasty of Kalhoras (1701-1783), this area had been essentially a lose confederacy of powerful...

  • By Anjum Altaf I am now less interested in CPEC, which is unstoppable, and more fascinated by how people think. Conventional wisdom has individuals using reason to objectively weigh the costs and benefits of an option and then choosing it if benefits exceed costs. More and more evidence on actual behavior suggests that individuals start with their minds already made up and then pick and choose arguments to support their positions. At this time PML supporters are convinced CPEC is a game-changer while those opposed to the party believe it is a recipe for disaster. The former claim Nawaz Sharif is an astute industrialist and China a trusted friend. The latter argue Nawaz Sharif is corrupt and is using hype to distract attention from his troubles. Supporters are not willing to consider that their party can make bad decisions; opponents are unwilling to concede the...

  • By Ahmed Kamran Chapter Four: The Road to Pakistan – (Continued) Balochistan – A Tribal Rebellion Among Muslim majority areas of British India and the princely states inside Pakistani territory, Balochistan occupied a unique position. It was neither a wholly British Indian province nor a subordinate princely state like Kashmir, Bhawalpur, Junagadh, and Hyderabad. Its relationship with British India evolved differently and this factor has continued to mar its relationship with Pakistani state till today. As a separate political entity in history, Balochistan evolved as a Rind-Lashari tribal confederacy, first established by Mir Chakar Rind in late 1400s. It comprised of a large swathe of mostly barren land, stretching from Kirman in the west (in present day Iran) to Derajat on the right bank of Indus River in the east, including Kalat highlands and the fertile areas of Kacchi and Sibi. It had united all...

  • By Anjum Altaf I am intrigued by the thought that for an ambitious youngster, passionate about the arts and with a compelling belief in himself or herself, there may be no place in Pakistan to run away to. The thought occurred to me on reading the biography of Naushad, one of our great music directors. Born in Lucknow, he became fascinated with music early in life. Told by his father to choose between home and music Naushad ran away to Bombay at the age of 18. The rest, as they say, is history. The Bombay of those times was the place to run away to for the passionate young. Naushad was not the only one. There were literally hundreds of others from cities as far away as Peshawar and Madras and towns and villages scattered across the subcontinent. It was a magnet not only for...

  • By Anjum Altaf Religion is always ticking away in the background of almost every issue in Pakistan but there has been a decided uptick in the intensity of instructional fervour in recent days. The thrust is a desperate effort to make Pakistanis more pious in order to achieve the fast disappearing better society of our dreams. To start off, a committee of the National Assembly passed a bill to make teaching the Quran compulsory in grades 1 through 12 in all federal educational institutions. According the committee chair “the bill is one of the good steps and will benefit students.” The education minister added that “this bill was moved because it was the people’s demand and because it was the need of the hour.” The text of the bill states that “it will make the divine message understood; ensure the repose of society; peace and...

  • By Ahmed Kamran Chapter Four: The Road to Pakistan – (Continued) A Complex Knot Indeed, for CPI it was highly complex and difficult situation. As soon as it was visible that the scepter of the foreign rule over Indian political horizon will not last for long, the ‘national question’ in its naked form in India overshadowed the ‘class question’. The Indian National Congress was started as a political party of the national bourgeoisie, the aspiring middle classes and petty bourgeoisie of the whole of India. CPI’s support for National Congress in its fight against British colonial rule, big absentee landlords, traditional Jagirdars, and Nawabs and Rajas of the princely states for a national democratic revolution was a progressive policy in the right direction, provided it had maintained its political independence and had built and maintained its organizational capacity for simultaneously pursuing its long-term goal of...

  • By Anjum Altaf It stands to reason that a poor selection test would be unable to identify the best candidates in any given applicant pool. Given the importance of the civil service I reviewed recent CSS written examinations and discovered serious issues of intellectual ineptitude and quality control. Questions from the 2015 and 2016 examination papers whose scans are posted on the official FPSC website were reviewed. Those mentioned below are faithfully reproduced without  correcting for errors of spelling, capitalization, punctuation or grammar which the alert reader would spot easily. Commentary is avoided for lack of space leaving the reader to identify problems which range from the amusing to the highly problematic. Some would merely confuse applicants while others might force them to dissemble or risk being failed. Starting with the less serious, a question from the compulsory English Precis and Composition paper asks applicants...

  • By Ahmed Kamran Chapter Four: The Road to Pakistan – (Continued) Punjab – The Main Battleground Owing to its large fertile irrigated lands, majority Muslim population and economic strength, Punjab was going to be the principal theater for Muslim League’s battle with Congress. In its strategic importance for Pakistan in future, Punjab was even ahead of Bengal, which had been a forerunner in the Muslim’s independence movement. Bengal’s importance lied mainly in its large Muslim population; otherwise, barring for Calcutta and its jute mills the economic assets of the Muslim East Bengal were not significant. Muslim League desperately needed to mobilize the peasants and aspiring Muslim middle classes and petty bourgeoisie of Punjab, Sindh, and NWFP to exert full pressure on the big landlords for them to fall in line with its push. Despite it being a large producer of food grains, the food scarcity...

  • By Anjum Altaf The last shred of doubt regarding the reality of climate change should have been removed by the unnaturally early arrival of the silly season. One warming outcome has seen the hot-air balloon of the Pakistani economy lifting off into the stratosphere without anyone ever noticing what happened. First there was the upward draft in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post that removed the veil from the transformation we had failed to observe. Not wanting to leave anything to our blinkered visions, the WSJ blared it all out in one breathless headline: “Pakistan’s Middle Class Soars as Stability Returns: Consumer spending rockets as poverty shrinks, terrorism drops and democracy holds.” Before the excitement could die down and lest a couple of eyebrows be raised, the redoubtable Economist added the gravity of its authoritative voice with an article titled “Pakistan confronts something...

  • By Anjum Altaf Leafing through the Sunday Careers section of Dawn I came across a quarter-page Position Vacant advertisement by the U.S. Pakistan Center for Advanced Studies in Energy (USPCAS-E) at the University of Engineering and Technology, Peshawar. I am wondering if readers will find the experience as surreal as I did. The advertised position is for a driver on a contract basis with a high-school degree and a valid license. A long job description includes the following: application of knowledge of commercial driving and skills in maneuvering a vehicle at varying speeds in difficult situations, such as heavy traffic and inclement weather; the ability to sit and remain alert while driving for an aggregate period of up to 11 hours; and the ability to operate equipment in all types of weather and conditions which include going forward and backing up long distances, around corners, and...

  • By Anjum Altaf Is there a fruitful line of inquiry regarding the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)? That depends on the questions with which one initiates the inquiry. Would CPEC be a game-changer for Pakistan? This drawing-room question is particularly useless to begin with. With so much uncertainty and so many variables beyond human control no one except a clairvoyant can predict with any confidence. It is just as pointless, if not actually silly, to take sides. Enough hard information is not available for one side to convince the other on the basis of analysis – believers will continue to believe and doubters will continue to doubt for reasons having little to do with the intricacies of the initiative. The following questions pertaining to details of the deal are more useful: Under what conditions are the various components of the initiative being negotiated? What are...

  • By Ahmed Kamran Chapter Four: The Road to Pakistan – (Continued) Pakistan Movement As we noted earlier in Chapter 3, the Indian Muslims separate political consciousness evolved in early 20th century during their struggle for obtaining administrative autonomy in East Bengal and minority protective rights in Hindu majority provinces of UP, CP, Bihar, Madras, and Bombay. The Muslims first spoke about their “national interests at the mercy of an unsympathetic majority” in their joint deputation to the Viceroy of India, Lord Minto, in 1906, at Shimla. The peculiar international situation developing before and during First World War also worked in raising Indian Muslim’s political consciousness. The Indian Muslims whole-heartedly joined in the struggle for Indian independence movement. M.A. Jinnah, an avowed liberal barrister from cosmopolitan Bombay and an active member of both Indian National Congress and Muslim League, helped craft the ‘Lucknow Pact’ between the...

  • By Anjum Altaf I speak as a layperson not as an expert on the subject and so may be missing a lot but I have a strong feeling something is very wrong with the way terrorism is being combated in the country. If I am mistaken, and I fervently wish I am, I would really appreciate someone explaining what might be going on. Ever since the recent spate of suicide bombings a feverish campaign has been launched against terrorists and if reports are to be believed over a hundred have been eliminated just in a couple of days. What puzzles me is how the terrorists who have been eliminated have been identified and located so quickly. Did we always know where they were but were letting them be for some reason? If we were letting them be was it because we did not have enough...

  • By Anjum Altaf A lovely little book came out in 2005 titled On Bullshit. Written by a professor of philosophy at Princeton, it remained a bestseller for months. Its principal message was that “bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies” because “Liars at least acknowledge that it matters what is true.” Bullshitters, on the other hand, convey impressions “without being concerned about whether anything at all is true. They quietly change the rules governing their end of the conversation so that claims about truth and falsity are irrelevant.” I recalled the book after reading two articles within a week talking up the Pakistani economy in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. Both employed the classic bullshitter’s gambit of throwing out random facts to convey a favorable impression without caring in the least whether the inferences were in any way supported...

  • By Anjum Altaf For Sheema Kermani – because she went Go(After Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Aaj Bazaar meiN Pa ba JaullaN Chalo) Unwept tears, inner tormentsEnoughHidden desires, silent accusationsEnough GoFlaunt your fetters in the streetArms aloft, enraptured, intoxicatedDisheveled, blood stainedGoLovers are yearning for your loveGo Tyrant and crowdAwaitSlings and stonesAwaitSorrows and failuresAwait Who else is left to loveBut youWho else is left to fightBut youWho else is left to dieBut you Arise and goFor love’s honorGo   Note Sehwan is home to the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, a major sufi saint in Sindh, where a suicide bombing killed 88 devotees on February 16, 2017. Sheema Kermani is a symbol of defiance in Pakistan as a dancer who has continued to perform in public all through the rise of fundamentalism and suppression. She went to the shrine to join the devotees on February 20. The news story...

  • By Ahmed Kamran Chapter Four: The Road to Pakistan – (Continued) Kirti Communists in Punjab After the periods of significant unrests of Ghadar Party (1914-1916), Jallianwala Bagh (1919) and Babbar Akali Jatthas (1920-1925) in Punjab, a monthly Kirti (Worker) journal was published by Santok Singh from Amritsar in February 1926. Santok Singh and Rattan Singh of Ghadar Party had been to Soviet Union for training and had attended the fourth congress of the Comintern in 1922 (16). The first Kirti conference was held in Hoshiarpur on 6-7 October, 1927. Sohan Singh Josh presided over the meeting that demanded freedom of India, eight-hour work day for factory workers, and expressed its support for the Chinese freedom struggle and Russian revolution. The second conference under Tara Singh was held on 17 October, 1927 in Lyallpur. In early 1928, Sohan Singh Josh and Bhag Singh Canadian called for...

  • By Anjum Altaf Is there any other country that rewards government employees with grants of land? The issue is not whether the grants comply with existing rules or follow precedent but whether the practice makes sense in the modern age. We are no longer living in the age of monarchy or colonial rule when land was gifted at will by the rulers to whomsoever pleased them – just think of the landed gentry we inherited as a result. We are now in the era of democracy in which public resources belong to citizens and are to be used in accordance with their sanction. In our system these decisions are made by their representatives in appropriate legislative forums. If citizens are not satisfied with the decisions of their representatives they have the well-known triad of ‘Exit, Voice, and Loyalty’ to fall back on which itself is...

  • By Ahmed Kamran Chapter Four: The Road to Pakistan The areas now forming today’s Pakistan i.e. the western wing of the country at the time of its establishment in 1947 had a long and chequered history. For a long time, this region remained the centre stage and cradle of the ancient Indian society. It’s the home of the most ancient known civilization in the world. Well until Shahjahan’s reign of Mughal dynasty, this northwestern region of India remained one of the most important theaters of military expeditions and station for Maharajas, kings and emperors continued royal presence for long periods. Despite Delhi being the nominal capital of the empire, most of Mughal emperors spent more time in Lahore or on other military expeditions than in Delhi itself. Western Punjab always occupied an important strategic position as the only gateway of foreign invasion into fertile Indian...

  • By Ahmed Kamran Chapter Three: The Rise and Fall of Indian Communists (1933-1951) – (Continued) Stalin’s Advice In the party, however, a uniformity of ideas and a broad consensus on policy matters was still a far cry. Strong disagreements persisted along fractured lines in the party. The party organization in Bombay led by Ajoy Ghosh, S.V. Ghate and S.A. Dange opposed this new policy as a ‘mechanical application of the Chinese model’. Together, they issued a ‘Three P’s Letter’ (Prabodh, Purshotam, Prakash; pseudonyms of Dange, Ghate, and Ajoy Ghosh respectively) in the party advocating withdrawal of the armed struggle and forming a united front with Nehru against imperialism and feudal lords in its struggle for the international peace. P.C. Joshi also came out opposing the new radical line saying that conditions were not ripe for immediate armed revolution in India. Again, the central committee could not...

  • By Anjum Altaf The election of Donald Trump has generated much uncertainty. In Pakistan, among other things, concern has been expressed that USAID funding might be affected by the transition. The concern stems from a delay by the incoming administration in meeting the aid agency to discuss the continuity of future disbursements. The reason for the concern is that USAID disburses millions of dollars in Pakistan every year through NGOs and any disruption of the pipeline would affect their sustainability, the livelihood of thousands of their employees, and the welfare of the intended beneficiaries. This much is easy to grasp. At the same time, however, analysts have highlighted other, conflicting, dimensions of the assistance. These question the objectives and the consequences of the funding. They suggest that the primary purpose of the aid is to promote US influence in recipient countries, that aid-based development is...

  • By Anjum Altaf How does one get a grip on the proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and its associated investments without any hard information except for the hype? In the absence of any mechanism for credible evaluation I suggest we hold it up against a historical parallel and see what emerges by way of tentative conclusions. Some discussion grounded in real experience may be better than taking sides in the dark. Around the turn of the twentieth century the British invested vast sums of money in the part of the subcontinent that now comprises Pakistan. Amongst these investments were the network of canals and barrages, the post and telegraph, and roads and railways. All included it would have likely added up in real terms to be bigger than the $56 billion associated with the CPEC. What came of all that investment and what economic transformations...

  • By Ahmed Kamran Chapter Three: The Rise and Fall of Indian Communists (1933-1951) – (Continued) The Second Congress of CPI The last days of the British Raj was marked by a rise in militant radicalism. Greatly enthused by certain successive events of spontaneous rebellion and uprisings in various sections of people in India the party was greatly upbeat. The triumphant advance of Soviet Red Army in the Eastern Europe in the wake of the Second World War, impending victories of communists and the national liberation movements in China and the Far East, and finally the winning of the independence of India because of Great Britain losing its grip on the vast fractured Empire were too many powerful shots in the arms of CPI. The INA trial in the Red Fort, Delhi had greatly agitated the Indian people who took the INA soldiers as their ‘national heroes’....

  • By Anjum Altaf Ustad Fateh Ali Khan of the Patiala gharana died on January 4. Classical music in Pakistan died earlier. Nothing epitomizes that more than the headline in a leading newspaper: “Renowned Qawwal Ustad Fateh Ali Khan passes away.” It is just as well one can’t read one’s own obituary – that would have been the unkindest cut of all for the doyen of the khayal tradition of North Indian classical music. Another leading newspaper had referred to Roshan Ara Begum as Gulshan Ara Begum a while back. Mercifully the Malika-e Mausiqi was no longer alive to realize how quickly she had been forgotten. These kinds of gross oversights in leading newspapers are indicative of the fact that many now have no familiarity with the tradition or the achievements of its leading exponents. One can say that classical music is dead in Pakistan because...

  • By Anjum Altaf The most recent written examination for the Central Superior Services (CSS) has been characterized by two stark statistics: a dismal overall success rate of about 2% and a steep failure rate of 92% in English, a compulsory subject. The first statistic has attracted much attention with commentators attributing the abysmally low pass percentage to the poor standard of education in the country. The second has been cited in passing only as reportage without generating any serious analysis. I believe there is much to be gained by exploring what it reveals. On face value the CSS results do suggest a declining quality of education in the country, something educationists have been been highlighting for a while. Irrespective of other causes, this is an inevitable consequence of the supply of competent teachers lagging the demand in the absence of any serious investment in teacher...

  • By Ahmed Kamran Chapter Three: The Rise and Fall of Indian Communists (1933-1951) – (Continued) Muslim Question & Pakistan As the subject matter of this book is primarily an inquiry into the genesis and development of the communist movement in Pakistan it may not permit us to fully explore and discuss in equal detail the genesis and development of the Pakistan movement as well. But, as some of its cardinal aspects and contesting issues involved in the question were to have a direct impact and bearing on the course of future political developments in Pakistan and the positioning and the part initially played by the CPI and subsequently by the Communist Party of Pakistan in it, we will discuss some of its key aspects as we go along. At this stage, a brief backdrop of the Muslim question is warranted. More of it will be discussed...

  • By Anjum Altaf The result of the most recent examination for the Central Superior Services (CSS) – in which around 10,000 candidates appeared and 200 passed – has elicited much commentary. Most of it, a lament on the falling standard of education, has been predictable. A different perspective is more intriguing: It lauds the examination for being meritocratic and so rigorous that it selects the very best for the civil service, which, it argues, is all to the good. Does this claim hold water? I argue otherwise based on evidence, observation, and investigation. First, the evidence: If the claim is correct, the quality of the civil service should have been improving over time. Even insiders accept that is far from the case. Second, the observation: As one involved with mentoring undergraduates, I have seen the most creative and perceptive students fail the test and the...

  • By Ahmed Kamran Chapter Three: The Rise and Fall of Indian Communists (1933-1951) – (Continued) INA and Hukoomat-e Azad Hind While Indian National Congress was still undecided about its collective response to the imperialist war and the opportunity of undertaking a massive national liberation movement, Subhash Chandra Bose escaped from India disguised as a Muslim Pathan ‘Ziauddin’ to Kabul with the help of former Jihadi revolutionary, Mian Akbar Shah of Nowshehra. From Kabul, disguised as an Italian diplomat to avoid British spies in Afghanistan (20), he reached Germany in April, 1941 to seek support in forming an Indian National Army. Sardar Ajit Singh, the brother of famous Bhagat Singh, also reached Berlin from Italy where he was teaching oriental languages at Naples University. But, a sizable number of Indian war prisoners in Europe were not available in Germany to help form a meaningful Indian army. At...

  • By Anjum Altaf I wonder what the concerned students would be thinking of the government’s directive to some teachers of the Pak-Turk school system to leave the country. I guess they would consider it political interference. If so, they would be wiser than the experts who look upon education and politics as separate domains. The real lesson that the affected students need to internalize is that the incident involving their teachers is not unique. Since schools are not teaching students how to think, exploring what has been happening to schools might induce some much needed reflection. The reality is that education has always been subjected to political interventions. That may be one reason why history is no longer taught in our schools. The less one knows of the past the less likely it would be to decipher the ways in which education is manipulated to...

  • By Ahmed Kamran Chapter Three: The Rise and Fall of Indian Communists (1933-1951) By 1933 when the Indian communist leaders were released early on account of their reduced jail terms in Meerut Conspiracy Case the CPI was in doldrums. Having left the Workers and Peasants Parties on the advice of Comintern, the CPI leaders turned towards internal re-organisation and re-assessment. G. Adhikari, P.C. Joshi, S.G. Patkar, Muzaffar Ahmed, and S.A. Dange reconstituted CPI in December 1933 in Calcutta as their main political platform. The CPI was formally affiliated to the Comintern and a provisional Central Committee was elected. An All-India Party convention was held in March 1934 and a ‘Draft Political Thesis’ was adopted. It reflected the changes that had started taking place in Soviet Union after the rise of Nazi fascism in Germany in 1933. Russia and the Comintern was moving towards a less...

  • By Ahmed Kamran Chapter Two: The Communist Party of India – Its Genesis (1920 – 1932) – (Continued) Meerut Conspiracy Case With the CPI being underground, communist workers mostly engaged in political work from various Workers and Peasant parties. Worried about the growing radicalization of politics and the communists’ influence in trade unions, the British Indian government launched a major attack arresting communists and leaders of the workers and peasant parties and tried them under Meerut Conspiracy Case (67). Amir Haider managed to escape to Goa and from there he reached Moscow to report to Comintern the developments relating to recent large scale arrests in India. 25 years old B.T. Ranadive emerged in Bombay as the party leader in the field. Not all of the accused were formal members of the Communist Party but nonetheless they were charged for sedition. Dr. M.A. Ansari and Jawaharlal Nehru were...

  • By Ahmed Kamran Chapter Two: The Communist Party of India – Its Genesis (1920 – 1932) – (Continued) The First Communist Conference in India During the proceedings of Kanpur Conspiracy case, strong protests were made in the British press and the parliament against trial of accused for being communists and having links with the Communist International while the communist parties were legally allowed to operate in the Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and many European countries. M.N. Roy, in his open letter addressed to Ramsay MacDonald, the newly inducted Labour Prime Minister of Great Britain, the Labour Government and the British Working Class on behalf of the workers and peasants of India, said, “Has socialist and communist propaganda – that is to say working-class propaganda – been declared illegal in Great Britain and the dominions? Then why should it be illegal in British India? Have socialist...

  • By Ahmed Kamran Chapter Two: The Communist Party of India – Its Genesis (1920 – 1932) – (Continued) Communists in India The success of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia under the leadership of Lenin in October of 1917 had powerfully shaken the world; it was never to be the same again. The Soviet revolution had caused strong reverberations in many European countries. Hungary and Germany were on the brink of a socialist revolution. These epoch-making changes had an electrifying effect in the colonies, including India. Many young people were drawn toward socialist ideas. Freedom fighters, political and trade union activists, writers, and journalists in India gravitated toward the new socialist ideology. Many of them freely mixed Marxist theory with other popular liberal and theosophical trends and their own cultural and religious biases. Some communist workers formed active groups in Calcutta, Madras, Bombay, Ahmadabad, Kerala, Kanpur, Karachi, Lahore, and...

  • By Ahmed Kamran Chapter Two: The Communist Party of India – Its Genesis (1920 – 1932) The Indian revolutionaries and Muhajirs arriving in Russia in 1920 from different directions played a major role in forming the first Communist Party of India. They had different ideas and had taken different paths to reach to this point where by a quirk of history they met and converged together in Tashkent to acquire a new organisational structure. In all, there were about 200 of Indian Muhajirs-Mujahidin who had crossed over into Soviet Russia from the Afghan border in the autumn of 1920. A number of Indians, mostly from trading castes from Gujarat and Sindh, were already living in the Central Asia, having fairly old business relations and interests in the region. They were living in major Central Asian towns like Bukhara, Samarkand, and Baku. While Indian Muhajirs were still in...

  • By Ahmed Kamran Chapter One: The Roots of Revolution (Continued) III. The Jihad Movement Almost simultaneous to these events but, apparently independent of them, some other developments were taking place in India. By early 1900s, the international situation in Europe and the Middle East was getting tense, especially for Indian Muslims. Their anxiety was increasing with the successive bad news coming from the borders of the then vast Muslim Turkish Empire. While the British Empire was in ascendancy in late 1800s and early 1900s, the Turkish Empire was disintegrating bit by bit. Much of its possessions in Eastern Europe and Central Asia had already been broken away or annexed by other empires in the previous century. Italy had landed its army at Tripoli (in today’s Libya) in 1911, initiating the first War of Tripoli between Turkey and Italy. The Italian invasion of Tripoli was soon followed by...

  • By Ahmed Kamran Chapter One: The Roots of Revolution (Continued) II. International Revolutionaries While a steady migration of Indian peasants and working classes as indentured labour was slowly taking place towards the British colonies in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, a new and more comprehensive political and administrative order as crafted by Lord Macaulay was put in place in India by the colonial rulers. With it gradual reforms in education and political life of India were introduced. Schools and colleges with instruction in English language were set up by the Missionary churches and the secular government in major Indian towns. In these schools, modern education was imparted to Indian children to produce a new breed of loyal and educated gentlemen, imbibed with western ideas and colonial outlook. This brought a slow but significant social change, particularly, in the middle classes. They were getting engaged in commerce...

  • By Ahmed Kamran Introduction The communist movement in Pakistan is all but dead. Today, there are few to mourn its death and its unceremonious exit from the national politics. It seems a forgotten chapter, completely erased from the collective memory of the youth. A handful of those who still cling to the ideal of a communists-led revolution to bring about a ‘proletarian dictatorship’ have absolutely no role in, and more sadly, no clue of, the dynamics of country’s politics. And all this is after a long and checkered history of a fairly old and vibrant communist movement, firstly in undivided India and later in post-independence Pakistan. For roughly about sixty odd years, from 1920’s till the end of 1980’s, countless political activists, many remaining nameless, worked selflessly in their own ways for the ideal of building a society free from exploitation, misery and want. For...

  • By Ahmed Kamran Subtitle: What Went Wrong with Pakistan’s Communists? [With this post we begin serializing a book under preparation by Ahmed Kamran on the history of the Left movement in Pakistan. This post includes the Table of Contents and the Prologue.]   Contents Prologue Introduction Part – I Chapter 1: Roots of Revolution Chapter 2: Communist Party of India – Its Genesis (1920 – 1932) Chapter 3: Rise and Fall of Indian Communism (1933 – 1951) Chapter 4: Road to Pakistan Part – II Chapter 5: A Himalayan Blunder Chapter 6: The Great Divide Chapter 7: A Last Minute Freeze Chapter 8: The Great Slide into Oblivion Part – III Chapter 9: Has Marxism any Future in Pakistan? Chapter 10: Conclusions   Prologue How many of today’s youth in Pakistan know that there had been a communist party in the country? Sadly, very few....

  • By Anjum Altaf Brexit has triggered two arguments about democracy: (1) Voters are ignorant, and (2) Representatives are selfish. In either case the implications for governance are grave. It is significant that the questions are being asked in the West. They have always been on the table in countries like Pakistan but dismissed as reflecting the limitations of people rather than of democracy. The answers in Pakistan are clear. The wisdom of voters is extolled in theory but undermined by contempt for their intelligence in practise. Citizens are never asked how the revenue they contribute ought to be allocated – they cannot be trusted to determine what is good for them or the nation. As for the representatives, voters are convinced of their dishonesty, their task limited to selecting the least crooked. The rulers themselves leave no doubt accusing each other of egregious malfeasance. In...

  • By Jacob Steiner A review of So Much Aid, So Little Development: Stories from Pakistan published by the Johns Hopkins University Press in 2011. The book was republished in 2015 by Ilqa Books in Pakistan and is available there in book stores and online. Some months back I visited a rural support program in a Central Asian country, executed by one of the world’s biggest development organizations with an excellent repute here and in similar areas in Pakistan. A European consultant, with ample experience in the area and his field – sustainable construction solutions – had recently visited the project. The outcome of this visit, a number of manuals as guidelines for the local execution, had just been printed and handed over to the local engineers. Among them seismic proof housing, and split latrines. These toilets are currently a very fancy topic in sanitary engineering...

  • By Anjum Altaf  Over two thousand years ago Plato was skeptical of democracy because he felt that voters, even those restricted to property-owning male citizens, were swayed too easily by the rhetoric of self-serving politicians. Democracy disappeared for over 1,500 years following its demise in Athens and it was only then that its slow evolution began in England and spread to other parts of the world. Doubts regarding its efficacy persisted but were countered by arguments that it was the worst form of government except for all others. Not that this was considered universally applicable – during colonialism it was openly asserted that natives were not ready for democracy. Similar reservations regarding the developing world persisted beyond the end of colonialism. In the 1990s the late Richard Holbrooke was reported to have said: “Suppose elections are free and fair and those elected are racists, fascists,...

  • By Anjum Altaf How much of a useful story can be told with very few numbers? Look at just one indicator of public welfare, the Under-5 Mortality Rate, in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh: 86, 56, and 41, respectively in 2012. The U5MR, which gives the number of children dying between birth and five years of age per 1,000 live births, is a very useful indicator because it captures the effect of many risks to life that occur during the crucial first five years of life – disease, poverty, malnutrition, etc. What should jump out at the reader is that the 2012 U5MR in Bangladesh is less than half that in Pakistan? Asides from asking how that is possible, this striking statistic should trigger a whole host of related questions. Let us examine a few obvious ones by way of example. Is it the case that...

  • By Anjum Altaf I had proposed a civil society initiative to constitute a People’s Planning Commission as a possible check on wasteful expenditures of public money by the state (Taj Mahal and the Planning Commission, The News, March 25, 2016). The responses received suggest that readers are in agreement with my critique of the existing Planning Commission but skeptical of the recommendation for civil society activism. The reservations extend from questioning the very existence of civil society, to pointing out its fragmentation, to asking whether it has any way of choosing qualified individuals. These are legitimate questions, and given that I believe civil society activism to be virtually the only mechanism for moving forward in Pakistan, the onus of arguing the case is on me. The concept of civil society is simple. Subtract from our universe the spheres of the state and the market along...

  • By Anjum Altaf and Nadeem ul Haque Should PIA, a State Owned Enterprise (SOE), be privatized or not? It is poorly run, losing a great deal of money, and a drain on the budget. But what does that have to do with PIA being a SOE? Therein lies the real question and some answers to our particular predicament in Pakistan. If one were to line up all potential services with the smallest in scale at one end to the biggest at the other, readers would likely agree that the smallest (say, tea stalls at a railway station) are better provided privately and the largest (say, national defense) by the public sector. The reasons are not hard to fathom – bureaucracies are not good at adapting to rapid changes in market conditions and consumer preferences; markets cannot exclude those unwilling to pay for a service like...

  • By Anjum Altaf The Taj Mahal was the nub of the argument in a recent opinion by Dr. Nadeem ul Haque on the Planning Commission (Should we have a planning commission? The News, November 3, 2015). I feel both sides of the argument were misplaced and am elaborating my view in keeping with the exhortation of the author to “let the debate go on.”   Dr. Haque quoted Khawaja Asif as saying that “If there had been a Planning Commission the Taj Mahal would not have been built!” He then retorted by writing: “First, let us tell Khawaja Asif that he is very right. Taj Mahal, an ageing emperor’s whim, should not have been built in any case. The Planning Commission was built to keep such whims in check.” There are two questions at issue: Should the Taj Mahal have been built? And: What is the...

  • By Anjum Altaf Language has started vying for inclusion in the small set of problems that compete for the title of the ‘biggest’ problem in Pakistan holding back development with the implied suggestion that solving this one problem would set most other things right in the country. This small set includes overpopulation, corruption, illiteracy, and secularism. A rising tide of opinion now claims that if only we could make the ‘correct’ choice of language we would emerge as a strong nation in the modern world. Only a little reflection is needed to debunk such one-dimensional arguments. Take just one example, that of overpopulation. Shouldn’t one ask why China and India, with over five times the population of Pakistan, have developed so much faster? Why the development of Pakistan didn’t take off like a rocket after it shed half its population in Bangladesh? Why Balochistan, the...

  • By Anjum Altaf One can agree with most things Pervez Hoodbhoy says on language (Is Pakistan’s problem Urdu? Dawn, March 5, 2016) and yet be left with the impression that he has painted with so broad a brush as to distract from the clarity of the issue and be actually misleading on some points. Let us begin with the first part of his conclusion: “No nation becomes stronger by having the ‘correct’ official language. Very true, but this does not imply that a nation cannot become weaker by having an ‘incorrect’ official language. For proof, just return to the beginning of the article where the author takes two paragraphs to assert the damaging effect of attempting to impose an ‘incorrect’ official language on East Pakistan. Not only did the nation end up weaker, it actually broke apart. Next consider the second part of the conclusion:...

  • By Anjum Altaf Speak (After Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Bol) Now is the time to speak Lips not sealed Body unbroken Blood coursing still Through your veins Now is the time to speak Look The iron glows red Like your blood The chain lies open Like your lips Now is the time to speak Speak For the tide of life runs out Speak For truth and honor shall not wait Speak Say all that needs be said this day Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem can be accessed in Urdu, Hindi and Roman here. Back to Main Page

  • By Anjum Altaf For the Students and Faculty of JNU (After Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s dar-e umiid ke daryuuza-gar) Cursing, hurling vile abuse They came to tarnish, ravish, debase Parade the tatters of our soul As emblems of their rule Hordes swarm the streets Goose-stepping, flaunting steel Threatening, intimidating those Who dare refuse to keel We collect the shreds they tore Dyed red in our blood Sew them back in a banner Bigger, brighter than before Faiz’s poem can be accessed in Urdu, Hindi, and Roman here. Back to Main Page

  • I admire Dr. Nergis Mavalvala as much as the next person. Anyone with a similar track record and set of accomplishments deserves to be admired. What I find incongruous is the Pakistani media taking ownership of those accomplishments simply because she was born and educated up to high school in Pakistan. There are so many ironies here that it is painful to even point them out. To start with, Dr. Mavalvala has given up Pakistan – by her own admission she has not visited Pakistan much in the last thirty years since she left after high school. No blame is to be attached to her on that account – if she wanted to be and progress as an astrophysicist, she could not have done so in Pakistan. But beyond that, there was really no reason for her to visit Pakistan since most of her immediate...

  • By Anjum Altaf The ongoing row at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) reminded me of the following statement by Vir Sanghvi: “the gap between Indians and Pakistanis has now widened to the extent that we are no longer the same people in any significant sense” (The same people? Surely not). I am not convinced of this claim and believe that the underlying social and attitudinal propensities in both countries (towards violence, religion, and nationalism, for example) remain fairly alike. It is only accidents of time and place that lead to seemingly differing outcomes in the emergent landscapes. I explored this argument earlier in a couple of posts (How Not to Write History and Pakistanization of India?) and the response to the recent events at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) strengthens my conviction further. Despite its very different political trajectory, India is repeating the patterns observed in Pakistan...

  • By Ishtiaq Ahmed So Much Aid, So Little Development: Stories from Pakistan By Samia Altaf Lahore: ILQA Publication, 2015, 204 pages, Rs. 895 William Shakespeare was the past master of the art of depicting tragedy humorously. That such a skill can be employed by a medical doctor to illustrate something as removed from the world of fiction as the relationship between foreign aid and development in Pakistan, is quite an extra-ordinary achievement. Academic works and technical reports on foreign aid and its impact on third world countries are legion. The very nature of such writings makes them reading-worthy for experts and for students who take courses on that subject. Dr Samia Waheed Altaf’s book can be read almost as a novel or a play, but it is with hard, ugly facts that she puts together a range of stories, which shed light on what goes...

  • By Anjum Altaf Some readers of this blog are aware of my admiration for the late Dr. G.M. Mehkri (1908-1995) reflected in the 2009 tribute to him on this blog. In brief, I was impressed by Dr. Mehkri’s objectivity and the intriguing social hypotheses he explored with evidence, logic, and neutrality. I had mentioned in the tribute that Dr. Mehkri had submitted a PhD thesis (The Social Background of Hindu Muslim Relationship) to the Department of Sociology at the University of Bombay in 1947. The subject, timing, and Dr. Mehkri’s credentials suggested this might be a manuscript worth reading and a search was launched to obtain a copy. The most likely source was the National Social Science Documentation Centre (NASSDOC) in Delhi, the archive for all doctoral dissertations completed in India. Unfortunately, the copy of Dr. Mehkri’s thesis was reported missing. With the help of...

  • By Anjum Altaf Pakistan today is very different to what it was fifty years ago. An aspect that has changed significantly – literally turned on its head – is the nature of political and social activism, i.e., the very dynamic that leads to change in society. I describe this transformation based on my interactions with the young – as a student at the beginning of the period and as an instructor of students at its end. Needless to say, the majority in any society is content to swim with the tide. Members of this majority may hold opinions about desirable changes but they are not involved in the process of bringing them about. On the other hand, there is always a small minority of individuals who become actively engaged in efforts to change society. Such activists mobilize varying numbers of the majority for or against...

  • I found myself residing once again in a locality exposed to holy noise – the simultaneous narration of the azaan from about a dozen mosques that renders the resulting sound completely unintelligible. This time there was one difference – one of the mosques had amplified itself beyond the reach of the competition and its imam had specialized in a quasi-sermon at six every other morning. Whether it was for a live audience or just for self-improvement I don’t know but almost every word of the narrative was now intelligible. After a few iterations, almost entirely repetitive, I figured out the pattern. The narration, about fifteen minutes in duration, was divided into two equal halves – the first communicated a list of things God doesn’t want people to do and the second a matching list of things God does want people to do. Needless to say,...

  • Last week I attended a memorial service and was impressed by the event. It was in stark contrast to our ceremonial mourning which, in a footnote in the Arabian Nights, Sir Richard Burton characterizes as “the visits of condolence and so forth which are long and terribly wearisome in the Moslem east.” Instead, the event was intended as a celebration of the full life of the deceased. Everyone in the audience who wished to offer a reflection was allowed time to do so and while none of them were truly inspiring, the purpose of sharing remembrances was fully served. There was, however, one recurring mention that finally began to strike me as incongruous – that the deceased had lived all his life in rented quarters, did not own a house, and had not accumulated any riches. I too had known the individual and was a...

  • By Anjum Altaf My interpretation of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Kuttey was published on 3 Quarks Daily on December 30, 2015 (here). Why Not even dogs Go as quietly as these men Battered and bruised Idle and begging Homeless and hearthless Stabbing each other o’er scraps Starving in silence Why What myth is it That keeps you Divided Amongst yourselves That keeps you Blind To your strength The original (in Urdu, Hindi, and Roman) can be seen here. Over the course of a life there are many who nudge you in one direction or another but very few who entirely alter its trajectory. In my experience I can count four, all encountered between the last two years at school and the first two years in college. Faiz Ahmed Faiz made me see the world beyond myself in a manner at once appealing and hopeful. Since then,...

  • By Anjum Altaf Remembering is one thing; not forgetting another. One of the dates we should not forget is December 16, 1971. My contribution to not forgetting is an attempt to capture the spirit of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Dhaka se Waapsii par, a poem Faiz wrote a few years after the event. As I have written before (Faiz – 1: The City), I am not attempting a translation, something virtually impossible to manage from Urdu into English. Faiz Sahib’s words in this regard provide the best counsel (in Faiz Ahmed Faiz on Daud Kamal): “Translating poetry, even when confined to a cognate language with some formal and idiomatic affinities with the original compositions, is an exacting task, but this task is obviously far more formidable when the languages involved are far removed from each other in cultural background, rhythmic and formal patterns, and the vocabulary...

  • By Anjum Altaf A rose is a rose is a rose – Gertrude Stein A rose by any other name would smell as sweet – William Shakespeare I know, I know, I know – which is why I didn’t have much of a problem when Aurangzeb Road in Delhi was remuslimed as Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Road. I couldn’t quite figure out what all the fuss was about. A road is a road is a road and people have the right to call it what they will. Some would continue to call it by its old name, some would use the new one, and most others would traverse it quite unaware of the name at all. In any case, life would go on without much care for passing passions. We don’t need to wander far to vouch for that: Bunder Road is still Bunder Road...

  • India and Pakistan are engaged in a high-stakes game in which the outcomes (and non-outcomes) are significant for many of the players involved. The essential ABCs of this game are well known; the finer XYZs are less obvious and I aim to address some of them in this article. It might be useful to treat the high-stakes game as just that – a game – and employ some of the features of game theory to better understand the situation. For those unfamiliar with game theory, here is a very brief orientation. We regularly engage in transactions in which our actions are independent of the actions of others and have no measurable impact on them either. If you go to the market to buy a cup of coffee you are engaging in this sort of a familiar independent action. There are other situations in which the...

  • By Anjum Altaf India lags Pakistan in religious extremism but it seems both are headed for the same destination although by varying paths and with possibly different outcomes. Much attention has been drawn to the rising injection of religion into politics in India spurring a number of debates in the media. Is India being Pakistanized? Is Modi India’s Zia? What accounts for the phenomenon? Where will it end? These are some of the frequently heard questions. The dynamics of the phenomenon in the two countries appear similar but are actually different although there is an invisible underlying similarity that propels them in the same direction. A bedrock of religious prejudice exists in both countries available to be mined. In Pakistan, it has entered politics via concession and coercion while in India the drivers are manipulation and stealth. The paths in the two countries along which...

  • I deserve to be congratulated because I have now passed Farsi Level 1 (Beginner) and graduated to Level 2 (Intermediate). Although nowhere near the accomplishment of Jhumpa Lahiri whose next book will be coming out in Italian (see Teach Yourself Italian for an inspiring story), I am greatly encouraged by the progress I have made. Some readers might recall my struggles with Farsi narrated here some time back (From Urdu to Hindi, Farsi and Beyond). Very briefly, as an Urdu speaker, I had assumed I would pick up Farsi quickly given the common script and overlapping vocabulary. That did not turn out to be the case leaving me exceedingly frustrated after almost a year of struggle. I finally discovered the right mix of teaching methods and tools – interacting with an instructor in a small class and learning the grammar by reading and writing short...

  • By Anjum Altaf I ‘wrote’ a poem, The City, which appeared on 3 Quarks Daily on Monday, 30 November, 2015. The poem is reproduced below followed by comments on its genesis, connections with Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and some reflections on translating poetry. The City Look My city bedecks itself in fetters The carefree walk The careless talk No more The head held high The feet unbound No more No more I trust Light from dark Wine from blood Joy from mourning Flowers in my city Wilt into the dust After the Paris attacks, Brussels went into a lock-down that continued for a number of days. Faiz’s poem Yahan se Sheher ko Dekho (Look at the City from Here) came to mind and seemed to speak to the situation. But how could one convey the sense of the poem in English? This brought forth the dilemma...

  • By Anjum Altaf I was reading an interview about philosophy when I came across some tangential remarks I felt would be useful to reproduce on this blog in this time of rising fundamentalism in the Indian subcontinent. The interview is between 3:AM Magazine and the  philosopher Jonardon Ganeri (one of whose latest books is Identity as Reasoned Choice: A South Asian Perspective on the Reach and Resources of Public and Practical Reason in Shaping Individual Identities). The tangential remarks pertain to the evolution of intellectual history in India. The bottom line for JG emerging from his detailed research in the history of Indian philosophy is the following: “In India what Navadvīpa demonstrates is how wrong-headed are Hindu fundamentalist histories of Indian Islam.” This fundamentalist history is very familiar and repeated in countless comments on innumerable blogs: Muslim invaders imposed Persian, oppressed Hindus, destroyed temples, decimated...

  • 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...

  • By Anjum Altaf America declared a War on Terror in 2001; France did so formally in 2015; Britain, Germany and a number of other countries had become partners sometime in the interim. Are we then in the midst of a third world war without quite realizing it simply because this war is so different from its predecessors in so many ways? All the familiar markers are absent – the war is not between nations, it is not fought with heavy artillery, it doesn’t have adversaries who sign or adhere to treaties, it doesn’t distinguish between soldiers and civilians. What kind of a war is it? One must characterize its nature in order to fashion an effective battle plan. What we hear often is that it involves non-state actors that are fanatics motivated by evil ideologies. These are plausible components but as yet insufficiently imagined as...

  • By Anjum Altaf Could the 2015 state election in Bihar signify anything about the future of politics in India? It could, and I want to draw out that possibility by linking this analysis to a previous one related to the equally surprising outcome in Delhi earlier in the year (Electoral Choices). Very briefly, the point made was that while the BJPs share of the vote between the elections of 2014 and 2015 in Delhi remained the same, about a third, its share of the seats dropped sharply from 52 percent to 4 percent. This, it was argued, was a vagary of the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) method of election in vogue in a very few countries in which the candidate with a simple plurality of the votes in a constituency is declared the winner. Now look at the parallels in Bihar between the results of the 2014...

  • By Anjum Altaf The article on the transition to Urdu as the official language of Pakistan (Urdu in Pakistan: A Dispassionate Analysis) elicited a number of substantive comments which I will address in this third and concluding part of the series. Almost all these comments challenged, from one standpoint or another, the usefulness of and need for Urdu in Pakistan and stressed, by default, the importance of English in a globally connected world. I intend to defend the decision of the Supreme Court against these objections but before doing so I will spell out the recommendation of the 2010 British Council study on schooling in Pakistan, not because I consider it sacrosanct, but because it provides a concrete suggestion which can serve as a reference point for the ensuing discussion. The study arrived at the following conclusion: Early years education must be provided in a...

  • By Anjum Altaf I am grateful to those who have participated in the discussion initiated by the post on the recent Supreme Court decision mandating the switch from English to Urdu as the official language of Pakistan (Urdu in Pakistan: A Dispassionate Analysis). Unfortunately, the majority of the comments were received as emails which do not help to generate a public discussion and I once again request readers to post their thoughts on the blog itself. The majority of the comments pertained to the scope of the article, the accuracy of historical claims, and to issues of interpretation of past events. However, there were some that raised substantive questions and I will address them in a subsequent post. In this post, I intend to clear some misunderstandings that I see coming in the way of a fruitful discussion. I also do not wish the misunderstandings...

  • By Anjum Altaf Our experience with the politics of language has been so traumatic – first with the Urdu-Hindi divide contributing to the partition of India and then with the Urdu-Bengali divide contributing to the partition of Pakistan – that we need to step with the utmost caution in the new quagmire created by the recent Supreme Court decision to replace English with Urdu as the official language of the country. That said, the decision has to be examined on its own merits without our judgement being prejudiced by the experiences of the past however traumatic they may have been or any politicking aimed at local and parochial gains. To state my conclusion at the outset, I find most of the objections to the decision misplaced and analytically unwarranted but I would like to begin by outlining the primary functions of a language in order...

  • This billboard from the ongoing elections in Bihar revived our reflections on democracy. Focus first on the panel of four messages in the middle of the picture. For those who do not read Hindi, the messages, from left to right, are as follows: Kheti ke liye 0% byaj par rna (loan for cultivation at 0% interest) Har dalit va mahadalit parivaar ke liye ek rangeen TV (a color TV for each dalit or mahadalit family) Har beghar ko 5 decimal zameen (5 decimal land for every homeless) Har ghareeb parivaar ko ek jori dhoti, sari (a dhoti and sari for every poor family) What should one conclude? This is a striking case of a picture speaking louder than any number of pious words, the starkest commentary possible on the nature of democracy in a very poor country. Undeniably, votes are being purchased and for a...

  • By Anjum Altaf I am reading Christophe Jaffrelot’s new (2015) book The Pakistan Paradox and in Chapter 2 (An Elite in Search of a State – and a Nation (1906-1947)) came across the following table on page 91. Table 2.6: Main party scores within the Muslim electorate in the 1946 elections Party Muslim League Congress Muslim nationalists Unionists Other Total Muslims 74.7 4.6 6.4 4.6 9.7 Urban Muslims 78.7 2.3 5.0 – 14.0 Rural Muslims 74.3 4.8 6.6 6.1 9.2 Muslim Women 51.7 – 27.9 – 20.4 Jaffrelot’s reference to the table is the following: “Despite the League’s relative setback in the NWFP, after the 1946 elections the party eventually managed to appear representative of Indian Muslims (see Table 2.6).” The table has been adapted from The Sole Spokesman by Ayesha Jalal (page 172). I looked up the citation and the table is the same...

  • By Ahmed Kamran Among other many finer things of a city’s life that Karachi has lost over time, the greatest loss has been the disappearance of its book stores – the windows of Karachi’s reading and thinking abilities. These are now long shut and closed. Many of the good book stores, about 18, were located in Saddar, a kind of a cultural capital of Karachi. Starting from the well-known Thomas & Thomas Book Store on the Preedy Street, next to Irani Cafe George, there were many book shops on the Elphinstone Street (now Zaibunisa Street). There was Kitab Mehal (Book Palace) inside one of the market on Elphinstone Street, known for stocking good Urdu books. Kitab Mehal was owned by a fine gentleman with good literary taste who probably had a book store by the same name near Jama Masjid in old Delhi, before Pakistan...

  • By Ahmed Kamran In spite of a sudden influx of immigrants pouring into the city in large numbers in the wake of partition of India, Karachi’s social and cultural life remained progressive and liberal in its outlook. The influx of new population, mostly coming from other urban centres of British India, the city life quickly adjusted to the thriving commercial and business activities of the city, regaining its cultural life. Founding of the new country with its capital at Karachi brought in large number of Muhajir Intelligentsia – well trained civil servants, skillful traders, successful businessmen from Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi, and Kanpur, teachers, lawyers, doctors, engineers, clerks and office workers, well known progressive and some radical poets, writers, journalists, and intellectuals from all over India. These people were already steeped in urban culture of British India and were long ago freed from the traditional static...

  • By Anjum Altaf Anyone wanting to understand urbanization needs to get past two major misunderstandings. First, urbanization is not about individual cities – neither solving their problems nor enhancing their potential for growth. The end result of urbanization is indeed an increase in the population of cities but the term itself refers to the movement of people from rural to urban locations. But which urban locations do (or should) people move to? That is a more important question.  What are the choices that exist and what determines the attractiveness of one location over another? Should public policy attempt to influence the spatial distribution of population by altering the attractiveness of different types of locations? Second, the pattern of urbanization is not predetermined. People move primarily to seek work and therefore any change in the distribution of employment opportunities should alter the pattern of migration. Different...

  • By Anjum Altaf Ask any good doctor. There’s no way to treat a disease without a definitive diagnosis. Treat a cancer as a stomach-ache and the consequences are bound to be fatal. That’s common sense. Now apply that common sense to our system of governance. We have it from the highest authorities, again and again, that the system is diseased. Every fresh group of rulers swears that the previous set has left a ‘sham’ democracy and promises to transform it into a healthy one. What exactly is this disease that turns a healthy democracy into a sick one so quickly and why has every effort failed to find a cure? I wish we were at the stage where we could sensibly address this question. We would examine the diagnosis that the disease emanates from the dishonesty of the previous set of rulers. And we would...

  • By Anjum Altaf The member-secretary of the Indian Council of Historical Research resigned from his post last month without completing his term. Amongst his major concerns was the ‘changing of textbooks’: “The simplification and dumbing down of history in order to support many of the unfortunate stereotypes that circulate in society is something to be worried about.” This controversy raises its head in India from time to time but at least meets vociferous opposition from many professional historians. In Pakistan, the manipulation of textbooks has long been completed and accepted without much protest perhaps because by now the country is bereft of historians. K.K. Aziz wrote The Murder of History: A Critique of History Textbooks Used in Pakistan in 1993 and nothing much has changed since. Later examinations such as The Subtle Subversion: The State of Curricula and Textbooks in Pakistan released in 2003 confirm the...

  • By Ahmed Kamran Yeh laash-e be-kafan Asad-e khasta jaan ki hai Haq maghfarat kare ajab azad mard tha! (Ghalib) If Karachi could be likened to a man, with a little liberty taken from Ghalib, this couplet could be a very appropriate epitaph for the tombstone of Karachi, the city that was! This is a series of some musings on the social and cultural aspects of the history of Karachi; how the city’s life was developed and transformed over time. It focuses on the period of 1960s and 1970s when I was young and had many dreams. What was the Karachi that my generation had inherited and what it is today? These writings have a clear ring of nostalgia. Paul Getty said, ‘Nostalgia often leads to idle speculation’. Indeed, nostalgia is distractive, breeds inaction, and, often, depression. But like some sweet-bitter memory of childhood or a...

  • By Zulfikar Ghose The Sikh from Ambala in East Punjab, India, formerly in the British Empire, the Muslim from Sialkot in West Punjab, Pakistan, formerly British India, the Sikh boy and the Muslim boy are two of twenty such Sikhs and Muslims from East Punjab and West Punjab, which formerly were the Punjab, standing together in assembly, fearfully miming the words of a Christian hymn. Later, their firework voices explode in Punjabi until Mr Iqbal – which can be a Sikh name or a Muslim name, Mohammed Iqbal or Iqbal Singh – who comes from Jullundur in East Punjab but near enough to the border to be almost West Punjab, who is an expert in the archaic intonations of the Raj, until the three-piece suited Mr Iqbal gives a stiff-collared voice to his Punjabi command to shut their thick wet lips on the scattering sparks...

  • By Rizwan Saeed Patriarchy is an established informal system. It has clear hierarchy of power and authority that is transferred from one generation to other. As it is an informal system, its roots are embedded deep in cultural settings and social fabric of societies. There are certain rituals and cultural practices that protect and strengthen this patriarchal system in the subcontinent. One key component of culture is language. Here I explore patriarchy in the culture of the subcontinent through the lens of language. In Urdu, there are names for each relationship that falls under the line of authority. To understand authority lines we will have to understand some basic family structures prevailing in the subcontinent. In the subcontinent, joint and extended family systems exist in which husband, wife, husband’s brothers and their families (spouses and children), parents of husband, and unmarried sisters of husband live...

  • By Anjum Altaf I want to tie together two conversations about politics because they bring together some strikingly similar views of very different segments in society. I find it useful to explore the implications to better understand what might motivate our politics. The first conversation, about a month ago, was with a taxi driver in Islamabad. A broken-up road triggered a litany of complaints about the increasing difficulties of existence – shortages of utilities, difficulties in access to services, etc. The monologue transitioned into a critique of democracy – could one eat it? – followed by the oft-heard desire for ‘strong’ governance. I submitted that we had tried the ‘strong’ route four times without the desired results only to be met with the dismissive judgement that conditions under Musharraf were distinctly better than they were now. It was not the occasion to ask if something...

  • By Anjum Altaf Consider two recent electoral results from India: Of the total seats contested, the BJP won 52 percent in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and 4 percent in the 2015 Delhi state elections. The first was characterized a sweeping victory; the second a crushing defeat. Yet, in both contests the share of votes cast for the party was the same – about a third. This is a quirk of the First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system in which the candidate with the most votes wins a constituency. A candidate securing one-third of the votes cast could win or lose depending on the number of other candidates and the distribution of votes among them. Is this problematic? Yes, if one considers it unsatisfactory that a party representing a third of the voters in a state has no say in its governance. It is for this reason that...

  • By Anjum Altaf First, the result – A disciplined, professional team easily took care of a ragged, mercurial bunch of individuals. Lightning did not strike. No miracles occurred. As we watched the pathetic procession in the first half, lines from Macbeth came flooding back: … a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more: it is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.  Then, as comments began to circulate, the dissension amongst the faithful was captured by the lines that immediately followed the above: [Enter a Messenger] Macbeth. Thou comest to use thy tongue; thy story quickly. Messenger. Gracious my lord, I should report that which I say I saw, But know not how to do it. Macbeth. Well, say, sir. Messenger. As I did stand my watch upon the hill,...

  • 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...

  • By Anjum Altaf Sri Lanka took a strategic gamble against South Africa in the first quarter-final of the 2015 Cricket World Cup and were blown away. What surprised me was how misplaced the gamble was and how unexpected from a team known for its ability to think. The nature of the gamble was obvious from the first ball. It was clear that Kusal Perera was sent in to open under instructions to hit the South African attack bowlers off their lengths. The strategy might have paid off but even that would have required some sensible hitting. It was clear as daylight that Perera would not last more than a few balls, and he didn’t. More than throwing away a wicket, it put paid to the Sri Lankan strategy in a hurry and fired up the South Africans instead. The fact that there was a slight...

  • By Anjum Altaf The discussion of megacities has drifted into a combination of oh-my-god and pie-in-the-sky narratives displacing potentially sensible and useful analyses. As an example of the first, consider how often one hears that Karachi had a population of 11 million in 1998 and is twice that now – as if that was enough to clinch the argument that we have a mega-problem on our hands. My response is: So what? I am not particularly bothered if the population rises to 30 million. What matters, and this is the real question we should be asking, is whether Karachi is well managed and whether its management is improving or deteriorating over time. Suppose the answer is that Karachi is not well managed. If so, does that have anything to do with its size? As a test, I would ask the proponents of the size-is-the-problem argument...

  • By Anjum Altaf in Economic and Political Weekly My professional life has involved study of the attitude of individuals towards risk and it is this perspective that I employ to reflect on some aspects of the Charlie Hebdo affair. My interest in the subject emerged in graduate school when I found it increasingly difficult to reconcile the idealized behavior described in Western textbooks of economics with actual behavior I had observed in South Asia. My conclusion was that context mattered much more than acknowledged, followed very quickly by the realization that context was not constant. One implication was that attitude towards risk was not a genetic trait – people were not born risk averse or risk preferring – but a behavioral response to specific contexts. I became convinced of this when my thesis adviser mentioned all the radical things he would do once he was...

  • By Anjum Altaf It may seem counter-intuitive but if we wish to spur economic growth in Pakistan both government and citizens would have to step in to help labour. This is the surprising conclusion of a study of the local economy carried out by students from the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) under my supervision. Initial discussions with representatives of several small cities around Lahore identified violations of labor laws as having a significant impact on both the welfare and productivity of industrial workers. As a result, the interactions between labor laws and economic growth were studied in Sheikhupura, a half-million sized industrial city about 30 miles from Lahore. Observations of small scale industry, employing the majority of the industrial labor force, revealed desperate, survival level, working conditions at compensations below the minimum wage. Workers had little or no protection from various forms of...

  • By Anjum Altaf in Economic and Political Weekly If grief were cumulative we would have been crushed under its weight by now. Not that one wishes it so. I would go as far as to say that grief should not become a permanent burden. Therefore I have mixed feelings when I hear the young at vigils vowing never to forget. How much can they remember and what will come of all this remembering? I feel fortunate we can regroup because only then do we have the strength to act – that is, if we wish to and know how. Grief has power because it binds us together, gives collective voice to our outrage, and infuses in us the desire to fight back. But the outrage should avoid being channeled into feelings of anger or vengeance. Grief born of violence begetting yet more violence traps us...

  • By Anjum Altaf At the recent recording in Karachi of a TV talk show – ‘Pakistan-US Relations: What’s the Problem with America?’ – during the warm-up before filming began, a member of the audience asked why the problem was deemed to be with America and not Pakistan, or, at the very least, both. The anchor had a ready answer, suggesting he had heard the kind of question before. He argued he had a huge audience including sophisticated viewers in the auditorium and in drawing-rooms but many more ordinary people in the shanties of Lyari, FATA, Khuzdar, Mirpur Sakro, etc. Framing the issue in a neutral manner would trigger channel-switching by the latter and a loss of viewers – to get something across, it had to be provocative without challenging the biases of the audience. This interaction started me thinking about the media. We accept that...

  • By Vipul Rikhi Towards the end of September 2014, the Kabir Project team went to Lahore to take part in the Kabir Festival organised by Aahang, a student body in the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). Our visas hadn’t come through till the last minute and we hadn’t been sure of being able to go at all. But we finally made it. When we crossed the border at Wagah, we found bright, young students from LUMS waiting to receive us. It was a wonderful one week that we spent there. We were overwhelmed by the love and warmth with which we were taken care of by the student volunteers. The air in Pakistan felt very alive with political and religious churning (Imran Khan was leading a massive protest rally against Nawaz Sharif while we were still there). We set up a photo and video...

  • By Anjum Altaf Urdu hai jis ka naam hamiiN jantey haiN Daagh Saarey jahaaN meiN dhuum hamaarii zubaaN ki hai Daagh, we know, the language, Urdu is its name Celebrated over the entire world is its fame A Hindi speaker, fond of Urdu, came across the following text in a letter by Premchand (dated 22 February 1925): “Priy Shivapujan Sahay ji, Vande. Mujhe to aap bhool hi gaye. Leejiye, jis pustak par aapne kaii maheene dimagh-rezi kee thi vah aapka ahsaan ada karti hui aapki khidmat men jaati hai aur aapse vinti karti hai ki mujhe do-chaar ghanton ke liye ekaant ka samay deejiye aur tab aap meri nisbat jo rai qayam karen vah apni manohar bhasha men kah deejiye…… ” He puzzled over the term dimagh-rezi and enquired on an Urdu forum whether it meant “banging one’s head against” which didn’t quite seem in consonance with the...

  • By Anjum Altaf In September I was in the US for a month for a series of lectures and presentations. Three of them were recorded and are available for public viewing. I am linking them here for those who might be interested in any of the topics which are very varied. Most of the talks are on YouTube so a proxy would be needed for viewing them in Pakistan because of the continuing ban on YouTube. I am presuming readers are technologically adept enough to navigate their way to a solution. University of Michigan, Center for South Asian Studies April 5, 2013 POVERTY AS A HUMAN RIGHTS CONCERN http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DrmP5B5b_tY https://www.youtube.com/watch?v= University of California at Berkeley, Institute for South Asia Studies September 8, 2014 HOW TO (REALLY) FIX PAKISTAN’S EDUCATION SYSTEM Cornell University, College of Art, Architecture and Planning September 16, 2014 PERSPECTIVES ON SMALL CITIES...

  • By Hasan Altaf in Economic and Political Weekly Excerpts – The complete article is here. A Pakistani winning a Nobel Prize: This year, Malala Yousafzai has entered a very select club. There’s only one other member. Amid all the celebration of this achievement, his story should be remembered now, for the warning it offers to the Nobel committee, the optimistic international community, the hard-working activists, the Twitter-happy politicians, and all those hopeful schoolgirls cutting cakes in Mingora. It might, on the other hand, provide some comfort to those who are unhappy with the decision. *** In the meantime, though: Yousafzai still cannot return safely to the country rushing to bask in her aura. Her book remains banned by many institutions. The Government of Pakistan spends less than almost any other in the world on the education of its children. Its legal, political, cultural and social...

  • 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...

  • By Anjum Altaf I doubt anyone would guess right if a quiz master were to ask what Britain’s leading export was in 1997. The surprising answer: The Spice Girls, through sales of their music, attendance at their film, and related merchandising. This confirms that culture is big business. In the same year, the US economy produced over $400 billion worth of books, films, music, TV programmes and other copyrighted products and this category emerged as the leading export for the US as well. Not only that, the sector is growing rapidly, between two to three times as fast as the overall economies in developed countries. East Asian countries which grew by leaps and bounds during the last quarter century on the strength of low-cost manufacturing have noticed this phenomenon in their search for diversification. Almost all of them are investing heavily in promoting their own...

  • By Kabir Altaf For the last ten days, Pakistanis have been fascinated by the sit-ins occurring in Islamabad.  Led by Imran Khan (of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf) and Tahirul Qadri (of the Pakistan Awami Tehrik), the movement is calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif, the Chief Minister of the dominant Punjab Province.  The PTI is also calling for election reform and for the holding of midterm elections under a new caretaker government.  This anti-government movement has deeply polarized the country, particularly on social media.  Many young Pakistanis are supporting Khan’s demand for Sharif’s immediate resignation, arguing that the May 2013 general elections were massively rigged and that the PML-N does not have the people’s mandate.  Others argue that Sharif is the legitimately elected Prime Minister and that he cannot be forced to resign simply because a mob of...

  • By Anjum Altaf — Does God love everybody? — Yes. — Are you sure? — Of course. — Then why do YOU hate so many? Are you bigger that God (NB)? Has God (NB) created some just so you can indulge your passion for hating? Has God (NB) told you there are some you can hate even though He loves them? Is your God (NB) the head of a political party? I haven’t come up with this. It’s how I read Mr. Bloom in the chapter identified as Cyclops in Ulysses. Look at it yourself (lines 1480-1520 here) if you don’t believe me: “God loves everybody” and aren’t we told to “love your neighbours”? And if I listened to God and loved my neighbour and my neighbour loved his/her neighbour wouldn’t we end with “universal love” which is “the opposite of hatred,” of “insult and...

  • By Anjum Altaf It was fall last year that I was teaching the introductory course in economics and had drawn four concentric circles on the board to illustrate how the market was embedded in the economy which was embedded in society which, in turn, was embedded in the extra-terrestrial outerworld.  The objective was to spark a conversation about how the outer spheres limited what could or could not take place in the inner ones as also to point out the fact that while the economy and society had always existed, the market as an institution was a relatively recent phenomenon. From there we moved on to discuss how the reach of the market was expanding and its ambit growing to include aspects that were previously never within its domain to the extent that reading the standard textbooks one could well believe that the market economy...

  • 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. 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...

  • By Anjum Altaf Here are two disappointing questions with which Amos Oz, the grandfather of Israeli peaceniks, began a recent interview: QUESTION 1: What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap, and starts shooting machine-gun fire into your nursery? QUESTION 2: What would you do if your neighbor across the street digs a tunnel from his nursery to your nursery in order to blow up your home or in order to kidnap your family? The way this comes across is as if everything was going along swimmingly, we were the greatest of friends, and suddenly I discover you are sitting in your balcony pointing a machine-gun or digging a tunnel into my nursery. Clearly that’s not the way it is. Leave aside the contentious history stretching back decades about who’s sitting...

  • By Ibn-e Eusuf Father was like that. Eager to have us learn everything, oblivious to details. Busy, busy. Shunting trains by day, learning French by night. Mother never said much, went along mostly. Handed over to a music teacher or somesuch. Eight or thereabouts. No Sa Re Ga. Right away on to aye maalik tere bandey ham tuu ne zarrey se keeRaa banaya or somesuch. Closet evolutionist. Wept. Mother gently requested change of tune. Merey maalik bulaa le madeenay mujhe. About death and dying. Final requests, etc. Nothing doing. End of music hall career. Still, thanks and all. Never forgot bulaa le madeenay bit. Coming in handy now. Understand all about politics. Aatey umrah jaatey umrah. Mountain of rye. Mice. Roared. Wind ke jhonkoN se. Pudeenay ke bagh. No offence. miaN khush raho ham dua kar chalay. Farsighted bastard. Somepeople know it all. Should have...

  • By Kabir Altaf In 1026, Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni raided the Hindu temple of Somnath (located in the present-day Indian state of Gujarat).  In retrospect, this event has had tremendous repercussions for contemporary South Asian history and is traditionally regarded as marking Hindu-Muslim animosity in the region from the outset. To this day, perceptions of Mahmud continue to be polarizing. While many Indians regard him as an iconoclastic invader bent upon loot and plunder, their counterparts in Pakistan view him as a conqueror who “established the standard of Islam on heathen land.” The Pakistani attitude is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that the country’s military has named the Ghaznavi missile in honor of Mahmud.  However, despite this conventional understanding, modern historians are attempting to question the received wisdom surrounding Somnath. One of the modern scholars attempting to arrive at a new understanding of Somnath...

  • By Anjum Altaf in the Economic and Political Weekly Individuals picked off, gone – strangers, friends of friends, friends, relatives – some for who they were, others for straying in the way. Names etched in memories – Ali Haider, Faisal Manzoor, Mehdi Ali, Rashed Rehman, Irfan Ali, Farzana Parveen, Perveen Rehman… The public, incapacitated – benumbed, indifferent, does it matter? Instead, shrill voices of love and hate troll predictably, pressing stale arguments into uncomplaining service. The telephone rings. A voice from afar: — Time to give up now? We have gone to bed often with this question only to wake up irresolute, buying time, cursing broken promises, comforting fading hopes. Is love denial? Is hate the absence of understanding? Is there truth beyond love and hate? Can we look at ourselves, own what stares back at us, and find reasons to hope? On one side, history –...

  • 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...

  • 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...

  • Early on in Ulysses, Joyce has Stpehen Dedalus harking back to Aristotle and thinking the following thoughts: Had Pyrrhus not fallen by a bedlam’s hand in Argos or Julius Caesar not been knifed to death? They are not to be thought away. Time has branded them and fettered they are lodged in the room of the infinite possibilities they have ousted. But can those have been possible seeing that they never were? Or was that only possible which came to pass? Weave, weaver of the wind. We are at that momentous point in South Asia where all of a sudden there is a burgeoning of potentialities only one of which will turn into reality – the actuality of the possible as possible in Aristotle’s formulation. I have no way of knowing which of those possibilities will become the reality we will look back on ten...

  • Here is a headline from today’s newspaper: Pakistan frees 151 Indian fishermen ahead of Sharif’s Delhi visit What can we infer from this headline about the world we live in? Recall the stories of bygone times that marked auspicious occasions: It was the king’s birthday – he ordered 100 prisoners to be released. The queen gave birth to an heir – the dungeons were emptied. The heir apparent got married – all death sentences were commuted. Are we living in bygone times or have the bygone times never left us? King Sharif? I am going to India – let us free 151 fishermen. Not only that, let us drive them from Karachi to Wagah in an air-conditioned bus. Let us give the ‘poor’ fishermen royal treatment because we are particularly pleased by the invitation – phooley nahiiN samaa rahey. Remember Diwali last year? We celebrated...

  • It was the late Richard Holbrooke who said: “Suppose elections are free and fair and those elected are racists, fascists, separatists — that is the dilemma.” That, indeed, is a dilemma. For the Americans, even the election of a remotely anti-American government was a dilemma and they spared little effort in overturning the verdict of electorates whenever such an ugly possibility reared its fearful head. So, it could have been an occasion of smug satisfaction for the rest when the American electorate voted in Bush except that he inflicted incalculable harm on the world while driving the US deep into the hole. That highlights the other dilemma – whether those freely and fairly elected are racists, fascists, separatists, or just megalomaniacal fools and simpletons, the damage they end up doing to themselves and others is serious business. Enter Mr. Modi. Mr. Modi has not been...

  • By Hasan Altaf in Guernica The cover of I am Malala suggests an entirely straightforward book: a courageous answer to the question posed by a gunman in the back of a school van. The simple portrait that looks out from the bookshelf broadcasts Yousafzai’s bravery (her bare face to answer a man covering his) while also, with its undeniable echoes of the National Geographic photo of Sharbat Gula, the “Afghan Girl,” offering an amuse-bouche to the audience: Herein lies a tale of heroism, of wild and untamed lands, of danger and the exotic amid the mountains and valleys. But the tension that runs just below the surface, steady and undeniable as undertow, is also present right on the cover, with the double-barreled, reductive subtitle identifying Malala Yousafzai as “the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban.” That subtitle indicates the seesaw between the person...

  • By Kabir Altaf In the US and in other developed countries, theater is often seen as a leisure activity, engaged in primarily by those with disposable income and enough time to spend two hours watching a play.  However, in many countries around the world, the importance of theater goes beyond entertainment. Rather, theater is a matter of life and death. As part of its “World Stages” festival, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts recently hosted a panel discussion entitled “Recasting Home: Conflict, Refugees, and Theater”. Moderated by Ambassador Cynthia Schneider, a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and the co-founder of the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, the panel featured artists from Syria, Pakistan, Palestine, and the US.  All the panelists discussed the ways in which theater was essential to helping individuals cope with extremely difficult situations, including occupation...

  • 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...

  • Kashmiri students in Meerut cheered when the Pakistan cricket team defeated India in the Asia Cup, were suspended, and charged with sedition. Since then madness has prevailed with people taking sides whether the students were right or wrong and whether the charges were justified or not. Pakistan, as usual, takes the cake for stupidity – its hearts and college gates have been thrown wide open for the heroes of the resistance. I don’t know enough about the particular incident to wade into the controversy but there are things about it that seem quite obviously wrong and problematic. What, for starters, is the notion of an own side and why, for another, is one required or obliged to cheer only for it? Why should an accident of birth dictate my emotional attachment and why should I not have the choice to own the team I want?...

  • 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...

  • By Vinod Kumar These are my experiences and observations on life in India and on Indians. Although there are many generalizations in there I confess these are nothing more than my subjective accumulated experience. I am not attempting to form a theory or explanation for the behavior and culture of Indians. All the tentative theories I formed as the months passed only painted a negative view of India and made it harder for me to live here. So I have learnt the art of not forming an opinion on India and Indians. Living here is more important than having an opinion about living here. So these observations are just that – observations. There may be some commentary and musings on them but definitely not a coherent theory about India. I returned to India with plenty of ideas about mind management – mindfulness practices that help...

  • Hollande. Royal. Trierweiler. Gayet. Tharoor. Pushkar. Tarar. A person hospitalized. Another dead. France and India popped up in the news simultaneously for similar reasons and certainly not at our bidding. True, we had compared the countries before on the blog (Dynastic Succession: What is the Difference Between India and France?) but there was no intent to push the matter further. Now that fate has intervened, however, let us leverage it for comparative speculation on other issues of general interest. To recap, our message on political institutions was clear enough – dynastic succession was acceptable in France at one time but not so anymore; In India it remains very much the norm, something both the majority of the rulers and the ruled take for granted. The question we asked was what this said about the peculiarities of democratic governance in India – was it just the...

  • By Ibn-e Eusuf A month before the elections in Delhi, Congress, by its own admission, did not even have AAP on its radar, which suggests that the former must still be in a deep sense of shock. So must the other political parties since all had been equally blindsided. Which raises the interesting question: What is going to happen between now and the coming national elections? How are the various parties likely to adjust and adapt to the shock results in Delhi? The thing to do for an analyst in such a situation is to travel around the country, talk to people, get a sense of the sentiments, and piece the findings together in some kind of a convincing narrative. That door is closed to us Pakistanis who nonetheless wish to figure out what may be in the works in India. And why not –...

  • Why they are unlikely to improve and may become worse By Anjum Altaf Pakistan and India continue to flounder in a relationship marked by a frustrating low-level equilibrium trap. Almost everyone concedes there are gains to making up but no one seems able to transcend the impasse. From time to time there is the promise of a breakout dissipated quickly by a sharp downturn.  A flurry of advisories follows on the importance of maintaining the relationship and much posturing later things work themselves back to the annoying status quo. The sequence has now been repeated often enough to suggest the combination of method and madness that might be at play. The mix of rationality and irrationality is not all that curious. People talk about its various elements but for reasons not hard to decipher refrain from assembling them all in one narrative. I believe it...

  • Diwali was on our minds. We were tossing around ideas on how to celebrate the first ever festival of lights on the campus of the Lahore University of Management Sciences. For some, it was too radical a proposition, for others something that just had to be done. It was in that context that a participant produced a newspaper clipping claiming there were only about 50 Hindus in Lahore and that some of them had celebrated Diwali at a private location for fear of being attacked. “That’s just not true,” said a member of the team indignantly adjusting her hijab. Then and there, it was decided to locate a public celebration of Diwali in the city and to go ahead with our own event. The evening light was fading; the timing was right for lamps to be lit if they were going to be lit anywhere....

  • Wistfulness is the general feeling evoked by the writings of Intizar Hussain but I feel particularly so when I read, from the novella Basti, the following description of the coming of electricity to Rupnagar: Electricity had now begun to be installed in the mosque as well, but Abba Jan had thrown a spanner into the works. “This is ‘innovation.'” And equipping himself with a cudgel, he stood on guard in the doorway of the mosque. The electricians came, received a reprimand, and went away. Hakim Bande Ali and Musayyab Husain tried very hard to convince him, but he gave only one answer: “This is ‘innovation.'” On the third day of his guard-duty, Bi Amma fell ill; her breathing became fast and shallow. Abba Jan, giving up the guard-duty, hurried home; but Bi Amma did not wait for his arrival. The next day when Abba Jan...

  • By Ahmed Kamran With the departure of Raja Mahindra Partap and Maulvi Barkatullah and others from Kabul, the Provisional Government of India was now almost solely entrusted to Obaidullah Sindhi and some of the Lahore students, including Zafar Hasan Aibak, Allah Nawaz Khan, and Mohammad Ali who tried to infuse a new life in it. However, under severe pressure from Britain, the Provisional Government was made totally restricted after conclusion of the Third Anglo-Afghan War in August 1919. Eventually, under the instructions of the Afghan Government, it was formally disbanded in 1922. Obaidullah Sindhi and his colleagues quietly left for Tashkent. They reached Termiz in Soviet Union in Oct 1922. The Hijrat Begins Ironically, at this time when, on the one hand, Indian nationalist revolutionaries in Kabul were being expelled or leaving it in disgust, and on the other hand, the Turks now led by...

  • By Anjum Altaf To want new things in old ways is to consign oneself to despair, frustration, anger and impotence. That at least was my conclusion after attending an event organized by activists to deliberate on poverty and the rights of citizens. As the meeting progressed, I sensed a shadow descending between the desire and plan for its realization. The event commenced with a presentation of economic and social data – growth, employment generation, cost of living, income inequality, poverty estimates, access to services, allocations to the social sectors, etc., etc. There followed a discussion that more or less ignored all the nuances of the presentation save a generalized sense that the situation was terrible and unacceptable. One after another speakers engaged in extended rants excoriating all governments for exploiting people and pillaging the country’s resources for personal ends. Many heartbreaking incidents were narrated and,...

  • The International Revolutionaries By Ahmed Kamran (Editor’s Note: Owing to an editorial error, this post is appearing out of sequence. It should follow the two posts on the Ghadar Party and precede the post on the Jihad Movement. The error is regretted.) Tewar a’atey hain haqeeqat main bhi afsanon kay Kuch haqeeqat bhi hua karti hay afsanon ki While a steady migration of Indian peasants and working classes was taking place towards other British colonies in Asia, Africa, and the Americas (as discussed in the previous posts on Ghadar Party), a new and more comprehensive political and administrative order as crafted by Lord Macaulay was put in place by the colonial rulers in India. With it came gradual reforms in education. Many schools and colleges were set up in most of the major cities. Here modern education was imparted to the Indian youth to produce...

  • By Ahmed Kamran The Background In the early decades of the 1900s, the international situation in Europe and the Middle East was getting tense, especially for the Indian Muslims. Their anxiety was increasing with the news of each new development taking place on the borders of a vast Muslim Turkish Empire. While the British Empire was still in ascendency in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Turkish Empire was disintegrating bit by bit. Much of its possessions in the Eastern Europe had already been broken away or annexed by other empires in the last century. Italy landed its army at Tripoli (in today’s Libya) in 1911, initiating the first War of Tripoli between Turkey and Italy. The Italian invasion of Tripoli was soon followed by the start of Balkan Wars in October 1912. Britain fully supported these European incursions into the areas of Turkish...

  • By Ahmed Kamran Call for Revolt With the extensive organizational work of the Ghadar Party among Indians spread all over the world, soon party organizations sprang up in China, Malaya, Siam (Thailand), Europe, the Philippines, Africa, Hong Kong, Singapore, Panama, Argentina, Brazil, Iran, Afghanistan, Japan, Russia, and Canada. In a few years, by 1916, it is estimated that about one million copies of Ghadar were published every week. Special issues of Ghadar were also printed in Nepali, Bengali, Pashto, Gujarati, and many other languages. After the outbreak of WW1 and Great Britain joining it in August 1914, the Ghadar Party, taking this moment as an opportunity for itself, decided to organize a revolt in the Indian army against the British rulers. Many of the party workers had served in the army at some time in their careers. They were aware of some working of armed forces and...

  • By Ahmed Kamran The Beginning Although almost forgotten among the younger generations of today’s India and Pakistan, it has generally been believed by those few who are aware of this part of our common history that the Hindustan Ghadar Party (more commonly known as the Ghadar Party) was founded in California with headquarter in San Francisco. Few trace its origins to the Sikh Gurdwara in Stockton, California. Others believed that the small revolutionary group of Indians that was, later, converted into the Ghadar Party was founded in 1913 in the small town of Astoria, Oregon. Recently, the Ghadar Party and its history have also come into the limelight of some US academic circles. Johanna Ogden, a history researcher, drawing upon her University of British Columbia MA thesis (2010), Oregon and Global Insurgency: Punjabis of the Columbia River Basin wrote an article Ghadar, Historical Silences, and...

  • By Anjum Altaf A seminal book of the 20th century, at least for academics, was An Economic Theory of Democracy, published in 1957. In it, Anthony Downs applied economic theory to the study of politics and, among other things, inferred what a rational government would do given its incentives. At its simplest, the theory claims that a government aims to stay in power and therefore, if it is democratic, adapts its policies and actions to appeal to a majority of the electorate. For example, in the current run up to the elections in India, the general wisdom is that the ruling party would spend extensively in rural areas to negate a likely swing to the opposition in urban ones. (Contrary to Downs’ prototype, though, it seems it is not the effectiveness of expenditures that matters most to voter sentiment in India – it is the...

  • Some forgotten chapters of the Indian Independence Movement (This is the centenary year of the founding of the Hindustan Ghadar Party in USA in 1913. This chapter of our independence movement, together with few other allied movements, is almost completely forgotten in the subcontinent and finds little mention in history books. We are beginning an exciting new series to remember the Ghadar Party together with two other important movements of that time – the Berlin Committee and the Muslim Hijrat Movement. We invite readers to contribute and enrich this history.) By Ahmed Kamran The City Council of an obscure sleepy town in the north-east of US on the Pacific coast is busy with planning a unique centenary celebration in October of this year. One of the City Councilors, Karen Mellin, is particularly excited about it. The city is Astoria, situated near the mouth of Columbia...

  • By Sakuntala Narasimhan A report published earlier this month says the number of cases of dengue in Karnataka has tripled during June-July, with Bangalore accounting for a majority of victims. Even residents in upper middle class neighbourhoods are succumbing, thanks to a huge garbage pile up that made news even in newspapers in the US. In the first six months of 2013 alone, Karnataka saw 3243 cases of dengue (the official figure – the real numbers are thought to be higher). Lahore, the second largest city in Pakistan, too had over 21,290 cases of dengue in 2011. Around 350 died. As in Bangalore, the Lahore authorities too tried fogging to kill larvae, but what really helped was the innovative use of smart phones, to trace locations and clusters of incidence, and focusing on those neighbourhoods. Result: last year there were no dengue deaths. It took...

  • By Anjum Altaf It is remarkable that the governments of Pakistan and India have not been able to ensure essential social services for citizens – public health and education are in shambles. As a consequence, ill health and illiteracy mar the lives of millions – a human capital deficiency that diminishes the potential of all. The resources diverted to sustaining an ailing population are no longer available for productive investment. This is not a far-fetched claim. Think of individuals who have to spend a good part of their income to buy treatment – they would have that much less left to invest in their own nourishment or in their children’s education. What holds for individuals holds for countries as well. A recent study examines what has been termed the calorie consumption puzzle in India – real rural household incomes and expenditures have risen but malnutrition...

  • By Anjum Altaf It would be hard to find citizens in Pakistan or India who believe their governments really care for the people. The Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen, has repeatedly termed India a disaster zone in which pockets of California exist amidst a sea of sub-Saharan Africa; where millions of lives are crushed by lack of food, health, education and justice. Sen wants India to “hang its head in shame” contrasting its performance with China where massive investments in health and education in the 1970s laid the foundation for sustained economic growth. Sen points out that even within South Asia, barring Pakistan, India is at the bottom in terms of social indicators. Bangladesh is doing better with half the per capita income of India. This juxtaposition of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and China allows some myths to be laid to rest in explaining this outrageous neglect...

  • By Anjum Altaf Peshawar is by no means the busiest airport in the world but compared to Hyderabad it is a monster. I mentioned in an earlier post (Anchoring Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province) that the number of flights per week into Peshawar airport was 79 of which 56 were from the Middle East. I used the information to venture that the KP economy was anchored in the Middle East and that this was not due to the flow of investment into KP but the export of manpower from it. A reader commented that what I had mentioned for Peshawar was true of every big city in Pakistan. This may well be established and, if so, it would suggest that Pakistan as a whole is a manpower exporting economy – statistics indicate that almost the only positive number in recent years has been remittances from workers overseas. Still,...

  • By Anjum Altaf All provinces have increased their budgetary allocations for education and as an educationist I am expected to be pleased by the development. I am not – might we not be throwing more good money after bad? As an analyst I need to see a credible diagnosis that education is held back by a shortage of funds. I find it curious we have so convinced ourselves of that. There are many countries that started out at the same level of economic development and have done much more with equally constrained resources. Take just one indicator, the literacy rate among 15 to 24 year old females: Pakistan at 61 percent compares very unfavorably with Sri Lanka and China at 99 percent, Nepal and Bangladesh at 77 percent, and India at 74 percent. It would be hard to argue that Sri Lanka or Bangladesh or...

  • By Anjum Altaf I learnt there is just one flight per week from Lahore to Peshawar and it returns three days later. This prompted an investigation of how the city is connected to the outside. Here is some quick information on the flights per week to Peshawar and their origins: None from Central Asia; 1 from East Asia; 1 from Afghanistan; 1 from the Punjab; 2 from Balochistan; 4 from within KPK; 4 from Islamabad; 10 from Sindh; and 56 from the Middle East. While KPK is part of Pakistan, it seems reasonable to infer that its economic engine is in the Middle East. One might post oneself outside Peshawar airport to determine the nature of the economic engine. I doubt one would see investors armed with briefcases and laptops. Much more likely that the vast majority would comprise migrant workers returning home for a...

  • By Anjum Altaf One of my insights into Pakistan’s socioeconomic evolution was due inadvertently to my father when, as a student of economics, I encountered his changed post-retirement pattern of time use. It was the nature of the change that was surprising. I saw him rise early to monitor the water level in the rooftop storage tank, climb down to check the underground one, turn on the electric motor, then switch it off after an appropriate interval. Often the motor would malfunction and he would arrange to have it fixed. Less frequently, someone would be called to clean the tanks. Over time the pipes to and from the tanks acquired a byzantine complexity with various valves catering to the vagaries of the public supply. A hand pump sprouted in the backyard as a last resort and its water sent for regular testing. Water consumed a...

  • By Anjum Altaf One of my insights into Pakistan’s socioeconomic evolution was due inadvertently to my father when, as a student of economics, I encountered his changed post-retirement pattern of time use. It was the nature of the change that was surprising. I saw him rise early to monitor the water level in the rooftop storage tank, climb down to check the underground one, turn on the electric motor, then switch it off after an appropriate interval. Often the motor would malfunction and he would arrange to have it fixed. Less frequently, someone would be called to clean the tanks. Over time the pipes to and from the tanks acquired a byzantine complexity with various valves catering to the vagaries of the public supply. A hand pump sprouted in the backyard as a last resort and its water sent for regular testing. Water consumed a...

  • By Anjum Altaf Is poverty a violation of human rights? I was asked recently to speak on the subject and faced the following dilemma: If I convinced the audience it was, would that imply the most effective way to eliminate poverty would be to confer human rights on the poor? Two questions follow immediately: First, if that were indeed the case, why haven’t rights been conferred already? Second, over the entire course of recorded history, has poverty ever been alleviated in this manner? Likely answers to both suggest it would be more fruitful to start with poverty than with rights. Poverty has always been with us while the discourse of rights is very recent. Studying the experiences of poverty elimination could possibly better illuminate the overlap with rights and yield appropriate conclusions for consideration. We can begin with the period when sovereignty rested in heaven...

  • A Citizens’ Initiative By Anjum Altaf The presence of international borders that are closed is unfortunate in many ways. However, to a social scientist they present the possibility of fascinating natural experiments in which locations close to each other but separated by the border can be studied to advantage. For example, the Punjab border separates Kasur in Pakistan from Ferozepur in India by a distance of 39 miles. One would not expect much to change over such a short distance except for policies that are decided at the national or regional levels, e.g., those related to land, taxation, subsidies, etc. If we study the two cities in depth perhaps we might be able to infer the impact of such policy differences on the prospects of the cities and the lives of their residents. It was such a thought experiment that prompted me to propose a...

  • By Anjum Altaf The politics of urbanization could be less or more important than its economics. It depends on the context. In relatively stable societies, economics shapes politics – these are places where one can meaningfully say “it’s the economy, stupid.” Even seemingly bizarre foreign policies can be related to economics as one might infer from the title of Lenin’s classic text Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. In less stable societies, the economy is hostage to politics. Think of Pakistan’s quixotic foreign policy adventures that have no conceivable relationship to national considerations and have driven the economy into the ground. The politics, in turn, is orchestrated by narrow, parochial and privileged economic interests as those who can discern can readily make out. It is in this framework that the politics of urbanization in Pakistan is more fascinating than its economics. Almost every news report...

  • The South Asian Idea is opening up this space for your comments, thoughts, and reflections on the elections. Please use the Comments space below to voice your opinions and join the conversation on the future of Pakistan and of the region. Thanks, Editors The factual information appended below on the 2013 elections in Pakistan is courtesy of the British Pakistan Foundation who have further acknowledged their sources. On Saturday, May 11th Pakistan will be voting its new parliament at its general elections 2013. For this reason we have compiled some relevant information to understand how the General Elections will influence the country’s political landscape. Please find below an infographic of AlJazeera on the Pakistan Elections 2013 (click on the link below the picture to view a larger image) as well as some information on the major political parties.

  • By Anjum Altaf We ought to care about urbanization because it will shape our lives, for better or for worse, and often in surprising ways. An obvious starter is that all developed countries are predominantly urban. Of course one can ask whether it was development that led to urbanization or the other way around. The historical evidence is clear: cities produced jobs that pulled less productive labor from rural areas. That, in a nutshell, was the story of the Industrial Revolution. The most unremarked replication in recent times has been in South Korea, going from 5 percent urban in 1925 to 80 percent by 2000. At the same time the country transitioned from an aid recipient to a member of the industrialized world, a donor in its own right. The implication is not that moving all villagers to cities would yield a development miracle. Cities...

  • There is a huge difference between policy prescription and policy analysis and the first without the second is a waste. I come across this gulf everyday in discussions of issues like health or environment or urbanization but let me illustrate with an example from education. So, I am reading this op-ed in a leading newspaper of the country and I am presented with the usual litany of woes: declining standards, lowest per capita spending in the world, ignorant teachers, ghost schools, different systems for rich and poor, medium of instruction, blah, blah, blah. There follows a dire warning: this would destroy the country.

  • By Anjum Altaf Elections are due in a few months and one of the questions being asked is whether they would be an exercise in futility. I think not even though nothing much is likely to change in the short term – for that, one can look across the border where six decades of uninterrupted democratic governance has not made a major difference in the lives of the marginalized. It is the long-term implications that ought to be the focus of our attention. For better or for worse, and I feel it is for the better, we inherited representative government from the departing rulers. Better, because the precursor to representative governance, monarchy, no matter how benevolent at times, offered no mechanism for holding the aristocracy accountable or of institutionalizing orderly transfers of power. Those were huge negatives irrespective of how one looks at them. With...

  • By Hasan Altaf in The Millions: From the beginning, there was a hint of the surreal to the recent Lahore Literary Festival, but it was difficult to put my finger on the root of that unsettling emotion, especially given the overall aura of triumph. A response to similar events elsewhere in the region – the most famous in Jaipur; the most rivalry-inducing, for the last four years, in Karachi – the festival seemed its own victory party, a massive and successful gambit in Lahore’s bid to reclaim its title as the “cultural capital” of Pakistan. The excitement had Lahore full of visitors, Mall Road festooned with banners, the Alhamra Arts Council packed with people, and in the middle of all that buzz it seemed almost churlish to have the suspicion that something odd was at work.

  • By Anjum Altaf March 8 was International Women’s Day about which I have two stories to narrate. They are from the heart of affluent Pakistan by virtue of the accident that I live on a university campus situated in an upscale urban residential district of Lahore. The first story, the short one, is situated in what is generally acknowledged as the premier private university in the country. A group of students organized the ‘I Need Feminism…’ campaign in which individuals complete the sentence on a placard before uploading a photograph on social media. ‘I Need Feminism because I want to wear shorts in public’ was one of the placards that went up briefly before it was taken down because of threats to the bearer and the organizers from inside and outside the university. The second story, the longer one, involves a woman who works in...

  • By Anjum Altaf Why is there so much more political and ideological violence in South Asian countries compared to, say, France? This may seem like a simplistic or irrelevant question but the typical answers that it elicits could help uncover the complexities inherent in the phenomenon. The discussion in this post is focused on the violence that is inflicted within a country by one set of individuals on another for reasons to do with differences in political ideas or ideological beliefs. We are sidestepping the type of violence that was covered in an earlier post, violence that has less to do with differences in ideas and beliefs and more with the exploitation, for personal gain or satisfaction, of an imbalance of power – violence against women, children, and workers being typical examples. It follows immediately from this perspective that the violence under consideration is an...

  • By Hasan Altaf Interviewing Chinua Achebe – the author of Things Fall Apart, who has become, through the usual process of reduction, a one-man stand-in for Nigerian when not for African literature – for The Paris Review, in 1994, Jerome Brooks noted that the majority of Achebe’s work was in English. He asked about the existence or importance of Igbo translations, and Achebe responded with a story about an Anglican missionary’s attempt to standardize his language’s many dialects: The way [Archdeacon Dennis] did it was to invite six people from six different dialectal areas. They sat round a table and they took a sentence from the Bible: In the beginning, God created… or whatever. In. What is it in your dialect? And they would take that. The. Yours? Beginning. Yours? And in this way… they created what is called Standard Igbo. The result: unmusical, “wooden,”...

  • Trying to Make Sense in Lahore of a Rape in Delhi By Anjum Altaf A very high level of social violence is endemic in South Asia, so high it is invisible at most times. We see it only when the peculiarity of specific incidents throws it into sharp relief. Much hand wringing follows treating the incident as an aberration, blaming it on this or that, missing the truth by a mile, remaining as blind as ever. The rape in Delhi is the latest such incident and we have explanations ranging from patriarchy, commoditization of the female body, decline of morals, jobs lost by unemployed men, and the like. But all these exist or have transpired elsewhere without the same kind of fallout. What we need to focus on and explain is the high level of social violence in general – there is one reported rape...

  • By Vijay Vikram From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia, Pankaj Mishra, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 356 pages Pankaj Mishra is a fascinating creature. He was born to a family of pauperized Brahmins in Jhansi, a small town in the north of India in 1969. By the age of 20, he had spent “three idle, bookish years at a provincial university in a decaying old provincial town.” Like many young men of a bookish disposition, he had little idea of what to do with himself. He harbored literary ambitions, but was uncertain how to fulfill them. Add to this an aversion to “the modern world of work and achievement … careers and jobs” and we find ourselves in the company of a distinctly brooding, melancholy character who would either beat the odds and rise to make a mark on the world of...

  • By Kabir Altaf … ‘Please excuse me,’ Riaz was saying to Brownlow. ‘But you are a little arrogant.’…. ‘Your liberal beliefs belong to a minority who live in northern Europe. Yet you think moral superiority over the rest of mankind is a fact. You want to dominate others with your particular morality, which has—as you also well know—gone hand-in-hand with fascist imperialism.’ Here Riaz leaned towards Brownlow. ‘This is why we have to guard against the hypocritical and smug intellectual atmosphere of Western civilization.’  … ‘That atmosphere you deprecate. With reason. But this civilization has also brought us this –’ ‘Dr. Brownlow, tell us what it has brought us,’ Shahid said.  …On his fingers he counted them off. ‘Literature, painting, architecture, psychoanalysis, science, journalism, music, a stable political culture, organized sport—at a pretty high level. And all this has gone hand-in-hand with something significant. That...

  • By C. M. Naim On Tuesday, September 11, 2012, a horrific fire in a garment factory in the Baldia Township in Karachi killed at least 259 persons, male and female. As I read about it on subsequent days I was reminded of another fire that occurred a century earlier—to be exact, on Saturday, November 25, 1911—in New York City. It too was in a garment factory, and took 146 lives, mostly young females. Named after the shirtwaist factory where it occurred, it is known in American history as the Triangle Fire. To refresh my memory I took to the books, and soon realized that the Triangle Fire had a few lessons for the present day Pakistan.[1]  *** The Triangle Waist Factory (TWF) was situated on the top three floors of a ten-storey building in the Washington Square area in Manhattan. The neighborhood was far from...

  • By Anjum Altaf The present in South Asia is messy, gruesome and unpleasant; no wonder we keep referring back to the past to make sense of it. Most of the time, however, we end up distorting the past to craft seamless narratives that accord with our current sensibilities. I will argue in this essay that there is no such continuity to be crafted and enter a plea for the past to be left alone.

  • By Kabir Altaf Pankaj Mishra’s new book From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia (FSG 2012) describes the Asian response to the colonial encounter.  The book covers the decades from the mid-nineteenth century to the beginning of World War II.   Mishra argues that the West “has seen Asia through the narrow perspective of its own strategic and economic interests, leaving unexamined–and unimagined–the collective experiences and subjectivities of Asian peoples.” His book does not attempt to replace this Eurocentric perspective with an Asia-centric one, but “seeks to open up multiple perspectives on the past and the present, convinced that the assumptions of Western power–increasingly untenable–are no longer a reliable vantage point and may even be dangerously misleading” (8).

  • By Anjum Altaf I am happy to engage in a debate with the Center for Global Development on US aid to Pakistan. However, for me the issue is not aid to Pakistan or aid in general but the analytical validity of CGD’s recent reports. I argued that CGD’s 2011 report was advocacy, not analysis and based on a reading of a summary of the 2012 report I concluded it seemed no different. CGD has responded to my criticism of the latter but has, in what I consider a handwaving style, ignored my central concern and resorted to diversionary arguments to mount a defense. Here, I aim to show why CGD’s case remains a weak one. CGD’s first point is that their report has been criticized both in Pakistan and in Washington and “perhaps this is a sign we have done something right?” But could it...

  • By Anjum Altaf Aid has become the new religion. That is the only conclusion to be drawn from the authors’ summary of a new report on aid to Pakistan from the Center for Global Development (Making KLB Effective, Dawn, August 12, 2012). There are certain fundamental presumptions to be accepted on faith followed by exhortations to be more faithful and to work harder. Inshallah everything will work out fine since God (in this case the US) helps those who help themselves. Conspicuous by its absence is any semblance of doubt or uncertainty, there is no challenging the assumptions, there is no assessment of experience, there is no asking of questions. Just a few regrets before Muslim and Christian soldiers march happily onwards hand in hand. The authors are quite candid about the central premise of their report: “one of its underlying assumptions is that US-Pakistan development...

  • By Anjum Altaf The relationship between art and life may not have been a puzzle to most but it was to me. And it was not resolved by the debate over whether art ought to be for its own or for life’s sake. This was a difference over the purpose or otherwise of art whereas my interest was in the nature of the relationship. At one level, art must reflect life since it cannot exist in a vacuum. But this only opens up a number of questions: To what extent does art reflect life and what might be a measure of the goodness of that reflection? I am concerned here with the novel as a particular form of art. The novel is a story and so in some sense is life. There is, therefore, a natural correspondence between the two. Life, however, is messy, all...

  • By Hasan Altaf The cards are laid on the table right away in Shehan Karunatilaka’s stunning debut novel, The Legend of Pradeep Mathew (Graywolf Press). The narrator, W. G. Karunasena – an aging, alcoholic former sportswriter, who has just been handed what amounts to a death sentence (if he limits himself to two drinks a day he can hope for one or two more years) – takes a moment to respectfully rebut the criticism that sports, in this case cricket, have no use or value: “Left-arm spinners cannot unclog your drains, teach your children or cure you of disease. But once in a while, the very best of them will bowl a ball that will bring an entire nation to its feet. And while there may be no practical use in that, there is most certainly value.” Pradeep Mathew is in some ways like the...

  • By Kabir Altaf Fireflies in the Mist, Qurratulain Hyder’s own translation of her Urdu novel Aakhir-e-Shab ke Hamsafar, spans the history of East Bengal from the time of the nationalist movement against the British, to the creation of East Pakistan, and finally to Bangladeshi independence. The novel centers around Deepali Sarkar, “a young middle-class Hindu who becomes drawn into the extreme left wing of the nationalist movement, and Rehan Ahmed, a Muslim radical with Marxist inclinations who introduces her to the life of the rural deprived. Their common political engagement draws them into a quietly doomed love affair.  Through their relationship, Hyder explores the growth of tensions between Bengal’s Hindus and Muslims, who had once shared a culture and a history.” In his introduction to the novel, Pakistani writer Aamer Hussain notes that Fireflies can be seen as another chapter in Hyder’s epic history of...

  • By Kabir Altaf Art does not exist in a vacuum. The artist lives in a particular social context and his or her work reflects the era in which it was created. Artists have long been concerned with exploitation and injustice. Rather than have their work simply reflect the society around them, many artists wish to use their work to change conditions on the ground. For example, Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) believed that plays should not cause spectators to identify emotionally with the characters on stage but should rather provoke rational self-reflection and a critical view of the onstage action. Thus, Brecht used techniques that would remind the audience that the play was a reflection of reality and not reality itself. By highlighting the constructed nature of the theatrical event, Brecht hoped to communicate to the audience that their reality was equally constructed, and thus changeable. Two...

  • 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...

  • By Kabir Altaf Herman Melville’s 1853 novella, Bartleby the Scrivener, tells the story of a Wall Street lawyer who employs two scriveners (clerks). At the beginning of the novella, the narrator’s business picks up; he advertises for a third scrivener and eventually hires Bartleby for the position. At first, Bartleby produces high quality work, but one day when the lawyer asks him to help proofread what he has copied, he replies “I would prefer not to.” This eventually becomes his stock response every time he is asked to do any work outside of copying. Eventually he even refuses to do any copying. However, the lawyer finds it impossible to fire him. The lawyer finally does attempt to fire Bartleby, giving him twice as much money as he is owed but Bartleby refuses to vacate the office, saying only that he “would prefer not to.” The...

  • By Anil Kala [I saw Amir Khan’s show on Indian TV about child abuse with some interest. I suppose I qualify for victim of child abuse therefore the interest. My case appears curious in the sense I don’t feel I was abused at all. I am telling this story so that we do not lose sense of proportion in demanding punishment for offenders. Remember some fellows asked for death penalty for rapists.] When I look back through the hazy tunnel of time, picture of this curious but very vulnerable kid crystallizes in clear focus. Even though that kid was me in distant past, I can’t quite identify with him anymore for we have moved so far apart in character and attributes that he could be just any vulnerable child. Yet, I know this child very intimately; a shy fellow, fidgety when meeting strangers but compensates...

  • By Anjum Altaf Dear Students, One of your colleagues sent me the following message: Respected Sir… I would like to request that you please send out a list of books that you think are crucial for 21st century students like us to read. The reason I am asking so, is that during the holidays I would like to do something beneficial and constructive. While there are many books available on the internet and at bookshops (like Readings or Ferozsons, etc.), I wouldn’t exactly know which books are best for me. So could you please send out such a list of books as I believe that a person of your experience and knowledge would be a better judge on which books students should read. I would like to also suggest that while deciding on the books, give us books on a variety of issues, like let’s...

  • By Hasan Altaf One of the few reliable characteristics of the institutions of the government of Pakistan is that they will only rarely stick to their mandates, that they will only occasionally consider themselves bound to fulfill their theoretical functions – the idea of the “public servant,” for example, seems to have passed ours by entirely. Given that the results of this tendency are so frequently destructive, or at best neutral, we should look kindly on Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa’s recent bout of poetic inspiration at the conviction of Prime Minister Gilani for contempt of court. It’s easy to say, as the prime minister’s lawyer did, that judges should refrain from adding poetry to their judgments (“especially” their own; maybe Iqbal would have been acceptable?) and just make their decisions and let that be that, but in a country where that is so rarely that, a little...

  • By Hasan Altaf Excerpts from an essay published in a special issue (A Country of Our Own – A Symposium on Re-Imagining South Asia) of Seminar, India, April 2012. * A nation cannot grow in entirely barren ground, however, and so in Pakistan we have attempted to replace “South Asia” with “Islam”: to substitute for culture, religion, in theory a straight one-to-one transfer. There is no space for chaos here, either, though; the Islam we choose to imagine is monolithic, straight-from-the-sands, brooking-no-argument; it ignores the vast diversity even among our Islams, let alone all our religions and cultures, and says that in the interests of simplicity, order, there will only be one, there has always been only one right way to go about this business. Once again, it was the Met that put things in context.Recently the museum reopened its collection of what is in...

  • By Irfan Husain Over the years, billions of dollars in foreign aid have been poured into Pakistan’s social sector. Nevertheless, literacy remains stubbornly below 50 per cent, and life expectancy at birth is at 66 years, 164th lowest in the world. So why this abysmal and sustained failure by successive Pakistani governments and international donors in solving these perennial problems? After all, other similarly placed countries have made great strides in both critical areas. Sri Lanka, to name one, has long had a literacy rate of over 90 per cent, and life expectancy there is above 75. One reason is our prodigious birth rate: Pakistan’s population has grown around six times since Partition, climbing exponentially from around 32 million in 1947 to close to 190 million now.But planned parenthood is another issue the donor community as well as a few Pakistani governments have tried to address,...

  • By Kabir Altaf As the lights come up at the beginning of “A Tryst with Destiny”, a screen projects news footage of communal riots in India. We see clips from the 2002 carnage in Gujarat, protests in Indian-administered Kashmir, and an interview with Jaswant Singh in which he lays the major responsibility for the Partition of British India on Nehru and the Indian National Congress.  As these news clips fade out, Gandhi and Nehru step on stage and begin discussing their roles in Partition.  From the outset, the play asks the audience to reflect on the question: Was the Partition of India worth the bloodshed that accompanied it? What price did India have to pay for Independence? “A Tryst with Destiny”, performed at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre in Washington DC, was written by Amita Deepak Jha, a locally-based psychiatrist and medical researcher.

  • By Hasan Altaf The poet Kabir died in 1518, so it is jarring to open a translation of his writings and read the following line: “O pundit, your hairsplitting’s/so much bullshit.” It is even stranger to look up and realize that the poem bears an epigraph (“It take a man that have the blues so to sing the blues”) from the American musician Lead Belly, who was not even born until 1888. A quick scan through the volume reveals more epigraphs (Pound, Coleridge), a dedication (one poem is for Geoff Dyer) and vocabulary that Kabir himself could not have come up with: “Smelling of aftershave/and deodorants/the body’s a dried up well…” Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s Songs of Kabir is not, it is safe to say, your father’s Kabir. We have certain expectations when it comes to literature of this sort – the literature that we call...

  • By Anjum Altaf I have not read a piece as often in recent days as Craving Middleness. It identifies a problem that is central to the Pakistani predicament – the widening divide between those who consider religion a matter of private belief and those who consider it central to public life. And it recommends the eminently sensible need for a dialogue between the two if an impending confrontation is to be avoided. While its two end points are so correctly located, the intervening argument seems entangled in claims that are contradicted by observable evidence. It is with reference to this middle that I hope to begin my conversation with the author for whom I have the utmost admiration. I will argue that the author oversimplifies by dividing Pakistani society into those who subscribe to absolute religious morality as the framework for all behavior and those...

  • By Kabir Altaf According to Hindu mythology, The Mahabharata was dictated by the sage Vyasa to Ganesha, the elephant-headed god.  However, some scholars believe that the sections of the epic that deal with Ganesh’s scripting are later interpolations. Vyasa himself appears as a character in the epic. Vyasa’s brother Vichitravirya died without issue, so Vyasa’s mother asked him to impregnate his brother’s wives, the sisters Ambika and Ambalika.  Ambika was the first to come to Vyasa’s bed, but out of fear and shyness, she closed her eyes.  Vyasa cursed her and told her that her child would be born blind.  The next night, it was Ambalika’s turn.  She had been warned to remain calm, but her face turned pale due to fear.  Again Vyasa cursed her and told her that her son would be be anemic and not be fit enough to rule the kingdom. ...

  • By Hasan Altaf When I was in graduate school, in Baltimore, one of the poems I had to teach my own students was Robinson Jeffers’s “The Purse-Seine.” Among both my classmates and the undergraduates it was one of the least popular poems, which should perhaps have been no surprise, since we were encouraged to use it as an illustration of the term “jeremiad”: “a long literary work… in which the author bitterly laments the state of society and its morals in a serious tone of sustained invective, and always contains a prophecy of society’s imminent downfall.” My reaction was more mixed – I liked Jeffers’s long lines; I liked his voice; I liked the imagery, the parallel between the phosphorescence of the shoals of fish and the lights of the city. The first two stanzas are seductive, almost hypnotic (“the crowded fish/know they are caught,...

  • By Maryam Sakeenah I travel across two worlds in my 20-minute commuting distance between both my workplaces: a modern religious school and a private grammar school where scions of Pakistan’s moneyed elite are privileged with quality education in tune with modern needs. The mindsets I deal with, the attitudes I encounter make for interesting comparison. At the religious school, the concepts of the sacred and the profane as defined by absolute religious morality are the framework for all thought-patterns and behaviour. Fidelity to the sacred is the highest value promoted and readily accepted – at least ostensibly – in an environment designed to actively encourage it. At the grammar school, the central value is free thinking and critical inquiry rigorously promoted by the administration. The curriculum is built around and disseminates post Enlightenment Western perspectives and metanarratives, with the fundamental premise being that of morality...

  • Dear Students, With this letter I would like to formally introduce myself to you as the incoming Dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law (SHSSL) at LUMS. I see my mandate as one of supporting the mission of the university – to make your stay here a life-changing experience. I am taking this opportunity to share my views on the role of SHSSL in the fulfillment of this objective. Think about this. Our lives are characterized by a series of choices. But how do we know if we have made a good choice in any particular situation? The alternatives can appear to be different depending on whether we evaluate the choice in an economic, political, sociological, legal or ethical perspective. Should we care more about efficiency or fairness, trust emotions more or reason, value more the present or the future, put more...

  • By Anjum Altaf and Samia Altaf It is our claim that the debates on poverty and aid have gone off the rails. On poverty, it is too narrow, quibbling about a few percentage points above or below some historical number. On aid, it is too broad, arguing whether it is helpful or harmful in its totality. These are important issues and we need to get the big picture right if the public discourse is to make any sense. Let us start with poverty. We are hobbled by the fact that our understanding of poverty alleviation is borrowed from elsewhere without much adaptation to our context. This has led us down unrewarding paths much like prescriptions based on flawed diagnoses. An example should make this clear. Imagine a community of 100 people in which 10 are homeless. Many ways can be found to house the homeless in...

  • By Kabir Altaf Since last September, one TV serial has taken Pakistan by storm, becoming a major topic for conversation and forcing people to reschedule social occasions so that they don’t clash with the program’s time slot. Entitled Humsafar (Companion), the drama has made stars out of its leading couple, Fawad Afzal Khan and Mahira Khan.  The play is a typical melodrama, centering around the relationship between Ashar and Khirad and the intrigues that drive them apart, intrigues created by Ashar’s controlling mother, Farida. Yet somehow, this hackneyed plotline has had the entire nation hooked for six months. * To briefly summarize the plot: Ashar is the son of a rich man living in Karachi and working in his father’s company.  His cousin, Khirad, meanwhile lives a middle-class life with her mother in Hyderabad. Khirad’s mother finds out that she has cancer and calls her...

  • By Hasan Altaf One of the main differences between fiction and nonfiction might be, to use the phrase of writing workshops, between showing and telling: Fiction shows us other lives, what those other lives are like, how it might feel to be living those lives; the other tells us, laying out the context, the backstory, the rules of the game. Both forms are important, but fiction seems to me the more powerful, as stories speak to us at a more visceral level than do facts – to our emotions, rather than our intellect. There is overlap between the two genres, however, and while fiction can succeed without giving us the information of nonfiction, the strongest journalism is usually that which adopts the techniques of fiction to give us both story and background – some of Arundhati Roy’s essays, for example, or Joan Didion’s – that...

  • By Hannah Green Everything starts to look like Urdu if you spend enough time staring at Urdu words trying to get them into your head. The script is fluid. Some letters can squiggle tightly or stretch long, sometimes letters stack on top of one another and sometimes they go side by side. It is this fluidity that makes Urdu so enthralling to look at, but also very difficult to learn to read. I’ll find myself squinting at a word in one of the more artistic fonts, wondering if a dot should attach to the loop on its right or the notch on its left. Of course, the reason that I have these difficulties is that, for me, the language learning process is backward. Someone whose mother tongue is Urdu would have learned the vocabulary before trying to learn to read it, so they’ll know which...

  • By Farooq Sulehria The NGO sector is growing globally. Statistics indicate a 400 percent increase in the number of international NGOs. From a couple of hundred in the 1960s, the number had reached 50,000 by 1993 worldwide. In 2001, the last year for which complete figures are mostly available, the size of the “non-firm, non-government” sector was estimated at 1.4 million organisations, with revenues of nearly $680 billion and an estimated 11.7 million employees. Over 15 percent of development aid is channelled through NGOs. A UN report says that the global non-profit sector with its more than $1 trillion turnover could rank as the world’s eighth largest economy. The growing NGO influence is evident in many ways. On one hand, the overall global flow of funding through NGOs increased from $200 billion in 1970 to $2,600 billion in 1997. On the other hand, the buzzword...

  • By Anjum Altaf Veena Malik has provided Indians and Pakistanis something to talk about – to, at, and across each other. There is much that can be ignored but a few strands strike me as promising and worth pursuing. Most of the outpouring, at least on the blogs, is a voicing of individual personal opinions for and against Ms. Malik’s act. That, to me at least, is the least interesting aspect of the fallout. Why should my personal opinion carry significance for anyone besides myself? If the objective were to run an opinion poll, people could vote yes or no anonymously and be done with it. It would be different if the person offering the opinion were a public figure. Take Imran Khan, for example: his opinion on the incident could provide a clue where he might lead the nation if given the opportunity.How would...

  • By Kabir Altaf The incident last week at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in which NATO air strikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers has brought Pakistan-US relations to their lowest ebb since the OBL raid. The public reaction in both countries has revealed the extent of the mistrust between the supposed allies. The American public feels that since the US government gives Pakistan so much aid, it is ungrateful of the Pakistani government to block NATO’s supplies or ask the US to vacate airbases in the country.  Americans are also angered by reports of Pakistan’s alleged double-dealing and at best grudging cooperation with Washington.  The Pakistani public, on the other hand, is angered by what they see as violations of their country’s sovereignty. They also feel that fighting “America’s war” has caused a lot of blowback in their country, leading to the deaths of thousands of innocents at...

  • By Anjum Altaf ‘Urdu has changed from the Urdu of Mir and Ghalib but that simply proves it is a living language.’ That was one of the comments I received on earlier posts (here and here) about the past and future of the language. At one level, it is a statement of the obvious – nothing ever stays the same. At another, it invites a host of questions: What is the nature of the change? Who owns the language now? What functions is it serving? Such questions could be answered by survey of Urdu speakers. A canvassing of urban centers would suffice in Pakistan since Urdu is not a regional language and hence not spoken widely in rural areas. (The situation might differ in India.) An organization like the National Language Authority could design the exercise but is unlikely to do so for any number...

  • By Anjum Altaf Reflecting on the official pronouncements of poverty in South Asia reminds me of the Marx Brothers saying: ‘Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes.’ There are two kinds of poverty: monetary poverty and intellectual poverty. Together, I will argue, they make for a lethal combination. The monetary and physical poverty in South Asia is undeniable; the controversies relate only to the few percentage points it might be above or below what is clearly an unacceptably high base level. The intellectual poverty is a more subtle phenomenon that, in my view, comes in the way of appropriately addressing the physical poverty. Let me illustrate the existence of intellectual poverty in South Asia via an analogy that might help set up the discussion. People rush into places that have something rich to offer; if they can, people rush out of...

  • By Sakuntala Narasimhan The World Health Organisation (WHO) notes in a publication released earlier this month that a “huge amount of new financial commitment, worth over $40 billion,” has been pledged by a collective of global agencies, towards maternal and child health projects in developing countries. The strategies that these projects will focus on include “innovative approaches” like the use of mobile phones “to create awareness and promote health” so that individuals and communities can have the information they need to make decisions about their health. Although the publication mentions the need to “address structural barriers to health,” the assumption is that lack of information and knowledge is the limiting factor. This assumption shows a woeful ignorance of the socio-cultural complexities that make up the local matrices within which “development” work has to be undertaken, which is why in spite of the hundreds of billions...

  • By Urvashi Butalia Imagine a large hall in a major city in Punjab. It’s packed with people, mostly women, from Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka. On the stage are two men, one a long-haired bearded, hairy-chested sardar, the other a clean shaven smooth-chested younger man. They’re engaged in a languorous, erotic, sometimes passionate, sometimes tender, rendering of the story of Heer Ranjha. In the background Madan Gopal’s wonderfully resonant voice sings the story. Tragedy hangs in the air, for most of the people in the hall are familiar with this beautiful story of star- crossed lovers, and after the initial hesitation at seeing two men, they now ‘believe’ that the bearded Navtej Johar is actually Heer, and the supple Anil is Ranjha. Such is the power of their dance. We’re in Islamabad, attending a dance performance that marks the end of a day of...

  • Too Much Secularism is a Dangerous Thing By Dipankar Gupta Is the Congress afraid of winning in Gujarat? Nothing else explains why it lets Narendra Modi tom-tom development when it should have been the Congress banging the drums. The economic achievements of governments before Modi’s read like an award citation, but too much secularism has since led the Congress astray. Instead of showcasing its past performance to regain Gujarat, it is obsessed with nailing Modi as a communalist-in-chief. Naturally, it is not getting anywhere fast. Look also at the good memories the Congress is erasing away. In 1991, a full ten years before Modi arrived, as many as 17,940 out of 18,028 villages were already electrified. The Ukai plant, which uses washed coal to generate power, was also pre-Modi as was the asphalting of 87.5% of Gujarat roads. 1980-81, Gujarat’s share in manufacturing at the...

  • By Anjum Altaf  [I am concerned about the perspective of proponents of economic development in India regarding people considered to be in the way of development, be they tribals living on mineral resources or farmers occupying land needed for industry. This concern has made me revisit the question of priorities: does development take precedence over people or should people determine the kind of development that ought to be pursued? I addressed this question in 1992 when I was at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a visiting faculty member. The paper was written for an Expert Meeting on the Role of Families in Development organized by the Committee on Population of the National Research Council in Washington, DC. It was published in 1993 in the proceedings of the meeting (Family and Development: Summary of an Expert Meeting, K. Foote and L. Martins,...

  • By Anjum Altaf The response to 9/11 has been challenged along two lines: that it imposed a huge cost on the world without making it much safer; and that a legal-political approach would have yielded better outcomes. Both arguments, implicitly or explicitly, presume that an alternative response was possible. A reassessment of this presumption can help highlight some less discussed aspects of our world before and after 9/11. Prima facie it is plausible to assert that it was not necessary to frame the 9/11 provocation as an act of war. It could have been classified as a crime, albeit a spectacular one, and prosecuted using political leverage as needed. Given the near universal condemnation of the act and the swell of support for the US from nation-states, concerted political pressure on a weak Afghan state would in all likelihood have delivered the masterminds of the...

  • By Hasan Altaf The first time I heard the word “Gandhara” was when I was maybe eight or ten, and, driving from Islamabad to Peshawar with my father, brother, and grandparents, stopped in a town I’d never heard of to visit a museum that was equally unfamiliar. The little town was Taxila, and the museum was the Taxila Museum. I’m sure at the time someone, most likely my father, explained to me the significance, the historic and artistic value, of the objects presented there, but it seems I must have glazed over and ignored it. To the eight- or ten-year-old I was, none of the statues and relics, the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, were particularly memorable. We left Taxila and continued our drive, leaving the museum behind, and until recently, I never thought about them again. Many of us who grow up outside Pakistan have Pakistan...

  • 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...

  • By Hasan Altaf There is, I imagine, no one on earth whose understanding of the past is completely without bias, but this problem must be particularly acute when it comes to those who, once upon a time, were responsible for creating that past: those who could change, in ways however small, the course of events, who could, or imagined they could, control whatever forces were in play, who could and did shape history. Maybe it would be best to take their versions of events with not just a grain of salt but also a pinch of pity, because for them, the stakes of this game must be higher than they are for the rest of us. They made the world we have today; all we have to do is live in it. Evidence of this phenomenon has been ample of late (everyone writes a memoir,...

  • By Anjum Altaf I was asked to review M J Akbar’s new book Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan and have done so; the review appeared in the May 2011 issue of Himal Southasian magazine. Here I wish to attempt something different – to convey to the reader a sense of the book through the images that came to mind as I read it. Tinderbox Tinderbox is a particularly apt metaphor for present-day Pakistan. I reached for the book with a sense of excitement and anticipation at the prospect of learning whether the tinderbox would explode or somehow be defused. The issue had been on many minds and the focus of many talks for some time. A member of the family had put it thus after attending one the talks:

  • By Dipankar Gupta If bribe giving is legalized will that ground the bribe taker for good? This suggestion was made recently by Kaushik Basu, the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisor. Sadly, such low cost, budget one-liners invariably fail to fly. Eager to clean up the corporate sector, Narayana Murthy, of Infosys, initially endorsed this suggestion, but later found faults with it. The bribe giver could rat on the bribe taker, but it would not be worth the halo. Word would go around and that person would be singled out forever in the real world of give and take. Under current conditions, but for a handful of companies in IT, telecom and financial services, it is hard for business to play clean and be above board.When 93% of the work force is unorganized and informal, it would be foolish for the investor not to tap into this...

  • By Anjum Altaf Any discussion of the future of Urdu arouses heated emotions turning swiftly into a test of one’s loyalties. But love of the language should have no bearing on a candid consideration of its prospects. I believe such a consideration is possible and wish to revisit the issue in light of aspects of the language I have been thinking about lately. As part of the exploration of some aspects of Urdu speech, I have already discussed the rise of King’s Urdu in the courts of the later Mughals where, according to many, it attained its zenith during the reign of Bahadur Shah with whom the dynasty came to an end. Did that event mark a major turning point in the trajectory of Urdu? All phenomena with historical roots have a momentum that carries them beyond the point at which their sustaining force is...

  • By Anjum Altaf A native Urdu speaker took a class in Portuguese and earned the following evaluation: “You were among the best students in the class but you speak like a robot.” Was it the student or was it Urdu? It is an intriguing thread to follow. The ensuing speculations, by one with no training in linguistics, are recorded in the hope that something of interest about the language might fall out as a result. There is little doubt that the delivery of what may be termed King’s Urdu (of which, more later) is flat in terms of stresses, inflections and intonations of speech. If tonal languages like Chinese, which rely on variations in pitch to convey meaning, are at one end of the spectrum, then Urdu, which seemingly does away with tonality altogether, must certainly be at the other. That in itself is not...

  • By Anjum Altaf The seeming disconnect between the aural and visual dimensions of popular Indian culture has left me in shock and struggling for an explanation. There are many things I don’t fathom but most of the time I can advance plausible hypotheses to work towards an understanding. Not so in this particular case. I have come upon this puzzle late and in a peculiar manner. Being aurally-oriented to an extreme, I have had very limited exposure to the visual medium. I have watched some classical dance live, attended the occasional play, and consumed some sports on TV. But as far as visual expressions of popular art forms are concerned, I am largely ignorant. Movies, in particular, I haven’t watched for decades. This changed recently when I found myself responsible for managing senior citizens whose daily routine included a number of hours before the television....

  • By Anjum Altaf An intense discussion on foreign aid to Pakistan took place amongst a small group of individuals following the exchange on the subject between the Center for Global Development and The South Asian Idea (links to all the documents can be found at the end of this article). Here I wish to record the ideas presented in the discussion in order to refer to them at a later date. The almost universal acceptance of the extremely poor utilization of aid in Pakistan and its negative impacts on governance leave little need to repeat the evidence. This acceptance marks the starting point for the discussion under review and yields the two main topics that form the core of the debate: How can the utilization of aid be improved and how can the negative impacts of aid on governance be reversed?In order to keep the...

  • By Anjum Altaf There are incidents in the lives of big cities that call for sorrow, but once the dust clears, no lamentation and no expression of sorrow can really do a city justice. A place that is home to millions deserves better. I aim to explore the meaning of Mumbai and then return to the salience of this latest incidence of violence in the frame of that larger context. The meaning of a city like Mumbai is mirrored in a million stories. Take one, that of the renowned music director Naushad. Born in Lucknow and obsessed with music, he was given the choice between his home and his passion by his father. Naushad ran away to Bombay; the rest is history. That, however, is not the point. Even if the rest had not been history, the fact remains that Bombay was a place one could...

  • By Anjum Altaf In a discussion of the arts, it was mentioned that middle-class families in India encouraged children to learn classical music because it was a mark of high culture; it made one special in one’s esteem and in that of others. It was then asked why classical music was not healthy in Pakistan given that much the same considerations should be applicable across the border. It is my sense that the question was less an expression of belief and more an opening for a discussion and I am going to exploit that to speculate on some topics of interest. The one-word, and not altogether flippant, answer to the question is God. Hindu deities (Krishna and Saraswati, to mention just two) not only approve of but delight in music. Whether Allah approves or disapproves is still in doubt with no resolution in sight while...

  • By Anjum Altaf I wish to explain Pakistan’s long drift to the religious right while going beyond the argument that Islamism is at the root of all the country’s problems, a formulation that begs many questions: Why was Pakistan amenable to Islamism? Why this particular form of Islamism? Why with seemingly so little resistance? My focus will be on the structural factors that opened the political space first for Islam and then for Islamism while remaining cognizant of the fact that an explanation is not intended to be an excuse. Nor is it an attempt to shift blame, distinctions many are too impatient to make. The blame rests squarely on Pakistanis but that does not obviate the need for an alternative but coherent explanation of the events of the past sixty years. Pakistan was born drenched in a religious ethos. How religion acquired a salience...

  • By Bettina Robotka Dear Anjum, First, a word about that unspeakable article of Hitchens. He obviously has never lived in Pakistan and doesn’t know anything about its people in reality. Part of his argument is emotional – an emotion that is negative, an emotion of ridiculing and contempt. Whosoever has lived in Pakistan knows that the people on the ground in their majority are neither humorless nor eager to take offense, but warm, hardworking, hospitable and very much tolerant. Actually I always thought that they are too tolerant, they should take offense much earlier. I think they are not very brave in the sense that they go and risk in order to fight injustice, but that is also related to the fact that they are not individuals who think and care only about themselves and that their right and welfare was most important but they...

  • By Anjum Altaf Christopher Hitchens had offered a hypothesis in Vanity Fair that Pakistan’s problems stemmed from deep-rooted sexual repression. The evidence for this was the occurrence of honor killings, and the consequence other morbid symptoms that transformed the country into one that was “completely humorless, paranoid, insecure, eager to take offense, and suffering from self-righteousness, self-pity, and self-hatred.” Even if one were to accept the broad characterization as correct, it is difficult to take the hypothesis itself seriously. In my response, I had assumed that just a cursory consideration of the fact that honor killings occurred in India as well would have been enough to discredit the hypothesis because none of the morbid consequences are to be observed in India. However, for various reasons, that did not turn out to the case and I had to spell out the hypothesis and how it could...

  • By Anjum Altaf My response to Christopher Hitchens’ article in Vanity Fair was not well written because it got hijacked into areas that I did not intend to stress. In this post I will try and refocus the discussion on what I consider germane to the objectives of this blog, i.e., to examine a hypothesis critically in order to establish its validity. The task therefore is to describe the hypotheses proffered by Hitchens and suggest how they may be fairly tested. As part of this exercise, I am not concerned with disputing or establishing the truth of facts; the emphasis is solely on the exercise of reasoning through the arguments assuming the facts to be true. The central concern for Hitchens is the situation in Pakistan. This concern is well placed and thoroughly justified. The challenge that Hitchens assumes is to identify the most fundamental...

  • By Anjum Altaf Pakistan is like the spouse who makes one froth at the mouth and take leave of one’s senses. In the ensuing rant, it is possible to get almost all the facts right while getting the big picture almost entirely wrong, leaving one feeling, the next day, sheepish and deeply embarrassed – the real damage done, in any such fight, being to oneself. Pakistan’s latest enraged ex is Christopher Hitchens, who could not have done himself any worse damage than what he has accomplished with his ironically titled Vanity Fair blowup, “From Abbottabad to Worse.” Hitchens delivers his verdict right off the bat: Here is a society where rape is not a crime. It is a punishment. Women can be sentenced to be raped, by tribal and religious kangaroo courts, if even a rumor of their immodesty brings shame on their menfolk. In...

  • By Anjum Altaf My critique of the Center for Global Development’s report on US aid to Pakistan has elicited a comment from the authors. I appreciate their willingness to engage in a discussion and reproduce their comment in full before offering my own reactions to explain why I remain unconvinced by their arguments. The most scathing review so far of our recent report Beyond Bullets and Bombs: Fixing the U.S. Approach to Development in Pakistan, comes from Anjum Altaf, a Pakistani academic who represents this viewpoint well.He commends us for observing the poor track record donors have of pushing reform in Pakistan and the potential pitfalls inherent in the aid business. But he all but accuses us of intellectual cowardice for not following up by endorsing a total aid cut-off. Altaf concludes: “It is not aid that needs to be fixed, but the governance of the country. The...

  • By Anjum Altaf I am an Urdu speaker from Pakistan who wrote an account (From Urdu to Hindi, Farsi and Beyond) of an immensely rewarding experience of learning the Devanagari script very quickly. As a result, I have been asked to guide those wishing to cross the divide from the other side. Nothing could be more gratifying and I have decided to devote a separate post to the effort in order to have enough room to indulge myself. For those who know Hindi, the news is all good. You already know Urdu so there is really nothing to learn. Hindi and Urdu share the same Khari Boli grammar and therefore are the same language from a linguistic perspective. The branches of this common trunk have been pruned and grafted such that we think we are looking at two different species of trees. But that is...

  • By Anjum Altaf As an Urdu speaker, I had always felt it would be simple to learn Hindi and Farsi. The first shares the grammar and much of the essential vocabulary, differing only in script; the second shares the script and a considerable number of words, differing in construction of sentences and manner of speaking. My attempts to transform resolve into results yielded both confirmations and surprises and taught me something about learning, about languages, about our world and about myself. I had always believed Hindi would be easier to learn than Farsi, but not by much. I felt I could learn Hindi within a month and Farsi within six. My Hindi-speaking friends tried to disabuse me by regularly tossing alien and tough-sounding words in my direction. I kept reminding them that I was fluent in English, yet did not know the meaning of many...

  • By Anjum Altaf Beyond Bullets and Bombs is the title of the latest report on aid to Pakistan from the Center for Global Development in Washington, DC. In light of the increasingly anti-Pakistan sentiment in the U.S., the report, addressed to decision and policy makers in Washington, takes on the brief to make the best possible case for the continuation of aid. Hence the subtitle: Fixing the U.S. Approach to Development in Pakistan. The report is a revealing illustration of advocacy over analysis; a more open examination would have begun by questioning the impacts of U.S. aid to Pakistan, before deciding if the total benefits of “fixing” it exceeded the total cost to both sides. It is to the report’s credit that it is forthright and includes all the relevant pieces of information, but the way it uses that information is determined by the choice...

  • By Anjum Altaf One often gets the sense that classical music is breathing its last in Pakistan, the death throes so painful that one prays against one’s will for its quick demise. The thought of efforts aimed at its revival evoke dread rather than hope. Why not let it rest in peace? After all, the death of classical music in Pakistan will not be the death of classical music. It is alive and well in India and flourishing in the West. Even if it were not, there is now a storehouse of exquisite recordings that are infinitely more pleasurable compared to the indignities music has to endure at live performances in Pakistan. No doubt this is an extreme reaction colored by distress inflicted at a recent concert billed as a milestone on the road to resurrection. At the very least, it forces one to question...

  • By South Asian We are now in a position, having described the evidence (A Primer on Foreign Aid – 2), to discuss the less obvious dimensions of foreign aid which address issues of whether aid can be effective and under what kinds of conditions. The Effectiveness of Aid There has been much hand-wringing over the disappointing results of aid and many international conferences and meetings have been convened to devise mechanisms to increase its effectiveness. Over time many civil society activists have begun to entertain doubts about their purpose and intentions. It does not seem plausible that some of the leading minds in the world are unable to figure out the basic problems in the aid syndrome, the gross misalignment of incentives, and the vested interests that benefit from a continuation of the status quo give or take some marginal changes. On the contrary, they...

  • By South Asian With the basic definitions out of the way (A Primer on Foreign Aid – 1) we can move on to the rationale of foreign aid and its results and consequences. Rationale of Foreign Aid The rationale of foreign aid, at least in the beginning, was quite simple. It was believed that there was surplus labor in poor countries while capital was scarce and the ability to borrow commercially was limited. If enough capital transfers could be mobilized on softer terms, the process of development could be facilitated and such development would be in the interest of both the developing and the developed countries. In a nutshell, the rationale was based on the identification of two gaps – this was often called the two-gap model. It was believed that in the early stages of development, domestic savings were not enough to finance the...

  • By South Asian Foreign aid is almost always in the news, at times more than others. All sorts of questions keep swirling in the air: questions about its nature, rationale, aims, effects, results, justification, symbolism, and even about its quantum. All through this heated debate the issue remains surrounded by a thick fog of obfuscation; many remain unclear of what exactly is being talked about. In this post, I intend to present a primer on foreign aid. Each of the opinions offered in the following sections can be contested; the aim is not to provide a definitive conclusion but to set the stage for an informed debate that employs common definitions and a shared point of departure. Aid as a Transfer of Resources Since almost every resource can be translated into a monetary equivalent we can simplify this discussion by thinking only in terms of...

  • By Anjum Altaf Opinion is divided between those who assert the ISI knew where Osama was hiding and those who believe it didn’t. This way of framing the situation obscures what might be the reality. Some months back, before the discovery of Osama, I was reading a book in which the author narrates a discussion with a Pakistani, now an ambassador, that took place towards the end of the Musharraf period when the interviewee was out of favor. A remark attributed to the Pakistani left such an impression that I repeated it to as many people as I had occasion to between then  and the discovery of Osama next to the military academy at Kakul. I don’t have the book with me now but the following was the gist of the exchange: The Pakistani was asked if Osama was in Pakistan. I have quite forgotten...

  • By Anjum Altaf What can the affair of Dominique Strauss-Kahn tell us about stereotyping and our biases? I intend to present for discussion five biases pertaining to religion, nationality, gender, communalism and civilization. Religion Imagine a role reversal in which the man who allegedly emerged naked from the bathroom of a $3,000 a night hotel room in Manhattan had been an Arab Sheikh who attempted to flee after the incident and the maid who was allegedly pounced upon, dragged around and forced to perform oral sex had been a French Jew. Would the media coverage, including the commentary on the blogosphere, have been the same? Or would religion have been a much bigger issue, with extensions to its relationship to the oppression of women, respect for law, the clash of civilizations, and latent hostility to Judaism? It is impossible to say for sure but it...

  • 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...

  • 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.

  • 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. The word ‘precursor’...

  • By Anjum Altaf Patriarchy is the name given to social arrangements that privilege men and subordinate women. The desired end for many is an egalitarian structure that does away with gender bias. There are some obvious and some not-so-obvious facets of patriarchy and its contestation. In this article I will explore some of these with reference to Pakistan. I hope readers from other countries in South Asia would add to the discussion with observations rooted in their own realities. The most obvious point is that patriarchy is real. Its forms cover the entire range of gender relations. There are still places in Pakistan, I am told though I cannot vouch for it personally, where women are treated as property and bartered for various purposes.I do know for certain of women who have internalized patriarchy to the extent that its weakening makes them insecure, the lessening...

  • There is a set of people in every country who are called the ‘poor’ and the ‘non-poor’ have quite contradictory assumptions about them. For example, despite ample evidence it is considered politically incorrect to say that the ‘poor’ trade their votes because the entire legitimacy of representative government rests on responsible voting behavior. Yet, the same people often say that the ‘poor’ do not know how to spend their money; they waste their income on inessentials ignoring higher priority needs of food, health and education. Hence, policymakers recommend the ‘poor’ be given ration supplements or food vouchers instead of equivalent cash transfers. The question is inescapable: Are the ‘poor’ rational or irrational? How can the same set of people be rational in one domain and irrational in another?

  • By Anjum Altaf In Himal Southasian Magazine, May 2011 It is an irony that the most significant enemy of history books is history itself, books being frozen at a moment in time while history continues its relentless march – eventually mocking, more often than not, the certainties of an earlier age. Historical accounts that rely on cultural or psychological constructs for explanations are particularly exposed to this danger, as any number of outdated verdicts can illustrate – the opium-eating Chinese, the Hindu rate of growth, the fatalistic Arabs, to name just a few. The senior journalist M J Akbar thus takes on a large challenge when he sets up his chase to identify the villain of the piece in this new book, billed as ‘historical whodunit to trace the journey of an idea … that divided India.’Akbar repeatedly points to what he calls Pakistan’s ‘DNA’...

  • By Anjum Altaf What exactly is India’s Pakistan policy? For years (decades, really) I have puzzled this over without being able to discern anything coherent. True, I am not privy to the inner councils of the Indian establishment but backward induction from observed actions does not seem to suggest I am grossly mistaken. The Pakistani establishment, by contrast, has a very clear India policy: keep the pot boiling, engineering an incident when needed; bleed by a thousand cuts with the bleeding outsourced to third parties; shore up domestic support by transforming education and information into indoctrination; and minimize public contact across borders to prevent any erosion of the mythology. India’s policy, at best, could be characterized as a reactive tit-for-tat illustrated poignantly by the exchange of helpless fishermen released from time to time by both sides after having languished pointlessly in jails for years. Yes,...

  • By Anjum Altaf We have the opportunity to improve our understanding of corruption, democracy and the relationship between them by examining critically the views of Professor Neera Chandhoke outlined recently in connection with the Anna Hazare campaign. In The Seeds of Authoritarianism, Chandhoke articulates two fundamental positions. First, the establishment of a Jan Lokpal is not democratic and carries within it the seeds of authoritarianism. Although Singapore has controlled corruption, it is not a preferred model because it ‘does not respect the two prime fundamentals of democracy as India does: popular sovereignty and the equal moral status of citizens.’ Therefore, corruption in India needs to be addressed within the procedures and norms mandated in the Constitution. Second, Anna Hazare’s political beliefs are questionable because he has expressed a low opinion of the voter by saying that some sell their votes; contempt for the voter defies...

  • By Anjum Altaf Shahid Afridi’s perceptions of Indians and India are now common knowledge. On the way out of the airport returning from Mohali, he said: “I can’t understand the approach of people, why we are against India? Why there is so much hate for India when we have Indian dramas played in every home, our marriage celebrations are done in Indian style, we watch all Indian movies then why to hate them?” A couple of days later, he said: “In my opinion, if I have to tell the truth, they will never have hearts like Muslims and Pakistanis. I don’t think they have the large and clean hearts that Allah has given us.” Given the short half-life of such episodes much of the hullabaloo has disappeared. It is time now to move beyond scoring points and to see if some more interesting aspects can...

  • There are two aspects of an argument: its content and its construction. On this blog our focus is almost entirely on the latter; the only reason we have content is that we cannot do without it to construct an argument – an argument has to be about something. However, we have no material or emotional stake in the content; it is just a means to an end. In this post we explore in more detail the specifics of the end we have in mind. There are at least three attributes of the construction of an argument that are critical: Credibility (whether the argument is supported by evidence); Coherence (whether the argument meets the tests of logic); and Consistency (whether the argument is free of contradictions). In order to illustrate these attributes we will resort to content provided by a participant in an earlier discussion. The...

  • By Anjum Altaf Prayer, superstition, luck, talent, effort, unity, professionalism – what was it that won the Cricket World Cup in the end? I am reasonably convinced it was some combination of the last five; all the more reason for a fascination with the first two that were so visibly on display. What exactly is the role of prayer and superstition in our lives? Why do we resort to these devices? How seriously are we to take them? Are they harmful or harmless? A whole host of questions wait to be asked and addressed. At one level, there is a simple explanation. Any endeavor where the stakes are high and the outcome depends on some element of chance gives rise to nervousness and anxiety. And these feelings need to be assuaged. While participants in the endeavor can focus on the rigors of preparation and the...

  • By Ishtiaq Ahmed I am a long-time resident in Sweden where I have been living since September 1973. When the initial euphoria of living in a new place subsided and life assumed some sort of normality, it began to dawn upon me that I shared the distinction of longing for a very special place on earth which has a global following: Lahore, the city of my birth. It does not matter if the decision to leave was economic or political, voluntary or under duress and threat. For most old residents of this city, sooner or later, Lahore comes back in their lives as the centrepiece of a personal pride. The mystique of Lahore is special and grows on one with every passing year. In Stockholm, a core Lahore connection has served as the basis of a continuous monthly rotating all-evening social get-together since 1991. It...

  • By Sakuntala Narasimhan A visit to our neighbouring country brings memories that are reminiscent of our own land Day 1: I have three hours to kill between the time I check into my hotel room in Islamabad, and the commencement of the conference I have come to attend. I turn on the TV, lean back and glance through the day’s newspapers.  And suddenly, the border between India and Pakistan that I thought I had crossed somewhere along the flight between Delhi and Lahore, seems blurred, almost non-existent, as I take in the media images. Sugar mills in Pakistan are in trouble, a news item says, because of falling prices caused by subsidised imports. This could be anywhere in the developing world, where imports from the developed nations kill indigenous earnings, thanks to. WTO and  ‘market liberalisation’. There is also a prominent report about severe shortages...

  • By Anjum Altaf Cricket is emblematic of South Asia. It distinguishes the region qua region from almost anywhere else – East Asia, West Asia, Africa, the Americas, Europe. So at this time when three of the four teams in the World Cup semifinals are South Asian, it is opportune to wrap some thoughts about risk, strategy and design in the metaphor of cricket. In an earlier article (Achievement and Risk-taking) written quite some time back, I had used illustrations from cricket to make the point that the propensity of an individual to take risks is not a function of personality but an outcome of strategic calculation. In other words, individuals are not born with a given attitude towards risk; they can decide when it makes sense to be cautious or bold. I have now found an academic presentation of this perspective. In A Primer on...

  • By Anjum Altaf The title of Gautam Adhikari’s new book, The Intolerant Indian, is intended to be provocative and it might indeed provoke those who go just by titles. Anyone reading the book though is more likely to be puzzled. The subject is important no doubt – the extent of conflict fueled by the inability to agree is increasing – and so the intent to provoke a debate is laudable. But the manner in which the debate is framed is likely to generate more heat than light thereby threatening to inflame the very intolerance it aims to subdue. The book starts off on the wrong foot right from the Preface by choosing an ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’ frame in which to locate the moral argument: I just wanted to talk about those of our compatriots who did not seem to appreciate the idea of pluralist tolerance,...

  • By Anjum Altaf The following is the issue: If a South Asian were introduced to, say, a first-time visitor from Norway with the preamble “He/She is a liberal,” would the Norwegian be able to guess correctly where the South Asian might stand on a number of salient policy issues? I expressed my doubts in an earlier article (The Peculiar Nature of the Pakistani Liberal) that concluded as follows: “On closer examination, the Pakistani liberal turns out to be a breed apart. The easy transfer of ideological labels – “conservative,” “liberal,” “progressive,” “reactionary” – across political and social contexts obscures the nuances and complexities necessary for understanding the juncture at which we have arrived in Pakistan today.” To be useful, a label has to convey an accurate representation of reality and many of the labels we use in South Asia today fail this test.I wish to...

  • By Anjum Altaf The “West” versus the “East,” the “West” versus “Islam” – there is much talk of the clash of cultures in these ideologically charged times. Yet, there is as much confusion about the understanding of culture itself. If we are to be clear about the nature of the conflict, we need to first define what the argument is about. Culture as a thing in itself: “the power of culture” Culture has many dimensions and meanings – we can talk of the power of culture as well as of the culture of power – and some of the meanings have altered over time. In its original sense the notion was applied to humans as it was to the earth, the equivalent of agriculture – a way of cultivating the mind akin to cultivating the soil. It was common to speak of a cultured person...

  • By Anjum Altaf In response to a question asking why Faiz Ahmad Faiz was so much more popular then other, clearly ‘better,’ poets, I had argued (here and here) that we should enjoy poets on their own terms and not bother overmuch with ranking them. Comparisons being difficult, I used a metaphor from music to suggest some of the ways in which poets differ – while Faiz could be considered a poet of the vilambit, Ghalib was one of the drut, and it makes as little sense to compare Faiz and Ghalib as it does to compare a vilambit to a drut. I am aware that the argument can be pushed: Can we not compare poets of the vilambit or of the drut to elucidate what might be involved in such comparisons? I am faced with that challenge from a reader: I would find it...

  • By Dipankar Gupta The fundamental law of politics is that rulers act and the ruled react. This truth has held in all hitherto existing societies: it is carbon dated, weather proofed and tropicalized. The difference democracy makes is that it lets the people judge its leaders, but only after they have already acted. When an elected leader advocates a policy in the name of popular will, it nearly always is a big lie. By using people as a cover, ugly politicians have found happiness in parliaments everywhere. The sentiments of the people count when they are asked to judge a policy on Election Day. While votes do matter, they are always cast after the political act has taken place; never before it.A good democracy is that democracy where the electorate can take informed decisions when voting. They are never the architects of policy though clever...

  • By Dipankar Gupta Editor’s Note: Professor Dipankar Gupta has forwarded two articles to contribute to the debate on helping the poor that was initiated in the previous post on this blog. This is the first of the two articles. The second would be posted subsequently. The best way to fight poverty is not to plan for the poor. The moment one singles them out for special services, absurdities, and worse, begin to abound. This is especially true when their numbers are large. Targeted policies work best when they are aimed at a small minority. It is not possible to have special programmes that affect anything between 50% to 70% of the population. In which case, one might as well have a revolution! If that is a death wish that no functioning republic would like to entertain, then it should think differently about poverty. As poor...

  • By Anjum Altaf Between the idea and the reality, Eliot wrote, falls the shadow. The phrase is so well known as to be almost cliché, but as with many clichés, there is truth to it. There is universality, too – the metaphor could extend to many areas; there are shadows everywhere. Foreign aid, for example: there is the idea and the reality, the theory and the practice, the intent and the execution. The theory of foreign aid is simple enough: If those lacking capital and technology and ideas were provided with such, they could be launched on the path of progress. In practice it has rarely ever worked like that – there is more to the equation than capital and technology and ideas. There is the shadow that falls between the theory and the results, a shadow full of objectives stated and unstated, incentives of...

  • Many years ago there was a movie in which the stereotypical semi-pathetic, semi-comic character was assigned a stock phrase (takia kalaam) that he repeated with regularity – kaash maiN Hong Kong meN paida hota (I wish I were born in Hong Kong). Hong Kong was a success story and thus attractive to an impecunious South Asian dropout. It was also not part of China then; no right-minded person even in the sluggish South Asia of the times would have wished to be born in the China of those days. How times have changed. Hong Kong has been reclaimed by China and China itself is a place that dazzles most visitors. The Chinese model of authoritarian politics and market economics has begun to draw admiring attention in many quarters.

  • By Ibn-e Eusuf I often think about the transformation from Indo-Pak to Af-Pak – from being part of a civilization to being part of a problem. Nothing more needs be said except that the transformation was not accidental; it was deliberately engineered and therefore involved winners and losers. I will leave readers to mull over who won and who lost in the process. I wish to focus in this essay not on the past but on the future, on the nature of the problem represented by this Af-Pak pairing. What exactly is it that is common to Afghanistan and Pakistan and what does it mean for the people living in the two countries? I owe the analysis on which this essay rests to a coffee house discussion on Pakistan with a friend; the extension to Af-Pak is mine and I am open to being challenged...

  • By Sakuntala Narasimhan “So how was your trip to Karachi? How was the conference?” my friends back home in India asked, when I returned to Bangalore after a week in Pakistan. Good? Bad? In trying to choose a short answer I find myself stumped. The second question is easier to answer – the three day conference was a fruitful, enriching, and enjoyable experience, as we interacted with artistes, activists from the arts, writers and academics from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Germany, UK and USA discussing the interfaces between politics, performing arts and gender. We exchanged ideas and experiences on the use of music, theatre and dance, as well as films and television, as vehicles for creating social awareness (with an overarching emphasis on gender because the NGO, Tehrik-e-Niswan, which had organised the event, worked for the promotion of gender equity). The conference was good. The process...

  • 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...

  • By Anjum Altaf In a recent article (The Music of Poetry), I argued that it didn’t make sense to ask if one poet was greater than another. The musical metaphor I attempted proved to be the undoing of the piece; perhaps I should have tried a different metaphor – it would be silly, for example, to ask if Tendulkar is “greater” than Muralitharan, though both are cricketers. The reason is obvious, the one being a batsman and the other a bowler. My conclusion was simply that we should place less emphasis on “greatness,” however defined, and focus instead on the pleasure that comes from a given work. The use of a cricketing metaphor, however, adds another point to the argument. In cricket, statistics are available for comparison in a way impossible for poetry or music, but even then the matter is not as simple as...

  • By Pilid Lao Today’s Supreme Court decision in Prafull Goradia v. Union of India is ludicrous to say the least. The question was straightforward and simple: whether a government grant funded by taxpayer money violates the proscription of Art. 27 against state fostering religious activity. Article 27 of the Constitution of India states: No person shall be compelled to pay any taxes, the proceeds of which are specifically appropriated in payment of expenses for the promotion or maintenance of any particular religion or religious denomination. The Court proclaimed that it would only amount to such a violation if a “substantial part of tax payer money” is used to promote religious activity: In our opinion Article 27 would be violated if a substantial part of the entire income tax collected in India, or a substantial part of the entire central excise or the customs duties or...

  • By Anjum Altaf For many years, I sat with a teacher of Hindustani classical music, not learning myself, but watching him explain the complexities of the art to others. When guiding a student through the vilambit phase of a raga, the teacher instructed him to envision a child asleep: the singer should aspire to pouring honey into the child’s ear, to give it the sweetest possible dreams without waking it up. (Translating this instruction into English deprives it of much of its charm, unfortunately.) Once the student began the drut phase, the instructions underwent a dramatic change. In the drut, the listener must be kept awake and engaged, unable to turn away from the music. Instead of vilambit-style vistaars, the singer was told to use sargams and taans, to be like a firecracker. The two parts of the raga are completely different, as are the...

  • By Anjum Altaf There are two theses about South Asia that I keep returning to often and feel strongly about – that democracy is alien to South Asia and that the British period was epiphenomenal. But I haven’t been able to bring the two together to my satisfaction. Oddly enough, it was a column on mathematics (Finding Your Roots) that suggested a way out of the quandary. In hindsight, it doesn’t seem all that odd; what I needed was a different paradigm, a new way of looking at my problem. Let me first lay out the two theses. The claim that democracy is alien to South Asia was articulated clearly and early by Dr. Ambedkar and I have quoted him frequently to that effect: “Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic” and “In politics we will be...

  • By Anjum Altaf I made the argument in an earlier post (The Peculiar Nature of the Pakistani Liberal) that the political debate in South Asia is confused because we have borrowed labels – “conservative,” “liberal,” “progressive,” “reactionary” – from the discourse of the European Enlightenment without adapting them to the local context. My intent was to follow up and attempt a more nuanced portrait of an individual who would be loosely identified as a liberal in Pakistan today. I realize now that in doing so I would have to negotiate through the tricky terrain of secularism, which, like the others, is a concept that has suffered much distortion in South Asia. Therefore, I need first to state clearly how I understand secularism before I move ahead to discuss how South Asian ‘liberals’ or ‘conservatives’ relate to it. The interpretation of secularism varies even within South...

  • By Anjum Altaf Like no other political assassination in Pakistan, the recent brutal murder of Salman Taseer should throw into sharp relief the nature of the Pakistani liberal, a condition whose complexities and conflicts belie the simple narratives reflected in headlines like “Pakistani reformer dead” or “Setback for liberals in Pakistan.” Salman Taseer reflected the essence of a certain segment of Pakistani liberaldom – liberals who are highly educated, articulate, erudite, dynamic, successful, affluent and well connected. It is from this group that the most could have been expected in the struggle for reform, but they have been marginalized to the point of irrelevance.  Seen through the lens of conflicted loyalties and aspirations, this phenomenon becomes less opaque: No matter how progressive, the stereotypical liberal harbors a visceral antipathy for the “enemies of Islam,” which leads to knee-jerk responses blind to what is progressive or...

  • A friend introduced me to the notion of a ‘chewing-gum’ concept – one that has the flexibility to be stretched or shrunk as needed to suit the context. This immediately solved a problem that had been vexing me for months. The problem was the following: I had been toying with launching local language versions of this blog but had found myself stymied by the challenge of translating meaningfully its name – The South Asian Idea. What had come so naturally in English turned into an impossible task in, say, Hindi or Urdu. There were two questions here: why was the task proving to be difficult and what was to do be done about it?

  • By Anjum Altaf There are two ways to make the point that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will not be met in Pakistan. One can offer analytical reasons in support or place a large bet on the outcome. Given that Pakistanis are presently swayed more by spot bets than appeals to reason, I am willing to wager Rupees 10 lakhs on the MDGs remaining unmet by their designated end date of 2015. I hope there are some who will wonder why I am willing to risk my money on this bet. To them I will present some very obvious and some not so obvious reasons for my pessimism as a Pakistani and optimism as a bettor. The very obvious reason is easy to get out of the way. I doubt if there is anyone who believes that our governors are serious about MDGs or have...

  • By Anjum Altaf Some years back I had written an article the main message of which was the following: The market is indeed a wonderful mechanism but it exists to serve humanity and not to enslave it. I wish to resurrect some of the arguments in the context of the recent discussion on the appropriate medium of instruction for early education in South Asia (On Being Stupid in English). I found it ironical that a case was made for early education in English because in India untold millions are clamoring for English. In the post I had referred to an earlier article (Macaulay’s Stepchildren) to record that Lord Macaulay had used exactly the same argument in 1835 to support the use of English as the medium of instruction in India – in his view the superiority of English was evidenced by a strong desire for...

  • By Anjum Altaf Learning a language and learning in a language are two very different things and not recognizing the distinction has a very high social cost. I thought of this once again on coming across a news item that the Punjab Government School Education Department had converted thousands of its schools into English medium all over the province from April 2010. The motivation for the move is stated to be “a bid to bring the quality of education in government-run schools on a par with private English medium schools.” The issue of the language of instruction, like many other issues in Pakistan, has been hanging fire since the creation of the country, switching back and forth at the whim of individuals seemingly without recourse to any scientific evidence or critical thinking. No one has computed the costs imposed on society by the absence of...

  • We argued in the preceding post (Analysis: Vision and Management) that a country cannot prosper without a national vision and concluded with the following questions: What is the national vision in Pakistan? And, are our problems getting worse precisely because of the absence of a national vision? It is a coincidence to find an entry that enables us to continue this discussion – a column by Shahid Javed Burki who is among the leading commentators on economic issues in Pakistan. I will quote the introduction to the column before picking up on the issues of interest to us:

  • Can Pakistan, or any country for that matter, prosper simply on good management without a national vision? This question is prompted by a recent column of Irfan Husain in which he makes such a claim: In Benazir Bhutto`s first term, the late Eqbal Ahmed bemoaned her lack of vision. I replied that rather than a visionary, we needed a good manager at the helm. We argued about this, as we often did over other issues, without either of us convincing the other. I still believe that good, solid management is more important than having a grand vision that is not translated into reality. After all, we know what our problems are; what we need is a team that sets about solving them in a serious and effective way.

  • I found our discussion on values and behavior (On Religion as an Individual Code of Behavior) particularly useful. Here I wish to summarize my conclusions and illustrate the arguments further with reference to the ongoing changes in attitude towards the institution of marriage. The principal conclusions are the following: Moral values and related behaviors are not static. They can often change with surprising rapidity. The possibility of change can be triggered by any number of reasons – wars, famines, technology, etc. The changes are usually advocated by a small group of opinion leaders or role models and adopted by a small set of social rebels or dissidents. Wide adoption by people who may or may not have thought consciously about the values result in the changes being incorporated at the level of society. Variations in behavior become acceptable when social taboos erode and often a...

  • Reading a 1956 interview with the writer William Faulkner, I gained an insight into religion that I wish to share with readers. In order to set the context for Faulkner’s remarks, I will reproduce a section of the interview and then focus on the part that triggered the new thought in my mind. INTERVIEWER: Are there any artistic advantages in casting the novel in the form of an allegory, as the Christian allegory you used in A Fable? FAULKNER: Same advantage the carpenter finds in building square corners in order to build a square house. In A Fable, the Christian allegory was the right allegory to use in that particular story, like an oblong, square corner is the right corner with which to build an oblong, rectangular house.

  • By Anjum Altaf What’s happening in Karachi is obvious for all to see. Why it’s happening is less obvious and, for that reason, the cause of much speculation. Karachi’s ills are complex in nature and beyond the stage of simple prescriptions. This article looks at only one dimension of the problem: Why and how have conflicts in the city taken an increasingly religious form? For that, it is necessary to look at events that took place many years ago outside the city itself. It is often the case that the present cannot be explained fully without recourse to seemingly unrelated events that occurred in other places in the past. An article I came across recently highlights an important link between the small town and the big city that is relevant to explaining the nature of the ongoing conflict in Karachi. The article (The Mulla and...

  • By Anjum Altaf City size is back in fashion as a variable of interest and this time bigness is being viewed as an advantage. This is quite a change from the perspective that prevailed for years when countries, specially developing ones, were decidedly anti-urban and wished to retard migration to prevent cities from increasing in size. Size was seen as a handicap and served as an excuse to explain away the problems of big cities. How should we see Karachi in this new perspective? Of course, well-managed big cities have been around for a long time – Tokyo, New York and London are obvious examples. But somehow it was felt that such success could not be replicated in developing countries.The blame was always placed at the door of mismanagement though it was never adequately explained why such mismanagement was so endemic to developing countries and...

  • By Ibn-e Eusuf Sometimes I wish I could afford a few assistants devoted to scouring the Pakistani media on a daily basis. In short order one could have a book called Bizzaristan comprised of the fantastical workings of the minds of Pakistan’s rulers and managers. Alas, I can’t so I will confine myself to reporting on the occasional item that is particularly revelatory of the way in which we are ruled and governed. A news item informs us that following a charge of incompetence, the principal administrative officer (DCO) of the leading district in the leading province of the country has been transferred and appointed as the Chief Economist of the Provincial Planning and Development Board (PDB). The Chief Economist’s job includes supervision of the economic affairs of the province, framing of economic policies, analysis and formulation of strategies, and planning and development. The rules...

  • 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. We have highlighted the uniqueness of Indian democracy a number of times; it is serving the function that was performed in Europe by the social revolutions that preceded the introduction...

  • By Anjum Altaf In this post, I will continue to use data from international games to weave another narrative that employs this particular lens to locate India on the global map. We have already used results from the Asian and Commonwealth Games to establish the fact that India’s performance has been improving steadily and it has been moving up in the rankings. We have also shown that the contribution of women has become a significant contributor to this progress. We will now use data from the Olympic Games to put this progress in context. The following table shows the performance of India, Pakistan and China, respectively in the Olympic Games competition from 1984 to 2008. The starting point is chosen as it was the year China first participated in the Games. Year Total Number of Medals India Pakistan China 1984 0 1 32 1988 0...

  • By Anjum Altaf In dealing with a problem, or a phenomenon in general, three steps are essential: identification, explanation, and prediction. Central to all three are the facts or the data that are employed in the analysis. It is the data that often proves to be the most problematic part of the process and confounds identification, enables misdiagnosis, and generates poor prognosis. And that, I will explain later, is why I care about games. Identification is important because it specifies the issue one is interested in but personally I find explanations more fascinating. The same set of facts can yield multiple explanations – call them narratives or histories if you will – and it is an intellectual challenge to determine which of the histories is the most robust or the most impervious to criticism.Predictions don’t yield the same satisfaction if only because often one has...

  • The Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) is an institution of learning so it is entirely appropriate to try and learn from the discussion that has ensued following publication of the observations of an outsider (Professor Howard Schweber from the University of Wisconsin at Madison) who taught political theory at LUMS this past summer. The discussion (accessible on this blog following Professor Schweber’s article, What are Pakistani College Students All About?) is largely defensive in character and critical of the author who is labeled, among other things, as ethnocentric and arrogant and accused of generalizing from a very small sample. The tenor of the response itself provides an entry into some aspects of the learning process that I wish to elaborate in this post.

  • By Vikram Garg Eviction and ‘Notification’ How do you subjugate a continent of humanity? For the British colonialists, the answer was ruthless aggression. Between 1774 and 1871, the British engaged the various Indian states in a sequence of brutal wars, known collectively as the Anglo-Indian wars [1]. These wars not only set the stage for the colonial occupation of India, but in many cases also resulted in vast, settled populations becoming nomads in their own land [2]. Displaced from the ‘mainstream’ of society, many of these nomads and tribes sought revenge. What was the British response? In 1871, the Criminal Tribes Act was passed. The Act notified certain tribes as being “addicted to the systematic commission of non-bailable offenses” [3]. Examples included, the Boyas and Dongas of Tamil Nadu, and the Bedras of Maharashtra, all of whom had risen up in rebellion against the occupation...

  • By Howard Schweber After spending a summer teaching political theory to Pakistani college students, I can confidently make two assertions:  they are just like all the other college students I have known, and they are not at all like the other college students I have known.  Beyond that, I found puzzles and mysteries. My first impression of Pakistani students was that they are … well, just college students.  How utterly, disappointingly unexotic.  Grade-conscious careerists, canny manipulators of the system, highly competitive … future engineers and finance majors. But there are some differences, after all.  That word “elite” comes into play, here. In the U.S., no college student would describe him or herself as “elite” – that word is primarily reserved for use as a political insult.  Americans, notoriously, valorize the idea of belonging to “the middle class,” sometimes to a ludicrous degree.  Pakistani students have no...

  • By Anjum Altaf and Samia Altaf This op-ed appeared in Dawn, Karachi, on October 18, 2010. It is being reproduced here with permission of the authors in order to provide a forum for feedback, comments, and discussion. Parallels with other countries in South Asia would be particularly welcome. Pakistan’s public education system is sick and getting sicker. But what exactly is the malady? We employ this medical perspective to highlight the issues and to propose for consideration a radical yet feasible path to recovery. The health care perspective comprises three essential steps: a description of the problem; a diagnosis of the cause; and a prescription of the remedy. In the case of public education in Pakistan there has been no diagnosis, only descriptions and prescriptions.No wonder the health of the system has continued to deteriorate despite the numerous policy prescriptions over the years. The problem...

  • And Why It Matters Suresh Kalmadi has something to answer for to the Indian people for the chaotic run up to the Commonwealth Games. But given his belligerent stance it seems he feels he doesn’t have to. This would not be a surprise because in India many have gotten away with much more. What I do find surprising, however, is that he has not even been called up for something that, in my view, no one should be allowed to get away with in this day and age. With reference to the lack of spectators at the Games, Kalmadi is reported to have said: “We are working on the children from schools, already steps have been taken in that direction…. And also from the low level of society, we have been distributing a lot of tickets.” What is this about the “low level of society”...

  • By Anjum Altaf At the conclusion of the 2006 Asian Games I had written an article (Pakistan: A Downward Spiral) using performance in sports as an objective indicator of the structural changes that could have been taking place over the years in China, India, and Pakistan, respectively. The indicator pointed to a stunning improvement in China, an upward trend in India after a period of stagnation, and a steep decline in Pakistan. Readers questioned the validity of the indicator but offered nothing better as an alternative. Given how cavalier people are in their comparisons between India and Pakistan, using broad generalizations of poverty and corruption to dismiss the diverging trends in the two countries, I continue to believe the indicator yields valuable insights to those who wish to face facts rather than deny reality. In order to push the discussion further, I am presenting here...

  • Mirror, Mirror on the Wall / Who is the Fittest of Us All? The question, starkly posed, could be the following: Which country, India or Pakistan, has the better chance of survival, and why? In fact, the question is just an artifact to extend a discussion we have been having on this blog about the relationship of tolerance to survival. Our engagement with the issue has been at the very basic level of understanding but the very fact that we have been debating it leads us on to better and more sophisticated arguments. This, I strongly believe, is the beneficial outcome of discussions and conversations on a blog like this.

  • From A’daab → Khuda Hafiz → Allah Hafiz – How cultural expressions are transformed? By Ahmed Kamran We have seen in Part 4 how by the time Pakistan was formed the die was already cast. Let’s see how we continued to sink further into intolerance and religious bigotry declaring more of us as Kafirs and non-Muslims. How the long journey that we collectively embarked upon on this Bypass is clearly leading us through barren and desolate cultural landscapes to eventual self-destruction. The question is: Is there an exit available on this Cultural Bypass? After a long colonial occupation, India was declared independent and a new country, Pakistan, specially carved out of the majority Muslim areas of India emerged on the world’s map in August 1947 amidst human blood flowing in the streets and fires burning from the houses. Even highly conservative estimates put the number...

  • By Anjum Altaf There has been a radical shift in the global consensus on urbanization. Till very recently India shared the anti-urban bias of most developing countries – the conclusion of a major 2004 study was that “most problems should be easier to manage if urban population growth is slowed.” Now urbanization is in fashion and cities are being touted as engines of growth. A 2010 McKinsey report begins with the statement that ‘urbanization is critical to India’s development’ and the government has launched the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) to support this vision. India’s urban population is projected to increase from 340 million in 2008 to 590 million in 2030.  With this post I hope to initiate a discussion of some of the likely dimensions and implications of this increase. Would cities really play a dynamic role in economic growth or would...

  • By Anjum Altaf I received the following announcement from the Pakistan Solidarity Network in connection with a teach-in planned in New York on Friday, September 17, 2010. The Urgent Need for Solidarity With Pakistan’s Flood Victims Even as Americans revisit the lingering destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina, half a world away Pakistan is experiencing one of the most calamitous disasters in recent memory. Nearly 20 million people have been directly affected. More than 8 million need urgent aid. 800,000 people are stranded. A full 14 million people across the country are now homeless. The country’s infrastructure, already in disrepair, has been simply washed away. As with so many natural disasters we’ve seen in recent years, this tragedy too is carved out of a history of unsustainable policies. Years of neoliberal economic policies and militarism have stripped the Pakistani State of its capacity to meet the...

  • By Anjum Altaf In the last installment we introduced the classification scheme in which the ragas of Hindustani classical music are grouped into ten parent families called thaats. Little is to be gained by my describing these thaats and listing the ragas that belong to each; this information is now readily available on scores of websites (one relevant to this topic is here). I prefer to share my own explorations of this schema in the hope that some readers would come up with insights that have eluded me thus far. Personally, and this is surely a function of my ignorance, I haven’t found the schema to be of much use (because of its many exceptions) asides from the help it provides in identifying closely related ragas.For example, I know that Darbari, Adana and Jaunpuri are aesthetically similar because they have all been grouped under Asavari...

  • From A’daab → Khuda Hafiz → Allah Hafiz – How cultural expressions are transformed? By Ahmed Kamran In the previous three parts (here, here and here) we examined the long journey of Indian Muslims from the inception of a great common Indo-Persian culture in the 13th century to its political isolation especially by the end of 1930’s. By the time British rulers were fully engaged in World War 2, Muslims, with an acute sense of their separate identity that developed particularly in the backdrop of political events during 1920’s and 1930’s, were about to embark on a collision course with rest of the Indian people. Let’s discuss the key drivers of this great sea change in Indian politics as the British prepared to leave an independent India in the hands of indigenous people. As noted by South Asian in a separate post on this Weblog,...

  • 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. I wish to explore this proposition in this post. My starting point is to assert that in an ideal world, the best course for...

  • From A’daab → Khuda Hafiz → Allah Hafiz – How cultural expressions are transformed? By Ahmed Kamran In Parts 1 & 2 we discussed an Indo-Persian culture that evolved in India, and how this Ganga-Jamni Tehzib responded to the collapse of Muslim political power and the rise of European powers. We have seen how the frustration of the Muslim intelligentsia gave rise to an aggressive Jihad culture and an inverse reflection led it to the pursuit of modern knowledge and secular progress. Let’s see how Indian Muslims slowly drifted towards a new path of social and political isolation. In the face of all-round defeat and damage to the past glory of Muslims all over the world, Altaf Hussain Hali’s Mussadas was probably the first modern and powerful literary expression of harking back to the simple and no-frills life of early Islam in Arabia – implicitly...

  • By Anjum Altaf If there were a last few shreds of respect clinging to the body of the Pakistani state the floods have washed them away. The state stands naked and drenched in its helplessness. The real question, however, is the following: Why did we ever believe that there were some redeeming shreds in the first place? The state has been naked for a long time. Just put your ear to the ground – millions of echoes and re-echoes will reverberate and deliver the judgment without an iota of misgiving: “All our rulers are thieves.” If there has been any one overwhelming sentiment in Pakistan, it is this: its rulers, one and all, have been, and are, knaves and rascals who do not have the welfare of the citizens at heart. What has Pakistani civil society done with this verdict delivered with such unanimity and...

  • By Anjum Altaf If there were a last few shreds of respect clinging to the body of the Pakistani state the floods have washed them away. The state stands naked and drenched in its helplessness. The real question, however, is the following: Why did we ever believe that there were some redeeming shreds in the first place? The state has been naked for a long time. Just put your ear to the ground – millions of echoes and re-echoes will reverberate and deliver the judgment without an iota of misgiving: “All our rulers are thieves.” If there has been any one overwhelming sentiment in Pakistan, it is this: its rulers, one and all, have been, and are, knaves and rascals who do not have the welfare of the citizens at heart. What has Pakistani civil society done with this verdict delivered with such unanimity and...

  • By Anjum Altaf If you read the last installment you would have picked up a clue to what a raga is about. Keep five swaras (S g M d n) in the air and you are beginning to work with the raga Malkauns. Ergo, it seems reasonable to infer that if you picked a different set of swaras, you would be working with a different raga. Of course, sculpting a fine raga out of these building blocks requires a few more details that we will discuss later but this is a good enough point to start. However, if we proceed in this ad hoc way, we would be able to list lot of ragas but we would miss out on the schema that organizes the large number of ragas into more manageable sets. In particular, we would miss out entirely on identifying ragas that are...

  • By Anjum Altaf I hope you have watched the video clip I linked in the last installment. If not, I will urge you to do so now because what you will be watching is a visual demonstration of Hindustani classical music. This video will enrich your understanding of classical music more than any number of words. Let me explain. What you are watching is an incredibly skilled performer who can keep three balls in the air for an extended period all the while creating new and intricate patterns that are non-repetitive. This is an output that rests on an enormous amount of training and endless hours of regular practice. To appreciate the performance you have to keep your eyes open and focused on the patterns made by the balls. And the response that it evokes is less one of entertainment and more one of awe...

  • From A’daab → Khuda Hafiz → Allah Hafiz – How cultural expressions are transformed? By Ahmed Kamran In Part-1 of this discussion we briefly traced how a highly tolerant Indo-Persian culture, a Ganga-Jamni Tehzib, emerged in India over many centuries of interaction between a Muslim Persian empire and a rich Indian civilization before the advent of European powers in India and the spread of their influence in our intellectual and cultural life. Let’s now see how particularly the Muslim thought process in this Ganga-Jamni culture responded to the disrupting influences of the English ascendency. None of the Muslim invaders or rulers of India, starting from Mehmud Ghaznavi and Shahabuddin Muhammad Ghori and the first permanent Muslim kingdom of Qutubuddin Aibak in Delhi down to Aurnagzeb Alamgir and his weak and inept successors, was in fact really interested in establishing an Islamic state as it had...

  • By Vijay Vikram It’s been a while since I wrote on this blog. And a very good piece by a chap called Ahmed Kamran on The South Asian Idea has pushed me into rectifying that. One of the themes that I love ruminating on is the synthesis of Indic and Persian cultures that emerged after India’s encounter with Islam. What is equally fascinating is how this culture has fractured and is in a state of war after the Partition of India – probably one of the most under-rated and under-appreciated of world-historical events. Intellectuals, both Subcontinental and Western tend to treat Partition as a localised event. A horrific event, worthy of intellectual analysis and monograph upon dry academic monograph but in essence, a tragedy restricted to and contained by the Indian Subcontinent. In actuality, the Partition of India is a world-historical event whose consequences shall be felt...

  • From A’daab → Khuda Hafiz → Allah Hafiz – How cultural expressions are transformed? By Ahmed Kamran Recent discussions on this blog regarding the version of Islam that has been adopted in Pakistan since its founding in 1947 have raised some questions that warrant a little more detailed study of the related issues surrounding  the cultural history of this part of the world. This series is an attempt to examine how cultures are transformed and put on a track diverging from its past. In modern times when motorways and bypasses are built they are usually laid passing through isolated and uninhabited lands, away from our old familiar pathways and bustling towns. Travelling on these new roads, we move fast and reach our destination mostly in isolation from stations of our human history. In a short while, we get used to these new routes, and soon...

  • By Anjum Altaf We have completed two stages in this series – the physics of sound in general and the technical foundation of musical sound in particular. These give us an understanding of the fundamental building blocks of music (the swaras) and of how they fit together according to the principle of intervals or ‘musical distance’. With this understanding we are ready to explore how music is constructed. Many more good textbooks are available in this domain although I find them heavy on content and information and a bit light on communicating the intuition and concepts. I will therefore continue this somewhat off-beat introduction that seeks to reproduce my personal struggles and discoveries and the ways in which I pieced them together. Readers should keep in mind that my interest was primarily in understanding and not in learning music. All I can say in defense...

  • By Anjum Altaf I hope by now readers have fully internalized the most essential characteristic of music. It is not the frequency of a swara that is important; rather, it is the interval between swaras or the ‘musical distance’ between them that is critical. One can start from any frequency; as long as the subsequent swaras are at the right distance, one would be in the realm of music. We had started this series with the claim that while all music is sound, not all sound is music. In doing so we had made the distinction between music and noise. We are now in a position to elaborate on this distinction. Think of construction in which the building block is a brick. If we dump a load of bricks on a plot of land we would have an untidy sight to behold.However, if we arrange...

  • By Anjum Altaf We concluded the last installment with an explanation for why there are 12 and not 7 swaras in a saptak. We will take a breather in this installment going over the names of the new swaras thereby completing our knowledge of the alphabet of Indian music. This would prepare us for a perspective on music as a language. Recall from the last installment that the sequence of swaras in a saptak now appears as follows: S * R * G M * P * D * N S The asterisks denote the five new swaras added in the saptak (the black keys on a keyboard – note the characteristic 2-3 pattern mentioned before). The convention adopted in naming them is not to give them independent names but to treat them as altered or vikrit swaras that are auxiliary to the seven principal...

  • By Anjum Altaf I had been intending to explore why, throughout history, man has been the perpetrator of so much inhuman behavior and what, if anything, could be done about it. My plan was to substantiate the claim of inhumanity with some examples before moving on to a discussion of the possible remedies. It is a coincidence that between the intention and the execution, I chanced upon a poem by Josh Malihabadi (1898-1982), a poet held in high regard in Urdu poetry. This poem written in 1928 (Fitrat-e Aqvaam – The Character of Nations) makes a much better case than I could have and I offer it here (with a rough translation by myself) in lieu of the first part of the intended article. zulm-e la intihaa se tang aa kar aadmii chaahtaa hai aazaadi ho ke azaad phuunk deta hai doosre bhaai’oN kii aabaadi...

  • By Anjum Altaf In the last installment we established the relative frequencies of the seven swaras in the saptak and thereby their relationship to each other. We concluded with two questions: Why was the frequency of the reference note (Sa) not fixed at some absolute value? And, where did the five black keys on the piano octave come from, i.e., Are there 7 or 12 swaras in the saptak? As often happens, the answer to one question provides a clue to the answer of another. The answer to the first question is really quite intuitive. Vocal music is the dominant genre in the Indian tradition and, as everyone by now will know, every human being has a distinctive voice. Not only that, the voice of the same individual changes over time. Thus, it should not be a surprise that every individual’s reference frequency (the frequency...

  • By Anjum Altaf At last we are in a position to answer two fundamental questions: First, why are there so few elements in the musical alphabet? And second, why have widely dispersed civilizations separately discovered the same musical alphabet? Recall that the range of frequencies that are audible to the human ear extends from about 20 Hz to about 17,000 Hz. This is a huge continuous range that can accommodate an infinite number of stopping points. But as was mentioned earlier, the ear cannot distinguish very small differences in frequencies and of those that it can distinguish, not all combinations are musical or pleasing to hear. As we mentioned in the last installment, consonant frequencies (those that sound pleasant together) are related to each other by the ratios of small integers. A lot of experimentation must have gone into the discovery of the sequence of...

  • By Anjum Altaf In the last installment we went back to the origins of instrumental music tracing it to the sound that resulted from the draw and release of a hunting bow. This was presumed to have led to experimentation with more strings being stretched across a bow-like frame – a precursor of the harp. Since the shape of the frame mandated strings of unequal length, we asked the natural question: Did there need to be any kind of relationship between the lengths of the various strings in order for the harp to produce music rather than noise? Recall from an earlier istallment that the frequency generated when a string stretched between two points is plucked depends upon at least four characteristics of the string: its material, its thickness (or gauge), the tension with which it is stretched, and its length. These can be easily...

  • By Anjum Altaf When I discovered ‘frequency’ I felt empowered and reacted much as Archimedes did by letting out a high-pitched shriek – Eureka (“I have found it”). At least for me it was an empowering feeling to finally figure out what I had been talking about. Let us get two things out of the way before we forge ahead. First, the term ‘high-pitched shriek’ is really a tautology: a shriek, by definition, is high-pitched. If you don’t believe me, try and emit a low-pitched shriek. What you might succeed in emitting would be a low-volume shriek but the shriek itself would retain a high pitch. This is a useful exercise because it would help you distinguish clearly between the two attributes of sound we have learnt so far – volume and frequency. To be absolutely sure you know what you are going to talk...

  • By Anjum Altaf One has to sympathize with Pakistan at this time beset as it is with problems from all sides. The focus ought to be on ensuring survival. But surely there must be some thought that extends beyond the sympathy, beyond the jaded expressions of shock and sorrow. Will Pakistan continue to lurch from crisis to crisis? Will this cycle of pray and beg, beg and pray, ever come to an end? It will, but perhaps not in the way we would like. There is no such thing as equilibrium; it exists only as an idealized state in textbooks of economics. In the real world, things either get better or they get worse. And who will now dispute that, in general, things have been trending down in Pakistan mostly as the result of self-inflicted wounds.So, the real questions are the following: How long can...

  • By Azhar Ali Khan A slogan is a sort of battle cry which usually carries in it an appeal to sentiments of a particular group of people and the repetition of this battle cry is intended to arouse people into taking a certain desired action. If the slogan is well-worded, short and sweet and easily pronounceable, its appeal becomes more effective. But for the people to take the desired action, it should be physically possible and, invariably, the slogan has to be backed with some force. When they say “Buy British” in England, it works because almost every article of daily use required by an average person in England, or anywhere else for that matter, is ‘made in England’, and it is physically possible to ‘Buy British’. But even in England, when Japan dumped in the East End of London ready-made shirts at 6/- per...

  • Composed by Azhar Ali Khan on the occasion of the All Pakistan Cottage Industry Conference held in May 1950 Editor’s Note: We are reproducing two essays by Azhar Ali Khan written 50 years ago. While they are extremely dated they retain their value as historical documents providing a commentary on the trajectory of Pakistan. In them one can identify what has and has not changed in the culture of Pakistan over the ensuing decades. These essays are part-serious, part-satirical, part-tongue-in-cheek. They were penned as a challenge in alliteration – to see how long an essay on a serious topic could be written using most words beginning with the same letter. This is the ‘C’ essay. The ‘P’ essay would be reproduced later.

  • By Anjum Altaf We are almost there, within striking distance of our primary goal. If you would bear with me just a little longer and not get psyched out by the reference to physics, you would find yourself the proud owner of a number of important insights and you would wonder why you had not been aware of them all along. Believe me, this is a short tunnel and there is a searchlight at the end of it. We had concluded the last part knowing how sound is created and how it travels from the source to the human ear. We also described the shape of an ideal sound wave and I would urge you to take a look at the graphic if you have not done so already (just observe the shape, ignore everything else). Almost everything we need to know is hidden in...

  • By Anjum Altaf A polemical piece needs to be very finely tuned if it is to generate more light than heat. ‘Against Research’ came up short for although the response exceeded expectations in terms of volume, the heat far surpassed the light. On the positive side, the knowledge that there is a constituency engaged with the issue gives me the motivation to try and explain myself with more care. Despite the provocative title I should not have come across as being against all research per se. In the very first paragraph I stated that “I shall argue the case [against research] because I feel many of our problems stem not from a lack of new knowledge but from an inability to translate existing knowledge into action.”I highlighted the lack of relevant research: “there is not a single study on why all the knowledge accumulated through...

  • By Anjum Altaf I have been reflecting on the feedback from readers, both negative and positive, and it has helped me immensely to sift through my own biases and prejudices. I am now inclined to drop any remaining pretension to the claim that the end objective of this series is to increase the enjoyment or appreciation of music. This end result may or may not happen but it is not the real driver of this set of notes. I now realize that I am addressing myself to the set of individuals who wish to talk and write about music, to describe an aural experience in words, and to critique it such that a reader gets a reasonable sense of the difference between one performance and another. Indian music seems to me like a building suspended in air. The foundations are invisible, not in the sense...

  • By Samia Altaf and Anjum Altaf This op-ed appeared in Dawn, Karachi, on July 30, 2010. It was intended to initiate a discussion on the possible approaches to sector reform and is being reproduced here with permission of the authors to provide a forum for discussion and feedback. We must state at the outset that we have been wary of, if not actually opposed to, the prospect of further economic assistance to Pakistan because of the callous misuse and abuse of aid that has marked the past across all elected and non-elected regimes. We are convinced that such aid, driven by political imperatives and deliberately blind to the well recognized holes in the system, has been a disservice to the Pakistani people by destroying all incentives for self-reliance, good governance, and accountability to either the ultimate donors or recipients. Even without the holes in the...

  • By Anjum Altaf It is time now to venture gingerly to the next stage in this modern introduction to music. I hope by the end of this post it would be clearer why the term ‘modern’ has been employed in the title. Just as painting is the art of color, music is the art of sound. Painting is a visual art form; it is seen by the eyes. Music is an aural art form; it is heard by the ears. Music and sound are intertwined and so the first step in understanding music is to understand sound. One thing should be obvious: While all music is sound, not all sound is music. In fact, most sound is not music; it is noise. So, our first question should be to ask: What is that turns some sounds into music so that they are pleasant to the...

  • By Anjum Altaf I feel I should explain once again why we are proceeding slowly with this introduction. It is because we are not trying to learn to perform music. We are trying to learn to understand music. This is a difference that people are often impatient with but it is a fine difference. In music, it is possible to learn to perform without understanding the underlying theory. But, quite clearly, understanding becomes severely limited in the absence of knowledge of the basic principles. It is my belief that if we learn to walk right, we will be able to run much faster in the future. This can seem abstract so let me illustrate with an example. A number of the readers of this series are more familiar with Carnatic music about which I know relatively little. In order to be able to continue the...

  • By Anjum Altaf I write this article to question the value of research, a seemingly contradictory position for one trained as a researcher. Nevertheless, I shall argue the case because I feel many of our problems stem not from a lack of new knowledge but from an inability to translate existing knowledge into action. We are unable to convince decision-makers to act or voters to mobilise on the basis of available knowledge. To put my training to some use I shall explore the reasons for this failure which is both important and imperfectly understood. Take poverty as an example. If we pile up all the reports that have been compiled on the causes of poverty in the country we would be well on the way to reaching the top of Minar-e-Pakistan. Yet agencies continue commissioning new studies year after year. I heard recently of a planned...

  • By Anjum Altaf This is turning into a quirky introduction to music. Readers are keeping me pegged and, to be honest, I am quite happy to dally. This post too is part of the preamble in which I wish to dispel one myth and talk about one aspect of our musical culture that makes me particularly unhappy. First, the myth. I hear again and again that music is a divine gift, that musicians are born not made, that good musicians come around once in centuries, and that the focus on knowledge and training is misplaced. I wonder why people are so averse to looking at the evidence. Do we belong to a culture that discounts facts, that believes more in providence and less in science, that is high on rhetoric and low on proof? One look at the family tree of any musical gharana would...

  • By Anjum Altaf Thanks to the readers I am beginning to enjoy myself and I am not in any hurry. So I am going to take the time refining what I am trying to do and locating the audience I am doing it for. I am going to take full advantage of the interactive format in order to avoid ending up with a product for which there is no market. I intend to carry the audience with me and to interweave its ideas and suggestions into the text as it evolves. With that in mind, here is a recap of what I am trying to do, why I think it is worth doing, and who I am doing it for. We started with the proposition that understanding music would heighten its enjoyment.This notion quickly ran into healthy skepticism and the misgivings of some and the...

  • By Anjum Altaf This is the first in a series of posts about understanding music. Understanding music is different from learning to become a performer. This is a distinction whose importance is often missed. But why should one bother to understand music if one can enjoy it without understanding it? Let me try and provide an answer via an analogy. Would you enjoy watching chess or cricket if you did not know the rules of the games? In all likelihood the answer would be in the negative. Music is obviously much more powerful in its impact compared to chess or cricket because it can be enjoyed without any knowledge of its rules. But the point to ponder is this: How much more does music have to offer? How much more would the enjoyment increase with greater familiarity with its principles, vocabulary, and grammar? Think of...

  • Loyalty and patriotism are emotive issues and it often proves difficult to have a reasoned discussion about them. I am going to seek an easier entry by dealing first with misplaced loyalty and patriotism. I was drawn to this subject by the swirl of conspiracy theories that surrounded the refereeing in the recently concluded soccer World Cup in South Africa. (See the articles by Jeffrey Marcus and Tim Parks.) I recalled the times when home umpires were the rule in test cricket and the endless talk of favoritism that inevitably ensued. There were umpires about whom it was said that their fingers used to go up even before there was any appeal. I suppose the umpires must have considered this an act of patriotism and loyalty to their fellow countrymen and I suppose some of the latter might have seen it in the same light.Opposing...

  • By Anjum Altaf   A Gash in the World, a novel by Prashant Parikh, iUniverse, 2009 When I read A Gash in the World, I was immediately reminded of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco because of the thematic similarity. But I also thought of Ectopia by Ernest Callenbach for entirely different reasons. Ectopia was written in 1974 and rejected by every significant publisher. As the author describes it: ‘Some said it didn’t have enough sex and violence, or that they couldn’t tell if it were a novel or a tract. Somebody said the ecology trend was over… I was on the point of burning it.’

  • By Arun Pillai Before we can talk about separating ideas from geography, it is necessary to say what ideas are, what I mean by geography, and what traditions are. I will start with ideas. Ideas Ideas are abstract things, like words and numbers. They don’t occupy space or time. A physical object occupies space and time, and if it is in one place, it cannot be in another (I will ignore the puzzles of quantum mechanics here.) This is not true of ideas. We can all simultaneously entertain the same ideas, or utter the same words, or calculate with the same numbers. (This is partly why the area of intellectual property rights is so tricky.) In any case, there is a fund of ideas that belongs to everyone, like the ideas in the sciences and other areas of culture. This fund is available to anyone...

  • By Anjum Altaf In two previous posts in this series (here and here) I argued both sides of the proposition that economic interests take precedence over loyalty to attributes like culture, nationality and religion. How do we determine which argument is the more convincing? What is the “truth” regarding such a proposition and how can we discover it? A partial motivation in working through this series of posts was to illustrate a special debating technique used by the ancient Greeks to arrive at the truth or falsehood of such propositions. Part of the exercise conforms to the usual debating format: a questioner undertakes to challenge the proposition and prove it wrong; an answerer undertakes to defend it and prove it right; and there is an audience that acts as a jury and enforces the correct rules of argumentation. The more interesting aspect of the Greek...

  • By Anjum Altaf   In the previous post in this series I had argued in favor of the proposition that economic interest has the dominant influence on what we do in life; even culture, nationality and religion are often treated as impediments to economic advancement and sacrificed for its sake. In this post, I aim to see how well the contrary case can be argued. The key point I intend to stress is that the argument of the last post embodied a superficial perspective on the trade-off between economic gain and these attributes (culture, nationality, religion) making the classic error of mistaking form for content In thinking through my argument, a very old and remarkable film song from 1955 came to mind. (Now that I look at it anew I am amazed how it anticipated globalization almost a half-century before globalization itself became a household...

  • By Anjum Altaf I am going to present a provocative thesis in this post: Economic interest has the dominant influence on what we do in life; even culture, nationality and religion are often treated as impediments to economic advancement and sacrificed for its sake. On the face of it this is indeed a provocative claim and it is not one that I necessarily subscribe to in its entirety. I take it on in the spirit of a challenge faced by a participant in an extempore debate or by a lawyer arguing the best case for his client. In that spirit, I would be more than happy to argue the exact opposite case after a good night’s sleep. The drive for upward mobility in British India dealt a mortal blow to many aspects of our culture. Gone are our modes of dress, our ways of eating,...

  • Editor’s Note: The aim of this series is to identify the major trends underway in the various South Asian countries and, based on an analysis of their interplay, to assess the likely consequences for the future. The precise predictions are of less interest than the discussions that are triggered, for it is the process of discussion that deepens our understanding of the changes that are taking place in our countries. We launch this series with an unusual choice – a paper published in 1982 that speculated on the political implications for Pakistan of a single major trend, the large scale emigration of labor to the Middle East.This retrospective provides an example of the kind of analysis we now wish to undertake for the future. It is also of interest to re-examine the predictions of the paper almost 30 years after its publication and to see...

  • By Anjum Altaf We are reproducing, with slight changes, an article that discusses popular myths about the behavioral attributes of high-achievers. The objective is to show that some inherent and constant disposition is not a defining variable in achievement. A recent article titled ‘Successful risk-takers’ advised readers to take only moderate risks if they wanted to be high-achievers. Before you follow the advice, imagine that you meet an old high school friend with whom you used to do the most risky things, and you suggest repeating them for old-times sakes. How likely are you to be told that he couldn’t because he was now a respectable married man with a young daughter to care for? If you have experienced the above, or find it plausible, you can conclude that the amount of risk people take depends upon circumstances. And that conclusion can be the starting...

  • By Kabir Altaf She spoke, with fluency, the Urdu of the enemy. She was unable to pretend, as she saw so many others doing, that she could replace her mixed tongue with a pure Bengali one, so that the Muslim salutation, As-Salaam Alaikum, was replaced by the neutral Adaab, or even Nomoshkar, the Hindu greeting. Rehana’s tongue was too confused for these changes. She could not give up her love of Urdu, its lyrical lilts, its double meanings, its furrowed beat. —Tahmima Anam, A Golden Age, pg. 47 Literature often yields insights into political events in ways that traditional historical accounts cannot. History tells us of war, rebellion, the process of state formation, but the medium’s strength does not lie in describing the complex human emotions that lie behind such events.

  • We have frequently reiterated the prominent features of South Asian societies – the social hierarchies, theologically sanctioned inequalities, and extensive economic deprivation. These have given rise to modes of governance dominated by patron-client formations as well as a monarchical ethos among both the rulers and the ruled. The passivity that comes from pervasive religiosity accounts for the slow pace of change in the overarching mai-baap culture. In this post I will describe the interaction of these features with the attempts at democratic governance and refer to a new book on European history to provide arguments useful for a critical analysis of  social and political developments in South Asia. Transplanting a democratic super-structure onto a hierarchical and unequal sub-structure is like fitting a round cap on a square bottle. No matter how the cap is twisted, there are gaps from where the intrinsic tendencies of the...

  • By Sakuntala Narasimhan Islamabad Diary, December 2007 The flight from Bangalore to Delhi takes over two and a half hours, while the flight from Delhi to Lahore takes less than an hour. And yet, how little we get to know about the day-to-day lives of the people just across the border, their preoccupations, aspirations and lifestyles! We get media reports, to be sure, about the emergency, about political pronouncements by politicians in Pakistan, and about the forthcoming elections. But that does not portray the lives of the Aam Admi of Pakistan; just as the controversy over the   Indo-US nuclear agreement does not reflect anything about the daily lives of the average citizen of our country. What is it like, to be a resident of Karachi or Lahore, what do the people think, about their “big brother’ next door, or even about the political decisions on...

  • In a number of preceding posts we have discussed how best to characterize the repressive actions of the Indian state in its dealings with the tribal population. The ensuing discussion has fanned out to include the violent actions of Naxalites and Islamic groups. What motivates these state and non-state actors and how do they themselves understand and rationalize their actions? In one of the posts we had presented a hypothesis about the Indian state: that it saw itself as a ‘modernizing’ state that felt it necessary to propel the ‘backward’ elements of society into the ‘modern’ age, against their will if necessary, if such action would advance ‘national’ progress. It was a ‘utilitarian’ state that viewed human lives in the calculus of gains and losses and was not averse to imposing costs if, in its view, the net benefits would be positive.And, it was ‘colonial’...

  • How does one characterize the Indian state and understand its actions? In three posts (here, here and here) we have used the interaction of the Indian state with its tribal population to try and find some answers. None have been fully convincing and in this post we try a different vantage point to push the analysis further. The facts at hand point to a situation of neglect at best, exploitation at worst. There has been undeniable injustice and the resulting problems are being addressed with force, not through politics. And yet, there are very few voices speaking up for a fair deal. How are these outcomes possible in a liberal, democratic state?

  • By A Pakistani It was not too long ago that those critical of governance in Pakistan were limited to a handful of academics, journalists, and other professionals. They were the subject of aspersions – being agents of this or that power or being self-hating Pakistanis or Muslims, as the case may be – and advised to “love it or leave it.” I am not talking of those opposing particular governments in Pakistan – they were many – but those who used arguments from reason to question the structure itself that characterized the governance of the country. To simplify, the opponents of particular governments behaved as if Pakistan was always one good leader away from salvation; the critics argued that given the foundations of the state that hope would inevitably lead to disappointment.Not only that but the bouts of hopes and disappointments would be accompanied by...

  • By Anjum Altaf My post in support of Arundhati Roy’s position on the rights of Adivasis had drawn an analogy with the movement for civil rights of African-Americans in the US. The point I made was that in the latter case the political spectrum offered a range of options from the very extreme to the very moderate and that this facilitated convergence on an alternative in the middle of the spectrum. With this in mind I asked why the spectrum was so sparse in India with Roy almost being a lone voice easy to dismiss by the mainstream as extreme and unrealistic. We still don’t have an answer to the question but the comments on the post made me go back and look at some of the source documents pertaining to the civil rights movement in the US. The most relevant for our purposes is...

  • What are the determinants of our choices? Vijay Vikram’s post on Arundhati Roy evolved into a discussion on whether the natural resources in tribal lands ought to be mined in the existing conditions. After over a hundred comments, we are better aware of the issues involved but still left with many unanswered questions. In this post I propose a thought experiment that would explore in more detail the factors that can influence our choices in such matters. The difficulty in using real life cases (like that of mining in tribal lands) is that they are characterized by ambiguities and uncertainties that influence our thinking about them. For example, in the case under discussion we do not know the extent to which the tribals are willing partners, the extent to which they are being coerced by external agents, the extent to which the state and the...

  • By Anjum Altaf Like Vijay Vikram, I too am glad Arundhati Roy exists. I wish, however, to take this discussion beyond her role as a public intellectual and focus instead on her work as a political activist, which has opened a space for us to leverage, provided we broaden our understanding of the political process. It is our failure to see the political process in its entirety that leads many to dismiss Roy as an extremist divorced from reality, and in our aversion from her “shrill” voice and alleged “extremism,” we overlook the vital systemic issues she demands we consider in our capacity as concerned citizens. Roy’s essential point is that there is a deep structural flaw in Indian governance, which has left the majority of its citizens poor and a significant minority actually oppressed. In a democracy charged with protecting and enhancing the equal...

  • A recent interview with Tony Judt is of great relevance to the extended debate triggered by Vijay Vikram’s post on Arundhati Roy. It touches on our conceptions of the state, democracy, religion and politics. It also reiterates the importance of conversations across ideological divides as a means to improving our understanding of the issues that are critical in our times. In this post we reproduce key excerpts and provide a link to the complete interview at the end. You still have faith that the liberal state can be restored to health. But is there a reason that there has to be a liberal state? The “liberal state” itself is a historically specific creation, isn’t it?

  • By Anjum Altaf   Editor’s Note: With reference to the discussion sparked by Vijay Vikram’s post (Arundhati Roy) we are reproducing an old article that is relevant to the issue. I don’t believe in the corn flake theory of governance. The corn flake theory equates systems of governance with brands of cereal. It presumes that just as one can go into a supermarket and pick any brand of cereal off the shelf, one can go into the supermarket of governance systems and select the system of one’s choice. It could be democratic, autocratic, monarchic or ecclesiastic — whatever suits one’s needs or fancy. It’s a pretty flaky theory and therefore I remain sceptical of the belief that no matter what the situation, one can effect a regime change, organise an election and engineer a democracy that would be a model for the world to behold....

  • By Vijay Vikram I am glad Arundhati Roy exists. I say this because we desperately require a coherent structural critique of Indian democracy. Naysayers might argue that her critique is far from coherent but that is of little concern here. I am happy that at least somebody is willing to question the nature of Indian democracy, even if that person stares across from the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. There seems to be an unthinking; publicly articulated commitment to democratic politics all across intelligent conversation in India. It has become the holiest of our holy cows. The Indian variant of democracy is sustained by a wide variety of adulatory literature, scholarly and journalistic. Perhaps most perversely, in a strange case of the post-colonial disease, Western approval for India’s choice of government leads to much puffing of chests in the Indian middle classes. We are told that...

  • ‘Imaginings’ constitutes our most ambitious initiative to date. With this initiative we invite our readers to participate in imagining our national and regional futures ten years from now. What do we think our country, a neighboring country in the region, or the region as a whole would be like in 2020? And why? Readers can submit as many essays as they wish but each essay should deal with one country only (any country in South Asia, not necessarily the writer’s own) or with South Asia as a region. The essay could cover any or all of a number of dimensions – politics, economics, culture, etc. At the heart of the essay would be the identification of the major forces and trends that would yield the future that the writer chooses to describe. What gave rise to these trends, why would they dominate, and what might...

  • By John Briscoe Anyone foolish enough to write on war or peace in the Indus needs to first banish a set of immediate suspicions. I am neither Indian nor Pakistani. I am a South African who has worked on water issues in the subcontinent for 35 years and who has lived in Bangladesh (in the 1970s) and Delhi (in the 2000s). In 2006 I published, with fine Indian colleagues, an Oxford University Press book titled India’s Water Economy: Facing a Turbulent Future and, with fine Pakistani colleagues, one titled Pakistan’s Water Economy: Running Dry. I was the Senior Water Advisor for the World Bank who dealt with the appointment of the Neutral Expert on the Baglihar case. My last assignment at the World Bank (relevant, as described later) was as Country Director for Brazil. I am now a mere university professor, and speak in the...

  • By Anjum Altaf Amartya Sen has popularized the notion of the argumentative Indian with his book of the same name. Given that Sen has never allowed himself to be constrained by arbitrary divisions, and the fact that his family origins are in Dhaka, we can safely assume that he is referring more generally to the argumentative South Asian. So, although this post pertains to India, the question I would like to pose for discussion is: What is it that the argumentative South Asian argues about today? The occasion for this question was attendance at a recent presentation by the Indian Foreign Secretary. In the course of a long discourse covering many topics the Foreign Secretary articulated the position of her government on relations with Pakistan. This position came across to me as overly hawkish even after allowing for the fact that a Congress government has...

  • By Vijay Vikram One of the misfortunes of having an intellectual sympathy for the political Right in India is that one automatically finds oneself in the company of unbecoming Hindu goons, be they online or in the field. As legitimate political activity in India is set on a default left-liberal setting, it is in the normal order of things quite problematic to find a desi political animal to engage with who is possessed of a sense of public service and a strong sense of national identity. The ones who do represent the aforementioned themes and other programmes dear to the heart of the Indian political animal often also couple these admirable political sentiments with quite a nasty anti-cosmopolitanism, not to mention a general distaste for Muslims. The latest brouhaha over a 95-year-old Indian painter’s decision to accept Qatari citizenship is a case in point. Without going into the stultifying details of this non-controversy, it is...

  • By Anjum Altaf I attended a talk by Professor Vali Nasr where he presented the central argument of his new book Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What it Will Mean for Our World. Professor Nasr is an influential voice as senior advisor to Richard Holbrooke, the special Representative of the US for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which makes it relevant to summarize his views and to identify some areas of agreement and disagreement. Professor Nasr’s underlying hypothesis was quite straightforward: the middle class transformed the modern West and it can transform the Muslim world as well. The rise of trade, capitalism and merchant life is the most important trend at work and one that shapes the contours of culture and delimits the uses of religious belief. From this vantage point the prescription follows logically: if Islamic countries are integrated...

  • The challenge of global warming has brought us face to face with a stark reality. Economic growth is exploitative of nature and unless we make some fundamental changes we could be headed for an environmental catastrophe from which there might be no recovery. Thinking about this issue has revived a concern that is even more problematic: Is economic growth exploitative only of nature or is it exploitative in general? In this post we will examine the historical record to seek some answers to this question. The relationship of economic growth to nature is fairly simple. Starting with the post-industrial era (which is not much more than a quarter of a millennium old at most) economic growth has relied upon the use of fossil fuels and the rate at which greenhouse gasses have been discharged into the atmosphere, we now find, is environmentally unsustainable.

  • This is going to be a long explanation for why we will be posting something that is more than eighteen months out of date. Some of you who have been with us for a while might remember A Modern Fable by Ibn-e Eusuf. We posted that in June 2008. We discovered Ibn-e, thought he was a good satirist, in the tradition of Manto and Ibn-e Insha, and gave him his first break in print (digital or otherwise) with A Modern Fable. We had hoped Ibn-e would continue writing for us but we were right that he was good, with a razor sharp pen. He was immediately picked up by the Herald with an offer to reproduce A Modern Fable in their forthcoming issue (which they did). When Ibn-e asked our permission we were torn – Herald paid and we didn’t and Ibn-e needed the money.

  • Just around the time of the earthquake in Haiti there was an article in the New York Review of Books (Witness to Horror by Charles Simic) in which part of a paragraph grabbed my attention: History repeats itself in unhappy countries. The absence of respected institutions and well-established laws that a person can count on to protect him condemns these societies to reenact the same conflicts, make the same mistakes more than once, and bear the same horrific consequences of these acts. There is an important truth here: To learn from one’s mistakes there is need for a minimal institutional infrastructure, for some kind of a learning apparatus, for some rules of conduct that facilitate reflection. Learning just doesn’t happen by itself. My thoughts turned immediately to the Pakistan cricket team and then to Pakistan itself. Take the cricket team first that has just concluded...

  • By Anjum Altaf In two earlier posts I had made the point that there are evidence-based methods to resolve the conflict over the proposed construction of an expressway along the Lahore Canal to reduce traffic congestion. In this post I suggest two specific approaches to achieve this objective. Before proceeding to the concrete suggestions one should note that the judiciary, having intervened in the controversy, has given both sides time to resolve the dispute through mutual discussions. I feel this approach would prove inconclusive because this is not the kind of market transaction that is conducive to negotiations that are aimed at striking a deal, e.g., an agreement to sacrifice a number of trees that lies somewhere in the middle of the range mentioned by the two sides. In fact, this kind of a negotiated solution might be worse than either alternative – as second-best...

  • By Anjum Altaf The proposal to transform the greenbelt along the Lahore canal into an expressway in order to relieve the congestion of traffic has predictably divided citizens into two camps. The environmentalists bemoan the damage to nature while the developmentalists consider it the price for progress. Both sides rely on highly emotive sentiments and there seems no prospect of either convincing the other based on refutable evidence or logical argumentation. This outcome would be understandable in the Age of Faith but seems strikingly bizarre in the Age of Reason. In the previous post I proposed one way to resolve this dilemma. In this post, I use the work of Jane Jacobs, perhaps the wisest urban scholar of the twentieth century, to further advance an analytical approach to the issue.The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jacobs, published as far back as 1961,...

  • By Anjum Altaf This is an essay about Lahore but it could be about any city in South Asia because it deals with an issue that is common to them all – traffic congestion. How do we propose to deal with traffic congestion that is growing all the time, what do we hope to achieve, what is the price we are willing to pay, and how do we know what we are doing makes sense? The controversy in Lahore centers round the fate of a branch of the Bambawala-Ravi-Bedian (BRB) Canal (a 37 mile long waterway built by the Mughals and upgraded by the British in 1861) that runs through the city and is more than a cultural heritage for the citizens. The Lahore Canal is a unique linear park that serves as one of the few public green belts and the only free swimming pool for the...

  • By Anjum Altaf in Himal Magazine Thomas Babington Macaulay, commonly known as Lord Macaulay, is widely recognised yet inadequately understood in Southasia. While the legacy of his ‘decisions’ is correctly criticised, that criticism is often for the wrong reasons. Macaulay served on the Supreme Council of India from 1834 until 1838, during which time he sided with Governor-General William Bentinck in the adoption of English as the medium of instruction from the sixth standard onwards. Today, he is castigated for his infamous comment: We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern – a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect. This single sentence bears the burden of all the subsequent problems with education in India. It is a...

  • Excerpts from the foreword by Professor Yash Pal to the Report of ‘The Committee to Advise on Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education.’ December 2009.   (We are gratified that the logic of the report supports the premises of The South Asian Idea.) We were struck by the fact that over the years we have followed policies of fragmenting our educational enterprise into cubicles. We have overlooked that new knowledge and new insights have often originated at the boundaries of disciplines. We have tended to imprison disciplinary studies in opaque walls. This has restricted flights of imagination and limited our creativity. This character of our education has restrained and restricted our young right from the school age and continues that way into college and university stages.

  • The controversy in India over the proposed separation of Telangana from Andhra Pradesh as a new state brought two thoughts to mind: the irony of history and the tyranny of fashion. There is little argument that many states in India are very large in area and population – much larger than many countries – and that there is a good case that smaller units can lead to more effective and participatory governance. Thus the call for decentralization is credible and consistent with the fashion of the day. But think back now to 1947: At Independence India had about a dozen provinces governed directly by the British and over 500 princely states governed by treaty with hereditary local rulers who accepted British sovereignty in return for local autonomy. Could you have more decentralization than 500 states that had a coherence imparted by the legitimacy of tradition?

  • The controversy in India over the proposed separation of Telangana from Andhra Pradesh as a new state brought two thoughts to mind: the irony of history and the tyranny of fashion. There is little argument that many states in India are very large in area and population – much larger than many countries – and that there is a good case that smaller units can lead to more effective and participatory governance. Thus the call for decentralization is credible and consistent with the fashion of the day. But think back now to 1947: At Independence India had about a dozen provinces governed directly by the British and over 500 princely states governed by treaty with hereditary local rulers who accepted British sovereignty in return for local autonomy. Could you have more decentralization than 500 states that had a coherence imparted by the legitimacy of tradition?

  • By Radhika R. Yeddanapudi I received a birthday card from my father yesterday. In his familiar, right-leaning hand, he had written, “I believe this is your best birthday yet.” I imagined this card landing in the future in a stranger’s hand, perhaps in an old curiosity shop. What will the stranger make of my father’s allusion? A job, a promotion, an achievement of some sort? I wanted to ask my father to what he referred but decided against it. He may not have wanted to, or even been able to, articulate exactly why the birth of my son represented the best that my life could offer, only that he felt it.  I remained silent out of a mixed sense of inadequacy, propriety and maternal pride: a new living being can inspire and effect change in a way that no achievement can. My son Himadri was not...

  • I will come back to what Michelle Obama has to do with this topic after I present the facts that are pertinent to the story. These facts are fairly well known but it was nice to find them described succinctly in Jared Diamond’s book (Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed) that I started to read again at the urging of Vinod. Here is the essential statistic: on average, each citizen of the US, Western Europe, and Japan consumes about 32 times more resources and puts out 32 times more waste than do inhabitants of developing countries. The leaders of all developing countries aspire to lift the living standard of their citizens to match those of the developed ones – the elites are already living at that level shaping the aspirations of the rest of the citizens. The East Asian countries have been growing...

  • Who is Going to Bail it Out? By Anjum Altaf We have all read the stories about very big entities failing and being bailed out – these include cities like New York, countries like Mexico and Pakistan, and corporations like General Motors and Bank of America whose businesses were bigger than the economies of many countries. All of them defaulted on their debts – went bankrupt – and were bailed out by an entity that was bigger than them, the US Government alone or in concert with other developed countries. The combination of size and of the existence of a savior, the protector of last resort, gives rise to a dilemma that is known as ‘moral hazard.’ When an entity believes its failure would damage the rest of the system and that there is someone who will not allow that to happen, then it loses...

  • 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.

  • There is a sentence in Julian Barnes’s review of two novels by Maupassant (1850-1893) that struck me with unusual force and I wish to use it to reflect on our societal values in South Asia. Barnes is talking about four pages in one of the novels that describe Parisian salons, “the tactics of the women who run them and the talented men who frequent them.” And here is the sentence that should knock a South Asian for a six: Maupassant discusses the pecking order of guests: musicians at the top, artists next, writers coming a close third, with other riff-raff like generals and parliamentarians occasionally tolerated. I am not making it up – you can look up the original here. Go over the pecking order again and take a few moments to let it sink in.

  • By Anjum Altaf There has been a spirited debate triggered by Mark Slouka’s essay (Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School) and in this post I am setting down what I have taken away from the discussion. Science and the humanities are both ancient and great traditions and I doubt if there is anyone who would set them up in an antagonistic zero-sum confrontation the way people tend to do in the case of science and religion. Both are vital and necessary elements of a balanced education. That much should be a statement of the obvious. It is only when we focus on their different strengths that we enter into an interesting discussion. To posit their differences very starkly one can oversimplify a little and adapt the argument of a recent article on religion and science: humanities ask about the why, science explains the...

  • You must have had the experience of catching just a part of an interesting conversation and wondering how it might have evolved. It happened to me today as I moved past an African and a South Asian who, the words suggested, was a Pakistani. I heard the African asking, “What do professionals like you really want to see happening in Pakistan?” And    before I could hear the answer the words were swallowed by the silence. It was a good question at a time when Pakistanis seem to be living from day to day just hoping for the situation to stabilize. What kind of Pakistan might middle class professionals really want beyond this immediate crisis if they got around to thinking about it? I would have loved to hear but the opportunity was lost. I wondered then what I might have said had I been given...

  • By Anjum Altaf  Bruised and battered as Indian women might be (psychologically, not physically as the poll on this blog suggests), there is another side to Indian femininity reflected in the myths of powerful goddesses. I came across an interesting perspective on this in David Shulman’s review (A Passion for Hindu Myths, NYRB, Nov. 19, 2009) of the new book by Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History: Sometimes the history of India looks like a story about endless waves of virile invaders from the north-northwest – Scythians, White Huns, Afghans, Turks, and, most recently, the British – who slowly grow soft and decadent under the insidious influence of the dreamy, langorous, mystically inclined Hindus…. [But according to Doniger] India’s astonishing talent for absorbing and transforming the peoples pouring in from outside, seen through a Hindu lens, has nothing to do with any softening or...

  • Mark Slouka’s essay (Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school) comes across as a persuasive argument that the humanities have lost out to math and science in American schools and that this does not bode well for the future of democracy. The fact that the essay is persuasive should be no surprise – Slouka is a professor of English and he employs the art of rhetoric at its finest. The language is so elegant that one can read the essay just for that pleasure alone. But one should not allow the intoxication of elegant prose to overwhelm reason – as public policy, Slouka’s essay suffers from at least two major flaws. Slouka’s main point has validity – the framework in which we reckon the value of things, the thrust of our education, our very language, has become excessively economistic.

  • Our recent poll eliciting the ten most unacceptable things in South Asia today is open to another interpretation – it tells a tale of three nested deprivations. The first deprivation is absolute – characterized by people existing below a level that is unacceptable in any self-respecting society. We had identified the dimensions of this absolute deprivation some time back – lack of an adequate amount of food, water, hygiene, housing, and education. All these are attributes that are associated with an inadequate income. The second deprivation pertains to the inadequacy of rights – the right to physical safety, dignity, justice, and employment based on merit. This pertains only partly to inadequate income. It is also related to the imbalance of power.

  • Gender discrimination (which includes harassment, abuse and violence) was at the top of our list of the most unacceptable things in South Asia. How bad is the situation? Some time back we had mentioned the introduction of the ‘Ladies Special’ trains in major Indian cities to counteract the harassment of women using public transport. Recently there was an update to that story titled ‘Joy of India’s women-only trains’ mentioning that the service has been a big success. In reading this update I was particularly struck by the remark of one user of the service: “We can laugh, we can sit where we want, we can do whatever we want, we feel free. We can sing a song, as loud as we want.” The sense of freedom that this conveys is almost beyond belief – women feel they cannot even laugh or sing a song in...

  • By Anjum Altaf I checked the name index of Amartya Sen’s book (The Idea of Justice) for Foucault and found him missing. Let me explain why I found that surprising. As mentioned earlier, Sen contrasts two approaches to social justice – the search for a perfectly just society versus the alternative of making existing society less unjust. These perspectives are given different labels – ‘arrangement-focused’ versus ‘realization focused’ or niti versus nyaya. The implication of the contrast is pithily summarized by an endorsement on the book’s back cover: “The Idea of Justice gives us a political philosophy that is dedicated to the reduction of injustice on Earth rather than to the creation of ideally just castles in the air.” In terms of lineage, the arrangement-focused perspective is said to derive from the social contract formulation of Thomas Hobbes via Locke, Rousseau and Kant to John...

  • By Anjum Altaf I started reading Amartya Sen’s latest book The Idea of Justice in which he suggests we reduce injustice in the world we live in rather than attempt to create an ideally just world – he characterizes the contrasting perspectives as ‘realization-focused’ versus ‘arrangement-focused’ approaches to justice. For South Asians, the parallels are two different concepts of justice from early Indian jurisprudence – niti and nyaya. The former relates to ‘organizational propriety as well as behavioral correctness’ whereas the latter is concerned with ‘what emerges and how, and in particular the lives that people are actually able to lead.’ The distinctions, and Professor Sen’s preference, are quite clear and one can agree or disagree with his choice. Here I am concerned with the example that Sen uses to motivate his argument and to explain why I find it puzzling. I would like readers...

  • I wish to begin today a conversation about the possibility of a social movement in South Asia – not, for the moment, a social movement, just a conversation about a possible social movement. This social movement, if we agree to it and it gets off the ground, would go by a simple name – UNACCEPTABLE.  It would identify the ten things that we agree are unambiguously morally unacceptable in South Asia today and it would start a public conversation about them. It would signal our commitment to strive and eliminate them from our societies. Let me start with an example that illustrates the kinds of things I have in mind and what I mean by unambiguous. Take the practice of slavery in the West. There came a point in time when the first few voices began to declare it morally unacceptable, an affront to human...

  • Ibn-e Eusuf’s reference to the fable of Boris and Ivan to characterize one dimension of the relations between Pakistan and India (Pakistan’s Favorite Indians) has elicited comments trying to identify the sentiment implied by the characterization. Let me repeat the fable before attempting to address the comments. The Russian fable is about two poor peasants, Ivan and Boris. The only difference between them is that Boris has a goat and Ivan doesn’t. One day, Ivan comes upon a strange-looking lamp and, when he rubs it, a genie appears. She tells him she could grant him just one wish, and it could be anything in the world. Ivan says, “I want Boris’ goat to die.”  In Ibn-e Eusuf’s telling Ivan is Pakistan and Boris is India. The question posed is whether Ivan’s attitude could be characterized as jealousy and how does individual jealousy translate into collective jealousy? There is an entire...

  • By Ibn-e Eusuf I still wish India success but now without much hope. The point of the story is different from what the sentence seems to convey; and thereby hangs a tale. Let me explain. When I was young I desperately wanted India to succeed. Looking at Pakistan, I could see it was a basket case, the quality of its leadership decaying at such a dizzying pace that the prospects of internally driven progress were non-existent. The only hope was in a miracle or in a dramatic breakthrough in India. The latter development would make Pakistan’s citizens see the light and make them demand change from its leaders who kept feeding the myth that Pakistan was doing better than India. Or so I thought, and so I prayed for India’s success. Then I came across an old Russian fable about two poor peasants, Ivan and Boris. The...

  • Most of the time we imagine history – we carry in our mind a vision of the past that we believe to be true. Given that very few of us are actually studying history these days, or reading it for pleasure for that matter, there is little that can bridge the gap between the vision and the reality. Sometimes the gap can be very wide indeed. How can we test the truthfulness of our vision without investigating it ourselves? I am proceeding on the basis that it is futile to suggest people read alternative accounts of history and weigh their respective claims to objectivity and truth. Rather, I am going to propose something simpler that is more within the grasp of the overwhelmed citizen of the modern age. I am going to suggest a recourse to lived history that requires nothing more than looking around...

  • The past is political, which makes interpreting it very tricky. In this post we try and illustrate some of the pitfalls involved in thinking about the past. One common tendency is to look at the past from a position that is anchored in the present. If the anchor is political it nearly always leads to finding an interpretation of the past that helps to justify or strengthen the stance in the present. In The Idea of India, Sunil Khilnani puts it very plainly: “In India, as elsewhere, present politics are shaped by conceptions of the past. Broadly, there have been two different descriptions of Indian history…” We need not be concerned here with the details of the two descriptions. We only need to note that more than one interpretation of the same facts is possible and that the choice depends upon which political position in...

  • Some recent comments have made me reflect on this question. I am intrigued by the notion that someone can think of India as belonging to its religious majority. I am going to argue that such thinking is arbitrary, inconsistent, anachronistic, and schizophrenic. It is also a vocabulary that is entirely unhelpful in advancing us to a better and more secure future. It is arbitrary because there is no logical reason for using religion as the characteristic by which a majority is determined. Why couldn’t one say that India belongs to men because there are more men than women in India? Or that India belongs to Hindi speakers, or to peasants, or to the lower castes? No case can be made that accords primacy to religion over all these other dimensions that can also separate a population into a majority and a minority. It is inconsistent...

  • I am grateful to reader Ganpat Ram for suggesting a new line of thought with the following comment on Emperor Akbar: Every Muslim ruler with rare exceptions showed great concern to contain and push back Hinduism. Even the relatively broad-minded Akbar destroyed Hindu temples. My response to Ganpat Ram was that this was one opinion in the spectrum of opinions and I recalled an article (East and West: The Reach of Reason) by Professor Amartya Sen published in the year 2000 in which a contrary opinion had been expressed.

  • By Anjum Altaf We have short memories. Terror did not arrive in America in 2001 when Mohamed Atta flew a plane into the World Trade Center. It did not arrive even in 1993, when Ramzi Yousef planned to blow up that very same bastion of American power. It arrived almost a hundred years ago when, after a spate of bombings in New York City, the abode of J.P. Morgan – then the symbol of American capitalism –  was wired up with explosives. The protagonist was not a Muslim, but a black Christian man. It was neither his blackness nor his Christianity that made him do it – he could just as easily have been white, or any other color or religion. His principal munitions expert was as white as one could be. And nor was he was poor. Indeed he was quite well off: in those...

  • Well, there has been an election in Afghanistan and (surprise, surprise) tensions have risen about large-scale fraud. We have just been through an exercise in Iran whose repercussions are still being visited on the dissidents locked up in jails. And last year there was an election in Kenya in which thousands of people were made homeless in inter-tribal warfare. Kenya? Really? Yes, and already forgotten. Time to move on to the next election. What’s going on folks? Is there really no need to figure out what happened in Kenya? What happened in Iran? No need to pay heed to the mud flying in Pakistan where tattletales are spilling the beans that virtually every election has been fixed (as if people did not know already)? Not only that; political parties have been manufactured and thieves bought and paid off to populate them. Should any of this...

  • I am posting this tribute to Aditya Behl here for a reason. His work epitomizes the kind of passion and painstaking effort that are needed to understand the nature of past relations amongst the various communities inhabiting South Asia today. I heard him read a paper only once (in 2008) and had a brief exchange after, noting in my mind that this was someone I wanted to meet again. He was a person who left a mark very quickly – with his scholarship, his sense of joy in his work, and the excitement he communicated to the audience. I am reproducing here a tribute by someone who knew Aditya Behl well with the hope that the introduction to his work will help us in our own understanding of the past and thus fulfill a goal that was dear to him. ****** … Then one morning...

  • 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 India The story can start at any number of points but let us begin...

  • By Anjum Altaf I am reading Yehudi Menuhin’s autobiography (Unfinished Journey) and sharing with readers what appeals to me. These thoughts on nationalism I feel are particularly meaningful for South Asians. As a musician, well aware that art must have local roots if it is to convey universal meaning, I view evidences of cultural difference, even the perhaps insignificant ones I have cited, with approval as well as interest. The yearning to preserve a distinctive culture which sets the Basque against Madrid, the Scot against Westminster, the American Indian against Washington (however vastly these examples differ in degree), wins my sympathy. Undeniably the aspiration is legitimate and worthy. But is it possible, given human nature, to separate good from bad, the wish for cultural autonomy from the wish to impose one’s way of life on one’s neighbours?

  • By Anjum Altaf  I have something uncanny to report. I began this series of posts on music (see here) by describing how puzzled I was by a metaphor used by Goethe (I call architecture frozen music) because I was unable to reconcile that image with the music I was familiar with. It was after many years that I concluded tentatively that Hindustani classical music was better characterized as a painting. Responses from readers drew us into a discussion of Western classical music of which I have very little knowledge. In order to familiarize myself with the basics I bought, more or less at random, a book titled The NPR Curious Listener’s Guide to Classical Music by Tim Smith (NPR, 2002). Imagine my surprise when I read the following (page 2): The word ‘classical’ conveys structural order, a clear sense of form, design, and content; this...

  • It is sad that the history we are taught in our countries is so one-dimensional that even the thought that the ‘Other’ might be semi-intelligent (let alone great) makes people catatonic. The predictable reaction is either to impugn the motives of the writer or to find selective evidence to prove that the real blame rests entirely on the ‘Other.’ The alternative of sifting through the arguments on their merits remains alien, unacceptable, impossible, or just too tiresome. The reason Jaswant Singh’s book has made such a splash is because he is a front ranking politician with a very high reputation for integrity (for which, read Strobe Talbott’s Engaging India) and belongs to the BJP, all of which make the story impossible to ignore. Otherwise, this is an argument that has been made before and forgotten.

  • By Anjum Altaf In response to the interest in our series on music (see here, here, and here), The South Asian Idea (TSAI) is following up with an interview with Arpita Chatterjee (AC) presently in charge of the Academic Research Department at the prestigious ITC Sangeet Research Academy in Kolkata and thus an ideal person to guide us in our discussions. These are her personal views. TSAI: We started our series on music with the quote from Goethe: “I call architecture frozen music.” Is this metaphor of “architecture” relevant for Indian classical music? If not, what would be the appropriate metaphor that could help readers visualize Indian classical music? AC: I think that is absolutely terrific – sums it up beautifully! You see, music can never really be ‘captured’ – except by experiencing it, isn’t it? I do feel that the closest you can get to a...

  • By Anjum Altaf  In the second post in this series I had proposed looking at the organization of music to see what it revealed about the organization of society. This enquiry was motivated by the very stark differences in the organization of classical music in the Western and Hindustani traditions that are immediately obvious on attending concerts in the two traditions. I am going to rely almost entirely on the description provided by Yehudi Menuhin in his autobiography Unfinished Journey (Chapter 12) because being a musician he has a deep insight into the subject. Later I will come back to the issues that Menuhin does not address. What the Indian music has not, and Western music richly has, is, of course, harmony. This is not fortuitous. Just because the Indian would unite himself with the infinite rather than with his neighbour, so his music assists...

  • By Anjum Altaf What is the difference between the yarmulke and the burqa besides the fact that one is minimally small and the other is maximally large? By now the controversy over the burqa is well known. In France, President Sarkozy has said: “The burqa is not a religious sign. It is a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement… It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic…. In our country we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity.” In Cairo, President Obama has said: “I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal…. and I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles. But it should be their choice.” I am...

  • 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...

  • By Anjum Altaf I call architecture frozen music – Goethe I stumbled upon this quote as a teenager and fell in love with it without understanding it at all, a phenomenon not uncommon as I learnt later when I fell in love with a human being – loving and hating comes so much easier than understanding. The quote stayed with me for years – stuck in diaries, propped up on desks, hanging from walls, scribbled in notes to people I loved but did not understand – without yielding its mystery. The only thing I can claim credit for is that I did not stop searching for an answer. An answer suggested itself, at least I think it did, decades later in a piece of writing by Yehudi Menuhin. Why did it take so long? I guess I was an untypical South Asian teenager who read...

  • The South Asian Idea began in the very last days of 2007 and January 2008 was its first full month in existence. I had intended it to be one-year pilot. The fact that it is still around means that, on balance, I feel optimistic about its utility. This post is an attempt to take stock of the successes and the failures and to chart out a vision for the future. First, I think we got the basic model right. Given the gaping holes in the social science education of most of us, we needed a mechanism to start repairing the damage. But given the limitations of our comprehension, themselves a function of our imbalanced education, this could not have been achieved by making available expert opinion on any subject – we would have been setting ourselves up against Wikipedia which was freely available to all....

  • China has a problem in Tibet. What can South Asians learn from it? A lot, if we want and can keep our prejudices out of the way. Reflect on the following: There is no enemy country intervening in Tibet. There are no militants infiltrating from across international borders into Tibet. There are no Muslims in Tibet. There are no rogue leaders in Tibet. China has poured immense amount of development money into Tibet. And yet, there is a problem in Tibet. Why? Is it because Tibetans are ignorant, ungrateful and unaware of what is good for them?

  • Here we have another example of the ability of Ghalib to couch a very modern thought in a very traditional idiom while simultaneously subverting the intent of the tradition: go vaaN nahiiN pah vaaN ke nikaale hue to haiN kaabe se in butoN ko bhii nisbat hai duur ki though they are not there, still that is where they were expelled from these idols too have a distant kinship with the ka’bah This is modern evolutionary biology – whatever our differences, we are descended from a common gene.

  • By Anjum Altaf Religion is so central to life that its impact on society needs to be studied quite independently of the beliefs of the analyst. Religion has both individual and collective dimensions. At the individual level, it can provide a sense of meaning and predictability and be a source of comfort and solace. The individual dimension can cast its shadow on the collective depending on selective emphasis by those who interpret God’s will on the religious tendencies of resignation or revolt (qana’at versus jihad, for example). At the collective level, religion inevitably gets intertwined with politics and more often than not ends up as a tool subservient to larger political objectives. Any objective analysis of the history of religion has to record the terrible costs inflicted upon society by this combination. It was a realization of these costs that spurred the European movement to...

  • By Viswam Kumar When I look back to see what shaped me – I can see how much I am shaped by serendipitous circumstances and encounters with people. Mental Discipline is perhaps the foundational trait behind all my meager achievements. I have the discipline required in focusing, concentrating and working hard to achieve a goal. This goal can be anything from finishing a project at work successfully to sticking with a fitness regime. This discipline has been a result of the grooming from my parents. They have always spoken highly about hard work and discipline and extolled these virtues. Over time, I have learnt that Discipline is something that adds to the quality of life, even if it is not materially rewarding – which was the initial motive for adopting discipline. I have learnt that it can give the courage needed to pursue goals that...

  • A Pakistani journalist has recorded his observations from a visit to Sri Lanka. He has asked a lot of questions but not provided too many answers; and some of the answers can be debated. I am extracting parts of the article that are of interest to us and hoping that readers would enrich the arguments and fill in the gaps. On the regional bond: Everything told me this was still South Asia, that Colombo was not very different from Lahore, that somehow our regional bond held. Yet, something was very different, and I was struggling to pinpoint it. Note: Why do we feel this regional bond in Colombo but not in Bangkok or Teheran?

  • As a follow up to our brief debate on the Kashmir issue, I wish to propose an exercise that evaluates the Kashmir policies of the governments of India and Pakistan and also puts our own objectivity to the test. Such an exercise could yield an awareness that might enable us to move the discussion forward. What I propose is the following: For the first part of the exercise stop thinking of yourself as a citizen of your country. Consider yourself an external examiner (ideally from Mars) who has been invited to evaluate the Kashmir policies of the governments of India and Pakistan, respectively.

  • I do not know God’s will but I can (hopefully) spot the logic of an argument about God’s will. That is what I wish to do today. I have been intrigued by a comment from reader Tahir on a post about Imran Khan. Tahir says: “It is beyond my understanding how Imran is dividing people. As far as religion is concerned, this division has been done by God.” Where do you go from there if you accept that as a valid starting point? It seems to me that if God has made the divisions (among and within religions), there must have been some purpose in doing so unless we assume that divine actions were without purpose – which is something we do not want to do.

  • Professor Alok Rai of Delhi University has suggested an exchange on Kashmir between members of civil society in India and Pakistan (Pakistan’s Kashmir Problem, Daily Times, July 3, 2009). This is a welcome initiative and the thrust of Professor Rai’s conclusions is sensible. But, the framing of the issue – in terms of an India-Pakistan “problem” – is not the best to achieve the end that Professor Rai has in mind. This framing leads straight back into the morass that has dogged all previous discussions on this topic. The bottom line of Professor’s Rai’s argument is that what’s done is done and cannot be undone; that the status quo is unchangeable; that Pakistan needs Kashmir to validate the two-nation theory; that a cost-benefit analysis should convince Pakistan that attempting to change the reality in Kashmir is not worth the price; and, that India does have...

  • We have gone back and forth on the issue of American intervention in developing countries and I wish to return to the topic to broaden the terms of the discussion. Reader Tahir had raised the issue in defense of Imran Khan’s position that was the subject of three earlier posts (here, here, and here). Let us see if a wider perspective improves our understanding and helps us think of better responses, both intellectual and practical. The evidence of American interventions is not in dispute. In his Cairo address, President Obama conceded American involvement in the 1953 coup in Iran that toppled a democratic government. And this is only one of many, many instances well known to all except, perhaps, a majority of American voters. Imran Khan is part of the multitude that sees through the American rhetoric of high morality.

  • This post continues the series initiated by Imran Khan’s observations on the differences between West and East (Why the West Craves Materialism and Why the East Sticks to Religion) but it is more about the issues and less about Imran Khan. In particular it addresses the points raised by Tahir in his four comments on the earlier post. These points cover so many areas that it is best to deal with them in a separate post. To start with, it is useful to separate the various strands in the comments and respond to them one at a time. For example, it would help to separate the political and the religious dimensions. There is little doubt that the US has exploited many countries including Pakistan. But this has very little to do with religion.

  • Brilliant. Brilliant. Brilliant. We have been struggling with the notion of modernity in South Asia and wondering how “modern” modern South Asians are. And here is Ghalib providing an excellent illustration of what being modern might, at least in part, entail: kyaa farz hai kih sab ko mile ek-saa javaab aa’o nah ham bhii sair kareN koh-e tuur kii Is it necessary that everyone would get the same answer? Come! Why don’t we too go for an excursion to Mount Sinai The first thing to note is that being modern does not been mean being ignorant of tradition or history. Ghalib motivates his argument by leveraging the story of Moses going to Mount Sinai and asking to see God; and God responding to Moses that you would not have the strength to withstand the vision.

  • There was a music program in Washington, DC recently in which the three performers on stage were of South Asian origin – the vocalist from Bangladesh, the tabla player from Pakistan and the harmonium player from India. All three were young and together they created a beautiful music. The Indians in the audience asked for Faiz, the Pakistanis for Nazrulgeeti, and the vocalist herself sang the verses of poets from India. The program was a huge success lasting over five hours. It was an occasion that was symbolic of what was possible in terms of coexistence. Is that an unrealistic dream for South Asia? The election primary in the U.S. this year is a ready reminder of the transformations that are indeed possible. A mere fifty years after the Civil Rights Act when black Americans were second-class citizens afraid of being lynched and cities were...

  • I had thought my imagination was unlimited but the first visit to China disabused me of the notion. Despite all the years of reading, talking about, and studying the country, I was surprised. My imagination, free and limitless in theory, was hostage to the reality I knew in South Asia. The phrase ‘poverty of the imagination’ took on a new meaning. Getting past the physical surprise, I was intrigued by the amazing adaptability of human beings. Here were individuals cut off from the world, living in company compounds and bicycling around in blue Mao suits within my memory. Today, taxi drivers navigated intricate webs of ring roads, commuters rode magnetic levitation trains, shoppers peered at designer goods in exquisite malls – all as if these had always been a part of their lives.

  • The only significance of the events in Iran is the proof that when it comes to politics even Ayatollah’s cheat. Otherwise, everything remains the same. But the proof is of immense significance because it demolishes some strongly held beliefs about religion and democracy. Think about it. If those whose vocation it is to tell the truth, who insist they represent God’s will on earth, who claim they will have to answer to God for their doings in this world, if even they have been forced to cheat, something very compelling must be going on. But whatever it is, it is not new. Let us begin from the beginning.

  • We concluded the previous post in this series with the question: Are we what we eat? This is not a facetious question. Rather, it is an attempt to explain significant variations in human behavior. We approach this explanation by exploring the extent to which our physical conditions and the imperatives of survival might have shaped our social and psychological responses. We speculated that existence as small and constantly warring bands during the hunting and gathering era must have engrained the importance of the distinction between friend and foe. Survival in these conditions must have depended upon the socialization of altruism within groups and hostility across groups. We still see this in the Us/Them syndrome that is often quite mindless in the present environment – a visit to some blogs would be proof enough. We then asked whether growing crops based on very different labor needs...

  • We resume the series with a she’r that illustrates well some of the underlying beliefs of The South Asian Idea: nah thaa kuchh to khudaa thaa kuchh nah hotaa to khudaa hotaa Duboyaa mujh ko hone ne nah hotaa maiN to kyaa hotaa 1a) when there was nothing, then God existed; if nothing existed, then God would exist 1b) when I was nothing, then God existed; if I were nothing, then God would exist 1c) when I was nothing, then I was God; if I were nothing, then I would be God 2a) ‘being’ drowned me; if I were not I, then what would I be? 2b) ‘being’ drowned me; if I did not exist, then what would I be? 2c) ‘being’ drowned me; if I were not I, then what would exist? 2d) ‘being’ drowned me; if I did not exist, then what would...

  • We often say things without really realizing what we are saying. Pervez Hoodbhoy’s latest article on Pakistan (Whither Pakistan? A five-year forecast) begins as follows: First, the bottom line: Pakistan will not break up…. That’s the good news. Now why exactly is that good news? And from whose perspective is it good news? Clearly Pervez Hoodbhoy has assumed that to be a statement of the obvious that merits no further discussion. But it is really an unexamined assertion. I am not taking a personal position on the issue of whether the break up of Pakistan is good or not.