The #PakistanProblem: Taking recourse to Philosophy

 

Philosophy is a potent weapon in the arsenal of the optimist – some might even say the last resort of the diehard.  But for a citizen of a country that bears the burden of a Mahatma and is stuck with a fanatic neighbour that fabricates fairytales even for its history, Philosophy, perhaps, is a natural option.

Says Duryodhana, scion of the Kuru family, in the Mahabharatha, ‘I know what is right but I can’t seem to do it; I know what is wrong but can’t seem to give it up’.  Duryodhana had several qualities that could have made him the hero of the epic. But the quirk in his character immortalised him as the ignoble prince whose obduracy and single-minded pursuit of a flawed goal led to the annihilation of an entire race – almost.

How does one treat an entity like Duryodhana? Says Tiruvalluvar: ‘The good alone deserve affection is a refrain of the ignorant; it is the only tool to handle the wicked as well (araththirkkE anbu sArbenbar ariyAr; maraththirkkum adhE thuNai).’  We don’t know the context in which he wrote these words (Tirukkural: verse 75).  But peaceniks in India zealously follow this ideal and lecture the rest of India on the need to adopt this attitude towards Pakistan: Talk with them … keep talking … talks are the only way …, they say. But, as another Indian philosopher put it, generosity towards the undeserving can be called anything but virtue.

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Introspect: the mantra for success is within yourself

 

Successful people attribute their achievement to having a goal and working towards it purposefully.  But the not so ‘successful’ people have goals too; they also work hard to attain these targets… This being so, why do some people succeed in reaching or surpassing their goals while others with equal or even more talent, zeal and expertise fall short?  Introspection, perhaps, holds the key.

Before taking the plunge, successful people invest thought and time in assessing their strengths and drawbacks – personal qualities, lifestyle factors imposed by the circumstances of one’s upbringing and the social milieu in which one lives. This helps them set goals that are well suited to their temperament and life conditions.  Reaching their targets becomes easier since a high degree of self-awareness has informed their decision at the goal-setting stage itself. Their goals are based on what they have learnt about themselves: their interests, capacities, and inclinations. They have thought of answers to questions such as: why do I want to do this? Do I have the knowledge and skills to do it? Are there compromises I will have to make? Are there any trade-offs? Will I be able to accommodate these?

Having set the goal, and having started on the path, the successful individual does not simply doggedly keep at it.  Rather, they stop to take stock periodically. Self-reflection is an instinctive exercise, a force of habit: am I on course or is there any course correction needed? Have I overestimated my capacities: are there any skills or knowledge I lack? Have I underestimated the demands of the task: should I seek guidance or outsource some of the work?   At any stage, if their assessments warrant, they may not hesitate to shift the goal post or alter the contours of the objectives, limit them or even give up an endeavour altogether in favour of a more viable alternative.

Hard work is important in order to succeed, focused hard work even more so.  The ability to work hard is an admirable strength acquired by persistent training. But getting to the goal, for those who succeed in getting there, is not a simple act of jumping into the water and then learning to swim, or making a dash for it without pausing to look back. Their hard work reaches fruition as they have cultivated the habit of introspection as well.

Time, and Time Out

Time: It is The great equaliser.  It ticks away relentlessly at the same pace for every creature. Some compartmentalise time into neat packets and fit their work into these packets.  They are the ants of Aesop.  When the rain comes, their store ensures they don’t go hungry unlike the grasshopper that was singing through the summer and hence had to starve through the rain.

But then, there are the ants and grasshoppers of Maugham. The ants work assiduously, no lesser than the ant made famous by Aesop. But the grasshopper has been adopted as a pet. It can afford to sing or dance, summer or winter, autumn or rain as it gets everything on a platter. (Read Somerset Maugham’s Ant and the Grasshopper).

Now, where does that leave us ant-like creatures who are caught between not wanting to starve, and not wanting to strive, but not wanting to eat off a platter either?

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.

Yoga: beyond physical well-being

The PubMed biomedical literature database reports a spurt in #Yoga research in recent years but > 90% of it relates yoga to health conditions.

In a 2014 article in the International Journal of Yoga (In search of yoga: Research trends in a western medical database) Marcy C McCall reports that while the first recorded yoga article in western medical research dates to 1948, authored by E. Abegg, there has been a surge in academic interest post-2007, with an average of 200 articles being added every year in recent times.  The article concludes by stating, ‘Systematic reviews and yoga trials are increasing, indicating a potential increase in quality of evidence. Three conditions show consistently high correlations with yoga research: stress/anxiety, pain, and depression. A significant rise in the number of cancer publications suggests an area of emerging research.’

Yoga has been described ‘as a safe and effective intervention to increase strength, flexibility and balance, and treatment for high blood pressure, heart disease, aches and pains, depression, stress, and potentially asthma’ by the National Institutes of Health, USA, and by the National Health Services, UK.  It is less known that yoga seeks to align individual health with social health, which is in line with WHO’s definition: ‘Good health is a state of complete physical, social and mental well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Health is a resource for everyday life, not the object of living, and is a positive concept emphasizing social and personal resources as well as physical capabilities.’

The Bhagavad Gita (verses 5.23 and verses 6.20 to 25) tells us that yoga helps us reconcile our aspirations with the outcomes, tolerate agitations that arise from desire, and recognise that expectations and disappointments are par for the course for sentient beings as long as they live.

The path of Yoga suggested by the Gita provides for the inescapable reality of expectations.  It also grants that it is natural to feel frustrated when these expectations are not met.  However, it counsels us to show forbearance in the face of such disappointments.  Yoga, says the Gita, helps us cultivate an endurance to the psychological pain akin to the fortitude with which we learn to bear physical pain.

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.