Monday, 9 December 2013

From Sonapur To Singapore, Elysium Stands Exposed

Riots in Singapore! The news is shocking not just for its violent fury (vehicles burnt, police cars overturned) but also for the fact that they could happen at all in such a country - orderly, disciplined Singapore. As I followed more of the news, initial incredulity gave way to a sardonic and depressing recognition as the location of the riots and the identity of the rioters became apparent. The rioters were reported to be migrant workers from India and Bangladesh. Such unseemly events are unfortunately common in India, and if they had to happen in Singapore, it could only be in Little India.

The initial provocation seems to have been the fatal running over of a migrant South Asian worker by a private bus, but the reaction of his fellows was extreme and of surprising scale (400 persons were said to have rioted, trashing property and taking on even the police). There surely must have been some deeper, long-standing grievances that burst through the surface with this incident.

Infographic from The Straits Times analysing the riot

Cyberspace was quick as always to pick up on the race angle, and it was open season for the commentariat's stereotyping and name-calling. Officialdom, equally quick to underplay or deny the race angle, chose to emphasise an aseptic "law and order" concern instead. However, both these narratives are only partially correct. This is partly about race, and partly about law and order. But in truth, it is about economics, it is about global capitalism, it is about rising but frustrated expectations, and it is ultimately about revolution. (Historians tell us that revolutions occur during times of rising expectations, and we happen to live in one of those times.)

I'm no Marxist, but I have eyes and I can see. I believe I can see better than our political leaders and captains of industry that we cannot build a consumerist paradise on the back of underpaid migrant labour and expect eternal tranquillity. Our globalised capitalist system cannot see beyond its nose or this quarter's profit figures. Relentless in driving down the costs of its inputs and raising the prices of its outputs to whatever levels the market will bear, the system has created a social tinderbox. The recent Science Fiction film "Elysium" starring Matt Damon is a commentary on exactly what we are seeing on earth today with its bubbles of serene prosperity such as Singapore. As Wikipedia says, Elysium "explores political and sociological themes such as immigration, overpopulation, transhumanism, health care, exploitation and class issues". This is exactly the ugly can of worms that Singapore's riots have rudely laid bare.

Elysium - the world of the privileged elite

Earth - where the rest of humanity lives

As the saying goes, we don't live in an economy. We live in a society. The most powerful argument against treating human beings as "resources" is that resources are not expected to nurse grievances about exploitation and injustice. Human beings can and do.

I have personal experience of exploitation by that other Elysium - Dubai. In 1994-95, even after completing my second masters degree, I was working in India earning a pathetic salary of 8000 rupees a month. Highly educated yet poorly paid, I was living a life of genteel poverty in high-cost Mumbai, and it could not last. Marriage accentuated the unviability of my condition, so my wife and I moved into my parents' house for a modest improvement in living standards. That too could not last. It was then that I received a job offer from an employer in Dubai, and it seemed too good to be true. I was offered the equivalent of 60,000 rupees a month, and I immediately accepted, overjoyed at my good fortune. But reality hit as soon as I landed in Dubai, for two reasons. One, the amount I was paid, while generous by Indian standards, only allowed me a modest living in Dubai. Two, I quickly learned that expats from more developed countries, the UK in particular, were earning many multiples of what I did. Among my class, i.e., the educated white-collar Indian expats of Dubai, there was constant jealous muttering and grumbling about the Brits. The grapevine carried tales of new hires from the UK to senior management positions with hefty salaries and perks like villas, BMWs and four-wheel drives. One of these people, it was said, used to be a petrol station attendant back in the UK. Now he lived in a villa and drove a fancy car to work, while we Indians, with far better education, lived in modest apartment blocks and walked to work, often in the blazing Middle East sun.

Neverthless, I had it relatively easy. I have since read about the plight of migrant labour in Dubai, also from the Indian subcontinent but from more impoverished backgrounds than mine. They are paid a pittance (yet more than what they could earn in India), housed in overcrowded tenements, bused out to construction sites early in the morning and bused back in the evening. The Dubai township where many of them are housed is called, with deep irony, Sonapur (Hindi for "city of gold"). Sonapur is the Earth to Dubai's Elysium. It is Sonapur's migrant labour that builds Dubai's gleaming skyscrapers, its unaffordably priced hotels with the taps of gold, its luxurious shopping malls, indoor ski slopes and ice rinks and other symbols of hedonistic excess. It is a world that Sonapur's worker class can see, but can never hope to touch. I confess that for a few years after my Dubai experience, I harboured a deep sense of resentment towards UK nationals, whom I viewed as undeservingly entitled and privileged. Having experienced class jealousy and a sense of injustice first hand, I can imagine what the developed world's underclass must feel.

Dubai - The Elysium of the Middle East

Sonapur - Dubai's migrant workers' quarter

My own story turned out quite well. The second masters degree that I referred to earlier was in preparation for migration to Australia, another fortress-like Elysium with a moat and drawbridge to keep out unwanted boat people. As a skilled migrant, I was welcomed into this rarefied world. Education was my ticket to Elysium, and although I had to undergo some sacrifice to attain it, it was within my reach. For the uneducated migrant workers of Dubai, Singapore and elsewhere, Elysium is hopelessly and permanently beyond reach.

What can be done? The official response to the latest riots is typically and laughably Singaporean - ban alcohol. In the nineties, faced with an epidemic of passive-aggressive citizen protest in the form of chewing gum stuck to the buttons of elevators and the door sensors on the MRT, the Singaporean government responded in the way it knew best. It banned chewing gum. There was no attempt to understand the social frustrations that lay beneath that layer of chewing gum, and I don't expect any such attempt now. There will be no ban on migrant labour itself, nor a raise in their wages. Such moves would threaten the financial foundations on which the prosperity of Elysium rests, so sheer economic rationalism would forestall such moves. However, the roots of riots like this are not alcohol but frustration. Asking people to work for a pittance to build a world of luxury in which they cannot share is a recipe for social unrest. We can ban alcohol, but we cannot ban frustration.

Viewing this as a purely law-and-order situation is also limiting. Yes, lawbreaking cannot be condoned, so arrests, prosecutions and convictions must occur. But while we may sip our lattes and debate whether we live in a melting pot or a salad bowl, the reality for many is that they live in a pressure cooker. Cracking down only tightens the lid on that pressure cooker. It doesn't reduce the pressure, and any long-term solution has to address that. The differences in our society are not so much charming diversity as stark disparity. It is a situation that demands urgent policy attention.

I'm not a socialist, and I don't advocate socialistic solutions. I know that we cannot legislate an artificial economic equality. But I am egalitarian, and I believe that all human beings have a right to be treated with equal dignity. For an egalitarian society to be even viable, the quality of human capital has to be raised to a certain minimum level across the world. Capitalism is our best hope, but it needs to evolve into a wiser system that sees human beings not as resources to be exploited but as productive free agents as well as well-off consumers, so it must aim to put more money and time into people's hands. This is not for altruistic reasons but out of enlightened self-interest. The returns for all are much higher when societies are uniformly well-off.

So this is not really Singapore's problem, or Dubai's, or the developed world's. It is a problem for the governments of poorer countries to solve, and urgently. If Indian nationals can expect higher living standards at home, the laws of capitalism will of course ensure that fewer of them will find employment in foreign countries, but those that do will be offered wages that are closer to what nationals of those countries receive, reducing disparity and consequent social unrest. India must grow at a minimum of 10% for the next 15 to 20 years to prevent these pressure cookers around the world from exploding. [India also has an additional problem of 30 million "extra males" resulting from years of gender selective reproduction, and the frustrations of a generation of unfulfilled Indian men will create problems both for the country and for the world, but that is a separate issue.]

If there is one man who can be indirectly blamed for Singapore's riots, it is India's economist prime minister Manmohan Singh. In the last five years of his current term, he has done nothing to unshackle the Indian economy and facilitate the growth rate that can save us all a world of pain. He is sure to exit office after the May 2014 elections. I fervently hope India's future leaders have what it takes to raise the country's living standards, or else, given the global importance of subcontinental labour, all the world's Elysiums could come crashing down.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Some Thoughts On Vote-Bank Politics And A Uniform Civil Code

A friend pointed me to a program on NDTV where the prominent Indian politician, Subramanian Swamy, made a couple of noteworthy points.

Subramanian Swamy - voice of reason, or dangerous demagogue?

His first point pertained to vote-bank politics. He said, very correctly, that Indian politics has always been dominated by vote-bank calculations along religious and caste lines. Politicians have always tried to appeal to narrow sectarian interests, such as Yadavs, Jats, Dalits and Muslims. I'm not very sure if he was right in claiming that Muslims (or indeed any other group) vote as a bloc, but I certainly don't agree with his corollary that he is doing nothing different by attempting to consolidate the Hindu vote by dissolving the caste boundaries that divide Hindus.

My reasoning is that multi-cornered electoral contests are less "dangerous" to a society than two-sided ones. Multi-cornered fights are necessarily more diffuse, and the shifting allegiances of coalition politics can prevent communal fault-lines from developing into permanent battle-lines. In contrast, two-sided contests, especially when they take on the flavour of a dominant majority versus a minority, can be quite poisonous, as the example of India's neighbour Sri Lanka should have amply made clear.

So Swamy's innocent claim that he is pursuing nothing different from what political parties have always done, is not something that can be accepted with equanimity. The consolidation of a Hindu vote, if it ever comes about, will be a dangerous development, and it will set India drifting in the direction of a civil war without end.

I believe a secular society must be stoutly defended, but by the state, not a community. In other words, the response to a sports team that plays too aggressively is not an equally aggressive opposing team, but a strong referee who enforces the rules and is not afraid to hand out red cards.

The second point he made was about the desirability of a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) for the country, as opposed to the current situation where Muslim citizens of India come under the jurisdiction of Muslim Personal Law (a subset of Shariah law dealing with civil cases like property disputes and alimony, and thankfully not the beheading, stoning, flogging and amputation variety.)

Swamy has a very strong case (as evidenced by the show of hands he was able to elicit in the studio), but in my opinion, the argument in favour of the UCC has never been framed correctly.

Rajiv Gandhi's government erred by introducing Muslim Personal Law for Muslims in the Shah Bano case. In effect, the government threw Muslim women under the bus, starting with Shah Bano herself. A civil court would have granted her alimony, but when her case was deemed to come under the purview of Muslim Personal Law, she got nothing. Clearly, a Uniform Civil Code would be better for Muslim women, since Muslim Personal Law is relatively misogynistic, but would Muslim women vote for it? I doubt it. That's because the whole UCC question has been needlessly turned into one of personal identity, and projected as proof that the Hindu majority is attempting to take away the identity of Indian Muslims by denying them their own system of laws.

The way I believe the UCC should be approached is by positioning Muslim Personal Law as a form of arbitration. All civil cases should be heard by a regular court that applies uniform laws for all citizens, but if the two parties to a case are both Muslim, and both agree to have their case heard by a Muslim court instead, then the case may be referred to the Muslim Law Board as a legally recognised arbitrator. In other words, the two parties agree to settle their case out of court using a community-recognised arbitrator. If either party refuses, the case remains in the civil court. Thus, the UCC does not replace Muslim Personal Law, but merely treats it as an alternative mechanism to resolve disputes if both parties agree.

[Once both parties agree to have their case heard by the Muslim Law Board, they must also agree in advance that its verdict will be binding on them. Neither of them may return to the civil court in case of an unfavourable verdict by the MLB, since such a recourse will just encourage "verdict shopping".]

I believe this is the way the UCC debate should be framed. Muslim Personal Law should still be an available option for two willing parties. After all, even in a civil court, two parties have the right to have their case settled out of court or through the use of an arbitrator. MPL just needs to stop being an alternate universe for Muslim citizens. Provided this legal model is argued and sold intelligently, it is possible that many Muslims will also support it. The perceived assault on minority identity can be avoided while also bringing sanity to the justice system.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

I, Me and Movies

In recent times, I have engaged in robust debates with friends on the merits and demerits of movies that I reviewed on my blog, and I have now realised a few things:

- There are no permanent allies or permanent foes where movie tastes are concerned
- It takes all kinds, and there's no accounting for taste
- It's not just other people who are exasperatingly unpredictable in their tastes; I'm myself high-brow in some situations and quite low-brow in others

There are those critics among my friends who resemble The Real Princess of Hans Christian Andersen's fable, because the tiniest flaw in a movie, like a pea beneath the bottommost mattress, can ruin the entire experience for them. Fortunately for me, I think I must come from stolid peasant stock, because those imperfections have to be pretty major to begin to affect my enjoyment. (At times, when these friends rip apart movies that I enjoy, I start to feel like a tasteless boor with very low standards. But then again, I have strong likes and dislikes of my own, so I guess I'm not entirely undiscriminating.) 

There are other friends who have for some unfathomable reason decided that I am a "sophisticated" critic who must have very highly evolved tastes, and who therefore expect me to like only award-winning, "art" movies. In truth, to quote an old friend of mine, I generally find such movies to be "avoid-winning" and I never watch them if I can help it. [I take heart from a report about that intellectual giant Raghuram Rajan, currently the governor of the Reserve Bank of India (and formerly my classmate), who says he enjoys physical sports but not chess!]

I view movies as entertainment, pure and simple. They represent an escapist paradise from the tedium, if not the stress, of everyday day. I'm not a "serious" movie-goer or connoisseur of any sort. Yet I myself find my exact taste in movies very hard to pin down.

Looking over the list of movies I like and don't like, I can begin to understand my criteria.

I tend to like "low stress" movies, humour (clean as well as naughty, but not gross), light romance, catchy music, some action, moderate suspense, glamourised violence, interesting villains (if they must exist at all), science fiction and superheroes.

An interesting premise, a reasonably well-told story and at least the main characters fairly well defined, help a lot. I'm a lot more forgiving than The Real Princess if these aren't quite stellar.

I tend not to like horror, gross-out humour, high emotion/melodrama, high-tension suspense, realistic violence, tales of suffering, struggle and sacrifice, tragic romance, tragedy in general, depictions of poverty, gritty crime, and threats to the well-being of vulnerable women, children and animals. (Does that cover everything?)

You see, I'm trying to escape from the mild unpleasantnesses of the real world for a couple of hours. Do I really need to inflict myself with intense unpleasantness, however vicarious?

A related piece of criticism that I hear about movies that I like is that they are "not realistic". On the contrary, I believe that is the very reason for my enjoyment! If I craved realism that much, I could just open the pages of the daily news or walk down the street and talk to real people. I certainly don't want to buy a ticket to the cinema and find I've paid for the same reality on the screen! Among Indians of my generation, such movies find their zenith (nadir?) in Adoor Gopalakrishnan's much-awarded execration, Elippathayam, in which a character could spend ten minutes examining his face in the mirror, and the audience gets to share every one of those excruciating ten minutes with him. So much for realism in the movies. My arthouse connoisseur friends can have it all.

Then there are some actors I dislike, so I can never warm to their movies. And if I sense movie-makers are pushing political or social messages that I disagree with, there goes their movie in my eyes (Hello, Jon Favreau of Iron Man, the biggest issue with the war in Afghanistan is not that American weapons are being used against American soldiers, although the ever-patriotic home audience would certainly like to be told so! Hello, Karan Johar of that otherwise beautiful movie KANK, there's no such thing as one single "soul mate" out there whom you must marry on pain of living a loveless life!) I've never gone back to see the Iron Man sequels 2 and 3, and Johar remains, yet unforgiven, in the penalty corner of my mind.

I like a fair bit of fantasy and larger-than-life characters and situations. I like mock-scary movies rather than really scary ones, the ones that give you thrills with comfort, like when a child watches a scary movie sitting on the lap of a reassuring adult. An extra scoop of thrills, and hold the realism! In the context of Bollywood, I like seeing beautiful people performing impossible stunts, singing catchy songs and making awful jokes.

I'm always game for a light "chick flick" in which the worst possible tragedy is a couple splitting up, not the tissue-box variety like Steel Magnolias in which people suffer and die. I like all the movies based on Jane Austen's novels.

And did I mention that I like science-fiction and superhero movies?

However, in spite of the detailed list of my likes and dislikes above, I've often found myself liking or disliking movies that broke these rules.

For example, though I dislike realistic violence and gore, I have been quite happy watching movies about groups of grown men whom I care nothing about taking up arms and slaughtering each other to the accompaniment of stunts and explosions. A whole series of war movies in my collection bears testimony to this. I guess not having any feeling of attachment or identification with the characters makes them expendable in my eyes. Their sufferings aren't real enough for me to empathise with.

I also enjoyed Under Siege, Broken Arrow and Die Hard (especially Die Hard 2). Again, since I had developed no emotional connection with any of the characters, I didn't mind what happened to them, and the most suspenseful situations didn't affect me personally.

In that context, although I abhor scenes of suffering, blood and gore, I confess I love it when villains die shockingly horrible deaths. The treacherous Major Grant being sucked into a jet engine in Die Hard 2 remains one of my favourite villain deaths. In the Bollywood spy thriller Agent Vinod, the villainy of the chillingly unstoppable "colonel" is finally ended by a helicopter's tail rotor. A simple bullet will never do! If I have to put up with scenes of realistic violence and convincing portrayals of innocent people suffering because of a particularly nasty villain, I insist that that villain meet a suitably horrific fate before the movie ends. The Bollywood movie Dabangg, which I sat through with great difficulty, did satisfy me at the end. The villain, who (among other cruelties) caused the hero's asthmatic mother to suffocate to death by denying her her inhaler, gets a tractor's exhaust pipe stuffed into his mouth by the hero, while his brother presses the accelerator. That's a more cheering ending for me than a happy couple getting married. Real-world villains get away with their crimes depressingly often, so I savour every instance of retribution I can find, whether real or imaginary.

Some realistic yet violent movies are still interesting. Bollywood's Madras Café was fascinating to me because I have closely followed the Sri Lankan civil war for as long as it has raged (about thirty years).

The interplay of science fiction (which I like) and horror/heavy suspense (which I dislike), produces interesting and unpredictable results. I disliked Alien, but I didn't mind either Predator or Alien vs Predator. I guess the difference was that Alien had a vulnerable female protagonist whose safety affected me personally, whereas Predator had a commando who could presumably take care of himself, and AVP distanced the characters from me, emotionally speaking.

Also within the Science Fiction/thriller genre, I liked Terminator 2 and the entire Jurassic Park series (where I knew from the start that nothing would happen to the main characters), as well as some putatively B grade movies like Dark Waters (where I didn't care).

I disliked Jaws because of the suspense, the loud, scary music, and the photography that made me feel I was myself in the water and in imminent danger. Yet sharks in general hold a fascination for me, so I quite liked the science fiction thriller Deep Blue Sea, with its mako sharks genetically engineered to be "bigger, faster, smarter and meaner". It also helped that I was watching it at home with the volume turned down. (I'm sure Sharknado is an awful movie, but the premise is so outlandishly fascinating I don't think I can keep from watching it!)

Like Sharknado (which I haven't yet seen) and Snakes on a Plane (which I have), there are some movies I cannot resist watching because of their intriguing basic premise, even though I know in advance that they will be awful. Cowboys and Aliens just had to be seen. Likewise, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

On the other hand, there are some critically acclaimed movies I can't handle. The Godfather was very disturbing, especially in its signature scenes like the man waking up in bed with his favourite horse's head beside him, and the man being garotted to death in a car and breaking the windshield in his death throes. Mad Max still gives me nightmares, with that very disturbing disembodied hand holding a chain, and the woman and child run over. The English Patient featured breathtaking photography, but I wouldn't wish the protagonist's tragedy on my worst enemy. I wouldn't even wish them to sit through the movie. To this day, The English Patient remains my metaphor for a work of beauty that is an absolute horror.

Needless to say, I would not watch Schindler's List unless a Luger were held to my head.

There are movies that I would not willingly watch (because they're tear-jerkers or too gritty) but which I don't regret watching if I accidentally do watch them. District 9 and In Bruges were movies I watched on a flight out of sheer boredom, and found that I could appreciate them ("Like" would be too strong a word). Lots of Bollywood movies also fall into this category, too numerous to mention by name.

[Speaking of Bollywood, the average level of quality has risen perceptibly in recent years, and I find myself enjoying more of them every year. The highlights of 2013 so far have been Chashme Buddoor, Madras Café and Krrish 3, and barring a major disappointment, will almost certainly include the much-awaited Dhoom 3 in December.]

At the deepest level of self-analysis, therefore, I guess I like movies that engage me but not involve me emotionally (i.e., give me stress, move me to tears or gross me out). In other words, I'm equal parts thrill-seeker and coward.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Plagiarism Or Inspiration? The Curious Case Of Star Wars And Flash Gordon

A common refrain I heard from many people about the Bollywood superhero movie Krrish 3 (which I reviewed here) was about how much of it was plagiarised from Hollywood movies. I could see the specific elements that were borrowed, but I still liked the movie very much. (Personally, I don't mind if a person builds an original Lego sculpture with borrowed Lego blocks. I only draw the line at sculptures borrowed in their entirety.)

Anyway, all those charges of plagiarism reminded me of a similar case I thought I knew of.

For many years now, I have believed that George Lucas stole some of his ideas for Star Wars from Flash Gordon. After all, Flash Gordon dates back to the '50s, while Star Wars was only released in 1977, right?

I'm not so sure now. The tidbits I'm about to share with you are from one particular Flash Gordon comic book called "The Space Invaders", the Indian edition of which you can read online by following the link. On closer examination today, it looks like this issue only appeared in print in 1982, which means the inspiration must have worked in the other direction. I seem to have done George Lucas a grave injustice in my mind for 30 years!

To save you the trouble of reading the entire comic, let me post certain extracts for you.

1. Do you remember the scene where Darth Vader punishes one of his fleet's captains for letting the rebel ship escape?

"Apology accepted, Captain Needa"

Take a look at the relevant section from "The Space Invaders":

Baron Dak Tula of the Skorpi has the very same telekinetic power to kill, and uses it in similar situations

On page 13, Dak Tula refers to Flash Gordon as "the one great knight" who faced him and lived. Was that inspired by the term "Jedi Knight"?

2. How about that telepathic conversation between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker?

From 9:25 to 9:30 - "Luke"..."Father"..."Son"

The Baron and Flash Gordon can communicate mentally too.
What are these "powers" that Flash has acquired since they last met? And the Baron represents the "dark powers", rather like "the dark side of the Force"

3. Darth Vader escapes the destruction of the Death Star

From 3:10 to 3:20 - Darth Vader's ship is hit and spins out of control, but he escapes the explosion of the Death Star

A minor difference - Baron Dak Tula's ship is not just hit, but destroyed, and he teleports himself to safety

It's fascinating how ideas from works in Science Fiction and Fantasy feed off each other, but I guess we shouldn't be too surprised. The book "The Seven Basic Plots" makes the point that there are very few original ideas for storylines to start with. That's why so many stories and movies leave us with a sense of déjà vu.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Mars Versus Malnutrition - The False Debate Resumes

It's been my cynical observation that nothing causes an outpouring of concern for India's poor and starving millions like a space mission (or in an earlier age, a nuclear test). [And by the way, this isn't strictly a guns-versus-butter argument, because external critics of India's defence spending are largely silent when their countries' arms industries are the beneficiaries.]

The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), popularly known as Mangalyaan (Sanskrit/Hindi for Mars craft), was appropriately launched on a Wednesday (which is Mangalvaar, or "Mars-day", in the Indian calendar). 

Whether MOM launched a space probe or not, it certainly launched a barrage of criticism from various quarters, both Indian and foreign. The refrain was familiar. A country with so many poor people/people without toilets/starving children (take your pick) shouldn't be wasting money on space.

It's a different matter that the cessation of funding for space research isn't going to end poverty, and in fact, might cause it to drag on longer. The argument in favour of space research has been very effectively made by Dr Ernst Stuhlinger in his letter to a nun.

In fact, the "poor people" argument is ironically the most potent in favour of India's space program. The 1999 cyclone that hit India, like typhoon Haiyan that hit the Philippines this week, killed 10,000 people. But the cyclone Phailin, which hit India last month, only claimed 10 lives. The difference between 1999 and 2013 was that three Indian satellites - INSAT-3A, INSAT-3D and KALPANA - provided early warning and real-time monitoring of the storm, enabling the evacuation of over a million people out of harm's way. All three satellites were developed and launched indigenously, at a cost far below comparable services that could have been purchased from abroad. Critics should talk to the "poor people" who were saved about the benefit of the Indian space program.

In the 1960s, about 10-15% of the US population was considered "poor". Should the US have abandoned its man-on-the-moon mission until there were no more poor? Should the US even now refrain from spending money on probes like the Mars rover Curiosity until the American people enjoy universal health care?

Some of the posturing is so transparent, the insecurities of the author/editors shine through. India Mars Mission to Launch Amidst Overwhelming Poverty, reads the Las Vegas Guardian's shrill headline.

Indian critics are not to be left behind. Social activist Harsh Mander thought the Mars mission showed "a remarkable indifference to the dignity of the poor".

Some Indians were more specific in their criticism of this particular mission rather than with the idea of India's space efforts in general. One blogger believes the mission is a waste of resources because it will bring back no new data of value.

Even critics like him miss the point entirely.

To be blunt, the objective of the Mars Orbiter Mission is not to study Mars or to bring back useful data about the red planet! It has had several other objectives. Even if the orbiter dies after a single orbit of Mars, it would have achieved the following:

Prestige: It is undeniable that people around the world are now looking at India with new-found respect. If India succeeds where China and Japan have failed, it will be a significant achievement in the eyes of the world. The stage-wise approach of raising the craft's orbit in increments before breaking free of the earth's gravity, is an example of the Indian ability to improvise ("jugaad") in the face of constraints (namely the lack of a more powerful rocket like the GSLV).

The bulk of the complex mission still lies ahead, but on paper at least, the plan seems simultaneously ingenious and workable

Inspiration: Countless numbers of young Indians have been energised by the mission. The glamour of being a space scientist is already inspiring large numbers of students to opt for the hard sciences - the study of Mathematics, Physics and Aerospace Engineering. Engineering enrolments are likely to see a boost in the years to come.

Cyberspace - another frontier conquered by ISRO

For a government-owned entity, ISRO has surprised watchers not only with its frugality but also with its transparency. Every stage of the mission's progress was reported on social media, and an eager band of followers (over 200,000 strong) hung on to every word, staying up till the wee hours and posting encouraging messages.

Marketing: India has subtly advertised to the world that (1) its commercial launch capabilities are extremely economical, (2) its workhorse rocket, the PSLV, is highly reliable, and (3) its mission control specialists are skilled, experienced and capable of tackling problems that arise during a mission. A lot more business should flow ISRO's way in the months ahead.

Skills and Employment: As a wag put it, India's investment of $75 million on this mission has not been stuffed in the form of banknotes into the rocket and sent off into space. It has been spent in India, providing employment and experience to thousands of professionals, including those in ancillary industries such as Walchandnagar Industries Limited, which precision-manufactured the parts of the rocket and orbiter. It's an investment that will provide continuing returns.

In short, I think critics should shut up and get with the (space) program.

Update 16/11/2013: A very clear explanation of what MOM will and will not achieve can be heard in this 10-minute clip of an interview with D Raghunandan of the Delhi Science Forum.

Update 24/09/2014: MOM has reached Mars and entered orbit around the planet after almost 10 months in space.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Sterling Values Sold For Thirty Pieces

The news of Mahatma Gandhi's spinning wheel (charkha) being sold for 110,000 pounds at a Shropshire auction should not shock us. It is a sign of the times we live in. We are capable of putting a price tag on simplicity itself if it appeals to people, because clearly, there's a market for it.

The author of a literally homespun revolution is now a hot collector's item

It reminds me of that other anti-capitalist icon who has become the ultimate chic consumerist commodity - Che Guevara. He has done so much for capitalists since he died, since his face adorns millions of t-shirts sold around the world.

A most revolutionary idea in fashion

When Open Source software began to be known to the average IT person around the year 2000, many people were puzzled by the phenomenon. "How can anyone make money from it?" was the question. I wrote two articles ("Open Source-onomics" and "The Capitalist View of Open Source") to address these misconceptions.

There was a time when a movie's popularity used to be measured by how many weeks it ran in the theatres. No longer. Today, the measurement of popularity is money. In recent personal experience, I was saddened to see that most on-line news and reader commentary about a movie I liked (Krrish 3) was about how much money it had been able to gross (and how quickly) rather than how good it was.

As a society, we seem to be at that classic stage where we know "the price of everything and the value of nothing".

Monday, 4 November 2013

Cultural Shorthand

When looking at a friend's Facebook photos, I came across one that was pretty striking - a lone man surrounded by women at a table, making a peculiar gesture with his hands. What was that all about?

(Faces partially pixellated for privacy, while preserving expressions)

I knew only one of the people in the photo. I had no idea what the occasion for the get-together was or who the other people in the photo were. Yet I "got" the reference immediately, and then I realised it was highly culture-specific. I had to marvel then at human civilisation. We have evolved into so many highly differentiated cultures with unique and specific situational themes that we can convey humour with a single word or gesture. We are masters of cultural shorthand.

The reference was of course to the Hindu god Krishna, traditionally shown as a cowherd playing a flute and surrounded by women of his village called gopis. There is even a special name for Krishna in that situation - Gopikrishna.

Krishna and the gopis - a popular Hindu motif

With one simple, eloquent gesture, the man in the photo conveyed enough to raise a chuckle among viewers like myself, who knew nothing at all about their group.

Obviously, one cannot imagine this being transplanted to another culture. A joke, to be effective, has to be a symbol drawn from the appropriate cultural repertoire.

"The only thorn among the roses!"

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Movie Review - Krrish 3

(Warning - plot spoilers ahead)
(Further warning - this positive review is apparently leading to disappointment when people actually see the movie. Please scale down your expectations before watching :-) )

When a movie lies at the confluence of three genres (Science Fiction, Superhero and Bollywood), it becomes trivially easy to enjoy (or to dislike) but makes it very difficult to write a truly insightful review.

I'm going to try, anyway.

I saw Krrish 3 on its opening night in Sydney (Oct 31), a day before it screened in its home market of India :-). [I like watching Bollywood movies in Australia and Hollywood movies in India, because I like to have English subtitles all the time to avoid missing any part of the dialogues!]

I'd seen the two prequels ("Koi...Mil Gaya" and "Krrish"), and while there was improvement between the first and second films, I was still preparing to be disappointed by the third, because - and all Indians will know this feeling, - every time an Indian or a group of Indians (like the national cricket team) manages to get within reach of some international benchmark, they inevitably fail, disappointing their fans and well-wishers. Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory seems to be in the national character, and we Indians have been let down far too often by our heroes. [The only real Indian achievers at the international level are the quiet ones in research, academia and technical-professional careers.] Would an Indian film-maker be able to hold his own against his formidable counterparts in Hollywood when venturing into their home territory of the Science Fiction/Superhero genre? Or, more likely, would his film drown in an embarrassing excess of maudlin sentimentality and shoddy production, to universal ridicule?

I confess I felt vicarious trepidation.

Nothing wrong with the poster - so far, so good

As it turned out, director-producer Rakesh Roshan acquitted himself very creditably. Dare I say this is a Hollywood-class superhero movie?

I've read some rather churlish reviews of Krrish 3 after I saw the movie. I think some critics believe their job title obliges them to criticise rather than critique. They have to show off their superior taste and artistic nous, and to do so by tearing down other people's work with a display of fine language. Rarely have I seen such reluctance to praise unconditionally ("Great effects, but too much emotional drama", "ambitious but flawed", "rubbish but a sure hit", "entertains but lacks originality"). Perhaps these critics are trying to reconcile their own tendency to be negative with the obvious fact that this is such a polished product that it's sure to be a blockbuster. Their whole attitude reminds me of the old story of The Jealous Courtiers.

The two most frequently aired complaints about this movie are that it is "boring" and is "unoriginal/plagiarised". Both of these complaints are just plain wrong.

Krrish 3 is anything but boring! Interesting things keep happening throughout the film. There are no moments that drag (if you discount the song sequences - the Bollywood cognoscenti know enough to switch mental gears and pause their pursuit of the storyline to enjoy the songs when they appear).

The charge of plagiarism is only valid at a superficial level. The story is completely original (at least, I haven't seen it anywhere else). Yes, there are specific elements and motifs that a viewer would have encountered earlier. For example, if you arrest Rakesh Roshan and shake out his bags for stolen goods, you might find the following:
  • A wheelchair belonging to Professor Xavier of the X-Men
  • A repurposed sonic screwdriver belonging to The Doctor
  • A bunch of mutants poached from the X-Men universe, including one with a prehensile tongue like Toad and another with chameleon-like capability like Mystique
  • A villain with magnetic powers like Magneto (but in a confusing amalgam with telekinesis)
  • A fortress at the top of an icy mountain, which some say resembles the one in Inception (I didn't think so - it was more like the palace in Mirror Mirror)
  • A rescue of a plane in danger of crashing, like in Superman Returns
  • Some leaping between buildings à la Spider-man, but more parkour style
  • And of course the superhero's standard secret identity as a harmless civilian

I think the charge of plagiarism would stick better if all that copying was badly done. The effects were excellent, and the story was independent, so it's more a derivative work than a copy. In other words, you're only a thief in my book if you're bad at it! [I didn't know the mere knowledge that an idea was borrowed from elsewhere could ruin an experience for people. The Magnificent Seven, being a rip-off of Seven Samurai, must have been a terrible viewing experience, no?]

I thought this movie was intelligently made because it didn't assault my sensibilities with a shoddy storyline. The reasoning hung together quite nicely, and the events clicked together well too. There were no loose ends, either in terms of "how could he/she have known about this", or "how could all this have taken place in such a short time", questions that tend to nag one after watching badly-made movies. In a word, the movie was slick.

A new superhero is born - If the original movie "Krrish" didn't establish him in the hearts of millions of fans, this one should do it

On to the characters, then. Hrithik Roshan is a truly great actor. He's likeable as well as believable in all his roles. The difference in persona between Krrish and his secret identity Krishna is dramatic but expected. Besides, the two never share the screen at the same time, for obvious reasons. The more incredible switch comes from the double role that he plays as father Rohit Mehra and son Krishna. The father is naive and nerdy, with a flabby physique and shabby attire, and a childlike intonation that harks back to his history in the first prequel as an initially mentally disabled person. The son is smart and neat, with a confident voice. When the two characters appear on screen together, their interaction is so natural, it's as if they were played by two different actors.

A scene of seamless double-acting

Father and son are both do-gooders, each in his own way. The son is the action hero who carries out the dramatic rescues. The father is the thinker back at the laboratory, working out the solutions to the world's problems, one bit at a time. When they work together, as in this film, they're an amazing team.

Superheroes are at their best when they project vulnerability rather than strength. One of the most moving scenes in "Superman - The Movie" was at the funeral of Jonathan Kent, Clark's adoptive father. Young Clark's pain is evident in his words, "All those powers - I couldn't even save him!"

That sentiment finds an echo here when Krishna expresses his despair to his father at his inability to save people dying of a virus ("What is the use of my being Krrish?"). That's one of the film's finest moments. You see, it's not enough to have super-powers. You must desperately want to help people. That's what makes a superhero. And Hrithik pulls off both action and emotion with equal ease.

The one aspect in which Krrish 3 has beaten even Hollywood is in the physique of the hero. Except for Henry Cavill (Man of Steel), no actor who played a Hollywood superhero can match Hrithik Roshan's muscles. This man has worked really hard at the gym to deserve the role of a superhero! [Also, it just wouldn't be a Hrithik Roshan movie if it didn't feature a dance sequence in which he gets to show off his liquid moves. This one is no exception.]

Hrithik Roshan - Credible emoting, incredible physique

As we cross over to the dark side, Vivek Oberoi was quite effective as the villain Kaal. [Kaal is the Sanskrit word for Time, and it was amusing that whenever he referred to time in his dialogues, he would use the Urdu word Waqt instead.]

The reason for his disability, why no one else could develop the virus that he did (or the antidote to it), why Rohit and his family were immune to it, all these were satisfactorily explained.

Of all of the villain's minions, the best was the mutant chameleon-woman named Kaya, played superbly by Kangana Ranaut (in spite of a name that sounds like she would be embarrassingly bad at cricket). In fact, she was so good, she upstaged the film's leading lady Priyanka Chopra, who played Krishna's wife Priya. [Priyanka Chopra has gone on record to assert that she (Priyanka) is the film's heroine, and the insecurity behind that statement underlines Kangana Ranaut's powerful performance.]

Chameleon-woman Kaya, the way she looks when she isn't looking like someone else

Priyanka Chopra should in fact be happy with her role. In the previous Krrish movie, she had only ornamental value. She has a vastly expanded role in this one, and she does justice to it. Too bad her character isn't required to exhibit superpowers or perform daredevil stunts.

Priyanka Chopra doesn't look half bad, and one is reminded that she's a former Miss World, after all

By the way, super-villains should heed this advice: When going up against a good-looking super-hero with a vulnerable innocence, keep your female minions well away from him. They might just go sweet on him at the wrong time and betray you. [The Phantom: Slam Evil, Superman - The Movie, Superman Returns, Krrish 3]

I may be a female super-villain, but I can dream, can't I?

Whatever the critics may say, I predict Krrish 3 is going to smash a number of records and become a super-hit like very few others. It's now even a computer game, and a player can choose to be one of four characters - Krrish, Kaal, Kaya or the mutant frog-man.

Krrish versus Kaya - The game is afoot

Is there anything that I think is bad about this movie? Nothing really bad, but there were a few things that could have been done better.

The songs are strictly mediocre. It may not mean much in the Superhero genre, but it's a pretty grave shortcoming in the Bollywood genre.

On a related, er, note, theme music is very important when building a franchise, and the Krrish theme (a very nice one in my opinion) isn't played or emphasised enough.

I wish the movie had been about 20 minutes longer just to give more screen time to some of the other interesting mutants. Other than Kaya and the frog-man (and a few seconds of the cheetah-woman), we didn't really get a good look at any of them. The scorpion-woman, in particular, with her poisonous ponytail, was very intriguing. A longer battle between her and Kaya would have been exciting, I thought.

Bollywood films in general could do with a better understanding of what is considered a child-friendly movie in other countries. The "masala" (spice-mix) nature of Indian films, where there's something for everyone, often results in portions of inappropriate content for younger audiences. In all three movies of the Krrish franchise, there were elements that might be unsuitable for children (disturbing scenes of violence and bullying in Koi...Mil Gaya, the death by impalement of the villain in Krrish, and the many scenes of disfigurement and death by a virus epidemic in Krrish 3, not to speak of the much higher level of violence in the third movie).

Krrish 3 is easier to understand if we look at it as a film aimed at children (with the qualifier in the above paragraph). That doesn't mean it's too childish for adults to enjoy or that it has flaws that only children will forgive. On the contrary, it's pretty close to flawless, and enjoyable by potentially anybody. It just means we need to take ourselves back to a stage in our lives when we enjoyed experiences without the blinkers and baggage we acquired on our way to jaded adulthood. When we leave our cynicism at the door, Krrish 3 becomes the beautiful cinematic experience it is meant to be. Good triumphs over evil, the world is safe, and we can go to bed at night with a peaceful smile on our face.

This is a film that's better than "Man of Steel" or "Green Lantern", about as good as "The Avengers", and just slightly below "The Amazing Spider-man", "Star Trek: Into Darkness" and the Dark Knight (Batman) trilogy. I give it 4.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, 21 October 2013

The Tale Of Tinkle's Travels

Succumbing to a whim, I ordered the entire collection of Tinkle Digests on-line from Amar Chitra Katha's website (all 146 of them). Everyone in the family enjoys this somewhat silly children's mag, which might provide a clue about my household's average mental age!

146 Tinkle Digests - at one a day, it will take us 5 months to go through the lot

There was no separate shipping cost, and I was amazed at how quickly the goods were delivered. The parcel was delivered by courier (DHL), and I was given a reference number and a website to track the progress of the shipment. I placed the order on the 15th of October, the parcel was dispatched from Mumbai on the 16th, and I received the lot on the morning of the 21st.

This is the tale of Tinkle's travels, via Bangkok and Singapore.

Pretty impressive - both the delivery time and the trackability

Sunday, 13 October 2013

The Beauty Bias Is More Than Skin-Deep

In an article that condemns racist biases in the modelling industry, the following quote appears:

[...] says it would be great to reach the point where designers and advertisers do not think about ethnicity when they cast a model; where they would cast a Chinese girl simply because she’s beautiful – not because it’s to sell a collection of cheongsam dresses.

Did anyone else think there was something wrong with that sentiment?

I'd say, why stop with ending racist bias? What about the beauty bias? Should only beautiful people be able to find work in modelling? We've had this huge debate in recent times about plus-size models and "real women", as opposed to the waif-like models that the industry has traditionally preferred. That battle is not yet over, but it has at least caused people to examine some of the harsh and unhealthy standards that the modelling industry has imposed around the notion of beauty. But what about the role of beauty itself? Isn't this another distortion in the way we measure the worth of other human beings?

There seems to be something wrong with the values of society itself, because the modelling industry is only catering to the biases of society. The Cleo article only acknowledges part of the problem. Even if the race bias is ended, the beauty bias will remain. So it falls to us to look inwards. Isn't it hypocritical of us to only buy clothes modelled by people better-looking than ourselves? It's a bit like Groucho Marx's comment that he would never join any club that would have him as a member.

The topic of air hostesses is related. Many passengers (mostly male) prefer to fly airlines that have young and pretty stewardesses over airlines with older ones. One aspect of such sexism has been quietly dismantled, since most airline cabin crews now feature both men and women. But there still seems to be an age bias for cabin crews. It is difficult to see a mature-age stewardess on Singapore Airlines, for example. In contrast, Qantas has a number of mature-age cabin crew, both male and female. It demonstrates, louder than mere words, that Qantas considers cabin crew members to be more than just pretty faces. They seem to be valued as employees. And perhaps that says something nice about Qantas passengers as well, since passengers vote with their wallets. If I had to choose one of these airlines as my employer (even in an unrelated area like IT), I would choose Qantas over Singapore Airlines, simply because I can see that they treat their employees as human beings.

Human beings' bias towards beauty is understandable, but it is nevertheless unjustified. From an evolutionary perspective, beauty is a surrogate indicator for health, and individuals in any species have always looked for healthy partners to mate with. Such behaviour leads to optimal results for the species as a whole. However, human society is more than just a group of animals impelled by evolutionary forces. We do not believe in the survival of the fittest. We believe in giving everyone a fair go, with social safety nets for the weakest. We do not let our weakest offspring die. We give them special attention and help. The value of beauty as an evolutionarily favourable trait should be correspondingly lower in a society of human beings.

Am I being a socialist? Should everyone be treated the same regardless of merit? For the record, I favour meritocracies. I just don't believe good looks form part of a person's "merit". As a society, our preference for good looks is nothing other than a bias, and paradoxically, the majority of us are guilty of discriminating against people who look like ourselves.

Among the words of wisdom I have often heard is the advice to treat ourselves and other people the same way - with compassion and understanding. Both selfishness and martyrdom are equally undesirable. Following this advice leads to both a fair society and inner happiness. Today, the world is rife with discrimination of various sorts, and they all have labels - racism, sexism, ageism, casteism, religious bigotry, national chauvinism, etc. In theory at least, we have recognised these as evils to be eradicated. But our bias towards beauty remains unacknowledged. I think it is only when we overcome the beauty bias that we may have crossed the last barrier to reaching an ideal society and an ideal state of being.

Friday, 11 October 2013

In India, A Partial Expiation For An Archaeological Crime

It was heartening to read in the news recently that an archaeological treasure, the 450 year old tomb of Mughal emperor Humayun, has been restored.

The newly-restored Humayun's Tomb in New Delhi

It's a pity that priceless archaeological artifacts often get imbued with religious, and consequently political, significance. Islamists are the regular villains in archaeological vandalism around the world. They destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan and similar relics of a Buddhist past in the Maldives. In Egypt, they are even calling for the destruction of the pyramids and the sphinx. One can only shake one's head in hopeless sorrow at such mindless fanaticism.

Countries like the US, Canada, Australia and new Zealand, with barely 3 centuries of European history, have nevertheless done a splendid job of preserving and showcasing this heritage. [One could blame the early European settlers in these countries for the destruction of native communities and their culture, but in modern times, these countries have demonstrated enlightenment through their commendable efforts to retrieve and preserve native heritage as well.] Why do people with a heritage stretching back millennia not recognise and appreciate what a priceless set of treasures they have?

The Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan - the "after" photo shows a clear improvement over the "before" (if you're an Islamist)

The Islamic conquerors of India from the 12th century onwards were largely of the same breed as Islamists everywhere. Many Hindu temples were destroyed by them and mosques erected in their place.

And therein lies a tale of two wrongs that do not make a right. The Mughal emperor Babar (father of Humayun, whose tomb was recently restored) is thought to have destroyed (among countless others) a temple to the Hindu god Rama at Ayodhya and built a mosque over its ruins. That mosque remained standing until the last decade of the 20th century. It was called the "Babri Masjid" (Babar's mosque).

For centuries, this structure remained. It saw the passing of 7 generations of the Mughals and the advent of the British, and then it saw the passing of the British Raj as well, as Indians finally wrested back the power to rule themselves after at least 6 centuries of foreign rule.

And thereafter, with the move to democracy, the mosque's days were numbered.

This is the way the Babri Masjid looked before electoral arithmetic spelled its doom

Somewhere along the way, the Hindu right wing party, the BJP, decided that the only way it could improve its hitherto dismal electoral performance was to tap into militant Hindu sentiment that it would itself whip up. The Babri Masjid became the symbol and the focal point of the BJP's campaign. The mosque that was built on the ruins of a desecrated Hindu temple was projected as a historical humiliation of India's Hindu majority by its Muslim rulers, a humiliation that could only be reversed by the destruction of the mosque and a resurrected temple to Lord Rama built on its ruins. It was to be the righting of a historical wrong. More importantly, the site of the original temple was claimed to be the very birthplace of Lord Rama, so having the temple built anywhere but on the ruins of the mosque was preemptively made impossible!

The Hindu parties' emotive poster calling for the construction of the temple at Ayodhya, with a suitably militant image of Rama to drive home the message

By polarising society along religious lines, the BJP and its various allied Hindu organisations reckoned they could attract a significant number of votes from Hindus. (This cynical calculation, sadly enough, turned out to be correct. In 1984, the BJP had won 2 seats in parliament. In 1991, after having successfully raised a storm over the Babri Masjid, the party won 120 seats.) More importantly, the BJP formed the government in the state of Uttar Pradesh (the state to which the city of Ayodhya belonged).

[Quite some blood has been shed since the time that plan was put into action, and more is going to be shed in future, since the hardening of Hindu opinion and the consequent rewards to militant Hindu parties have now attained a momentum of their own. My own view on this is simple. We only have one history. We can learn from it, but we cannot erase it, no matter how humiliating it may seem. Destroying our own national monuments for religio-political reasons is cutting off our nose to spite our face. But of course, such arguments fall on deaf ears, since in times of strident militancy, reason itself seems weak and effete.]

After the 1991 elections, with the machinery of the Uttar Pradesh state government in its hands, the BJP began plans to demolish the temple while at the same time issuing reassuring public statements to allay suspicion. On 6th December 1992, the BJP did what Islamists worldwide have always done - destroyed their own country's archaeological monuments to satisfy religious bloodlust, and their own political ambitions.

There is grim irony in the fact that an avowedly anti-Islamic popular movement demonstrated the same intolerance and religious bigotry of their enemies. They also proved that, despite two historic changes in management, the degree of enlightenment of India's rulers had not improved in 500 years.

The armies of Hinduism sallying forth to do their sacred duty, no doubt

It stood for 450 years, then came down in one hour

And this is what was left of the Babri Masjid

Woohoo! We've destroyed a 450 year old archaeological treasure of our own country! Who needs foreign invaders?

And that's what I thought of when I read the news of the restoration of Humayun's tomb. The mosque named for the father was destroyed, but the tomb of the son was restored. I guess I could see the latter restoration as a partial atonement for the former archaeological crime, but something in me is not satisfied. When I look around me and see so many educated Hindu friends who cheer the destruction of the Babri Masjid, some openly and some less openly, I begin to think I must myself be a relic.

One of my friends on Facebook commented as follows:

"I dont think even the most ardent secularist would call the Babri Masjid an archeological treasure. Especially in a country where there are many other monuments that are older. It is provocative to say Hindus thought the structure was humiliating. The movement was an act of reclaiming. A temple was not just "thought" to have existed. The Allahabad high court judgment validated that last year and awarded one third of the land to Hindus. You are being selective when you talk about restoration only of the 450 yr old "treasure". What about restoration/rebuilding of the temple which lies below."

I replied:

"QED. You have furnished proof of my statement in the closing paragraph that this is indeed the attitude of many educated Hindus today.

1. Most people around the world would find it strange that a structure 400+ years old is NOT considered an archaeological treasure by some. In your opinion, how old does a structure have to be in order to be considered an archaeological treasure?

2. The presence of older monuments does not invalidate the value of structures 400+ years old. All of them are part of the country's great archaeological wealth. None of them is expendable.

3. A chequered history like India's can only be narrated by a chronologically matching set of artifacts reflecting the power structure, dominant culture and values of the time. Our value judgement today of whether any of that was "good" or "bad" is irrelevant. It's part of our history. We can look at some of those monuments and decide, "Never again!" That indeed is the point of learning history. But destroying one's own monuments to erase part of one's history that some people in the current generation disapprove of is immature and self-harming.

4. The temple can never be "rebuilt" in any case, only recreated. As such, why not build it a short distance away and provide information to visitors about the history of the temple and the mosque? That way, you have both structures and your history intact. And from the perspective of history study and tourism, it would be wonderful.

5. If belief systems are to take priority over pragmatism in the here-and-now, then only bloodshed and strife lie ahead, not prosperity, because belief systems are mutually incompatible. We need to be less precious about our beliefs and more concerned with the real country we live in.

6. There is nothing selective about my position. You are reading an anti-Hindu bias into what I have written. My entire piece was anti-vandalism. The Islamists have vandalised monuments globally, as my 3 examples show. The saffron Islam that passes for Hinduism nowadays is doing exactly the same thing."]

Friday, 20 September 2013

India's Perfect Storm - And Its Likely Aftermath

India is facing a perfect storm from a combination of political, social and economic crises that are rapidly converging and have already begun to have an impact.

The political and economic crises are more tangible, but their resolution will be comparatively simpler. It is the social crisis that will have a much heavier long-term cost.

India's political landscape is fractured. 1984 was the last year when a general election resulted in a single party winning an absolute majority. Since 1989, elections have thrown up hung parliaments and only coalition governments have been the norm. The splintering continues unabated. Although disenchantment with the UPA coalition government has never been higher, there are strong doubts about whether the opposing NDA coalition will succeed in winning enough seats and allies to obtain a parliamentary majority and form the government. It is likely that the hung parliament that emerges after the 2014 election will be so badly splintered and (more importantly) irreconcilably divided that a government may not emerge. If one does, it will probably not last long, and fresh elections may need to be called mid-term, with no guarantee of a more stable result. In some ways, the election will probably clear the air by showing the vocal urban right-wing minority just how much of a minority it really is, but in other ways, the poisonous hatred between political groupings will only intensify.

There are mixed signals on the economy, whose heady 9% growth of just a few years ago has now slowed to about half that value, and I am not enough of an economics heavyweight to sift through the noise and form an independent opinion. In blunt terms, one opinion is that India is stuffed, and without drastic reforms that take place very quickly, is doomed to remain a poor country for the foreseeable future. The other viewpoint is that a whole swag of infrastructure projects is already in the works, and when these start to come on-line in the next 3 to 5 years, growth will improve and establish itself at a permanently higher level. As I said, I have no independent means to say which viewpoint is correct.

The third area, the social front, is where I am most concerned. The recent riots in Muzaffarnagar are disturbing, because they are a watershed. They were politically engineered of course, as all good riots are, but this one is probably the first to occur in a rural area. Communal riots have generally taken place in urban areas, usually in lower- to lower middle-class localities, where social cohesion between recent migrants has never been high. This riot has shown, disturbingly, how easy it is to sunder the more cohesive fabric of the hinterland as well. I have the uneasy feeling that a line has been crossed somewhere, and India will never be the same again. I can sense the bottomless sense of insecurity that a Muslim would now feel in post-Muzaffarnagar India. The Indian Muslim's native land has suddenly become an alien land. This India will suffer the negative effects of widespread minority insecurity for many decades. And it was totally unnecessary.

There is a way out of the political and economic logjam. That is to make the centre less relevant. The way government financing works today is untenable and cannot continue. I have the following information from a very knowledgeable friend and old classmate:

a.  70% of all tax revenues collected go to the Centre. All the states share the remaining 30%.  This is as per a Constitution mandated Finance Commission.
b.  The centre during our socialist era under a strong Mrs Indira Gandhi used this money leverage to kill state leadership and play power politics. But since the 70s, her Congress party has been vanquished in several states.
c. The tax sources for states primarily revolve around real estate taxes, octroi and excise duty (euphemism for booze). So states that have gone outside of government sources to do stuff, have typically leveraged land - e.g., Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan. Other than land and waiving taxes there is not much they can do, money wise.
d.  States can't borrow directly on their own books - they don't have a revenue base worth talking about and don't run surpluses, by and large. All big foreign aid has to be approved through the Central government's Ministry of Finance. 
I wrote before that India's salvation would be a true federation of states, where states have much more power and autonomy vis-a-vis the centre. In that post, I neglected to mention financing arrangements, because I did not have my friend's depth of knowledge. After reading his inputs, I believe the regional parties must get together in the next parliament, and regardless of other affiliations, vote for an amendment to the constitution to give the states more financial independence. A part of all tax revenue collected should compulsorily go to the state where the revenue was generated. The states should also be free to solicit and get funding from overseas sources without having to go through the central government. This will free them from political interference. When the states compete for investment, the free-market energies that have been shackled by decades of socialistic central planning (which was needed in the early stages of development) will be unleashed.

Which party forms the government at the centre and who becomes prime minister will then be much less relevant to the daily life of the average citizen, because the centre's role in daily life will have been much diminished. Smaller states, each with financial and political autonomy, closer to the local people and more accountable, will become more efficient units of governance that will deliver quality of life improvements much faster. [I remember a relative from the US telling me that in any US state, "the governor is at least ten times bigger than the president."]

That single change could solve India's political and economic problems within a couple of years and place the country on a permanently faster path to growth and prosperity.

Which leaves us with the serious social problem. I blame the Congress party for pandering to Muslim leaders (as opposed to instituting measures to improve the life of the average Muslim). I also blame the Hindutva parties for stoking a problem that they cannot resolve, which will benefit them electorally but cost the country dearly. Together, their short-sightedness has seriously damaged India's social fabric and will continue to do so.

India has a significant Muslim minority of 15%, or about 180 million people. Any sensible and realistic person will see at once that such a large minority cannot be wished away by any means, no matter how fascist one's rhetoric may be (e.g., "let them all go to Pakistan", "drive them into the Arabian Sea", etc.) Coexistence is the only practical way forward. For coexistence to be viable in the long term, what is needed is a strong system of social justice, civil rights and fairness in all dealings by the state (government and judiciary). And this should have been easy, since India's diverse society has been inherently predisposed to coexisting. On the ground, there has been remarkable social cohesion between the communities, otherwise for a population of this size, there should have been widespread and bloody clashes occurring every day with a death toll going into the hundreds of thousands. The fact that violent incidents are so few and far between means that there is no inherent social tension.

Any problem that exists today has been politically manufactured. Political parties stand to gain by polarising the electorate and sharpening communal divides. The Congress has done a fair bit of damage over the years by yielding to hard-line Muslim leaders (as opposed to listening to and ensuring the welfare of ordinary Muslims). The shameful Shah Bano case comes to mind, in which the Rajiv Gandhi government overturned a secular court decision on granting alimony to a poor Muslim widow by deeming such issues within the purview of Muslim personal law. The widow then got no money under Sharia law, which weakened the average Muslim citizen's rights compared to other Indian citizens. The only beneficiaries were the hardline leaders of the Muslim community (who did not speak for the majority of the Muslims in any case), and the Hindutva parties, who gained from the Congress party's appeasement of the Muslim leadership by stoking and exploiting Hindu outrage. The Hindu parties have exploited every Congress mistake and gained from every incident since then, including the court-ordered unlocking of the Babri Masjid, which they then demolished a few years later, and went on to commit more and more aggressive acts, winning votes for themselves from a larger and larger segment of polarised Hindus, but weakening the country's social fabric in the process.

The Muzaffarnagar riot was in a way an expected consequence of the fractured four-way vote split in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Clearly, a more effective carving of the pie was called for, and what better way than for two of the four to gang up against the other two? The BJP and SP, nominal enemies, seem to have conspired to play the roles of majority spokesman and minority protector, aiming to win votes from the Hindus and Muslims respectively, at the immediate cost of the Congress and BSP.

Both the Congress and the RSS-led Hindutva parties have mortgaged India's long-term future to win short-term electoral battles. There was a time when I trusted in the wisdom and sagacity of the average Indian voter to see through these games when voting in aggregate, and ensuring sanity of political results. Alas, I no longer believe that the electorate is, in aggregate, wise. I fear that infection by communal poison has crossed a tipping point, and the average voter is now more self-destructive than wise. In this climate, the BJP has dropped the mocking term it earlier used ("pseudo-secularism") and begun to use the word "secularism" itself as a pejorative!

In summary, I think India has a chance to weather its political and economic storms with a simple change to the way states are financed. But its fractured civil society will probably never heal, and could lead in the future to a bloody civil war.

As a bankrupt Pakistan struggles through what could be its last decade of existence as a viable country, it may have the bitter satisfaction of seeing the Two-Nation Theory proved right after all. Hindus and Muslims can never live together in one country. Cynical politicians from opposing camps have cooperatively moulded the will of the people to a self-destructive end.