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An Inquiry into the Culture of
Power ot the Subcontinent


Ilhan Niaz


In the subcontinent, the Middle East, Central Asia, Russia, Africa, and large parts of South East Asia and Latin America, human civilization faces the collapse of the state of order. Leaders of states and international organizations regularly bemoan the increasing incidence of state and societal failure. This incidence does not appear to be affected by the formal structures of government. Democracies, such as India, the Philippines, South Africa, and Mexico, seem as incapable of dealing with their respective crises of state as theocratic Iran and Saudi Arabia, or secular despotisms in Egypt, Congo, and former Soviet Central Asia. Ruling elites in an alarmingly large portion of the world simply lack the wisdom and historical understanding necessary for the effective and responsible exercise of state power.
In August 2000, as debate raged in Pakistan over the proposed creation of elected local governments, I was invited by Zafar Iqbal Rathore to a series of private discussions in which he shared his perspective on the broader implications of the local government reforms. The invitation was precipitated by my decision to seek admission to the post-graduate program at the Department of History at the Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. Although we had met many times before at social and family gatherings, this was my first academic encounter with Rathore sahab.

Our discussion began with my being asked to diagnose the crisis of state in Pakistan. Although I have forgotten the exact wording of my response, I know that it included many favorite catch phrases, such as “feudalism”, “middle class”, “colonial legacy”, “praetorian domination”, “institutional failure”, “civil society”, etc., which echo through the living, dining, and seminar rooms of third world elites eager to mask their unfortunate lack of reasoned judgment behind semantic smokescreens derived from equally sub-rational American, Marxist, or religious discourses.

Rathore sahab then shared his perspective. He first explained the nature of the state in the subcontinent and elsewhere in the civilized world. This he called the continental bureaucratic state. Then he discussed the nature of the state in England and her dominions of settlement. This he called a government of laws. Next, Rathore argued that each form of the state over centuries led to the creation and entrenchment of powerful political habits, social responses, intellectual rationalization, and economic expectations. These behavioral patterns he called the culture of power. Finally, relating these ideas to the Pakistani context, Rathore concluded that Pakistan is an abysmally governed continental bureaucratic state. If elected local governments were introduced on the pattern proposed by the National Reconstruction Bureau, the quality of governance will deteriorate even further. He warned that by using international financial assistance to create elected local governments we would further compromise the principal mechanism of order, i.e. the civilian bureaucracy, create an atmosphere of incipient warlordism and anarchy, and gradually draw the military into direct confrontation with fractious local notables incapable of governing themselves.

Drawing upon numerous historical examples from the subcontinent, continental Europe, and the Anglo-Saxon countries, Rathore sought to establish that the only realistic and long-term solution to the crisis of state in Pakistan, or any continental bureaucratic state, for that matter, is the improvement of the intellectual and moral qualities of the ruler and his servants, that is, rendering the executive function effective, enlightened, and responsible. Although Rathore sahab had said as much to the National Reconstruction Bureau, his views were dismissed as symptomatic of an incurably “anti-people” and “colonial mindset”, by those in charge of the “grassroots empowerment” process.

My initial reaction was a mixture of admiration and indignation. Admiration flowed from the fact that Rathore was the only South Asian I had ever encountered who had developed an independent, reasoned explanation, of the historical process and, more specifically, the global crisis of order. Rathore unmistakably served the empire of reason. Indignation stemmed from the violence he did to my cherished assumptions about the nature of Pakistan’s crisis of state, of the inevitability and desirability of the advance of Americanism, and my faith in the equality and alterability of human nature. The result of these early encounters was an article critical of the local government scheme. However, I thought no more of cultures of power and focused instead on far more congenial topics, such as American history and Pakistan’s foreign policy.


Ancient India is a term that refers to the history of the subcontinent prior to the advent of Muslim rule. It is also referred to as Hindu India or “Early India”. The broad outline of this period is that the social, cultural, economic, and political, norms associated with Hinduism, ranging from the metaphysical ambiguities of Vedic lore and the caste system, to the numbing amorality of the Arthashastra, and endless internecine conflicts of the chivalric Rajputs, developed and attained a high degree of maturity, albeit without producing a corpus of historical texts.

This is a serious limitation as the only reliable source from which it is possible to extract, determine, and analyze the culture of power is written historical knowledge. In the absence of written records, one can only make educated guesses based on the data provided by archaeology, a host of other sciences such as numismatics, philology, and anthropology, and analogical reasoning, about the manner in which power was exercised by the rulers. However, size, duration, achievements, coupled with the fact that the Harappans were the first to establish an extensive civilized entity in the subcontinent, render them useful and relevant for a detailed analysis. In fact, Karl Wittfogel’s understanding of the origins and expansion of the state in areas conducive to large-scale irrigation (hydraulic) agriculture provides a starting point. The state, he argues,

… come[s] into being when an experimenting community of farmers finds large sources of moisture in a dry but potentially fertile area. A large quantity of water can be channeled and kept within bounds only by the use of mass labor; and this mass labor must be coordinated, disciplined, and led. Thus a number of farmers eager to conquer arid lowlands and plains are forced to invoke the organizational devices which…offer the one chance of success: they must work in cooperation with their fellows and subordinate themselves to a directing authority

…the hydraulic agriculturists outgrew and outfought the majority of all neighboring peoples wherever local conditions and international circumstances one-sidedly favored an agro-managerial economy and statecraft.

In the subcontinent, the state can trace it origins to the third millennium BC when there arose in the Indus River Valley one of antiquity’s most accomplished and urbanized civilizations. In terms of the territorial extent, with a total land area of one million three hundred thousand square kilometers and hundreds of important sites, the Harappans dwarfed the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, and Elamites. At its height, the Harappan Civilization stretched from Shortugai in the Oxus basin, to Lothal in Indian Gujarat and Sutkagen-Dor in Pakistani Makran. Although considerable variation in rainfall exists across this vast expanse, the entire area can be broadly categorized as arid or semi-arid. The size of the Harappan civilization makes possible its division into six major geographic sub-units or “domains”. These are the Eastern, Northern, Central, Southern, Western, and Southeastern centered on Kalibangan, Harappa, Ganweriwala, Mohenjodaro, Kuli, and Lothal, respectively. The location of cities and towns apparently conforms to the “riparian pattern” of the other great river valley civilizations.

The core area of the Harappan Civilization is represented by the major cities of Mohenjodaro, Kalibangan, and Harappa. In the northern region of settlement, the plains are formed of alluvium deposited from the hills by the Bolan river. At the southern extremity, there exists the plain of Las extending ninety kilometers inland from the coast and “composed of alluvium deposited by the Purali, Hab, and Malir”. Lake Manchar, fed by the flood channels of the Indus, swells to five hundred square kilometers and contracts to thirty-six square kilometers after monsoon, thus creating ideal conditions for agriculture. To the southeast, in Gujarat, the plains between the marshy coasts and the rugged interior “are remarkably flat where most of the rivers descending from the highlands change into sluggish meandering streams.” The Indus, though by no means a sluggish stream, “makes a deep S-shaped curve” which adds to the total cultivable area. The Indus river system is inundated during the spring snowmelt and the summer monsoons makes it possible to raise crops in both summer and winter. In Sindh, for example, the flood plain can extend up to sixteen kilometers or ten miles – the same narrow band as the Nile when it floods.



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