Thursday, 12 November 2020

Sad Puppy-Dog Eyes - Some Of My Favourite Bollywood Songs Featuring Sanjay Dutt

I lived and worked in Bombay (Mumbai) for 8 years between 1987 and 1995 (apart from a year and a half when I was in Kanpur). I didn't realise it then, but this was the very first time I experienced what may have been taken for granted by many others. For the first time, I heard Bollywood songs on a regular basis, and it was all around me - on the radio, on TV, from roadside loudspeakers, etc.

This had never happened to me before. During my childhood in Bangalore through the 70s, I mostly heard Kannada songs on the radio. During my IIT Madras days (1980-85), it was Tamil songs. I discovered Hindustani classical music during my stint at IIM Ahmedabad (1985-87), and that was what I played when I visited the institute's DJ club. The music that I consciously sought out and played during my teens was Western pop. So I had never previously experienced anything like the barrage of Hindi film songs that hit me when I moved to Bombay in 1987.

It's true what they say - the best music, by definition, is the one you grow up with. If I were asked about the "golden period" of Kannada film songs, I would name the 70s. Similarly, the early 80s were to me the "golden period" of Tamil film songs. It's not surprising that the "golden period" of Hindi film songs to me was the period from 1987 to 1995.

While I have many, many favourites from that time, I thought I'd focus on those that I later found were from movies starring Sanjay Dutt.

I know he's a controversial character, but I've always had a soft spot for him because of his sad puppy-dog eyes, and the many personal tragedies in his life.

And so, the songs:

1. 'Jeeye To Jeeye Kaise' from 'Saajan'

Saajan was a very silly movie, IMO. But many of the songs were good. This clip also captures the pathos of Dutt's character, who is a cripple.

"Lagta nahin dil kahin bin aapke"
(My heart is not at peace without you)

2. 'Mera Dil Bhi Kitna Paagal Hai' from 'Saajan'

In this clip, the most moving scene for me is when Dutt's character sees himself without his handicap.

"Par saamne jab tum aate ho, kuch bhi kehne se darta hai"
(But when you are before me, (my heart) is too scared to say anything)

3. 'Tumhe Apna Banane Ki Kasam' from 'Sadak'

I haven't seen this movie. I know the story, and it's too gritty for me. But the song was very touching.

"Meri nas nas mein tu banke lahu samayi hai, samayi hai"
(You have become the blood that flows in my veins)

4. 'Aur Is Dil Mein Kya Rakha Hai' from 'Imaandaar'

I haven't seen this movie either, but I like the song a lot.

"Cheerke dekhe dil mera to, tera hi naam likha rakha hai"
(Tear open my heart and see, it is your name that is written inside)

Wednesday, 11 November 2020

The Crisis Of Confidence Among The Competent - Inspirational Anecdotes From My Life

Over the course of my life, I have come across a few people whose breathtaking confidence has remained with me, and I always seek to draw inspiration from them. I believe I'm fairly competent at what I do, and I'm not a particularly diffident person either, but I know I could achieve a lot more if I had even greater confidence in myself.

According to the Ramayana, Hanuman was the only one of the vaanara army with the ability to jump across the ocean to Lanka. Yet he did not realise his own capability, and had to be strongly encouraged by his fellows before he could find it in himself to make the leap. The episode is a metaphor for the plight of the competent in every culture and in every age.

Here are some examples of people who impressed me enormously with their confidence.

1. "I will hit all ten, da"

When I was 18 and in the National Cadet Corps (NCC) in India, I attended a camp called the Vayu Sainik camp in Dodballapur (Karnataka). There were NCC units participating from all over India. Each unit sent 10 cadets to the camp. There were 5 units from Tamil Nadu. The IIT Madras unit I belonged to was called the "4 TN (Tech) Air Squadron".

There were many competitions during the 2 week camp, and one of them was skeet shooting. Competing cadets had to shoot 10 clay pigeons that were fired from a machine (or as many of them as they could).

An NCC Air Wing cadet skeet shooting

The evening before the competition, a cadet called Vasant from 2 TN Air Squadron came to visit us in our tent. He was the only cadet representing Tamil Nadu in this national event, so our unit was rooting for him to do well.

I remember asking Vasant if he was nervous before such a big and tough competition, and I'll never forget his answer.

"I will hit all ten, da!"

He wasn't faking his confidence either. i could tell from his general manner that he was relaxed and genuinely confident.

In the event, he only got 8 out of 10, but if I remember right, he did get one of the top 3 places in that competition.

8 out of 10 was pretty creditable of course, showing that his confidence in himself was not entirely misplaced. I've seen other people whose confidence in themselves wasn't at all matched by their ability, but Vasant was obviously not one of them.

I find his example inspiring because I believe that level of confidence can make a difference in the areas where one does have decent ability. Holding oneself back when one can actually do a great job would be a waste of potential.

2. "I have now reached the stage when I can work on any machine"

I had just started working at CMC Bombay in 1987. A senior of mine from IIT Madras, Suresh (nicknamed "paTTai" for the prominent horizontal stripes of vibhuti (ash) he used to wear on his forehead), had joined CMC a few years before me, and had become a respected expert on IBM mainframes.

Sometime in 1987 or 1988, Microsoft made history by advertising in Indian newspapers for US-based positions. Such an opportunity for Indian software professionals (to be directly recruited by a US-based company) had never arisen before, and the advertisement sent ripples of excitement throughout the Indian software industry.

I was working late at the office one day, and a bunch of us went to a restaurant for dinner. Pattai was with us that day, on a short visit from his base in CMC Calcutta. One of our colleagues, Rajeev Dhanavade, broached the topic of Microsoft's ad with furtive excitement, and said, "I wonder if any CMC people would have applied..."

Pattai spoke up, loudly and clearly as was his wont, "I've applied, ya, I've applied!"

"But your experience is in mainframes. Microsoft is in PCs and microprocessors..." Rajeev said, implicitly expressing his opinion that the job perhaps wasn't a good fit for Pattai's expertise.

Pattai drew himself straight up in his chair and said, "See, I have now reached the stage when I can work on any machine!"

Epilogue: Pattai got the job with Microsoft and relocated to Redmond.

I've also seen Pattai walk into the CMC Bombay computer centre as if he were the boss, demand of the operators to see what jobs were running on the mainframe, and then question the Divisional Manager (the top IT executive in the region) about them. I've seen the DM answering him apologetically.

Of course he was competent, but that level of confidence which enabled him to open any door and walk in as if he owned the place got him results above and beyond what mere competence would have. It's something that other competent people can learn from.

3. "If I get a letter from HR, I will think I must have got a promotion or an increment"

When I was working at the National Bank of Dubai, I once got an internal letter from the HR department. It turned out to be nothing very important, but the moment I got the letter and saw where it was from, I was filled with dread.

I turned to my colleague Swastika Shukla, who was seated at the desk to my right, and confessed to her that letters from HR always filled me with dread. "I always think I'm about to lose my job."

Swastika scoffed. "If I get a letter from HR, I will think I must have got a promotion or an increment," she said.

I believe her. She had a pretty unflappable attitude. On another occasion when she heard me being overly polite on the phone with a user who had called to complain about a problem with one of the applications I was responsible for, she asked me whom I was talking to. When I told her, she once again replied with contempt, "Users? You should shout at them!"

To this day, I struggle to have that calm attitude of entitlement, and often use Swastika's statements to put myself in a stronger frame of mind.

4. "I'm a B.Com.!"

This didn't happen to me but to my wife Sashi. Sashi is highly qualified in her field. In addition to Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Commerce, she is also a Chartered Accountant. The Indian CA exam is notoriously hard to pass, and only about 3% of the candidates qualify in any given year. (Subsequently, Sashi also passed the Australian CPA exam after migrating to Australia.)

When Sashi joined me in Dubai in mid 1995, she responded to a local job ad for the position of an accountant. When she was seated in the lobby waiting for her turn to be called into the interview room, she struck up a conversation with another Indian girl who had applied for the same job.

Feeling a bit nervous about the job, Sashi asked the other girl if she felt confident about being able to do whatever was listed in the job description. The girl's reply to Sashi was a classic, and something we laugh over to this day.

"Of course! I'm a B.Com.!"

I tease Sashi whenever she expresses diffidence about any new assignment at work, "You're only a CA. Now, if only you'd been a B.Com., you could easily have done it."

As it happened, Sashi got a much better job at Schlumberger a bit later, so we never did find out if the other girl got that job that she was so confident about. I'm sure she did.

Confidence has nothing to do with qualifications. The most brilliant and well-qualified people can feel terribly diffident, and those with barely enough qualifications can be supremely confident.

These are the people I remember every now and again. They inspire me and fill me with awe.

Sunday, 25 October 2020

Book Review - "Smoke And Mirrors - An Experience Of China" By Pallavi Aiyar

I just finished reading "Smoke and Mirrors" by Pallavi Aiyar (daughter of veteran Indian economist and journalist Swaminathan S Aiyar). This book can best be described as an Indian's experiences in China, and is unique and noteworthy for that reason.

This is the scanned cover of my copy of the book, along with the bookmark that I used when reading it. The bookmark is one that I picked up in the extremely picturesque city of Su Zhou when I visited China in 2018.

The author's experiences relate to the period from 2002 to 2007, so it is already out of date in some ways. Yet there are parts that remain strongly relevant.

Pallavi Aiyar covers many important topics and events, such as everyday life in the traditional dwellings ('hutong's) in the city, the rapid pace of change in the entire country, the place and role of religion, the situation in Tibet, the preparation for the Beijing Olympics, what happened during the SARS pandemic, aspects of China's becoming the manufacturing hub of the world, India-China relationships at the political and personal levels, and more.

The last chapter "Squaring a Circle and Coming Full Circle" was the most insightful.

1. Aiyar asks herself a question and answers it. "If I could choose, would I rather be born Indian or Chinese?" She says that if she were able to ensure being born even moderately well-off, she would probably plump for India over China, because "money allowed you to exist happily enough despite the constant failure of government to deliver services". On the other hand, if she were to be born poor, she would take her chances in China, where despite lacking a vote, "the likelihood of being fed, clothed and housed was considerably higher."

2. She makes an interesting comparison between the Indian and Chinese views of political legitimacy. In her view, the Chinese Communist Party derives its legitimacy from delivering growth. In India, a government derives its legitimacy simply from having been voted in. This legitimacy in many ways absolves Indian governments from the necessity of performing. The CCP can afford no such luxury.

3. She makes a refreshing departure from the commonly held view of many experts in the West (and in India) about the future of China. The commonly held view is that the current political setup in China is unsustainable, and that the country will either have to democratise or suffer a popular revolution and break up. She disagrees with this conventional view and believes that the government and CCP can continue to manage these contradictions into the indefinite future. From my limited understanding of China, I believe she's right. Non-Chinese analysts are victims of wishful thinking.

She makes a general point about how it's important to be open to the unfamiliar. What was alien and uncomfortable to her when she first arrived in China became soothing and familiar before very long. She uses her landlord, the avuncular Mr Wu, as a concrete example of what China meant to her. "In short, when I thought about leaving Beijing, it was his image: a 60-year-old retired railway official, atop a noisy moped, that brought a persistent little lump to the throat."

There are two important developments that occurred after the period covered by this book.

One, Aiyar often betrays a superior attitude that she comes from a democracy, but since 2014, the freedom of Indians to criticise their government has undergone a perceptible chill, and the independence of Indian institutions has markedly degraded. The contrast between India and China has thus become starker and less favourable to India. Neither country is now particularly free, but only one has delivered a consistently higher standard of living to its people.

Two, the responsiveness of the CCP to many popular demands, which provides a semblance of democracy, has also suffered thanks to the autogolpe (self coup) mounted by Xi Jinping to sweep aside the traditional two term limit on Chinese presidents and effectively make himself president-for-life. While I don't believe China will break up or that the CCP will lose power, I don't rule out a coup against Xi personally that sees him deposed, especially if he fails to negotiate China's several current challenges successfully.

Friday, 25 September 2020

A Different Kind Of Cricket Tragic

I believe it was Australian PM John Howard who popularised the term "cricket tragic" when he described himself that way. It refers to someone hopelessly obsessed with the game.

I'm the opposite kind of cricket tragic. I know next to nothing about the game, and never follow it. I barely know the rules of cricket. Of course, I can't help being familiar with some of the names, especially if they appear in the non-sporting sections of the news (Azharuddin, Hansie Cronje, Harbhajan Singh and Shane Warne come to mind). I'm otherwise blissfully oblivious to events in the cricketing universe.

Let me narrate a story.

In the year 2000, when the dot-com boom was still raging, I was tempted to leave a steady, cushy job at EDS to join a startup called Reply2, also based in Sydney. This was a company with a call centre, which was building an additional layer of Internet-based services (web and email) to augment their traditional customer contact capability.

Sometime before the launch, the startup's management organised a party with cocktails and canapes for potential investors whom they were trying to woo. The employees (we were just a handful) were requested to mingle with the guests, make polite conversation and help them feel welcome.

I found myself standing next to a young man who said he worked for Macquarie Bank, one of the potential investors. As we talked, he mentioned that he'd just returned from India where he'd played in a cricket match. I assumed he was trying to find common ground with me because I looked Indian and he thought I must therefore be a cricket fan. I continued to talk about random things, and he again mentioned a time when he had been to India earlier to play an exhibition match. This happened a third time, and I was beginning to wonder if he did anything else, and how he managed to get any work done at the bank.

It was soon time to circulate again, and he introduced himself by name before we moved on to other conversation groups.

"Stuart MacGill."

The name meant nothing to me, so I reciprocated by telling him my name.

Shortly afterwards, one of my colleagues came over to me.

"I see you've been talking to Stuart MacGill."

"Yes. Do you know him?" I asked.

He looked at me like I was crazy.

"Don't you know Stuart MacGill? He's an Australian cricketer. He's played in India many times."

The penny then dropped, and I kicked myself.

My colleague went on.

"I'm more thrilled that I got to talk to..." he gestured towards another man standing nearby.

That day in the year 2000 was the first time I heard the name Dean Jones.

Yesterday, when the obituaries started coming in, was the second.

Stuart MacGill (left) and Dean Jones (right). I'm helpfully pointing out who's who for the benefit of others like myself.

Friday, 18 September 2020

My Favourite Cry-Along Movie

[Spoiler alert]

One of my FB groups challenged the male members to write about when they have cried. In the interests of striking a blow against toxic masculinity, here's my confession.

As a rule, I don't watch tear-jerkers. I can't handle them. My favourite genres are science fiction, superhero, rom-com and comedy.

But there's one movie I keep going back to every once in a while when I'm by myself, and no one can see me dabbing at my eyes with a tissue. This is the Bollywood movie 'Dil Hai Tumhara' (My Heart is Yours). In the words of the little girl in 'Cheeni Kum', this movie is not "sad-sad", it's "happy-sad". There are some extremely touching scenes in it that I love to go back and watch over and over, and it's impossible to stay dry-eyed.

For those who don't know the story, Sarita (played by Rekha) is a married woman with a daughter. Her husband secretly has a mistress and a (younger) daughter through her. The husband and the other woman die in a car accident, but before he dies, the husband makes Sarita promise to bring up his daughter along with their own. Sarita does so, but can never bring herself to show love to the other woman's daughter. This continues right into the adulthood of the two girls, the elder girl Nimmi (Nirmala) played by Mahima Chaudhry and the younger adoptive one Shalu (Shalini) played by Preity Zinta. All that Shalu wants is the love of her mother, but she never gets it.

In spite of the mother's coldness to her adoptive daughter, the elder girl is very loving towards her sister, and this is reciprocated. The scenes between the two sisters are very touching. Towards the end, the mother also realises her adoptive daughter's worth and completely softens towards her.

The romantic parts of the movie involving Arjun Ramphal are quite silly and not moving at all. It's the scenes between the sisters, and between the adoptive mother and daughter, that always get me.

Mahima Chaudhry (right) is an absolute sweetheart as the loving elder sister

These scenes do something to me:

1. The backstory with the background song "kabhi hasna hai, kabhi rona hai; jeevan sukh dukh ka sangam hai" (One must sometimes laugh and sometimes cry; life is a mix of happiness and sadness) shows how the two girls were brought up differently by Sarita, and how the elder one makes up for the lack of love shown by the mother.

9:20 to 13:00

2. How the sisters seem to fight but are very close.

20:00 to 23:40

3. An extended scene with lots of drama. Sarita believes Shalu is trying to steal Dev (Arjun Ramphal) from *her* daughter Nimmi. She reveals that Shalu is not her daughter, and accuses her of trying to do to Nimmi what Shalu's mother had done to her. But Nimmi remains loyal to Shalu, and is even willing to give up Dev for her. Shalu in turn decides to sacrifice her love for the sake of her sister's happiness, and pretends that she loves someone else (Sameer, played by Jimmy Shergill).

It's interesting that the man in the triangle is treated as an inanimate object in this movie ("You marry him. No, you marry him!")

2:05:17 to 2:14:10

4. My favourite scene, where Shalu goes to Dev's father played by Alok Nath. She gets him to agree that Dev and Nimmi's wedding will go ahead in spite of the soon-to-be-public scandal of her own "illegitimate" birth. Sarita overhears the conversation and realises that Shalu has been loyal to both herself and Nimmi. They are reconciled.

[Aside: Alok Nath was exposed as a creep during the #MeToo movement in 2018, and his appearance in this movie was one of the usual benign "nice daddy" roles with which he had everyone fooled for years].

One of Preity Zinta's most powerful performances

The moment Sarita realises how unfairly she has judged her adoptive daughter all these years

All's well between the women in the family, and there's only one wrinkle left to sort out - which sister gets the inanimate object?

2:32:25 to 2:42:35

And this post wouldn't be complete without the song 'Dil Laga Liya':

(Creating this blog post was very pleasurable, and only cost me a couple of more tissues when watching those clips.)

Sunday, 6 September 2020

A Dire Prediction - A Disastrous Military Debacle For India In November 2020

Indians tend to grossly overestimate their country's power with respect to China, and they are about to receive both a nasty surprise and a costly lesson.

[Update 13/09/2020: In the week since this post went up, I have received a number of negative comments, all from Indians as expected. However, I'm more convinced than ever that this scenario is going to be played out in November. An article in the Financial Times makes a similar prediction about timing.]

I have a scenario to share, based on a synthesis of several disparate factoids from history and current affairs, generously garnished with my own perceptions and opinions. Some of these opinions are politically incorrect, and will no doubt offend many readers, but I am putting them out there for the simple reason that the scenario I am presenting is an important one, and it requires this unvarnished perspective. [Thanks to Rock Dawar for reviewing a draft and providing useful comments.]

A map of India and China (The borders are the official ones from the Indian perspective, but many areas shown as Indian territory here are actually held by China and Pakistan, and others are still disputed)

1. From what I have understood of the Chinese (and at the great risk of generalising across 1.4 billion Chinese people, the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese government and the People's Liberation Army), it is their commonly held belief that their country and civilisation have been historically humiliated by colonial powers (the "Century of Humiliation"), and that their time has finally come. They see themselves as one of the greatest civilisations on earth, if not the greatest, and yearn to be recognised as such by the rest of the world. They would like to see China regain its rightful place in the world as one of its great powers, with no threats or challenges in the Asia-Pacific region.

The US is of course China's main rival in today's world. The hawks in the Chinese establishment, especially in the increasingly influential PLA, view the US as the main impediment to China's rise, and hence as Enemy Number One. The hawks in the US would return the favour. It is a classic replay of the Thucydides Trap, in which an established power (Sparta then, the US now) is threatened by the rise of a new one (Athens then, China now). According to analysts, the Thucydides Trap has been responsible for war in 12 of the 16 cases when shifts of power occurred in world history.

Japan is one of China's historical enemies but not a hugely credible one today, except in alliance with the US. Other Western countries are viewed with suspicion as continuing to harbour colonial ambitions, and as threats to the degree they are aligned with the US. Indeed, the West may have been responsible for the current state of strained relations, having prodded China into opening its market in the 1970s. China has now beaten them at the capitalist game, and grown rich and powerful on the back of that achievement. This is what has led to the Thucydides Trap of the present day. Sparta has created Sparta's own threat, and now has to deal with it. It is highly unlikely that the West can ever put the genie of China's rise back into its bottle. However, other non-Western nations may serve as useful proxies to delay that rise, even if they are sacrificed in the process.

Which brings us to India.

India has so far not been high on the Chinese radar, but the recent friction along the India-China border may have raised India's profile within China as a hostile nation, and one in a loose alliance with the West to boot.

Detail of the various disputed regions between India, Pakistan, and China

2. Regardless of their opinion of the Indic civilisation based on some shared history (i.e., the Buddhist influence), the Chinese probably don't think much of India as a modern-day power, especially not in comparison with themselves. They have left India far behind. The two countries were at rough parity in the 1950s, but China's economy today is about five times bigger than India's and far healthier, which provides a robust underpinning for its corresponding military and geopolitical superiority.

While Indians still tend to think of the two countries as peers, with China only slightly ahead, this opinion is not shared by the Chinese (nor is it reflective of reality!) The Chinese probably feel indignant that a wretchedly poor and inferior country even dares to pose a challenge to their great civilisation. The likely reaction of the Chinese establishment (which may also have the approval of the Chinese people) would be a desire to show an uppity India its place in no uncertain terms, so that India stays down and doesn't dare challenge their country ever again. Indeed, it is possible that inflated Indian opinion about their country's power relative to China may increase the risk of a conflict, just as in 1962, when Jawaharlal Nehru's government unwisely provoked China into hostilities even as India was completely unprepared for the repercussions.

From one perspective, India and China have no real quarrel, and in the words of one analyst, "may as well be on different planets". But there have been border disputes between them for decades. It is my view that there were many historical junctures in the last seven decades since Indian independence for these disputes to have been settled relatively amicably, but India let them slip, believing it could get a better deal. Unfortunately, India's negotiating position has only worsened with time, and any settlement today will be on much more unfavourable terms. India has locked itself into a set of expectations that are increasingly at odds with reality, and something has to give. With the lessons of 1962 apparently still not learned in New Delhi, another reality check is overdue. China today is unlikely to be as generous towards India as it may have been in the 1950s, and the West is only too willing to exploit this schism between these two non-Western powers, egging India on into a confrontation it will lose disastrously.

3. Students of history will remember that China attacked Vietnam in early 1979 to "teach Vietnam a lesson" for deposing the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge in Cambodia the previous year.  A possible takeaway from this incident is that in addition to an understandable sensitivity to security threats, China is also not a particularly forgiving country where threats to national pride are involved. (There is of course the opposite view among some analysts that 1979 was an exception in China's otherwise exemplary record as a peaceful player in international relations, and among others that the war was related more to a decade-long period of tension with the Soviet Union, of which Vietnam was a client state.)

4. Students of history will also remember that in the India-China war of 1962, China attacked India (after months of Indian provocation, admittedly) on an extremely well chosen date - 20 October 1962. This was at the height of the Cuban missile crisis between the US and the USSR (16-28 October 1962), when the attention of both superpowers was exclusively on each other, and neither had the bandwidth to look at any issue anywhere else in the world. If China wanted to teach India a lesson today, it would probably look to find another such gripping event when world attention is irrevocably drawn elsewhere. 

5. From what I'm reading, the issue of mail-in ballots is crucial to the coming US election in Nov 2020. Voters supporting the Democrats seem to prefer mail-in ballots to a disproportionate extent. So the scenario that is being considered is that Trump is going to seem to win big on the night of Nov 3 (the so-called "red mirage"), but as the mail-in ballots continue to come in and get counted, state after state will flip to the Democrats. Since the delegate count in each state goes completely to one side or the other based on the parties' relative vote share, the balance of delegates will start to shift dramatically after a few days of counting. A few days after Nov 3, the mid-point may be reached, and thereafter the election will start to look like Biden's.

6. The political divide in the US has never been sharper or nastier. Both sides are uncompromising in their revulsion for each other. And Trump is a person who will not hesitate to use any means to stay in power. He and his Republican supporters will not allow the election to be taken from them in this way. But neither will the Democrats take it lying down if Trump tries to steal the election that they see themselves winning. I think there will be huge chaos in the US in the days following the election. Both sides will mount legal challenges in the courts of course, but I would not rule out widespread violence in the streets as well. We could even see a mini civil war.

7. Allowing a week for events in the US to escalate, that may be the time when China chooses to strike at India (around 10 Nov). The US will have no bandwidth to spare, being completely focused on its internal crisis. Russia today is a mere shadow of the USSR in terms of power, and cannot credibly intervene against China. In any case, Putin's Russia is more or less allied with China today and does not have any particular affinity for India. China will face no serious international opposition to such an adventure, and India will have to face this attack entirely alone.

8. India's own internal situation in early to mid-November is likely to be dire. The Covid death toll could be in the region of 200,000 (up from about 70,000 today). The Indian economy, already in recession, will be in far worse shape in a couple of months, with both inflation and unemployment up significantly. Parts of the country could be experiencing starvation. India will be at its weakest at that point, hit by the twin blows of a pandemic and unprecedented economic crisis.

9. What exactly will China do? I don't think the impact of China's actions will be as inconsequential as in 1962, when China invaded, but quickly withdrew to the old border after making a point. This time, I expect China's objectives to be more ambitious, so there will be some significant and permanent changes. I imagine that altering India's perceptions about the relative power of the two countries would be as important an objective to China as territorial gains. China will want to "fix" India for good, so they won't have to worry about their southern border again. 

10. As the first of three territorial issues, China is very concerned about the security of the CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor). This is the economic lifeline to Western China, providing access to the Pakistani port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea, but it passes too close to the border with India for China's comfort. In the event of future hostilities, India has the potential to disrupt this corridor. However, if the Kashmir Valley can be annexed and made part of Pakistani territory, that then creates an additional buffer to secure the CPEC from external attack.

Notice how close the CPEC passes to the LOC (Line of Control) between India and Pakistan.

11. The second territory of interest is Ladakh to the east of Jammu and Kashmir. Ladakh is arid and largely uninhabited, but it is militarily strategic. Annexing all or a large part of Ladakh can secure China's Tibetan border against India much more effectively.

Ladakh lies east of Jammu and Kashmir, and borders Tibet.

12. The third piece of territory is Arunachal Pradesh in India's far east, which China has long claimed as "South Tibet". India's northeastern states are connected to the mainland through a narrow corridor in Siliguri (the "chicken's neck"). It may be relatively easy for China to cut off the entire northeast by seizing this narrow corridor, and later bargaining to give back Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya in exchange for Arunachal, and possibly negotiating an independent status for Sikkim, Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram.

The region of Asia that lies between India and China is known as Indo-China for good reason, and reflects the historical interaction between the two ancient civilisations. The cultures of this region have both Indic and Sinic elements. While China may lack the appetite to actively annex regions with Indo-Chinese cultures, it would definitely prefer them to exist as independent buffer states rather than have them in the opposite camp.

Although the narrow "chicken's neck" corridor in Siliguri is buffered by Nepal and Bhutan, a determined China could hammer through at this point and cut off India's access to its entire northeast.

13. Expert opinion even within India has concluded that India's ability to fight a two-front war, never high to begin with, has weakened significantly. I believe this is how such a war will unfold. China will strike first at multiple points along the 4000 km long border, then after a few days, when India has shifted military resources away from its Western border with Pakistan to deal with this threat, the Pakistani army will strike to take the Kashmir valley in coordination with the PLA. They will likely get the full support of the local Kashmiri population. There could be an exodus of Hindus from Jammu into India. The entire state (comprising Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh) could be lost to India in days.

14. Together, China and Pakistan may be able to take many Indian POWs, just like India did to Pakistan in 1971, simply by cutting off access to territory and forcing the surrender of isolated troops. This would be an additional bargaining point for later. The Indian military could suffer massive casualties, especially in Kashmir, because the local people may ally with the Pakistanis and take their revenge for years of real or perceived oppression.

15. In about two weeks, by end-November, the war could essentially be over, leaving India with no options whatsoever. India will not be able to exercise its nuclear option against China because retribution would be immediate and incalculable.

16. Indian PM Narendra Modi and Pakistani PM Imran Khan may be summoned to Beijing (or a more neutral venue like Moscow) to sign a tripartite agreement between China, India and Pakistan, "settling" the border issue once and for all. India will essentially give up Kashmir to Pakistan, and Ladakh/Arunachal to China. Some of the northeastern states that are culturally Indic, like Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura, could be "generously" returned to India, and the others (Sikkim, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram) may be wrested from India and turned into "independent" countries. No prizes for guessing which way they will align thereafter.

17. As part of the agreement, India will have to accept China's suzerainty over Asia and agree not to oppose any Chinese initiative in future. India will also have to agree to limits on its own military power, especially its naval power.

18. Modi will return to India in disgrace after signing such an agreement, and I suspect he will not last long in power thereafter. After all, a humiliated nation needs scapegoats, and the Indian army also needs a "stabbed in the back" theory to avoid being blamed. There will be anti-Muslim pogroms throughout India, of course.

19. There could be a couple of silver linings to this debacle from the Indian perspective. First, there will probably be no further border conflicts, because a Pax Sinica will prevail thereafter. China wants a peaceful environment in which to do business, and it will probably prevail upon Pakistan to be satisfied with the acquisition of Kashmir and not create any further trouble in the region. Jihadist terror from across the Pakistani border is therefore likely to cease under Chinese pressure. Hence, in spite of smarting from a humiliating military defeat, Indians may paradoxically enjoy a prolonged period of peace and stability in the region. Second, as a result of this enforced peace, India will probably make great economic progress, like Japan or Germany after WW II. Indians will have no choice but to focus on the only thing that they can control without being perceived as a threat - the country's development, for which Chinese funding may also be available! In about a generation, India could achieve middle-income status and ensure a better life for its own people.

20. The million dollar question is - Is China likely to mount such an audacious attack on India in the first place? The risks of adventurism are high. After all, the invasion of Vietnam in 1979 is not considered an unqualified success by analysts. However, if events unfold as detailed in this post, the rewards to China are high too. The main development from China's perspective is that India will be forced to exit its incipient alliance with the US (as part of The Quad), and will pose no further threat to Chinese power for the foreseeable future. China will be free to engage with its primary rival, the United States, from a position of greater strength and leverage.

The one big factor that could negate this extreme scenario is China's traditional restraint, and patience to play an even longer game. In other words, the above events may yet play out, but over a couple of decades rather than in November 2020.

Sunday, 2 August 2020

More Democracy, Less Hypocrisy - A Prescription To Fix The Tragicomedy Of India's Language Policy

Prologue - What makes a sitcom funny?

One of the recurring tropes in situational comedy is ignorance. The audience is aware of something that the characters themselves aren't. The result is a series of humorous situations, as the characters, who make logical deductions and decisions based on their incorrect understanding of the situation, end up making blunder after hilarious blunder.

A related trope is deception. Some of the characters have a secret that they hide from other characters. The audience is in on the secret of course, and this results in another sequence of situations where the ignorant characters make their comical blunders because of their ignorance, while the guilty ones are put into equally hilarious situations as they attempt to keep up their deception.

A third related trope is miscommunication. The audience is aware of what a character is trying to convey, often in desperation, but the message is either not received, or is misread by other characters, and this miscommunication provides the resulting comedy.

The Great Indian Sitcom

The Great Indian Sitcom of language policy - now in its 73rd year

An observer of India's language policies over the past 73 years since the country's independence, especially in education, could be forgiven for believing they were watching an extended situational comedy, given the existence of all of the above tropes. Unfortunately, the serious impact of such policies on the poorest and most disadvantaged sections of Indian society makes this less a comedy and more a farce or a tragedy. For the purpose of this post, I will refer to it as a tragicomedy because it has elements of both.

Ignorance has been displayed on numerous occasions when decision makers have presumed to know what is best for their constituents, and issued edicts with complete moral certainty.

Deception is equally on display as elites piously prescribe a certain course of action for the masses, then quietly pursue the opposite course themselves.

Miscommunication has also been frequently seen, as leaders pretend not to hear what people are struggling to tell them, and policy experts remain deaf to popular demand.

In Tonight's Episode 

This blog post has been prompted by yet another episode in the Great Indian Sitcom, i.e., the release of India's National Education Policy (NEP) 2020.

While the NEP contains a number of common sense reforms that are long overdue, an element in it that has stirred up controversy is a seemingly innocuous clause:
Wherever possible, the medium of instruction until at least Grade 5, but preferably till Grade 8 and beyond, will be the home language/mother tongue/local language/regional language. Thereafter, the home/local language shall continue to be taught as a language wherever possible. This will be followed by both public and private schools.
Now, many politically neutral authority figures with experience working at the grassroots level support a policy of providing initial education in a child's home language in order to ease learning. They believe that once a child is comfortable in the school environment and develops the ability to learn, they can be taught additional languages and can even handle a switch to a different medium of instruction later on. This is not a purely Indian view. There is even a UNESCO document that recommends such an approach, and it needs to be carefully considered.

What raises suspicions about such a policy in the Indian context is that there is a strong ideological lobby within the country that supports this approach for an ulterior reason. India has a politically significant constituency opposed to the English language, and the primary drivers for such antipathy range from envy (an inability to communicate in English, and hence a desire to ensure that the language does not play an important role within the country) to a belief that the use of English is a vestige of colonialism, and that the country will never become truly free until the minds of Indians are completely de-colonised. A third ideological driver is the belief that India is a "civilisational state", that language and culture cannot be separated, and that the prevalence and power of the English language ultimately threatens Indian civilisation itself. This anti-English constituency supports the education of children in their mother-tongue, not out of concern for the child's ease of learning, but because it is a blow against English. A number of these people do not in fact support the change in medium of instruction to English at any stage.

Discerning the tropes


Something has been changing in the background over the years, which a hypothetical audience can now see, but not all the characters on the Indian stage are aware of or are willing to acknowledge yet.

Knowledge of the English language is fast becoming a fundamental life skill worldwide, on par with basic literacy and numeracy.  Proficiency in English, perhaps more than gender or ethnicity, is the new glass ceiling that keeps people from rising above a certain socio-economic level. This is true worldwide, not just in India.

In the past, members of the anti-English lobby in India would point to advanced countries, even the former Axis countries of Japan, Germany and Italy, arguing that if these countries could recover from defeat and re-establish themselves as advanced nations while providing pride of place to their own national languages in preference to English, India could very well do the same.

Of course, they conveniently tended to neglect the major complication in India's case, which is that India does not have a single language that it can call its national language, but literally hundreds of authentically native languages, and that emphasising one language over all others would be perpetrating a new colonialism within the country's borders.

The problem with the "Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan" ideology is that Hindustan is pluralistic to the extreme, and represents far more than the Hindi language or the Hindu religion. This majoritarian ideology lacks the vision and the empathy to deliver what such a diverse society requires.

Even overlooking that complication, the idea of a supreme "national language" is now passé. Those very same advanced countries that the anti-English lobby in India used as examples, have now adopted English with vigour. A recent study of 55 countries, including Japan, Germany, and Italy, and surprising examples like China, shows that over 50% of public schools in these countries have adopted English as the medium of instruction at the primary level. For private schools, the figure is over 85%! Those numbers are only growing.

Further underlining the importance of English in education is the fact that English-Taught Programs (ETPs) in universities have been growing at dramatic rates even in traditionally non-English speaking countries. This is a study providing examples from Europe, China and Korea.

About half of Europe's population of 750 million people can reportedly hold a conversation in English. How does India fare by that measure?

In today's world, a National Education Policy that does not talk about how it proposes to provide Indian children with the essential life skill of English language proficiency is failing in a fundamental responsibility to its citizens.


It is not as if the importance of English to an individual's social advancement has gone entirely unrecognised in India. Government-run schools providing free public education have always tended to use regional languages as their medium of instruction, but it is telling that the elites of the country, including the very politicians making a career out of their anti-English polemic, have invariably sent their own children not to these public schools, but to private schools with English as the medium of instruction. This is a phenomenon as old as the republic itself.

Without access to English skills, India's poor will be perpetually outside looking in. Wilfully ignoring this reality is criminal.

The sheer hypocrisy is staggering. The pious, patriotic posturing and exhortations to be true to one's culture are aimed at entrenching privilege and keeping the masses from competing with the progeny of the elite classes. So many scions of prominent anti-English public figures are not only fluent in English, many of them work for multinational corporations and live in the West.

Needless to say, such hypocrisy and perpetuation of privilege are indefensible, especially in a putative democracy where everyone is meant to have equal rights.


Again, it is not as if the masses in India are oblivious to the importance of English or to the fact that a lack of English skills is what keeps them from competing on equal terms with their elites. They have been voting with their feet, scraping together their meagre earnings in a bid to send their children to English-medium private schools of whatever quality.

The thirst to learn English is real, and no responsive government can ignore it

In some cases, governments have listened and responded, and the popular reception to these measures has confirmed that the demand was no chimera.

When the government of Karnataka announced in 2019 that one section of Year 1 in some government schools would be taught in the medium of English, there was a virtual stampede, resulting in the government being forced to consider opening many more.

It was especially surprising that the government of Uttar Pradesh, headed by a member of an organisation not known for its sympathy towards English, decided to introduce English into government-run schools right from kindergarten. If such is the demand for English in the Hindi heartland, which is the relative beneficiary at a national level from having Hindi as the lingua franca, one can imagine what it must be in the rest of the country.

The most dramatic example has come from Andhra Pradesh, where the state government has made English the only medium of instruction in public schools, and even the state language (Telugu) is only a compulsory subject, not the medium of instruction. It is nothing short of revolutionary, and the measure's popularity suggests the policy cannot be reversed by future governments of any ideological stripe.

"In order to eradicate poverty, students should get jobs, and English as the medium of instruction is required for that" - Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy

If policymakers and political leaders remain deaf to the demands of their constituencies even after these examples have shown them what those demands are, it suggests wilful denial, which is an abrogation of trust that voters have placed in their elected representatives.

What needs to be done?

This is a no-brainer, but let me spell it out anyway. Indian governments, whether central or state, should simply do what they are supposed to as democratically elected executive bodies.

To break it down into two simple steps:

1. Ask the people what they want
2. Give it to them


1. Find out what people want as the medium of instruction for their children, whether through surveys, referenda, or other feedback methods

2. Do whatever is necessary in practical terms to ensure that this is provided, anticipating and solving the many logistical and infrastructural problems that would constrain its rollout

I cannot understand what is controversial about this. I guess we all know what the result of such a study of citizen wants is going to be. Yes, it's going to be an overwhelming vote in favour of English. (Cue boos from the "nationalist" lobby.) The reluctance to go down this obvious path is purely because the anticipated popular choice is not to the liking of the decision-making elite.

Let us be very clear on this. If someone opposes giving the people what they want, they are being undemocratic, period. Such opposition is simply unconscionable and nothing less than a crime.

I have heard educated people argue against this conclusion on a variety of grounds, some of which are:

1. "People don't really want an English-language education for their kids, even if it seems that way. They're really just asking for better-run schools, regardless of language of instruction."

2. "At the grassroots level, English is not important. The local language is more important, and hence children should be instructed in the local language."

3. "Any survey or referendum organised for the purpose of gathering data to determine language policy will be influenced by politics, so we shouldn't conduct one."

4. "Look at what happened with the Brexit referendum. It shows that it's very dangerous to ask people what they want. People don't understand complex issues, and can shoot themselves in the foot."

5. "Even if you want to provide English-medium education, there are no skilled teachers, so how are you going to do it?"

I'm frankly astonished at these weasel words. The very same arguments can equally be used to argue against holding elections and respecting an electoral mandate, yet nobody dares to do that. Why do these lame excuses become respectable arguments outside the context of elections?

Brave New World

The good news, if Indian decision-makers show the courage to do what their constituents are crying out for them to do, is that it is easier today than ever before to carry this out.

Researcher Sugata Mitra's 1999 "hole in the wall" experiment involving slum children and their unaided discovery and exploration of computers was simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming. There is tremendous thirst for knowledge among India's disadvantaged. Governments must respond!

For one, when people want a policy measure to succeed, they will extend their utmost cooperation to make that happen. The will of the people is not just a rhetorical device. It can be the difference between failure and overwhelming success.

Second, the finding that children learn best through their native language is not an automatic argument against the early introduction of English. This is a false choice. Any number of tailored approaches will work to familiarise children with the English language in a given cultural context. When the target audience is so strongly receptive, they will pull out all the stops required to make this work.

Third, the post-Covid world has clearly demonstrated that remote working and remote learning are eminently practical. Local teachers can use online resources to educate themselves even as they educate their pupils. They can be co-learners and facilitators rather than teachers in the strict sense of the word.

Fourth, since the infrastructure required for online learning requires investments in electrification and telecommunications, this policy provides an additional impetus for these needed infrastructural developments. Far from infrastructure gaps providing an excuse not to adopt a high-tech approach to education, the requirement for online learning should be seen as a critical driver for delivering infrastructure.

Fifth, innovations in online education, even for severely disadvantaged sections, have been around for a long time, e.g., Prof. Brij Kothari's SLS (Same Language Subtitling) for broadcast programs.


In short, it is high time the curtain was brought down on the tragicomedy of India's self-inflicted handicaps to social advancement.

The people are speaking loud and clear, and only the most cynical still refuse to acknowledge it. Indians want their children to reach their full potential, and to enjoy everything the modern world has to offer. They clearly recognise that the key to opening the door to that Utopia is English language proficiency. It is the duty of government at every level to step up and deliver to that demand.

There will no doubt be some obstacles in the path to achieving that dream, but the correct attitude is to look for ways to remove those obstacles, not to use them as excuses for inaction.

Enough is enough!