Ghalib / 24.11.2008

Only Ghalib could pack so much meaning in a mere ten words: saltanat dast bah dast aaii hai jam-e mai khaatim-e Jamshed nahiiN the kingship has come from hand to hand the glass of wine; the seal of Jamshed is not Even the well-known Ghalib scholars have pondered over the many possible meanings as mentioned in A Desertful of Roses and in our companion blog Mehr-e-Niimroz. In this post, we use the verse as a mirror to reflect on the state of governance in South Asia today. Ghalib has tossed three balls in the air for us to ponder – the metaphors of kingship, the glass of wine, and the seal of Jamshed. If we translate dast bah dast as hand to hand, an interpretation would be that both kingship and the glass of wine are passed from hand to hand while the seal of Jamshed belongs to Jamshed alone. But it would...

Ghalib / 09.11.2008

This week’s verse requires us to remind readers that on The South Asian Idea we do not aim to provide an interpretation of the selected she’r. Rather, we use it as a point of departure to discuss the contemporary relevance of issues suggested by the verse. Of course, for the sake of completeness, we do provide links to the most complete and accessible literary interpretations at A Desertful of Roses and to ones that explore related themes on Mehr-e-Niimroz, our companion blog in the Ghalib Project. This week’s choice is the following: kyuuN nah chiikhuuN kih yaad karte haiN mirii aavaaz gar nahiiN aatii why should I not scream because I am only remembered if my voice is not heard Let us use this to explore relations between the rulers and the ruled in our land today. The majority of the ruled are voiceless. When they do raise their voices, they are either...

Ghalib / 28.08.2008

The selection this week: bandagii meN bhii vuh aazaadah-o khud-biin haiN kih ham ulTe phir aaye dar-e ka’bah agar va na huaa even in servitude we are so free and self-regarding that we turned and came back if the door of the Ka’bah did not open This is an expression of pride in one’s being. The poet is saying that we may be indebted to you but you still have to treat us with respect. The point is made by exaggeration – we are servants of God but even God has to come and meet us halfway. A detailed interpretation is available at Mehr-e-Niimroz. Once again we are treated to Ghalib’s ability to think far ahead of his times. Remember, he lived in the age of patronage; artists especially were almost completely dependent on their patrons for their livelihoods. And the patrons were quite willful, withdrawing their stipends at the slightest...

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...

Governance, India, Politics / 26.07.2008

Let us put the big question on the table. Modern democracy as a form of governance has evolved following the emergence of the belief that “all men are created equal.”  How do we look at Indian democracy in this context? Do Indians believe today that all men are created equal? If not, how does it affect the nature of democracy in India? In the West it took social revolutions to force the acceptance that all men were created equal. So the sequence of events was the following: the emergence of a realization that all men should be equal; a social revolution overthrowing the hierarchical aristocratic order to force the recognition of that equality; the gradual emergence of representative governance (the franchise was extended very slowly with women becoming “equal” much later than men) as the form of governance most compatible with a society comprised of individuals equal...

Democracy/Governance, India, Modernity, Politics / 26.07.2008

Let us put the big question on the table. Modern democracy as a form of governance has evolved following the emergence of the belief that “all men are created equal.”  How do we look at Indian democracy in this context? Do Indians believe today that all men are created equal? If not, how does it affect the nature of democracy in India? In the West it took social revolutions to force the acceptance that all men were created equal. So the sequence of events was the following: the emergence of a realization that all men should be equal; a social revolution overthrowing the hierarchical aristocratic order to force the recognition of that equality; the gradual emergence of representative governance (the franchise was extended very slowly with women becoming “equal” much later than men) as the form of governance most compatible with a society comprised of individuals equal...

Democracy/Governance, Governance, India, Politics / 20.07.2008

The BBC is doing a fine job in India reporting events that compel readers to think about the broader implications of the story. We had earlier picked up a story about the threat by purists to mixed religious communities. The post (Hindu-Muslim or Muslim-Hindu?) has become quite popular on the blog suggesting that readers enjoy being engaged by challenging questions. Now the BBC has reported on the goings-on preceding the July 22 vote of confidence in the Indian parliament. This too raises some interesting questions about the nature of democracy in India. The story itself states very clearly: “When India is described as 'the world's biggest democracy' it remains strictly true.” A story like this in Pakistan would most likely have found the reporter on the first plane out of the country. So there is no doubt that in relative terms governance in India has a much better...

Democracy/Governance, Governance, India, Pakistan, Politics, South Asia / 26.06.2008

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...

Democracy/Governance, Politics / 20.06.2008

Can one country bequeath a full-blown democracy to another? There are two ways to approach the answer to athis question. The first is to examine the outcomes of all the cases where such an experiment has been tried. The universe of such cases would include most of the ex-colonies of Western countries. In any such examination of the historical record, it would be hard to find too many examples of a successful graft. More often than not one would find a caricature — a democratic form distorted by a reversion to authoritarian rule. The genotype of the latter would be determined by the type of governance that existed prior to the attempted graft — rule by a monarch, a tribal chief, or a warlord. This is an easy, empirically verifiable approach to determining whether an alien system of governance can be transferred instantly from one country to another....

Democracy/Governance, Governance, Politics / 20.06.2008

Can one country bequeath a full-blown democracy to another? There are two ways to approach the answer to this question. The first is to examine the outcomes of all the cases where such an experiment has been tried. The universe of such cases would include most of the ex-colonies of Western countries. In any such examination of the historical record, it would be hard to find too many examples of a successful graft. More often than not one would find a caricature — a democratic form distorted by a reversion to authoritarian rule. The genotype of the latter would be determined by the type of governance that existed prior to the attempted graft — rule by a monarch, a tribal chief, or a warlord. This is an easy, empirically verifiable approach to determining whether an alien system of governance can be transferred instantly from one country to another....