Book Review: Ages in Chaos by Stephen Baxter

Ages in Chaos is a scientific biography of James Hutton by Stephen Baxter. Hutton was a Scottish scientist who also played his part in Scottish enlightenment. Hutton was the first to speculate on the idea deep time required for geological processes at the end of 1700s arguing with evidence he collected. He was trained as a medical doctor, practiced farming for 10 odd years and had continued his explorations of geology throughout. The prevalent theories of geology, called Neptunists, posited that water was the change agent. Hutton on the other hand posited that it was heat which was responsible for changes, hence Vulcanists. Also, another thing was that of time needed for this change. As others of his era, Hutton was deeply religious, like Newton, wanted to find evidence for creation as per bible.

During his time, especially popular was the idea of flood as per Bible, while the Earth was literally considered to be 6000 years old. This created a problem for Hutton, who was labelled to be atheist and heretic for suggesting that Earth is much older and that there was no design. But Hutton was a conformist and wanted to find a uniform evidence for all observable aspects. He was not like a modern scientist, as he is painted many times. The ideas were vehemently attacked on each point. Though he went to the field to find geological examples for this theory. James Watt, Black and John Playfair were his friends and provided him with evidence in the form of rock samples. During his lifetime, Hutton’s ideas will not find much audience. But due to his friends, his ideas sustained a a barrage of criticisms. Only in the next generation with Lyell this work would find acceptance. This idea of a deep time was crucial in formation Darwin’s theory.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/157978.Ages_in_Chaos

The book reads well mostly, but at times a complete lack of illustrations in the forms of geological artefacats and maps (of Scotland) makes it difficult to read well.

Book Review: Pendulum: Léon Foucault and the Triumph of Science by Amir D. Aczel

The book traces Leon Foucault’s ingenious approach to solving the problem of providing a terrestrial proof of rotation of the Earth. The pendulum he devised oscillates in a constant plane, and if properly engineered (as he did) can actually show the rotation of the Earth. The demonstration is one the most visually impressive scientific experiments. Also, Foucault gave prediction, an equation which would tell us how the pendulum will behave at different parts of the Earth. The pure mathematicians and physicists alike were taken aback at this simple yet powerful demonstration of the proof which eluded some of the most brilliant minds, which includes likes of Galileo and Newton. Rushed mathematical proofs were generated, some of the mathematicians earlier had claimed that no such movement was possible. That being said, Foucault was seen as an outsider by the elite French Academy due to his lack of training and degree. Yet he was good in designign things and making connections to science. This was presented to the public in 1851, and the very next year in 1852 he created another proof for rotation of the Earth. This was done by him inventing the gyroscope.. Gyroscope now plays immense role in navigation and other technologies. Yet he was denied membership to the Academy, only due to interest of the Emperor Napolean III in his work in 1864. The pendulum is his most famous work, but other works are also of fundamental significance.

  • He was first person to do photomicrography using Daguerreotype
  • Accurate measurment of speed of light using rotating mirrors –
  • Devised carbon arc electric lamp for lighting of micrcoscope
  • One of the first to Daguerreotype the Sun
  • Designed the tracking systems used in telescopes
  • also designed many motors, regulators to control electrical devices

There are a couple of places in the book where Aczel seems to be confused, at one point he states parallax as a proof for rotation of Earth around its axis, whearas it is more of a proof of Earths motion around the Sun. At another place he states that steel was invented in 1800s which perhaps he means to say that it was introduced in the west at the time. Apart from this the parallels between the rise of Napoleon III, a Nephew of Napolean, to form the second Empire in France and Foucault’s own struggle for recognition of his work and worth is brought out nicely.

Review of Laal Kaptaan

Recently I saw the movie Laal Kaptaan (लाल कप्तान, literal translation Red Captain). Though I had seen the trailer when it was released sometime back this year, I did not see the movie. The visuals in the trailer were quite good, so I decided to finally watch it. And I was not disappointed. This is one of the few movies in recent times that I have managed to see in one shot. Or rather the movie managed to make me do it.

 

The major part of the movie is set in the region of Bundelkhand (literally the dominion of the Bundelas). This region which falls South-East of Agra and Delhi has historical places like Jhansi, Gwalior, Panna, Chhatarpur, Banda and Orchha within its folds has been historically important. The province of Awadh (Oudh) lies to the east of Bundelkhand and Ganges marks the boundary to the East, while the Rajputana lies to the West. The Yamuna divides the region into two, with the majority of the part lying to the West of Yamuna. The region between the two mighty rivers is known as a doab (marked yellow in the map below). Many of these were erstwhile princely states, which also existed until 1947, when they were merged with the Indian republic.

Screenshot 2019-12-15 at 11.32.28 AM

The era when the Mughal empire was disintegrating post the death of Aurangazeb in 1707, was especially tumultuous for this region. With the power vacuum created by the decaying Mughal empire being filled by the Marathas, by this time the Chatrapati was only a titular head and real power rested with the Peshwas and the various great houses of the Marathas (Shinde, Holkar, Bhosle, Gaikwad). The Marathas laid waste to large tracts and levied chauth ( collection of one-fourth of income ) on these regions mercilessly. But in general, they were hated in this region for their bullishness and general havoc they perpetrated on the public and places. For example, they looted the Red Fort in Delhi with impunity, scrapping off precious and semi-precious stones from the Diwan-e-Khaas to do a vasuli. (I might make a dedicated post for this later.)

If the Battle of Plassey (1757) was the founding stone of the British in India, then the battle of Buxar (1764) was the first real fortification of this foundation, and the British really established themselves in India as a potent force. Though the Marathas were the most powerful, the British did not engage with them directly until the end of the century. The third Battle of Panipat (1761), a few years before the battle of Buxar limited the Maratha presence in the North severely and was one of the major reasons that led to its full demise as a political and military power by the start of the next century. Though, this enabled the houses of Shinde, Holkar, Bhosle and Gaikwad to establish their own semi-independence over the Peshwas. Eventually, everyone became under the British. But the time in which the movie is set, the Marathas were still a force to reckon with and the EIC has just established itself as a millitary and political power in much of the region from Bengal to North India along the Gangetic plains.

The movie starts just after the Battle of Buxar (1764) when a large number of people are hanged outside the fortress of Shergarh (most probably a fictional place, as I could not find it anywhere in the sources). after the British win the battle. One of the persons who sides with the British named Rehmat Khan is especially despised upon, with him being called a gaddar (traitor) by the hanged. The accused are hanged on a huge banyan tree, with their bodies hanging like overgrown fruits along its branches. It is raining and in this scene, a young teenage boy promises Rehmat Khan that one day he will also hang on the same tree.

Fast forward 25 years (1789), we are taken to the den of a dacoit (डकैत /डाकू ) where the Bairagi called by another generic name Gossain (this term I had not heard before this film). He comes in and asks for fire for his chillam. Mayhem ensues and the hunter takes his prey. The entire scene starts with dark of the night and ends in the early morning.

The horde of warrior ascetics (of which were the Gossain/Naga) came to prominence in the resulting political instability and shifting sands post the fall of the Mughal empire.

…these orders became politically significant only after the collapse of the Mughal Empire, and more particularly after British activities created political and economic chaos in the second half of the eighteenth century.

 

Going forward, the hunter goes on to take his reward, where the local chieftain mocks him and doesn’t want to pay. He is made to pay by the Gossain. The film then follows the Gossain on his quest to locate and kill Rehmat Khan. Though there are hints that there is a link between the Gossain and the teenage boy who is hanged in the beginning, we are not sure how they are connected. I won’t go into the plot of the film, but will instead focus on some of the characters and background of the film.

Though some of the other reviews have portrayed the character of Rehmat Khan (played by Manav Vij) as just grunting. But I think he played the role very well, perhaps these reviewers are used to seeing villains as people who yell and show a lot of emosions on their faces. He subtly played the act of a cold-blooded, calculating and cruel character quite well and was never out of character. Rehmat Khan is a Rohilla. Now, the Rohillas were of an Afghan ethnicity, and they sided against the Marathas (led by Najib ad-Dawlah) with Ahemdshah Abdali during the third battle of Panipat. The Marathas were very enraged by this and Mahadji Shinde did collect his revenge on them a few years in 1772 after Panipat by destroying Rohilkhand and scattering bones of Najib ad-Dawlah. After this defeat, the First Rohilla war happened in which the British siding with the Nawab of Oudh defeated the Rohillas and the state of Rampur of established. The second Rohilla war, in 1794, between British and the Rohillas ended their supremacy in the region. Now, the time between the two wars, there was lot of guerilla activity carried out by the Rohillas, which led them to be set as Nawabs of Rampur. Given all this chaos and uncertainty,  there were no permanent alliances or allegiances. The main part of Laal Kaptaan (c. 1789) is set in this era for the Rohillas. So, Rehmat Khan, a prominent Rohilla, defecting over to British was noteworthy, but not out of the line.

Pindaris

Pindaris were not a tribe, but a military system of bandits of all races and religions. They fluctuated in numbers, being augumented from time to timeby military adventurer from every State, and frequently amounted to as many as 30,000 men.

Pindaris present an episode in history of India, which is quite extraordinary, though skimmed upon in the history texts. Here we are witnessing a rise of a band of people whose existence was based on terrorising and looting people in distant provinces.  The Pindaris were roughly active in the last three decades of eighteenth century to the first two decades of nineteenth. Earlier they were under tutelage of Maratha cheiftains who used them as militias to wreck havoc on supply lines of the enemies and disrupt civilian peace. So them accompanying the Maratha camp is completely normal. The depiction of the Pindari lust for the loot (tum log lo khazana, mai chala lene zanana) is well done in the film. In fact, the comedy of errors that the bunch sent to hunt down Rehmat Khan is something to relish. The frustration of the little Maratha knight in being unable to  control them is well worth seeing.

But as the Maratha power came to a decline, the Pindaris in the nineteenth century became a force of their own, without masters. They would raid far, and were viscious and cruel in their tactics to make people pay. There are reports that people even committed suicides when they came to know that a Pindari raid was imminent.

Another thing worth mentioning in the film is the settings in which the film is shot. The cinematography is par excellence, set amongst fantastic fort ruins. I cannot identify the actual locations used in the film, so any information on that would be welcome.

The other character in the film worth mentioning is the Dog Walker played by Deepak Dobriyal. He has a pair of very fine Mudhol hounds (also known as Caravan hounds) named Sukhiram and Dukhiram.

Screenshot 2019-12-14 at 7.33.46 PMThe character has no name in the film, but he finds people who are wanted for a price. That is how he makes his living. He refuses a horse mount saying it interferes with  His character has many layers and he shares a special relationship with the Gossain, they respect each other. It was a treat to watch Dobriyal play this character with English hat and his greeting of:

Howde do…

Screenshot 2019-12-14 at 7.35.02 PM

The two female characters in the film, one played by Zoya and other by Heena are in their niche. Zoya as a courtesan who is neglected, while Heena playing the wife of a chieftain carries herself well. Their characters are in emotional turmoil with maternal love and the surrounding situation.

Screenshot 2019-12-14 at 7.18.18 PMScreenshot 2019-12-14 at 7.43.37 PM

The clothing, the artefacts are all era-appropriate and so are the languages used. A lot of work must have gone in background research and it shows in the quality of the film. Kudos to the production team for that. Just that the look of Saif has a semblance to Depp’s Jack Sparrow, that could have been avoided.

Overall a very watchable film, if you have not, do watch it.

Screenshot 2019-12-14 at 7.40.52 PM

PS: A special ode to Saif Ali Khan.

In my personal opinion, Saif Ali Khan has really matured as an actor over the years and has earned my respect for it. You can’t really compare his role in Yeh Dillagi and lets say his depiction of Langda Tyagi in Omkara. It is as if you are watching two completely different actors. The variety of roles he has done in recent times, and with grace is just amazing. He has done roles which many of the mainstream actors would shy away from. Hope that we see his good form in the future also.

Screenshot 2019-12-14 at 7.38.37 PM

References

Lorenzen, D. (1978). Warrior Ascetics in Indian History. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 98(1), 61-75.

 

Rotating Earth: the proofs or significance of Leon Foucault’s pendulum – Part 1

rotating-earth

In an earlier post, we had discussed proofs of the round shape of the Earth. This included some ancient and some modern proofs. There was, in general, a consensus that the shape of the Earth was spherical and not flat and the proofs were given since the time of ancient Greeks. Only in the middle ages, there seems to have been some doubt regarding the shape of the Earth. But amongst the learned people, there was never a doubt about the shape of the Earth. Counter-intuitive it may seem when you look at the near horizon, it is not that counter-intuitive. We can find direct proofs about it by looking around and observing keenly.

But the rotation of Earth proved to be a more difficult beast to tame and is highly counter-intuitive. Your daily experience does not tell you the Earth is rotating, rather intuition tells you that it is fixed and stationary. Though the idea of a moving Earth is not new, the general acceptance of the idea took a very long time. And even almost 350 years after Copernicus’ heliocentric model was accepted, a direct proof of Earth’s rotation was lacking. And this absence of definitive proof was not due to a lack of trying. Some of the greatest minds in science, mathematics and astronomy worked on this problem since Copernicus but were unable to solve it. This included likes of Galileo, Newton, Descartes, and host of incredibly talented mathematicians since the scientific revolution. Until Leon Foucaultin the mid-1800s provided not one but two direct proofs of the rotation of the Earth. In this series of posts, we will see how this happened.

When we say the movement of the Earth, we also have to distinguish between two motions that it has: first its motion about its orbit around the Sun, and second its rotational motion about its own axis. So what possible observational proofs or direct evidence will allow us to detect the two motions? In this post, we will explore how our ideas regarding these two motions of the Earth evolved over time and what type of proofs were given for and against it.

Even more, there was a simple geometrical fact directly opposed to the Earth’s annual motion around the Sun and there was nothing that could directly prove its diurnal rotation. (Mikhailov, 1975)

Let us consider the two components of Earth’s motion. The first is the movement around the Sun along the orbit. The simplest proof for this component of Earth’s motion is from the parallax that we can observe for distant stars. Parallax is the relative change in position of objects when they are viewed from different locations. The simplest example of this can be seen with our own eyes.

Straighten your hand, and hold your thumb out. Observe the thumb with both the eyes open. You will see your thumb at a specific location with respect to the background objects. Now close your left eye, and look at how the position of the thumb has changed with respect to the background objects. Now open the right eye, and close the left one. What we will see is a shift in the background of the thumb. This shift is related by simple geometry to the distance between our eyes, called the baseline in astronomical parlance. Thus even a distance of the order of a few centimetres causes parallax, then if it is assumed that Earth is moving around the Sun, it should definitely cause an observable parallax in the fixed stars. And this was precisely one of the major roadblock

Earth moving around an orbit raised mechanical objections that seemed even more serious in later ages; and it raised a great astronomical difficulty immediately. If the Earth moves in a vast orbit, the pattern of fixed stars should show parallax changes during the year. (Rogers, 1960)

The history of cosmic theories … may without exaggeration be called a history of collective obsessions and controlled schizophrenias.
– Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers

Though it is widely believed that Copernicus was the first to suggest a moving Earth, it is not the case. One of the earliest proponents of the rotating Earth was a Greek philosopher named Aristarchus. One of the books by Heath on Aristarchus is indeed titled Copernicus of Antiquity (Aristarchus of Samos). A longer version of the book is Aristarchus of Samos: The Ancient Copernicus. In his model of the cosmos, Aristarchus imagined the Sun at the centre and the Earth and other planets revolving around it. At the time it was proposed, it was not received well. There were philosophical and scientific reasons for rejecting the model.

aristarchus-01
Aristarchus’s model of the heliocentric Universe

First, let us look at the philosophical reasons. In ancient Greek cosmology, there was a clear and insurmountable distinction between the celestial and the terrestrial. The celestial order and bodies were believed to be perfect, as opposed to the imperfect terrestrial. After watching and recording the uninterrupted waltz of the sky over many millennia, it was believed that the heavens were unchangeable and perfect. The observations revealed that there are two types of “stars”. First the so-called “fixed stars” do not change their positions relative to each other. That is to say, their angular separation remains the same. They move together as a group across the sky. Imagination coupled with a group of stars led to the conceiving of constellations. Different civilizations imagined different heroes, animals, objects in the sky. They formed stories about the constellations. These became entwined with cultures and their myths.

telescope_0013

The second type of stars did change their positions with respect to other “fixed stars”. That is to say, they changed their angular distances with “fixed stars”. These stars, the planets, came to be called as “wandering stars” as opposed to the “fixed stars”.

Ancient Greeks called these lights πλάνητες ἀστέρες (planētes asteres, “wandering stars”) or simply πλανῆται (planētai, “wanderers”),from which today’s word “planet” was derived.

Planet

So how does one make sense of these observations? For the fixed stars, the solution is simple and elegant. One observes the set of stars rising from the east and setting to the west. And this set of stars changes across the year (which can be evidenced by changing seasons around us). And this change was found to be cyclical. Year after year, with observations spanning centuries, we found that the stars seem to be embedded on inside of a sphere, and this sphere rotates at a constant speed. This “model” explains the observed phenomena of fixed stars very well.

The unchanging nature of this cyclical process observed, as opposed to the chaotic nature on Earth, perhaps led to the idea that celestial phenomena are perfect. Also, the religious notion of associating the heavens with gods, perhaps added to them being perfect. So, in the case of perfect unchanging heavens, the speeds of celestial bodies, as evidenced by observing the celestial sphere consisting of “fixed stars” was also to be constant. And since celestial objects were considered as perfect, the two geometrical objects that were regarded as perfect the sphere and the circle were included in the scheme of heavens. To explain the observation of motion of stars through the sky, their rising from the east and setting to the west, it was hypothesized that the stars are embedded on the inside of a sphere, and this sphere rotates at a constant speed. We being fixed on the Earth, observe this rotating sphere as the rising and setting of stars. This model of the world works perfectly and formed the template for explaining the “wandering stars” also.

These two ideas, namely celestial objects placed on a circle/sphere rotating with constant speed, formed the philosophical basis of Greek cosmology which would dominate the Western world for nearly two thousand years. And why would one consider the Earth to be stationary? This is perhaps because the idea is highly counter-intuitive. All our experience tells us that the Earth is stationary. The metaphors that we use like rock-solid refer to an idea of immovable and rigid Earth. Even speculating about movement of Earth, there is no need for something that is so obviously not there. But as the history of science shows us, most of the scientific ideas, with a few exceptions, are highly counter-intuitive. And that the Earth seems to move and rotate is one of the most counter-intuitive thing that we experience in nature.

The celestial observations were correlated with happenings on the Earth. One could, for example, predict seasons as per the rising of certain stars, as was done by ancient Egyptians. Tables containing continuous observations of stars and planets covering several centuries were created and maintained by the Babylonian astronomers. It was this wealth of astronomical data, continuously covering several centuries, that became available to the ancient Greek astronomers as a result of Alexander’s conquest of Persia. Having such a wealth of data led to the formation of better theories, but with the two constraints of circles/spheres and constant speeds mentioned above.

With this background, next, we will consider the progress in these ideas.

A stabilised image of the Milky Way as seen from a moving Earth.

 

Why did not scientific revolution occur in India?

If one wonders why did not the scientific revolution happen in India some aspects of how knowledge was limited might have an implication. I present here a comparative study of conditions prevailing in the two societies, and how the presence of the printing press disrupted the traditional balance of knowledge and its sharing in the society. Unfortunately, in India, we have no counterpart to this event which could have lead to the spread of knowledge amongst the masses. Even if it were, the rigid caste system would have made it almost impossible for knowledge to be so freely transferred. In an era of a global village, we still feel strong repercussions of caste-based discrimination today.

Consider this about how knowledge was restricted to apprenticeship and was often lost in transition amongst the traditional Indian craftsmen.

The secret of perfection in art and crafts resided in individuals 
and was never widely publicized. Master-craftsmen trained their 
apprentices from a very tender age but they did not teach them the 
more subtle aspects of their craft. Neither did they write books 
revealing the secrets of their perfection. These points were revealed 
by the master-craftsman only towards the end of his life and only to 
a favoured apprentice. Their secrets often died with them. p. 211 
(Rizvi - Wonder that Was India Part 2)

This was compounded by the fact that the profession that one could practice was decided by the caste one was born in. In addition to this, the mostly oral nature of the Hindu theology in Sanskrit and exclusive rights to Brahmins as custodians of this knowledge played a huge role in stifling any societal or scientific progress. The extant books (both theological and scientific, mathematical) were mostly in Sanskrit, which again restricted their readership. And as they were reproduced by hand the copies and access to them was limited. The mobility between castes was strictly forbidden. Thus we have both theological as well as scientific, mathematical and technological knowledge bound by tradition which was not available to the general public by its design. Any leakage of such a knowledge to people who were not intended to know it was met with severe punishments.

In contrast to this, consider the situation in Europe. The church did have an control over the knowledge that was taught in the universities. The Bible was in Latin, which can be seen as European counterpart of Sanskrit in terms of its functions and reach, and the Church held authority over its interpretation and usage. The impact of movable type on the spread of the Bible is well known. The translation of the Bible to publicly spoken languages and its subsequent spread to the general public is seen as a major event in the renaissance and subsequently that of the scientific revolution. This was only possible due to the struggle between Catholics and Protestants, again this did not have any counterpart in the Indian context. But as with any subversive technology the printing press did not only print the Bible. Soon, it was put to use to create materials for all types of readership.

First appearing around 1450 in the German city of Mainz, printing 
rapidly spread from Johann Gutenberg's original press throughout 
the German territories and northern Italy, most notably Venice. 
This establishment, during the second half of the century, of 
scores of print shops corresponds to two related features of 
European, especially Western European, society at that time.
The first is the fairly high rate of literacy on which the market 
for books and pamphlets was based. The second is the quite sudden 
wide availability of a multitude oE philosophical and general 
intellectual options. Together, these two features created a 
situation in which knowledge for very many people was no longer 
so chained to the texts of the university curriculum. This was a 
new situation practically without parallel. p. 24
(Dear - Revolutionizing the Sciences)

This spread led to the creation of books in areas of knowledge where it was guarded or passed through apprenticeship.

In 1531 and 1532 there first appeared a  group of small booklets, 
known as Kunstbüchlein ("Iittle craft-books"), on a variety of 
practical craft and technical subjects. These anonymous books were 
produced from the shops of printers in a number of German cities, 
and catered to what they revealed as an eager appetite for such 
things not just among German craftsmen, but among literate people of 
the middling sort in general. They broke the perceived monopoly of 
the craft guilds over possession of such practical knowledge as made 
up metallurgy, dyeing or other chemical recipes, pottery or any of 
a multitude of potential household requisites. p. 26
(Dear - Revolutionizing the Sciences) 

Though, as Dear rightly points in the next paragraph just having access to information of paper about a craft does not necessarily lead to practice as experts, it nonetheless helped to overcome a belief about the fact that knowledge indeed can be transferred in the form of books via the printing press.

In the coming century, the presence of the printing press helped the spread of knowledge to all parts of Europe in all subjects of inquiry. There is no parallel to this in the Indian context. Neither the technology (in the form of a printing press) nor the drive to spread the knowledge to the general masses was present in India. In this post, I have glossed over many details but I believe there were two main reasons for a scientific revolution to not happen in India are, first the connection of caste with profession and non-availability of a technology to spread knowledge to the general public. As a result, though earlier we had a better technology and scientific knowledge we did not have a Scientific Revolution. In the current era, with the connected devices, and also with caste not being a barrier to one’s profession, who knows we might be on the doorsteps of a revolution.

 

Hymn of Creation from Rig Veda

This wonderful Hymn of Creation one of the oldest surviving records of philosophic doubt in the history of the world, marks the development of a high stage of abstract thinking, and it is the work of a very great poet, whose vision of the mysterious chaos before creation, and of mighty ineffable forces working in the depths of the primaeval void, is portrayed with impressive economy of language.

“Then even nothingness was not, nor existence.
There was no air then, nor the heavens beyond it
What covered it? Where was it? In whose keeping?
Was there then cosmic water, in depths unfathomed?

“Then there were neither death nor immortality,
nor was there then the torch of night and day.

The One breathed windlessly and self-sustaining.
There was that One then, and there was no other.
“At first there was only darkness wrapped in darkness.
All this was only unillumined water.

That One which came to be, enclosed in nothing,
arose at last, bom of the power of heat.
“In the beginning desire descended on it
that was the primal seed, bom of the mind.

The sages who have searched their hearts with wisdom
know that which is is kin to that which is not.
“And they have stretched their cord across the void,
and know what was above, and what below.

Seminal powers made fertile mighty forces.
Below was strength, and over it was impulse,
“But, after all, who knows, and who can say
whence it all came, and how creation happened?

The gods themselves are later than creation,
so who knows truly whence it has arisen?
“Whence all creation had its origin,
he, whether he fashioned it or whether he did not,

he, who surveys it all from highest heaven,
he knows— or maybe even he does not know.

From – The Wonder That Was India – A. L. Basham

They Thought They Were Free

In this post we will look at some experiences that people in Germany had during the rise of Nazi Party. Overall the trend is that you make it almost impossible for anyone opposed to your thought as an outcast, and others just follow the herd. Many measures of the present incumbent have parallels to this. And especially the current drama of demonetization of high denomination currency notes.

This separation of government from people, this widening of the gap, took place so gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised (perhaps not even intentionally) as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and reforms (real reforms, too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter.”

They say that it was essential that it should have been kept secret, otherwise the point of exercise would have been futile. People of the country are asked to make sacrifices for the betterment of the country. Otherwise the country was in crisis. So we had to take emergency steps. What is happening in all this introduced chaos is the issues which need to go in public imagination are removed. These are issues which the government doesn’t want people to discuss, debate. Like a magician they are directing the public attention with gimmicks and shenanigans when their slight of hand remains invisible from public scrutiny.

In all these perception managing exercise the ever changing breaking news in our main-stream-media plays an ubiquitous role. They are supposed to be a pillar in the democratic process, but instead we find that they are malleable and play hand-maiden’s role for diverting and capturing public imagination. Most of the time this is in sync with what the incumbent government wants.

“The dictatorship, and the whole process of its coming into being, was above all diverting. It provided an excuse not to think for people who did not want to think anyway. I do not speak of your ‘little men,’ your baker and so on; I speak of my colleagues and myself, learned men, mind you. Most of us did not want to think about fundamental things and never had. There was no need to. Nazism gave us some dreadful, fundamental things to think about—we were decent people—and kept us so busy with continuous changes and ‘crises’ and so fascinated, yes, fascinated, by the machinations of the ‘national enemies,’ without and within, that we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us. Unconsciously, I suppose, we were grateful. Who wants to think?”

Thinking is also outsourced. Experts are called in, to provide excerpts from ideas too complex and too common for common citizens to comprehend. Each idea is digested in studios, what is generated is a pre-digested version of the ideas so that you don’t need to do it. You perhaps do not have time to do it. There are more relevant things than ruminating about rationalisations regarding political policies. And if at all you do question or think about these, one of the basic logical fallacy of ad hominem is employed. Shoot the messenger, we already have the message (or massage after McLuhan). Messenger is the mess-maker. Here in public imagination the questioner becomes the questioned. The questions are irrelevant, motive, history and ideological stance of the person asking the question is more important. Questioning policies and performance metamorphose from act of trying to understand to act of treason to undermine.

The perpetrator becomes predated. Overnight they are condemned to become public and hence national enemies. Any one who does not support becomes anti-national by default. To live here you have to live by our rules, otherwise you should go away. Who gave this authority to them? This is again questioned back, you must have something to hide, hence you are not supporting this. Then it captures public imagination, those questioning are enemies within. Dissent is treason.

And we have in form of Pakistan the “Other”. The national enemy without. When there is a dullness in the public imagination, raise the ante in form of the bogey man for all our troubles. Again here the pattern is well laid out.

Uncertainty is a very important factor, and, instead of decreasing as time goes on, it grows. Outside, in the streets, in the general community, ‘everyone’ is happy. One hears no protest, and certainly sees none.

What might happen next, what event will break the news, tomorrow is unknown. Through surveys through debates it is brought to fore that “All is well.” If it is not well for you, the trouble is with you. All the problems are only for people who are enemies within. Those supporting, are the ones who are honest, happy and hardworking. Rest of you need to prove you allegiance, we already have by token sloganeering, literally and figuratively both.

And you are an alarmist. You are saying that this must lead to this, and you can’t prove it. These are the beginnings, yes; but how do you know for sure when you don’t know the end, and how do you know, or even surmise, the end? On the one hand, your enemies, the law, the regime, the Party, intimidate you. On the other, your colleagues pooh-pooh you as pessimistic or even neurotic. You are left with your close friends, who are, naturally, people who have always thought as you have.”

If you think too much you become the pseudo-leftist-communist-atheist-liberal. Taking a stance against the establishment is an act of defiance against the country. The content of the stance is not important, questioning is. Your thought is against the wisdom of the entire society. The entire system acts against you. The system forces you to choose. AADHAR is a case in this category. All the arguments against are drowned in a sea of arguments which do not address the concerns raised. Look at the benefits for the poor they say, those who fall in line, are normal. It is only people like you living in ivory towers feel bad about it. Outside everyone is using it, and they are happy about it. The dubious and shady way in which it was legalised itself should have sent shudders, but rather it has evoked a lukewarm response. Those in power are so intoxicated that even supreme court ruling that it should not be mandatory is ignored left right and center. Each day incrementally small changes and notifications are provided. Each day it is becoming near impossible to live without it. This is already under the premise that it is needed. No one can question that. And if you do, they ask what is your problem? Why can’t you fall in line? Just accept it will you. People must have bank account and must have ID cards, who cares if it is not constitutionally mandated?

Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed.

But till we find out and till we realise the water is already boiling and we and our coming generation is already cooked.

They Thought They Were Free  – Milton Mayer

After Nehru…

Longish quotes from London Review of Books from After Nehru by Perry Anderson

To be impressive, however, is not to be miraculous, as Indians and others still regularly describe the political system that crystallised after independence. There was never anything supernatural about it: terrestrial explanations suffice. The stability of Indian democracy came in the first instance from the conditions of the country’s independence. There was no overthrow of the Raj, but a transfer of power by it to Congress as its successor. The colonial bureaucracy and army were left intact, minus the colonisers.

For twenty years, across five polls between 1951 and 1971, Congress never once won a majority of votes. In this period, at the peak of its popularity as an organisation, its average share of the electorate was 45 per cent. This yielded it crushing majorities in the Lok Sabha, amounting to just under 70 per cent of the seats in Parliament. In effect, the distortions of the electoral system meant that at national level it faced no political opposition. At state or district level, this did not hold. But there, the centre had powers that could deal swiftly with any local trouble. These too were heirlooms of the Raj, eagerly appropriated by Congress.

No other system of inequality, dividing not simply, as in most cases, noble from commoner, rich from poor, trader from farmer, learned from unlettered, but the clean from the unclean, the seeable from the unseeable, the wretched from the abject, the abject from the subhuman, has ever been so extreme, and so hard-wired with religious force into human expectation.

Fixing in hierarchical position and dividing from one another every disadvantaged group, legitimating every misery in this life as a penalty for moral transgression in a previous incarnation, as it became the habitual framework of the nation it struck away any possibility of broad collective action to redress earthly injustice that might otherwise have threatened the stability of the parliamentary order over which Congress serenely presided for two decades after independence.

By the end of his life, Nehru would have liked a more presentable fig-leaf for Indian rule, but that he had any intention of allowing free expression of the popular will in Kashmir can be excluded: he could never afford to do so. He had shown no compunction in incarcerating on trumped-up charges the ostensible embodiment of the ultimate legitimacy of Indian conquest of the region, and no hesitation in presiding over subcontracted tyrannies of whose nature he was well aware.

Surrounded by mediocrities, Nehru accumulated more posts than he could handle – permanent foreign minister as well as prime minister, not to speak of defence minister, head of the planning commission, president of Congress, at various times. He was not a good administrator, finding it difficult to delegate, but even had he been, this was a pluralism too far.

Nor was Ambedkar consoled by sanctimonious plaudits for his role in drafting the constitution. He knew he had been used by Congress, and said two years later: ‘People always keep on saying to me: oh sir, you are the maker of the constitution. My answer is I was a hack. What I was asked to do I did much against my will.’

Secularism in India, it is explained, does not mean anything so unsophisticated as the separation of state and religion. Rather – so one version goes – the Indian state is secular because, while it may well finance or sponsor this or that religious institution or activity, in doing so it maintains an ‘equidistance’ from the variegated faiths before it.

As with other oppressed minorities in societies keen to advertise their pluralism, a sprinkling of celebrities – a batsman or film star here, a scientist or symbolic office-holder there – adorns, but doesn’t materially alter, the position of the overwhelming majority of Muslims in India.

What the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act effectively does in such zones, the young Indian historian Ananya Vajpeyi has written, is ‘to create an entirely separate space within India, a sort of second and shadow nation, that functions as a military state rather than an electoral democracy, and only remains hidden because it is not, at least so far, officially ruled by a general or a dictator’. This space should ‘not be thought of as a zone of exception, but as a contradiction so extreme that it undoes the totality in which it is embedded’, which breaks down into ‘two distinct and mutually opposed regimes’ that form ‘two nations: India and non-India’.

Had the party or state been truly secular, in each case this would have been a priority, but that was the last thing it had in mind. There cannot be a genuinely secular party or state unless it is willing to confront religious superstition and bigotry, rather than truckle to them. Neither party nor state has ever contemplated doing that, because both have rested, sociologically speaking, on Hindu caste society. The continued dominance of upper castes in public institutions – administration, police, courts, universities, media – belongs to the same matrix.

After Independence, Gandhi’s doctrines were consigned to the museum, but his saturation of politics with Hindu pathos lived on.

Indian secularism of the post-independence period had never sharply separated state and religion, let alone developed any systematic critique of Hinduism.

The BJP does not oppose, but upholds secularism, for ‘India is secular because it is Hindu.’

‘Myths have a way of running away with their proponents,’ G. Balachandran, an Indian critic of this outlook, of whom there have not been that many, has remarked: ‘Belief in the essentially secular character of the modern Indian state and society can often be little more than an exercise in self-congratulation which overlooks or rationalises the sectarian religious outlook pervading large areas of contemporary social and political practice.’

Mayawati’s erection of 150,000 statues of Ambedkar, not to speak of two hundred effigies of her party’s elephant symbol and of herself (the largest 24 feet high, and like the rest covered in pink polythene as the state went to the polls in March, on the orders of the Election Commission, so as not to beguile or distract voters), at the cost of more schools and healthcare, offers an extreme case of this identity politics, which does not seek to abolish caste, as Ambedkar had wanted, but to affirm it.

Castes continue to be, as they have always been, and Ambedkar saw, one of the purest negations of any notion of liberty and equality, let alone fraternity, imaginable. That the Indian state has never lifted a juridical finger to do away with them, but in seeking only to ameliorate has if anything legally entrenched them, says more about its secularism than the omission of any reference to it in the constitution, or the belated passage of an amendment rectifying the omission to embellish the Emergency.

With it has come a large measure of convergence between Congress and the BJP in government, each pursuing at home a neoliberal economic agenda, as far as their allies will allow them, and abroad a strategic rapprochement with the United States. Culturally, they now bathe in a common atmosphere in which religious insignia, symbols, idols and anthems are taken for granted in commercial and official spaces alike.

In India democracy never extended very far from government to the parties contending for it, which were always run from the top down. Today, however, many have become something other than the oligarchic organisations into which the political scientists Ostrogorsky and Michels thought all parties must sooner or later turn. With the exception of the communists and the BJP, they have become family firms competing for market shares of the electorate and so access to public office.

Of the ensuing scenery, André Béteille, the doyen of sociologists of India, has written that the ‘abject surrender’ of Congress to a single family, corrupting all other parties, has done irreparable harm to Indian democracy, poisoning the wells of public life.

The court, now self-recruiting, is the most powerful judiciary on earth. It has acquired such an abnormal degree of authority because of the decay of the representative institutions around it. Even admirers are aware of the risks. In the graphic phrase of Upendra Baxi, India’s leading legal scholar and one of the first to bring a public interest suit before the court, it is ‘chemotherapy for a carcinogenic body politic’

Comparing India and China from another angle, one of the most lucid political minds of the subcontinent, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, has observed that in the People’s Republic, where there is no democracy, communist rule is based on output legitimacy: it is accepted by the masses for the material benefits it takes great care to deliver them, however unequally. Whereas in India, democracy allows just the opposite – an input legitimacy from the holding of free elections, that thereby excuses the political class from distributing more than confetti to the masses who have elected them.

Three years later, with typical dishonesty, the Manmohan regime renamed it as ‘Gandhian’ to fool the masses into believing that Congress was responsible for it.

Caste, not class, and alas, least of all the working class, is what counts most in popular life, at once sustaining Indian democracy and draining it of reconstructive energy.

If the poor remain divided against themselves, and workers are scattered and ill-organised, what of other sources of opposition within the political system? The new middle class has turned against mega-corruption, but is scarcely foreign to the bribe and the wink, let alone favours to kin, at its own level of advantage. Besotted with a culture of celebrity and consumption, on spectacularly vapid display in much of the media, and to all appearances hardening in collective egoism, it is no leaven in the social order. The intelligentsia is another matter. There, India possesses a range and quality of minds that perhaps no other developing society in the world, and not that many developed ones, can match. Whether working inside or outside the union, it forms an interconnected community of impressive acuity and distinction. In what kind of relationship does it stand to the country? Intellectuals are often held, quite wrongly, to be critical by definition. But in some societies, the mistake has become internalised as a self-conception or expectation, and so it probably is for most Indian intellectuals. How far do they live up to it?

A rigid social hierarchy was the basis of original democratic stability, and its mutation into a compartmentalised identity politics has simultaneously deepened parliamentary democracy and debauched it. Throughout, caste is the cage that has held Indian democracy together, and it has yet to escape.

In the 1920s the great Tamil iconoclast E.V. Ramasamy could declare: ‘He who invented God is a fool. He who propagates God is a scoundrel. He who worships God is a barbarian.’

Hindu culture, exceptionally rich in epics and metaphysics, was exceptionally poor in history, a branch of knowledge radically devalued by the doctrines of karma, for which any given temporal existence on earth was no more than a fleeting episode in the moral cycle of the soul.

‘In an overwhelmingly religious society,’ one subcontinental scholar has written, ‘even the most clear-sighted leaders have found it impossible to distinguish romanticism from history and the latter from mythology.’

Moral indignation is too precious an export to be wasted at home. That the democracy of his country and the humanity of his leader preside over an indurated tyranny, replete with torture and murder, within what they claim as their national borders, need not ruffle a loyal Indian citizen.

Nobel prizes are rarely badges of political courage – some of infamy – so there is little reason for surprise at a silence that, in one form or another, is so common among Indian intellectuals.

What is true is that no break away from the union is conceivable in this area, not because of any economic impossibility, but because Delhi can unleash overwhelming military force, as it has done for a half a century, to crush any attempt at secession, and can count on exhaustion eventually wearing out all resistance, as it cannot in Kashmir, where the alternatives of independence or inclusion in Pakistan have not left the Valley, and any free vote would prefer either to the Indian yoke.

Still, at the altar of Trimurti, costs are discounted inversely to gains. Unity, whose moral and political deadweight is heavier, is safer from reproach than democracy or secularity.

The dynasty that still rules the country, its name as fake as the knock-off of a prestige brand, is the negation of any self-respecting republic.

Congress had its place in the national liberation struggle. Gandhi, who had made it the mass force it became, called at independence for its dissolution. He was right. Since then the party has been a steadily increasing calamity for the country. Its exit from the scene would be the best single gift Indian democracy could give itself.

The political ills that all well-meaning patriots now deplore are not sudden or recent maladies of a once healthy system. They descend from its original composition, through the ruling family and its affiliates, and the venerations and half-truths surrounding these and the organisation enclosing them.

via After Nehru | LRB

Science, a humanistic approach

Science is an adventure of the whole human race to learn to live in and perhaps to love the universe in which they are. To be a part of it is to understand, to understand oneself, to begin to feel that there is a capacity within man far beyond what he felt he had, of an infinite extension of human possibilities . . .
I propose that science be taught at whatever level, from the lowest to the highest, in the humanistic way. It should be taught with a certain historical understanding , with a certain philosophical understanding , with a social understanding and a human understanding in the sense of the biography, the nature of the people who made this construction, the triumphs, the trials, the tribulations.

I. I. RABI
Nobel Laureate in Physics

via Project Physics Course, Unit 4 Light and Electromagnetism Preface

Do see the Project Physics Course which has come in Public Domain hosted at the Internet Archive, thanks to F.  James Rutherford.

The Illusion Of Democracy

But, of course, corporate media professionals have long propped up the illusion that the public is offered an ‘impartial’ selection of facts, opinions and perspectives from which any individual can derive a well-informed world view. Simply put, ‘impartiality’ is what the establishment says is impartial.

The major political parties offer no real choice. They all represent essentially the same interests crushing any moves towards meaningful public participation in the shaping of policy; or towards genuine concern for all members of society, particularly the weak and the vulnerable.

US media analyst Robert McChesney observes:

‘In many respects we now live in a society that is only formally democratic, as the great mass of citizens have minimal say on the major public issues of the day, and such issues are scarcely debated at all in any meaningful sense in the electoral arena.’ (McChesney, Rich Media, Poor Democracy, The New Press, 2000, p. 260).

via The Illusion Of Democracy.

PS: Somehow as of today 2-1-2012 1330 hrs IST medialens server is not working and is giving a Forbidden 403 error from my connection. I do not know what the cause is? Is the medialens server down?