Frontiers to freedom

Is humour for one offensive to another? Is fun at one’s expense mirth for another? When does humour transgress limits to become a slight? Are we touchy when we are made fun of but can’t hold back a smile when another is being mocked? These were questions that  were bounced off in a debate on television yesterday. The context was a PIL (public interest litigation) by a Sikh group in the Supreme Court of India against the infamous ‘Sardarji’ jokes that stereotype male members of the Sikh community as being dim-witted.

The Americans for their English (‘Americans haven’t spoken English in ages’, Prof. Henry Higgins, immortalised on screen by Rex Harrison, famously said), the British for their accent (when attempting to speak in Indian languages, for instance), the Germans for their love of ‘organization’ and their lack of humour (see the delightful ‘Those Magnificent Men and their Flying Machines’) and Indians for their love of loudness – in everything from speech to honking on the road to colourful attire – are all stereotypes that humorists unapologetically milk to the hilt.

While artists of all genres (from stand-up comedians to actors, writers, painters and media-persons) are unanimous that they have the freedom to spoof whoever they wish, they stop short of political incorrectness. Certain communities (of which the brahmin community is not one) and certain religious adherents (of which the Hindu affiliates are not one) are sacrosanct, their sensibilities and sensitivities are not to be trifled with.  As for the rest the said actors, litterateurs et al refuse to be held responsible for thin-skinned audiences.

Can there be frontiers to freedom? Should there be? Wouldn’t talk of ‘limits’ to freedom become oxymoronic? Perhaps, an answer can be found in this ‘Fool’s Prattle’. Says D V Gundappa in his classic work of philosophy for the layperson, Mankuthimmana Kagga:

The roving bird responds to the call of its nest, the ambling cow lets the rope on its neck hold it back. What is life if not bound by any value?

Self-restraint and allowing oneself to be restrained by societal norms are limits that make freedom a happy choice for all and not just the ones who claim their right to it. To be civil is not to be unfree!

What impacts decision-making?

No pollster – save a couple of isolated academics – would predict Donald Trump’s victory at the hustings.  The media gave the findings of the pollsters as much publicity as they could, and they also went all out to influence public opinion in favour of their choice for President. They made sure the public would recall instantly all the reasons why a Trump presidency would be disastrous: fear, anger and recoil was pumped up to hysterical levels to ensure Trump would not  have a smooth ride – or indeed any ride at all – to the White House.  The media, perhaps, did not give credence to Kahneman’s assertion (Daniel Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow) that people are not as rational in their thinking as believed and their judgement is less influenced by emotions than by heuristics and biases.

But, do heuristics and biases inform our decisions to the degree that social scientists believe they do?  It is a simple rule of thumb that a person voting to have a good leader steering their country would choose experience in administration over inexperience in governance, a deliberate and considered speaker over a blustering ad hoc talker, a candidate with proven credentials in office, who had the backing of her party, over a maverick who had parachuted on to the political firmament with running battles against his own party bigwigs till voting day. A frenzied media – print and audiovisual – went all out to prejudice the public opinion against their representation of homeo horribilis. And yet, the will of the people seemed to have upended the consideration that heuristics and biases impact thought even more than emotions.

Recent upheavals in the polity of the US and India appear to be opening up uncharted avenues for research into the human psyche. Despite all that he has to his discredit the  American electorate have given a startling thumbs up to a Trump tenure. Despite all the difficulties that they have to personally undergo, the Indian public have voted overwhelmingly for the government’s demonetization initiative.

Trampling on faith

 

Turf Clubs are exclusive public places. There is no space there for activists who would question the right of a human to goad a horse to trot at a pace faster than it would like or to force the animal to negotiate hurdles wilfully placed on its path.

Temples, too, are exclusive public places. They are meant for believers to congregate, worship and offer prayers with devotion.  They are not spaces for activists to try their hand at modernising practices they consider archaic or to mock the unquestioning acceptance of traditions by the faithful.

In much the same way as activists, non-believers who run-down one or another deity cannot appreciate the sentiments of the faithful. Be they #Durga worshippers or #Mahishasura worshippers, Vamana-Trivikrama or #Mahabali worshippers, they are all together under the band of the devout. They find qualities that are noble in the object of their worship. This belief is not mere fodder for political adversaries to settle scores.

Deepavali, Demons, and Democracy

“This has been gained by me today; this too I shall obtain. This wealth is mine, the other too shall be mine”,

“That enemy has been slain by me, and others too I shall slay.  I am the Supreme Being, personification of delight, successful, powerful, happy.”

Thus deluded by ‘ignorance’ do those of demoniac temperament fall into hell, says the Bhagavad Gita (Ch.16; v. 13, 14).  The soundbytes on television, post #BiharElections, seem to indicate that our polity has thrown up many leaders with such dispositions. My concern is not their redemption, but that of the people of Bihar, who, I fear, they may drag to hell with them.

To quote that book for all seasons and all reasons, the Gita, again: “Perplexed by many a fanciful hope, entangled in the net of delusion, and addicted to the gratification of desires, they fall into foul hell (Ch.16; v. 19).”

Those who were not victorious in the #BattleForBihar may wish to ponder whether it was their disposition towards demoniacal tendencies of this nature that led them to ‘hell’, and if there is any way they can redeem themselves.

As we celebrate Deepavali, the victory of the divine over the demoniac, I wonder if, in our democracy, the choice, often, is between people who fall on the same side of this divide.

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.

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.