Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia -Book review


The book “democracy and authoritarianism in south Asia, A comparative and Historical perspective”is written by “Ayesha Jalal”, who is a Pakistani-American based historian. She served as Mary Richardson professor of history at Tufts University and was the beneficiary of the 1998 MacArthur foundation fellowship. This book is a mesmerizing contribution to the subject of history and a coruscating work on revealing the causes and repercussions of how south Asian colonized states suffered the aftermath of the colonization. A completely unabashed, self-contradicting not facing the reality book for blaming the embryonic state of Pakistan and its fate on historical determinism, vilifying or categorizing this as an academic book would not be erroneous. Ayesha Jalal has undertaken a scholarly study and Analyzed why both Pakistan and India with a common legacy, and legal and bureaucratic structures have taken residence in different directions in terms of democratic cultures. Challenging the view that a shared colonial legacy led to contrasting patterns of political development and democracy in India and authoritarianism in the land of pures. The author argues that despite different forms of central authorities, each state has confronted similar threats. These threats were from ethnic, communal, religious and regional movements.

Ayesha Jalal then comparing state structures, political processes, polity, democracy and authoritarianism evaluates and redefines these aspects of state, i.e., citizenship, sovereignty, democracy and nation state. The focal point of the argument is decentralization of power. The author then differentiates between the grimmer economic, social, defense and political realities of the colonized states.

Moving swiftly, Ayesha Jalal tries to identify the ideological dimensions of Hindus and Muslims whilst striving to reveal the contemporary developments of the two rival and humungous countries. The author then tries to fathom out that why Pakistan swallowed to be an authoritarian and ungovernable state whilst our bygone and arch adversary India proved and stood as the largest democracy of world. In analyzing the causes for Pakistan’s failure to establish a legitimate, strong and democratic government, the author poses Pakistan as a “victim”, writing off all the voluntary, disastrous decisions made by the upper echelon leaders of the country, not even sparing the father of the nation (Quaid e Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah).

She goes on analyzing that many aspects such as military dominance, unequal share of assets, Kashmir issue, demographical issues, geographical boundaries, cue to the Durand line, crisis in the east, pukhtoonistan issue, refugees rehabilitation, political turmoil, wars and skirmishes on the Indian border, the quest for nuclear bomb, the derailing of economy, segregation of Bangladesh, derailing of democracy and the role of unscrupulous politicians proved as catalysts in putting the embryonic and nascent state of Pakistan on the track of social, political and economic decline. The interference of the military and the deteriorating and ever-spoiling milieu of law and order by the sectarian and extremist forces did the rest of job done. She also takes into account the popular regimes, dictators, politicians and then draws a line of differences between them while specifying India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The author sums up the argument of institutional building and decay that the colonial masters had built institutions, both civilian and military, which were both strong and effective but Pakistan entered the path to governance with a serious disadvantage. The financial, organizational and human resources it inherited at the time of its birth were immensely and exceedingly deficient and scanty in relation to the requirements and demands of newly formed state. Cut the mustard that while Indian or congress men right from the outset have been able to eloquently contend and claim control over politics, bureaucracy and military, but the pendulum swung to opposite side in the land of pures.

Furthermore, Ayesha Jalal entwines and knits jointly the analysis of caste, class, and community in an attempt to fathom out the cultural and ideological dimensions of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. She also presents a probing analysis of the interconnections and dissimilarities between class and state power in south Asia. 

Ayesha Jalal goes on to explain the civil military relations in Pakistan. She builds an argument that the notion that military has never accorded the civilian governments space to act independently can is only true in the scenario of shaping the defense and foreign policy of Pakistan. She is of the view that the militarily strong and its capabilities made the Pakistani establishment and political leadership to strengthen its defense, armor and to secure a protective nuclear umbrella. She seconds the argument that controlling influence in Afghanistan, the deployment of Islamic extremist forces or non-state actors are used as tools in order to get a lion-share in the annual budget in the name of security.  A similar view is espoused by Hussain Haqqani in his book: “the focus on building an ideological state has caused Pakistan to lag behind in almost all areas that define a functional modern state”. She argues that the reliance on the military and the callousness of the civilian governments to carry out painful and much needed institutional reforms to strengthen civilian supremacy has paved the way that army governs the defense and foreign policy.

Ayesha Jalal is of the view that the politics of patronage so widely practiced in Pakistan is deeply entrenched in Pakistani societal structures.  At the time of partition, the Pakistani society was an agrarian society. After the inception of Pakistan, the unscrupulous politicians reinforced characteristics and norms of the society such as feudalism, tribalism, kinship, clans and baradaris, sects, just to further their own personal intrigues. The forced parity of representation between the east and west Pakistan in parliament and the imposition of the one unit sparked resentment amongst the local people. This ultimately led to the separation of east Pakistan with the active assistance of India adding fuel to the already smoldering fire.

Suggestions and recommendations

All in All, this book is an excellent, eloquent and exquisite work in analyzing, and exploring the different aspects through an empirical and historical perspective that led to the class distinction and authoritarian regimes. Quotations and works of other authors who had worked on the very topic if added would have made this book a very different and classic one in identifying the factors of the aftermath of partition.

 this book is a master piece of understanding democracy and authoritative regimes in south Asia and specially the three neighboring countries, i.e., Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. This book is highly recommended to those who have little knowledge about the changing dynamics and political fragmentation of south Asia. This will enact a sense of historical and analytical approach and enable the readers to see things with different perspectives.

Moreover, the author seems to be influenced by some forces, neglecting some key factors that contributed in shaping the order at the time of partition and independence.

In a nutshell, this book covers almost all the aspects responsible for the democratic and authoritarian cultures in South Asia.


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