Taliban, social emancipators, and political economy – by Ishtiaq Ahmed

The ideas of human dignity and decency as understood by modern people are anathema to the Taliban. Wherever the Taliban juggernaut has run roughshod, it has crushed under its deadweight, writes Ishtiaq Ahmed

Political economy of insurgencies and protests

A colleague made an interesting comment that the Naxalite-Maoist movement in India and the Taliban movement in Afghanistan and Pakistan are the result of economic factors. That is indeed very true. While both are fuelled by economic deprivation, still one cannot assume that economic deprivation automatically leads to armed resistance or aggression. The recorded history of the last two to three thousand years shows amply the constancy of economic deprivation in all societies and all cultures. On the other hand, the story of resistance is discontinuous; it has come and gone. There have been long periods of history when the wretched of the earth meekly submitted and did nothing to overthrow their oppressors. I sometimes wonder how a handful of Englishmen ruled India for 200 years without encountering any resistance when nationalist writers tell us that British imperialism drove this region from prosperity into poverty. Moreover, overthrowing oppressors has not always been achieved through violence. India’s freedom struggle under Mahatma Gandhi and the civil rights movement of the African-American underclass of the southern states in the US are cases in point. Perhaps more important to analyse is the type of vision and programme that resisting groups want to implement.

The Indian Maoist movement originally emerged as an armed struggle laced in Marxist revolutionary ideology in the late 1960s in West Bengal against landlords and corrupt and brutal officialdom, but after the parliamentary Communists of the CPI-M came to power, it petered out in that province. It then emerged as a violent confrontation between Dalits and upper caste Thakurs (landowners) of Bihar and eastern UP. It spread to the tribal people of Orissa and also to other parts of India where pockets of abject poverty exist. Unable to eke out even a miserable livelihood in the tribal habitats, more and more of such oppressed sections of society joined the Naxalite movement. Maoist insurgencies are now found even in southern India. As far as I know, the Naxalites want poor men, women and children to get adequate food, education and shelter. In popular imagery the movement wants to transform the living hell in which they now live into some idyllic paradise on earth. Naxalites do not prey on young boys of impoverished families and use them as suicide bombers to indiscriminately attack men, women and children.

In contrast the Taliban agenda is just the opposite. The ideas of human dignity and decency as understood by modern people are anathema to the Taliban. Wherever the Taliban juggernaut has run roughshod, it has crushed under its deadweight girls, their schools, flogged women for stepping out of their homes without a male escort, stoned to death men and women for alleged adultery and so on. Their victims are almost invariably the poor and weak sections of society. So, the social and economic agenda of the two movements is diametrically opposite one another. To ascribe to the Taliban the role of social emancipators is a bad joke. The so-called Islamic emirates that the Taliban established in Swat and Malakand Agencies threatened parents to be ready to marry their girl-child of 9 or 10 to Taliban warriors. The purpose of life on earth according to the Taliban is to do jihad and build peace and prosperity, and then one enters paradise after exiting his life on earth.

The political economy of democratic protest in the West to economic deprivation is different. Thus the Corn Laws and New Poor Law of early 19th century England and the medical and unemployment benefits introduced by Chancellor Bismarck of Prussia paved the way for more welfare reforms in the 20th century. The Thatcherite-Reaganite onslaught on the welfare state heralded in the neo-liberal era of unbridled capitalism. It could only partially succeed in denting the social and economic reforms but failed to dislodge the welfare state. Politicians could not undo that because the electorate would never allow that to go too far. Therefore, democracy prevented the demolition of the welfare state in Western Europe. In the US, laissez faire capitalism had a stronger base. Therefore, the welfare state was never very advanced, though Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B Johnson and now Barack Obama have been developing an American type of welfare state. Thus for example the economic crisis of 2008 has not devastated American lives the same way as economic crises do in the Third Word.

The political economy of Third World economic deprivation is entirely different. Here there is no welfare state but there used to be once upon a time a developmental state that actively sought to promote education and unemployment. No doubt the developmental state was afflicted by massive corruption, yet it did deliver some social services. However, when the 1973 Arab-Israeli war broke out it greatly undermined the developmental state. As the price of oil rose, so did the prices of all other commodities. Suddenly one after the other Third World states began to see their foreign debt explode, causing an insurmountable balance of payments problem.

They headed to the World Bank and IMF, which prescribed the so-called Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAP). SAP had a standard recipe for states in distress: cut spending on non-productive activities. In practice it meant cuts in spending on schools and hospitals, retrench on employment in the public sector. Since the private sector was poorly developed and millions of people were laid off from their jobs, there was now a sea of humanity available for all sorts of insurgencies. I remember visiting Senegal with a research team from Sweden in 1994. The streets were full of young men who were willing to steal anything. However, just a few years earlier they used to be employed as teachers and office functionaries by the state. SAP ruined their lives.

Fortunately for the affluent world the African masses had no particular ideology to mobilise them. Therefore the most badly hurt part of the world was the least politically involved in armed struggles. Rather African warlords and Western gold and diamond hunters began to use them for civil wars over precious stones and minerals. In the Middle East the unemployed youths were forced to look for succour from other sources than the state. The only alternative left was the mosques. We all know that the Islamists exploited such opportunities to recruit cadres from among the young people facing anomie in the cities where they had come looking for work. The Afghan jihad absorbed some of them but not all. Thus while the economic origin of insurgencies and protests is undeniable, the forms of protest and resistance are mediated by many other factors as well.

Ishtiaq Ahmed is a Visiting Research Professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) and the South Asian Studies Programme at the National University of Singapore. He is also a Professor of Political Science at Stockholm University. He has published extensively on South Asian politics. At ISAS, he is currently working on a book, Is Pakistan a Garrison State? He can be reached at isasia@nus.edu.sg

Source: Daily Times

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