A new look at old freedom movement myths

Hamza-Alavi-17-05-1996-1

By Zubeida Mustafa
Professor Hamza Alavi has recently been in town. The suave, soft-spoken scholar, who says he developed a social conscience and became a socialist even before he had ever heard the word, has lived abroad for over three decades in pursuit of his academic career. Now he plans returning permanently to the city of his birth. That is, if he does not change his mind at the eleventh hour as he has done before.

Now 75 and retired from an active teaching career, Hamza Alavi plans to study the Muslim movements in the subcontinent.

My meeting with him became an occasion for an enlightening voyage of the discovery of history. We decided not to make it a question answer session. I let him choose his own subject. Professor Alavi’s field of study is so versatile that he could have settled for anything. He had already spoken on feudalism, the Khilafat movement and the demise of the Soviet model at various meetings he addressed during his stay in Pakistan. This time he dwelt on Muslim politics in South Asia. It proved to be a preview of sorts of his next book.

His views will offend the orthodox/ conservative school. Those now supporting private enterprise and capitalism (many of them leftists of yore) have already begun to be critical of him for “being out of touch with reality”. The privileged elite class has never been too pleased with his interpretation of history which traces many evils in our society to the curse of feudalism.

But no one can accuse Hamza Alavi of intellectual dishonesty. He abandoned a promising career in the State Bank of Pakistan to embark on a life of political activism before he moved into academics
As the trusted lieutenant of the first Governor of the State Bank of Pakistan, Mr Zahid Hussain, Hamza Alavi had a rapid rise as he acquitted challenging assignments with facility, his confrontation with the vested interests notwithstanding.

The end to his ‘first career’, as he calls it, came after he was sent to East Pakistan with a carte blanche in 1951 to introduce exchange controls with India — a sensitive job in view of the eastern wing’s very large informal trade with New Delhi which was handled by an enormous number of small people. He ran into trouble not because of them but the big industrialists who controlled the jute trade. “Ispahani wanted to have the State Bank in his hands, just as he had all the other relevant departments of the government
under his thumb. It was the beginning of a long struggle,” Hamza Alavi writes in a note about himself
which he calls A Sketch of my Three Unorthodox Careers. The quixotic battle ended with his promotion
to the post of Secretary of the Central Board! Soon thereafter his health gave way under the stress of work and he resigned. The State Bank was reluctant to let him go. But Alavi’s mind was made up that a career in the Bank was not his cup of tea.

Ten years of political activism in London, which included the founding of a number of liberal and leftleaning forums, publishing a quarterly journal Pakistan Today and campaigning against racism, were
followed by an illustrious academic career at the universities of Sussex, Michigan Leeds and Manchester. His research has equipped him for a fair reading of history. He now wants to take another look at the past. Not many want to do that today because it hurts. He discerns three strands in the Muslim politics of South Asia, notably the salariat class, the religious leaders and the landlords who determined the course of history
of the Indian Muslims.

The salariat class which comprised mainly the educated middle class of UP and Bihar and had gained control of the Muslim League early in the day, failed to organise the party at the grassroots level. Hence its poor showing in the 1937 elections. In Sindh and Punjab where the Muslims were in a majority, the population consisted predominantly of peasants. To organise them and reach them independently, the Muslim League would have had to launch a peasant’s movement directed against Jinnah’s style,” Hamza Alavi points out.

As for the emergence of the ulema’s influence in politics, Hamza Alavi says that the Khilafat movement was the turning point. He is firmly convinced that Mr Gandhi manipulated the Khilafat movement as a calculated strategy to marginalise the secular Muslim leadership. Why? By promoting the ulema, Gandhi could preempt Jinnah who by 1915 had emerged as the most influential leader in Indian politics. He had a hold over well as the Muslim League as was demonstrated by his success inconcluding the Lucknow Pact.

“It was Gandhi who first used the religious idiom in Indian politics He did that by bringing together on one platform the Khilafat movement and the civil disobedient movement of the Congress. Thus he sought to seize the initiative from Mr Jinnah who Khilafat issue came before the meeting of the Muslim League in
1920, Jinnah found himself outmanoeuvred by the ulema who packed the session, having been invited by Dr Ansari in large numbers. In fact, it has been reported (by Robinson) that Mr Jinnah was physically ssaulted at this meeting by Maulana Shaukat Ali. With the secular Muslim leadership eclipsed, Gandhi could assert his influence on the Indian political scene,” Professor Alavi observes

The ulema, who had organized themselves politically after the Khilafat movement, initially resisted
the idea of Pakistan, which was not to be a theocratic state in the Muslim League’s scheme of things.
The ulema later came round to accepting the idea, hoping to elbow out the secular leadership and thus gain ascendancy in Pakistan. The Islamic ideology was promoted to counteract the regional movements. Then, too, the ulema could not gain political from the bureaucracy.

Nevertheless, the religious parties have funds and the potential for creating trouble. Hence they must be confronted directly,” says Hamza Alavi. The landlord class which dominated the politics of Punjab and
Sindh had its day when the Muslim League failed to make a good showing in the elections in 1937.
Mr Jinnah came round to the view that without the cooperation of the landlords, his party could not
muster the clout to make an impact. Hence the situation changed radically when the Muslim landlords decided to support the Muslim League. Professor Alavi believes that the reason for this change of heart
was that as freedom drew near the landlords regarded with apprehension the commitment of the Congress to institute land reforms in the country. It was their survival instinct which drove the feudals to the Muslim
league fold.

As a result Pakistan’s politics has come to be dominated by the feudals. Since in every period the ruling class has been given land, there is a vested interest in perpetuating this pattern of landholding. Hamza
Alavi points out that so powerful has been the thrust to preserve this pattern, that Pakistan is perhaps the only country in the world where land reforms have actually been reversed. On Mian Iftikharuddin’s suggestion, (he was then the Federal Minister for Refugees) the evacuee land that was abandoned by Hindu
landowners in Punjab had been distributed on an egalitarian basis to the refugees fleeing
from India in 1947-48. But later this was taken back and handed over to the East Punjab land-lords who migrated to Pakistan.

In 1971, the feudal factor again came into play in the break-up of the country. The
political parties feared that a government with a Bengali majority would strive to change the pattern of landholdings through land reforms. The privileged position of the landlords remains unchanged today. The
growing urbanisation which has caused an outflow of population from the countryside has had no
impact on the standing of the landed class. In fact this class has itself driven away the peasants
from its lands because mechanisation has rendered them redundant. Even the pressure
to impose a tax on agricultural incomes will not change the situation significantly Agricultural income tax, if one is ever levied, will be evaded like other taxes.

Where did Hamza Alavi derive his knowledge about the landholding patterns in Pakistan? Basically from firsthand observation. In 1968-69 he ame to live for 15 months in a village near Multan to research the subject. “I do not really find the information obtained from surveys too authentic. The guy being questioned somehow senses the answers expected of him and replies accordingly. Hence I decided to move into a village and observe the life of the villagers. My wife came with me and we did not contact the landlord ince we did not want to be identified with him. I told the peasants that I lived abroad and was there to study their culture. Initially they had reservations and for three months I felt I was getting nowhere. Meanwhile the landlord too got suspicious and he spread the rumour around that I was a Christian seeking to convert the village folks. Knowing that an outright denial would get me nowhere, I approached the village barber equesting him to arrange a feast on my behalf since my mannat had been fulfilled. As he maulvi fumbled with the Sura ar-Rahman which I requested him to recite I took over promptly. Everyone was visibly impressed. Not only was I elevated to the status of a pir I was also accepted. The people became very eager to teach me. They also came to confide in me their problems. The landlord figured quite prominently in their speech and that is how I learnt so much about feudalism.”

Have things changed? “I did go back to that village after several years. My wife was dying of
cancer and she wanted to return for a farewell visit. Basically, things were the same. Not much had changed. But there was a very interesting shift I observed in people’s attitudes. One person summed it up for me as follows: when you came last we believed that whatever happened to us was done by Allah. Now we know we are ourselves responsible for whatever happens to us!”

Source: Dawn 17-05-1996

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