The #IndianScientificCommunity and their irrational fears

I have reproduced in this post the text of a recent online petition of the Indian scientists protesting what they term “the climate of intolerance” in the country.  My questions to them are indented, in red, in-line.

The scientific community is deeply concerned with the climate of intolerance, and the ways in which science and reason are being eroded in the country.

Apart from the stray comments of people in power, is there any evidence that science and reason are being eroded in the country?  Indeed, the question is: is the tradition and practice of Science in our country so vulnerable that it can allow unreason to prevail? 

It is the same climate of intolerance, and rejection of reason that has led to the lynching in Dadri of Mohammad Akhlaq Saifi and the assassinations of Prof Kalburgi, Dr Narendra Dabholkar and Shri Govind Pansare. All three fought against superstition and obscurantism to build a scientific temper in our society. Prof Kalburgi was a renowned scholar and an authority on the Vachana literature associated with the 12th-century reformer Basava, who opposed institutionalised religion, caste and gender discrimination. Similarly, Dr Dabholkar and Shri Pansare promoted scientific temper through their fight against superstition and blind faith.

It is important, firstly, to delink the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq Saifi from the assassinations of the rationalists.  The first, a crime against an individual, is inhumane in its conception and execution.  The other three crimes appear to have been executed against a belief system that is at odds with that of the perpetrators of the crime.  However, it is important to bear in mind that the criminals are yet to be brought to book and their motivations, exposed.  Till such time that this is done, who is responsible for these crimes can only be conjecture born of gut feeling.  It is also important, in this context, to recall that a recent news reported the finding of the dead body of one of the suspects alleged to have killed Prof. Kalburgi: the former had himself been killed under mysterious circumstances, which now has further complicated the investigation.

The Indian Constitution in Article 51 A (h) demands, as a part of the fundamental duties of the citizens, that we ‘…develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform’. Unfortunately, what we are witnessing instead is the active promotion of irrational and sectarian thought by important functionaries of the government.

Once again, this claim is not borne out by sufficient evidence.  A few stray comments do not warrant the overarching comment that “we are witnessing the active promotion of irrational and sectarian thought” almost as a matter of state policy. 

More importantly, though not germane to this discussion, since ‘humanism’ has been cited as a guiding spirit behind the action of the scientists, why are the victims of Bhopal not deserving of this compassion? Why has Indian academia not take any significant step to argue the case of the thousands of ordinary people who suffered and continue to suffer the consequences of the worst man-made tragedy independent India has witnessed?

The Indian civilisation is a truly plural one. We have always had many practices and communities that have allowed space for each other; we celebrate the festivals and anniversaries of all faiths. This unity and peace has now been disturbed by a rash of bigoted acts, attacks on minorities and Dalits, which show no signs of abating.

The pluralism continues to be felt on the streets, in the markets, in every means of public transport, and in every place where masses gather to either have their opium or their caffeine and nicotine.  To superimpose a drawing room or conference room perspective of conflict on to the society at large and claim that “unity and peace has now been disturbed by a rash of bigoted acts” speaks of the disconnect of the intelligentsia with the real India.

The writers have shown the way with their protests. We scientists now join our voices to theirs, to assert that the Indian people will not accept such attacks on reason, science and our plural culture. We reject the destructive narrow view of India that seeks to dictate what people will wear, think, eat and who they will love.

Once again, a few stray incidents are being blown out of proportion to make it seem as if there is a war against right-thinking individuals by right-wing individuals or groups.  What people should wear, think, eat and love have always been subjects of debate.  Lumping them together as is done here only seems to be a tactic to give an impression of a crisis where no such thing exists.

Consider this: when someone asks the masses to question superstition is it not as much about telling people how to think and what to practice?  When an unwritten dress code exists in each of our public and private spaces, in institutions, at events and gatherings are we not already outsourcing our sartorial sense? As for eating: sciences of health, medicine and nutrition have more or less taken over our kitchen, and public policies in this regard are impacted by multiple agencies.  Midday meal programmes in schools that includes eggs and milk or ragi porridge and biscuits are definitely not tailored to individual tastes or cultural practices!

We appeal to all other sections of society to raise their voice against the assault on reason and scientific temper we are witnessing in India today.

“Assault on reason and scientific temper”, once again, is a hyperbolic sentiment.  It is, in fact, a reiteration of an unsubstantiated claim already made several times over in the scientific community’s rather short letter. Redundancy does not add value to a claim.  And repeating a claim does not make it any more true than what it is worth.

The views expressed in the statement are individual and do not reflect views of the institution a signatory is affiliated to.

I find this disclaimer hypocritical: Courage of conviction demands that the individuals de-link their names from their positions.  Unless an individual feels that in order to draw attention to one’s views it is necessary to use their institutional affiliation as a crutch!

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Do we want no education?  A reaction to Prof. Pulapre Balakrishnan’s article*

                *See ‘We don’t want no education …’ by Pulapre Balakrishnan, The Hindu, June 27, 2015.

A quick perusal of the thesaurus turns up the following synonyms for ‘education’ – teaching, learning, schooling, tutoring, instruction, edification, culture.  Except the last two, the others are quantifiable [as is cognitive ability] and their presence or absence can be established – but only at a superficial level [once again, as in the case of cognitive ability].  Teaching, for instance, is not merely about passing on a bunch of facts and opinions but also about connecting with the student, sharing information about the subject in a manner that enhances and elevates audience understanding, and so on.  Tomes have been written about teaching but it is still being written about and researched.  Schooling and learning, similarly, are not merely about institutionalised education and imbibing instruction in a palette of subjects; a school must prepare those who enter its portals to leave as intellectually and morally well-developed citizens and learning is to exhibit such qualities of intelligence and moral standards as the commonsensical rhetoric ‘… and you call yourself educated!’ would illustrate. But what is intelligence? What is morality?  These are, once again concepts that are constantly being re-visited and revised. However, as universal measures of education, teaching, learning, schooling, tutoring and instruction have found acceptance. The presence or absence of edification and culture, however, are rather difficult to establish to universal approbation.  Edification, for one, is intangible as it goes beyond raw understanding and means a deeper, and one might say esoteric, enlightenment.  As for ‘culture’, I am only reminded of T S Eliot’s telling observation that some of the people we associate closely with culture are among the most uncultured.  Whether or not we agree with Eliot, the fact is that culture is too nebulous a notion to be tied down by definition or computed.

Education, etymologically, stops with just saying ‘lead out of[1]’ and does not specify out of what. Perhaps, it is time for a paradigm shift in our conception of education itself – even before we set out to rescue it from the social forces that are out to ‘snuff out a vibrant and free-spirited learning environment’, political forces that are in cahoots with them and market forces that straddle both. What do I mean by that well worn term ‘paradigm shift’?  For a start, I think it is worth asking if ‘education’ happens in institutions such as schools and universities or whether it happens in the wider world of which these institutions are a part.  Once this happens, the constructs such as primary, tertiary and higher education will become seamless levels of accomplishment rather than definitive standards. Think sports or music or Sanskrit.  ‘Education’ in these streams of skill or knowledge or both is not constrained by constructs such as we have in formal, institutionalised academia.   Exclusion is not the norm in these arenas – rather, they are open to all, and the levels of learning are self-determined.  Evaluation is not normative, and achievement is tested and graded in a variety of ways. There is a curriculum-like framework in place, but as a light that you carry in your hand to guide you on the path you choose and not a light that is there in the distance towards which you work your way on a pre-determined path.

Thinking of education in terms of aspiration that is open to all will also make redundant questions about the levels and kinds of institutions we should invest in.  Which, in any case, appear curious: One commonly asked question is shouldn’t expansion of school education be privileged over higher education?  I ask: if there is not an equivalence in their expansion, what happens to all those who complete school and wish to enter the best of the higher education institutions we have (in the system as it exists today)?  Should their justified ambition be sacrificed as there is no means to entertain it? But then, as Prof. Pulapre Balakrishnan argues, if ‘expansion becomes the raison d’être of the public presence in higher education’, quality becomes a casuality and it is ‘disingenuous’ not to raise concerns about it. I ask: is the question of quality not equally relevant when school education’s expansion is emphasised and encouraged? Is this too not a case of inviting hungry people only to feed them leftovers?  And is this not the case today?

On a different note, I would say the thirst for knowledge is as universal a human want as the thirst for water.  And the quest is for ways to quench this thirst in a more satisfying, a more nourishing way, education as practiced today being just one way of doing it.

Notes:

[1] Ex was a common preposition used in the Latin language that simply meant “from, out of, from within”.  Ducere is the infinitve form of the Latin verb duco, which means “to lead, conduct, guide, etc.” The literal translation of educate is to draw out of, lead out of,  etc. (http://www.babeled.com/2008/11/27/word-power-education/)   Rousseau, however, traces education to ‘educatio,’ which means ‘nurture.’ ((Emile, Book I, 39 from http://www.ilt.columbia.edu/pedagogies/rousseau/em_eng_bk1.html).

Poor Pothi!  Poor Pothi? Poor Pothi.

 

Pothi is the name of my neighbour’s home-bound domestic help – a smart slip of a girl some ten or so years old.  I have exchanged a few smiles with the child, but can’t speak her language.  So I can’t claim to know what is going on in her heart and her head as she goes through her days, sweeping, dusting, mopping, cleaning, washing, and though I haven’t actually seen it, probably cooking, and, most likely, polishing shoes and ironing clothes of a family of four and an endless stream of live-in guests.

She is constantly in demand: ‘Pothi, close the gate!’ call the two other children who live there – one a little older and another a little younger to her – when they go off on their bicycles to call on friends or to their tuition classes.  ‘Pothi, come and bowl’, it is, when the children are short of a hand at a game of cricket.  ‘Pothi!’ the house-owners call when dark clouds threaten rain and clothes have to be taken off the line, when there is someone at the door, when the car has to be washed, the garden watered, the compound swept, the garbage cleared when the municipal workers have played truant, leaving several days’ garbage bags hanging from the tree outside their gate, when guests have to be attended to, their children entertained … and so it goes on, hour after hour, day after day.  Pothi has not had a holiday in years. Poor Pothi!

But is Pothi the one to feel sorry for?  While the children of the household grow up in boisterous abandon, frittering away their energies on facile attempts at play – except when exams are round the corner, gibbering away in acquired accents of English-medium ‘international’ Indian schools,  trying to skip or skate away their extra kilos in feeble fits and starts, Pothi is learning many life skills: to concentrate on the work at hand while all around distractions abound, to be tough since indulging in self-pity is not an option, to be circumspect about exhibiting emotions as hand-me-downs and leftovers become par for the course when others get the treats and the pampering, to learn how to manage time and to multi-task, doing every task well as there is no other option.  While the children of the household could grow into maladjusted adults because they have never learnt to lead independent lives or to live responsibly, Pothi will be a competent and capable person, an asset to the larger society.  Besides, when day in day out there are reports of child-abuse and child-trafficking, when children run away from public institutions meant to shelter them, and from the homes they were born in because they cannot withstand the drudgery or horror, when the world Pothi was born in and the larger society we live in are such cesspools I wonder, should I describe this child next door, who is growing up in a decent family ambience, as Poor Pothi?

But then again, what accounts for this patent unfairness?  Why should one child be bonded in labour, seeing to the comfort of other children her age and the adults who are blind to the child in her?  It is only because Pothi was born into an economically deprived family.  To what avail legislations and government departments, activists and civil society organisations if sections of our people are so poor that they cannot even take care of their own?  When a family has so little to sustain itself that it has to ‘sell’ off one of their kids, what would happen if a child of theirs is ‘rescued’ and restored to them?  What would happen if, after investing in their dreams of a university degree and a job to follow a society can assure a child like Pothi neither? Can a #ChildLabour law or a #RightToEducation law operate in a vacuum?  The reality of the poor, like Pothi, and their life worlds have to be factored in when framing laws for their welfare.  Strengthening structures and systems has to precede, not follow policy implementation.  Only fail-safe supporting frameworks and their continuous monitoring will ensure that the intended ends are truly realised.  The Pothis of the world are not commodities that can be traded in; equally, they are not properties that can be used to enhance the prestige of platform exhortations[1].

[1] A term used by V.T. Lakshmi in her early twentieth century note, A Suggestion Offered.

Bridging the gap between macro-level policies and change on the ground: Are ‘generative’ policies an answer?

Policies, by their very nature can only be macro-level, envisaged for the ‘general,’ based on what has been understood about the ‘universal.’ Policies, by default, therefore, ignore the ‘differentiating principle.’  This note contends that the failure of macro-level policies to provide for differences on the field is a major shortcoming in policy-making, and this is the reason so many visionary policies disappoint when it comes to rendering real change, to the level expected.

In order to move beyond the problem and consider ways to resolve it, I suggest that rather than adopting a linear approach which operates on the premise that implementation will simply follow a policy once it is articulated, it may be useful to consider a generative approach whereby lessons learnt from multiple, micro-level field studies are continuously fed into the policy, making it a dynamic tool rather than a dead instrument.  

Case studies, interviews, quantitative analyses of administered questionnaires, quotes from focus group discussions – these are all very much part of the narratives that determine policy direction. But once the policies take the shape of programmes, why are ground-level narratives not fed back into the policies? Why cannot programmes be flexible enough to allow for ‘generativity’ – a growth with every new learning?

Indian logicians, since centuries, have talked of the unifying and differentiating principles: the samanya and the visesa.  There is a ‘unifying principle,’ but then there is too a ‘differentiating principle.’  Let me clarify … If the population of the world can be divided into nations, and nations into societies, and societies into groups, which may overlap, depending on their interests, and one keeps at this, one can see that an indefinite number of ‘universals’ can be thought of and that the sub-groups that can be formed are infinite.

Policy-makers, however diverse their background, cannot be representative of all the universals. Therein lies the first catch. And then again, there is the differentiating principle. While the diversity within ‘the’ universal itself is indefinite in number as we just saw, if we factor in the goals and the motivations and methods that propel social groups towards these goals, we will find that the interpretation of the realities and results vary within each sub-group to a great extent.  In addition, these factors also change across time, depending on both societal influences on a group as well as the individual actors’ agency impinging on the group.

To unpack that dense observation to serve the purpose of this note, debates at subaltern levels occur in languages that are different from the dominant ‘popular’ discourse and academic discussions.  These subaltern conversations are also very different from each other, group-wise.  Policy-makers can, at best, bring to the table knowledge of the dialogues that permeate a few representative subaltern groups. However, since unifying principles are indefinite in number, and differentiating principles are infinite in variety and in number, the facile appreciation of the diversity in stakeholder perception of a policy and its potential impacts is a major impediment in rolling out a successful implementation plan.  And, for this reason, the best of policies fail to result in the expected change on the ground in a sustainable manner.  But this can change if it is recognised that reasoned debates in the public arena are central to participative democracy and that the scope of ‘reasoned debates’ and ‘public arena’ should  encompass debates that occur at the subaltern levels, particularly when proposing social policy changes.   De-construction of hierarchy, open offices – they are all intended to make the organisation a participative, collaborative workplace where knowledge and ideas can move freely, unrestrained, unconstrained. By allowing for generativity in policy making, a similar collaborative participative exercise becomes possible in governance, with attendant benefits.

Am I suggesting that from being a firm framework policy making become flexible and tentative?  Indeed, yes.  Consider this:  what is a sport? What is a battle? Are they not constant negotiations with reality despite being played within a rigid framework of rules? Cannot a macro social policy, similarly, adjust to micro-level realities and constantly re-invent itself? The goal after all is to win the game, while playing by the rules. Keep the macro-level policy in tact but allow for micro-level learnings to fine-tune it. This is, of course, a continuous process: a process of harmonizing the policies with the situation on the ground and beneficiaries of the exercise in each locality region. And also feeding back these learnings into the policy, which then is no longer a dead document but a constantly rejuvenating praxis.

As Stephen Ball observes,

There is plenty of social agency and social intentionality around.  Actors are making meaning, being influential, contesting, constructing responses, dealing with contradictions, attempting representations of policy  (in Education Policy and Social Class: Selected Works, Routledge, 2006).

I ask, therefore, is it not possible to incorporate into policy making this ‘other’ of the ‘expert’ knowledge – the ‘other’ in which, in fact, the ‘expert’ knowledge arises, and to which it [the policy-making process] purports to give back?

While policies most often emerge from a deep study of the problem, the people affected by it, and the various ways to address it, policy-makers still do not have a clear notion of how their recommendations will be used on the field. Policies, ipso facto, therefore, become projections – a hope, a belief.  ‘We do not command a clear view of the use of our words,’ says Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations. Similarly, the policies that emerge from a deep study of the problem, the people affected by it, and the various ways to address it still do not have a clear notion of how their recommendations will be used on the field.  That is why a policy in most part, as it stands today, is a projection – a hope, a belief born of a sense of confidence  linked to the scholarship of the policy makers, which often leads the experts to believe in the rigour of their exercise and its near infallibility.  Indeed, these are the hazards of confidence that Daniel Kahneman writes about with such insight into the human psyche in his seminal Thinking, Fast and Slow.

The middle ground between plan and praxis is occupied by an a-logical thought process that results in an infinite number of ways of adopting, adapting or resisting policy prescriptions. This leads to a partial, or skewed adoption of policies, in select pockets, upsetting the projections of the policy-makers. The upshot of this unsatisfying ground level change is often the constitution of a new expert committee and the implementation of a new policy, with near-identical outcomes. A quick review of the Indian government’s educational policies would validate this claim: despite visionary policies, starting from 1948, with stalwarts presiding over committees and commissions on education, the problems persist with regard to medium of instruction, issues of funding, the rural-urban disjuncture, teaching the teachers, modes of assessment, and even something that appears very basic such as confusion over classification of elementary and secondary education:

I argue that it is possible to make policies more effective only if policymakers come out of their endearing belief in the inviolability of their dicta: Once articulated, it is a straight road to success; all that is required is the will to facilitate implementation in the suggested manner. However, what policy-makers fail to see is that the impediments to implementation are not external: rather, they are in-built in the very process of their policy-making exercise.

Minority Matters

In recent days I have been listening to two flawed arguments involving ‘minorities’ in India.  One pertains to a social minority – the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Trangender ( #LGBT ) community and another concerns the religious minorities – particularly Christian and Muslim communities.  I just want to present two simple counter-arguments to the popular opinions that have been occupying media space.

On the LGBT community, those who are not in favour of homosexuality argue that same sex cohabitation or marriage is ‘against Nature’ and ‘against religion’.  A simple counter to this would be: Aren’t notions of sexual morality, marriage, and religion themselves social constructions, albeit systems that have been with us since millennia and may even be considered to have stood the test of time?  In any case, Nature, in its physical manifestation, delights in overturning established theories and scientists are hardly agreed even on the fundamentals of Nature as it has to do with the mind.  So, whether you want to consider homosexuality as a physical aberration or a mental deviance – either way you aren’t on a strong wicket.

Coming to the second concern: The argument of the religious minorities is that there is a sense of insecurity among the Christians and Muslims in India due to acts of aggression against their communities ever since the BJP government was elected to the Centre.  My counter to this is: Rather than allow themselves to feel persecuted, which subsequently clouds reason and provokes biased judgements, religious minority groups may want to weigh their disquiet against a few systematic intrusions into the Hindu’s religious space over the years:

The recent opening of the Padmanabhaswamy temple’s vaults and proactive political intervention to get the treasures ‘protected’ albeit due to judicial intervention [The court observed, ‘“Since the deity is a perpetual minor in the eyes of the law, the court has jurisdiction to protect it.”] has upset several Hindus, whose visit to seek peace in communion with their God has been perpetually marred by the subsequent draconian security. Hindu personal laws have also been repeatedly adjudicated upon and amended [“The Hindu community has been tolerant to these statutory interventions. But there appears a lack of secular commitment as it has not happened for other religions,” observed the Supreme Court in 2011].  However,  neither these nor co-equal interventions of a political nature in other temples and aspects of their life been seen by the Hindu community as an act of aggression by the parties in power.  They have not been projected as the face of authoritarianism by adherents of the Hindu religion regardless of the religious, social or political affiliations of those at the helm.

Re-visiting the #DelhiVerdict one month on

 

Was the #DelhiVerdict a vote for Kejriwal’s claim of clean governance or a vote by vested interests against Modi-Bedi’s non-corruptible credentials?

I had expressed this doubt a month ago, soon after the Delhi election results were out. I imagined the trigger of suspicion was natural: Nothing in the run-up to the elections gave us to believe that there was such a groundswell of support for AAP that the mandate would be so lopsided.  Even the most optimistic projection gave them a little more than 50 seats – not a near sweep.  Kejriwal himself had been laying the grounds for explaining a possible defeat (EVMs dysfunctional; voter lists doctored; EC deliberately indulging in go-slow policy on voting day …).  So, what could best explain the massive mandate?  I argued that the fear of a truly clean combine in the form of a Bedi-Modi duo scared the vested interests so much that they preferred the untested entity called Kejriwal, who, by then, had possibly been ‘found out’ by these interests.  The gullible Delhi voter, of course, contributed in good faith.  But people just drowned me out, and branded me an unapologetic cynic who could never see a good thing even when the world slams it in the face.

With the AAP story now unravelling quicker than a party bunting, I assert with greater certainty: The #DelhiVerdict was less a vote for Kejriwal’s claim of clean governance and more a vote by vested interests against Modi-Bedi’s non-corruptible credentials.  There are unlikely to be sniggers this time round.  And I am more likely to be seen as a seer than a sceptic :>)

Censorship and Debate: a lesson from ancient India

Censorship may not be all bad.  Problem is, it doesn’t work.  True, all minds are not cultivated to the same degree, trained sufficiently or mature enough to approach with suspicion, question before absorbing the import of what is being said, or to suspect intrigue.    But you cannot even censor your own kids: they will find ways to use the words, read the literature, and do the acts you prohibit.  So, where does that leave larger entities that try to clamp down on free speech, thought and expression?

Western systems, since millennia, appear to have considered it prudent to censor thought: Plato, in Republic, goes into some detail about what young minds should be exposed to, and Rousseau’s Emile is premised on this.  But in India, what has come to be called ‘Hindu’ philosophy preferred healthy debate to censorship, which is one of the reasons it  keeps giving rise to breakaway cults and heterodoxies that become strong, individual congregations in their own right.

Nyaya, a precursor of Western Logic, for instance, is among the earliest systematised schools of thought rooted in the ‘Hindu’ philosophy.  It predates the Christian era and was the fountainhead of several treatises on Tarka, which may be loosely translated as reflective analysis or argument.  Tarka, an important scholarly enterprise of ancient India, which was honed as both a science and an art, was instrumental in establishing the claims of one philosopher or philosophy over another, often in an assembly of scholars, laypersons and aristocrats.  The written word was also used to powerful effect at transformational change by following the norms of scientific debate.

Contemporary Indian polity – by which term I mean the nation and its various organs from government to media to the public at large – would do well to reclaim this ancient Indian tradition of logical reasoning and healthy debate to counter what are perceived as deviant opinions rather than try to cow down discomfiting strains of thought with censorship.  Rather than ban a book, film or play, write a book, produce a film or stage a play with an alternative viewpoint.   Don’t take the easy way out and just try to wish away what you don’t like or want with a blanket ban.  The atheist streams have had their space in Indian society: from Carvaka-s of ancient India to Dravidian movements of contemporary times.  No one banned them.  They did not gather steam or drifted away from their moorings because the larger sections of Indian society found greater meaning in non-atheist thought.   If you want your view to prevail, you will take the trouble to give it the contours of reason and substance.