Op-ed: Remembering Hamza Alavi —Abbas Rashid
He believed the Khilafat movement had laid the foundations of the political ascendancy of the Muslim clergy. Its main ‘achievement’ was to promote a religious and communalist understanding of politics among Indian Muslims
It is sad to think that Hamza Alavi is no longer among us. But he lived a full life. The substantial corpus of analytical work that he has left behind is testimony to a brilliant mind and exceptional intellectual rigour. I cannot claim to have known Professor Hamza Alavi well. But, whenever Farida and I were in Karachi for a few days, visiting Hamza at his home in the Garden East family enclave was a priority.
Dressed elegantly in white, Hamza would dilate over cups of tea upon a wide range of issues that would frequently include topics with which he had a long history of engagement such as state and ideology, feudalism and more recently the dynamics of the Khilafat movement.
One wondered then and more so now at the remarkable ability of our system to keep someone like Hamza out of the universe of our institutions of higher education and research, such as they are. In fact, he had planned to set up a research centre virtually at the start of his academic career that he adopted somewhat late having given up a promising job at the State Bank of Pakistan where he had served with distinction in the very early and difficult years. It was to be an Institute of Peasant Studies.
In a personal statement that he circulated some time ago he says he was traumatised by the military action in Bangladesh in 1970. And, consequently, instead of returning to Pakistan after his stint at the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex, he stayed on and life followed a different trajectory and many a research and teaching assignments followed. But, he seems particularly to have enjoyed his time at Manchester where he writes fondly of the excellent team in Sociology of Development.
There is an interesting anecdote narrated by Hamza about his decision to join the State Bank of Pakistan. Having started his professional career as a research officer in the Reserve bank of India in Bombay, before partition, he says, Governor Deshmukh called him to the office and pointed out that too few Muslim officers had opted for Pakistan and that the State Bank of Pakistan would have great trouble functioning without trained officers. He suggested that Hamza should go to Pakistan and put him on a programme of intensive training in the Exchange Control department.
It is interesting, as he puts it, that a Maharashtran Brahmin would be so concerned about the proper functioning of the State Bank of Pakistan. He flourished at the Bank, says Hamza, because of two assets, ignorance and naivete: ignorance of outdated manuals and naivete in being unmindful of the ground rule that saving one’s skin took precedence over getting the job done. During these years, he seems to have been particularly fond of the bank’s able governor Zahid Hussain. According to Hamza, here was another good man of intelligence and integrity who had planned to set up a research institute in Pakistan focused on promoting a clearer understanding of our problems and generating support for independent national development. Days after his discussion with Hamza on this issue in London, however, Zahid Hussain died of heart failure during his flight back to Pakistan.
One of Hamza’s seminal contributions to the discourse on the dynamics of state and society was the thesis on the overdeveloped state in post-colonial societies. It helped to explain the kind of questions often posed in Pakistan with regard to frequent interventions by the military. In such societies the institutions of the state such as the army and the bureaucracy are over-developed during colonial rule whose ends have to do with control and regulation in the metropolis’ interests rather than the development of the colonised people. The structural imbalance is inherited by the state after independence, with all its implications.
In the context of Pakistan, more specifically, Hamza introduced the useful concept of a salariat whose role he argued had been pivotal in the making of Pakistan. The salariat was that section of the middle class whose goal was state employment. They sought not education but educational qualifications. As we examine the shambles in which our education system lies today, this important distinction may be one pointer to the apathy and lack of seriousness that has characterised our efforts till the present day to address the critical issue of educational reform.
Again, in the long and sometimes intense debate over the secular versus religious basis of Pakistani nationalism, Hamza’s contribution has indeed been significant. It was engagement with this debate that led him to closely examine the Khilafat movement that he believed had laid the foundations of the political ascendancy of the Muslim clergy. While the movement was idealised as being anti-colonial in nature, its main ‘achievement’ was to promote a religious and communalist understanding of politics among Indian Muslims at the expense of a secular one. It was no small irony that the movement had been supported by Gandhi and opposed by Jinnah.
On the issue of secular politics and equality of citizenship, Hamza was not averse to going far back in Muslim history to the Constitution of Medina. By virtue of the Misaq-e-Medina, he argued, all residents of Medina including those Jewish clans that had thrown in their lot with the new state and were mentioned by name had become members of the Ummah. From this precedent 14 centuries in the past, he reminded us in the midst of our growing penchant for divisiveness and exclusion, Pakistan had something to learn.
Abbas Rashid is a freelance journalist and political analyst whose career has included editorial positions in various Pakistani newspapers