Government of Paper: The Materiality of Bureaucracy in Urban Pakistan

Government of Paper: The Materiality of Bureaucracy in Urban Pakistan

by Matthew S. Hull

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In the electronic age, documents appear to have escaped their paper confinement. But we are still surrounded by flows of paper with enormous consequences. In the planned city of Islamabad, order and disorder are produced through the ceaseless inscription and circulation of millions of paper artifacts among bureaucrats, politicians, property owners, villagers, imams (prayer leaders), businessmen, and builders. What are the implications of such a thorough paper mediation of relationships among people, things, places, and purposes? Government of Paper explores this question in the routine yet unpredictable realm of the Pakistani urban bureaucracy, showing how the material forms of postcolonial bureaucratic documentation produce a distinctive political economy of paper that shapes how the city is constructed, regulated, and inhabited. Files, maps, petitions, and visiting cards constitute the enduring material infrastructure of more ephemeral classifications, laws, and institutional organizations. Matthew S. Hull develops a fresh approach to state governance as a material practice, explaining why writing practices designed during the colonial era to isolate the government from society have become a means of participation in it.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520951884
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 06/05/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Matthew S. Hull is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan.

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Government of Paper

The Materiality of Bureaucracy in Urban Pakistan

By Matthew S. Hull


Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95188-4


The Master Plan and Other Documents

Islamabad is linked to Rawalpindi, a city in the Potohar region of Pakistan in Punjab province, by several miles of the Islamabad Highway, a divided four-lane road from which autorickshaws, ubiquitous in Rawalpindi, are banned. The car-driving classes frequently quip, "Islamabad is five minutes from Pakistan," with Rawalpindi standing in for Pakistan. Poorer residents, often relegated to slower modes of intercity transport such as buses and minivans, more commonly joke, "Islamabad is ten minutes from Pakistan." The joke is a comic recognition of one of the original goals of the Master Plan: to distance the government from the society it was to govern. In its initial conception, Islamabad can be seen as giant anticorruption machine, an effort to use spatial isolation to engineer a social isolation of government servants from the wider populace. Unlike most modernist projects that aimed to make aspects of a wider society legible to the government (Scott 1998), Islamabad was designed to make the government legible to itself, partly through isolation from the wider society and partly through its own internal order.

Timothy Mitchell argues that the distinction between state and society "is a defining characteristic of the modern political order" (1999:184), even though "the edges of the state are uncertain; societal elements seem to penetrate it on all sides, and the resulting boundary between state and society is difficult to determine" (88). He argues that an "apparent boundary" (176) between state and society is produced by Foucauldian "disciplines," practices of "spatial organization, temporal arrangement, functional specification, supervision and surveillance, and representation" (185). As an effect of such practices, the line between state and society is not the perimeter of a separate entity, but "a line drawn internally, within the network of institutional mechanisms through which a certain social and political order is maintained" (175, emphasis added). Seen in this light, the spatial organization of Islamabad was not the project of an autonomous state actor, but an attempt to create such an actor by cutting the entanglements of the state bureaucracy with Pakistani society. It was an effort to make officials of a modern state who are, in James Scott's words, "at least one step—and often several steps removed from the society they are charged with governing" (1998:76). The city thus takes its place in the traditions of South Asian dual cities and cordons sanitaire.

Islamabad also drew on much older practices of separation: those effected by documents. Scholarship on colonial India has emphasized the objectifying knowledge practices of documentation: surveys and ethnography, mapping, and enumeration. However, the most fundamental function of documentation, evident in the earliest practices of the English East India Company as in all bureaucratic organizations, is to constitute the organization by distinguishing actions done for the organization from all others. In contrast to the gross social sorting of physical planning, documents differentiate among the actions of individuals, distinguishing official from unofficial, or public from private, actions. This problematic of separation was especially acute in the early Company because of its corporate character and the organization of its trade.

Although the Letters Patent (charter) specified who would be a member in the early East India Company, the Company needed to determine when its members were acting on their own and when on behalf of the Company. It was the documentary practices of accountability more than the Letters Patent that constituted the Company as an organization rather than simply a society of individuals with trading privileges. Company documentary practices exploded with the consolidation of trade in joint stock, constituting the "jointness" of joint stock trading by defining when a purchase, payment, or shipment was a Company action. Important in London, such documentation was even more central in India, where the so-called private trade, that is, the trading of Company servants on their own accounts, constantly threatened the integrity of the organization. These concerns about differentiating the private actions of Company servants from their Company actions were later expanded and racialized in the mature colonial state as a problem of native corruption. I'll argue that this problematic partly accounts for the pervasiveness of writing within the Company, within the British colonial governments, and within contemporary Pakistani governance.

As Akhil Gupta observes, discourses about bureaucratic corruption in India portray the actions of low-level officials as "thoroughly blurring the boundaries between 'state' and 'civil society'" (1995:384). But rather than focusing on the blurring of a boundary between two independently constituted domains, it is more productive to follow the practices that make, remake, and undermine the difference between the actions of government and all others. As we would expect, the Master Plan has been only partially successful in establishing a sociospatial order liberated from spatial practices prevailing throughout urban Pakistan. Islamabad may be five minutes from Pakistan, but banned horse carts (tongas) still ply the shoulder of the Islamabad highway. Neighborhood and kinship relations pulse within the bureaucratic procedures designed to ensure the correspondence of residential and bureaucratic hierarchies. "Private" work is still done through government offices. Documents, the very mechanisms for protecting the integrity of government, are often the means through which it is undermined.


The establishment of a capital city for the new state of Pakistan was part of the turbulent politics of the state's first decade. The issues that came to the fore in the debates about a new capital were those that dominated national politics more generally, especially the fundamental question of the relation of the government to the populace. The halting failure of electoral politics in the 1950s, undermined by the maneuvering of an alliance of the civil bureaucracy and the military, eventually brought a martial-law government to power in 1958. As Ayesha Jalal argues, the new civil and military officials embraced "a policy aimed at depoliticizing Pakistani society before it slipped into the era of mass mobilization" (1995:55; see also Alavi 1983; Burki 1986; Sayeed 1980). The establishment of Islamabad was an expression of this program.

The founding of Islamabad followed years of debate on the construction of a new capital area in Karachi. Following Partition in 1947, civil servants of the government of Pakistan were housed in evacuated buildings, tents, and temporary quarters in Karachi. Two alternatives for a permanent government seat in Karachi were considered. The first plan was hastily produced by Lt. Col. G. Swayne Thomas, an Australian who was a town planning consultant to the Government of Sind. The plan advocated a new administrative satellite city of sixty-five thousand inhabitants twenty to thirty miles northeast or east of Karachi. This city would have contained the offices as well as the residential areas of civil servants, creating a postcolonial version of the "civil lines," the orderly civilian settlements of British colonial government servants. Objections to the plan were raised, however, because it isolated the government from the rest of Karachi and, symbolically, the Pakistani people.

A second plan completed in 1952 by the Swedish firm Merz Rendel Vatten responded to this criticism:

The authors of the Plan have, at an early stage, emphasized the desirability of promoting as close a contact as possible between the state administration and the economic and cultural functions. Specifically this means that the Capital and its administrative buildings should be located near the old town, with its business life and its cultural institutions.... The desire to isolate the Capital in a new and separate town, or section of the town, has appeared to the authors to be an echo of ideas from a past era during which the functions of the state were confined merely to the responsibility for a certain degree of order and a certain disposition of justice. In such a community the state system could be segregated and could, in magnificent surroundings, manifest its supremacy in splendid isolation. (Lindstrom and Ostnas [1952] 1967:36)

The new plan placed the federal government enclave in the middle of Karachi, on an extension of the existing central business artery. The report stated, "The new capital and the existing business section should be given the possibility of growing together into one common core, built around one axis only" (Lindstrom and Ostnas [1952] 1967:2). The large avenue, running from the central business district to the capital area, would open up onto a large open space framed by public buildings dominated on one side by the parliament building and on the other by a mosque. This space, a hexagon with sides 1,400 feet in length, would be large enough for a million people to gather for political meetings, public assemblies, and Eid prayers. Housing for government servants was to be distributed throughout the city in new finger-shaped districts extending from existing boundaries of Karachi.

Criticism was leveled at the Merz Rendel Vatten plan for its costly traffic plan and its extravagant central plaza, but this second capital plan was undone not by the expense; rather, it was soon overrun by the tumultuous political events of the 1950s. In 1951, before the report had even been published, Liaquat Ali Khan, the prime minister who had initiated the project, was assassinated. He had succeeded Mohammad Ali Jinnah as head of the Muslim League, the party that had lead the movement for the creation of Pakistan. The Muslim League was the only national party at the time, but its support came mainly from Urdu-speaking immigrants from north India (so-called Muhajirs). Ironically, the Muslim League had never enjoyed strong support in the areas that came to make up Pakistan. Liaquat Ali Khan's death severely weakened the party and initiated an "institutional shift from elected to non-elected institutions" (Jalal 1995:55).

Years of deeply contentious politics followed, in which various prominent political leaders from Karachi attempted to govern at the center through opportunistic and quickly shifting alliances with political leaders from East Pakistan and the West Pakistan regions of Punjab, Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), Sind, and Baluchistan (see map 1). A more stable alliance between the civil bureaucracy and the military shaped the political intrigues in an effort to consolidate state power itself. Simultaneously, the prominence of Muhajirs within the upper echelons of these two institutions was gradually replaced by that of ethnic Punjabis. In 1956, the Constituent Assembly ratified a constitution, but the document generated strong opposition from provincial leaders outraged by its centralizing provisions and from religious leaders decrying its tepid Islam. Infighting among National Assembly members, challenges from the provinces, monstrous inflation, and wheat shortages combined to generate massive street protests by public and private labor unions, opposition parties, Karachi businessmen, and students. The army presented itself as the only guarantor of stability and openly confirmed its dominance over elective politics. In October 1958, Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan, soon after becoming chief martial law administrator, deposed President Iskander Mirza and installed himself as president as well.

Shortly after assuming office, Ayub Khan formed the Special Commission for the Location of the Federal Capital to reexamine the establishment of the capital in Karachi and, if necessary, recommend another location. While most of the commission members were technical professionals, it was headed by Major General Yahya Khan, a close associate of the new president. The Final Report of the Special Commission has never been made public and, as Frank Spaulding (2003:369–70) observes, while Ayub Khan later claimed that the commission recommended the Rawalpindi region for the new capital, there are suggestions the commission called for further study. At the time, with the Final Report remaining secret, officials spoke for it through the press. Newspapers reported that the Special Commission report found Karachi unsuitable and recommended locating the capital at its present site in northern Punjab, on agricultural land north of Rawalpindi, near Ayub's native village of Haripur. Newspaper accounts, at least one of which claims to quote the report, state that the report of the commission articulated a range of reasons to move the capital to the north. The region's moderate climate and changing seasons would prevent boredom and lassitude and promote health and administrative efficiency. Lying on the Grand Trunk road, the site offered advantages as a center for the region's economic development. The availability of cheap rural land would decrease development costs. The geography of the region and the military base in nearby Rawalpindi gave the site greater strategic security than the seaside Karachi. Planning from scratch would allow greater order and beauty; the Commission reportedly observed that "although Karachi is a relatively modern city, its development has been unplanned and grotesque. It cannot be converted into a city of aesthetic beauty—an essential requirement of a capital." In addition to these advantages of the northern location, Constantinos Doxiadis, the Greek planner appointed to design the new city, would soon praise the "typical, characteristic architecture of the [Rawalpindi] area, growing out of the land, the people and the climate," while finding "that of Karachi area ... strongly influenced by Hindu principles" (Doxiadis Associates 1960b:68).

However, although most of the commission's purported justifications for shifting the capital were technical or aesthetic, the strongest reason was openly political. The commission reportedly argued that Karachi was unacceptable because commercial development rendered it "unwholesome from the point of view of administrative integrity." Having just moved against the commercial groups in Karachi with the support of the military and civil bureaucracy, General Ayub was anxious to protect government servants from what he considered the corrupting influence of Karachi businessmen, most of whom were Muhajirs (Ayub Khan 1967; Jalal 1990; Sayeed 1980). A newspaper quoted the commission report declaring that:

Close contact between the business community and personnel of the Administration at Karachi has not done any good to either. Too much of social contact between those who want things to be done to suit them and the officials cannot lead to healthy results. It is desirable both for the business community and the administration that the capital should be away from the commercial center of the country.

The commission was quoted arguing that not only the location of the capital but also its layout "should be designed to restrict contact between Government servants and business circles." While the report emphasized the distance from Karachi, many observers suspected that the proximity to Rawalpindi was equally important to the new bureaucratic military government. From the new site, Ayub Khan could keep a close eye on the army, which was in Rawalpindi, to prevent moves against him. In fact, Rawalpindi was immediately made the interim capital, even though most of the ministries were expected to remain in Karachi until the new capital city had been established.

Fifty years earlier, the British had similarly opted to escape the political agitation in Calcutta and the city's "foreign" associations (stemming from its origin as a British trading settlement) and located the new imperial capital outside Delhi. Following a major uprising throughout north India in 1857, the British had established a major military center southwest of Delhi and developed the city as a transportation center. Delhi had been the seat of the last major indigenous political power, the Mughals, and the British attempted to portray themselves as the successors of the Mughals in the subcontinent's grand history of imperial rule (Cohn 1987; Metcalf 1989). The British imperial capital been completed only three decades before Partition and had been home to many of the officials who left to form the new government of Pakistan. The Merz Rendel Vatten plan made indirect reference to Delhi in its criticism of the proposal for an isolated administrative satellite city. The significance of Ayub Khan's decision, therefore, was obvious. This was a move from a city founded by English traders, still strongly identified with British colonialism and dominated by in-migrants from north India, to a city in the Punjab near Taxila, seat of the Mauryan Empire, now claimed to be the forerunner of modern Pakistan. The move took the government away from a contentious political environment in a geographically peripheral coastal city and placed it alongside the country's military center in the geographic center of the dominant West Pakistan territory.


Excerpted from Government of Paper by Matthew S. Hull. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Writing of the Bureaucracy
Signs of Paper
Associations of Paper
Background of the Study

Splendid Isolation
The Dynapolis and the Colonial City
Communities of All Classes and Categories
From Separation to Participation

At Home in the Office
Parchis, Connections, and Recognition
Petitions: Citizens, Bureaucrats, and Supplicants
Parchis, Petitions, and Influence

The Materiality Cases
Individual Writers and Corporate Authority
Tactics of Irresponsibility and the Byproduct of the Collective
Particular Projects and Collective Agency
A Contest of Graphic Genres

Problematics of Reference and Materiality
Early Planning and Failed Opposition
Shifting Houses and Dummy Houses
Demolition Certificates
Package Deals and Individual Signatures
Loose Lists
Mediating like a State

A Mosque for Every Community
A Mosque for Every Maslak
Claims on the Map
Temporality of Maps and Islamic Adverse Possession
Squatting according to Plan


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