Saturday, 6 September 2014

How The Golden Rule Trips Up Right-Wing Thinking

An Indian friend sent around a link to a videoclip showing British schoolchildren chanting Sanskrit hymns at Buckingham Palace.

I'm not sure I could pronounce some of these words!

His accompanying comment, a swipe at Indian liberals, was this:

At a time when pseudo-secularists in India are moving away from Hindu traditions in the name of being ‘saecoolaar’ (sic) it is heartening to see other countries embrace it!

Speaking for myself, I see no evidence to support fundamental Hindu beliefs like reincarnation and karma, and it makes no sense to me to follow mindless ritual in the name of tradition. I also find that as I grow older, far from mellowing, I'm less and less tolerant of hypocrisy and bullsh*t. So of course I felt compelled to respond.

I wrote:

Interesting. I wonder how patriotic nationalists in Britain look upon the influence of foreign cultures on their children, and whether they consider those who allow their kids to imbibe such influences as pseudo-liberals and "Manu's children" [The Indian right-wing likes to call English-speaking Indians "Macaulay's Children" after Thomas Macaulay, who introduced English-language education to India]. After all, there is a proud Judeo-Christian ethos that is native to Britain. Why should the British majority accept "Manu ki aulaad" as equal cultural torch-bearers in their country? [The Indian right-wing coined the term "Babar ki aulaad" (progeny of the Mughal invader Babar) to refer to Indian Muslims.] On the contrary, all immigrants to Britain should consider themselves culturally Judeo-Christian, right? [The Indian right-wing believes that Indian Muslims and Christians should consider themselves culturally Hindu.]
See the parallels?

There are people of every culture who want others to respect it and adopt elements of it, but do not want to adopt elements of other cultures because they are cultural "impurities". That's standard right-wing thinking, which JK Rowling has portrayed most insightfully as the Slytherin culture of "pure-bloods" against "mud-bloods". Call me "secular" (and spell it as creatively as you like), but I just find this kind of thinking laughable.
The Golden Rule ("Do unto others as you would have others do unto you") is a fundamental basis for morality that predates Christ and Christianity. It is a reciprocal basis for treatment of other people that is virtually the definition of fairness. The cultural jingoism expressed by the right-wing of any society contradicts the Golden Rule. It holds that "others must respect our culture, and we welcome it when they adopt elements of our culture because it validates our belief in its innate goodness and superiority, but if members of our society adopt elements of a "foreign" culture, that is bad and unpatriotic".

I see right-wing thinking as hypocritical and stemming from a sense of cultural inferiority, because a culturally secure person would be open to accepting positive influences from other cultures and adapting themselves accordingly. One of the reasons why the English language has thriven and grown from strength to strength is because of its willingness to adopt and assimilate foreign words. Languages that have striven to remain culturally pure seem clumsy when describing new concepts (e.g., the French term "
toile d'araignée mondiale" for the World Wide Web).

On the one hand, it's disheartening that a rather intolerant, bigoted, culturally exclusive kind of thinking is beginning to be expressed even by members of the educated classes. But on the other, sunlight is the best disinfectant, and it is better that these views be openly aired and debated rather than remain an underground ideology of the resentful and disaffected.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Ten Books Challenge - The Ten Fiction Books That Have Influenced Me Most

(I was "tagged" by a friend on Facebook as part of the "#TenBooksChallenge" that is doing the rounds of late. The idea is to list the ten books that have influenced one the most, and to "tag" one's friends in turn to get them to do the same.

I was delighted to read the names of books that others have listed, and I'm more than happy to participate.)

I have already posted my list of ten non-fiction books.

This is my fiction list.

1. There's a Hippie on the Highway, by James Hadley Chase (Panther Books)

I grew up on Enid Blyton and The Hardy Boys, but I really began to read for pleasure when I stumbled upon James Hadley Chase in high school. I think I must have read at least 50-60 of his novels, and my own creative writing at the time showed unmistakeable signs of his influence, with murder plots and car chases galore.

Some of the more memorable ones were "Miss Shumway Waves a Wand" (a supernatural-themed, very different novel from the usual Chase), "The Whiff of Money" (a gripping spy story), "The Way the Cookie Crumbles" (the story of an ingenious heist), "An Ear to the Ground" (a poignant story of a good man led to his doom by temptation), "The Flesh of the Orchid" (another sad story of a woman who could not protect the man she loved from assassins), "Cade" (perhaps the saddest Chase story of all), and many more.

But if I had to nominate one, based on the number of times I went back to read it, it would have to be "There's a Hippie on the Highway". I could identify with Harry Mitchell, the hero and Vietnam vet, who remains steadfast and straightforward in spite of the corruption and crime around him.

2. Stories from Somadeva's Kathasaritsagara, translated by CH Tawney (Jaico Publishing House)

Which Indian child has not grown up with Amar Chitra Katha comics? Indian history and mythology have been brought to life in the imaginations of so many by this unmatched collection of illustrated books.

But rarely have I come across a book (i.e., not in comic book format) on Indian mythological stories that captured my imagination with the same concoction of rich characters and heroic action. The Panchatantra was relatively tame, and the Ramayana and the Mahabharata occupied a different space in one's mind. I craved stories.

Hansa Mehta's "Adventures of King Vikrama" fit the bill excellently, and this remains one of my favourites. But even better was the 1880 translation by CH Tawney of the work of Somadeva, the "Kathaa-sarit-saagara", the "ocean of streams of story".

Many pleasant afternoons during my secondary school childhood were spent reading this book, and imagining the adventures of its many heroes.

Then single combats took place between the gods and Asuras, and Vidyutprabha, the father of Vidyuddhvaja, rushed in wrath upon Indra. Indra found himself being gradually worsted by the Daitya in the interchange of missiles; so he flung his thunderbolt at him. And then that Daitya, smitten by the thunderbolt, fell dead. And that enraged Vidyuddhvaja so that he attacked Indra. And, though his life was not in danger, he began by discharging at him the weapon of Brahma; and other great Asuras struck at him with other weapons. Then Indra called to mind the weapon of Pasupati, presided over by Siva himself, which immediately presented itself in front of him; he worshipped it, and discharged it among his foes. That weapon, which was of the nature of a destroying fire, consumed the army of the Asuras; but Vidyuddhvaja, being a child, only fell senseless when smitten by it; for that weapon does not harm children, old men, or fugitives. Then all the gods returned home victorious.
Intoxicating stuff! And best of all, that wonderful collection is free to read and download here!

3. The Collected Short Stories of Saki, by HH Munro (Wordsworth Classics)

Humour is one of my favourite genres, and PG Wodehouse and Richmal Crompton have had me in splits on several occasions. But there is one person whose humour has just that extra dash of wicked wit, and that is Saki (the pseudonym of HH Munro), who unfortunately was cut down in his prime during the First World War.

[...] Her husband gardens in all weathers. When a man goes out in the pouring rain to brush caterpillars off rose trees, I generally imagine his life indoors leaves something to be desired.


A young lady with a confidential voice favoured us with a long recitation about a little girl who died or did something equally hackneyed, and then the Major gave us a graphic account of a struggle he had with a wounded bear. I privately wished that the bears would win sometimes on these occasions; at least they wouldn't go vapouring about it afterwards.

And the classic

I've been carefully brought up, and I don't like to play games of skill for milk chocolate, so I invented a headache and retired from the scene. I had been preceded a few minutes earlier by Miss Langshan-Smith, a rather formidable lady, who always got up at some uncomfortable hour in the morning, and gave you the impression that she had been in communication with most of the European governments before breakfast. There was a paper pinned to her door with a signed request that she might be called particularly early on the morrow. Such an opportunity does not come twice in a lifetime. I covered up everything except the signature with another notice, to the effect that before these words should meet the eye she would have ended a misspent life, was sorry for the trouble she was causing, and would like a military funeral. A few minutes later, I violently exploded an air-filled paper bag on the landing, and gave a stage moan that could be heard in the cellars. Then I pursued my original intention and went to bed. The noise those people made in forcing open the good lady's door was positively indecorous; she resisted gallantly, but I believe they searched her for bullets for about a quarter of an hour as if she had been a historic battlefield.

4. Nick Carter/Killmaster - The Amazon, by John Messman (Tandem Books)

Somewhere around the time I went to junior college (Years 11 and 12), I graduated from James Hadley Chase to Nick Carter. I think I might have read 20-30 of these outlandish spy thrillers. Chase was tame in comparison. The Nick Carter stories also had sufficient erotic content to appeal to a young male.

I liked quite a few of these, such as "Moscow", "Code Name Werewolf", and "Time Clock of Death", but my favourite would have to be "The Amazon". The action was virtually non-stop, and (ahem) the other kind of action was pretty good too.

5. Selected Stories - Konstantin Paustovsky (Progress Publishers, Moscow)

Thanks to my father's job as a professor of linguistics in the foreign languages section of the Indian Institute of Science, I had access to a steady stream of Russian, German and French books, movies and music. Especially Russian, because my father knew Russian fairly well. Through him, my mother came to read some modern (at the time) Russian authors, and one of those was Konstantin Paustovsky. Although my mother liked his stories, a Russian lady we knew at the time dismissed his work as "ochin sentimentalnyi!" ("very maudlin").

I read one of his books in English, and while I could see why someone would find his stories too sentimental, I thought they were innocently romantic and very heartwarming.

I particularly liked "Snow", "Precious Cargo" and "A Basket of Fir Cones" in that collection.

It was thanks to Paustovsky that I formed an image of the Russian people as being uniformly warm and affectionate, and it took the Russian invasion of Afghanistan (and the horror stories that came out of that war) to jolt me out of that illusion. I grew up when I learned not to believe in stereotypes, whether positive or negative.

6. The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov (Panther Books)

Science Fiction is perhaps my favourite genre by far, and one of my favourites in that genre is Asimov's Foundation Trilogy. This had so many wonderful new concepts in it. The science of psychohistory was one of them. The premise of psychohistory is this: It's not possible to predict the trajectory of a single atom, or the future of a single person. But it is possible to predict the trajectory of a ball, because it's made up of trillions of atoms. Similarly, when dealing with a society consisting of trillions of individuals, it is possible to predict the future of that society as a whole. The whole Foundation story was based on the idea that a psychohistorian predicted the downfall of the galactic empire, and proposed to shorten the coming millennia of chaos by setting up a "foundation" to store the empire's knowledge.

Foundation offered several fascinating nuggets of ideas. One was that regardless of the combinations of weak/strong emperor and weak/strong viceroy, the Foundation would never be under threat from the Empire. Then there was the unexpected spanner in the works thrown by the appearance of a mutant person whose existence psychohistory could never have predicted, and who threatened to overturn the Foundation's carefully laid plans. And finally, there was the secret "Second Foundation", made up solely of psychohistorians (the original Foundation did not have a single one), and its surprising location.

Although Asimov's Robot stories are individually more interesting, the Foundation trilogy stands alone as a classic because of its elaborate and comprehensive story.

7. The Philip K Dick Reader, by Philip K Dick (Citadel Press)

Great as Asimov was, he was not the best science fiction author, in my opinion. I think that honour goes to Philip K Dick. Dick's stories have formed the basis of blockbuster movies such as "Bladerunner" and "Minority Report".

Two stories that I love in this collection are "Second Variety" and "To Serve The Master". Both are deliciously disturbing.

8. The Stories of Ray Bradbury, by Ray Bradbury (Alfred A Knopf, Publisher)

I've written more than once about Ray Bradbury, and this post should tell you what I think of his writing. Ray Bradbury is a word-wrangler par excellence. I wish I could write like him.

As a consolation, I at least have this gargantuan collection of Bradbury's stories, and I often open it to read passages from my favourites, "A Story of Love", "And So Died Riabouchinska", "The Lake", "A Scent of Sarsaparilla", and others. The man amazes me.

9. The Complete Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Bantam Classics)

Surprisingly, I read the complete set of Sherlock Holmes stories only in my mid-twenties. I had read a few stories earlier on occasion (our English textbook in school even had "The Blue Carbuncle"), but nothing prepared me for the treat I received when I bought the whole collection and began to read them all.

I think the best thing about the stories is the consistent level of quality. With the exception of the few stories narrated in the first person by Holmes himself, all of them are excellent.

"To anyone who wishes to study mankind this is the spot. . . . Look at the magnificent types! Look at these two men who are coming towards us, for example."

"The billiard-marker and the other?"

"Precisely. What do you make of the other?"

The two men had stopped opposite the window. Some chalk marks over the waistcoat pocket were the only signs of billiards which I [Watson] could see in one of them. The other was a very small, dark fellow, with his hat pushed back and several packages under his arm.

"An old soldier, I perceive," said Sherlock.

"And very recently discharged," remarked the brother.

"Served in India, I see."

"And a non-commissioned officer."

"Royal Artillery, I fancy," said Sherlock.

"And a widower."

"But with a child."

"Children, my dear boy, children."
In my hostel at IIT Kanpur, a small group of Holmes fans tried in vain to "deduce" things about one another, but we never achieved much success beyond remarking to friends carrying empty bottles, "I deduce you are going to the mess to get water."

10. Harry Potter (all 7 books), by JK Rowling (Bloomsbury Publishing)

I don't believe the selection of JK Rowling's magnum opus should be controversial in the least. Rowling is Enid Blyton reborn, and with the karmic reward of steroids to boot.

I think Rowling's contribution goes beyond smooth entertainment. She has changed our world for the better by re-igniting the love of reading in a new generation.

---- Postscript ---

I was toying with the idea of including "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy in this list, but decided against it. While I like Tolkien very much, this is not the easiest set of books to read. It takes a supreme effort of will to complete reading "The Two Towers", for example. I believe a good book should not be an effort to read.

Ten Books Challenge - The Ten Non-Fiction Books That Have Influenced Me Most

(I was "tagged" by a friend on Facebook as part of the "#TenBooksChallenge" that is doing the rounds of late. The idea is to list the ten books that have influenced one the most, and to "tag" one's friends in turn to get them to do the same.

I was delighted to read the names of books that others have listed, and I'm more than happy to participate.)

I'm going to cheat a little. Try as I might, I could not reduce the number of my favourite books to just ten. So I've created two lists of ten, one consisting of fiction books, and the other of non-fiction.

This is my non-fiction list.

1. Physics for Entertainment, by Ya. Perelman (Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow)

One of the peculiar joys of growing up in India in the 70s was the availability of ultra-cheap Russian books translated into English. Many of these were on Science and Mathematics, the first "popular science" books that most of my cohort encountered, and parents were happy to buy these for their children. "Physics for Entertainment" was in two volumes, with lots of fascinating facts, and copiously illustrated throughout. This was one of my favourites from a very young age, and I'm happy to see that it's available online

(Later on, I came across a similarly fascinating Russian book on Chemistry called "107 Stories About Chemistry" by L Vlasov and D Trifonov. In many ways, I liked this even better than "Physics for Entertainment", but Perelman's book remains the classic of its genre.)

2. Communism - A Study of Revolution, by Gerald W Johnson (A Pennant Student Edition)

There are three writers I admire and envy. One is Ray Bradbury, whose "prose poetry" is mesmerising (more on him in the companion post on my ten favourite fiction books). The second is the gifted young writer Aatish Taseer, who uses his twin gifts of insightful perception and an inspired turn of phrase to create unforgettable pictures of everything he writes about.

The third writer on my list is Gerald W Johnson. Johnson's skill is in his use of extremely simple English to create a narrative of such gripping intensity that even a non-fiction book becomes a page-turner. I bought "Communism - A Study of Revolution" out of idle interest and began to read it one afternoon. I could only put it down when I had finished. This happened many times. I would pick it up and start reading at some random page, and would not be able to put it down till I finished the entire book.

Consider these early paragraphs.

Karl Marx was a great man. Say that to the next person you happen to meet and the chances are more than even that he will be shocked, because that is not the light in which we have seen him. To most of us the name brings to mind some cartoonist's picture of a wild, bushy-haired creature with fierce whiskers, holding a bomb that he is about to throw. Marx in some ways was terrible, because he made some terrible mistakes. But he was a student such as the world has seldom seen. He read every book - that is, every serious book - he could put his hands on, and he not only read, he remembered what he read. More than that, when he dug up facts that most people had forgotten, or had never known, he could put them together and figure out what they meant.

That is a rare quality. It is so rare, indeed, that we have a special name for a man who can take a large number of facts, put them together, and from the whole collection bring out some important truth that nobody has seen before. We call him a philosopher.
A bit gender-insensitive (aren't there female philosophers?), but then, this was written in the 60s.

3. Ninety Minutes at Entebbe, by William Stevenson (Bantam Books)

Few books have influenced my politics like this one. I read "Ninety Minutes at Entebbe" when I was in Year 10. This is the true story of how Israel mounted a daring rescue of its citizens who were being held hostage by PLO terrorists in faraway Entebbe, Uganda, under the protection of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Against formidable odds, after rigorous planning and training, and a 4000 kilometer flight path that circumvented hostile countries along the way, Israeli special forces stormed the aircraft and rescued almost all the hostages. The commander of the commando team (Yonatan "Yonni" Netanyahu) was killed in the fighting, and one of the passengers who was in hospital rather than at the airport had to be left behind, but other than that, the operation was a stunning success and established Israel's reputation as a country not to be messed with.

For me in particular, this marked the beginning of my admiration for Israel. With the recent rise in Islamist violence, that admiration has only grown.

4. Marketing Warfare, by Al Ries and Jack Trout (McGraw-Hill)

Two books were the rage during my MBA days, both by the same duo of authors. The first was "Positioning - The Battle For Your Mind". This was a revolutionary book that introduced a number of new ideas, for instance, that the battle by competitors is not fought "out there" in the marketplace, but inside the prospective customer's head, and that placing second in a contest is as good as losing.

As good as "Positioning" was, it dragged in places and wasn't a very easy read. The book that followed, "Marketing Warfare", was an absolute masterpiece. It had all of the authors' trademark sarcastic humour, revolutionary ideas and simple writing style. Even better, this book was a breeze to read, an absolute delight. I got a number of takeaways from this book:

- A defender only needs to be 70% as strong as an attacker to thwart an attack.
- A market leader must constantly attack itself to keep ahead of its potential competitors.
- When attacking a competitor, a company must not attack a weakness that is a weakness. It must attack a weakness that is inherent in the competitor's strength.

5. Platoon Leader, by James R McDonough (Bantam Books)

McDonough's narration of his experiences as a young lieutenant during the Vietnam war affected me at several levels. At one level, this was a book on leadership, and the author's personal anecdotes of the times he had to pull himself together in spite of his fears challenged me to show courage and stand up to the many difficult situations I faced at around that time. At another level, I began to respect and admire the author for his moral position on many difficult situations that he faced during that messy conflict. But the main impact that the book had on me was in instilling in me the conviction that men in uniform must never be granted untrammelled power over a civilian populace, because atrocities are bound to occur.

McDonough writes,

Some men in combat will commit war crimes, just as some men in combat will fail to take care of themselves. They will experiment with drugs, steal property, abuse women. When this happens, it destroys the discipline of a unit, making it easier for others to follow suit. War is, at its very core, the absence of order; and the absence of order leads very quickly to the absence of morality, unless the leader can preserve each of them in its place. [...] He must allow no cutting of corners. A bottle of soda stolen from an old peasant woman leads gradually but directly to the rape of her daughter if the line is not drawn in the beginning. [...] The commander was the link to order and civility, and he had to be humane. At the same time, he had to be uncompromising to protect the lives of all. The job was not easy.

One of the heartrending incidents mentioned in the book concerns a group of American soldiers who raided a village at night and forcibly abducted a young girl before the eyes of her helpless family. (They later killed her after raping her.) As they were dragging the girl away, the girl's mother ran after them, holding out a scarf to her daughter to at least protect her from the cold.

The memory of that passage still shocks me, and the thought of that forlorn act of love and care of a helpless mother still brings me close to tears. That's why, no matter which country we are talking about, I cannot accept the standard "patriotic", right-wing rhetoric about "our boys who are risking their lives to protect our freedom". This is also why I am totally against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that indemnifies the Indian army during its operations in Kashmir, Manipur and elsewhere. Men in uniform must always be held accountable, otherwise atrocities are bound to happen.

6. Fundamentals of Database Systems, by Elmasri and Navathe (Benjamin/Cummings)

In 1990, I enrolled for a one-year part-time diploma program in software technology (This was before I went back to school for my masters degree in Computer Science.) I had a couple of years of experience with the Ingres relational database, but lacked a knowledge of formal database theory. The diploma program taught me how to design database systems ("data modelling"), and I learnt a new skill - that of drawing Entity-Relationship Diagrams.

When I did enrol for my masters in 1992, my thesis was on "Designing for Performance in RDBMS-based Systems", and I proposed an extension to the Entity-Relationship Diagram to incorporate elements of access patterns and load.

Even today, after more than 27 years of experience in various IT functions, my love for Linux and Open Source, my many years of experience with Java, and the last decade of my career as an architect, I consider myself to be fundamentally a "data person".

If there is one book that has made me what I am professionally, that has to be "Fundamentals of Database Systems". Thank you, Ramez Elmasri and Shamkant Navathe.

7. The Soul of a New Machine, by Tracy Kidder (Little, Brown and Company)

Very rarely, a book comes along that makes one feel like a hero by association. Tracy Kidder's true story about the development of Data General's Eclipse MV/8000 minicomputer reads like a racy spy novel. Indeed, it has elements of espionage in it, as when Data General's Tom West (the main designer of the Eclipse) impersonates a Digital Equipment Corp (DEC) technician at a DEC customer site to sneak a peek at the insides of the early VAX minicomputer to estimate how much it must have cost to build.

All of a sudden, the computer industry was "cool", and we were all part of a brave new frontier. My company often used VAX minicomputers, and when I once visited a client's data centre, I saw a Data General machine there, and the thrill I felt cannot be described. It was more than a feeling of living history. I felt like I had been catapulted right into a action-packed novel. I was standing face-to-face with an Eclipse MV/8000, the main character in "The Soul of a New Machine".

8. Adventure Capitalist, by Jim Rogers (Random House)

Jim Rogers is a well-known name in Wall Street circles. He was an early partner of George Soros, and his investment style is unique. He has made at least two trips around the world using very unconventional means of transport, and has looked at countries and societies up close from the viewpoint of a potential foreign investor. I have not read his first book "Investment Biker" about his trip around the world on a motorcycle, but his second book "Adventure Capitalist" was delightful and informative, peppered with little-known facts and consequent insights about dozens of countries.

For example, I remember his contrasting pictures of China and Japan. In China, the waitress attending him at a restaurant would run, not walk, across the room when she sensed he wanted something. In Japan, the waiters claimed there was no rice on the menu even though it was a sushi restaurant and every dish had rice in it. Rogers's investment decisions followed his assessment of the countries' cultures, especially their attitudes towards customer service, as a predictor of future economic performance - buy China, sell Japan.

The book was written in 2004. In the decade since then, China has surged, while Japan has stagnated. There is quite possibly some method in Jim Rogers's idiosyncratic investing style.

9. Double Your Wealth And Halve Your Worries (without the mumbo-jumbo), by Nicole Pedersen-McKinnon (Wilkinson Publishing)

There was a phase in my life when I read many books on personal wealth, and three of them stand out. One is Robert Kiyosaki's "Rich Dad, Poor Dad". The second is "The Millionaire Next Door" by Thomas J Stanley and William D Danko. But if I had to nominate just one, it would have to be Nicole Pedersen-McKinnon's practical guide "Double Your Wealth And Halve Your Worries", written in the typically no-nonsense Aussie style and packed with common sense tips and advice. I have benefited a great deal from following her financial advice.

My heartfelt gratitude, Ms Pedersen-McKinnon.

10. The Clash of Civilizations, by Samuel Huntington (Simon & Schuster)

Geopolitics has always fascinated me, and Huntington's seminal book explains it all. It is a sobering, somewhat disconcerting book. If what Huntington says is true (and I must say I think it is more than plausible), then the idealist vision of a world where we all dance around a fire singing Kumbaya (or L'Internationale) is a pipe-dream.

The world consists of five (or perhaps six) major civilisational groups, and all of human history is a result of the competition between these civilisations. Western civilisation is the dominant one at present, although it was not always so. Even within Western civilisation, there are in-groups and out-groups, as James Bennett further details in his book "The Anglosphere Challenge".

I have been coming to a similar conclusion for years, and when I read Huntington's book, it was an awful confirmation. I now know that there can never be one world, nor even a peaceful and harmonious world. Civilisations strive to express themselves, to extend their power and to influence others. At the very least, they struggle to prevent other civilisations from dominating them. When civilisations rise, they threaten the dominance of others, and their rise will therefore not go unchallenged. This means that conflict and strife will be our companions forever.

"The Clash of Civilizations" has influenced my thinking greatly. For instance, I can no longer look at India and China as countries. I now see them as the flagship nation-states of the Indic and Sinic civilisations, respectively.

Friday, 22 August 2014

"Akhand Bharat" - More Plaintive Wail Than Battle Cry

After the victory of the Hindu right-wing party (the BJP) in India's May 2014 national elections, a lot of right-wing Hindu sentiment has found expression and gained visibility on social media. I came across this graphic on someone's Facebook status the other day. It's a map of India and its neighbourhood, but it's not something one would find in the pages of an everyday atlas.

The map of "Akhand Bhaarat" ("Undivided India"), one of the core ideological tenets of the Hindu right, annotated in English by me for the benefit of non-Hindi speakers

It shows Mother India as a goddess with a lion as her mount. And it shows not just India but a number of neighbouring countries shaded saffron, a colour traditionally associated with Hindu asceticism and by extension, with Hinduism itself. This picture would be amusing if its implications weren't so scary. In the imagination of the Hindu right, this is what constitutes the original, "undivided" India. It questions the independent identity of India's neighbours, somewhat akin to how China treats Taiwan as a "renegade province". While the BJP itself has made no public foreign policy pronouncements based on this ideology (that would really set the cat among the pigeons!), the unstated idea is that Mother India is not complete until all her territories are restored to her. That is the ideology behind "Akhand Bhaarat" (undivided India).

In my view, Akhand Bhaarat is a jingoistic fantasy with little basis in fact, but it has the power to fire up the cadres and ignite the passions of the culturally insecure. It is likely to cause more mischief and harm within India than between India and her neighbours, because a frustrated cadre of right-wing stormtroopers would find it easier to terrorise religious minorities and "cultural enemies" within India than to attack foreign countries.

As with most ideologies, there is a grain of truth behind the map (Pakistan and Bangladesh were part of India until 1947, and there are some shared cultural elements between India and all its depicted neighbours), but this grain of truth is not sufficient to legitimise the idea of a Greater India as a political entity.

First, India was never a single political entity at any time in its history. India has always been a sprawling collection of kingdoms, some large, some small, locked for centuries, if not for millennia, in internecine rivalry and war. There have been some common cultural elements that bound them together loosely, but a united nation of the kind portrayed has never existed in fact. Even at the height of its geographical reach as one entity (under the British), there were over 400 semi-independent kingdoms within its boundaries. There never was an Akhand Bhaarat! Today's India is the most cohesive it has ever been (And one might add, this is under a secular constitution that treats all its citizens as equals.)

Second, cultural influences have flowed in more than one direction. If Indian thought migrated outwards to neighbouring countries, so too did external influences enter India! This fact is acknowledged by the Hindu right, but it is also one of their major sore points. The fact that Muslim and British invaders ruled India for a combined total of about 600 years, and influenced its original Hindu-Buddhist-Jain ethos by bringing in "alien" ideas and ways of thinking is anathema to them. Indian influence on neighbouring regions and countries is "good", but India being influenced by external cultures is "bad". Like many other right-wing movements, Hindutva seeks a return to a purer past shorn of its external cultural "impurities". Islam is the most obvious enemy, but Westernisation and the English language are no less reviled.

Third, the map shows a parochial bias even within the Indian context. It is quite obviously the product of a North Indian mind, with its focus on regions bordering northern India and the use of the Hindi language. If there was ever a historical basis for Indian triumphalism, it would be in the military conquests of the Cholas, a dynasty of South India. And beyond military conquest, the Cholas presided over the most active regional trade seen in ancient times across the Indian Ocean and even up to the Pacific rim (See Lynda Shaffer's paper on "Southernisation"). The Chola influence extended from East Africa to Cambodia and the Philippines. The Angkor Vat temple in Cambodia is a Vishnu temple. If Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia have places with Sanskrit names (such as Putrajaya, Aranyaprathet (a corruption of Aranyapradesh) and Yogyakarta), that's largely thanks to the Cholas. The concept of Akhand Bhaarat as propagandised by the North Indian-dominated Hindu right is ignorant of this mother lode of potential nationalist pride!

This might be a more accurate picture of India's cultural influence in Asia:

The influence of Indian culture - there are definite zones, and the influence fades with distance

In sum, it's true that India has had cultural influence beyond the political borders of the kingdoms that could legitimately be called Indian, but that's a lot more nuanced than claiming those regions as part of an "undivided India".

I believe the desire to hark back to a mythical golden age of cultural supremacy stems from deep cultural insecurity. The other such example is the Muslim dream of a global Islamic caliphate that will restore the glories of the Muslim world at the height of its power. The Muslim world is in a shambles, and the rest of the world is passing them by at an ever-increasing rate. When the oil runs out, so will the clock. The frustration is understandable, but the answer is not the Khilafah (caliphate). It's modern education, smart economic strategies and lots of hard work. But such a prosaic formula can't fire up the troops like a call to jihad can.

Note that Southern Spain, Greece, parts of China and India form part of the global Islamic caliphate

Islam has this notion of a "high water mark", where any territory conquered by Muslims, even transitorily, belongs to Muslims thereafter, and any subsequent recapture of that territory by others is illegitimate and is an attack on Islam. In the eyes of Islamists, India belongs to Islam because it was once ruled by Muslims. That's why getting India "back" features in their fantasies (Ghazwa e Hind).

Obviously, Indians (except for a section of Indian Muslims) reject this view. The mere fact of past conquest by an entity does not confer legitimacy. So the notion that some country "belongs to" another simply because of a past cultural influence is even more tenuous, and also dangerous.

A civilisation typically grows and extends outwards until stopped by natural barriers. Beyond those barriers, any links with other regions is typically through conquest (hard power projection) or cultural influence (soft power projection). In India's case, natural barriers are the Hindukush mountains to the West, the Himalayas to the north, the Arakan (Rakhine) mountains and forests to the east, and the Bay of Bengal/Indian Ocean/Arabian Sea elsewhere. Those are the outer boundaries that contained the Indian civilisation.

There are of course regions that fall outside of these boundaries that were influenced by India, either through conquest (as the Cholas did in Southeast Asia) or through the spread of ideas (such as through the export of Buddhism). These regions, which are independent nation-states today, can be called India's cultural penumbra. Taken together, they are also loosely referred to as the Indic civilisation, because they have something in common that is different to the Sinic, Arabic, or Western civilisations.

However, if there are people today who think other countries "belong" to India because at some stage, Buddhism may have gone from India to these countries, then they are guilty of Islamist thinking.

(Even with countries that were indisputably part of India in the recent past, such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, the best policy is continued separation and containment. It would be a disaster, not a triumph, if 300 million people of these countries suddenly turned into Indian citizens because of 'Akhand Bhaarat'. I for one would not want that.)

Jingoistic visions spring from a cultural inferiority complex. Indians should accept the best ideas, both from their own culture and from other cultures, and aim to progress both materially and socially. This sick longing for a mythical, non-existent ideal state is neither achievable nor conducive to harmonious progress in the present.

Akhand Bhaarat is not a battle cry. It is a plaintive wail.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Jaitley's Budget That Might Have Been (But Wasn't)

John Greenleaf Whittier hit it on the noggin: "Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, 'It might have been.'"

My feelings on reading about Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley's maiden budget were akin to being socked across the face with something bloated and wet. After Narendra Modi's dramatic election win in May, we have all been treated, like the IBM salesman's bride, to rousing speeches about how wonderful it's all going to be. We were told that the socialist-shackled economy was going to be unchained and a powerful, roaring tiger set free at last. Many of us had virtual goose-pimples at what was going to happen.

But when the time for action arrived, what we got was this timid left-of-centre budget that may well have been authored by the previous government, with its discredited populist model of pretending to help people by looting them.


Swaminathan S Aiyar summed up his assessment of the Modi government in one damning sentence, "Sher ki soorat, khargosh ka kaleja" ("Face of a tiger, liver of a rabbit"). Ouch!

Having let myself be carried away by the hype of radical change, I had begun to predict what the budget was going to contain. Let me swallow my considerable embarrassment and share this list. 

I believed the thrust of the budget should have been about retooling the Indian economy to redirect it away from the primary sector (agriculture) and towards the secondary sector (manufacturing). A once-in-history opportunity has opened up for India with the rising costs of Chinese manufacturing and the aging demographic of China, and India should move post-haste to inherit the mantle of the world's factory. The opportunity to dramatically raise GDP and living standards through this one shift alone is unprecedented.

And so, I imagined that these would be the major policy announcements:

1. Fiscal discipline and a healthier exchequer by ending all subsidies - food, diesel, electricity, etc. (This could be gradual, say over 2 to 3 years, to prevent a sudden shock to the system, but the government needs the courage to stay the course and not roll back these measures.)

2. To offset the pain of the sharp price rise from the removal of subsidies, a drastic overhaul of the tax laws is required to help the middle classes keep more of their money - a high exemption limit of Rs 500,000 a year, and a flat tax of 20% thereafter. To avoid tax arbitrage, corporate taxes should also be reduced to a single flat rate of 20%, with no exemptions, loopholes or surcharges. All employee benefits should count as personal income to avoid fringe benefits rorting. Simplicity and low-overhead administration should be the name of the taxation game.

3. Labour laws should be drastically simplified, and should allow hire-and-fire for firms of any size, without compensation. The incentives this creates for setting up enterprises will offset the uncertainties created by the lack of job security for workers. The lower classes who are hit by the rise in prices should see some relief through increased opportunities for employment.

4. Land laws should be simplified to allow takeovers by government and private industry with one-time cash compensation and nothing more (definitely no guarantees of employment). The aim should explicitly be to drive agricultural labour and small farmers out of farming and into industry. Farmer suicides are a symptom of unviable farming practices. Getting small farmers out of farms and into factories is the most humane solution to the problem.

5. FDI upto 100% should be allowed into every sector, including defence and multi-brand retail. The message should be that India is open for business.

6. The Companies Act should be dramatically simplified to incentivise the growth of industry, with a complete end to license raj. It should be easier to do business in India than in Hong Kong.

7. The legal system should be simplified and the capacity of courts should be raised manifold to allow speedy disposal of cases, especially land, property and other civil cases.

8. The money saved through cutting subsidies (in the lakhs of crores) should be used to develop hard infrastructure - primarily new factory towns, expanded ports, roads and railways to connect factories to ports, and improved communications. Funding could cover the gamut of Public-Private Partnership models. Global manufacturing companies should be able to come in with a complete absence of red tape, set up 100% owned factories in the Indian hinterland, acquire land at reasonable rates, hire (and fire) local labour, develop and operate their own roads (and levy tolls), develop and operate ports, and push goods out into the world as fast as they can make them. The stated aim should be to take over from China as the world's manufacturing hub within 5 years, and the government should pull out all the stops to make that happen.

9. The bulk of the remainder of the revenue that accrues to the government should be spent on "soft infrastructure" that raises human capital - primary healthcare, primary education and trade-oriented training and certification. The aim should be to tap into unemployed youth and make them employment-ready in the shortest possible time. Higher education is a relative luxury and should be largely privatised, with foreign universities allowed to set up local centres. The elite will fund themselves in a variety of ways to acquire university-level education.

Further in the area of soft infrastructure, a powerful antitrust body should be established with the clout to order the breakup of the largest corporate entities if required. Capitalism without a liquid market will distort rather than develop the country. Additionally, a pragmatic environmental clearance board should be set up that works with industry for sustainable development instead of acting like a blocker.

10. States should be cut free of the central government's apron strings, with only infrastructure projects of national importance to be funded by the central government. In all other respects, the states should be made to compete with each other to attract foreign investment, skilled labour, tourism, etc. A time-bound plan should be announced to introduce a Goods and Services Tax (GST) across the country, say within a year, with revenue flowing to the states. 

Through all of this, the positive message that should be conveyed is that a new era has arrived and there are huge benefits to be reaped. While there may seem to be big risks and disadvantages, the bold and the enterprising will become prosperous beyond their dreams. The sense of excitement that such a budget unleashes will overcome the fear and negativity that arise from generations of socialist conditioning.

Alas, this was all a dream, and we have now woken up to the reality of Jaitley and his rabbit-livered budget.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Kashmiris Should Beware The Exasperation Of The Liberal Indian

"Beware the fury of the patient man", said John Dryden a long time ago.

I'm one of the most liberal-humanist specimens one could find, subscribing as I do to a near-libertarian philosophy (I only draw the line at gun rights) and a deep and abiding suspicion of governments, corporations and society itself as forces inimical to the individual.

Still, Kashmir vexes me. If I can blurt my feelings out in one short sentence, it is that Kashmiris should stop being so precious.

The fuss they make about an Indian prime minister visiting the state! Shutting down an entire state in protest?

Kashmiris (and by that I mean the Muslim separatist agitators) need to take a long hard look at themselves, their environment, and their choices.

An independent Kashmir is not what Pakistan has been fighting for, and the people of Kashmir will experience a frying-pan-to-fire situation if they ever find themselves out of the Indian union. True independence is easier dreamt about than achieved.

Kashmir as an independent state is unlikely to be viable, in either an economic or social sense. Kashmir is a landlocked state that will depend on the goodwill of its neighbours to survive economically, and that goodwill is going to prove a scarce commodity since both India and Pakistan will be put offside by Kashmiri independence. Socially too, as Miraiz Umar Farooq himself admitted, the Kashmiri Muslim populace is itself divided into Wahabi, Salafi, Barelvi and Deobandi sects, not to mention the Shias of Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. Not to put too fine a point on it, Muslim sects have shown time and again that they will turn on one another with murderous ferocity the moment they are left alone with no external enemy to unify them. Iraq and Syria are the latest tragic examples. Kashmiris should be careful what they wish for. The killings will not stop after independence. Only their ability to blame the Indian army will.

Who is it in Kashmir who wants independence anyway? Only Muslims in the Kashmir valley. The Buddhists of Ladakh and the Hindus of Jammu know better than to trust their fate to the tender mercies of a Muslim majority, and would opt to stay with India. The examples of Pakistan and Bangladesh serve as a reminder, if one is required, of what happens to religious minorities in Muslim states. If it comes to a plebiscite, India will play its cards so that Kashmir is splintered even further. After all, the will of the people is the will of the people, and if the Ladakh and Jammu regions vote for India, who can deny them their choice?

Lastly, as economies go, India is ramping up while Pakistan is winding down (although the terrorist state may take another decade to finally sputter and die). If Kashmiris are smart, they will try and latch on to one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, because that is what India is projected to be.

India has had enough of the Kashmiri stalemate, and it's not just Hindu right-wingers who want to see an end to the special status of Jammu and Kashmir as codified in Article 370 of the Indian constitution. The move to repeal Article 370 has broad support across all Indians, and it will happen sooner or later. Pakistan is not in a position to stop any Indian moves within its own territory, and the world (i.e., the West, Russia and China) has no more sympathy for Muslim separatist movements. It's only the Muslim world that could back Kashmiri separatism, but even this support is hardly likely to be unanimous or whole-hearted. Middle Eastern regimes are wary of extremist monsters like the ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), so the Indian government could receive covert support even from many nominally Muslim countries in its face-off with Kashmiri separatists.

All in all, the Kashmir issue has festered for too long. Pakistan needs to disappear (which it will) and the Kashmiris need to set aside their juvenile ideas of independence and come to the party. The Indian juggernaut cannot be stopped, because things have reached a stage when even liberals have had enough.

Friday, 20 June 2014

India In Danger Of Repeating Sri Lanka's Deadly Error

Pluralistic societies must beware of elevating one group above all others. The day Sri Lanka made Sinhala its state language and Buddhism its state religion was the day it sowed the seeds of its longstanding ethnic strife. The revolt of the Tamil linguistic minority has been put down at great cost. But the Sri Lankan government does not seem at all serious about pursuing genuine rapprochement or providing autonomy to the Tamils within a looser federation. Far from learning a lesson from those lost decades, elements of the country's political class and clergy now seem to have turned towards baiting the Muslim religious minority, and another round of bloodletting appears to be on the cards. As one who has visited that beautiful country and interacted with many of its smart and gentle people, I can only shake my head in sorrow. Sri Lanka's problems are needless ones of its own creation, all because of a fundamental lack of governing wisdom.

India has long escaped such a fate, thanks to the abundance of wisdom on the part of its founding fathers. The early tussle with the Muslim League on the one hand and the Hindu Mahasabha on the other must have convinced the leaders of the Congress of the desirability of establishing a secular state that treated all its religions equally. And while Nehru came perilously close to imposing a single language (Hindi) on a country where over 60% spoke another language, he wisely stepped back from the brink in the face of protests. India has enjoyed rare harmony in its public life because religion has largely remained a private matter, and its unique "three language formula" has given individuals, governments and private organisations pragmatic ways to communicate.

Over time, a remarkable sense of Indian nationhood has begun to develop (even if it has frayed slightly around the edges thanks to vote-bank politics). Free of heavy-handed imposition, Hindi has spread even to traditionally non-Hindi regions, often thanks to the subtle charms of Bollywood. At the same time, English has spread among the relative elite, forming a link language for the educated class. All wholesome developments, one would think.

The party, however, seems to have come to a rude and abrupt end with the election of Narendra Modi's BJP in May 2014. At first, the focus of the government seemed to be on economic development, and in that endeavour, the prime minister won quick support, including from many erstwhile critics. A potential sour note was religion. The BJP has always been known as a Hindu party, and most public attention has been on the likely relationship between a BJP government and its non-Hindu citizens. While Modi has been careful to project an inclusive image, there have been some disturbing incidents of violence carried out by radical fringe groups with a more hard-line Hindu agenda. The old fault-line of religion has therefore come under renewed strain.

Disturbingly, another old fault-line has been needlessly opened up.  Initially, Modi's preference for Hindi over English in his official communications was ascribed to his relative lack of fluency in English and his understandable preference for a language in which he was more at home. But continuing reports of the government's edicts in favour of Hindi over English have begun to raise eyebrows. The home minister, Rajnath Singh, who was noted for his past statements that the English language has destroyed India's culture, has begun to crack the whip to ensure that the sole language in which his ministry does business is Hindi.

It's clear where the Hindu right is coming from. They are aware that opposition to their Hindutva ideology comes primarily from two broad groups of people - religious minorities and the English-speaking urban middle class. Nothing less than a culture war is now on to undercut the power of these groups. In terms of religion, language and class, the Hindu right wing has identified its foes and begun its offensive.

The world has its eyes on India's old religious schisms, so the government will probably tread carefully there. But the other war (the linguistic/class war) is equally dangerous, and here the government has fewer checks on its actions. 

There are at least four problems with the Modi government's lurch to a majoritarian agenda:

1. The mandate that the BJP received in the recent election was for its plank of economic development. Starting a culture war when there are pressing economic problems to be solved is not just a betrayal of that mandate but a luxury the country cannot afford.

2. The purpose of language is communication. The existing three language formula has served India well, allowing people and organisations to negotiate a suitable common language to communicate in without coercion. There is no reason to ram a language down people's throats unless the motive is to disenfranchise a group of cultural enemies. In addition, insistence on an "official" Hindi, quite different in flavour from the everyday Hindi favoured by most speakers, is counter-productive. Official Hindi is often unintelligible even to Hindi speakers, and is an impediment rather than an aid to communication.

3. Then there is the whole hypocrisy angle. Politicians who rail against the English language, such as Rajnath Singh and Mulayam Yadav, see no contradiction between their public stand and giving their own offspring an English language education and sending them abroad to study. They obviously know which side of their bread is buttered (or if they so prefer, which side of their roti is makkhandaar), but will not acknowledge that English is an aspirational language for millions of their countrymen and could help to improve the career prospects and living standards of the next generation. It's one rule for them and another rule for the masses.

4. Finally, although English is in many ways a "foreign" language to India, its very foreignness makes it neutral. It does not belong more naturally to one group of Indians than to another. If English is to be replaced by Hindi, all Indians who speak a different Indian language automatically become second class citizens, because their own languages are relegated to secondary status behind Hindi. When one Indian is forced to speak to another in a language that is not their own but is native to the other, it creates a power asymmetry that will be deeply resented. It is no way to build a nation.

Those who point to countries like Japan, Korea and Germany to argue that India should have its own national language are missing an important distinction. All of these countries have a single language of their own, so it is natural for that language to be the national language. India has 22 official languages, all of them equally Indian. How can any one of them be termed the "national" language without making the others seem less national? In the same vein, wouldn't anointing India a "Hindu" country alienate citizens of other religions who are every bit as patriotic? It is for this reason that majoritarian politics is dangerous in pluralistic societies, and it is highly inadvisable for a country to create second-class citizens out of its religious and linguistic minorities. Sri Lanka is a warning to the world, but it appears that India cannot see what is, in a geographically literal sense, right beneath its nose.

The Modi government and its ideological fountainhead (the RSS) appear to have overreached themselves. They have turned the country's colourful diversity into ugly difference. And with their roughshod tactics, they have brought their government's honeymoon to an abrupt end.