Birth of the Babu

Salman Tarik Kureshi traces the bureaucratic Babu through the ages, all the way to contemporary Pakistan

Birth of the Babu
We have all heard the story of the imposing looking gent who arrived at a check-in counter at Karachi Airport and demanded to be accommodated on a flight for which he did not have a confirmed booking. The young woman at the check-in counter asked him to wait a few minutes until the confirmed passengers had reported and then she would see if he could be accommodated. But the gent in question was not prepared to wait. He insisted that he be given a boarding pass immediately, shouting at the woman, “Do you know who I am?” After he had repeated this mantra for the third time, she calmly announced over the Tannoy system, “There is a gentleman here who has suffered a bout of amnesia and wishes to know who he is. If anyone can identify him, please come to counter number twelve.” She then went on checking in the other passengers.

The story is silent on the fate of the young woman or whether the gent concerned collapsed in an apoplectic fit. The identity of the gent, anyhow, is obvious. As my readers will agree, such a sense of entitlement and assumption of privilege could be exhibited only by a salaried government bureaucrat, whether a senior civilian or military officer. In other words, a Babu of one kind or another. And why not? These are the people who run things and get things done – or who defend our borders and police our cities. They know what has to be done, and how to do it, quite unlike those bickering, chattering, argumentative politicians and intellectuals. Surely they deserve the special status that society gives them?
From the most ancient times, the rulers of kingdoms were essentially military aristocrats - warriors who ruled by force and fiat and not by law or precedent

Writing in the early 1860s, political scientist John Stuart Mill theorised that successful monarchies were essentially bureaucracies, and found evidence of their existence in Imperial China, the Russian Empire, and the various regimes of Europe. The German sociologist Max Weber, regarded as the Father of the Social Sciences, was the first to formally study bureaucracy and his work led to the popularisation of this term. Weber listed several preconditions for the emergence of bureaucracy, including an increase in the amount of space and population being administered, an increase in the complexity of the administrative tasks being carried out, and the existence of a monetary economy requiring a more efficient administrative system. Weber saw bureaucratisation as the most efficient and rational way of organising human activity and therefore as the key to rational-legal authority, indispensable to the modern world. Weber, however, also saw bureaucracy as a threat to individual freedoms, and feared that the processes of bureaucratisation would lead to a “polar night of icy darkness”, in which human life is trapped in a soulless “iron cage” of bureaucratic controls.

From the most ancient times and up to much later historical epochs, the rulers of kingdoms were essentially military aristocrats, warriors who ruled by force and fiat and not by law or precedent. These rulers were usually illiterate, since literacy was not a skill required of them and was, anyhow, an ability held closely to themselves by priests and shamans. However, even back in Ancient Egypt, the priests permitted rulers to employ educated scribes, who kept their records, drafted their commands and maintained their treasury accounts. Their satraps in the various provinces and regions similarly had their own sets of scribes. Thus was the Babu born.

Max Weber was one of the most important theorists of state and bureaucracy

In our Subcontinent, the Kshatriya rulers all had their Brahmin advisors. As, for example, Chandragupta Maurya of Taxila, our first great empire builder, had the wily Kautilya. In mediaeval Europe, bureaucracy of a different kind emerged in the Christian Church, with its stratified, highly organized structure. The Muslim world saw the emergence of the Kadi, the Judicial Officer, who settled disputes and administered justice, not by whim or by fiat, but by the settled legal code of the Shariah. China saw the evolution of the most highly developed bureaucratic system the world had seen before modern times, the Mandarinate. And Europe of the Age of Conquest saw the appearance of the professional army, constantly honing its skills with incessant drilling, and working under an organised chain of command manned by professional officers. This was a force utterly unlike the loosely organised, usually unpaid, chivalric armies of the orient. It proved to be irresistible.

In the 18th century, the European colonialists began to set up their respective imperial bureaucracies, of which that of the British in India has been considered the definitive example. The Babu had come of age.

The world has come to be run by, but not necessarily be controlled by, various kinds of bureaucracies: governmental, judicial, military, and even managerial, technocratic, and so on. Is this a bad thing? Yes, said Weber, who saw bureaucracy as a threat to individual freedoms, as we have seen. The dehumanising facelessness of modern bureaucracies was frighteningly depicted by the Czech author Franz Kafka. Everywhere, thinkers have regarded bureaucracies as inimical to human freedom, creativity, or progress. The inherent tendency of a rules-based organisation is to use those rules to preserve its own power and enhance its own privileges. Witness the rock-solid rigidity and conservatism of, say, the Chinese Mandarinate or of the Soviet Communist Apparat. And yet nothing as complex and substantial as a state could run without them.

Kautilya, or Chanakya, may also have been one of the earliest Babus

Fast forward to Pakistan of today. There are many who would argue that we are living through a confrontation between this bureaucratic-military-judicial oligarchy and a rising bourgeoisie that claims to champion democratic principles and the rights of the people. It is worth noting that the oligarchs possess great ability, knowledge and real power. They do not possess great wealth. That resides with the rural gentry, the industrial bourgeoisie and the large mass of traders, merchants, and smaller entrepreneurs, the controllers of national capital. It is these latter who join political parties and contest for elected office, thereby creating the assemblies and parliaments constitutionally meant to control and direct the work of our various kinds of Babu. But the rural gentry has been dwindling in both wealth and local influence through the generations and has in any case always been heavily dependent on the bureaucracy for maintaining order, providing finances and marketing channels, and supplying resources like water, seed, etc. The industrial class has also been hemmed in by bureaucratic controls and is dependent on bureaucratic favours. The middle and smaller bourgeoisie seems to have largely accepted the leadership of the PML-N, but only in the Punjab. And, in any case, the Party is itself confused and deeply divided.

Before closing this little essay, let me quickly mention another group of Babus that springs from similar social origins as our oligarchs but has a very different kind of historical impact. This includes academics, lawyers, scholars, Ulema, journalists, writers, intellectuals, and – most prominently – students. One could call these the ‘Intelligentsia’ and I will comment on them another time.