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WE THE BILLION: A Social Psychological Perspective on India’s Population by Ragini Sen. Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2003.

THE National Population Policy (NPP) 2000 signifies a marked departure in the governmental approach towards population and related issues in India. On paper, the NPP is a model of political correctness. It underplays the role of targets, brings into focus gender and reproductive health issues, and recognizes the need for participatory and need-based planning at the local levels. How much of it was translated into action and whether it had any significant impact on the mindset of policy and programme people who shape and implement programmes is, however, another issue. Most subsequent evidence, including several state policies, do not reflect the national policy concerns. They are inward looking and largely demographically driven, suggesting the marginalization of this important document and of those who believe in the inherent principles of this document. People, including intellectuals and opinion makers at the highest level, continue to remain obsessed with numbers and defy what is envisaged in our own policy documents. There is a continued emphasis on a programme which is, by and large, de-linked from the local cultural milieu and incapable of responding to women’s needs.

It is evident, therefore, that having a right kind of policy document alone is not sufficient. There is a need for continued advocacy and education of people, particularly of those who are into policy-making and programme implementation. At the same time, the need for theory-driven yet practical, simple and culturally relevant interventions cannot be over-emphasized.

We the Billion by Ragini Sen responds to precisely this need. Written lucidly and unambiguously, the book argues for a comprehensive and holistic approach and reminds that a panic response to population growth should be substituted by a more considered and evidence based approach in line with our own most recent policy document. The book presents a blueprint of a behaviour change communication campaign and makes suggestions for structural changes.

The book begins with a discussion of the population explosion and underscores the underlying causes with emphasis on structural issues. Her analysis of successive population policies points to the need for a high quality and responsive service delivery as a measure to fix accountability in the system rather than placing onus on individuals and couples to restrict their family size.

She further argues that the programme should be based upon a careful understanding of social, cultural and psychological aspects of reproductive health and presents a detailed framework for population communication based on what is known as theory of social representation. This approach focuses on ‘transformative’ rather than on purely ‘informative’ processes involving assimilation or personification of new knowledge into the system and then evolving an image or symbol that represents the culture and becomes part of social reality. In this way people are not handed down simple messages but information that is part of their reality. She provides empirical data for the application of this theory.

Of particular interest is her reading of various media campaigns. An interesting analysis of posters and audio-visual campaigns on family planning is presented to demonstrate how some campaigns that use symbols and languages derived from the local milieu are more effective than the others. On the basis of thorough analysis, she advocates reviving some of the powerful campaigns on immunization that were carried out in the eighties and went beyond ‘family planning’. It is ironical that in this era of reproductive health, one rarely witness effective communication campaigns unlike during the family planning phase.

The empirical work presented in this book provides ample evidence to argue for a culturally sensitive women-oriented approach. While one cannot escape noticing her anxiety about the growth and size of population, she must be complimented for bringing back the focus on a social representation approach in the making of a comprehensive strategy to address reproductive health issues.

Ravi K. Verma


UNSETTLING MEMORIES: Narratives of India’s ‘Emergency’ by Emma Tarlo. Permanent Black, Delhi, 2003.

‘THE Emergency occupies an unusual place in the Indian past. It has been much mythologized but little studied. Too recent to be of interest to historians yet too distant to have attracted the attention of other social scientists, it has somehow slipped through the net of academic disciplines.’

For an event that, more in its end rather than the beginning, has been conventionally heralded as a watershed in modern Indian political life, this appears a strange statement. And yet, a little reflection would show that there is more than a grain of truth to the comment. As Emma Tarlo discusses later in the book, we broadly have two sets of narratives about the 18 month period. The first, originating primarily in the period and usually by those well-inclined towards the regime, focuses on the gains of the Emergency. We are told how the preceding period was a dark one, with right-wing and reactionary forces coming together to create chaos, ‘destroy the unity of the country and damage its secular fabric.’ Such narratives foreground the valiant struggle by Indira Gandhi and her regime to not just defeat the conspiracy but administer a needed dose of discipline to an otherwise increasingly lawless and ungovernable polity and society.

The contra view, which claimed prominence in the first flush of the post-Emergency period, 1977 to 1980, foregrounds both the micro and macro horrors – the abrogation of civil rights and freedoms, the suspension of the political process, the jailing, torture and killing of individuals – and the heroism symptomatic of the resistance. Central to this story are not just the machinations of Indira Gandhi, her son Sanjay (crown prince?), and the cabal exercising unlimited power, but equally the pain perpetrated on the ‘masses’ through demolition of urban slums and shanty towns as also in subjecting them to a coercive family planning drive.

Neither view, as the book discusses, is without its flaws. Tarlo’s narrative ‘seeks to articulate the experiences and perceptions of ordinary people who found themselves caught in the twists and turns of a bleak historical moment.’ These are the men and women who, by dint of poverty and circumstance, were targeted in the mass slum clearance and sterilization drives, ubiquitous in Delhi during the Emergency. It is somewhat ironic that despite paeans to the ‘masses’, the ordinary people who ‘silently’ helped overthrow a ‘dictatorial’ regime, their personal renderings of the event have neither been written nor heard. We now have to rely on a British anthropologist, more than a quarter century after the event, to bring the common citizen centre-stage.

This is an unusual book – in its methodological approach as also the many small and large conclusions. Very briefly, the exercise involved intensive fieldwork, both archival and interviews, in Welcome Colony, one of the many resettlement sites that came up during that period to house the close to 700,000 individuals who were uprooted in the drive to clean up and sanitize the city. Today, Welcome may appear like many other low-infrastructure and service ‘ghettos’ that mark settlements on the city’s periphery, at that stage it was close to wilderness. Many of those relocated to Welcome had suffered dislocation and displacement earlier. Without adequate shelter and distanced from sites of employment and income, they must have suffered many hardships. In addition, many of them were subjected to a coercive and insensitive sterilization drive, forced either to undergo sterilization themselves or deliver cases in lieu.

The site of archival research was, surprisingly, the record room of the slum department. Working through the dusty, often incomplete, files, Emma Tarlo and her assistant reconstruct an amazing, though depressing, take on how individuals sought and acquired possession of small plots of land to house themselves and/or their enterprises – the bribery, the wheeling-dealing, the role of petty officialdom, the netas, the interface of the municipal corporation/ development authority with the family planning drive and so on.

This reconstruction is complemented by interviews – memory as fragments, fraught with ambiguities and formulated within the context of wider experiences and agendas. ‘They testify not only to the state’s targeting of the poor during the Emergency, but also to the active role played by many of the poor in perpetuating state oppression at that time. The Emergency as fact leaves little space for the romanticization of the victim.’ Today, as the city, under the joint initiative of planners, environmental NGOs and the judiciary, is experiencing another make-over in the relocation of ‘polluting industry’ outside the metropolitan limits, Tarlo’s ethnographic account might help us make better sense not only of the larger ideological arguments offered for city planning but also how the masses, as concrete individuals, respond to, accommodate and subvert the grand plans.

This story of a ‘critical’ event a la Veena Das offers a fresh anthropology of the state, how it works to structure the everyday life of the citizen. We thus get a richer picture of the state as both idea and practice. Most crucially, it demonstrates how even the most horrifying policies, mass sterilization, get reconstituted as a market, with buyers, sellers and middlemen engaging in a bizarre exchange of family planning certificates to secure entitlements (for jobs/plots) and gain. This, in fact, is the real horror – the conversion of coercion into a banal everyday fact through connivance and complicity.

The book is much too rich in detail and methodological innovation to permit a simple summary. Some of the conclusions are however startling. Evidently, a quarter century after the event and close to two decades since Indira Gandhi’s assassination, many of these ‘victims’ remember her as a great leader, one who cared for the poor. And this across caste and religious divide. Not so her son, Sanjay, still disliked intensely by the Muslims but lauded by the Hindus. Surprisingly, many of the senior officials most associated with the demolition drive, Jagmohan (then vice-chairman of the DDA) and K.K. Nayyar (the man on the spot), get a good rating.

How come? Is it because the Emergency months constituted less of a rupture in the lives of the poor (they had faced dislocation earlier, as also subsequently)? Is it because they were able to work out an adjustment process? Or is it also because these resettlement sites, once seen as the boondocks, are now ‘valuable’ property? So at least those who did manage to secure entitlements are today somewhat better off?

The book also demonstrates the fragility and fickleness of both memory and judgement, more so in ‘high-profile’ critical events like the Emergency. Emma Tarlo has provided a rich, often convincing picture from the vantage point of those on the receiving end of state policy. It makes no claims to privileged truth. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that it will force many of us to revisit our presuppositions of those days, and hopefully force us to be more nuanced in our judgements.

Harsh Sethi


INDIA’S LIVING CONSTITUTION: Ideas, Practices, Controversies edited by Zoya Hasan, E. Sridharan and R. Sudarshan. Permanent Black, Delhi, 2002.

AS the Indian Constitution turned 50 on 26 January 2000, the government of the day inaugurated the celebrations with a proclamation that it was setting up a committee to ‘review’ the constitution. There was a transparent logic to this exercise, what with secularism, non-majoritarian democracy and the conservation of group rights (including those of religious minorities) presenting obstacles to the ambitions of the government and its kinsfolk. That the report of the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution said little, and mattered less, is a postscript, but that it was a cynical endeavour to subvert the constitutional scheme cannot be seriously disputed.

This volume, seeking ‘to review the working of the Constitution of India during its first half century,’ represents a partial kaleidoscope in the concerns that it shelters. Profoundly shaken by the political territory that has been appropriated by majoritarianism, and worried by the threat to pluralism and the right to be possessed of different identities, the authors (save one) engage with the constitution to re-assert its relevance. The issues that have survived the decades – the basic structure doctrine, federalism, party politics and democracy are illustrative – acquire a new urgency in the political climate that has emerged.

So, when Pratap Bhanu Mehta explores the basic structure doctrine, he says: ‘Judicial review is not anti-democratic in this sense: it is simply one of the mechanisms provided in the constitution to protect democratic sovereignty from usurpation by transient majorities’ (p. 193-94), it is not difficult to see what anxieties drive him. And the concern is more direct when Neera Chandoke writes: ‘Let me also suggest that contemporary conditions in India are such that we may need to buttress and support the reasoning of members of the Constituent Assembly by reference to contemporary theories of multiculturalism and minority rights. This is because it is the multicultural nature of Indian society that is under attack by proponents of Hindutva’ (p. 210). The 50-year mark, then, provides a peg, but it is majoritarianism and the assault on the secular which appears to have provided the immediate steering force. Yet, the opportunity to investigate beyond the moment has not been lost.

It is the work of a veritable galaxy that makes up this volume. There are lawyers and non-lawyers alike, the latter including political scientists, sociologists and historians. The institutional and textual outlook of the lawyers stands cheek-by-jowl with the ideational and contextual approach of the non-lawyer, making for a refreshing mix. Baxi’s ranging search, which leads him to establishing the ‘(im)possibility of constitutional justice’ explores the possibility of a third universe, where he, in splendid solitude among the contributors, gives serious consideration to the location of peoples’ struggles, and of the violence adopted by non-state actors, often in the pursuit of constitutional objectives. Sharing a sense of constitutional fairness with Granville Austin (‘government in India will regain credibility only when there are no longer forgotten Indians’, p. 341), Baxi approaches the question of ‘justice’ and the constitution from an enquiry of ‘from whose point of view and for whose benefit’ is the notion of the constitution/justice constructed (p. 31). The ‘politics of memory’, a term he uses elsewhere, plays itself out, including in his recognition of the place that ought to be reserved in constitutional discourse for the ignored ‘neo-Gandhians’, Acharya Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan.

There are themes deriving from the interaction of the constitution with the polity, which have not been sufficiently served with attention. And we have faced the inevitable consequence of ill-considered judgements. The infamous statement in the ‘Hindutva’ judgement where the Supreme Court adopted the view that Hindutva implies Indian culture as a whole and not merely Hindu religion – a view that Rajeev Bhargava judges ‘exemplifies… worst practice of the Indian judiciary’ (p. 128) – is, as reading the case will make clear, almost completely uninformed by narratives on secularism that extend beyond the court’s own subjective experience. Rajeev Bhargava’s writings exploring the various meanings of secularism are a necessary contribution to the literature. When he builds up his thesis from the statement that ‘mere separation of religion and politics does not create a secular state’ (p. 110) and moves through ‘a state that does not grant equal citizenship rights is not a secular state,’ to conclude that ‘secularism requires principled distance, not exclusion or equidistance’ (p. 117), you know it would be useful to introduce his text to the judiciary. True that his reasoning falters in its illustration [e.g., on the issue of abolition of child marriage as being relevant only for Hindus (p.117): ‘similar laws for Muslims were simply redundant’ – what does he mean?], yet even where it does not buttress his argument, it doesn’t detract from it either. So that’s okay.

If federalism has been relegated to the sidelines for some time now (and Douglas Verney gives the proliferation of state parties and the ‘danger of becoming confederate’ an anxious visit, and Javeed Alam gives us the term ‘implicit federation’), making the vote count has suffered sad neglect. E. Sridharan’s painstaking analysis of the entrenching of the first past the post (FPTP) system in representative democracy is convincing in its finding that ‘the state of knowledge and debate on the effects of alternative electoral systems remains extremely rudimentary’ (p. 366). It calls into question the ‘default assumption that the FPTP system was somehow natural’ and draws attention to ‘an awareness that this system would tend to underrepresent territorially dispersed groups like the SCs and the Muslims, but that was sought to be remedied by the device of reservation, guaranteeing representation, rather than by electoral-systemic engineering’ (p. 366). In effect, the poverty of political scholarship and the faultlines in providing a representative democracy are lain open to view.

Investigating the nation and the state (Javeed Alam), the basic structure doctrine (Sudarshan and Pratap Mehta), the political economy of social justice (A. Vaidyanathan), the facets of power handling and sharing that make up decentralization (Peter Ronald de Souza) and the politics of ‘presence’ and the travails of the Women’s Reservation Bill (Zoya Hasan), the volume is less of an unruly patchwork than it might have been. In getting Marc Galanter to revisit the field he traversed in Competing Equalities, and here concluding that ‘generalising protective treatment to all groups dissolves the original and distinctive national commitment to the core beneficiary groups, the scheduled tribes and scheduled castes. The reservation device become not an exceptional tool of inclusion but a scheme of communal allotments,’ the volume jogs the debate along.

Between Sunil Khilnani’s implicit empathy with ‘those who do claim for themselves some knowledge of the constitution’ and dismiss it as ‘a document that has been superseded by history and whose only function today is to serve as a block to the will and interest of a putative majority’ (p. 64) and Granville Austin’s ‘the constitution’s very existence has been a powerful force for change’ (p. 340) lies a wide compass of thought. And they are represented in good measure in these pages.

There is Martha Nussbaum’s disenchantment with the right to privacy when tested in the domain of women’s politics in what for years have been treated as private spaces, and this may be worth a different inquiry, say, where POTA, or S.377, intercedes to compare conclusions. There is Satish Saberwal’s gentle challenge to the constitutional scheme as having created unintended consequences because ‘the social assumptions, and the legal techniques, that shaped the constitution were drawn from the West, almost entirely from outside India, even though the underlying purpose were emphatically Indian’ (p. 10). And there is Neera Chandoke’s last burst of breath in which, after engaging with the conflict between individual and group rights, she asserts: ‘…we need to think of community rights as conditional rights, and when that right is overridden, it is not overridden by consequences, but by a concern for the core rights’ (p. 235). And the core rights are: ‘the right to life, liberty, equality, and the right to assert rights’ (fn. 40). ‘The only ground for limiting a right,’ then, ‘is the need to uphold a core right.’

The task of converting seminar papers into a book stands accomplished. It now needs a readership to reach out to the narratives and ideas that inhabit its pages. And, drawing on Mehta’s observation that ‘the court [in influential decisions such as Raj Narain (1975) and S.R. Bommai (1994)] often seemed not to be engaging in public reason…; rather it seemed to rely on an odd combination of textual deference with the invention of its own principles’ (p. 202), it would seem that a particular effort is called for to insert this work within the curiosity zone of judges.

Usha Ramanathan


ISLAM UNDER SIEGE: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World by Akbar S. Ahmed. Vistaar, New Delhi, 2003.

‘THERE will be a time,’ said the Prophet of Islam eight centuries ago, ‘when your religion will be like a hot piece of coal in the palm of your hand; you will not be able to hold it. They [Muslims] will be large in numbers, more than ever before, but powerless like the foam on the ocean waves.’ The Prophet was not a trained social scientist yet what he predicted seemed to be coming true if the events of 9/11 and after are any indication. That is how the author of this book pays tribute to the Prophet in the very first paragraph and then develops his thesis explaining the how and why of it as a trained social scientist.

For students of contemporary Islam, Akbar Ahmed barely needs an introduction. Through his extensive writings on the subject, public lectures, appearances on TV talk shows, interviews, production of documentaries and a movie on Muhammad Ali Jinnah, he has established his credentials as a sincere officer of the elite Civil Service of Pakistan turned internationally acclaimed social anthropologist. What makes him particularly distinguished is his style of harmoniously blending experience as a bureaucrat, an insatiable thirst for knowledge as a scholar and humility as a deeply religious soul. The end result is that he transcends narrow nationalistic barriers and becomes a world citizen, at ease with all faiths and their intrinsic goodness. He is ‘inclusivist’, to use his own phrase, and that is the prescription he has for international peace – a proactive dialogue among civilizations.

Islam under Siege may not have been written had there been no 9/11. Although Ahmed argues that the ‘the sense of siege among Muslims did not occur abruptly after September 11’ and that the process of ‘too much change taking place at too great a pace’ (p. 47) was behind the phenomenon, one can discern the fear and concern that prompted him to write the book after those ominous events. As a Muslim living in the United States, he felt the heat of the ‘clash of civilizations’ probably more than Muslims elsewhere. For him it was not merely listening to George Bush’s ultimatum ‘either you are with us, or with them,’ but also living through what followed in the name of America’s war against terrorism.

A rising tide of Islamophobia gripped an otherwise liberal America. ‘Several Muslim charities were shut down; women wearing the hijab were harassed. Fox television commentator Bill O’Reilly equated the holy book of the Muslims, the Quran, to Hitler’s Mein Kampf; so much for the channel’s self-description as offering "fair and balanced" coverage’ (p. 36). ‘Richard Lowry, the editor of National Review, created a storm of controversy when he came up with a "final" solution to the Muslim problem: "Nuke Mecca" and force the remaining Muslims to accept Christianity’ (p. 37). ‘The general antipathy to Muslims was so great then that when suspected Taliban and Al-Qaeda captives were brought as prisoners to the United States army base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – to the place known as Camp X-ray – and some organizations raised the question of rights, American media commentators responded by saying, "These are not prisoners of war and therefore, have no rights." Noted legal personalities advocated the official use of torture in dealing with Muslims’ (p. 40).

Indeed, at times, Ahmed overstretches this point. For example, he writes: ‘The United States, Israel, and India were compromising hard-won ideas of a modern, thriving democracy. There were cases of illegal detention, suspension of civil liberties, and unauthorized surveillance. The victim was invariably a Muslim’ (p. 24, emphasis added). It was not ‘invariably’. In India, for instance, political opponents who were harassed under various security acts, such as the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) or the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), also included Muslims, not only Muslims.

Samuel Huntington’s thesis on a ‘clash of civilizations’, propounded in the early nineties, was almost as significant as the famous ‘X’ article by George Kennan in the late forties. Both significantly influenced the American strategic community. The world continues to debate whether in the foreseeable future, international conflicts would be over civilizational, read religious, divergences and not over economic ideologies or physical resources. Although couched in a larger framework in which Indic and Chinese civilizations are roped in, the core argument was meant to address the threat that the United States was likely to countenance from a rejuvenated and militant Islam. Still, the debate remained largely academic until the events of 9/11 changed all that. For many Americans the clash of civilizations was as real as the Cold War. America now had a new enemy: International Militant Islam.

Ahmed of course does not subscribe to the Huntington’s thesis. But he agrees that ‘the 21st century will be the century of Islam. The events of September 11 saw to that. The hijackers of the four American planes killed not only thousands of innocent people, their terrible act also created one of the greatest paradoxes of the 21st century. Islam, which sees itself as a religion of peace, is now associated with murder and mayhem. Consider Islam today: There are about 1.3 billion Muslims living in 55 states (one, for the time being, nuclear; about one-third of the world’s Muslims live in non-Muslim countries); about 25 million live in the West (including 7 million in the USA and 2 million in the UK); and Muslim nations are indispensable for American foreign policy (of the nine "pivotal" states on which the United States bases its foreign policy, five are Muslim). The Muslim world population is one of the fastest growing. And Islam is the one world religion which appears to be on a collision course with the other world religions’ (p. 7). ‘The United States was hated long before bin Laden forced George Bush to ask the question, "Why do they hate us?"’ (p.11) But what disturbed Ahmed most was that both Muslims and non-Muslims used the Quran selectively to make their points, which had the potential of wrecking havoc in the world.

Both as an anthropologist as well as a scholar of Islam, Ahmed draws heavily from the philosophy of Abd al-Rahman bin Muhammad Ibn Khaldun and his own personal experience in the Pakistani civil service to make sense of the contemporary, rapidly changing, complicated, and dangerous global realities. ‘I will attempt to explain what is going wrong in the Muslim world; why it is going wrong, and how we, because my explanation involves Muslims and non-Muslims, are to move ahead if we wish for global stability and even harmony in the future,’ promises the author at the outset (pp. 1-2). He terms his methodology as ‘reflexive anthropology’.

Ibn Khaldun’s concept of asabiyya forms the core of Ahmed’s thesis. He describes it in the context of what is happening to traditional societies, particularly Muslim, in this age of globalization. ‘The nearest definitions of asabiyya are "group loyalty", "social cohesion", or "social solidarity". We need to look for answers in the changing social order; in the sense of social breakdown; the feeling of the loss of honor and dignity’ (p.13). ‘Simply put, global developments have robbed many people of honor. Rapid global changes are shaking the structures of traditional societies. Groups are forced to dislocate or live with or by other groups. In the process of dislocation they have little patience with the problems of others. They develop intolerance and express it through anger. No society is immune. Even those societies that economists call "developed" fall back to notions of honor and revenge in times of crisis’ (p. 15). That explains the subtitle of the book: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World.

One may in this connection recall how some scholars had explained in similar vein the phenomenon of the Iranian revolution by drawing from Karl Deutsch’s theory. Deutsch had argued that if the rate of social mobilization did not exceed the rate of assimilation the prevailing culture not only survived, it was strengthened by the incorporation of new adherents. But if the rate of mobilization exceeded the rate of assimilation, the prevailing culture was overwhelmed by the rapid intrusion and got replaced by the new culture of the intruders. In the case of Iran there was an unprecedented spurt of modernization since the late 1950s which the society failed to absorb. Ahmed does not mention Deutsch but he finds Ibn Khaldun’s ideas, which are on the same lines, in Emile Durkheim’s writings.

Durkheim’s concept of ‘mechanical’ and ‘organic solidarity’ had traces of Ibn Khaldun’s notion of asabiyya. His theory of ‘anomie’, Ahmed tells us, is relevant for our understanding of the contemporary Muslim world. Yet, Ahmed finds a critical difference between Durkheim and Ibn Khaldun. Notwithstanding his ‘scientific’ objectivity, the latter was after all a believer. There was ‘a moral imperative in his interpretation of asabiyya as Muslims see human beings as having been created to implement the vision of God on earth through their behaviour and organization of society: Man is after all a "deputy" or "viceregent" of God. So asabiyya as an organizing principle is not value-free’ (pp. 75-77).

But herein lies the hiatus between Muslims and non-Muslims, which Ahmed has not tried to resolve. For a non-Muslim, this reviewer being one such, it is often intriguing as to why it invariably becomes necessary to highlight whether one is a believer or a non-believer. Is it necessary to have an Islamic social science to understand Islamic society? Is it not possible to have a general social science theory to understand any society, including the Islamic? Is one’s religious identity primary and all others secondary? As a social anthropologist, Ahmed, I suspect, would not say so.

Besides, although Ahmed does not state explicitly, it is evident that he is pessimistic about the possibility of the traditional concept of asabiyya ever arresting the present process of decay against the background of rapid technological changes. ‘Tribal and rural groups can no longer provide asabiyya; urban areas in any case are inimical to it. The result is loss of vigour and cohesion. Muslims everywhere are voicing their alarm at the breakdown of society. They know that something is going fundamentally wrong but are not sure why’ (p. 79). In Muslim societies asabiyya is breaking down because of ‘massive urbanization, dramatic demographic changes, a population explosion, large-scale migrations to the West, the gap between rich and poor (which is growing ominously), the widespread corruption and mismanagement by rulers, the rampant materialism coupled with the low premium on education, the crisis of identity and, perhaps most significantly, new and often alien ideas and images, at once seductive and repellent, and instantly communicated from the West, ideas and images which challenge the traditional values and customs. This process of breakdown is taking place at a time when a large percentage of the population in the Muslim world is young, dangerously illiterate, mostly jobless, and therefore easily mobilized for radical change. The consequence is the difficulty of creating a society based on justice, knowledge, and compassion’ (p. 81). But is this not true of large parts of the developing world, Muslim or otherwise?

There is reference in the book to the phenomenon of suicide terrorism, which readers may find instructive. Ahmed is unhappy that in all discussions on the subject, Durkheim has been totally ignored while it was he who first underlined that traditional explanations of suicide, such as mental disturbance, race, or climate, did not fully explain the phenomenon. He had argued, according to Ahmed, that ‘suicide was a consequence of a disturbed social order. Moral codes were disrupted in times of change and affected rich and poor… The strain led to suicide and abnormal behaviour, which he characterized as "anomie".’ In this Durkheim was echoing Ibn Khaldun’s asabiyya. One may not fully agree with either Durkheim or Ahmed’s logic because the phenomenon of Japanese Kamikaze suicide bombers was neither driven by honour compulsions nor by any societal collapse. It could simply be an expression of hyper-nationalism, like hyper-asabiyya, which Ahmed alludes to explain Islamic terrorism. In any case, Ahmed’s argument provides us with yet another dimension into researching the problem.

While Ahmed is pained by the fact that western democracies, particularly the United States, are painting the entire Islamic world with a single brush, ignoring its nuances as also the essential tenets of Islam, he is even more pained by the rot that is rapidly engulfing the Islamic societies. Both by drawing from his unpleasant experience with the Pakistani establishment as well as from his erudition of Muslim culture, he bemoans that ‘in the place of scholars advising, guiding, and criticizing the rulers of the day, we have the sycophants and the secret services. The wisdom, compassion, and learning of the former are being replaced by the paranoia and neurosis of the latter. And to where do the scholars escape? To America or Europe. Yet it is popular to blame the West, to blame others, for conspiracies’ (p. 91). Being a Pakistani he is particularly distressed by what is happening there. ‘Scholars – Abdullah Yusuf Ali, the translator of the Quran, Rahmat Ali, who gave Pakistan its name, Fazlur Rahman, the eminent Islamic scholar, and Abdus Salam, the only Nobel Prize winner of Pakistan – were encouraged to leave by the intolerant and the ignorant or jahil. Those who wished to return to Pakistan and contribute, such as Mahbub-ul-Haq and Eqbal Ahmed, died frustrated and broken-hearted. A Muslim scholar [Abdulaziz Sachedina] puts the case forcefully: "It is not an easy task for any conscientious Muslim intellectual in the Muslim world or in the West to undertake this critical task without endangering his or her life"’ (p. 93).

Does Ahmed have any answer to the mess that he has described so emotionally? Yes. The crux of his futuristic vision is that the world is broadly divided between champions of ‘inclusion’ and those of ‘exclusion’. Inclusion means inter-civilizational dialogue. Exclusion means inter-civilizational conflict (pp. 123-24). ‘The thesis about the clash of civilizations, which remains influential in some circles, rests on the assumption that the wars of this century will be fought along religious lines. It is therefore logical and urgent to understand what factors are responsible for the emergence of religion and how religion will be playing a role in deciding political developments in this century. However, we need to penetrate beneath the sensationalist nature of these theories and discover alternative ways of understanding society. I do not suggest that we accept each other’s or all religions uncritically but that we understand them in order to make sense of what is happening in global society’ (p. 161).

But, at times, Ahmed seems to take at face value the words of leaders. He is all praise for Mahathir Mohammad of Malaysia, for his statement that ‘globalization in the form that it takes now is a threat against us and our religion’ (p. 49). (At the recent conference of the OIC in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Mahathir wanted that only soldiers from Muslim countries be sent to Iraq. Was he not playing an Islamic card?) One must not forget that notwithstanding the financial crisis faced by Malaysia, Indonesia and others in the region some years back, it is they who have been the greatest beneficiaries of globalization and that such statements are primarily meant for the gallery.

In explaining Muslim anger Ahmed sometimes draws rather hasty conclusions. His analysis of the October 2002 elections in Pakistan is an example. He writes: ‘To the people of Pakistan Musharraf had become a clone of Bush or "Busharraf". Musharraf was pointedly snubbed at the elections he organized late in 2002 by the massive support shown to the religious parties who denounced him and the Americans’ (p. 61, also p. 143). But a closer analysis of the election results would suggest that the United States had no serious reasons to be alarmed by the victory of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), nor treat it as an indication of a sudden uncontrollable spurt of anti-Americanism in the country. MMA’s constituency was virtually confined to the NWFP and Balochistan. The provinces of Punjab and Sind were hardly touched by the wave. Moreover, the restricted nature of elections and not merely the element of anti-Americanism also helped the MMA. The fact that two prominent leaders of the PPP and Pakistan Muslim League (N), Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif respectively, were not allowed to contest, helped transfer some votes to the MMA. Of the 45 seats that the MMA bagged, as many as 35 were from these two provinces. In other words, of the 3.19 million votes it got, 2.8 million came from them. In so far as the provincial assemblies were concerned, the MMA could muster a majority in only NWFP with 52 seats in an assembly of 99. In Balochistan it got 14 seats out of 51, in Sind 8 out of 130, and in Punjab only 9 out of 297.

Similarly, the so-called ‘decadent West’ theory (not literally used by Ahmed, but by implication) also seems far-fetched. Ahmed writes: ‘The actions of Monica Lewinsky, Bill Clinton and bin Laden set the stage for September 11. Muslim reading of Clinton had much to do with their planning for September: If the President of the United States was a man without honor his people could not be different. It seems clear to me that bin Laden misread Bush on the basis of Clinton’s behaviour. To him all American presidents behaved in a feckless and dishonourable manner. It would be a costly blunder. Bush responded to the attacks on his nation as a man of honor bent on vengeance’ (p. 67). The comparison between Clinton and Bush seems rather skewed to this reviewer.

On the whole, it is a pleasure to read Ahmed’s Islam under Siege. One need not agree with every sentence and every phrase of any author. But if the author has been honest to his profession and made readers think, his contribution is seminal. Ahmed succeeds in doing precisely that.

Partha S. Ghosh


STEPPING OUT: Life and Sexuality in Rural India by Mrinal Pande. Penguin, Delhi, 2003.

THE recently released UNFPA report blew the lid off India’s worst kept secret: the dangerously declining sex ratio afflicting not only the traditional male dominated societies of the country’s north-west, Punjab and Haryana, and the Hindi heartland but states in the prosperous western zone as well. Worse, the juvenile sex ratio (2001 census) gave proof, if any was required, of the alarming incidence of female infanticide and foeticide. These bland figures capture, as the Committee on the Status of Women in India (1974) had long back argued, the deep-seated and structural bias against women. And nowhere is this more evident than in the functioning of our medical and health system.

In a society which so glorifies women in the abstract, despite routine invocations to the goddess of learning (Saraswati) or wealth (Laxmi) and holding the Devi supreme, relegating women to the nether margins creates little discomfort. ‘This is life’ reflects a common refrain across cultures, castes and classes, often, one hates to admit, shared by women themselves. No surprise that praise for women, for their procreative power, is expressed only when they give birth to sons. ‘May you be the mother of a hundred sons.’ Never daughters.

It is now widely accepted that women work much harder and for longer hours than men, not only within the house but outside as well. Their health and well-being should thus be of prime concern. Not so in reality. Women specific medical problems draw less attention, often being dismissed by family members as shirking or hysteria. Even in the reproductive arena, despite obsessive preoccupation with procreation, government policies and health care services remain focused on controlling fertility.

It is insufficiently appreciated that despite being legal in the country, well over 90% of all abortions take place outside the legal framework. That deaths due to unsafe abortions constitute a significant proportion of maternal mortality. Further that given the poor health of most women, and the lack of access to timely and quality health care, maternal morbidity remains alarming. In general, problems related to sex and sexuality – infertility, reproductive tract infections, sexually transmitted diseases – are under-researched and go unattended.

Is this because in addition to prevalent gender bias, issues related to sex and sexuality are seen as dirty/taboo, private, associated with shame, and so on? In a culture so seeped in Victorian puritanism, it is rare to come across a ‘decent’ public discussion of these concerns. It is thus heartening that Mrinal Pande, as part of a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, has produced this well-informed and highly accessible tract on life and sexuality in India. Even better, the book is also available in Hindi at a highly affordable price, courtesy Radhakrishna (Rs 95). One cannot plead strongly enough for this book to be widely read and discussed.

Health, including reproductive health, issues are not easily amenable to popular writing. It is a reflection of Mrinal Pande’s skill, really empathetic engagement, that she has transformed a dry discussion of health policy and demographic trends into a gripping narrative of how the large mass of our women, in both rural and urban areas, live and cope with their problems despite little help from family, community and the health establishment. Equally, the story revolves around the (unfortunately) few dedicated doctors and NGOs who are struggling to provide a beacon of hope.

Abhay and Rani Bang in Gadchiroli, Sharad and Kirti Iyengar in Rajsamund, the CINI-ASHA team in Kolkata, CEHAT in Mumbai, Masum in Pune, the RUWSEC team in Chengalpattu, SEWA in Ahmedabad and many other ‘unsung heroes’ have tirelessly worked to both provide services (preventive, curative, and counselling) and generate data on the otherwise invisible problems of women. Each of these profiles, embedded in a wider social context, help dispel cynicism about the orientation of the medical and health fraternity. Despite their research painting a bleak picture, there is no flagging of commitment. As Abhay Bang so simply points out, there is no replacement for love. CINI-ASHA has translated this maxim into a simple mantra in its training programme – ALPAC – Ask, Listen, Praise, Advise, Clarify.

One could argue that all this is known. Possibly. But the story demands a retelling, more so when the current/policy mix of privatization and commercialization under market pressure is creating havoc. The Indian state spends less than one per cent of its GDP on health. Private expenditure is more than five times the public spending. And illness related expenditure remains a prime cause of indebtedness. In such a situation, recommending user-fee to ensure fiscal viability can only be described as criminal.