KARACHI: Social scientists, political activists and academics contribute to the development of societal structures, and though mostly underappreciated, do it nonetheless. Hamza Alavi was all three, and more, as he dedicated his life to propose theoretical frameworks that aimed to transform the way we view traditional political structures, particularly in the context of post-colonial societies, especially Pakistan.
This was the subject of debate at the seminar held on Saturday at the Institute of Chartered Accountants to celebrate the 94th birth anniversary of Alavi and acknowledge his contributions and relevance.
With the purpose to generate more awareness about his body of work within Pakistan, which are widely cited in international academic circles, a panel discussion was held along with a keynote speech to highlight how in contemporary society, Alavi’s ideas and theories can be of great benefit and so must be given more serious thought to.
One of Alavi’s greatest strengths was his focus on empirical research, shared Dr Zafar Shaheed, a student and close friend of Alavi and formerly associated with the International Labour Organisation. Alavi believed in “political engagement with solid political and social underpinnings to think and act in new ways.” This is why he was very vocal about the causes he held dear, even if it meant, for example, going against certain facets of Marxist ideology that he was well-versed in and influenced by.
His writings encompass a broad range of topics, from modes of production in societies, to ethnicity and the state. But his research on the baradari system and its impact on the electoral process was a matter of detailed discussion. Dr Shaheed shared anecdotes about how Alavi, along with his wife, discretely moved to a small village in Sahiwal district to understand how peasants think, work and understand social processes. He studied their political leanings, and his 1965 essay ‘Peasants and Revolution’ focused on the middle peasantry, which he called “the most militant section in the countryside”. Questions such as in what circumstances does militancy within them blossom, to the roles they play in revolutionary situations were explored by Alavi, citing examples of Chinese and Russian revolutions, and of course in Pakistan. Dr Shaheed believed this research was still of contemporary relevance in the troubling times the country faced.
Alavi’s ability to make abstractions and build theories garnered much appreciation among his peers and juniors, and this conceptualisation allowed him to present the post-colonial state and its interruptions by the military in a more thorough manner. Speaking about the independence movement, Dr Shaheed made particular reference to Alavi’s contention regarding Pakistan being formed on the basis of religion. He believed that a “salary-dependent class of Muslim government servants, called the ‘salariat’ led the movement” as they saw a decrease in their share of jobs in pre-partition India.
Dr Jafar Ahmed, director of Pakistan Study Centre, Karachi University, spoke about theories on the state and how two different narratives seemed to stem out, one more overwhelming than the other. Identifying the first, which is what should the concept of a Pakistan state entail, Dr Jafar insisted how this narrative failed to take the debate forward. “The other narrative is what has been the concept of the Pakistan state since its inception and this is largely ignored in the discourse that we hear.”
Asad Sayeed, economist and researcher, spoke of Alavi’s position in global scholarship and how it is contextualised for the third world. “The third world is different from Western industrialised societies. Most of the research is done based on the Western model, while Hamza Alavi’s body of work focuses on the third world.” The influence of colonisation, decades after its end, still exists in Pakistan today, courtesy colonial modes of production as well as constant interruptions from the military and bureaucracy. Sayeed shared with the audience Alavi’s theoretical belief that “no one ruling class exists in the country and neither is their one working class in place.” This is why the distribution of power is so muddled.
The peasantry is factionalised, the industrial working class ethnicised and underdeveloped, and three basic groups in society hold varying levels of power and are classified as the ruling class – big landowners, industrial capitalists and the third oligarchy comprising the military and bureaucracy. This is what Alavi’s research over years yielded, shared Sayeed.
With a PhD in Economics, Dr Fahad Ali spoke about the structure of acculturation inherent in Pakistan and how if it had at all evolved. He insisted that research be conducted concerning how money was being produced in the country and who was making it. For him, Alavi’s work is of significance to allow this thread to be taken forward.
Alavi’s family members were also present on the occasion and his brother, Zain Alavi, shared the Hamza Alavi Foundation’s mission to spread Alavi’s work and thoughts to a wider range of readership.
Published in Dawn, April 19th, 2015