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Bihar’s turnaround story

India at LSE Blog
Jan 29, 2014

A new book on Bihar sparks discussion on the state’s governance, development and economic trajectory, reports Laleh Habib.  

Speaking at LSE last week, Professor Lord Nicholas Stern described the case of Bihar as “a story of a turnaround.” Bihar slipped into a state of deprivation while the rest of India enjoyed accelerated economic growth in the 1990s. However, the state has seen a reversal of fortune since 2005 under the chief ministership of Nitish Kumar. On 20 January, academics, parliamentarians, politicians and industrialists came together at the School to discuss Bihar’s new trajectory and mark the launch of “The New Bihar: Rekindling Governance and Development”, edited by Professor Lord Stern and N.K. Singh. (Click here to watch a video of the event.)

“The New Bihar” chronicles the state’s unique development trajectory and also outlines the challenges ahead. It includes essays by some of the most distinguished commentators on India, including Amartya Sen, Kaushik Basu, Meghnad Desai, Shankar Acharya, Arvind Virmani and Isher Judge Ahluwalia. The book also seeks to analyse the impact of the Kumar government’s policies, including what N. K. Singh defined as an “integrated growth strategy,” including initiatives to improve governance, infrastructure, heath and education.  As a result of these measures, Bihar experienced a surge economic activity and in March 2012 recorded the highest average rate of growth among all Indian states.

N. K. Singh, whom Professor Lord Stern credited with having played a significant role in Bihar’s meteoric rise, argued at the event that the Bihar model of development is the direct result of good governance; investments in infrastructure, health, and education; and the multiplying effects of the “peace dividend,” which create a wave of entrepreneurial energy.

However, as Singh emphasised, good governance is not new to Bihar.  The state was at the centre of the Maurya and Gupta dynasties and is also the birthplace of Buddhism. It was as recently as the 1970s that the state slipped into a 20-year period of poor governance. When India experienced economic growth, Bihar lagged far behind, becoming one of the most impoverished and crime-ridden states in the country.

Within this context, and with guarded optimism, Suhel Seth, Managing Partner of Counselage India, reminded the audience that Bihar’s economic growth cannot be taken for granted. So extreme was the depravation in Bihar that even with current growth rates, it could take decades for the state to be on par with the rest of the country.  The development agenda also remains unmet, and significant challenges lie ahead. Additionally, Seth reminded the audience, continued economic growth in Bihar depends very much on the continuation of good governance. 

Other panellists contributing to the discussion on Bihar included Daniel Alexander, Lord Karan Bilimoria, and His Excellency Ranjan Mathai. In its responses to audience questions, the panel touched on the many themes explored in “The New Bihar”, including disparity in incomes levels, the impoverishment of opportunity, and insufficient communications.

As the chapter in the book titled “Crystal Gazing” suggests, Bihar’s future remains uncertain, and there is a strong need to continue to study economic development and governance in the state. “The New Bihar” marks a significant step in this direction.

Laleh Habib graduated with a Master’s degree from LSE’s Department of Media and Communication in 2006.


Living history in South Asia

India at LSE Blog
Feb 14, 2014

John Keay calls for more regional approaches to South Asia’s history at a recent book launch at LSE of Midnight’s Descendants, reports Laleh Habib. 

At a recent talk at the Asia Research Centre, historian John Keay presented a “contemporary history” of South Asia as part of the launch of his new book, Midnight’s Descendants: South Asia from Partition to the Present Day. Keay described his history as ‘contemporary’ because the events detailed in the book are contemporaneous with the authors’ life. Describing his association with the region, Keay recalled his experience of watching televised independence celebrations in Delhi, aged six. At the age of 19, he travelled to the region for the first time, and has since returned every year “as a journalist, documentary-maker, lecturer, writer of many books and a taker of many holidays.” Midnight’s Descendants is the latest of his many books on South Asia.


While South Asia has been the subject of much of Keay’s previous work, the scope and focus of Midnight’s Descendants is unique, exploring the trajectories of all the constituent nations of region from Partition to the present day.

At LSE, Keay argued for the need to study the region as a whole; while South Asia remains one of the least integrated regions in the world, it has a joint past and shares concerns for the future. He added that he was struck by the overarching similarities between South Asian countries, rather than their differences.

Despite following such divergent trajectories, Keay maintained that the countries of South Asia have followed certain parallels: they share bloody beginnings in Partition, and early experiences with nation-building and constitution-drafting, some more expediently than others. In 1971, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh all had democratically elected leaders who enjoyed overwhelming support, all three of whom were toppled within a span of four years. The 1980s saw the rise of religious militancy and fundamentalism, fueled by diasporic elements. This was followed by concurrent periods of economic growth and liberalism in the 1990s, reflected in the increase of cotton exports from Bangladesh, Dr Manmohan Singh’s policies of economic liberalisation in India, and Nawaz Sharif’s pro-business agenda in his first two prime-ministerial terms.

In his talk, Keay navigated his audience through the sundarbans that lie between India and Bangladesh. The shifting mud banks through which the border runs, Keay suggested, highlight the absurdity of the international boundaries in South Asia, cutting through land holdings and communities, and moving continuously as a result of the water gushing through them. These demarcations are further muddied by the presence of enclaves, bits of Bangladesh in India, and vice versa, and the shifting riverine soils of the chars [silt islands], which pay no heed to borders and render their residents immigrants in neighbouring countries with a change of tide.

Borders and identities are not the only contentious topics in India. Indeed, as Keay acknowledged at the start of his talk, the very idea of a contemporary history is an oxymoron. Without the distance and detachment of years, an analysis of current events in South Asia remains controversial, crowded by different perspectives. Keay acknowledged that his work “will probably be challenged, and will certainly be superseded”. The animated question and answer session that followed laid credence to this, and emphasised the continuing need to study South Asia more holistically.

Laleh Habib graduated with a Master’s degree from LSE’s Department of Media and Communication in 2006.

Staging history: New play revisits Partition

India at LSE Blog
January 24, 2014

Laleh Habib reviews ‘Drawing the Line’, a recent production at London’s Hampstead Theatre. 

“History repeats itself twice,” says an advisor to Cyril Radcliffe in the play, Drawing the Line. “First as tragedy, and then as farce”. Indeed, there are many elements of farce in the new production from playwright Howard Brenton and producer Howard Davis, which recently closed at the Hampstead Theatre in London. Drawing the Line reimagines Cyril Radcliffe’s mission in 1947 to ‘draw the line’ and divide the Indian subcontinent, then under British rule, into two independent, sovereign countries. While occasionally taking a whimsical view of the grave event – earning laughs off Radcliffe’s bout of stomach flu as well as the not-so-secret tryst between Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten – the play offers a new avenue to explore the complexities of Partition, which lose none of their emotional charge some 67 years after the event.

DTLCyril Radcliffe, played excellently by Tom Beard, is presented as the ultimate tragi-comic character, armed with the very best of intentions, but completely out of his depth. By his own admission, Radcliffe previously only ventured out of London to holiday in Europe and possesses no knowledge of cartography. And, as his wife Antonia (Abigail Cruttenden) nervously points out, he knows “bugger all about India.” It also doesn’t help that he has only five weeks to complete his task. As the significance of the task ahead of him dawns on Radcliffe, the audience too is made discomfortingly aware of the bloody import of this one of action of a political novice.  

In an early scene in the play, Lord Mountbatten (Andrew Havill) flippantly remarks that a hundred thousand deaths would be “an acceptable level of violence” for Partition. Radcliffe is horrified on hearing this, and begins his descent from apprehension to alarm, then physical sickness to utter despondency. He also finds himself entangled in the political machinations and vested interests of all sides, not least of which is the torrid affair between Nehru (Silas Carson) and Edwina (Lucy Black). Provocatively, writer Howard Brenton suggests that it was with the aim of ending this affair that Lord Mountbatten sought to expedite Partition, thereby sacrificing a subcontinent to save his marriage–a metaphor for the self-serving nature of colonial rule, perhaps?

Radcliffe’s two advisers hardly serve him better. Rao V. D. Ayer (Nikesh Patel) and Christopher Beaumont (Brendan Patricks) both have their loyalties firmly entrenched, and seek to shift Radcliffe’s line in accordance with their own political allegiances.  Ayer was “recommended” to Radcliffe by Nehru, to whom he reports every development, while Beaumont surreptitiously forwards updates to Jinnah’s Muslim League.  The only common ground between Radcliffe’s advisors,  it seems, is their shared educational background and a mutual love for gin and tonic. Every other tract is hotly contested.

Failing to identify a rational or narrative explanation for the callous way in which the British divided India, the playwright relies on theatrical licence. Brenton suggests that divine inspiration (or is it just a feverish delusion?) guides Radcliffe’s hand toward the drawing of the final line. Lord Krishna (Peter Singh) appears before the beleaguered judge and advises, “Do your worst.” The line is drawn–through villages, communities, families. Pakistan, which existed as ideology, in the hearts of the Muslim villagers we meet in the first scene of the play, is given earthly boundaries.

Through humour and wit, coupled together with an unflinching honesty, Brenton  highlights the arbitrariness, absurdity and tragedy of the circumstances that precipitated the displacement of some 14 million people in the Indian subcontinent. The play serves as an apt reminder that there remains a need to confront this historical event from as many angles as possible, including the sometimes overlooked perspective of the now much maligned demarcator of boundaries. We still have much to learn about the personalities and pressures involved in bringing about the Partition of the Indian subcontinent, and Drawing the Line provides one such opportunity to do so.

Laleh Habib graduated with a Master’s degree from LSE’s Department of Media and Communication in 2006.

Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore for the Hampstead Theatre



Indian cinema and the politics of national belonging

India at LSE Blog
December 23, 2013

Laleh Habib reports on a recent talk by Dr Sunera Thobani at LSE’s Gender Institute.

At a recent talk organised by the Gender Institute, Visiting Fellow Dr Sunera Thobani shared her latest research on the relationship between violence, religion and national identity, as portrayed in four Bollywood films depicting communal violence in Gujarat in 2002.


Addressing a packed audience, Dr Thobani reflected on the way the violence in Gujarat in 2002 had been portrayed in four Bollywood films: Dev (2004), Parzania (2007), Firaaq (2008), and Road to Sangam (2009). This depiction, she argued, reveals and informs concepts of national identity, politics and citizenship. The films also represent the ways in which the nation grapples with the meaning of this collective violence, and the processes through which it can move forward.

With imminent general elections in India, questions about Indian national identity and citizenship gain prominence. It is in this context that Dr Thobani’s  lecture becomes all the more relevant and timely, especially as Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat during the 2002 anti-Muslim riots, emerges as a serious contender for the position of Prime Minister.

Thobani opened her discussion with an overview of the Gujarat riots of 2002, during which at least 2,000 people were killed, hundreds of women raped, and almost 100,000 left homeless. Since the events, the Gujarat government, headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has been accused of complicity in the violence; at the very least, it was unresponsive in preventing the bloodbath.

While the four films that Thobani studied differ significantly with regards to plotlines, narratives and visual effects, she argued that they are all framed within the paradigm of communalism. In each of the films, the nation and state are portrayed as the real victims of the 2002 violence. Noticeably absent in these productions, she maintained, is any meaningful engagement with the Muslim victims of the massacre. These victims, it appears, have been doubly silenced: through the violence itself, and subsequently through these cinematic depictions, which portray their experiences as almost incidental.

The speaker presented the concept of an “ongoing Partition” as a way to explain the continuing efforts to define national identity, the state, and concepts of citizenship in India. Within this framework, the Gujarat riots become a way of redefining Indian citizenship as religious category. This redefining, Thobani argued, is mirrored in the four movies she examined.  In her analysis, each of the films advance and normalise the equation of Hinduism (albeit secular Hinduism) as nationalism. These cinematic depictions suggest that the cause of the collective violence in 2002 in indeed religion and, by extension, that secularism is the solution.

As the animated question and answer session following Dr Thobani’s lecture illustrated, there is a strong need for voices such hers to add to the mainstream narrative, and to articulate those experiences that are being overlooked or silenced. It also reminds us that for a country as diverse as India, there can be no one narrative or identity.

Laleh Habib graduated with a Master’s degree from LSE’s Department of Media and Communication in 2006



Why I Needed An Injury


Published on Elephant Journal
August 1, 2013

During my yoga teacher training, the instructor asked how many of us had suffered an injury through our yoga practice. Nearly every hand in the room shot up immediately.

I, too, tentatively wagged a few fingers, having experienced some lingering hamstring twinges here and there. But as someone generally more strong than flexible, my asana practice was more about a struggle to get my palms flat on the ground during a forward fold, rather than any sprains or pains resulting from over-stretching.

My decidedly un-yogic body type and proportions meant that the spiritual and the philosophical aspects of the practice were far more accessible than the physical results. My first lessons—and, what I still consider to be the greater lessons—were the stillness of the mind that I experienced as I travelled into my body and grappled with my tight hamstrings, or lost myself in the waves of my breath and in my dristhi.

My daily Ashtanga practice was a way to meet myself on the mat every morning, as I was sometimes distracted, occasionally heavy on my feet and usually stiff.

A Kick in the Asana

But as someone once said, “Practice, and all is coming,” and with my daily Asana sequences, my body grew more supple and flexible. And then one day, while attempting a particularly ambitious pose, I met with the dreaded SI joint sprain. I was flattened. For a few weeks, I barely get out of bed. When I finally got back on my mat, I found that my standing forward fold stopped at my knees!

I felt cheated and angry. Yoga had betrayed me. It had taken away my strength and my practice at a time when I had felt the most confident in my body and when I most needed the benefits of yoga.

Just as my asana practice had turned my back in seemingly unalterable ways, I decided to turn my back on the practice. And to boot, I dismissed all the other elements or limbs of yoga, including meditation, pranayama and turning my senses inwards.

The Importance of Injury

It didn’t take long for me to realize that this was far more detrimental to my body and mind then any yoga injury could be. And slowly, I began to understand why it is often said that a yoga injury can be your greatest teacher and the most difficult obstacle we face in our practice. I became aware of the decidedly un-yogic practices that had contributed to my injury, and how the holistic understanding of all the limbs of yoga—not just the physical practice—could help me heal and truly delve deeper into my practice, and not just the poses.


Avidya, or ego, the Yoga Sutras tell us, is one of the five main obstacles in our yoga journey. It can derail us from our ultimate goal of Samadhi, or of deep absorption or unity with our creator. And, as I learned, it can be the source of many a pain in the back. I was injured as I attempted a pose that I knew I wasn’t ready for, but ego spurred me on to try. My practice was strong, and as my teacher guided me into an advanced pose as the rest of the class looked on, my Avidya shouted, “Hey! Check this out!”

Ouch. The pose may have looked cool, but my grimace and hobbling out of the classroom definitely did not.

Which brings me to my next point…

Listen to your body before you listen to any teacher

Our first guide in our practice should be how we feel in our body on any given day, and not what our mind, or our ego, or what the instructor tell us to do. As a teacher, this is something I repeat before every lesson. In a class, eager to be the star student, this was the first thing to go out of the window. It’s one thing to be gently guided into exploring your edges under the watchful eye of a qualified instructor. It’s quite another to abandon your intuition and contort yourself into someone else’s notion of what you should be doing.

Ahimsa Starts at Home

The first part of the first limb or step in our yoga journey, according to the Sutras, is Ahimsa, or non-violence. Us yoga practitioners are often inclined to embrace a philosophy of loving kindness towards all those around us, while beating ourselves up on the mat. After my injury, it would have been wise to rest, to discover the importance of savasana. Instead, I chose to power through, believing that a few more vigorous practices would set me right. Very soon, I no longer had that choice.

The Practice Is Just One Part

Maybe if I’d been a little bit more flexible in my approach to yoga, I could have caught some of the damage. But for me, yoga was my 90 minutes Ashtanga class, with pranayama before and meditation after. It was all or nothing, and if I wasn’t powering through the primary series, I sure as hell wasn’t going to be doing any restorative poses or just sitting and breathing. Asanas, or the physical practice of yoga, is just one of the eight limbs of yoga, but because I pegged my experience of the whole body of yoga philosophy on just one limb, I lost everything.

The Road to Recovery

Over the last few months, I have been reclaiming my practice, my body, and my yoga journey. I am no longer scared to sit out for a pose in a class if it just doesn’t feel good, or to join a beginner Hatha class if I need to. Some days, I just sit. What is far more important I have learned, is that I show up on my mat, in my body, ready for my practice, whatever it may be on any given day.


Transition to Computer Science

For my latest project, I turned to something different; a series of videos for an incredible not-for-profit foundation, EduEnrich, that aims at promoting education in Pakistan.  I created, wrote and produced a series of videos for the organisation, the links to which I am sharing below. 

Happy viewing! 


Transition to Computer Science:

Why Computer Science @ KITE

Public Art, Public Engagement

Public Art, Public Engagement

Photo Credit: Laleh Habib