Jalal, Ayesha ‘Democracy And Authoritarianism in South Asia’

jalal book

Ayesha Jalal’s early work Democracy & Authoritarianism in South Asia: A Comparative and historical perspective provides an important look at the structural reasons for the emergence of (largely) democratic structures in India, and (largely) authoritarian structures in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Rather than hide behind brainless essentialist arguments, Jalal attempts to understand the institutional legacies of the colonial regime, and how modern economic, and geo-political factors, utilized them to varying degrees, and the kinds of states that emerged.

This is the kind of work that every reporter trying to understand Pakistan should read. Though I can’t help but think that they do not. In a recent criticism of the New York Times reporter Declan Walsh, I had said that:

…one of the great tragedies of modern journalism is its forgetfulness – this is structural, but it is also to a large degree, ignorance. and nations like Pakistan are never forgiven their history, their choices, but always written about as freakish, artificial, corrupt, broken, failed and all that (which they are), but with an inevitability that reeks of reductive ideas and judgements. There is no sense of history. for example: and this will piss off particularly the Pakistani liberal class, but the rise of Islamic fundamentalists, and sectarians was part and parcel of Pakistan’s pact with the American anti-communism fight in the 1950s…Our pathologies, our failures, our corruption, our poverty, has roots in decisions, and in history. But to write about any country, let alone Pakistan, in this fashion is to disconnect it from history, and to present it on a pedestal as a unique, and freakish failure. It is to sow hopelessness and despair, but I am sure you will agree, is what most of us suffer from. Can the journalism format incorporate all this history? I think it can…Most all these [journalistic] writers, including the now much celebrated, martyred, Declan, write by looking out through very small windows…[and] they remain deaf and dumb i.e can’t speak our languages, and largely uninterested…in our actual history and the continuities and legacies post-colonial, post-independence etc that we carry. They lack a perspective about the real world political, and cultural struggles of the people that have landed us where we are.

Declan was kind enough to respond to my clearly frustrated comments in a rather gentlemanly manner and simply said that the above was …a very interesting and sharp critique. But he left it at that. He has the power and privilege to do so, and dismiss a critiqe as merely ‘interesting’, but not something anything needs to be done about.

My frustrations comes from watching the country being reduced by journalists, pundits, talking heads and state politicians to a caricature, while its citizens and their genuine efforts at reform and change, ignored at the behest of some imperialist agenda or the next. Pakistan’s capitulation to the priorities and directions of a largely American world view began within months of its independence, and its bureaucratic and military elite continues to surrender their agenda, ideas, ideals and aspirations to those that they receive in their mailbox send directly from Washington D.C.

The paranoid, security obsessed state of affairs not only serves the paranoid world-view of the Pakistani elite, but it plays right into the hands of a neoliberal class that has little or no interest in the social concerns of the ordinary Pakistani. The fear of the Islamic bogeyman veils the fear of the need to give the ordinary Pakistani his due. This is not anti-Americanism, as so many lame pundits like to argue, but a realistic assessment of the close collaboration between certain sectors and elements of the two states. There is no ‘us’ or ‘them’.

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