Chaos in Islamabad

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 55,000 people demand it.  They worry that the prolonged sit-ins may force the all-powerful “third force”, the Pakistan Army, to step in and declare Martial Law.

While most reasonable people would concede that the 2013 elections were rigged to some extent, it is questionable whether this rigging substantially changed the results.  Nawaz Sharif’s party won by a landslide– especially in Punjab (the dominant vote-bank of the PML-N).  Observers called the elections the fairest held in Pakistan’s history (not that this is high praise, given Pakistan’s shaky grasp on democracy).  Asides from the issue of the possibly tainted mandate, it is highly unlikely that either Nawaz or Shahbaz will resign. The PML-N has the support of most of Pakistan’s political parties.  This past Saturday, former President Asif Zardari, the Chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party, had lunch at the Sharif estate in Raiwind, outside Lahore, after which he declared that he was fully in support of Nawaz Sharif.  Rumor has it that Nawaz offered Zardari the post of President of Pakistan, which the latter is said to have declined.  In any case, the PPP and other major parties are in agreement that the demand that the sitting Prime Minister resign is “unconstitutional” and cannot be countenanced. Cynics may argue that this seeming solidarity is simply members of corrupt political dynasties protecting each other. However, unless there is much more public pressure on Sharif (or perhaps pressure from the Army), his resignation seems almost impossible.  At the time of writing, the Army also seems remarkably uninterested in intervening; saying only that the parties must settle the issue through negotiation. Perhaps, if the standoff continues or the situation turns violent, the “third force” may be forced to take matters into their own hands.

Imran Khan wants Sharif to resign. Suppose he does. What then? Khan wants new elections held under a caretaker setup as well as electoral reform.  Since systemic reform cannot happen immediately, it seems likely that any new elections are likely to be as flawed as the most recent one is said to have been.  Suppose the new elections do not bring Khan to power.   Will he accept the results as legitimate?  Or suppose that Khan does succeed in becoming Prime Minister. What is to say that a year down the line, mobs will not be protesting in Islamabad demanding his resignation?  Forcing a sitting Prime Minister to dissolve his own government sets a bad precedent and would derail democracy in Pakistan.

Imran Khan could have pursued the alternative course of focusing on governing in Khyber-Pakthunkhwa (KPK), the province where his party did receive a mandate and formed the governing coalition.  If he had succeeded in addressing the issues of the province, he would have been in a stronger position for the 2018 general elections and perhaps would have succeeded in winning power in Punjab.  However, Khan seems to have had little idea of how to address the challenges of KPK, the province that has borne the brunt of the “war on terror” and the instability in Afghanistan.  Rather, he found it was easier to lead agitations and hold protests.  There is a section of opinion in KPK that feels that Khan has ignored the province in an attempt to win power in Punjab, the locus of power in Pakistan.

A final point needs to be made about those young Pakistanis who are advocating for some kind of French or Russian Revolution or even for an “Arab Spring”.  These people seem to be discounting the fact that revolutions are bloody and often lead to civil war.  The French Revolution led to the executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.  The Russian Revolution caused civil war between the Bolsheviks and the “white Russians” who supported the Czar.  Even the example of the “Arab Spring” is not exactly salutary.  Though the Egyptian people did succeed in removing Hosni Mubarak from power, the legitimately elected government of Mohammad Morsi was itself removed through a military coup. Khan has repeatedly labeled Sharif the “Hosni Mubarak” of Pakistan, suggesting that he sees himself as Morsi. If so, than has he considered the real risk of being summarily removed by the Pakistani equivalent of General Sisi?  As for his young supporters, the prospect of sending the Sharifs to the guillotine may seem attractive, but they should remember that revolutions often cause entire societies to turn on each other. With the Sharifs go much of the Pakistani establishment, the business community, and the landed classes.  It would seem difficult to believe that the prospect of civil war in Pakistan is something that would be acceptable to many of PTI’s young supporters. Revolution may be necessary, but at what price?

At this point, the best one can hope for is that some accommodation will be reached between the government and the protestors, perhaps through the formation of a national unity government.  If the success of the sit-ins does force Sharif to implement needed electoral reforms, they will have had some positive impact.   At worst, the impasse may lead to prolonged instability in the country, forcing the Army to impose Martial Law, an outcome that very few Pakistanis—whether PML-N or PTI supporters—want.

Kabir Altaf attended the Lahore University of Management Sciences and graduated magna cum laude from George Washington University.

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  • indiajones
    Posted at 17:01h, 26 August Reply

    Some comments on the phrases used in this article.
    “Even the example of the Arab Spring is not exactly salutary”.
    Any suggestion that the Pakistani developments are even remotely akin to the so-called “Arab Spring” are ludicrous and laughable. Pakistan has to find its identity on its own steam.
    Coming to Mian Nawaz Sharif, Pakistanis across the spectrum need to give him a break – not the least because it was felt by many at that time not too far back, that Musharraf may instigate something on him, on what about two decades earlier one Zia did to one Bhutto.
    As for Imran Khan, he has to display the sportsmanship of his earlier cricketing career, off the field, even in the roller-coaster of politics, where public service has to dance with power-mongering. In short, he has to wait till the next exercise of ballot, period. And he just has to believe, and pit his strengths behind, that the third time round for Mian Nawaz will bring all-round development for Pakistan.

    “Revolution may be necessary, but at what price ?” Bernard Shaw once wrote, that every revolution only shifts the burden of tyranny from one shoulder to another. IK with a former English background and a former English wife, had better believe that…though that cannot be expected of any Qadri with a Canadian background. And give an able shoulder with his following, to the elected leader of the country.

    • Kabir Mohan
      Posted at 19:21h, 26 August


      I referred to the Arab Spring in my article because Imran Khan himself has made that analogy, repeatedly calling Nawaz Sharif the “Hosni Mubarak of Pakistan.” I was pointing out that he obviously hasn’t thought through the analogy. If NS is Mubarak, then that would make IK Morsi. Who is General Sisi?

      Revolutions do sometimes succeed in getting rid of the old system. The French Revolution did bring an end to the monarchy and aristocratic rule. Similarly, the Russian Revolution did bring a lasting end to czarism. However, the point I was trying to make was that these revolutions were bloody and caused a lot of suffering. I don’t think any Pakistani would want civil war to break out.

      I agree with you that Nawaz Sharif should be allowed to complete his five year term. If he doesn’t improve the condition of most Pakistanis, than his party will not (and should not) be re-elected in 2018. But forcing an elected PM to resign due to mob pressure simply derails democracy.

      You are also right that IK should wait to become PM until the next election. He should focus on governing in KPK, the province where his party actually has a mandate. Unfortunately, IK doesn’t seem to be interested in being sportsmanlike. Rather, he wants to grab power by any means necessary.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 00:22h, 08 September Reply
    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 23:13h, 20 September

      Anil: This whole argument is constructed around one remark:

      “In the uproar that followed the publication of Natwar Singh’s memoirs, one interesting chapter has been largely ignored. This deals with Singh’s tenure as our high commissioner to Pakistan. Before leaving for Islamabad in 1980, Singh writes, he called on Abdus Sattar, the then Pakistan high commissioner to India. He asked Sattar, “I know what to say to our friends across the border. Tell me what I should not say.”

      “Singh says that he has never forgotten the reply he received. Sattar told him, “Never say that we are the same people. We are not. If we were, then why did we part company in 1947?”

      I am not sure why Vir Sanghvi takes this remark as gospel truth. Why doesn’t he consider the alternative that it may be a stupid observation?

      If two members of a family have a bitter fight does that imply they did not belong to the same family? Even a dim-witted person should be able to see the absurdity of the argument.

      Vir Sanghvi is hung up on this “we are different” narrative and hangs on to any support he can find for it however illogical. He wrote an earlier piece on the same topic to which there was a response on this blog in several posts:

  • Vikram
    Posted at 00:59h, 22 September Reply

    SA, is your opinion here that politics has no impact on culture and way of life in general ? Or that the specific political disagreement of the 1940s can have no significant impact on such matters ?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 00:48h, 23 September

      Vikram: Yes, that is my position at this time if I understand your question correctly. There was great conflict between Hindus and Sikhs to the point of violation of one of the holiest places of the latter but what impact has it had on culture or the way of life in general? A more recent case is the conflict in AP over the creation of Telengana. Why should the conflict of the 1940s be any different? To take an example from elsewhere, it is hard to imagine a more bitter conflict than between France and Germany all through the first half of the 20th century. Again, it is not clear what the impact was on culture and the way of life in general.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 17:55h, 25 September

      SA, I think you are right about the particular case of India and Pakistan. But I am not sure if this idea is true generally. After all, the history sections of country entry’s in encyclopedias are essentially a summary of the politics of that land.

      Take the Pakhtoon lands for example. At one point of time, they were called Gandhara, and the average Gandharan today would have understood perfectly who Gandhari (character in Mahabharata) was, why she was so admirable, and perhaps even name their daughters after here. This is unthinkable today, the lived history and memory of the Gandharans has been lost. After a millinea of Muslim influence and political dominance, their historical memory now says that one of their forefather’s met Muhammad during his lifetime and came back leading all of them to adopt Sunni Islam.

      Cultures change and memories change, and politics clearly has a major part to play in this. With the creation of Pakistan, the Punjabi Muslims are finally in control of their land. This has actually never happened since their conversions. Why would they not develop an alternate historical legend just like the Pashtuns ? One that emphasizes their Muslim identity much more.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 20:39h, 25 September

      Vikram: It seems to me that you are mixing up very long time spans with very short ones which is problematic. Memory is not the same thing as culture. It is not just people in one part of India who have forgotten their history, everyone has. Indian history has no continuity in the memory of people so that many of its great names are unfamiliar to most Indians but does that mean that Indian culture has changed? On the other hand many behavioral traits change without any political change whatsoever. For example, people don’t relate to their elders they way they did in the past.

      With the creation of the state of Punjab in India, Sikhs are firmly in control of their state. Does that mean their culture or way of living has changed? The political alliances of groups can change, they can ally with one side or the other, but I don’t see how that how that impacts culture in the way you are suggesting. Put two Punjabis from across the border into a room and you can verify whether the commonalities or the differences dominate the interaction.

      According to some, the problem with Pakistan has been that the Muslim identity that you believe people are emphasizing more never took hold. People continue to give precedence to their ethnic identities which is why the Bengalis separated and the Baloch are unhappy.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 20:23h, 26 September

      South Asian, then do we agree that political changes can produce profound cultural changes, if experienced over a long enough period of time ?

      I dont think the splitting of Bangladesh and Pakistan was due to Bengalis giving precedence to their ethnicity over religion. Bangladesh independence was a reaction to sustained contempt, and a consistent denial of rights. The Islamic orientation of Bengali Muslims in Bangladesh has continued and even grown (Islam is the state religion and Bengali Hindus are being ethnically cleansed) since its independence.

      I am extremely skeptical of the claim that Islam is not a bedrock of the identity of Punjabi and Urdu-speaking Muslims. This does not stop them from having contempt for each other. Yes, the Punjabi Muslims might share aspects of culture with Sikhs and to a lesser extent Hindus from across the border, but how far can this really go. Within India, the Punjabi Hindus are extremely active in the RSS and have been among the earliest and most consistent supporters of the BJP.

      What is perhaps more significant is that even the simple test of bonhomie you propose will not be passed by Urdu speaking Karachi Muslims and Hindi speaking Hindus from UP and MP.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 22:19h, 26 September

      Vikram: I don’t really agree with this perspective. Everything changes over a long enough period of time especially if you are talking of thousands of years. But this change could be due to anything – why ascribe it specifically to politics?

      One can argue that sustained contempt and denial of rights could only occur if West Pakistanis saw East Pakistanis as Bengalis rather than Muslims – the ethnic differences were more powerful than the religious similarities.

      Islam is the bedrock of every Muslim not just of Punjabi and Urdu-speaking ones just as Sikhism is the bedrock of every Sikh. But that is not necessarily the dominant attribute of their identities. Which attribute is dominant depends on the circumstances. Your logic is very problematic. One could use it to say what might Kashmiri Muslims share with Hindus across the border and how far can it really go. If one subscribes to that argument there would be no rationale for arguing that Kashmir should be part of India.

      The test I proposed is an empirical one. You cannot say it will not be passed without putting it to the test. My experience is that one-on-one and face-to-face most Indians and Pakistanis get along just fine no matter where they are from.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 17:48h, 27 September Reply

    SA, I guess you are right. Most people from South Asia do get along exceedingly well, the underlying similarities in family structures, food habits and social norms is overwhelming and there is no point in denying this. The attempts by the state to modify culture (in all of the subcontinent, but especially Pakistan) have had little impact, partly because the state has never really been able to dominate the society in this part of the world.

    However, from an Indian nationalist perspective, I would like to think that the Indian Republic has facilitated some positive changes in the culture of India at least. For example: the empowerment and assertion of Dalits across North India, and the general spread of democratic government. The spread of South Indian cuisine and other foods like Pav Bhaji. The changes in the status of females, their clothing, especially in urban areas. The entry of nationwide institutions like the Railways and IITs/IIMs/ISRO etc into people’s lives, and overall creation of a ‘national life’ in parallel to the pre-existing pattern of life.

    Would it then be reasonable to say that once the barriers are removed, that some of these ideas will spread rapidly in Pakistan as well ? Of course, there could be developments in Pakistan that could spread in India as well.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 04:01h, 30 September

      Vikram: Cultures are rarely static; aspects of culture change in one direction or another over time. What I have been trying to argue is that there are multiple factors that contribute to these changes and politics is only one of of them. Often, there are profound changes without any political trigger. For example, migration leads to big changes – look at second generation South Asians in the US.

      Many changes are taking place in India – the democratic process and the ease of transport and communications are contributing to many. Globalization is another major contributor – according to Arundhati Roy, the Indian upper class is actually becoming alienated from Indian culture. Changes are also taking place in Pakistan. If physical barriers to interaction are removed, many new exchanges will give rise to cultural interactions and narrowing of differences.

      If the contribution of the state is to be acknowledged then the major credit must go the colonial British government because almost all the changes you mentioned were a response to interventions and investments by the British. Many of the problems can also be attributed to them except for the fact that Indian and Pakistan governments have done little to undo the damage in almost 70 years. The gross neglect of the majority of the population is one of them – South Asia remains an exceedingly elitist region.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 20:36h, 01 October

      “If the contribution of the state is to be acknowledged then the major credit must go the colonial British government because almost all the changes you mentioned were a response to interventions and investments by the British.”

      SA, I am not sure how relevant the role of the British in these aspects is. Once a technology is developed, states will try and use them in some fashion. The difference in the impact on people’s lives comes from how the technology and institution interact with the public.

      Take rail for example, in 1951 every Indian travelled only 185 km by rail every year, by 2012 that had increased to nearly 1200 km. Not to mention the number of railway stations, trains and increased track length. Democratic politics and universal suffrage have ensured that the Indian state makes the railways a public good and accessible. The people respond by incorporating the rail into their life in various ways.

      Today, a major chunk of urban India’s economy revolves around the automotive, information technology, pharmaceutical, banking and aerospace industries. All of these (with the possible exception of banking) owe their existence and growth to the policies of the modern Indian state, especially uptil 1991. None of these sectors existed in any significant way in India before 1947.

      As for the mass of the population in the rural areas, the transfer of political power from upper castes to the peasant and even Dalit castes across India is unthinkable without universal suffrage and the ECI. The overwhelming majority of CM’s in India are OBCs. That this hasnt produced an improvement and education indicators is a different matter. But I am not sure why this change is to be attributed to the British.

      Even the introduction of electoral politics and beginning of Constitutional reform in India was due to the pressure exerted by Indians.

      This process in many ways mirrored that of the Russian Empire in the early 1900s with the creation of the Soviets and democratic reform by the Tsar. The Qing dynasty and European colonisers developed a lot of rail transport in China until 1911. I am sure one would not attribute Chinese rail network to them. All regimes try to adapt under pressure. There is nothing unique about the British Raj in this matter.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 06:30h, 02 October

      One of the best examples of the impact of the modern Indian state on Indian culture (and indeed the culture of all of South Asia) would be chai.

      “Tea did not become a mass drink there [in India] until the 1950s when the India Tea Board, faced with a surplus of low-grade tea, launched an advertising campaign to popularize it in the north, where the drink of choice was milk.”

      – Colleen Taylor Sen (2004). Food Culture in India.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 01:23h, 01 October

      Vikram: An interesting article appeared in Dawn today. With reference to Vir Sanghvi, it just shows that if you look for differences you will find differences and if you look for similarities you will find similarities. That is because both exist. And one doesn’t need to restrict this to national borders. Both exist within each country as well. The real issue is what do we want to do, if anything, with these similarities and differences? How do prejudice and politics get intermeshed with them.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 06:27h, 02 October

      SA, the bigger question is not about superficial similarities and differences. The question is how is the Indian and Pakistani way of looking at the world around them changing, and against what reference point do they assess their value sets.

      I had mentioned this earlier, and this is a good time to bring it up again. In Pakistan, Islam is now identified as a reference point for morality. Whatever be the private actions of people, people judge the actions of public figures by adherence to Islamic values. What these values are, is of course, a matter of contention, but they have to be Islamic. This connects Pakistan very strongly with the Arab world, where Islamic culture *is* the local culture. One might say that such influences are felt by Muslims all across the world, but in Pakistan they intersect with questions of national identity. In many ways, Pakistan feels similar to the US in this regard, religion as a giver of moral standards.

      What I dont know is how the emerging urbanizing mass in Pakistan feels about this. Are they really much more reliant on solely Islam for their world view ? That would be a significant change from the past.

      The attitudes in India are very different. In India, religious identity is used to define political blocs but few in India talk about ‘Hindu’ values to define public morality. For moral standards, Indians invariably look to the freedom struggle.

    • Kabir Mohan
      Posted at 09:53h, 02 October


      You are right that in today’s Pakistan, “Islam” is one of the biggest (if not the sole) source of moral values. But I don’t know whether this makes Pakistan or Islam particularly unique. I think many societies around the world use religion (to a greater or lesser extent) to define morality.

      Regarding India, I am of course only speaking as an outsider, but one can find plenty of discussions on Youtube about how x activities are not “Hindu” culture. For example, when the decision about Section 377 was repealed, many spokespeople for India’s various religions came on TV to say that homosexuality is against Indian culture (“Bharati sanskriti”). Also, there is still discussion about a woman’s place and what that should be in “Hindu culture”.

      Of course I agree that India seems to be much more open-minded generally than Pakistan. But again, this is a difference of degree not of kind. I would find it difficult to accept the argument that most people in India are not looking to their religion (whatever it may be) as a source of morality.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 15:26h, 03 October

      Kabir, that is exactly my point. The term used is almost always Indian culture, not Hindu culture. See this news items today as well,

      Of course, the RSS would like to change this to Hindu culture and it is trying. But it is doubtful whether they can succeed and they themselves dont seem to know what ideas Hindu culture must encapsulate.

      Now the question vis-a-vis the situation in Pakistan is if this is merely a difference in terminology, i.e. are Pakistanis talking about the same thing as Indians are ? Or is it real difference and indicates a real cultural shift.

  • Kabir Mohan
    Posted at 16:17h, 04 October Reply


    My impression is that a substantial section of the Indian population would use “Indian culture” and “Hindu culture” interchangeably (not surprising since India is approximately 80% Hindu). As you point out, the RSS themselves don’t seem to know the exact definition of “Hindu culture”. Some would argue that this applies in Pakistan as well. What exactly is “Islamic culture”? For example, many people believe that the Quranic injunction that women dress modestly is fulfilled by covering one’s head with a dupatta. Others believe that it isn’t and that a full burqa is required. This is a relatively simple issue and there are other much more complicated debates.

    That said, you are right that in Pakistan, morality is based on “Islamic culture” and not so much on “Pakistani culture”, which is a necessarily vague concept. This is understandable given that Pakistan is a religiously-based state while India is in principle a secular one.

    Finally, I don’t think that there is anything inherently wrong with using religion as a basis for morality. It is interpretations of that religion that become problematic. If one focuses on the universal values found in all religions: decency, honesty, respect for others, etc., there would be very few problems. It is the tendency to believe that your religion is better than others and the need to show others the “right path” which is problematic.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 05:22h, 08 October

      Kabir Mohan, my objective is to understand the popular notions of cultural values and reference points. In Pakistan, these are called ‘Islamic’, in India, they are called ‘Indian’, we can set aside the fine points of what individual groups might be referring to when they use these terms.

      The bigger question is this, after 6 decades of calling their values and reference points Islamic, do the mass of Pakistanis see themselves belonging primarily to the Islamic world ? Note that the term Islamic world does not imply a monolith, it includes countries as varied (and even antagonistic) as Morocco, Iran and Afghanistan.

      An answer of the kind that they think of themselves as both belonging to the ‘South Asian’ world and the Islamic one will eventually be contradictory. This might be the situation today, but I want to know the direction in which the mass of the newly urbanizing and monetizing population is veering towards.

    • Kabir Mohan
      Posted at 06:35h, 08 October


      I don’t think that seeing oneself as belonging to both the “South Asian” and “Islamic” worlds is contradictory. Most Pakistanis that I know are quite aware that ethnically and culturally, Punjabis and Sindhis are “Indian”. We eat Indian food, wear Indian clothing and speak Indic languages. If you attend a Pakistani wedding, you can hardly tell the difference with an Indian one. It’s the same Bollywood songs, the same Mehndi rituals, the same fashions. Yes, the religious rituals are different, but that’s it.

      Religiously, more and more Pakistanis are looking at the Arab world for models of how to be more “Islamic”. This is despite the fact that South Asian Islam is historically quite different from Arab Islam. I don’t have an empirical answer for you as to what percentage of people identify with Arabia vs. South Asia as that would require someone to do anthropological research on the ground. But my sense is that most people are quite capable of compartmentalizing their cultural and religious identities.

      One could turn this question around and ask about the self-identification of Indian Muslims. As Indian citizens, they are clearly part of the “South Asian” world and as Muslims they are part of the “Islamic” world. Do they see this as a contradiction or as different aspects of their identities that they are able to deal with?

    • Amelia
      Posted at 03:49h, 11 October

      The reason why you see such a political version of the religion in Pakistan is because of 1) lack of identity of the nation, 2)movements by anarchist groups who misinterpret the religion but root cause is the psychopathic leaders Pakistan has had with dysfunctional views of society, religion and education. Since the 60s Pakistan has had leaders destroy its educational system, create laws limiting equal rights for women and middle class, limit electricity, etc. The nation has been going downhill but you have look at its leadership and ask yourself why???

  • Amelia
    Posted at 15:54h, 10 October Reply Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City
    the book sums up the ethnic, secretarian, and economic conflicts of Karachi but is a reflection of the problems of the entire nation in every state.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 19:36h, 12 October Reply

    ” One could turn this question around and ask about the self-identification of Indian Muslims. As Indian citizens, they are clearly part of the “South Asian” world and as Muslims they are part of the “Islamic” world. Do they see this as a contradiction or as different aspects of their identities that they are able to deal with? ”

    Kabir, if one goes by this comment (seemingly from an observant insider) on a Kafila blog, the answer to your question is “sort of”.

    As far as the bulk of Indian Muslims are concerned though, the much more important movement is the “Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz”. This movement is important for the following reasons:

    1) It aims to secure political rights, specifically reservations for Indian Muslims of oppressed castes. This is in keeping with the liberal, progressive philosophy of the Indian Constitution and opens avenues for collaboration and exchange with other oppressed Indian groups like Dalits, tribals and women.

    2) Since it is a movement that identifies the oppression of both Hindu and Muslim upper castes, it has the potential to free up Muslim culture from Arabian (and Persian) imperialism. The example of Hindu Dalits and Buddhism/Ambedkarism is perhaps relevant here.

    The Muslim lower castes have so far been used as a bulwark by the high caste Muslims, the same way elites in the Arab world use poor Muslims around the world.

    “However, it is a fact that in India certain powerful sections of the followers of that very Islam that preaches the doctrines of equality of man and brotherhood of all Muslims, owing to their utter selfishness and love of power and domination and for their own interests, cast the laws of Islam to forewinds and, though themselves in a minority, turned a vast majority of their coreligionists carrying on various occupations in this country into low and backward communities, having denied them all facilities of receiving education and shut out to them all the benefits and amenities of good social life. At that time, however, these occupational classes did not care much for these social humiliations and disabilities but kept themselves engaged in their various professional pursuits. The result of all this is that today out of nine crore of Muslims in India over eight crore are socially fallen and degraded having been classified among the low castes. They have been systematically exploited by the upper class Muslims who had even been demanding and obtaining special privileges from the Government of the day on behalf of these very eight crore low, poor and backward Muslims but have always usurped what they got to enjoy only themselves.” – Abdul Qaiyum Ansari (

    In the long term, I dont think that the fundamentalist voices emanating from the Middle East will have a major effect on Indian Muslims. This is mainly because these neo-Islamist movements dont really have anything interesting to offer in terms of a lasting philosophy. They are just pissed off at the West (with good reason perhaps) but thats not good enough.

    • Kabir Mohan
      Posted at 17:35h, 13 October

      Vikram, thanks for your response. As a non-Indian, I don’t really know the Indian Muslim perspective. I can only extrapolate and assume that they are more or less like Pakistani Muslims, being the same ethnically and religiously. The major differences in thinking would come from being minority citizens of a formally secular state as opposed to majority citizens of a religiously-based one. Pakistani Muslims certainly don’t have to deal with being swamped by a dominant majority of another religion. At the same time, as has been pointed out on this blog before, life for the poor and downtrodden Muslims is probably not much better in Pakistan than it would have been in United India.

      The caste angle you bring up is also interesting. I think it may be a useful unit of analysis in terms of India, but less so in terms of Pakistan. Pakistanis don’t think in terms of caste and rarely does anyone talk about “Dalits”. I concede that South Asian Muslims do operate according to a baradari system and do distinguish between Syeds and Jats etc. But you never hear about Jats not being allowed in Syed Mosques. As I said earlier, I think in Pakistan, the more useful analytical unit is social class.

      On the caste note: I was reading Arundahti Roy’s “The Doctor and the Saint” the other day and she brings up two experiences Dr. Ambedkar had when he realized that those who are “untouchable” according to caste Hindus are also “untouchable” to other South Asians, regardless of religion. One was when he was expelled from a Parsi housing colony (he had managed to rent a room by pretending to be Parsi) and the other was when some Muslim villagers refused to let him drink their water during Ramzan. I suppose that Parsis and Muslims also adapted to the social structure of Indian society and began acting according to the caste system. This despite the fact that Islam explicitly states that all believers are equal in Allah’s eyes.

      Lastly, if you truly want to understand Pakistan, I invite you to visit the country. You’ll have a very different experience than you can have reading about it in the abstract. You’ll probably find that “Islamic” morality is much less important to people’s daily life than it seems from the outside.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 19:49h, 13 October

      Kabir, thank you for your invitation to visit Pakistan. I would gladly accept. More than anything, I would like to see the incredible Sindh river in its full glory, a river so central to the Vedas, yet lost to the Hindus over the course of history. I would also like to see the site of the 1931 Karachi session of the Congress, where it passed its Swaraj resolution.

      Pakistani street cricket would also be an interesting sight for an Indian like me, with its wealth of fast balling talent.

      Hope I make it there one day.

    • Kabir Mohan
      Posted at 11:49h, 15 October


      Let me know when you want to visit. I would be happy to facilitate your trip to Lahore and Karachi.

      I would also love to go to India again. I went several years ago when I was a young teenager. We visited Delhi and Agra. Agra was particularly moving as we have family there and I was able to see the house where my grandmother grew up. I’d love to go again–especially to Delhi, which I feel is a lot like Lahore, but with more culture. I would also love to see Srinagar (unlikely though it is for someone of Pak-origin).

      One of the saddest things about the way that Partition occurred is how the border is basically closed to most Indians and Pakistanis. We meet and become friends in London, New York, or Dubai, but traveling 30 miles from Lahore to Amritsar is more difficult than traveling from Lahore to DC. There is hope however. If France and Germany can get over their issues, there is no reason why we cannot.

      Ironically, people-to-people contacts are one of the best ways to break down stereotypes. This is why the Pakistani state is very reluctant to allow Indians to visit. Such visits completely destroy everything we ever learned in Pak Studies.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 16:06h, 16 October

      Kabir, there could indeed be a lot of simlarities between Delhi and Lahore, after all both are basically Punjabi/Haryanvi cities, although Delhi is slowly becoming more mixed.

      That being said Delhi remains an uncouth city in the eyes of most Indians. It is certainly not a safe place.

      Agra, incidentally is also where my mother is from, my nanaaji had a big house there which was recently sold. My mother and maamas are very nostalgic about the city. The city had a real syncrectic culture, my mother made it a point to take my sister and I to dargahs as well as mandirs. I dont know how much of that culture is left now.

      All in all, North Western India has a lot to offer a Pakistani, the Mughal monuments, and the similar cuisine and culture. But if you really want to experience India, you have to visit Mumbai.

  • Kabir Mohan
    Posted at 09:56h, 17 October Reply

    Vikram, as a student of Hindustani music I am particularly fascinated with Delhi. I’ve heard that there are constantly music performances going on. We don’t have much of those in Lahore anymore though the All Pakistan Music Conference does do a monthly concert on the first of every month and a weeklong festival once a year.

    How interesting that we both have Agra connections. My dadi grew up in ‘hing ki mandi’ where her father owned a shoe factory.

    Mumbai is often compared to Karachi as both are the economic capitals of their respective nations. Lahore and Delhi are the historical/ cultural capitals (though I suppose Mumbai could also be considered India’s cultural capital).

    • Vikram
      Posted at 17:31h, 17 October

      Kabir, I am afraid you are mistaken about Hindustani music and Delhi. There are two main centres for classical music in India.

      1) Mumbai for both Hindustani and Carnatic.
      2) Chennai for Carnatic.

      For a comparison between Delhi and Mumbai, see the listings here:

      As you can see, there are barely any concerts at Delhi and this is the typical scenario. You will find many more classical concerts in Mumbai, and perhaps Kolkata.

      I dont mean to sound chauvinistic, but Delhi is quite insignificant in the Indian cultural scene. Mumbai overwhelms almost all other cities, whether it comes to films, music and drama (both in Hindi and Marathi). The other major centres are Kolkata, Chennai and Hyderabad.

    • Kabir Mohan
      Posted at 10:36h, 18 October

      Vikram, Delhi certainly has more of a cultural scene than Lahore. I am aware of SPIC MICAY as well as of performances at the India Habitat Centre. It is also where some of the major gharanas of North Indian Music are based.

      Otherwise, like a typical Mumbaikar, you think your own city is the best. Just as most Lahoris will always say “Lahore Lahore Hai!” 🙂

    • Vikram
      Posted at 15:35h, 18 October

      Indeed 🙂

      Wherever you go in India, I am sure you will find it interesting and I look forward to hearing about your travels.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 11:18h, 22 October

      I lived in Allahabad for a long time … and it is traditional cultural capital of India not Mumbai or Delhi. In fact these mega towns are merely burrowing ideas from world cultural capitals, sometimes modifying it to local setting, hardly creating anything original of their own . They may be performing arts capitals but small towns carry burden of traditional culture long after the big towns have aped and transformed into what is trendy in the world. These small towns are like anthills; inanimate viewed from distance but get inside, it will be swarming with activities. There is no air of urgency, life drifts along predictable lines and for a fellow from big town these places are like getting stuck in a time warp. These towns provide a sense of Gulliver to big town folks who descend, condescendingly mouth inanity and generally act politically correct and walk out dusting away dirt from their clothes.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 12:00h, 22 October

      Anil: This is a very insightful comment. For the last two years I have been leading a project on small cities and am continually surprised how most of our students know so little about them. Some of the non-metros that were seats of princely states have particularly rich histories.

      Related to the project we have a Facebook page. I hope you can re-post your comment there as it adds a new dimension about the cultural heritage. Very soon we will have a website – the objective will be to provide a forum for small city residents to interact with each other and form an association of small cities. I am hoping the collective voice will carry more weight in negotiations with state and national authorities.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 18:15h, 23 October

      Anjum, I don’t like logging into Facebook. It is noisy and annoyingly intrusive.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 18:57h, 25 October

      Anil: That’s fair enough. If it is alright with you, I can edit the comment and add it to the page for the participants to think about.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 02:43h, 28 October

      Yes, by all means .

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