Over the last couple of decades, a number of books written both by the academics and journalists have appeared on many dysfunctions of the Pakistani state, a few of them even predicting why and how and when it is going to collapse. Against this grain, Ayesha Siddiqi
’s new book, In the Wake of Disaster Islamists, the State and a Social Contract in Pakistan
(Cambridge University Press, 2019) is a forceful meditation on a number of key issues around the social contract, citizenship, and state provisions such as disaster relief and social protection. The book helps understand why, despite its many limitations, Pakistani state remains central to the lives of those it seeks to govern.
Through an intensive ethnography conducted in the three of the worst hit districts – in the wake of the flooding disasters of 2010-2011 – in the Southern-most region of Pakistan’s Sindh province, Siddiqi demonstrates that the state and citizenship, even when expressed in vernacular idiom which doesn’t lend itself neatly to predominantly Eurocentric and structuralist sensibilities have meaning and resonance for the people. People look up to Sarkar
(the “state”) both when they make claims for day to day provisions and also in the times of extraordinary distress. Though not always in time and effectively, as instantiated by the universal cash grants given to everyone who might have suffered in three districts of Badin, Thatha and Tharparkar, as a consequence of the floods, Sarkar
Advancing a critical anthropology of the state, the book makes three major contentions: First, as already suggested, contrary to what the ‘master narratives’ claim, state remains very much present in the lives of the people even in the peripheral regions of Pakistan. Even when state remains unable to satisfy people’s demands, the fact that people have high expectations of it testifies to its centrality in their moral and political imaginaries. Second, since the local imaginaries of the state aren’t that of a monolithic entity represented by a coherence of institutional structures and purposes, major political parties and local influentials come to acquire some of the key “state-effects”, hence relations of clientship, to the extent that they remain relevant to the socio-political lives of many, aren’t necessarily an anathema to citizenship, instead they might actually be one of the constituent elements of a postcolonial social contract. Third, the specter of Islamist organizations coming in to occupy the space created by the presumed ‘absence’ of the state has no real grounding. This is so not because the state remains very much ‘present’ but also because the Islamists are afforded visibility only in so far as they are coopted by the state to partake in the relief activities.
The book will be an indispensable reading for anyone interested in grasping the socio-political complexities inherent to the postcolonial states, societies, and their mutualities beyond the dominant tropes.
Ali Mohsin is a doctoral candidate in Anthropology and Sociology at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID), Geneva. His research focuses on the politics of poverty, inequality and social protection in Pakistan. He can be reached at email@example.com