XQs XVIII - A Conversation with Mubbashir Rizvi

Posted by qainchi on November 10, 2019 · 21 mins read
[The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the authors of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to "review" but to contextualize, historicize, and promote new scholarship. We thank Madhuri Karak for conducting this interview. Previously: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV, XVI, XVII]

Mubbashir Rizvi is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Georgetown University. The Ethics of Staying: Social Movements and Land Rights in Pakistan (Stanford University Press, 2019) is his first book.

Q. In The Ethics of Staying you study a rural mass movement against the backdrop of military-state-society relations in contemporary Pakistan. What drew you to the discipline of anthropology, and this project in particular?

I started graduate school in 2003 with a vague idea for a project on the rise of ethnic-sectarian politics in Karachi and how it overtook poor people’s politics (whether it was trade unionism, or broadly ideological class politics) in the city. However, the post 9/11 climate in America leading up to the invasion of Iraq made me reconsider doing a project on the sectarian-ethnic conflict in Pakistan. I was a latecomer to anthropology having learned about the discipline when I volunteered for the New York-based organization, Taxi Workers Alliance, where I was conducting a study on taxi drivers’ working conditions. I also met anthropologists (graduate students at the time) who were doing interesting projects on labor migration and the taxi industry in NYC, which consisted of a predominantly immigrant workforce from South Asia and West Africa. I was deeply moved by the experience, and learned a great deal from ordinary drivers’ life histories, their perspectives about the global economy, migration, and the immigrant experience in NYC.  I became interested in pursuing anthropology after this experience. I was working as an IT desktop support technician while finishing my undergraduate degree as a part-time student at CUNY’s Brooklyn College but I was excited at the prospect of doing ethnographic fieldwork on everyday struggles in Pakistan.

I came across news reports about Anjuman Mazarin Punjab (The Punjab Tenants’ Association, hereafter AMP) on listservs as I entered graduate school. I was surprised both by the militant nature of AMP protests in central Punjab, the folkloric heartland of Pakistani nationalism, and the timing of these protests, just months after a military-led coup. The AMP emerged as a powerful symbol of resistance when it challenged the military's land monetization policy. Tenants feared dispossession in the event of a change in tenancy status from sharecroppers to cash-paying contract farmers. The AMP defied the state and raised militant slogans like “Ownership or Death” and engaged in civil disobedience by blocking the National Highway. The military rejected the tenants' demands and it forced the tenants to sign onto the land-lease system, which tenants feared would dilute their land rights and set them up for evictions. I decided to follow this movement because it challenged many conventional theories about militarization, state/society relations, and even ethnicity in Pakistan.

Q. Popular mobilizations against land grabbing today, as you point out, either draw on a rights-based discourse or on indigeneity. In the case of the Anjuman Mazarin Punjab, tenants and sharecroppers stake a moral right to eke out their livelihood and resist the imposition of contract farming by the Pakistani military. Do you see these modalities of resistance – rights-based, autochthony, moral communities - as mutually exclusive, generating unique political subjectivities viz. the postcolonial nation-state?

I was drawn to AMP because it didn’t fit my preconceived ideas about social movements in Pakistan or in other places. The AMP was not organized around indigenous claims to land, nor was it created to counter ethnic/sectarian marginalization.  I saw the AMP as embodying a politics of subsistence rights, or what I call “the ethics of staying” that resonate with the demands of other contemporary peasant movements represented by La Via Campesina. I was interested in studying conditions that made it possible for the movement to emerge and grow when it did, the role of new media technologies, and the neoliberal self-fashioning of military rule by General Musharraf. I show how these conditions opened up space for protest and how this space has shrunk considerably since 2012 with the passage of broad counter-terrorism policies used to curb all dissent and protest.

The urban allies of the movement saw the rise of AMP in terms of growing political consciousness, through a narrative of emergence and transcendence. The tenants saw their demands differently; they were rallying to maintain their moral right to bread, clothing, and shelter. Political scientists parochialize this type of anti-dispossession politics because tenants were making their claims on the basis of moral economy i.e., in terms of obligations, or expectations from the state. The prevailing trend in the social sciences in Pakistan favors the developmental state as responsible for creating institutions, systems of rational markets, and impersonal bureaucracy. The Left (which is very small but crucial for AMP in terms of building linkages between the tenant farmers and journalists) also has an awkward relationship with peasant movements, especially when they invoke customary and traditional rights. The one thing I learned from my work on AMP is that it is important to pay attention to the ideas or idioms of justice, and the language through which people articulate their demands for basic rights.

Q. "Infrastructure" is currently a buzzword in the discipline of anthropology. Your interest in canal irrigation during the colonial period, however, draws on a far older canon – gift exchange. How did rural infrastructure emerge as a pivot in your analysis of land rights?

This infrastructure literature has a strong urban bias in so far as it overlooks the long history of technical-administrative interventions in agrarian spaces all over the world. I wanted to highlight this cultural element of infrastructure and its significant role in shaping the relationship between agrarian communities and the state.  For example, the history of “canal colonization” is central to AMP’s legal and moral claims on the land. The infrastructural modernity and connectivity of central Punjab was a major factor in giving visibility to the AMP. The Pakistani military couldn’t isolate AMP, or justify its use of force on these “tenant farmers” in the name of “development” between 2003 and 2008.  I came to this literature thinking about the role of background conditions in shaping the possibility for social movements, their capacity for action.

 Q. Your theorizing of the subaltern is eclectic, moving past the Subaltern Studies school of thought, you instead engage with Gramsci’s The Southern Question and Eric Wolf. What pushed you to seek a more heterodox understanding of subalternity as a "conjunctural condition"?

The classic formulation of subalternity as I read it is always predicated on the center/periphery models. I don’t think indigenous communities or a peasant subject should be defined by her/his marginality but rather as a meeting point of multiple histories, ontologies, and differences. I became interested in more complex and varied understanding of colonial encounters, and favor a more diffuse model that highlights the interweaving connections between different forms of labor, political ecology (territory in central Punjab vs. the Bengal delta for example), and the consequent formation of capitalist relations. The early subaltern frames didn’t take into account the far-reaching networked connections of global plantation economies in the Indian countryside. In terms of recent work on subalternity, I find Tariq Ali’s book on the local history of global jute cultivation in Bengal to be an important contribution. Ali extends the work of early world-systems theorists but he is attentive to the local articulation of ethnic, nationalist and religious politics that emerges out of these subaltern contexts.

Q. Representing a social movement as an ethnographic object with legible boundaries is itself a political act. You write at length about the dilemma between critique and solidarity for anthropologists studying ongoing movements. How did it evolve over the course of your research on the AMP?

Social movements are diffuse, they come together as a cultural force but dissipate over time. They have the ability to universalize or generalize the demands of a particular community, a particular cause, or transform into something larger. My goal in working on AMP was to map this process, to understand the genealogy of the movement. What brought these people together to risk their lives to fight for control over farmland they didn’t legally own? A large section of my book describes the history of the farms, the working conditions on these farms, and the tenants' sense of entitlement after a century of exploitive labor. It became clear to me that the AMP grew out of a shared history of struggle and a shared vocabulary of rights that they were able to communicate to the general public. The AMP became a symbol, or metaphor, for peasant politics and grassroots resistance as it gained coverage in the press. The tenants won concessions as international newspapers and Human Rights Watch reports raised concerns about the military suppression and the state withdrew its paramilitary forces and stopped harassing tenant farmers to sign the contract lease system. However, the provisional success of AMP changed the dynamics of the movement, and also divided the movement. As some leaders ran for political office, others were accused of corruption. Some tenants grew rich whereas others felt uneasy about the future. I started my fieldwork at a time when the AMP was experiencing division. This made it difficult for me to find a way to write in solidarity with the movement while also being attentive to the growing divisions within the movement (which were publicly known and discussed in Left and NGO circles). I decided to write about these tensions because it reflects the environment in which many grassroots movements operate in between divisive forces while trying to maintain cohesion for their ultimate ends. Social movements don’t take place in a vacuum and the AMP too had to deal with issues.

Q. You speak about the challenges involved in trying to keep ahead of a rapidly shifting political terrain inside Pakistan as well as in terms of Pakistan’s role in the war on terror. At a granular level, this entailed a "dialectical relationship between law and violence," with anti-terror legislation having a crippling impact on the AMP’s leadership. What did this mean for you, methodologically and conceptually?

It is hard to conceptualize or theorize the Pakistani state since it is always veering between a democratic dispensation, militarism, bureaucratic and/or technocratic control. This lack of clarity also fuels a guessing game: Who’s in charge? Who is the real author of a certain policy? There are conspiracies and self-fulfilling prophecies.  It was fascinating for me to see up close how AMP leaders made sense of the fast-changing dynamics of the Pakistani state to understand how to make demands, know when to compromise and when to protest. This close understanding comes from the political insights gained through the course of the movement in 2000 – 2010, especially from the interaction of AMP leaders with activists, political brokers, and elected officials. However, the AMP’s ability to organize mass actions was challenged by 2014 with the passage of special counter-terror legislation that has all but banned oppositional public protests and gatherings. I conducted my research before the most stringent emergency counterterrorism laws were established. I was very much aware of the risks of working on this project. However, as I mentioned earlier, the AMP was not seen as a militant movement at the time when I was doing my fieldwork. There was a de facto detente and key AMP leaders were even hosted and feted by local government officials like the Okara District Commissioner, or the District Police Officer. I was critical of this trend during my fieldwork but by the time I was writing this book, the scenario had changed again and the AMP leadership was arrested for simply observing an International Peasant Solidarity Day in May 2016. This episode reveals how power tends to shift dramatically between non-elected officials, institutions who offer technical, security fixes, and the populist movements that rise up almost every decade to challenge authoritarian statecraft. The current moment in Pakistan is somewhat unique as there is an elected parliamentary government, but the military is playing a much larger role in every facet of governance.

Q. Ethno-nationalist "slots" occupied by Pakistan’s different regions – Sindh as feudal, Balochistan as tribal, and Punjab as the Islamabad establishment’s moral, political and economic stronghold – play an important role in military-state-society relations. Have the last 15-odd years of the AMP’s activities chipped away at Punjabi dominance in Pakistan’s political life? It has certainly not protected the AMP against state repression!

Yes and no, there is both too much and too little study of the racial-ethnic hierarchy of Pakistan. Most of the books on this question are written by ethnic-nationalist intellectuals who focus on historical injury and the processes of marginalization starting from conquest - it can be the arrival of Mahmoud of Ghazni, the Mughal state, the British colonial state, or the movement for Pakistan, which is seen by Baloch, Sindhi, and Pakhtun ethnic nationalists as a foreign (read Indian Muslim) project. I don’t say this to dismiss the very real dispossession that is happening in Baluchistan or the very real existing ethnic hierarchies in Pakistan but I think we need to historicize these slots more in order to acknowledge that ethnic identities as we understand them today are neither timeless nor eternal, as they are presented in common debate. There is little work that elaborates on the political conditions or contexts when Sindh, for example, becomes associated with ecumenical Sufism and religious tolerance. Again, these are generalizations with many exceptions, but these discourses are powerful and we need more work on these topics. For example, the narrative of Pakistani nationalism is hegemonic in Punjab, I speculate, in large part due to the history of Partition violence and displacement experienced by millions of Punjabi peasants. The rise of AMP definitely unsettled some of the conventional understandings about Punjab as a hotbed of pro-military nationalism. It also revived the discussion of land reforms and redistributive politics, which has important implications for other social movements taking place against dispossession in Balochistan, Sindh, or by the PTM (Pakhtun Tahafuz Movement).

Q. The book as it exists in the world now, and the Ph.D. dissertation it grew out of – did a lot change in between? How was the process of revision/rewriting like for you?

The dissertation is always written with a set of ideas and by the end, one has one’s committee in mind. I will like this book to expand the discussion on popular politics in Pakistan and to broaden the discussion of militarization in Pakistan beyond the frame of state capture and analyze spatial relations in terms of political subjectivity. A major part of revision was learning to convey the different contexts in which the AMP has existed from its inception to the time when I did the bulk of the fieldwork, and more recently, when the movement has suffered severe repression. I did three short stints of follow-up fieldwork to get a sense of how things had changed. I also struggled in deciding how to articulate a constructive critique of the movement especially at a time when it was facing repression.

Q. If you had to choose, which five texts (in any discipline) are you are in implicit and explicit dialogue within The Ethics of Staying?

I can use this question as a way to shout out the books that inspired me. I was very taken by Donald Moore’s Suffering for Territory: Race, Place, and Power in Zimbabwe (2005), Ajantha Subramanian’s Shorelines: Space and Rights in South India (2009), Timothy Mitchell’s Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity (2002), Tania Li’s Land’s End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier (2014), Wendy Wolford’s This Land is Ours Now: Social Mobilization and the Meanings of Land in Brazil (2010) and Brian Larkin’s Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria (2008).

Q. What are you are working on currently?

I am working on several projects; This past summer I started a project in the Karachi subzi mandi (wholesale produce market). I am interested in looking at the market place as a site of coexistence, cooperation, and competition across ethnic-sectarian lines. I hope to branch out further next summer to understand how food distribution networks are shifting and responding to climate change.  I have an ongoing side-project on the racialization of Muslims in America, and the circulation of hip-hop in Muslim diasporas in the US. I am also working on a few short pieces: a memory walk of Georgetown, a neighborhood in Washington D.C., that focuses on monuments and forgotten sites going back to the colonial tobacco trade. I am also revising an article on the role of infrastructure in shaping the climate of partition violence in central Punjab.


Madhuri Karak holds a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from the CUNY Graduate Center. She is currently an American Council of Learned Societies - Mellon Public Fellow at Rare, a Washington D.C. – based organization catalyzing human behavior change for enduring results in conservation.