20 Dec Some Reflections on the Nature of Economic, Social, and Political Change
By Anjum Altaf
[This is the text of the 16th Hamza Alavi Distinguished Lecture delivered in Karachi on December 16, 2017, under the auspices of the Irtiqa Institute for Social Sciences and the Hamza Alavi Foundation. The lecture was delivered in Urdu and does not follow the order of the formal written version. A video of the lecture is accessible at the Irtiqa Facebook page.]
An important strand of Hamza Alavi’s work was about change and the agency for change as attested by the two well-known hypotheses associated with his name – those of the middle peasantry (1965) and of the salariat (1987). I intend to use these as the point of departure to offer some tentative reflections on the nature of change and on the scenarios facing us today in Pakistan and more generally across the world.
Economics, the Importance of Rules, and Collective Agency
My own academic interest in the subject arose not with reference to politics or sociology but via a study of economics. In preparing for doctoral work, I was struck by the centrality of rules in our lives. Everything we do is governed by rules, some of which, such as those enforced by organizations and legislatures, are relatively short-lived, while others, like cultural norms, have comparatively longer lives. Any number of examples can be offered by way of illustration. The most obvious case of the application of rules to action is in the realm of games like chess, cricket and hockey. Industrial behaviour is circumscribed by laws pertaining to labour and the environment, commercial transactions by rules of taxation, social interactions by rules of inheritance and marriage, and history by rules of succession. Extending the argument, it is asserted that all institutions can be characterized as sets of rules that define and govern behaviour (North, 1990).
Once I realized the centrality of rules, it occurred to me that mainstream economic theory was limited in the way it incorporated this fact within its corpus. Recall that in the theory of the firm, for example, the highest virtue is efficiency. A producer is expected to maximize efficiency in the production process within the given set of rules applicable at the time. The last part, however, is left unstated and implicitly assumed as a datum.
I started my doctoral work abroad but my formative experiences had been in Pakistan and this conceptualization of the production process did not ring true to me. I was quite aware that producers in Pakistan cared little about efficiency while investing a lot of time and money in manipulating rules to their advantage. It was an easily observable fact that windfall gains, many times those resulting from being efficient, could be achieved by manipulation of rules. There were examples that I had experienced personally. Consider a rule change that made it mandatory for motorcycle riders to wear helmets. This could multiply the demand for helmets overnight increasing their price in the market. Consider another rule that would prohibit the import of helmets. That would yield another bonanza for domestic producers.
Given this fact, it was quite clear to me that rational economic agents would invest more in trying to change rules to their advantage than in being efficient within existing rules. It was also obvious that rules were not fixed but liable to change and often the object of conscious efforts intended to induce change and that one could differentiate various situations by the relative stability of their rule regimes (1). Based on these insights I set out to investigate how rules impacted economic behaviour by incorporating the rule regime explicitly into the theoretical framework of mainstream economics from which it had been excluded (Altaf, 1983).
A major conclusion followed immediately. The kind of rule changes mentioned above, e.g., mandating the use of helmets, cannot, in general, be engineered by any individual producer in the market. However, we encounter such rule changes quite often. This means that economic theory resting on methodological individualism, i.e., taking the individual as the unit of analysis, could not account for such dynamics. It needed to figure out a way to resolve this limitation.
But let us step back for a moment. Does the fact that an individual is unable to engineer a rule change imply that he or she has no agency? Not at all, because the individual always retains the agency to violate a rule, e.g., to not stop at a red light. The instances of individual firms violating safety and environmental rules are so flagrant that there is no need to belabor the point. Suffice it to say that the economics of cheating is a major area in its own right though not of primary importance for the subject of this discussion.
But consider the flip side – while individuals cannot change rules, groups can. In the realm of economics, these are lobbies associated with various industries like textiles, automobiles, healthcare, hedge funds, etc. Thus an economic theory desirous of incorporating the reality of rule changes would need to take the group as the unit of analysis – only then would something like the economics of lobbying become an integral part of the theory rather than an add-on.
Let us reiterate at this juncture the immense significance of rule changes. The point can be driven home vividly by reference to the mundane sport of hockey. Many people claim that just two rule changes – that of the playing surface from grass to Astroturf and the off-side rule – put paid to the dominance of subcontinental teams in favour of European and Australian ones. The changes lessened the importance of artistry and close ball control in favour of stamina and long passes in which Europeans had a comparative advantage.
In weightier domains, one can think of the differences over rules of political succession that were at the bottom of the schism in Islam right at the very outset. The inability to agree on rules of succession continued to plague Muslim empires throughout history – recall the fact that during the Mughal empire each successive emperor had to eliminate all his brothers to establish dominance. In our own times we see a recurrence of something similar in the emerging rift between Maryam Nawaz and Hamza Shahbaz – different sets of courtiers informing each of them that they are intended for the same role.
Here I would like to recall a fascinating hypothesis I heard first from the late G.M. Mehkri (Altaf, 2009a). He posed the question of why Muslims were the poorest community in India despite over a thousand years of Muslim rule. His speculation was that Muslims in India had persisted with a law of inheritance, one that was appropriate in a desert economy where reproducible assets like animals were the principal source of wealth, after migrating to an agricultural economy in which the principal source of wealth was land, a non-reproducible asset. He surmised further that the reason Memons, Khojas, and Bohras were more affluent amongst Muslim communities was because they had retained their caste laws of inheritance on conversion to Islam. While I am not in a position to validate these specific hypotheses, they do illustrate vividly the possibility of deep and long-lasting impact of rules and rule changes on society.
One of the extensions of this line of thought is the realization that some of the most important interactions in our world (‘games’ in the game-theoretic sense) are played not within given rules but over the rules that are to govern transactions. One needs only to think of global negotiations over rules of trade, intellectual property, and climate change to realize this vital truth. This opens up many issues that are of great interest, e.g., who has the power, authority and legitimacy to make rules, how do groups form and sustain themselves to challenge rules, how do groups opposed to each other interact in the struggle over rules, and what is the role of the rule-maker, often the state, in such struggles? Is the rule-maker a neutral umpire or an active player with interests of its own (2)?
The bottom line of this argument for me was the following: that the relevant unit of analysis is the group (including the state as an identifiable group) and that groups are not averse to using all means, not just economic ones, to change rules in order to maximize their self interest. Even within the discipline of economics, restricting ourselves to Homo Economicus was to limit the analysis without adequate justification. Humans are really political animals – Zoon Politikon, in the characterization of Aristotle. Thus, for the phenomena that interested Hamza Alavi, economics, sociology and politics come together in a unified social science that sees history as the struggle over rules of games that are continuously played out amongst contending groups aiming to optimize their respective self interests.
Consider in this light the motivations of Hamza Alavi’s middle peasantry and the salariat. At the conceptual level the characterization presented above would make sense quite independent of whether or not the groups were capable of effecting the changes attributed to them. Between the motivation and the ability there are intervening variables that we will address later in this discussion.
Before doing so I would like to flag an issue that would hopefully nuance the discussion. This pertains to the default backdrop of Enlightenment Europe as an exemplar of the type of change we often implicitly have in mind with its salience regarding the rights of individuals – the transition to an age characterized by the transformation of subject to citizen along with corresponding notions of social contract, citizenship and civil rights. We need to remain aware that the European experience emerged out of the confluence of a very particular set of developments (Johnson, 1999) that need have almost no parallel in our part of the world. Differences matter even within the colonial context as Andre Beteille (2013) observed regarding the evolution of democracy:
“In both India and the United States (US) – unlike in England or France – democracy grew in response to the challenge of colonial rule, but the responses were not the same in the two cases. America was a new nation characterized by social conditions that were very different from the social conditions prevalent since time immemorial in India.”
Even the transformation of subject to citizen in Europe had a particular history modulated by the rise of capitalism. Marshall (1950), in a classic essay, has elaborated the peculiarity of the development in England of the civil, political and social dimensions of citizenship, in that order, each taking around one century to consolidate.
Marshall’s thesis on the sequential development of citizenship rights (Cohen, 2010) is embedded in the specificities of the emergence of capitalism in Europe with its imperatives to protect privacy (of property) and to promote individualism (to make labor a freely tradable commodity). The unintended outcome of these imperatives was the concession of civil rights extending the sanctity of property to the body of the worker, his or her primary asset. This concession of the equality of all bodies, in turn, led to a demand for political rights, an equal say in the election of political representatives. And the need to protect the capitalist system from the pressures for redistribution from below generated by the exercise of civil and political rights led to the progressive yielding of socioeconomic rights.
In the colonies, by contrast, political rights took precedence, being virtually gifted in the historical process, and are still significantly more legitimated than individual and civil rights. Khilnani (1997) observes that “most people in India had no idea of what exactly they had been given. Like the British empire it supplanted, India’s constitutional democracy was established in a fit of absent-mindedness.” Mehta (2003) adds that India’s democratic experiment “was not the object of ideological passion, it was not born of a deep sense of conviction widely shared, but it was simply the contingent outcome of the conflicts amongst India’s different elites, or an unintended by-product of the British having produced too many lawyers adept in the idioms of modern politics.”
Dr. Ambedkar (1949), the author of the Indian Constitution, was under no illusion regarding the nature of the evolution of rights in India: “In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?”
Teresa Caldeira (2000) has argued convincingly that scholars of “the history of the countries that invented the liberal-democratic model (France, England, and the United States)… have tended to generalize the history so that it becomes the history of the development of rights and discipline in general and the model of what citizenship and democracy should look like.”
“One of the effects of this generalization is to link certain elements as if they always occur together and in a certain sequence. Countries such as Brazil, but also others with different histories (usually colonial histories) and that today have disjunctive democracies force us to dissociate the elements of that history and to question their sequence. They force us to see the possibility of political citizenship without the control of violence, of a rule of law coexisting with police abuses, and of electoral democracies without civil rights or a legitimate justice system… Looking at these histories, we realize that what we think of as the norm – the European history of the control of violence and development of citizenship rights – is only one version of modernity, and probably not even the most common one. When we look at other histories we realize that multiple modernities are produced as different nations and peoples engage with various elements of the repertoire of modernity (monopoly of the use of force, citizenship, liberalism and so on).”
The European historical model of social change referred to above encapsulated what we can call a progressive expansion of the rights of individuals modulated by groups seeking to change rules to extract privileges from other groups standing in the way of their advancement. One can begin with the iconic example of the Magna Carta before progressing through social revolutions characterized by the rise of the bourgeoisie against the aristocracy, political evolution marked by the prolonged struggle of citizens to extend the electoral franchise, and economic amelioration exemplified by the efforts of workers for improved working conditions.
As opposed to the European experience modulated by the rise of capitalism and the politics of economic growth, there were no social revolutions in South Asia which moved from pre-modern to modern forms of governance, midwived by the British, with the same social classes remaining in charge and reinventing themselves in new roles. A more defining phenomenon in the colonies was the waning of imperial power and the politics of decline and economic scarcity in which dominant minorities struggled to safeguard the erosion of their privileges (3). In India after 1857, the British resorted to rule changes that would weaken the nationalist opposition by privileging the divisive salience of religion in governance. This threatened some segments of the Muslim aristocracy when governance inclined towards dependence on electoral representation. Suddenly numbers became a critical factor and the Muslim aristocracy, in turn, sought rule changes (like separate electorates and over-representation) that would protect its privileges despite its lesser numbers. In this framework, the failure to reach an agreement with the dominant community on the rules of the game resulted in the division of the subcontinent.
A similar pattern, but without a similar outcome, was repeated in Sri Lanka in the case of the Tamils and later in Pakistan with the erosion of the dominance of the Urdu-speaking group concentrated in urban Sindh, another phenomenon that was of interest to Hamza Alavi (1989). The point to keep in mind is that such rearguard movements to safeguard against the erosion of privileges, although of immense political significance, do not necessarily lead to progressive change in the rights of individuals. They can sometime, but not always, result in political fragmentation in which a smaller clone of the larger territory can exercise sovereignty within similar sets of rules.
This tendency is strengthened by the fact that civil rights remain weak in South Asia and the primary identity is not the acquired one of an individual citizen but that of subjects subscribing to ascriptive social affiliations related to religion, ethnicity, language, etc. The difference can be illustrated by reference to Marx’s appeal that formed the core of the European class struggle – “Workers of the World Unite.” While workers, an acquired identity, were not able to form coalitions across nations, they were able within nations to wrest many individual concessions encapsulated in rule changes like the length of the working day, minimum wage, unemployment insurance, etc. In the subcontinent, by contrast, the solidarity of workers was much more easily negated by the state’s recourse to divisive ascriptive affiliations of religion, ethnicity and language.
This situation, peculiar to our types of countries, has been formulated conceptually by Chatterjee (2001) in a recategorization of the population between a small civil society comprised of citizens motivated by individual rights and a large political society comprised of marginalized subjects motivated by the acquisition of collective rights. The argument is advanced that civil society has tended to align itself with the state while political society has struggled to find effective means to assert its numerical power.
The bottom line that emerges from this discussion is that in all cases there is a collective agency at play but the dynamics are very different depending on historical specificity. The changes in Enlightenment Europe were driven by the interests of rising economic powers in the context of the emergence of capitalism leading to progressive gains in a particular sequence in the rights of individual citizens. In most colonies, on the other hand, the driver of change was either rearguard action by privileged minorities to safeguard their entitlements or demands by marginalized subnational groups for collective rights leading to repression and/or political fragmentation.
It is of interest to note, if only in passing, the recent emergence of the politics of economic decline in the West consequent upon the playing out of the globalization of capital. One can see the election of Donald Trump in the US and the gains of far-right political parties in Europe in this light. The decision of the UK to quit the European Union also conforms to the predicted pattern.
By contrast, the prospects of progressive politics in present-day Pakistan seem to have faded over time. The labour movement has weakened considerably and while there are numerous disaffected groups in political society, their ability to form effective coalitions resistant to countervailing measures of the state is yet to be demonstrated.
Here one must return to the salience of identity as a variable in the effectiveness of collective agency via the ability to craft coalitions united in a political struggle. A number of scholars (see Lilla, 2017) have noted that almost all politics in the West has now reduced itself to identity politics. But it may be this very factor that has resulted in the remarkable progress of some struggles that have overcome the barriers of co-existing primordial loyalties, the LGBTQ movement being the most recent example. The nature of the outcome is in some measure a result of the choice of identity that has traction in a particular situation, the choice arising (or being induced) because, as Amartya Sen (2006) has pointed out, identity is multidimensional. Recall that there were few takers for the concerns of the Muslim aristocracy in India till 1937 and it was only the projection of an arguably exaggerated existential threat to religious identity that gave momentum to the movement in the 1940s (4).
Prospects for Change in South Asia
What can one conclude about the prospects of change in Pakistan today? Given the nature of political society and the dominant markers of identity one can foresee the continued festering of demands for ethnic recognition and regional autonomy along lines we are familiar with in South Asia – demands of the Baloch, Seraiki and Hazara come readily to mind. These could be resolved in better or worse ways but are unlikely to proceed to the outcomes exemplified in the past by either Pakistan or Bangladesh for reasons articulated later.
As for progressive change, the prospects along stereotypical revolutionary lines appear slim. However, there is an emerging perception that sees a different way forward in working with elements within political society (5). It has been noted that of the many disaffected groups in political society there are some, like trade and community associations, that have functioning democratic structures. A number of civil society activists are working with such associations to pressurize the state to deliver on the legitimate entitlements of the latter. Marginalized groups are vulnerable because they often have to break rules to engage the state, e.g., by encroaching on state land and then demanding the regularization of the status quo. But there are other rules defining legal entitlements that remain unimplemented. These pertain to benefits like overtime, disability pay, etc. that are evaded by employers and rights that are promised in the Constitution. The de jure representative state is forced into a delicate balancing game with such groups and it remains to be seen what will transpire if and when such movements threaten to shift the balance of power. It is still likely but not a priori inevitable that the state might be able to finesse these emerging coalitions by recourse to divisive primordial identities as it has in the past.
It is useful to highlight the existing and potential differences between contemporary Pakistan and India in the context of change. While India has also had its demands for regional autonomy they have been handled relatively better except for the states on the peripheries. Marginalized groups have achieved a measure of access to rights to education, employment, food, and information. However, the major difference could lie in the quest for social and civil rights. While one sees virtually no identity-based movements in Pakistan likely to lead to decisive progressive change, the same may not be true in India where one could plausibly envision an alternative scenario. The access to political rights via the vote and the existence of marginalized primordial caste-based identity groups (e.g., Dalits) with significant electoral power has resulted in the latter securing some economic rights through affirmative action to rise up the economic scale. These economic gains have yet to be translated into gains in social status and one can see a collective movement that could evolve in that direction in a period of continued economic growth. The recent surge of campus activism has encouraged the possibility of potential coalitions of such caste groups with more traditional factions of the Left in the struggle for civil rights.
As a necessary caveat one should note that in thinking of the prospects of change the influence of background events such as the Black Death, that hastened the end of feudalism, or the growth of capitalism in Europe cannot be ignored. Three major factors could be mentioned in the case of Pakistan. The first has been the safety valve of emigration out of the country – the actual numbers belie the psychological significance of the fact that till today both the elites and the marginalized have concentrated their efforts on trying to maximize their self-interest by leaving the country rather than fighting to change it (6).
The first academic paper I wrote (Altaf, 1982) articulated the likely political implications of this phenomenon. My conclusion was that “the process may well leave in its wake a newly arisen small-property owning class that could side more readily with narrow reaction than with progressive change.”
The second major factor, evolving under the radar as it were, is that of continuing urbanization. It could foreshadow a non-revolutionary model of change akin to that of Latin America where numerically significant urban middle-class groups demanding better access to essential services like water, power, health, and education were able to wrest concessions from the state and ultimately displace military rule with more representative governance.
The third factor is the displacement of labour from agriculture which would continue in Pakistan. In the absence of the kind of rapid economic growth that marked the Industrial Revolution in Europe or the later industrial transformations in East Asia, we might end up with a huge population parked in the never-never land between agriculture and industry. Given a demographic profile skewed towards the young, this disaffected population would be a potential agent for change but many doubt that its mobilization would be along progressive lines. Just thinking whether the ideology of the ‘revolution’ of such groups would be of the Right or the Left and whether it would be armed or not is sufficient to yield serious misgivings. A thought provoking dimension of such a prospect is the contemporaneous bankruptcy of ideas that might motivate a revolution in Pakistan today. When one thinks of the social revolutions of Europe, one is inspired by the intellectual debates of the times and the stature of the public intellectuals who participated in the debates. The entire foundation of the European Enlightenment emerged out of the contestation of ideas that are studied in academia to this day.
This thought leads me to highlight a seemingly unrelated fact – that almost all progressive change we have experienced in the world has been accompanied by a huge amount of literature in the form of treatises, novels and plays that have paved the way for the acceptance of change by the often subliminal projection of alternate realities (7). The latest example of that has been the phenomenal speed with which the LGBTQ movement has been accepted in the West by populations that were viscerally opposed to its demands on doctrinal grounds a mere few decades ago. The relative dearth of such literature in Pakistan means that a very powerful lubricant of progressive social change is missing (8). On the contrary, the hardening of regressive views continues apace (9).
A Modest Conclusion
In conclusion, it does appear that we are in a bind. A social revolution is warranted but one can sense that the time for old-style social revolutions of the disenfranchised could well be gone; modern states have too much firepower, instruments of control, and technologies of rule at their disposal to be overthrown in the ways of the past – history rarely repeats itself like that (10). One can also sense that any revolution of the traditional types we are familiar with, in which one class upends all the rules of the game in one go, could easily end up as a horror story (11.
One can infer from this discussion that a major revolution occurred in the West with the transition of people from subjects to citizens. This transition, in turn, irrevocably altered the nature of the playing field on which future battles would be enacted. In brief, the terrain became rule oriented in which the rulers and the ruled were bound by legally protected rights and entitlements. All future changes would be marked by an struggle in this domain over the nature of rules that would be chosen to govern society.
A most vivid example of this phenomenon would be the evolution of capitalism itself. Instead of the outright overthrow of capitalists by workers, a much more gradual process followed in which workers extracted concessions one entitlement at a time. The end result, if one sees the Scandinavian countries as an exemplar, was the virtual attainment of the same quality of life of workers that was posited as an objective of the overthrow of capitalism by socialism.
The situation in South Asia is complicated by the fact that, as Partha Chatterjee has conceptualized, society remains fragmented between subjects and citizens which means that the struggle for justice and a better quality of life would tend to be a composite of rights-based movements for change, insurrections of the kinds marked by the increasing frequency of dharnas, and more typical local modes of protest like fasts-to-death. Whether subjects and citizens, responding to quite different tensions in society, can unite in the struggle remains to be seen. Their fragmentation provides the major weapon to the ruling class to prolong the status quo via a strategy of divide-and-rule.
Given the above, it can be argued that the most optimistic scenario is for civil and political society coalitions to realize that in parallel with whatever else they may be doing, they cannot but gain by raising the stakes in a more pragmatic joint strategy focused on identifying rules for change that would yield benefits for all. It is not inconceivable that some of these, like those mentioned earlier in the context of hockey, while apparently innocuous could well trigger developments that tip the balance of forces over time. The myriad rules that go into forming the Constitution – recall that institutions are nothing but rules – could provide possible targets. As one example, changing the first-past-the-post rule for elections could well begin sending more responsive representatives into the legislature with a snowball effect (Altaf, 2008). Instead of allowing the state to insert ‘Sadiq and Ameen’ types of rules to manipulate developments to its advantage, coalitions could identify and struggle for non-controversial rule changes that could redound to their benefit.
This may sound like a less than heroic conclusion but it may be a pragmatic complementary approach and a worthwhile endeavour to be adopted in the given circumstances. It would be a decided improvement over either lamenting the existing state of affairs and giving up on the future or being dismissive of small but cumulative gains in the quest of a chimerical revolution.
1. In the dissertation, I posited that rule regimes could be stabilized by the introduction of ‘meta-rules’, i.e., ‘rules to make rules’ that would procedurally be relatively more difficult to change.
2. The role of the state was another important strand in the work of Hamza Alavi (1972).
3. All the four theoretically possible scenarios – those resulting from economic growth and decline in developed and developing countries, respectively, are discussed in Altaf (1983). The socioeconomic processes likely to emanate from each are separately articulated.
4. Even then, not all Muslims subscribed to the position of the Muslim League (see Qasmi and Robb, 2017). For the strikingly different attitudes of Muslim women which were given short shrift in a patriarchal society, see (Altaf, 2015).
5. Private conversation with Sarwar Bari, Pattan Development Organization, 2017.
6. A theoretical formulation of this phenomenon is to be found in the celebrated ‘Exit, Voice, and Loyalty’ hypothesis of Hirschman (1970).
7. Note the salience accorded in the feminist movement to the writings of Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, Kate Millett, Shulamith Firestone, etc.
8. It is fascinating to speculate that genre might matter in this context – that genres like novels, plays, and films work on attitudes one mind at a time while poetry in a largely oral culture works on the collective psyche. Does the fact that we have a much greater output of poetry, intended to be heard not read, compared to the other genres signify anything in this context? I don’t feel competent enough to answer this question but leave it as a subject for discussion.
9. Based on limited information, my understanding is that a considerable quantity of such literature is now emerging in local Indian languages. It may also exist in local languages in Pakistan unknown to those not familiar with them. Also recall the Russian and Chinese literature that was relatively abundant in the early years of Pakistan.
10. Consider the trajectory of the Naxalite movement in India (Dey, 2017) and the ephemeral Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street Movement.
11. Along the lines of the Cambodian revolution which was initially welcomed by a number of leading intellectuals in the West. But note that in the popular conception the old style revolution remains dominant in Pakistan, kept alive in the imagination by our poets – see the classic ‘ham dekheN ge’ by Faiz immortalized by Iqbal Bano with its stirring lines “sab taaj uchaaley jaaeN ge / sab takht giraaey jaaeN ge (Kamal, 2006).
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