Remembering Hamza Alavi – A pro-poor intellectual and scholar

He was one of the pioneers of South Asian social science, particularly the study of agrarian society.

His ideas and theories about the nature of postcolonial state, mode of production, agriculture, rural sociology, etc. have influenced social scientists here and abroad.

Born on April 10, 1921 in Lyari Karachi Sindh, Hamza Alavi passed away on Dec.1, 2003

By Dr. Khataumal

Hamza Alavi was born on 10th April 1921 in Karachi and got primary education in Khadha Lyari on the desire of Tayyeb Ali Alavi, the noted educationist and social worker. After studying at D.J. Sindh College for a higher secondary school certificate, he did his BA from Wadia College, Puna and Masters in Economics from Aligarh University in 1944. He was awarded Wali Mohammad Towle Medal for standing first in the MA examination in Economics. It is interesting to note that Alavi received this medal in a special ceremony that was presided over by Allama I.I. Kazi at Khalikdina Hall in Karachi.

Hamza Alavi joined the Reserve Bank of India as a Research office in 1945 on the recommendation of his PhD supervisor Prof. Gadgil of Gokhale institute, Puna. He got married in 1946. On the eve of partition, RBI Governor Deshmukh advised him to join the central bank of Pakistan. He was first posted in Karachi and then in Dacca before coming back to Karachi where he became one of the five ‘Principal Officers’ of the State Bank of Pakistan. Because of deteriorating health from overwork, he went to Tanzania with his wife in 1953. During the vacations, he decided to quit his job and work as a farmer and farm-owner in Tanzania. In 1956, he went to the United Kingdom on medical advice. Later he joined the London School of Economics and wrote his PhD dissertation on banking in Pakistan. After teaching for around three decades in Manchester, he returned back to Karachi in the late 1990s. He passed away on 1st December 2003.

The year 2021 was Hamza Alavi’s centenary birthday but unfortunately due to covid-19 pandemic no events were organized. On the occasion of his 18th death anniversary, we must remember Alavi as a pro-poor intellectual and scholar. His ideas and theories about the nature of postcolonial state, mode of production, agriculture, rural sociology, etc. have influenced social scientists here and abroad. While some of his publications have been translated into Urdu and Sindhi, a large number of his academic papers and articles are waiting to be anthologized in original English and translated in our languages.


Here we reproduce extracts from an autobiographical sketch by Hamza Alavi titled ‘Fragment of a Life’.

Political activism

Before I moved into an academic career in 1966, I spent ten years in London in political activism, writing, lecturing and giving seminars at universities. When I first came to London, I joined the London School of Economics (LSE) for a PhD on banking in Pakistan, which given my years of first-hand involvement in building it up, I could have written blindfolded. But I was sick of that subject. And I was disenchanted by empty academicism. I found myself attending sociology, social anthropology and political science seminars. I devoured a vast amount of literature. I was full of questions. What had happened to my country? I studied and wrote. In those days there was nothing much to read about Pakistan, to discover what had gone wrong. So one had to study, analyze and write! I founded and edited Pakistan Today (1957-62), a quarterly journal. Each issue would have an article that I wrote. We would bring out an issue as soon as there was a major development in Pakistan. After the Ayub coup we came out six times a year. Pakistan Today had a circulation of several hundred. The peak was about 1500 for our final issue which was wholly devoted to an article entitled The Burden of US Aid. The journal was sent to East and West Pakistan and clandestinely reproduced there or placed in libraries. The US Aid issue was reprinted as a booklet by Faiz Ahmad Faiz. It was also reprinted in the United States by a new left journal called New University Thought and as a booklet by the Detroit Radical Education Project (who also reprinted some of my later articles in booklet form). Tariq Ali acknowledged it as a source in his first book. We got letters from sympathizers in Europe and North America. When there was total silence in Pakistan itself, it was a worthwhile thing to do. A lot of my time was invested in it.

I became a political activist. My wife and I joined one or two like-minded friends, notably Tassaduq Ahmad from Dacca and his wife. We worked amongst Pakistani students and workers very successfully from 1955 to 1966. We founded a number of organizations designed for activity at different levels. The Pakistan Youth League was a broad liberal to socialist forum. We met fortnightly and about 150 to 200 would turn up. Besides ourselves, speakers included scholars on the left, like Stuart Hall, Tony Benn and Eric Hobsbawm. The Pakistani Socialist Society was a smaller group. At a broader political level, soon after the Ayub coup, we set up a Committee for the Restoration of Democracy in Pakistan. At an international level we ran a group called The Forum which brought together socialists from Asia, Africa and Latin America for a dialogue. It fell apart when Khruschev intervened in the Belgian Congo and our common ground of free and open, nonsectarian, debate with mutual respect was gone. We were also active organizing Pakistani workers through two Pakistan welfare associations, one based in the East End of London (mainly Bengali) and the other in Slough (Punjabi).

Alavi-HamzaI was a founding member of the Campaign against Racial Discrimination (CARD), a UK-based wide multiracial organization of Pakistanis, Indians, West Indians and White British, to fight the rising tide of racism. Some of us, so-called ‘leaders’ of black communities in Britain, had been invited by Martin Luther King at his London hotel to talk about racism in Britain, when he was on his way to receive his Nobel Prize. We met not only Martin Luther King. We also met each other. We realized that there was much to be gained from joining forces against racism in Britain. So we met again and launched CARD. David Pitt, a West Indian member of the Greater London Council, who was an ‘establishment’ figure in the Labor Party, was elected chairman. An Indian Maoist and a white American Trotskyite (both women) were elected joint secretaries. At CARD’s first national convention I was elected vice-chairman. With David, I was a member of the National Council of the British Overseas Socialist Fellowship (our chairman was Fenner Brockway).

A decade of political activism was exhilarating. But I could not keep it up for much longer for a number of reasons. There were too many problems, some of them personal. So far we had managed on a small income that my wife had from Tanzania. But that could not go on. I needed a job, an academic job, simply to live. I had also to think of making the best use of my time. Our political activities had turned into full time welfare work for immigrants. One would get telephone calls from Indian and Pakistanis friends whenever there was a problem, usually at the airport. One had to intervene. It was more than I could cope with. I could not go on like that. I decided to leave political activism and turn to full time academic work. So in 1966, I joined the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex.

My first career

I had joined the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) in 1945 as a Research Officer on the recommendation of, indeed at the behest of my supervisor for PhD at the Gokhale Institute at Poona. Professor DR Gadgil had been asked by RBI to recommend candidates for their research department. He asked me if I wanted the job. When I told him that my aim in life was to make a career in the academic world he said: “Young man, you had better learn something about life before you start teaching”. He pointed out that my starting salary with RBI would be far higher than that of a university lecturer. “You can come back to the academic world at any time on your own terms”. So I joined the Reserve Bank in 1945.

When Partition was announced, Governor Chintaman Deshmukh called me and pointed out that since too few Muslim officers had opted for Pakistan, the State Bank of Pakistan would have great problems without trained officers. It is interesting that a Maharashtrian Brahmin was so concerned whether the State Bank of Pakistan would be able to function properly or not. Why should he care? He pointed out that research was a luxury. The State Bank of Pakistan would need people who could do practical jobs. He suggested that I should get some training. So I was put on a program of intensive training in the Exchange Control Department.

With Partition I came home to Karachi. Technically we were to remain under RBI until July when the State Bank would take over. But, as soon as I found myself in a position to do so, in March 1948, I decided to take over, de facto and set up a headquarters for Exchange Control at Karachi which would give us time to build up our organization well before the D-Day.

Everything was in a state of chaos. We moved from crisis to crisis. Part of the problem was the clerical mentality of many of our senior colleagues. Most of the senior officers were twice my age. Their style of work and thinking had been shaped by their long experience of serving, virtually as clerks, under white masters. The first concern of these glorified clerks was personal survival. As long as they acted in accordance with their precious manuals no one could hang them. They were petty bureaucrats and lacked the imagination to see what was at stake. They blocked innovation at every stage, which took up a lot of our energy when we tried to get things done. They had neither the will nor the ability to take responsibility. Mercifully, there were one or two brilliant exceptions to them. Thanks to them we survived.

I flourished in that climate of successive crises. Looking back I realize that I had two assets. One was my ignorance. It was a blessing in disguise that I did not know the manuals backwards as my senior colleagues did. Those manuals were, in any case, out of date and had little relevance to our conditions. I realized that given our situation we will have to write our own manuals. I actually did just that in 1950 when I compiled the Exchange Control Manual for the guidance of banks. Some of us were able to see things from a fresh perspective. Every time that a problem landed on my desk, I would work out a logical solution based on ‘first principles’ and act on it. We were constantly innovating and improving on old, out-of-date systems.

The exchange control system was set up in India in 1939 by a man called Cayley, a true colonialist. The system that he built up discriminated blatantly against Indian interests. Cayley had groomed his successor, a Parsee called Jeejeebhai who carried on in the same way. In Pakistan I realized that we would have to change Cayley’s system radically, to end discrimination against our own banks and our own people. I had a great time discovering these and making changes. I was able to act with confidence as I enjoyed the full backing of our ministry of finance. I had great fun in a game of one-upmanship with Jeejeebhai, for technically I was still under him until July 1948. But I set up our own de facto independent head office, in advance of the formal change. Jack Kerman, a remarkable Englishman who soon joined us as my boss, backed what I was doing. We went in for innovations that the Reserve Bank of India would, belatedly, copy.

Stint in Dacca

After we concluded an agreement with India in 1951, we had to introduce exchange control with India. This raised new and difficult problems and fears. East Pakistan had a very large informal trade with India, in fish and firewood, chicken and eggs, which was handled by enormous numbers of very small people and carried by country craft. The government was afraid that any ham-fisted bureaucratic interference with that trade could create incalculable and terrible political repercussions. They needed someone who could be relied upon to take quick and sensible decisions on the spot and treat the small fishermen and farmers with understanding.

I had played a role in the negotiations with India. Immediately when they were concluded I had to prepare instructions for the banks (for which I had contingency drafts already). It was a Sunday morning. Governor Zahid Hussain summoned me to his office. Mumtaz Hussain, joint secretary finance, who was responsible for State Bank affairs in the ministry, was with him. I told them that the circulars were ready and were being printed. The banks would have them on Monday morning. Everything was under control. Zahid Hussain then told me that in that case I should catch the afternoon plane to Dacca and take up overall charge in East Pakistan. I was sent to Dacca at a few hours’ notice. Zahid Hussain and Mumtaz Hussain told me about their worries about East Pakistan, of which I was already aware. Zahid Hussain gave me my marching orders saying that I would have complete responsibility and full powers in East Pakistan. “It will be entirely up to you”, he said. Mumtaz Hussain was more emphatic, “Do what you think best. For god’s sake do not refer anything to Karachi”. They knew that references to Karachi would mean delay and possibly trouble. It was a heavy burden of power for me to carry. After all I was, as yet, only in my late twenties.

No one had gone before to East Pakistan with such a ‘carte blanche’. It was to be expected that I would become the focus of attention. There were many interests who would want to exploit me. I would be courted and flattered. I had to be on my guard. Predictably, soon after I landed in Dacca, Ghulam Faruq, chairman of the Jute Board, accompanied by his close friend Mirza Ahmad lspahani (who controlled 30 percent of the jute trade) called on me at my office to welcome me to East Pakistan. At first they indulged in predictable flattery. Ghulam Faruq was a powerful member of the bureaucracy, an old Indian Civil Service (ICS) man who later became a multi-millionaire industrialist! As chairman of the Jute Board, he said to me rather patronizingly: “Young man, I am sure you know nothing about jute. Look at me. I am a seasoned old official. I have spent my entire career in Bengal. I still do not know anything about jute. Luckily we have amongst us Mr. Ispahani who knows everything there is to know about jute. Jute is in his blood. When I have any problem I consult him. It would be wise for you to do the same”. Ispahani wanted to have the State Bank in his hands, just as he had all other relevant departments of government under his thumb. It was the beginning of a long struggle.

I was soon fighting a quixotic battle against two of the most powerful men in East Pakistan. It is a long story. I survived more by good luck than good sense. I seemed to win every round in our extra-ordinary contest. But it was a very tense period for me. I knew that if I made just one slip, they would have me hanged. Fortunately I had the backing of Governor Zahid Hussain though I do not think he knew just how the cards were stacked. It was all very stressful. For the first time I wondered about resigning from the bank. My wife in fact suggested it. Not unreasonably she had long complained that I was ‘married to the bank’. Was this all worth it, she asked. While I was still thinking about resigning, I was appointed to the post of secretary to the Central Board at Karachi, one of five ‘Principal Officers’ of the Bank. It was sheer vanity that made me set aside thoughts of resigning. I wanted to hold that post, at least for a while. The promotion had come rather soon, though I was next in line for it. I half suspect that it was manipulated by powerful men to get me out of East Pakistan. I would not put it past them.

My health was deteriorating from overwork. In May 1953 I was finally allowed to go on leave. We went to Tanzania to spend time with my wife’s family. It was there that, looking at everything in perspective and encouraged by my wife’s brother who was like a father to her, I finally decided to resign from the State Bank – So ended my first career.


Dr. Khataumal is based in Mithi town of Desert District Tharparkar.

Extracts from Hamza Alavi’s book – Courtesy: HIMAL Magazine  

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