Miscellaneous / 11.02.2010

This is going to be a long explanation for why we will be posting something that is more than eighteen months out of date. Some of you who have been with us for a while might remember A Modern Fable by Ibn-e Eusuf. We posted that in June 2008. We discovered Ibn-e, thought he was a good satirist, in the tradition of Manto and Ibn-e Insha, and gave him his first break in print (digital or otherwise) with A Modern Fable. We had hoped Ibn-e would continue writing for us but we were right that he was good, with a razor sharp pen. He was immediately picked up by the Herald with an offer to reproduce A Modern Fable in their forthcoming issue (which they did). When Ibn-e asked our permission we were torn – Herald paid and we didn’t and Ibn-e needed the money.
Analysis / 07.02.2010

Just around the time of the earthquake in Haiti there was an article in the New York Review of Books (Witness to Horror by Charles Simic) in which part of a paragraph grabbed my attention: History repeats itself in unhappy countries. The absence of respected institutions and well-established laws that a person can count on to protect him condemns these societies to reenact the same conflicts, make the same mistakes more than once, and bear the same horrific consequences of these acts. There is an important truth here: To learn from one’s mistakes there is need for a minimal institutional infrastructure, for some kind of a learning apparatus, for some rules of conduct that facilitate reflection. Learning just doesn’t happen by itself. My thoughts turned immediately to the Pakistan cricket team and then to Pakistan itself. Take the cricket team first that has just concluded a forgettable tour...

History / 03.10.2009

Most of the time we imagine history – we carry in our mind a vision of the past that we believe to be true. Given that very few of us are actually studying history these days, or reading it for pleasure for that matter, there is little that can bridge the gap between the vision and the reality. Sometimes the gap can be very wide indeed. How can we test the truthfulness of our vision without investigating it ourselves? I am proceeding on the basis that it is futile to suggest people read alternative accounts of history and weigh their respective claims to objectivity and truth. Rather, I am going to propose something simpler that is more within the grasp of the overwhelmed citizen of the modern age. I am going to suggest a recourse to lived history that requires nothing more than looking around oneself and noting the patterns and rhythms of ordinary life.
History / 29.09.2009

The past is political, which makes interpreting it very tricky. In this post we try and illustrate some of the pitfalls involved in thinking about the past. One common tendency is to look at the past from a position that is anchored in the present. If the anchor is political it nearly always leads to finding an interpretation of the past that helps to justify or strengthen the stance in the present. In The Idea of India, Sunil Khilnani puts it very plainly: “In India, as elsewhere, present politics are shaped by conceptions of the past. Broadly, there have been two different descriptions of Indian history…” We need not be concerned here with the details of the two descriptions. We only need to note that more than one interpretation of the same facts is possible and that the choice depends upon which political position in the present is being supported.
Ghalib, Modernity / 28.06.2009

Brilliant. Brilliant. Brilliant. We have been struggling with the notion of modernity in South Asia and wondering how “modern” modern South Asians are. And here is Ghalib providing an excellent illustration of what being modern might, at least in part, entail: kyaa farz hai kih sab ko mile ek-saa javaab aa’o nah ham bhii sair kareN koh-e tuur kii Is it necessary that everyone would get the same answer? Come! Why don’t we too go for an excursion to Mount Sinai The first thing to note is that being modern does not been mean being ignorant of tradition or history. Ghalib motivates his argument by leveraging the story of Moses going to Mount Sinai and asking to see God; and God responding to Moses that you would not have the strength to withstand the vision.
Religion / 24.10.2008

Continued from Hinduism – 2: Getting to Terms with Religion It is time now to take stock of the encounter of India with Muslims. The first aspect that needs to be clear in our minds is whether this was an encounter between Hinduism and Islam or between Hindus and Muslims. This will make a significant difference to our understanding of subsequent events. We will argue that this was not a clash of religions, that it was an encounter of Hindus and Muslims. Of course, this encounter had an influence on both Hinduism and Islam, but the influence was indirect. As always, this is the starting point for a conversation. We are open to alternative interpretations that are cogently argued. Raiders or Crusaders? Frequent and repeated interaction of Hindus in India with Muslims from Afghanistan began around 1000 AD with the raids of Mahmud of Ghazna followed by those of Mohammed...

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....