South Asia / 05.11.2010

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

South Asia / 13.04.2010

'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 cause to change their direction or intensity? The credibility of the prediction would rest on the depth of this analysis.
South Asia / 25.10.2009

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.
Democracy/Governance, India, Pakistan, South Asia / 26.06.2009

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 burning with...

South Asia / 27.12.2008

Continued from Hinduism -5: Impacts of Interactions With Muslims The aim of this series of posts is to comprehend how Hinduism was impacted by its interactions with outsiders – first Muslims and then the British – in order to better understand where we are today and how we got here. In the last post, we concluded that interaction with Muslims had very little impact on how Hindus viewed their own religion – its philosophy, practices or traditions. However, the social stratification of Hindu society contributed a significant number of converts to Islam or to syncretic practices that could loosely be termed as Hindu-Muslim. We will argue later that the impact of the interaction with the British was very different. But before we address that topic in detail, it is both useful and interesting to presage the argument with a specific illustrative example. The illustration pertains to the attitude...

South Asia / 26.12.2008

In this post we present some basic facts about our region so that readers are aware of the challenges that are to be addressed. South Asia is home to 25 percent of the world’s population. Yet, it contains: 50 percent of the world’s poor people 66 percent of the world’s malnourished children 33 percent of the world’s child deaths every year 50 percent of the world’s adult illiterates (over the age of 15) 40 percent of the world’s out-of-school children (ages 6 to 14) Of South Asia’s population of 1.3 billion, approximately 1 billion (85 percent) are classified as poor surviving on less than $2 per day. Half of the region’s adults are illiterates, half of its children between the ages of 6 and 14 attend no school at all, 40 percent of its primary school children drop out before reaching the 5th grade. It is no wonder that...

South Asia / 19.12.2008

Continued from Hinduism – 4: Early Interactions with Muslims In an earlier post in this series we identified two defining characteristics of Hinduism – its localized religious practice and political organization and its universal and rigid social stratification. In this post we discuss how these two characteristics shaped the interaction with Muslims and how the practices of Hinduism were affected as a result. First, on the social front, it seems reasonable to argue that the diversity of practice and localization of political organization of Hinduism in India made it relatively easy for outsiders to establish a base both physically and socially. An external force had only to overcome a local ruler to establish its presence. There was no all-India perception of an assault on Hinduism that could lead all the local forces to unite against an external enemy – such a response, had it been possible, would...

Modernity, South Asia / 12.09.2008

South Asia is considered a developing region; in earlier times it would have been called an under-developed one. So, the question is: How under-developed is South Asia and what is the nature of its under-development? We have been interested in this question for some time and have not found it easy to answer given that development is such a multi-dimensioned concept and South Asia such a diverse region. A limited but still interesting exercise is to take some standard indicators (like literacy, infant mortality, and life expectancy) and find out how long ago the now developed countries were at the same stage as South Asian countries are today. That would provide a starting point for discussion based on objective measures. It turns out even this is not a simple task as there are no readily available data to look up. Our enquiries led us to a paper in economic...

Democracy/Governance, Education, Governance, South Asia / 18.08.2008

It is often argued that illiteracy is the biggest problem in South Asia and also that illiteracy is the reason for poverty. What is the evidence for such assertions? Let us start with a couple of concrete examples: Over the past fifteen years, the proportion of the population living under extreme poverty in Pakistan has risen from 13 to 33 percent but illiteracy has declined during this period. Therefore, the explanation for the increase in poverty in Pakistan cannot be attributed to illiteracy. India has a considerably higher literacy rate than Pakistan but the incidence of poverty in India was comparable to that in Pakistan for many years.  The recent trend in poverty reduction in India cannot be attributed to a sudden increase in literacy. This is not to argue that illiteracy does not matter. Clearly a literate work force can be much more productive than an illiterate one...

Fundamentalism, Modernity, Politics, Religion, South Asia / 18.07.2008

Our two posts on fundamentalism (1, 2) have only scratched the surface of this phenomenon and revealed many more interesting questions to explore. A useful place to pick up the exploration is a recent article by Mark Lilla, a professor of the humanities at Columbia University, called The Politics of God. Professor Lilla’s point of departure is his sense of amazement that after two centuries when world politics revolved around “eminently political problems,” we seem to be back in the 16th century “entangled in conflicts over competing revelations, dogmatic purity and divine duty.” What happened? Like a good teacher, Professor Lilla has posed an interesting and also a very critical question. Readers can go to Professor Lilla’s article to see how he answers the question with reference to Hobbes and Rousseau. Here we extract some material to rephrase the proposition in our own context and to pose...