Review of Ayesha Jalal, Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia: A Comparative and Historical Perspective

The conventional IR theorists have long sidelined the voices of the post colonial world in conceptualising IR, and there is a need for recognition of such voices.

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

South Asian states are unique in their state formations and have been conditioned by different historical and social cultural processes. Jalal takes the three states of South Asia, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which has common historical and colonial legacy to compare the social and political dimensions. Despite the common colonial legacy, different political processes emerged in the postcolonial states- democracy in India and militarism and authoritarianism in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

However, despite their differences in the political structures, the states have similar social and cultural problems and the states security is plague by internal conflict from diverse communities. The concept of ‘nation state’ becomes problematic for these states as they are comprised of diverse social, cultural and linguistic, and religious identities. The central hegemonic legitimacy of the state often creates discontent and violence within the states jeopardising the very structures of the state. The developmental and economic disparity within different social and regional or linguistic groups is rampant, and thus this provides scope for the ‘conceptual and contextual issues’ among these states.

Jalal has extensively analyzed the nature and characteristics of the states through the historical, social, economical and social dimensions. She discusses at length, from the period of partition in 1947, how the Indian subcontinent was bifurcated on the basis of religion and later the Pakistan faced the similar fate of partition on the similar lines of cultural and linguistic identities. On this Jalal distinguished between substantial democracy and formal democracy. Formal democracy which guarantees voting rights and freedom of speech and so on, in the constitution does not necessarily ensure the participation of the whole, and thus need the effective empowerment of the whole society needs to be studied.

In all the three post colonial states, despite the political and structural differences of the states they are faced with similar from “regional as well as linguistic dissidence, religious and sectarian strife, as well as class and caste conflicts”. A comparative analysis of the three states shows that each state is faced with demands for legitimate recognition of ethnic identities, or secessionist groups demanding for separate states. Like that of the 1947 partition, in which the muslim community demanded their separate state based on their identity and cultural differences.

The centralizing tendency of the state is not suitable for the  South Asian states. Later in 1971, Pakistan is met with similar fate, from which Bangladesh was born out of the linguistic communities of Bangalee felt ignored. The dissidence does not end with the geographical division, the problem of ethnic minority continue to persists in each of these states.

The concept of nation state from which the states have drawn their conception thus needs to be redefined. Because the concept of nation state as that of the colonial empires, which most states tend to replicate cannot be mechanized in the modern state of South Asia, as it is comprised of multiple ethnic and cultural groups, where each and every ethnic community and social cultural groups feel that their own group is their nation. Therefore, when the state enforce norms which represents the identity of the nation state there are conflicts as different communities feel they are not represented or they have been assimilated into the framework of the larger community undermining their own distinct identity.

On the other hand, the South Asian states have porous borders and common ethnic and cultural lineage across the borders. Conflict and tension on one state, got affected on the other because of such relationship. Each of these states have been threatened by different social dissidence and therefore, analysis of the state structural relationship does not suffice to understand the intense problems of the states. Jalal therefore suggests that ‘social and political’ nexus needs to be taken into account in analyzing the tension within the states, and one state cannot be studies in isolation with the other.

Though India has a democratic political structures, the challenges posed by the ethnic tension and conflict comes into the similar line with the authoritarian regimes in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Authoritarianism is “defined as organized power embedded in the institutional structure of the state”, the state’s power insulated into the central structure of the state creates the tension of inclusion and exclusion of the certain diverse groups and their identities.

For Jalal, there is no neat distinction of the democratic and authoritarian regimes in South Asia, because both the structures functions within is constituted by similar factors of divergence and multiple groups. Thus, comparative analysis brought in the convergence of the states rather than the divergence of the state despite their differences on spatial and structural settings.

The Indian democracy is also centralizing in its own way because the minority groups are often under represented and there is tension and conflict for separatism. All states are faced with ethnic violence and insurgency problems, which have resorted to arms and technologies. Like most of the post colonial scholars, Jalal also sees that threats to the state emanates not from the external agents but from the internal dissatisfaction. The economic and social political and developmental programs are always at the expense of one community or the other. There is always and unequal distribution of wealth and resources which caused further dissent. Other problems such as recognition of ethnic identities are a great problem both within and across the borders.

The author’s definition of democracy and authoritarianism in South Asia is blunt, and only contextual, as there has been a tremendous change in the political and economic structures of the Indian state and also in the state of Bangladesh and Pakistan. The Congress rule no more dominates in the Indian political scenario. However, her comparative analytical discourse opens a new path to the study of the South Asia. The book brings in to question the normative focus on the state and political processes of structural institutions, and provide a new paradigm to understand the state intricacies.  The common notion that social and political structure that is inherited from the colonial past and mechanization of the same, causes the furore among the ethnic groups.

The success of democracy in India and the failure of the democratic institutions in Pakistan and Bangladesh cannot be attributed on the similar ground as the author has put forward. Because the democratic institutions prevailed in India because of many factors such as more effective electorate and more competitive multi party systems, more stable economy and so on, while Pakistan and Bangladesh has faced more with the religious ideology and non separation of religion and state, natural calamities and disasters, and more closed society and so forth. Though of course we cannot completely overlook the rise of religious sentiments in India, the presence of constitution which guarantees secularism is one positive aspect of democratic stand in India.

The concept of state and nation has to be understood differently in the South Asian context. The recognition of national identity has often become problematic. The notion of nationalism can be regarded as the ideological mobilization not to protect the state but can be used to gather the feeling of oneness amongst one ethnic community. The association of nationalism with the state cannot be replicated in the South Asian states. As we have seen, India’s nationalism was interpreted in many ways, one of which is the mobilization of the social elite groups to fight against the British colonial empire; Pakistan was born out of the nationalism based on the principle of religion. The problem of handling the linguistic and ethnic differences with the society is faced with the centralizing act, which the minority community feels threatened and thus asserts for separatism. Therefore, the challenges to national integration are one of the common problems of the South Asian state.

Another common problem of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh is the states’ ideological enforcement of to create a unified national identity. The representation of citizenship as the national identity, which is also to represent the nation state causes unrest because the representation is associated with the identity of the majority community. The author cite the instance such as the Hindu Code Bill in India in early phase of independence, representation of Bangladeshi identity and the declaration of state religion as Islam, and on similar line in Pakistan. The minority communities always felt dejected and a they began to question their sense of belongingness to the state.

In the economic spheres, the three states are spending in a more or less amount on the security domain, such as military forces, arms and ammunitions and therefore adversely affect the political economic development of the society. The overarching focus on the state structures in these three states has come to endanger the human security discourse. The social development in these states is kept at bay because of the central states focus on the state structures.

Jalal also points out that

“the military and army personnel enjoy excessive monetary and other beneficiaries at the expense of the society.”

The state structures, therefore instead of bein a security provider become a source of threat to the people, because the state often resort to arms when the minority community, asserts and demands for their legal recognition. The state is therefore represented as ‘weak’ state, which cannot encompass the diverse social groups into one central entity of the state. The state have not shed the class, caste or religious sentiments even today. There is always caste politics and the rise of class factor and so on.

The political construction of nation state has caused innumerable disaster in the subcontinent. The author’s conclusion by giving a clear picture that the states in South Asia need to be redefined. The dominant construct of nation state has caused partition and miseries among people in the region causing bloodshed, homeless and other miserable consequences. The conventional notion of nation state that gives common identity, ideology and so on cannot be contextualized in South Asia. In South Asia, there is always a competition for power among the ethnic groups and therefore the notion of nationalism and sovereignty get complicated and layered because it does not neccsessarily means the ‘nation state’.

Jalal’s central argument about the legitimacy of the nation state as a hegemonic entity to provide a sense of belonging and nationalism and its failure in the South Asian region remains to be the sphere of exploration for the scholars and society alike. Jalal’s suggestion of understanding the complexities of the South Asian state, in the context of social political nexus and by ‘decentralizing’ the central power structure has been echoed by many. The porous and fluid boundary of the South Asian states, and the social, cultural and historical connectivity of the people within and across border in South Asia one unique feature which needs to be addressed in  more nuanced manner. Jalal’s methodology of analyzing the South Asian state in the post colonial era by bringing out the many facets of the social political and economic dynamics within the state provide a new insight of approaching the states.

*Review of Ayesha Jalal, 1995, Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia: A Comparative and Historical Perspective, Columbia University Press.                                            

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Yaoreiphy Awungshi

likes reading and chatting over a cup of tea!

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