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

There was a music program in Washington, DC recently in which the three performers on stage were of South Asian origin – the vocalist from Bangladesh, the tabla player from Pakistan and the harmonium player from India. All three were young and together they created a beautiful music. The Indians in the audience asked for Faiz, the Pakistanis for Nazrulgeeti, and the vocalist herself sang the verses of poets from India. The program was a huge success lasting over five hours. It was an occasion that was symbolic of what was possible in terms of coexistence. Is that an unrealistic dream for South Asia? The election primary in the U.S. this year is a ready reminder of the transformations that are indeed possible. A mere fifty years after the Civil Rights Act when black Americans were second-class citizens afraid of being lynched and cities were burning with...

China / 25.06.2009

I had thought my imagination was unlimited but the first visit to China disabused me of the notion. Despite all the years of reading, talking about, and studying the country, I was surprised. My imagination, free and limitless in theory, was hostage to the reality I knew in South Asia. The phrase ‘poverty of the imagination’ took on a new meaning. Getting past the physical surprise, I was intrigued by the amazing adaptability of human beings. Here were individuals cut off from the world, living in company compounds and bicycling around in blue Mao suits within my memory. Today, taxi drivers navigated intricate webs of ring roads, commuters rode magnetic levitation trains, shoppers peered at designer goods in exquisite malls – all as if these had always been a part of their lives.
Democracy/Governance / 11.06.2009

We have been discussing the census, electoral rules, and the nature of democracy in South and East Asian countries trying to draw lessons from events that happened between fifty and a hundred and fifty years ago. It was therefore eerie to read a virtual replay that took place in Iraq only a few years back. We truly ignore history at our own peril. The account is from the 2006 book by Rajiv Chandrasekaran (Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone), an account of the American occupation of Iraq and the attempts to reconstruct the country. Here we shall reproduce just the bare essence that indicates the overlap with our earlier posts. Readers interested in the details should be able to obtain the book fairly easily. From April 2003 to June 2004, Iraq was governed by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the American occupation administration, headed...

Pakistan / 07.03.2009

In this series of posts we will try and provide an explanation of the seemingly intractable problems that afflict Pakistan today. But first we address the issue of why analysts and observers are so often wrong in their assessments of the Pakistani situation. The occasion for this is an article by William Dalrymple who has made a name for himself as a chronicler of Mughal history and an analyst of modern South Asia. Writing on March 4, 2009 he says: Just over a year ago, in February 2008, I travelled by car across the length and breadth of Pakistan to cover the country's first serious election since General Pervez Musharraf seized power in 1999…. The story I wrote at the time for the New York Review of Books was optimistic. Like most other people given the option, Pakistanis clearly want the ability to choose their own rulers, and to determine...

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, 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, 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 / 06.06.2008

A number of readers have expressed reservations about our comments on the first census in British India (Democracy in India – 3). It is argued that disclosure of full information is always for the better and cannot but be helpful in the long run. This misses the point. It is not always the case that pre-existing information is lying unobserved and a neutral process is involved in bringing this knowledge into the public domain. With the first census in British India, knowledge was actually created. This is what Kamaljit Bhasin-Malik explains in her essays on the census: The Punjab census illustrates that the census was not a passive data-gathering instrument. It did not merely count what is.  Census officials first had to create categories and define them. But this was no simple process and the realities that census takers encountered collided with their imperial taxonomies, which assumed Punjabi society...

Leadership, Pakistan / 31.03.2008

By Samia Altaf  There is a fascinating news report (Jinnah’s New Republic) in an American weekly datelined November 15, 1947 that puts its finger on Pakistan’s most critical weakness – the quality of its leadership. Reporting from Karachi, the author comments on the country’s first cabinet: “With enormous problems, Pakistan has only a very ordinary set of leaders to cope with them”; barring a few “the other members of the cabinet are all mediocrities.” The exceptions identified by the author were the “brilliant” Mr Jinnah, the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister. In 2008, the problems have become much more enormous and the leadership has become much more mediocre. Even the exceptions at the very top are conspicuous by their absence. The quality of political leadership went into a steep decline after Mr Jinnah. This was exacerbated by the military’s interruption of the political process that serves as the...