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Tag: politics

Remembering Asma Jahangir: “Pakistan’s Conscience”

By Mariam Chughtai, Ed.D. ’15, SAI Pakistan Programs Director

Mariam Chughtai and Asma Jahangir at Harvard in 2015


The auditorium was full as Asma Jahangir, who passed away this week at the age of just 66, delivered the Harvard Asia Center’s prestigious, annual Tsai Lecture in March 2015. Pakistani speakers at Harvard are quite rare, perhaps because anyone from the country who is consequential is, typically, also highly controversial.

Asma Jahangir was of course both, but the difference was that even those who disagreed with her respected her fearlessness. She was Pakistan’s conscience.

I remember first seeing her when I was a freshman at Kinnaird College, an all-women institution in Lahore, Pakistan. I sat at the very back of a large hall packed with young women, waiting to hear the great Asma Jahangir speak. We sat in awe of her bravery and most of us were also afraid for her life.

There were intense social debates taking place in Pakistan at the time, centred around a case she had taken on; her client was an adult woman who was asserting the right to marry without the consent of her guardian. She was facing down the religious right, which is not something many people attempt in Pakistan. Her fight went all the way to the Supreme Court of Pakistan, which eventually ruled in favor of a woman’s unilateral right to marry whomever she wanted without need for permission.

Asma Jahangir took on many of these challenges, any one of which would be enough to gather a lifetime of deserved plaudits. She was not only the most prominent human rights lawyer; she was the most successful.

In a society where women are sentenced to be gang-raped and honor killings are justified in the name of culture, Asma Jahangir relentlessly pursued new laws to protect women.

She represented the most persecuted victims in front of the Supreme Court. At a time when anti-blasphemy laws are frequently invoked to settle personal disputes and persecute minorities, Asma Jahangir represented Christians who were being held unfairly in jail, helping them get a fair trial.

She fought to restore children to the custody of their mothers. She challenged the state to fulfill its responsibility of providing education, health and employment to poor children, instead of trying them indiscriminately as juvenile offenders.

Her life was frequently in danger; she stood up to fearsome Pakistani regimes in the service of human rights and democracy. Tear-gassed, beaten and imprisoned, she led fellow activists from the Women Action Forum in the first public protest against military dictator General Zia in 1983, demanding equal rights for women.

There were death threats, assassination attempts and bullet holes in her office, but she continued to persevere right till the end.

I’ve often wondered how people like Asma Jahangir charge ahead despite these seemingly formidable odds. Religious political extremists labelled her anti-state and anti-Islam, stigmatizing her in the eyes of many. But in her struggles, you find a deep calm, anchored in the perpetual pursuit of justice.

Here is a text message that I received in the wake of her untimely death. To me, this embodies her essence:


aur jab jahan’num kay farishtay

fatwa-farosh molviyon ko

seekh maen pero kar

aag par bhoon rahay hon gay

tou aik divani aurat

kala coat pehan kar

khuda ki adalat maen

aen-e-asmani ki shik Ghafur-ur-Raheem kay tehat

gunah-garon ki bakhshish kay liay

dalael day ge

wohi Asma Jahangir ho ge


when angels

roast mullahs

on skewers

in hell

this same mad woman

in a black coat

will appear

before the lord


for clemency

for the holy sinners


Election reflections: White with rage

This is the first in a series of reflections from Harvard scholars on the results of the US election.

This was originally published in the Indian Express.

By Ashutosh VarshneySol Goldman Professor of Political Science and International and Public Affairs, Director of the Brown-India Initiative

President-elect Donald Trump pumps his fist during an election night rally, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

President-elect Donald Trump pumps his fist during an election night rally, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

How did Donald Trump, defying all pollsters and projections, manage to win the US presidential elections? And what does it say about American politics today? The first question requires that we reconstruct the voting data and assess how it is distributed over key demographic categories. The second would take us to the larger conclusions.

As is well known, it is possible to win the popular vote in the US, but lose the presidential election. This is because the presidential elections are decided in the electoral college, where states are the building blocks of victory, not the popular vote. Hillary Clinton had to win 270 out of 538 electoral college votes. As of this writing, even though she is about 2,81,000 votes ahead of Trump, a lead eventually expected to rise above a million or more, she has only 228 votes of the electoral college, whereas Trump’s tally is 279. She has already conceded defeat. In 2000, Al Gore also lost in a roughly similar fashion.

Given how the electoral college works, the so-called battleground states were critical. A few days before the elections, it was widely believed that there were nine battleground states, accounting for 130 votes. Since the reliable Democratic states outnumbered the safe Republican states, Clinton seemed to require only 40-50 of these battleground votes for victory. In contrast, Trump needed 80-90 votes, if not more. In the end, Clinton won just two battleground states, Colorado and Nevada, securing a mere 15 swing votes, whereas Trump won six battleground states, including the much bigger Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina and Arizona, clinching 115 votes. How could something so unanticipated happen?

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India’s Prospects and Policy Challenges

By Ghazal Gulati, Ed. M Candidate, Harvard Graduate School of Education, @GhazalGulati

On May 1, 2015, the South Asia Institute (SAI) hosted an engaging and insightful conversation with Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Former Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission of India. The event was chaired by Rohini Pande, Mohammed Kamal Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School.

With an audience that ranged from young students of Harvard College to Shiv Shankar Menon, former National Security Advisor, India and Dr. Isher Judge Ahluwalia, Chairperson, Board of Governors, Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, the discussion covered many challenges facing India’s economy and the importance of policy design and implementation.

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From Eulogies to Euphoria: Redefining the Indo-US Relationship

The Indo-US relationship is not just defined by economic investment or a military partnership; it is increasingly becoming a combined strategic view.

By Ghazal Gulati, Ed. M Candidate, International Education Policy, Harvard Graduate School of Education (@GhazalGulati)

On March 25, 2015, the South Asia Institute hosted a special event at the Harvard Graduate School of Education about Indo-US relations. The event marked the culmination of “The Political Pickle: An Exhibition of Editorial Cartoons and Caricatures on India and the United States, ” by Shreyas Navare, Fellow, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and Editorial Cartoonist, Hindustan Times, India.

Click here to see Navare’s political cartoons.

Tanvi Madan, PhD Fellow, Foreign Policy Director, The India Project, The Brookings Institution, and Shivshankar Menon, Former National Security Advisor and Foreign Secretary, India, were the speakers. The event was chaired by Nicholas Burns, Sultan of Oman Professor of the Practice of International Relations, Harvard Kennedy School.

The conversation began with Madan laying out a comprehensive history of the Indo-US relationship, from the first presidential visit in 1949 to Obama’s recent visit on the occasion of India’s Republic Day parade in January. The Indo-US engagement has been consistent, continuing and increasing over the last several decades. This is evidenced by increased defense trade between the nations, improved revenue from travel remittances, and a large number of sectors outlined for collaboration.

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Livemint Q+A: Entrepreneruship in India

This interview was originally published on

Tarun Khanna at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2015. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Tarun Khanna is the Jorge Paulo Lemann professor at Harvard Business School, where he has studied and worked with multinational and indigenous companies and investors in emerging markets worldwide. He is also Harvard University’s director of South Asia Institute. Khanna has led several courses on strategy, corporate governance, and international business over the years. He currently teaches in Harvard College’s General Education on entrepreneurship in South Asia.

Apart from teaching, Khanna is also actively involved in the start-up ecosystem. In November, Khanna co-founded a Bengaluru-based business incubator, Axilor Ventures. Khanna is also co-founder at Chaipoint, a chain of 70 tea stalls in Delhi and Bengaluru that he started with students about 18 months ago. On the third day of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), Khanna spoke in an interview about the Narendra Modi government’s engagement with scholars and about incubating start-ups in India. Edited excerpts:

You’ve been voicing concerns about India’s economic progress prior to the new government’s formation. Have your views changed after six months of the Modi government?

There is already a much more concerted attempt (by the new government) to solicit inputs from different people than I ever saw from the previous government, in a much more systematic way. My interpretation from the outside (I’m not part of this government in any way) is that policymakers are reaching out for thoughts from other people and trying to get diversity of views expressed as inputs of their policymaking process.

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A US-India comeback?

PM Modi with President Obama, in Washington DC, September 2014.

This opinion piece was originally published in The Boston Globe.

By Nicholas Burns, Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Politics, Harvard Kennedy School; SAI Steering Committee Member

THE UNITED STATES has a major opportunity this month to return to a close security and economic partnership with India — a priority of the last three American presidents. The new Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, signaled he wants to get beyond the problem-ridden last few years between Delhi and Washington by inviting President Obama to be the “chief guest” at India’s elaborate Republic Day celebrations on Jan. 26. This simple but important symbolic gesture may kickstart the revival both countries have been looking for.

Modi is seeking expanded ties between the world’s two most powerful democracies with one, major purpose in mind. His electoral mandate is to rejuvenate India’s sluggish economy. With 1.2 billion people and a burgeoning middle class, Modi is going all out to raise India’s GDP growth rate from an anemic (for India) 4.5 percent to over 7 percent for the years ahead.

At an Aspen Strategy Group meeting in Delhi I attended this past weekend, Indian government and business leaders made a persistent pitch for greater US investment capital and trade to help India emerge from its economic doldrums. And, in the western Indian state of Gujarat on Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry challenged both countries to increase trade fivefold in coming years. In his first year in office, Modi has launched a New Deal-type crusade to reform the top-heavy Indian economy, clear away burdensome state regulations, and free the entrepreneurial spirits of the Indian people.

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Kashmir’s women in wait

Broken Memory Shining DustBroken Memory, Shining Dust, which was screened at a SAI event in December, is a documentary directed by Nilosree Biswas that depicts the extraordinary journey of Kashmiri women experiencing loss, separation, pain, anger, helplessness, faith, grit and determination amidst societal tragedies and circumstances.

Woven around the life of Parveena Ahanger, a Kashmiri mother and other women, the film is about “women in wait” for their loved ones, who went missing in the conflict ridden valley of Kashmir, India, in last two decades, and interweaves their memories of struggle and devotion into a resistance movement.

SAI recently spoke to Biswas from her base in Mumbai about the “women in wait,” as well as Kashmir’s unique culture, the effects of political conflict on women, and a filmmaker’s role in depicting a conflict area.

SAI: To start, can you give some context – what is going on in Kashmir, and why were you drawn to tell this story?

Nilosree Biswas: I had been making documentaries for a very long period of time, and in 2007 I was in a village in the northern part of Kashmir, which consisted of only widows who had lost their husbands to conflict, or had been picked up by the militants. In the process, I came across research about forced disappearances, which is something that has happened in Southeast Asia, and in our part of the world in India and Pakistan, and has had a big impact on society.

In the process, I also found out about Paraveena Ahanger, and over the next 4 years I repeatedly went back and forth to Kashmir and went to villages to meet many of these women, hundreds, who have lost either their husband or sons. This whole sense of trying to understand ‘wait’ from the women’s point of view was part of the process. More than the political aspect, it is understanding how women cope with the phenomenon of disappearances that appealed to me as a filmmaker

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Creating a better India

Harvard US India Initiative“We want a better India,” reads the slogan for the Harvard US-India Initiative’s (HUII) Annual Conference in New Delhi on January 9 and 10, 2015.

HUII is an undergraduate student-run organization at Harvard that aims to create dialogue between Indian and American youth to address some of India’s most pressing social, economic, and environmental issues today.

The conference, which is cosponsored by SAI, is set to take place at the Shangri La Hotel, and is the largest yet for the organization. It boasts an impressive lineup of speakers and panel topics, including ‘Liberal Arts and Conservative Societies,’ ‘Politicians and the People,’ ‘More Artists or More Dentists,’ ‘Human Rights in India,’ ‘The Economics of Rural India,’ and ‘Science and Society.’

Keynote speakers include Piyush Goyal, Hon’ble Minister of State with Independent Charge for Power, Coal and New & Renewable Energy in the Government of India, Mirai Chatterjee, Director of Social Security, SEWA, and Shri Jairam Ramesh, MP Rajya Sabha, former Cabinet Minister.

SAI recently talked to Namrata Narain, Harvard College ’15, one of the organizers of the event, to learn more about how HUII is working to increase discussions on important issues by connecting young academic communities in India and the US.

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Magnificent Delusions

“There needs to be a fundamental shift in what it means to be Pakistani,” said Husain Haqqani, author of Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding at a SAI Book Talk on Monday, March 10, 2014.

Haqqani, left, with Asim Khwaja

Haqqani has a unique insight into the relationship between the two countries – he was Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2008 to 2011, and is now a professor of International Relations at Boston University. Shuja Nawaz, Director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, joined Haqqani for the discussion, and the event was chaired by Asim Khwaja, Sumitomo-Foundation for Advanced Studies on International Development Professor of International Finance and Development at Harvard Kennedy School.

Haqqani’s general argument is that the U.S.-Pakistan relationship has been based on misunderstandings; he argues that the relationship between America and Pakistan is based on mutual incomprehension and always has been, since 1947.  Pakistan—to American eyes—has gone from being a quirky irrelevance, to a stabilizing friend, to an essential military ally, to a seedbed of terror. America—to Pakistani eyes—has been a guarantee of security, a coldly distant scold, an enthusiastic military enabler, and is now a threat to national security and a source of humiliation. The countries are not merely at odds, he argues. Each believes it can play the other—with sometimes absurd, sometimes tragic, results.

He explained that he is not trying to be anti-Pakistani; the book is his “attempt to be critical from within,” given his unique role as a first-hand witness. Tracing the history of Pakistan since its founding in 1947, Haqqani commented on some of the delusions that have plagued the relationship. He argued that Pakistani national identity became about military and a security state, and that there needs to be a “fundamental shift in what it means to be Pakistani.” Another delusion: The U.S. has assumed that by using Pakistan in its global structure, it was buying an ally through continuous aid.

Continue reading for more about the event, and opinions from attendees >>>