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!


A manic media vs The meditative Modi


Having buttressed their TRP ratings with Modi-speeches all through the day, the media went hammer and tongs at him all evening, trying to salvage the self-inflicted damage to their ideological baggage:  This amusing, oftentimes exhausting, serial unfolded day after day in the run-up to India’s 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

The media – at least the Indian, English language media – has never been for Modi.  Whereas the regional language channels present a mind-boggling array of ‘India-s’, with no two regional channels seeming to talk about the same people, places or events, the English television channels conform to a pattern, each feeding off the other even as they engage in a Darwinian fight for survival.  In the race to ‘break news’, they often end up breaking eggs on their own faces. No matter, though; it’s only a question of who’s got less yellow and more white.  The most recent example of this syndrome, which I have named ‘simply wipe the egg off the face and get on with the show’, is L K Advani’s ‘emergency’ comment that came like a bolt from the blue a week or so ago. 

For one whole day, politicians of non-saffron hues and a pliant media poured vitriol in voyeuristic delight, demonising Narendra Modi to their heart’s content. ‘There’s a deep and widespread conspiracy’…, they said, ‘… dark and threatening forces are taking over the country …’ ; ‘… sinister right-wing forces are at work …’ ; ‘There are both visible and invisible threats’ ; ‘These forces are weakening social justice, hatching fascist designs’, and so they went on and on all day.   Twenty-four hours later, Advani in an interview to Karan Thapar clarified that in saying ‘the Emergency could be imposed again’, he was alluding to the Congress’ complete lack of remorse for 1975 and not about Prime Minister Modi’s proclivities.  One would have expected that there would be some semblance of shame or at least a retraction from the media or the politicians after they were shown up. But zilch.  Instead, they just moved on to another story, once again cautioning the people, warning the nation about the ‘dark forces that are out to undermine democracy’, derail the nation, destroy its dignity and what not.  In a brazen show of unethical reportage, some media houses and personalities continue, even as I write, to harp on the wrong message they had been touting before Advani’s clarification.

Interestingly, those haranguing against #PrimeMinisterModi [see quotes in the previous para] use the same language, indeed the very words that the apologists of the 1975 #Emergency used as they cautioned the nation to be ‘united and alert’ and the Indian people to be ‘vigilant’ about divisive forces!

But it is not only the media that is going overboard with its fly-by-night accusations in its attempt to provoke a Prime Minister who remains apparently indifferent to their laboured perorations.  A representative of the ‘intelligentsia’, a scion of Mahatma Gandhi’s family writes, of Modi joining the Yoga Day celebrations in RajPath, ‘By personally leading, like an adept instructor, the phalanx gathered on the Rajpath lawns he has choreographed yoga into an opera of mass power… What we have to be wary of is … the robotisation of our minds into a ‘yogic’ acceptance of one drill – majoritarianism – and its masterful drill-master’. (See ‘Mastering the Drill of Democracy’, by Gopal Gandhi, The Hindu, June 25, 2015).  When intelligence becomes the hand-maiden of ideology, one loses both innocence and inspiration and is left harbouring only illusions.  Amidst this nation of nay-sayers, the Prime Minister’s silence comes as a balm to battered sensibilities.

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.

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.

#NewEducationPolicy and #AncientIndianEducation

Ancient Indian Education, in many ways, seems to have anticipated the modern-day instruction idiom.  Some of their ideas, which have stood the test of time, are worth adopting, with adaptations, when formulating India’s #NewEducationPolicy.  Today I would like to discuss the concept of Sravana-Manana-Nididhyasana.

Listening to what is taught (sravana), reflecting on the meaning of what one has imbibed so as to acquire an intelligent understanding of what one has heard, read and discussed (manana), and contemplating on what one has learnt, to apply the learning or make connections with experience (nididhyasana) are compulsory steps to make a student’s learning complete.  Present-day schooling, with its crowded syllabus that demands a choc-a-bloc academic calendar allows little room for manana and nididhyasana.  Consequently, learning is facile and fleeting, far from the holistic and meaningful experience that education is meant to be.

One way to rectify this situation is by adopting a new curricular approach that is choice-based and credit-based, and also freeing evaluation from the constrict of testing for scholarship only through a written exam in academic or bookish knowledge. There should be room, instead, for a student to be tested for skills of multiple kinds: oral, written, presentation, acting, debating, in-class participation, raising questions, etc.  A re-think on the tyranny of grades and marks and substituting it with a credit-based system, akin to that adopted in many institutes of advanced learning could be an option.  This would automatically translate into cogitation and absorption of learning, and make institutionalised learning less mind-numbing and more meaningful.

Children: objectified, reduced to a mere statistic.

Children ceased being just bundles of joy since a couple of decades.  For many, they had become a ‘responsibility’.  One did not just enjoy having them and/ or having them around.  One had to ‘plan’ when to squeeze them in depending on career needs, care-giver availability, and even travel plans in the case of global parents who had a choice of countries that they could offer their yet to be born offspring to choose to be citizens of.  But, at least, children were still considered human organisms.

The position of children took a turn for the worse when they became objects of scientific and social experimentation: think sperm and egg banks, advocacy of free living, surrogacy and so on.  Most recently, self-proclaimed spiritual leaders have been urging the devout adherents of their respective creeds to bring more children into the world – so that they may save their faith from extinction or claim pride of place as the world’s most populous religion.  Children, now, have been reduced to a mere statistic.  Join the race or be damned.

PostScript: Science and religion may well come together and set up labs that can reproduce babies on demand for every kind of need: to pass on your inheritance, to borrow an organ, to populate your faith, to churn out a workforce, you name it.  And lobbyists and social scientists would be kept busy arguing for/ against the rights/ freedoms of citizens and tracking the grossness of the new world and predicting worse …