July issue 2016

By | Interview | Published 3 years ago


Christophe Jaffrelot is a French political scientist who specialises in South Asia, particularly India and Pakistan. He is the director of Centre d’Etude et de Recherches Internationales (CERI) at Sciences Po, and director of research at Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). A graduate of the Institut d’Etude Politique from the University of Paris at Pantheon-Sorbonne and of the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales, he also has a doctorate in political science from Science Po.

A columnist, author and professor, with a keen interest in aspects of democracy and nationalism, caste mobilisation in politics, ethnic conflicts and Hindu nationalism, he is the recipient of the Ramnath Goenka Award for excellence in journalism and the Brienne Prize for geopolitics given by the Ministry of Defence in France for his magnum opus Le Syndrome Pakistanais. With more than a dozen books to his credit, Jaffrelot is best known for India’s Silent Revolution: The Rise of the Lower Castes in North India, Patterns of Middle Class Consumption in India and China and The Pakistan Paradox: Instability and Resilience.


How did you develop an interest in South East Asia, particularly India, at the very threshold of your career?

It all began very early on, when I was merely 18 years old. As a student of philosophy, I was introduced to Sufism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and the like. That’s how I started to pay attention to this region. I was still in high school when I first came to South Asia in 1984, at the age of 20. I had already joined Sciences Po the year before, and had to conduct research as part of the curriculum. At the crossroads of my interest were the philosophies that I just mentioned and the Sciences Po curriculum. I started off with the socio-religious movements in India, such as Arya Samaj, Brahmo Samaj, and so forth. That immediately became my research agenda.

How did that research narrow down to a focus on the lower caste groups in India?

Even though I was interested in doctrines and philosophies, I found societies and communities more intriguing and challenging. It wasn’t easy to gain an understanding of their dynamics though. You may recall that the ’80s saw the formation and rise of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). By 1989, it became the second most important party in Andhra Pradesh before the BJP set in.

My interest gradually shifted towards Dalit politics and identity. It had a link with my previous interest in Buddhism: the Dalits I worked with had converted to Buddhism. This led me to their mentor, Ambedkar. This is how I ended up writing his biography in the ’90s.

What exactly is the status of the Dalits in India today?

You can certainly see the emergence of the Dalit bourgeoisie, in recent times. Reservations have generated this group, and there is no doubt about it. Most of those who have come up have benefited from quotas in the IAS or from other top quotas in the state administration. But they are a tiny minority, not a large group, unevenly divided. You’ll find more of them in Maharashtra than in Bihar.

However, the masses or the larger number of Dalits remain landless peasants or labourers, living mostly in Dalit bastis and slums. And they still suffer from ‘atrocities.’ (There is an anti-atrocity law that applies to both the Dalits and the Adivasis, but its implementation is not systematic). Ten to 15 years ago, we could see a kind of steady emancipation of the Dalits because of mobilisation, reforms and laws. Now, it’s a contrasted situation where class lines are dividing the group.

While private organisations may continue doing a good job, the state must perform the key role in emancipating the Dalits. You cannot expect hundreds and millions of people to free themselves from poverty, domination and oppression without state intervention.

Free education is the absolute key. That’s why I am a bit skeptical when I hear people say that the market will save them. The market may be a bonus but they will benefit from the market economy only if they have the required education. And this education can only be given by the state.

At the concluding session of Islamabad Literature Festival 2016, you spoke about the three trajectories that practically rule Pakistan. Can you shed some light on each?

This was the purpose of the last book that I edited called Pakistan at the Crossroads: Domestic Dynamics and External Pressures. The introduction to the book is called: ‘Pakistan: The Interface State,’ arguing that you cannot understand what’s going on in the country if you don’t count in the external influences. This phenomenon is of an unprecedented magnitude. I don’t know of very many countries with 200 million people and nuclear weapons so porous to foreign influence!

Pakistan felt vulnerable and it needed external supporters vis-à-vis India. The US was the first one. In fact, the US was approached by Pakistan as early on as December 1947, when a delegation went to Washington DC and asked for financial support. We know that Pakistan has been used by the US for contravening Communism, and, in return, has got not only money but also weapons. It worked out fine at least until the first anti-Soviet Afghan Jihad, when both Pakistan and the US had a common enemy and a common interest. It’s not the same anymore as Pakistan has continued to count India as its enemy and the US is getting closer to India. For this and many other reasons, the old relationship has eroded. Which means that Pakistan has started to look for other supporters.

China came first, being a natural ally vis-à-vis India, especially after the 1962 war. Pakistan has resented the fact that the US did not respect its sovereignty, and rightly so. The drone attacks, the bin Laden raid, etc. show that Pakistan’s sovereignty was not the first concern of the Americans. My question is: Will China be more respectful of Pakistan’s sovereignty? You can ask yourselves because parallel to the Chinese influence is the Saudi influence, growing silently behind the curtain and below the radar. Since the ’80s, that influence has been growing and can result in some other kind of problems. It may foster sectarianism (the Shi’ite-Sunni conflict); it may also impact the traditional definition of Islam the country has held on to. For instance, in Pakistan, Sufism is a major identity marker, and we know that the Wahhabis are against that ‘deedar ka culture’. New patrons are coming — they are investing, they are giving money but the sovereignty and identity problem that was there with Pak-US relations may find a new expression.


In your book, The Pakistan Paradox: Instability and Resilience, you’ve clearly stated that democracy is only a façade in Pakistan, and the country is actually being ruled by the army. How do you support that argument?

A: That’s the situation we are heading towards today. To summarise, the argument is three-fold, as it appears in the second half of the book: There’s been tension, right from the beginning, between a unitary, centralised nation-state and the ethno-linguistic provinces. Then there’s been tension vis-à-vis the vision of Islam. The Muslim League wanted to give a homeland to the Muslims, not to create a theocratic state. The Ulema, however, always wanted an Islamic state. The third tension is between the democrats and the autocrats — those who have an illegal role in their approach to politics — and that doesn’t discriminate between the civilians and the military because many civilians are not that democratic. Because of these tensions, we’ve had instability within some parameters, resulting in resilience of a robust kind.

My hypothesis is that with the instability that has resulted in the alternation of the civilians and the military for the last 70 years, there is a new regime every 10 years. A kind of equilibrium might have been struck with democratisation — democratically-elected prime ministers, the Parliament, the State Assemblies, the Supreme Court, the Electoral Commission, and so forth. The institutions are there but the centre of gravity or the core shifts towards other institutions, such as the Apex Committees. At the national level, civilians are not governing the Apex Committees alone. There is a parallel power structure where military intervention has to be accommodated in the guise of the COAS.

Do you think that the culture of elitism prevails in Pakistan?

Certainly. India, on the contrary, has been a conservative democracy at least until the ’70s. We can see the making of low caste-based parties there, such as the BSP. Gradually, these parties made inroads into bastions of elite-dominated parties. In Pakistan we do not see that. Politics have remained vertical here with a large number of landlords still in the parliament, if not businessmen. There was no role for the businessmen to play in the Indian parliament. In Pakistan we do not see the plebeians forming parties, mobilising resources, independently. That’s the main difference between the two countries, at least in terms of party politics.

You’ve said that ‘terrorism’ is a catchword whose sub-text is ‘anti-Muslim’ while talking about the international scene. Could you elaborate on that?

A: We’ve seen the rise of Islamophobia in the West, especially after 9/11. Among most societies in the West, the fear of Islam has been fostered by its association with acts of violence. It was fostered primarily out of the US attacks in Madrid, London, Paris and Brussels. That’s exactly what we try to diffuse — we try to make sure that people do not mistake one for another. That’s one of the major challenges for western democracies, because they are also fostering extreme rightist bias. It’s one of the challenges to make sure that Muslims are recognised as respectable citizens of our countries. I keep defining Islam in Pakistan along the same lines as it has been defined in India — on the basis of values, which have nothing to do with dogmatism.

The Sufi culture is not militant. That, to me, is the antidote to militancy. That is exactly where the alternative is. You don’t need to be apologetic about your definition of Islam. Why should South Asian Muslims run after the Saudi Wahhabis? They have their own identity. In dargahs, there are both Hindus and Sikhs, and it shows that dargahs are open-minded, liberal spaces. Khwaja Moin-ud-Din Chishti came to Ajmer in the 13th-century — Wahhabis came much later. Such is the tradition of Islam in this region.

Pakistan has been repeatedly declared ‘a failed state’ by the likes of Anatol Lieven. Comment.

By account of the long list that defines Pakistan as a ‘failed state’, there are many failed states in the world. Pakistan is not a failed state. It’s a state under tension, and I prefer the word ‘tension.’ It’s a country that has not stabilised fully. There is no denial of the fact that the country is much more integrated today, in terms of national integration, than it was in 1971. There is no doubt that it’s much more developed in many different ways, including the infrastructure, educational institutions, etc. Some of the universities I have visited are world class, such as LUMS.

There are tensions resulting in instability but it’s not that these tensions are continuously undermining the stability of the country, that the country has failed. If it has failed in some ways, it has succeeded in some other ways. That would be a much more appropriate characterisation. It has failed to integrate the Baloch; it has failed to counter militancy (in fact it has sometimes fostered militancy). Look at Sindhi and Pakhtun nationalism — these are now closed chapters. There is, however, tension at the centre’s attempt to assimilate and resilience on part of the regional identities.