Sunday, January 11, 2015

Je Suis Charlie

Once I realized that religion is man made, it didn’t take me very long to make the connection that starting a new cult all by yourself is much harder than it is to usurp an existing one. First you pretend to be part of the cult, rise through the ranks, and then slowly add your own rules to it. Thus you see christianity born out of the teachings of a jew hippie, and islam born out of the teachings of a warlord married to a christian (may have been born a christian himself). In that sense, Ben Affleck and the assorted "liberals" are right - the old testament is just as violent as the Quran. But that gives us, the disbelievers, scant comfort.

Perhaps it was the wine, but I have never felt as despondent at our future as I did after reading the way almost all of the media in US, UK and India, have succumbed to this ideologically driven islamic terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo. Some liberal voices have performed admirable mental gymnastics to find reasons not to support the victims unequivocally. The silver lining: there were more voices of condemnation from the muslim majority countries than in the past. But, most of them, invariably came with the riders: “those cartoons were offensive” etc. The people who juxtapose “offense” while condemning these murders are in effect asking for legal retribution, new-age blasphemy laws. In other words, they don't mind the coercion, just that they don’t have the stomach to do it themselves..

The “chilling effect” that makes star appearances if a Dinanath Batra were to even approach the courts, suddenly goes next door, to check up on something. Meanwhile, we won’t write or draw something that might be offensive to some muslims, because it doesn’t stand up to (our totally ad-hoc) editorial standards, and not because we are scared witless, at the possibility of being hunted down by jihadis. The few that made a show and dance of putting up some of the benign cartoons, to pat themselves on the backs, have had to pull them down, for hurting sensibilities (in India)

I wonder if  history will remember us as the generation that had the potential to rid religion from the public sphere altogether; but in stead chose to be irrational in asking, and answering the uncomfortable moral and social questions, heralding a second dark age. Or perhaps, the only history to survive will report that we heralded a great revolution and mended our ways to reach the one true God!

Free speech is a non-existent concept in most of the theocratic states anyway. State censorship is passe, critical thought and expression is being hindered in the name of “sensitivity” in the secular, liberal democracies. Atheism or agnosticism in the world religions is not enough if there isn’t an unfettered free expression and the willingness to examine critically, and understand existing ideologies. All it takes is for one generation to internalize these lazy equivalences without critical examination, and the next one will give up its freedoms most willingly and embrace the alluring simple (and most certainly simplistic) explanations offered by religion. So, what is the end game ?

There are people working to reform Islam from within the totalitarian regimes that pass for islamic states. Perhaps reformation of islam will take the same path that Christianity did, and I hope that a majority can be convinced that Quran isn’t literally the word of god, or at the very least, that, it need not be the "perfection personified". Perhaps, we can sit this one out! Oh, what wishful thinking! Unfortunately, we are like the bell in a temple - the pious prove their devotion to their fellows by how hard they hit us. But, if we can somehow manage to survive and preserve our freedoms, and cultures until this plays out within the muslim world, we might yet avoid a second dark age. The question is how?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Fair trials and justice

"Somebody must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning." -The Trial by Franz Kafka
Of all the tragicomic masterpieces to have been created in the world, 'The Trial' must surely rank amongst the best. The entire book is about the trial of Joseph K. who is arrested and is supposed to defend himself in a "court" for offenses he doesn't have the knowledge of committing and is never told about throughout his trial. I suspect that it was this work in particular that gave birth to the term "Kafkaesque," to describe travesty of justice whenever and wherever it occurs. It is also ironic that this particular work came to see the light of day only because Kafka's friend disregarded his last wish(therein betraying his trust) to refrain from destroying the unfinished novel and instead published it. It serves as a reminder to each one of us, of the importance of an independent and a transparent judiciary, especially for a nation with liberal, democratic aspirations.

We believe that in the end truth prevails, "Satyameva Jayate." The principle of "presuming innocence until proven guilty," originates from this love of justice. It is never too late to punish the guilty, but to take back a mistaken conviction is impossible. Beautifully illustrated in this short story by Leo Tolstoy, " God sees the truth but waits," it highlights the need for checks and balances in our judiciary so that, "A hundred criminals may go unpunished, but not a single innocent shall be punished."

Following through, we realize that Justice must be blind and all are equal in the court of justice. This "Rule of law," enshrined in our constitution is in place to protect that smallest minority - the individual. With this in mind, it is inconceivable that an individual is not provided the "fair trial" due to circumstances. Each exception taken to the "Rule of law" is just another body blow against the weakest individual in the society. The powerful may weather the storm - remember Jayalalitha or Karunanidhi's time in the jail, yet it is the meek who will bear the brunt of systemic abuse.

If circumstances can be used as an excuse to override these principles today in the case of a terrorist, nothing stops someone else from misusing the same "circumstances" as an excuse tomorrow to paint an innocent(innocent until proven guilty) as a "threat to the society." Remember the invocation of NSA against eve teasing?

In the '70s it was famously predicted that India would fail as a democracy and be ruled by the an autocracy. The reason, that prediction didn't come to fruitition is the courage of a few good men in our independent if inefficient judiciary. Our system may be corrupt and full of holes, the trial may only provide a stage for Kasab and his ilk to broadcast their agenda, it may result in the worst kind of mudslinging over issues of nationalist importance, yet it is imperative that we provide him a fair and a transparent trial. As Acorn put it, "He deserves an exemplary punishment after an exemplary judicial trial."

If we are afraid that we cannot prosecute Ajmal in a fair trial despite catching him redhanded or that it will take too long, then how can we claim to safeguard our own citizens and how can we claim to be a "democratic republic" which upholds the "rule of law"? What is the difference then, between us and the taliban?

Ofcourse, this also serves to shut up the psuedo liberal ostriches like 1, 2 who draw moral equivalence between terrorist and counter terrorist activities or atleast make them look like the fools they really are. But more importantly, If we are to hold onto our moral highground in this battle of ideologies; Indeed if we are to survive, we must stick to our principles even in the most trying circumstances.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

"The End of Faith" by Sam Harris - a review

I first came across Sam Harris when I read his article "Bombing our Illusions" right after the 26/11 Mumbai massacre. This article written in 2005 sounds prophetic and ominous in equal proportions. He made an attempt to be intellectually honest and didn't care to be politically correct regarding the nature of religion and the ills that it propagates in our world and was determined to read his thesis published as "The End of Faith", in greater detail.

The book enters into great detail the ills that religion has inflicted upon us over the years or as some believers would want us to say, the ills that have been inflicted upon us "in the name of religion". The basic thrust of his thesis is that "Religion has no place in the age of reason, especially when most religious tenets are overflowing with irrational claims and fantastic myths that have been laid to rest by most of the scientific knowledge accrued over the years.
The only reason anyone is "moderate" in matters of faith these days is that he has assimilated some of the fruits of the last two thousand years of human thought. The doors leading out of scriptural literalism do not open from the inside. the moderation we see among nonfundamentalists is not some sign that faith itself has evolved; it is rather, the product of the many hammer blows of modernity that have exposed certain tenets of faith to doubt...
Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance....
Extremely critical of any and all evils that arose out of religious dogmatism from spanish inquisitions to public stoning of "adulterous women"(which incidentally is still followed in some places) down to the calls for jihad. He calls the bluff of left-liberals who adopt illiberal dogmas in the name of "pragmatism" and "relativism". He pans all irrational beliefs across the spectrum, yet makes a few concessions for metaphysical or "mystic" phenomena that science hasn't yet been able to explain.
"It is not enough that Jesus was a man who transformed himself to such a degree that the Sermon on the Mount could be his heart's confession. He also had to be the son of God, born of a virgin, and destined to return to earth trailing clouds of glory.... According to the dogma of Christianity, becoming just like Jesus is impossible, One can only enumerate one's sins, believe the unbelieveable, and await the end of the world

But a more profound response to existence is possible for us and the testimony of Jesus, as well as that of countless other men and women over the ages, attests to this. The challenge for us is to begin talking about this possibility in rational terms"
The book makes for a thoroughly provocative yet at times dry read getting bogged down by philosophical monologues. Perhaps these are very basic statements for a student of philosophy but I would rather read them in simpler language. It also appears that at times in order to support his thesis, he brings in questionable evidence. I don't see the reason why he should do that. History of the last two thousand years is replete with examples that support his arguments, and using such pieces may only serve for the "shock value" but diminish the cogency in his message.

Bottomline: Well worth a read for everyone who considers himself/herself to be a rational human even though the going might get slow at times.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Education in India

Shekhar Gupta at Indian Express writes about the need for reform and revamping of Higher education in India:
Just as the licence-quota raj created self-inflicted scarcities of telephones, scooters and cooking gas, our utterly authoritarian, cynical and intellectually bankrupt higher education policy has created humongous shortages. We all know the odds for a candidate to qualify for premier engineering, management and medical colleges. Those with means now pay their way to colleges in Australia, Singapore, Qatar, besides indeed the traditional “exporters” of education to India, the US and the UK ....
....Yet, do advertise for a security guard on and see how many applications you get from MAs, MScs, even PhDs. These are young Indians who have invested the most valuable years of their lives collecting degrees but no knowledge, education but no skills. Unless this disaster is stemmed now, these numbers will multiply faster than you can imagine, and they will be angrier than you wish to imagine. But if you can fix it, the dividend you reap will be not merely demographic, but even economic and political.
Studies estimate that our education system churns out nearly 3.2million graduates of whom about a tenth or 350,000 are from engineering. But even a cursory examination of the graduates reveals that most of these graduates pay by the noose only to get a paper certification but no real addition to their skills. Most of the so called engineering colleges are blocks of apartments run without laboratories or even proper lecturers. In many cases, the students graduating out of these colleges are employed back as lecturers as they are unable to fit anywhere else in the industry, and the colleges unable to get worthy lecturers, leading into a vicious circle.

The answer is not setting up namesake IITs in ordnance factories or forcing the existing IITs to increase reservations and acceptance rates. It involves giving more importance to autonomy of existing institutions and doing away with the redtape that deters from quality individuals and institutions from coming into the academia. I don't advocate for exclusivist policies with regards to IITs, IIMs, but setting up proxies sans the quality will lead to further devaluation of these last bastions of credibility in Indian higher education system. We need more IIT like institutions not just IITs, and in all spheres of higher education.

If cases of competitive intolerance like this and this don't wake us up to the need for liberalisation in education in general and higher education in particular, nothing ever will. In 2004, I thought that the only upside of NDA defeat was end of Mr.Joshi's hold on HRD but unfortunately he was followed by a catastrophic Arjun singh. Here's to hope that this term may turn out to be different from with Mr.Kapil Sibal as the HRD minister.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Poverty and Wealth

I wanted to write this post a long time back, but now is just as good a time when the calls for coronation of the prince have reached a crescendo. During the election campaign Rahul Gandhi had said, "We believe in the poor people of India and they are ashamed of the poor in India." It is part of electioneering, I agree, but in order to gain votes and power the Nehru-Gandhi family and by extension Congress has equated Poverty with virtue and wealth to a vice. Add to this the famous Nehru quip, "Profit is a dirty word" and we have generations condemned to poverty. Sarojini Naidu once famously observed of Mahatma, " It costs a lot to keep Gandhi poor," only half in jest. Now, Mr. Rahul Gandhi says, " we should not be ashamed of our poor."

Perhaps, but we should be ashamed of the fact that such a large number of our people are condemned to poverty. Instead we are ashamed of our rich."Any wealth gotten is at the expense of someone else, therefore the rich deserve to be stripped off their wealth" is a tenet of socialism that has chained our wings. Instead, our aim should be "wealth creation." The Poor don't deserve to remain "poor" for such a long time. We should have taught ourselves how to fish, rather than take fish from one fishermen, cut them into pieces and redistribute it to others while taking a few pieces for doing the work of distribution. This leaves everybody but the distributer poorer.

When even the Communist party in china embraces free market and shuns socialist policies to achieve tremendous growth, it speaks of the rot that has set in that we regress time and again to our socialist policies, Unless, we see past the halo of our erstwhile leaders whose ideas have long past their shelf life(if they ever had one), we cannot identify this rot and will be incapable of eliminating it.

Here Atanu describes the tale of two countries, comparing U.S - Argentina at the start of last century to India-China in this century. Yet, the illuminated want us to believe that this is "really" a reform oriented government which was impeded only by the left with only a few sane voices questioning this hypothesis. Whatever growth we have achieved so far is despite the government, not because of it. The sooner we realize it, the better. After all, "Socialism is a luxury to the wealthy, but a suicidal creed to the poor"

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Elections Postscript

Unexpected margin of victory for the incumbents and a slap in the face for the BJP. Firstly, congratulations to the UPA and its supporters but I won't count myself amongst them. As I mentioned earlier, it is reflective of the leadership vacuum at BJP's top rung that Congress was voted back to power after five years of sleep walking through the government and leading the country into a mire.
Although knowledgeable people all over the world are lauding the return to significance of nationalist parties and marginalisation of regional ones, I wouldn't hold out my breath for this trend(if it is one). The cumulative vote share of Congres, BJP and CPI(M) (which are the three parties to hold nationalist aspirations) has remained close to 48% where it was even in 2004. In addition, the vote share of Congress improved by 1.99% overall, which puts to rest the theories that voters voted enmasse for a "stable government at center".
During the elections, there was a chorus of opinion that this election was less a national election and more a cumulative of 543 mini elections. Although the results don't point to that, I still stand by that theory. On a cumulative note, Congress deserved to lose this election, but BJP deserved to lose it just as well. So, it came down to individual constituencies. A bunch of factors like Chiranjeevi's PRP cutting into 16% of vote share in A.P(which might have gone to TDP+ otherwise), Mulayam Singh's connection to Kalyan Singh in the U.P which led to shifting of anti-BJP vote to Congress, riots in Orissa and Varun Gandhi's mad ramblings leading to a (welcome) feedback agains the BJP, to mention nothing of the incoherence and infighting within the BJP ranks all led to a significant decrease in the voteshare of BJP to a tune of 4.5%.

All these are legitimate and welcome trends in exercise of franchise, yet one aspect still gets my goat. The crown prince who was derided until the results came out suddenly became a genius. "Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan." His pathetic stumbling at the press conference, failure in first attempts at diplomacy all lay forgotten and his "masterstroke" of going it alone in U.P is suddenly his ticket to the seat at the top. Here is a more complete dissection of the selective amnesia.

Unfortunately, I believe that this attitude of servitude and obsequious fawning in wait of a Hero to deliver us from the ills of the world is common to all around the world(Oba-mania anyone?). The trouble with Indians is the continued importance of familial ties and inheritance of profession (Engineer's son being anything other than engineer is a shame, similarly politician's son has to be a politician etc.)

Why were the exit polls off by such a big margin then? I would like to propose a new effect along the lines of "Bradley effect." In India, infatuation with the "first" family is a guilty pleasure. So, people won't admit that they are going to vote for the family, yet secretly do so. The sample space is extremely limited, but I believe that there IS a correlation. I will leave it to the interested or the jobless to prove or disprove this theory.

What lies ahead for the parties? As M.J.Akbar points out, "India is a secular country not because the Indian muslims(minorities) want it to be secular, but because the Indian Hindus want it to be secular" (italics mine.) BJP should realize this and give up on the fanatical elements amongst its ranks. They shouldn't be worried about losing the support of these factions as they can't vote for anyone else anyway. A cursory look at some of the rants by these factions is enough to put off many centrist votes which would've gone BJP's way had it tempered its voice.
And it IS important that BJP gets its message across effectively. Modi, Advani have been making the right sounds for ages, (one unbiased listen to any of their speeches or interviews ought to make this clear) but it is not emulated by the rest.
For the Congress: They must not count this as a verdict for populist measures and against reforms. Kamal Nath already is on record as having stated, "We've done enough reforms." If that doesn't send the alarm bells ringing to our media lapdogs, I wonder what will. If five years of soporific ramblings and somniatic perambulations are enough to win them 200 seats, they should see the potential in five years of good governance to win them 300.
For the CPI(M)/CPI: I'm glad that they've lost, but realistically, we are far from discarding their defeatist ideologies yet. In case we forget, it was Mamata Banerjee and her coterie who caused the eviction of Nano project from Bengal. The UDF in kerala isn't that different to the LDF in terms of policies. In other words, it was a replacement of like for like. I eagerly await the day when their ideas will be put to rest in the sewers where they belong, but it may be empty hope.

PS: I am still ambivalent about Congress/UPA. Yet, Chidambaram as the Home Minister, Pranab Da as the EA minister did a decent job and if the sycophants like Arjun Singh and Shivraj Patil and unscrupulous devils like A.Raja(Telecom ministry) are kept out, I think we have a decent chance at some redemption in the next five years.

Friday, May 01, 2009

MP v Party

In an ideal scenario, the contestants would all be decent chaps(or equally vile) with only differences being in ideologies. In that case, it is very easy to choose, vote for the party whose ideology you believe in (or atleast whose ideology you find less disagreeable). But, in a democracy such as ours, voting is a Morton's fork.

Things become clearer when you consider the 1985 Anti defection law.
One possible answer is the Tenth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. Popularly known as the Anti-Defection Law, the Tenth Schedule was written into the Constitution by the government of Rajiv Gandhi in 1985. The schedule mandates the disqualification from parliament of any member who votes against his party’s whip. Supported by many Indians, this law was originally conceived to control rampant defections by members of India’s parliament and state assemblies in order to save or bring down governments.
With the backbencher debate culture lacking, it doesn't matter whether your MP is the most honourable or has the best work ethic, that will only affect in limiting the corruption under his wing. Know that while it does come under their jurisdiction, MLAs and municipal councils are more directly responsible for the administrative state of affairs in each constituency. The role of the MP(as I see it) is more of a representative in making national policies and bargaining for a share of pie at the national table.

Therefore, I believe that one should vote for the party and not the MP. Ofcourse, there are exceptions. If you are given a choice between a criminal from a party whose ideology you believe in, but an honest politician from a party whose views you may not agree with, you should vote to punish the party that put up a criminal. This will ensure enough feedback to the system that criminals may not be fielded in the future. (Tytler is a case in point)