The trouble with ethnic blending

Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia - A Nation in Turmoil
August 30, 1996

While these two books differ in scope and accessibility, they are both solid contributions to the study of South Asia. Although Yunas Samad's work deals primarily with one state, like Ayesha Jalal, he is anxious to ground his discussion of Pakistani politics within the implicitly comparative framework of pre-partition British India. Like Jalal, Samad takes as his starting point the failure of recent scholarship to deal with the historical continuities of South Asian politics, and the tendency to view 1947 as a neat academic divide, a kind of "mental barrier". The tendency to take India and Pakistan as given, as opposed to contested entities, and the habit of seeing one as "democratic" and the other as "authoritarian", has stunted any genuinely comparative work, and prevented any real appreciation of the similarities in their respective state-society relations.

In A Nation in Turmoil, Samad argues that the nature of Pakistani politics can best be understood by looking at the political forces within British India - culminating in the 1935 Government of India Act - and the effects these forces had on subsequent Muslim identities. Samad argues that the 1935 act enshrined provincialism as a key motif of colonial politics but also implied for the first time a majoritarian "national" stage on which provincial, local forces would have to contest for state power. From 1946 until the creation of Pakistan, this contradiction was disguised by the sheer scale of Hindu-Muslim communalism, and the sheer momentum of British de-colonisation.

The speed of events after 1945 prevented any serious consideration of the weaknesses of Muslim identity, especially in the provinces of Bengal and Punjab. After independence the subsequent inability of the Muslim League to sustain and democratise a nationalist position premised on provincial - ethnic - identities led to the creation of an over-centralised, authoritarian state. To this day, Pakistani politics is characterised by the tension between central and regional forces. Samad's account is convincing, well researched but probably less fresh than if it had been published in the late 1980s. Moreover, the author might have given more time to addressing the concepts and dynamics of ethnicity.

Jalal presents a broad, loose canvas, ambitious, bold, and in the events surrounding its inception and publication, not without controversy. Her starting point is to reiterate the need to investigate authoritarianism and democracy, not as "a neat and sharp dichotomy" but rather as a process, "both antithetical and interdependent", and present within each of the states of South Asia. Jalal uses this idea to explain the disintegration of political parties, the rise of populist leaders and, more crucially, the continuation of regional and ethnic challenges to the authority of the state throughout the region. Each chapter deals with a thematic issue, and reviews relevant and complex theories and applies them with vigour. Jalal deploys a staggering wealth of detail, on caste and jati, Congress politics, sufic Islam and Sunni orthodoxy, moving with ease from one state to another, and from one period to the next.

In one sense, the scale of Jalal's work is also its weakness. The book is terribly compressed, and some of the comparative work is rushed, exaggerating the significance of some events and distorting others. As with her earlier work, the style of writing is turgid and over wordy. Ruthless editing would have produced a much more readable book. Sadly, much of the brilliance of this work is inaccessible on first reading.

What emerges is the inappropriateness of a unitary state structure for a region in which social identities are profoundly hybrid. Jalal's real contribution lies, I think, in reminding us that within the region of South Asia, it is not ethnicity itself that is a problem, but the state structures from within which it arises.

Vernon Hewitt lectures in politics, University of Bristol.

Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia: A Comparative and Historical Perspective

Author - Ayesha Jalal
ISBN - 0 521 471 7
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 295

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