More on the South Asian Liberal

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 illustrate this using ‘liberal’ as an example but I could use others, say democracy or secularism, just as easily.

I will approach this task via a detour through some of the ideas of Elinor Ostrom (presented in an excellent summary by Lea Anne Fennel of the University of Chicago Law School) because they advocate a methodological approach to avoiding the problem of mislabeling that I wish to address in this article.

Elinor Ostrom, a political economist who won the 2009 Nobel Prize for Economics, is known for her work on the governance of common property resources but the ideas are general enough to be applicable in many other domains. Indeed, if a similar approach to governance in general had been followed in South Asia we might have avoided the many problems confronting the institutions of democracy in the region today.

Here is Ostrom’s point of departutre: “Theoretical inquiry involves a search for regularities. It involves abstraction from the complexity of a field setting, followed by the positing of theoretical variables that underlie observed complexities”. Fennel adds: “Only then does it become possible to assess which institutional models can work in which contexts, and to thereby dodge both misguided efforts at transplantation and missed opportunities to tap into transferable lessons.”

Ostrom characterizes her methodology as “moving back and forth from the world of theory to the world of action” in order to build a high degree of sensitivity to contextual and institutional details that may impact the feasibility and sustainability of the recommended governance arrangements. Her extensive experience is summarized in the following essential requirements for a model: “congruence with the local ecology,” “congruence with the local culture,” and “congruence between benefits and costs.”

The ideas are intuitive but general and powerful. An understanding of the field setting must precede the theorizing and the model specified must achieve congruence with the contextual reality and balance costs and benefits if misguided transplantation is to be avoided.

We are applying this methodological approach to a very restricted domain and in a different order. We wish to test if the already transplanted label of ‘liberal’ meets the tests of congruence with the ground reality in South Asia. If not, we intend to revisit that reality to infer the true values of the individual currently mislabeled as a ‘liberal’ by analysts outside South Asia.

A good starting point is the characterization of liberalism that emerges out of the European Enlightenment – it would provide the reference benchmark for our visitor from Norway. A Western liberal would be associated with values leading to a recognizable position on a set of issues like freedom of expression, democracy, secularism, capital punishment, social equality, gender equality, equality before the law, separation of church and state, and human rights.

Now let us take a few of these and test them against the reality of South Asia. A person labeled as ‘liberal’ could quite easily be imagined to express the following types of opinions in general and be living them in his or her own household and workplace:

On servants: “These people are getting too big for their boots.”
On newly rich domestic tourists: “The riff-raff is taking over the country.”
On being stopped for a traffic violation: “Do you know who I am?”
On being asked to stand in a queue: “I am a VIP.”
On corrupt politicians: “They should be lined up against the wall and shot.”
On protesters: “They should be hung upside down.”
On democratic rights: “These people only understand the rule of the stick.”
On human rights: “We are not ready for them yet.”
On the rights of the indigenous: “We need economic progress.”
On those speaking for the indigenous: “Send them to jail.”
On a daughter’s rights: “You too will marry a boy I choose.”
On separation of church and state: “Islam is a complete code of life.”
On blasphemy: “I will punish the blasphemer myself.”
On secularism: “Islam is the best guarantee of the rights of minorities.”

I am not suggesting that all these would be true for every individual labeled as a liberal but enough of them would be to suggest a serious case of mislabeling. Our Norwegian visitor would form a very misleading picture from the shorthand introduction. He would need to do what every good researcher does in a new field environment – ask specific questions on where the South Asian stands on various issues of interest.

If one probes more deeply, one would find that the label ‘liberal’ is rarely used in South Asia to refer to positions on issues. Rather, it refers to a lifestyle – all those judged to be sporting a so-called Western lifestyle would be dubbed liberals. A young woman smoking, a young man playing polo, a family swimming together – all these would be activities of liberals quite independent of what they might think about social equality, capital punishment, or secularism.

To some extent one can see such pejorative use of the label in the US as well where in the Tea Party lexicon liberals are pointy-headed Ivy-Leaguers from the East Coast bent on taking over academia and the government. ‘Liberals’ are people who are not like ‘us.’

The point of this discussion is not that the so-called liberals in South Asia are bad people. It is that the label is misleading at best and useless at worst because it does not emerge from the reality of the local context. In general terms, liberals may well be those who are left of center but to translate that into something meaningful one has to first know the location of the center itself. Without that knowledge one might as well be in Wonderland where words mean exactly what we wish them to mean.


  • Vinod
    Posted at 10:01h, 20 March Reply

    I like the examples. They evoked a smile.

  • omar
    Posted at 21:56h, 27 July Reply

    I agree, but you may be painting with too broad a brush. Some true liberals do exist and more are being created among the new generation. I like the kids. I think there is hope, provided we can get the ISI out of the way somehow.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 04:54h, 28 July

      omar: The point I wanted to make was a broad one, that we have grossly mislabeled categories. Those who are being termed liberals in the discussions about South Asia are not liberals as interpreted in the Enlightenment tradition of the West. So, what exactly are they? That’s where it seems to me we need to do our homework. And all those, the majority, who are not classified as liberals, what are they and what do they stand for? Are there shades of opinion amongst them? My suggestion was to start from issues and determine where various groups stand on them. Once we know that, we can try and assign appropriate labels. At the moment, we have it upside down. It reminds me of the 1950s and 1960s when Marxists had fanned out into the countryside looking for kulaks. It didn’t end well.

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