The 1st of December 2013 marked the tenth death anniversary of Pakistan’s foremost social scientist, Professor Hamza Alavi. In this country, academics are rarely glorified in life, and as it turns out, dying does them no particular favors. They operate in niches, cultivate small followings – mostly amongst their own kind, and eventually slide into anonymity upon retirement and death. Their relevance, and any semblance of past existence, is contingent on the ability of others to engage with the work they leave behind.
This piece may come across as one, but it is not an attempted obituary of Alavi. That would be too late by about 10 years. When he passed away, I was 16, sociology was a discipline people read because they failed to get into engineering or medical school, and social scientists were individuals with uncomfortable, largely impoverished lives. Hamza Alavi, and his work, became real for me a full four years later – only once I found myself at a university where engineering or medicine wasn’t taught.
In early September 2006, having overslept for class registration, I was forced to sign up for a course on colonial history to maintain my status as a fulltime student. The instructor, a young, perpetually angry, particularly charismatic Marxist set out to make us unlearn what little we knew about the sub-continent, about partition, and about Pakistan itself.
This shock-therapy in history – and it felt exactly like that at the time – centered around a detailed reading of Hamza Alavi’s seminal essay on the Pakistani state (‘The State in Post-Colonial Societies’), originally published in the New Left Review in 1972. Theatrically, we were told, the government under Zia had banned the possession, teaching or circulation of the piece in public sector universities way back in 1979, and that people had been arrested and incarcerated for violating this ban.
Both these details were probably untrue or, at the very least, blatant exaggerations. At the time though, such melodramatic proclamations made us willing participants in what felt like a minor subversion, albeit one safely ensconced in the leafy, gentrified suburbs of Lahore.
[quote]Pakistan was a clumsy manifestation of elite jousting, new Muslim middle-class aspiration, and imperial expediency[/quote]
The essay itself is academically dense and full of Marxist jargon, which one has to cut away to get to the core theme: a rational, dispassionate account of how the Pakistani state was a clumsy manifestation of elite jousting, new Muslim middle-class aspiration, and imperial expediency. Contrary to our collectively held beliefs, Islam and the two-nation theory doesn’t quite enter the picture Alavi lays out except later on as the elite’s instrument of public organization, and as the state’s retrospective justification for partition.
That piece, and Alavi’s academic writings on Pakistan’s elite-dominated politics, the identification of the army’s centralizing tendencies, and the state’s active suppression of progressive politics and smaller communities – both religious and ethnic – make for very cynical reading. They do not intend to serve the omnipresent ‘nation-building’ project the way state sponsored historical accounts do, and neither do they proffer a complete, alternative vision for the creation and sustenance of Pakistan. Their biggest value lies in forcing the reader to re-evaluate biases, passive lifelong indoctrinations, and the myths that are regurgitated as facts on a daily basis. By any reckoning, that is the political purpose empirically sound social science research can serve – as a catalyst for the questioning of grand narratives, and totalitarian worldviews perpetuated by insecure, centralizing states such as ours.
At least that is the purpose they served for a group of students, myself included, who were introduced to his work at a fairly impressionable age.
If less so in Pakistan, Professor Alavi is still, nonetheless, widely read abroad – especially in England where he worked with Teodar Shanin on several edited volumes and taught at the Universities of Manchester and Sussex. His initial work was largely from the domain of rural sociology, especially on how farm workers dealt with ecological change, and the interplay of caste, class and power. His latter work was much more inter-disciplinary, and includes his theory of the post-colonial state – wherein he famously utilized the term ‘civil-military oligarchy’ to describe what we now call the ‘Establishment’ – several essays on US foreign policy machinations with regards to Pakistan, and an eerily clairvoyant piece on the specter of Islamization and religious extremism.
As a life-long left-wing activist – (he spent several years in Tanzania studying rural mobilization) – Alavi certainly bought into a specific vision for social and political emancipation, yet his writings come across neither as polemical, nor propagandist by any measure. If anything, they open up many avenues for further research: a theory of the Pakistani state; agrarian change and urbanization; religious extremism; federalism and the role of the army – most of these, sadly enough, have yet to be explored.
The tragedy here is not the absence of newspaper articles celebrating his life or mourning his death. It is the fact that generations of Pakistani college students have grown and will grow up without ever encountering his work; that apart from a few notable exceptions, local social science research has completely failed as an enterprise to build on or challenge the research that he’s left behind; and that as a societal segment, the contemporary English-speaking intelligentsia in this country is either a willing collaborator, or far too uncomfortable to engage with or study the very society they wish to reform.
I discovered Alavi by accident. Had I woken up on time, I would’ve enrolled myself in a course far easier on my braincells. But I am glad I did not. His work has shaped my understanding of Pakistan, and has had a profound impact on my life as a student, as I suspect it has had for a few others working in the social sciences. Knowing that, I can only wish for a future where university students in Pakistan no longer need fate or drastic cosmic alignments to discover his writings.
The writer is a freelance columnist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
An unanticipated discovery . . . Thank you for enlightening me about an uncle (Hamza Alavi) whose professional and intellectual life and work, I knew so little about. Your sleeping-in during registration that day, has done a lot of people a great favour!
I am an artist, poet and an Architect and do not even pretend to understand words such as oligarchy and agrarian, they scared me off from reading his stuff in the first place. . . Thank you for making some of it digestable for us, the masses.
Who was your young militant professor, by the way?
as-salaamu ‘aleikum. It is not that Islam was a tool used by elites. These Marxists are hellish and confused people, who see only flashes of understanding like munafiqs (surah Baqarah). The fact is that Allah (swt) uses anyone to achieve the prophecies, including opportunistic elites. And the fact is that the true Muslims had a great aspiration for Pakistan and a great contempt for Hindu mushrikeen.
With regards to Islam, Muslims and their arrogantly provocation of Quran and Allah, the “Two Nations” theory was flawed and total fraud. Jinnah in some way helped British agenda of not leaving a viable Independent India, by partitioning it, on the behest and demands of British Indian Bihari and UP Muslims, most of whom did not migrate, and imposing it on those, like Punjab, Sindhi, NWFP (now KPK), who were opposed to the idea. Further, there is no concept of democracy or an Islamic state in Islam, which sanctions inequality of genders, does not rigorously ban slavery (but sanctions sex with female slaves), looks down upon other religions, and tends to impose taxes on non-believers.
Pakistan, because of its corrupt landlord or industrial rulers, a military which is a state within the state, and idiotic Mullahs is a chaotic state, going nowhere.