Battle of Box-Wallahs and Babus

Salman Tarik Kureshi explains how observations from his grandmother, Karl Marx and Hamza Alavi can help explain upheavals in Pakistan today

Battle of Box-Wallahs and Babus
My old grandmother, whose takhtposh and paandan occupy a very special place in my memory, used to refer to our wealthy industrialist next-door neighbours as “Box-Wallahs”. For those unacquainted with the term, a Box-Wallah was an itinerant trader who went from house to house on a bicycle with a big metal box on the back containing needles, threads, buttons, embroidered swatches, scents, basic make-up items, and other odds and ends for home-bound housewives. My Daadi, of course, used the term as something of a pejorative, implying that our neighbours’ millions did not make them quite as good as us superior white-collar folk.

My Daadi was herself the daughter of a businessman, a carpet manufacturer in Jammu. However, that worthy in his mature years had chosen to move out of Kashmir, acquire a law degree, and join the judiciary in British India, rising eventually to become Additional Sessions Judge. He had thus, in the eyes of his daughter and the rest of society, become ‘respectable’. No longer a Box-Wallah, he had become a Babu.

A Box-wallah was a travelling trader

Babus, governmental bureaucrats – whether civil, military, or judicial – are the cotter pins that hold together the framework of a state and drive the wheels and pulleys of its administration and security. In the case of our Indian Subcontinent, this bureaucracy, whatever its form from time to time, evolved under rulers who were initially outsiders: Turk, Afghan, Mughal or British. The system reached its apotheosis under the last of these.

Driven by the imperatives of imperialism, the British created the “steel frame of Empire” which consisted of able wielders of the levers of power: well educated, competent and deeply imbued with the values that supported the colonial project.

In an earlier offering in these pages, I had referred to the late Dr. Hamza Alavi’s thesis that, in the newly created Pakistan, this civil-military oligarchy assumed an autonomous role, independent of the interests of the nation-forming social classes. This happened because, amongst Indian Muslims in general and within the regions that became Pakistan in particular, social structures were quasi-feudal with tribal holdovers. And such a bourgeoisie as existed was numerically small and financially and politically weak.

Let us then see what could have been the role of this bourgeoisie with which Pakistan was not blessed. Karl Marx, no friend of the capitalist order, wrote:

“The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part...It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals.”

And further, he observes:

Depiction of a colonial-era
Babu from Bengal

“The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation.”

Marx saw the bourgeoisie, by its very nature, as a hungry and transformational class. It is the fountainhead of revolutions, modernisation, and democratic blossoming. And it is this vital class of Box-Wallahs that, in Hamza Alavi’s thesis, lacked the numbers, institutional strength, or consciousness to transform Pakistan into a dynamic, democratic nation. How and why this happened is beyond the purview of a brief article like this.

By contrast, the objectives of the Brahmins and Kshatriyas of the civil-military oligarchy, the Babus of our society, were the administration and protection of the status quo – an imperialist status quo, as it happens. Having grown out of the old time shurrafa, the social role and value systems of this ‘Salariat’ (the term is Hamza Alavi’s) is essentially conservative, outwardly ethical, and tending towards rigidity.

The salariat deeply disapproves of the loose ethics of the bourgeoisie. It fundamentally believes that, in the quotation from Mario Puzo famously used in a recent judgement, “Behind every fortune there is a crime.”

And so, yes, that is what this brief piece of historical analysis is about. But the justice or otherwise visited upon our former Prime Minister is not of concern here – the passions aroused are. Of note also is the din that the various elements in this oligarchy are presently kicking up regarding the venality and corruption of the ‘politicians’, the din usually preceding another constitutional deviation.
The salariat deeply disapproves of the loose ethics of the bourgeoisie. It fundamentally believes that, in the quotation from Mario Puzo famously used in a recent judgement, "Behind every fortune there is a crime"

The shocked cries of “corruption!” that we hear emanating from drawing rooms and TV sets, while directed against the former disqualified Prime Minister, include all the personages we call ‘politicians’, i.e. those who seek power by way of the ballot box. Now, while no one condones the corruption of ‘politicians’, whether or not they include elected Prime Ministers, a clearer perspective would show that blatant sleaze by elected office-holders is no worse or more widespread than the subtler, institutionalised corruption that all Pakistani citizens experience in their interactions with state functionaries at all levels. The tax man, the police inspector, the magistrate or civil judge, not to mention the Patwari, the canal engineer, power project engineers, civic authorities, or federal secretariat officials, provincial secretariats, military procurement personnel, all are notorious for requiring ‘lubrication’ to keep the wheels moving.

A minority amongst this social stratum (among which this author must locate himself), believes itself to be anti-establishment, indulges in the luxury of intellectual debate, joins civil society organisations, certain NGOs, and progressive political groupings. Quarantined under the label of ‘Westernised liberals’, the members of this marginal minority are tolerated by the others with amusement.

The present squabble then, is one between an elected but corrupt power structure and another corrupt but unelected power structure: the Box-Wallahs versus the Babus. We need to look at as not just the misdoings of our former Prime Minister, nor merely the fact that he was constitutionally elected to the office from which he has been disqualified, but his role as a representative of a rising new class of plutocrats...and the inevitability of conflict with a former class of exploiters.

Where, then, should those of us who favour freedom and democracy over other values stand? Both instinctively and logically, we are drawn towards the aspiring, overtly constitutional class that we believe to be on the right side of history, the Box-Wallahs. But, before we completely condemn the Babus, let us also very objectively recall the many modernising revolutions in history that were led by civil or military bureaucrats and intellectuals. The example of Russia’s Bolshevik revolution, in essence an intellectual coup within the larger Menshevik upheaval, comes to mind. And so also the Kemalist revolution in Turkey, the Nasserite takeover in Egypt, the Social Democratic transformation in Sweden, the various anti-imperialist movements, our own Lawyer’s Movement, and so on.

In the words of the social historian Barrington Moore, “The wellsprings of human freedom lie not only where Marx saw them, in the aspiration of classes about to take power, but perhaps even more in the dying wail of a class over whom the wave of progress is about to roll.”