Hamza Alavi: The activist academic


By Zubeida Mustafa

Thirty-six years ago Hamza Alavi shot into fame in the academia when he wrote an article in the newly-founded The Socialist Register. He propounded the thesis that the middle peasants were initially the most militant elements of the peasantry and could therefore be a powerful ally of the proletariat movement in the countryside. Since this hypothesis reversed the sequence suggested in Marxist texts — that poor peasants are the main force of the peasant revolution — Alavi became quite controversial.

That is how he has always been — controversial. His thesis labelled the Alavi-Wolf thesis (as it was reiterated by Eric Wolf four years later) is “still alive and kicking and refuses to die”, to use Alavi’s own words. It was still being debated in 1995. “I made a distinction between the Marxist theory and the practical Mao,” Alavi says reminiscently today.

And this is Alavi’s forte — going to the practicalities of things. He got interested in the peasantry when as a young man he entertained romantic notions of going back to the land. He left a coveted job in the State Bank to take up farming in Tanzania. “There I lived among the peasants and was amazed at their intelligence,” he says. Needless to say, Alavi made a poor farmer. When a serious illness took him to London, he had time for reflection and changed his calling.

Although the idea of peasant revolutions might appear to be anachronistic in an age when the markets rule the roost, Alavi remains as pertinent today as the day in 1956 when he discovered his “disenchantment with empty academicism”. It was then that he abandoned his plans for a PhD on ‘Banking in Pakistan’ from the London School of Economics and started attending sociology, social anthropology and political science seminars as he devoured vast amount of literature to help him answer the questions that nagged his mind.

“What has happened to my country?” he would ask himself repeatedly. But there was nothing much to read in those days on Pakistan. So all he could do was study, analyze and write. That is how Hamza Alavi the social scientist-cum-political activist was born. For ten years, he was involved in political activism in London – writing, lecturing and holding seminars at universities. For five years he edited the Pakistan Today, the journal he founded to give coverage to important developments in the country. Issues were analyzed from the Left’s perspective and obviously this was anathema to the Pakistani Establishment. The journal was circulated clandestinely in the country and developed a band of devoted readership, some of them renowned names such as Faiz Ahmad Faiz who got the issue entitled The burden of US aid reprinted as a booklet.

His London decade proved to be a good training ground for Alavi. Along with his wife, he joined other like-minded Pakistani students and workers to set up different organizations which brought together 200 or so people every fortnight to hear scholars and speakers from the Left, which included people like Tony Benn, Eric Hobsbawm and also the Raja of Mahmudabad who became a close friend. Hence by the time Alavi launched on his academic career in the university of Sussex as a research fellow in 1966, he had been honed into a scholar whose feet were solidly on the ground.

It has been a long road from the post of research officer in the Reserve Bank of India in 1945 to the readership in the University of Manchester and then post-retirement life in Karachi since 1997.

What is most significant about Alavi is that his research is not the kind which is conducted in air-conditioned seminar rooms and libraries. Accompanied by his wife, he went and lived for 15 months in a village near Sahiwal in Punjab in 1968-9 to do anthropological field research. In 1981 he returned to the same village to follow up on the changes that had taken place over the years. He can still be spotted at the age of eighty in a public demonstration against violence in Karachi, as was the case on September 6 when he showed up at the rally at the Quaid-i-Azam’s mazar. Even if he is there to raise his voice in protest — the activist in him is very much alive — one can be certain that Hamza Alavi, the anthropologist, is observing keenly the happenings around him.

His field oriented research to which he applies his theoretical knowledge of anthropology and sociology has helped Alavi produce papers which are profound and provide a wealth of insightful knowledge and information on Pakistani society. He warns that for such research to be accurate you have to go and live with the people and win their trust.

“When I went to the Sahiwal village with my landrover and other paraphernalia of an elite class, the ordinary peasants were naturally distrustful. They praised Mian Sahib (the landlord) as a very shareef man. It was only three months later when I had established a rapport with them that they would come and confide in me in whispers about the excesses of the Main Sahib,” Alavi says.

He protests that a lot of the research which goes on here is ‘humbug’. “When a survey is conducted, the people are too scared to answer honestly. The reply they give to your question will be what they sense you want them to say,” he observes.

The range of his writing is so diverse, that it is difficult to identify the area of his specialization. It is basically theoretical and has dwelt on subjects such as the class structure, the nature of colonial and post-colonial economies, the relations between colonial, post-colonial and metropolitan elite, the roles of the military and the bureaucracy, changing production relations and the mode of production and kinship in the political economy of the village.

His writings are extremely well-researched and have a bearing on our situation. “I like to take up issues which are relevant to the conditions at a given point of time,” he tells me while explaining his new-found interest in Islam.

He was writing about race relations when he was in Britain in the sixties and that was the main area of concern to Pakistanis. Peasant revolt, feudalism, agrarian questions and social structures caught his interest when these emerged as the issues of the day. The women’s movement has been duly studied by Alavi when no male scholar was interested in researching this issue. But he always kept a keen eye on the political and constitutional developments in Pakistan which he has followed closely irrespective of where he has been. He describes himself as a “scholarly nomad, moving from one intellectual grazing area to another”. This wandering, from economics to political science and then social anthropology has only enriched him intellectually.

Why didn’t he write any book, given the prolixity of his writings? “I never got round to doing that, though I have edited a few. This is due to sheer self-indulgence. When a question captivates my imagination I go for it. I have found that one can say what one needs to say in a single tightly-argued article. I am not therefore given to spinning it out into books. If I turned to the idea of writing a book, some new issue would turn into the horizon of my inquiring mind and seduce me away from the book project,” he explains.

Given the depth of his scholarship, it would seem intriguing that Alavi was not welcomed by the universities here. Abroad he has been acknowledged as a distinguished anthropologist whose ideas have influenced a large number of social scientists. He has been acclaimed the foremost theoretical thinker in South Asia. But in Pakistan his views have been anathema to the Establishment which has found it difficult to swallow ideas which criticized foreign aid, spoke of the emergence of military-bureaucratic oligarchy which tries to mediate between the imperial powers and the landlords and the native bourgeoisie.

Even today he is attacked for his views on feudalism which he believes is still alive and entrenched in Pakistan. There are some who think differently. But Alavi points to the growing power of the landlord which has come with mechanization and the changes in the social structure. “With one tractor a landlord can cultivate 110 acres of land which displaces eleven sharecroppers. The displaced sharecroppers are pauperized as they are not absorbed by the industrialized economy. The power of the landlords continues to grow, since they control the vote banks and mechanization has given them greater power over the economic structure in the rural areas,” Alavi observes incisively

There are many questions he can only raise. How has mechanization led to the eviction of sharecroppers from the land and deprived families of their livelihood? Are these evicted peasants also disenfranchized? How has the profile of the village population changed as a result of tractorization? “If I were younger I would have returned once again to live in the village as I did in 1968 and reach my conclusions,” he says with a sigh.

He has been studying the Quran to understand the rise of fundamentalism which worries him deeply. Thus he hopes to apply his knowledge to the serious problems the country faces. He does not agree with the approach of our radical secular opinion which is dismissive of religion. “I think rational intervention is necessary. Of course I would not want to enter the “mullahs’ terrain” on their terms. But there is a pluralist view of Islam advocated by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan which believes that religion should remain a private matter,” he asserts.

He talks about the changing social structures, the women’s movement and the evolution of capitalism and nationalism. One could spend hours with him drawing deep from his knowledge which never grows stale because he is constantly updating himself by studying the new phenomena which emerge.

I am curious. Is the beard he is now sporting designed to prepare him for his struggle against fundamentalism on its own ground? No, not really, he laughs. He didn’t shave for a few days — not feeling too energetic one day and having had to rush off to his uncle’s funeral the next — and found it so convenient to grow a beard that he put away his razor for good.

Hamza Alavi: Profile

 Born on April 10, 1921 at Karachi Education: D.J. Science College, Karachi; Wadia College, Poone; Aligarh Muslim University, M.A. in Economics; Gokhal Institute at Poone for PhD under Prof D.R. Gadgil, on whose suggestion and recommendation he left his studies to take up a job as a research officer at the Reserve Bank of India, Central Office, at Bombay (now Mumbai)

Academic appointments: research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, 1966-71; visiting associate professor at Centre for S. Asian Studies, Michigan State University, 1971; lecturer, department of politics, University of Leeds, 1972-77; reader, department of sociology, University of Manchester, 1977-88; academic assessor, department of sociology and social anthropology, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, 1983-85; professor of social sciences GSIS, University of Denver, 1987-88; visiting professorial fellow, centre for social theory and comparative history, at the University of California, Los Angeles, 1989; honorary associate fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, 1971-1994 Anthropological field research: 15 months in a Punjab village in 1968-69

Founder Member of Editorial Board of Journal of Contemporary Asia (Quarterly) (1971-1985); Journal of Peasant Studies (Quarterly) (1973-96); founder editor of Pakistan Today (1957-62)

Founding member of CARD, the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, a UK-wide multi-racial organisation of Pakistanis, Indians, West Indians and White British, to join forces to fight the rising tide of racism

Source: Dawn Books and Authors, 16 October 2001