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Missing Lines/Forgetting the Ordinary

Pakistan: A Hard Country by Anatol Lieven (London: Allen Lane), 2011; pp 576, £ 30.






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Missing Lines/Forgetting the Ordinary is that, in combination, they offer insights into social power structures that more conventional macro-level political analyses of the country tend to overlook. In one reveal
ing vignette he happens to be in a police
station. A provincial chief minister summons
Nicolas Martin the inspector general of police to reprimand

natol Lieven’s new book on Pakistan is set to become a key reference for anyone interested in the country. It is thoroughly researched and gives the reader a lively, panoramic overview of Pakistani society. The book introduces an impressive range of characters – from businessmen, landowners, clan chiefs, clerics, politicians and soldiers to jihadis – and is full of entertaining quotes and anecdotes. This, together with its attention to local sights, sounds and smells, vividly brings the place to life. Lieven’s quasianthropological investigative approach and concern with describing what is actually happening on the ground also contribute to the vibrancy of his analysis. When, for example, he discusses police corruption he moves beyond hearsay and official statistics to give an account of some of the social mechanisms that u nderlie it.

Lieven draws on anthropology to formulate his central thesis: no institution in Pakistan is immune to the corrupting loyalties of kinship, patron-client ties and religious sects, and that this fact prevents the state from functioning as a guardian of the public good. However, he argues that this is a necessary evil because patron-client ties redistribute the spoils of power and

Pakistan: A Hard Country by Anatol Lieven (London: Allen Lane), 2011; pp 576, £ 30.

make the state more accessible to the common man. Drawing on Stephen M Lyon’s ethnography of a village in the northwestern Punjab, Lieven argues that the use of personal influence by patrons and politicians allows them to intercede with state institutions on behalf of the poor. Local clan-based power structures in the form of informal panchayats also give poor people access to justice that the official judicial system fails to deliver. The implication is that without these personalised networks of kin and patronage, people would have no access at all to state resources or to justice. The crux of Lieven’s argument is that “it is above all thanks to locally dominant kinship groups that over the years, beneath the froth and spray of Pakistani politics, the underlying currents of Pakistani political life have until recently been so remarkably stable”. He claims that although these traditions and structures keep the population in a “state of backwardness and deference to the elites”, they are also what prevent an Islamist revolution or a civil war.

The main strength of Lieven’s quasi-ethnographic approach and use of anthropology

august 6, 2011

him and his force for the arrest of a bandit at the rural mansion of one of the minister’s party deputies. In order to prevent future interference with local political interests, the superintendent of police, who ordered the arrest, is then transferred to another province. This example brings to life the way networks of patronage prevent state institutions from doing their work through politicians’ systematic use of influence to corrupt and pressure them, so as to benefit political supporters and kin. The pernicious habit of interfering with the police is arguably one of the causes of the pervasive insecurity of life and property throughout much of rural and urban Pakistan.

Investigative Work

Lieven’s thorough investigative work also provides fascinating descriptions of the casual attitudes towards violence and corruption held by the people running the country. He recounts a conversation in which a police officer unashamedly discusses how police interrogations are best done by beating up suspects. In another conversation, a widely travelled and educated Baloch Sardar recounts a rape case where he and other tribal elders sentenced a young man to death and another to having his nose and ears cut off.

vol xlvi no 32

Economic & Political Weekly


While Lieven effectively illustrates the influence of kinship and patronage networks on state institutions, he says very little about how these affect ordinary individuals. He claims that patronage and charity do a great deal to soften the hard edges of life for Pakistan’s poor, but he provides little evidence in support of this. Although his interviews with policemen, soldiers and tribal chiefs are excellent, he has not balanced them with an account of the lives of the powerless who constitute the majority of the population, thus reinforcing the elite’s benign self-image as the paternal guardians of the poor. Lieven’s claim that the views of the largely “illiterate, obscurantist and often violent population are in a position to prevail over those of the educated elites” is a good illustration of this bias, despite admitting elsewhere that it is often those very elites that have perpetuated illiteracy by blocking and appropriating state funds meant for education. Moreover, it is educated chief ministers who order police transfers in order to benefit supporters – supporters who harbour criminal gangs that engage in heroin trafficking, cattle rustling and who terrorise the rural poor, often stealing their land. Had Lieven spent less time listening to what educated politicians said about themselves and more time observing them in action he might have seen that their customary practices do not give the rural poor a meaningful sense of protection. It is partly because of the politicians and officials who protect criminals that the lives of millions of Pakistanis are blighted by heroin addiction, for example.


Allegedly benevolent landlord-patrons in rural Pakistan also enslave their labourers through debt. In 1994, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reported that there were approximately 20 million bonded labourers in Pakistan – more than 10% of the population at the time – and yet Lieven makes the astonishing claim that Pakistan lacks extreme class divisions. Evidence also suggests that, as in neighbouring India, the expansion of capitalist relations of production is quickly eroding what is left of traditional patronage relations. This means that the social ties, which allegedly give Pakistan its “remarkably stable political undercurrents” and prevent an Islamic revolution or a civil war from happening, are nothing but the memory of an idealised past. The Taliban takeover of Swat in 2009 illustrates that the disaffected poor may in fact be inclined favourably towards militant attacks on Pakistan’s elite-controlled state. Coercion through armed gangs and by means of the state’s repressive apparatus may continue to hold off an Islamic revolution, as it did in Swat, but it will not redress the social grievances that are fuelling militant movements. What is clear is that the allegedly benevolent paternalism of the elites certainly will not redress them either.

New from SAGE!

Lieven does make occasional forays onto the street where he mingles with the crowds and with people from all classes; nonetheless, his account fails to capture the deep sense of hardship, betrayal and injustice felt by the average Pakistani. The book will certainly become a major landmark for policymakers and scholars of the region, but this failure may cause them to forget the pressing concerns and growing anger of the man on the street.

Nicolas Martin ( is with the London School of Economics and Political Science, the UK.




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2011 / 308 pages / C 795 (hardback)
www.sagepub.inLos Angeles „ London „ New Delhi „ Singapore „Washington DC

Economic & Political Weekly

august 6, 2011 vol xlvi no 32

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