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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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References

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

 

Cosmetic Intellectuals (+ IYI)

In the last few years, the very connotation of the term intellectual has seen a downward slope. Such are the times that we are living in that calling someone an “intellectual” has become more like an insult rather than a compliment: it means an idiot who doesn’t understand or see things clearly. Now as the title of the post suggests it is this meaning, not the other meaning intellectuals who know about cosmetics. Almost two decades back Alan Sokal wrote a book titled Intellectual Impostures, which described quite a few of them. In this book, Sokal exposed the posturing done by people of certain academic disciplines who were attacking science from a radical postmodernist perspective. What Sokal showed convincingly through his famous hoax, is that many of these disciplines are peddling out bullshit with no control over the meaning contained. Only the form was important not the meaning. And in the book, he takes it a step forward, showing that this was not an isolated case. He exposes the misuse of the technical terms (which often have precise and operational meanings) as loose metaphors or even worse completely neglecting the accepted meaning of those terms. The examples given are typical, and you cannot make sense of what is being written. You can read, but cannot understand. It makes no sensible meaning. At this point, you start to doubt your own intelligence and intellectual competence, perhaps you have not read enough to understand this complex piece of knowledge. It was after all written by an intellectual. Perhaps you are not aware of the meaning of the jargon or their context, hence you are not able to understand it. After all there are university departments and journals dedicated to such topics. Does it not legitimise such disciplines as academic and its proponents/followers as intellectuals? Sokal answered it empirically by testing if presented with nonsense whether it makes any difference to the discipline. You are not able to make sense of these texts because they are indeed nonsensical. To expect any semblance of logic and rationality in them is to expect too much.

Nassim Taleb has devised the term Intellectual Yet Idiots (the IYI in the title) in his Incerto series. He minces no words and takes no bullshit. Sokal appears very charitable in comparison. Taleb sets the bar even higher. Sokal made a point to attack mostly the postmodernists, but Taleb bells the cats who by some are even considered proper academics, for example, Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker. He considers entire disciplines as shams, which are otherwise considered academic, like economics, but has equal if not more disdain to several others also, for example, psychology and gender studies. Taleb has at times extreme views on several issues and he is not afraid to speak of his mind on matters that matter to him. His writings are arrogant, but his content is rigorous and mathematically sound.

they aren’t intelligent enough to define intelligence, hence fall into circularities—their main skill is a capacity to pass exams written by people like them, or to write papers read by people like them.

But there are people who are like IYIs, but don’t even have the depth of the content or knowledge of IYIs. They are wannabe IYIs, all form no conent. They are a level below IYIs. I term such people as cosmetic intellectuals (cosint). We have met them before: they are the envious mediocre and the ones who excel in meetings. The term cosmetic is used in two senses both as adjectives. The first sense is the Loreal/Lakme/Revlon fashion sense as given from the dictionary entry below:

cosmetic

  • relating to treatment intended to restore or improve a person’s appearance
  • affecting only the appearance of something rather than its substance

It is the second sense that I mean in this post. It is rather the substance of these individuals that is only present in the appearance. And as we know appearance can be deceiving. Cosints appear intellectuals, but only in appearance, hence the term cosmetic. So how does one become a Cosint? Here is a non-exhaustive list that can be an indicator (learn here is not used in the deeper sense of the word, but more like as in rote-learn):

  1. Learn the buzzwords: Basically they rote learn the buzzwords or the jargon of the field that they are in. One doesn’t need to understand the deeper significance or meaning of such words, in many cases just knowing the words works. In the case of education, some of these are (non-comprehensive): constructivism, teaching-learning process, milieu, constructivist approaches, behaviorism, classroom setting, 21st-century skills, discovery method, inquiry method, student-centered, blended learning, assessments, holistic, organic, ethnography, pedagogy, curriculum, TLMs. ZPD, TPD, NCF, RTE, (the more complicated the acronyms, the better). More complicated it sounds the better. They learn by association that certain buzzwords have a positive value (for example, constructivism) and other a negative one (for example, behaviorism) in the social spaces where they usually operate in, for example, in education departments of universities and colleges. Not that the Cosints are aware of the deeper meaning of there concepts, still they make a point of using them whenever possible. They make a buzz using the buzzwords. If you ask them about Piaget, they know the very rudimentary stuff, anything deeper and they are like rabbits in front of flashlight. They may talk about p-values, 𝛘2 tests, 98.5 % statistical significances, but when asked will not be able to distinguish between dependent and independent variables.
  2. Learn the people: The CosInts are also aware of the names of the people in their trade. And they associate the name to a concept or of a classic work. They are good associating. For example, (bad) behaviorism with Burrhus F. Skinner or Watson, hence Skinner bad. Or Jean Piaget with constructivism and stages (good). Vygotsky: social constructivism, ZPD. Or John Dewey and his work. So they have a list of people and concepts. Gandhi: Nayi Taleem.  Macauley: brought the English academic slavery on India (bad).
  3. Learn the classics: They will know by heart all the titles of the relevant classics and some modern ones (you have to appear well-read after all). Here just remembering the names is enough. No one is going to ask you what was said in section 1.2 of Kothari Commission. Similarly, they will rote learn the names of all the books that you are supposed to have read, better still carry a copy of these books and show off in a class. Rote learn a few sentences, and spew it out like a magic trick in front of awestruck students. Items #1 through #3 don’t work very well when they have real intellectual in front of them. A person with a good understanding of basics will immediately discover the fishiness of the facade they put up. But that doesn’t matter most of the time, as we see in the next point.
  4. Know the (local) powerful and the famous: This is an absolute must to thrive with these limitations. Elaborated earlier.
  5. Learn the language aka Appear academic (literally not metaphorically): There is a stereotype of academic individuals. They will dress in a particular manner (FabIndia?, pyor cotton wonly, put a big Bindi, wear a Bongali kurta etc, carry ethnic items, conference bags (especially the international ones), even conference stationery), carry themselves in a particular manner, talk in a particular manner (academese). This is also true of wannabe CosInt who are still students, they learn to imitate as soon as they enter The Matrix. Somehow they will find ways of using names and concepts from #1 #2 #3 in their talk, even if they are not needed. Show off in front of the students, especially in front of the students. With little practice one can make an entire classroom full of students believe that you are indeed learned, very learned. Any untoward questions should be shooed off, or given so tangential an answer that students are more confused than they were earlier.
  6. Attend conferences, seminars and lectures: The primary purpose is network building and making sure that others register you as an academic. Also, make sure that you ask a question or better make a tangential comment after the seminar so that everyone notices you. Ask the question for the sake of asking the question (even especially if you don’t have any real questions). Sometimes the questions devolve into verbal diarrhea and don’t remain questions and don’t also have any meaning that can be derived from them (I don’t have a proper word to describe this state of affairs, but it is like those things which you know when you see it). But you have to open your mouth at these events, especially when you have nothing substantial/meaningful to say. This is how you get recognition. Over a decade of attending various conferences on education in India, I have come to realise that it is akin to a cartel. You go to any conference, you will see a fixed set of people who are common to these conferences. Many of these participants are the cosints (both the established and the wannabes). After spending some time in the system they become organisers of such conferences, seminars and lectures definitely get other CosInts to these conferences. These are physical citation rings, I call you to my conference you call me to yours. Year after year, I see the same patterns, so much so I can predict, like while watching a badly written and cliche movie, what is going to happen when they are around. That person has to ask a question and must use a particular buzzword. (I myself don’t ask or comment, unless I think I have something substantial to add. Perhaps they think in same manner, just that their definition of substantial is different than mine.) Also, see #5, use the terms in #1, #2 and #3. Make sure to make a personal connection with all the powerful and famous you find there, also see #4.
  7. Pedigree matters: Over the years, I have seen the same type of cosints coming from particular institutions. Just like you can predict certain traits of a dog when you know its breed, similarly one can predict certain traits of individuals coming from certain institutions. Almost without exception, one can do this, but certain institutions have a greater frequency of cosints. Perhaps because the teachers who are in those places are themselves IYI+cosints. Teaching strictly from a  prescribed curriculum and rote-learning the jargon: most students just repeat what they see and the cycle continues. Sometimes I think these are the very institutions that are responsible for the sorry state of affairs in the country. They are filled to the brim with IYIs, who do not have any skin in the game and hence it doesn’t matter what they do. Also, being stamped as a product of certain institution gives you some credibility automatically, “She must be talking some sense, after all he is from DU/IIT/IIM/JNU/”
  8. Quantity not quality: Most of us are not going to create work which will be recognised the world over (Claude Shannon published very infrequently, but when he did it changed the world). Yet were are in publish or perish world. CosInts know this, so they publish a lot. It doesn’t matter what is the quality is (also #4 and #5 help a lot). They truly are environmentalists. They will recycle/reuse the same material with slight changes for different papers and conferences, and surprisingly they also get it there (also #4 and #5 help a lot). So, at times, you will find a publication list which even a toilet paper roll may not be able to contain. Pages after pages of publications! Taleb’s thoughts regarding this are somewhat reassuring, so is the Sokal’s hoax, that just when someone has publications (a lot of them) it is not automatic that they are meaningful.
  9. Empathisers and hypocrites: Cosints are excellent pseudo-emphatisers. They will find something to emphathise with. Maybe a class of people, a class of gender (dog only knows how many). Top of the list are marginalised, poor low socio-economic status, underprivileged, rural schools, government students, school teachers, etc. You get the picture.  They will use the buzz words in the context of these entities they emphathise with. Perhaps, once in their lifetimes, they might have visited those whom they want to give their empathy, but otherwise, it is just an abstract entity/concept.(I somehow can’t shake image of Arshad Warsi in MunnaBhai MBBS “Poor hungry people” while writing about this.) It is easier to work with abstract entities than with real ones, you don’t have to get your hands (or other body parts) dirty. The abstract teacher will do this, will behave in this way: they will write a 2000 word assignment on a terse subject. This is all good when designing things because abstract concepts don’t react in unwanted ways. But when things don’t go as planned in real world, teachers don’t react at all! The blame is on everyone else except the cosints. Perhaps they are too dumb to understand that it is they are at fault. Also, since they don’t have skin in the game, they will tell and advise whatever they have heard or think to be good, when it is implemented on others. For example, if you talk to people especially from villages, they will want to learn English as it is seen as the language which will give them upward mobility. But cosints, typically in IYI style, some researchers found that it is indeed the mother tongue which is better for students to learn, it should be implemented everywhere. The desires and hopes of those who will be learning be damned, they are too “uneducated” to understand what they need. It is the tyranny of fake experts at work here.

    He thinks people should act according to their best interests and he knows their interests… When plebeians do something that makes sense to themselves, but not to him, the IYI uses the term “uneducated.” (SITG Taleb)

    Now one would naturally want to know under what conditions that research was done? was there any ideological bias of the researchers? whether it is applicable in as diverse a country as India? What do we do of local “dialects”? But they don’t do any of this. Instead, they will attack anyone who raises these doubts, especially in #6. They want to work only with the government schools: poor kids, poor teachers no infrastructure. But ask them where their own children study: they do in private schools! But their medium must be their mother tongue right? No way, it is completely English medium, they even learn Hindi in English. But at least the state board? No CBSE, or still better ICSE. Thus we see the hypocrisy of the cosint, when they have the skin in the game. But do they see it themselves? Perhaps not, hence they don’t feel any conflict in what they do.

So we see that IYI /cosint are not what they seem or consider themselves. Over the last decade or so, with the rise of the right across the world is indicating to everyone that something is wrong when cosints tell us what to do. The tyranny of pseudo-experts has to go.  But why it has come to that the “intellectuals” who are supposed to be the cream of the human civilisation, the thinkers, the ideators, so why the downfall? Let us first look at the meaning of the term, so as to be not wrong about that:

 The intellectual person is one who applies critical thinking and reason in either a professional or a personal capacity, and so has authority in the public sphere of their society; the term intellectual identifies three types of person, one who:

  1. is erudite, and develops abstract ideas and theories;
  2. a professional who produces cultural capital, as in philosophy, literary criticism, sociology, law, medicine, science; and
  3. an artist who writes, composes, paints and so on.

Intellectual (emphasis mine)

Now, see in the light of the above definition, it indeed seems that it must be requiring someone to be intelligent and/or well-cultured individual. So why the change in the tones now? The reasons are that the actual intellectual class has degraded and cosints have replaced them, also too much theory and no connect with the real world has made them live in a simulacrum which is inhabited and endorsed by other cosints. And as we have seen above it is a perpetuating cycle, running especially in the universities (remember Taleb’s qualification). They theorize and jargonise (remember the buzzwords) simple concepts so much that no one who has got that special glossary will understand it). And cosints think it is how things should be. They write papers in education, supposedly for the betterment of the classroom teaching by the teachers, in such a manner that if you give it to a teacher, they will not be able to make any sense of it, leave alone finding something useful. Why? Because other cosints/IYI demand it! If you don’t write a paper in a prescribed format it is rejected, if it doesnt have enough statistics it is rejected, if it doesn’t give enough jargon in the form of theoretical review, and back scratching in the form of citations it is rejected. So what good are such papers which don’t lead to practice? And why should the teachers listen to you if you don’t have anything meaningful to tell them or something they don’t know already?

The noun to describe them:

sciolist – (noun) – One who engages in pretentious display of superficial knowledge.

Arbeit Macht Frei – Work sets you free

Arbeit Macht Frei – Work sets you free

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On the gate of Dachau, a model concentration camp. The SS were Hitler’s instrument of terror in the creation of the new order. It was only logical that they should run the camps. Their first prisoners were the dissidents of the Nazi state, political and religious as well as racial. The SS schooled themselves in brutality, systematically reducing their victims to total subservience. Depriving them of individuality, no names, numbers.

 – The World At War – Episode 20:  Genocide

We are also close to become a society in which we will not have a name but only a number might become our identity. There were even suggestions by the mahanubhav who spearheaded this project that we should get this number tattoed on hands lest we forget it. Why not barcode or QR code, so that is easily machine-readable too?

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Also, we are making detention camps for people who are not able to prove that they are indeed Indian citizens, a classic case of creating and identifying the other. Ironically, the  detention camps are being built by those who will be detained there, just as in the concentration camps. Too many parallels. History repeats itself. 

Two Cultures

When C. P. Snow talked about Two Cultures, he had in mind the two supposedly different ways of life. The sciences and the humanities. Snow tries to see the differences between the two cultures and makes it a point to show that the two are indeed different. Recently I read Stephen J Gould’s The Fox, The Hedgehog, and the Magister’s Pox. Gould tries to establish that the so-called divide between the sciences and the humanities never existed but was created unnecessarily.

In this article, I am also going to talk about two cultures, but not the ones that Snow choose. I am going to talk about academic and administrative cultures. Any research institute along with its academic staff has a `supporting’ administrative staff. Theoretically, if you ask, the tasks of the two are defined clearly. The academicians are supposed to do academics, that is, to do research, or at least what they consider research or worth doing. The outcome of academicians is to be measured by fellow academicians, in terms of the quality and the quantity of research or visible work done by them.

The academic life is usually one which is not-so-high paying. At least in India, this seems to be the case. A person who retires as the Director of an Institute hardly draws a salary as compared to the ones in the industry with their kind of experience. But that will take us into another discussion about Academics and Corporates, which I don’t want to enter into now. The perks of academic life are in many cases, if not in all, are the curiosity and the associated satisfaction that one derives from the problems that one tackles. When a person starts an academic career, the paths diverge sharply from their colleagues’ paths who have to choose a corporate way. When one enters academics, one of the things that are retained is a sense of freedom. Again this might not be true in all cases, I have seen juniors, especially the Graduate Students being ruled upon like a dictator by senior Professors. But this misses the point that I want to make. The point is that if you can, at least theoretically speaking, pursue your own research agendas, your research questions. For some people, it is the question that drives their academic lives.

Every now and then you hear examples of so-called `nerds’, who do weird things. They are the people who have `devoted’ themselves to their field. I am not trying to defend anyone here for doing all the weird things that they do, but just trying to illustrate the fact that the field that the researcher chooses, is what drives them on in life. It is just due to the handful of these people that makes the difference. Many times it is just sheer genius, many times it is hard work of years. They are the leaders of their field. Well not always, you may find a mediocre person leading the field, with all the proper political connections…

But this is not always the case; there are always misfits. I do know of people who do not have any commitment to the field that they are working in, per se. But they choose the research field as any other job, the enthusiasm is lacking. And they lament upon those who show some enthusiasm. And such people may be quite numerous. They are the followers. In many cases, it is not that they lack the enthusiasm, but it is entirely missing. What I mean by that is they just like workers in a stone quarry, just doing what the supervisor tells you to do, without much understanding. They are like academic coolies. Maybe the term sounds harsh, but that is what it is supposed to be. Whether you are like this or not will strongly depend on who is your reporting authority in the field. These people, if asked, will have no opinion themselves, and even if they do, it will be a carbon copy of somebody else’s.

The way one is moulded in academic life strongly depends upon one’s own capacity for independent thinking and the kind of support that one gets from the colleagues, including and most importantly from the supervisor. The graduate student years decide what kind of academic person you will become. If all your thoughts are nipped in the bud, at all the times, will you be able to think independently? This is also the question that the supervisor has to ask himself/herself: What my student should be like? I guess many of them would differ in the answer that they give and the thing that they actually practice.

Research Institutes are constituted so as to make an academic atmosphere. By this it is meant that the place should provide support for the activities that the researchers do, that is those activities apart from doing research per se. This support if necessary so that the researchers can concentrate on their work completely. Well isn’t that the idea of having a research institute. The researchers are paid for doing that, and many of them if not all do precisely this. They are not doing research as some part-time job, they are professionals, and at least some of them are committed to the field.

A Paradigm as variously defined by Thomas Kuhn would be a more proper term here for the field. As a philosopher, Kuhn redefined many of our existing understanding in the field of science, especially our understanding _about_ science as a field of human endeavour.

Researchers come and join a paradigm, most of them stay within the paradigm and solve puzzles. Only a few lucky of them come up with problems that are unsolvable within the paradigm, and then the revolutions follow. But let us not go further in this interlude. We
will talk about Kuhn some other time.

So coming back to research institutes, we can settle on one thing that a research institute is a place where research is done, and it is meant for that purpose. In a research institute, the agenda is to provide facilities for research. Various people form the infrastructure that is is thus required. Generally, any research institute has a few categories of people. The faculty, the graduate students and the scientific staff other than the previously mentioned ones. The other staff in the institute includes the technical, administrative
and the auxiliary staff, peons, cleaners etc.

The administrative staff is supposed to help the academic staff to lessen their burden from the non-academic work that they have to do. This `non-academic’ work includes managing the finance of the institute, maintaining the premises, handling at recruitments, and looking at various other facilities and services. But in some institute, the administrative staff becomes increasingly powerful, so much so that they dictate the terms to the academics. Promotions are stalled, so are new recruitments and procurements. All this by citing some obscure rules or just sitting on the files for months. This particularly happens when the incumbent person perceived to be “weak”. On the other hand when the incumbent person is perceived to be “strong”, the administration falls in line. The “strong” person at the helm, can ask the administration to bend the rules, or keep them on hold, or even circumvent at times. This makes the institutes grow. On the other hand, following the rules too strictly and with convenience denial makes it difficult for any growth.

Personal vendettas and fragile egos mark office politics. This is a power struggle, which decides the fate of the institute.

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

Why I am an Atheist

Beliefs make it easier to go through hardships, even make them pleasant.

You go against popular feelings; you criticise a hero, a great man who is generally believed to be above criticism. What happens? No one will answer your arguments in a rational way; rather you will be considered vainglorious. Its reason is mental insipidity. Merciless criticism and independent thinking are the two necessary traits of revolutionary thinking. As Mahatmaji is great, he is above criticism; as he has risen above, all that he says in the field of politics, religion, Ethics is right. You agree or not, it is binding upon you to take it as truth. This is not constructive thinking. We do not take a leap forward; we go many steps back.

It is necessary for every person who stands for progress to criticise every tenet of old beliefs. Item by item he has to challenge the efficacy of old faith. He has to analyse and understand all the details. If after rigorous reasoning, one is led to believe in any theory of philosophy, his faith is appreciated. His reasoning may be mistaken and even fallacious. But there is chance that he will be corrected because Reason is the guiding principle of his life. But belief, I should say blind belief is disastrous. It deprives a man of his understanding power and makes him reactionary.

Open your eyes and see millions of people dying of hunger in slums and huts dirtier than the grim dungeons of prisons; just see the labourers patiently or say apathetically while the rich vampires suck their blood; bring to mind the wastage of human energy that will make a man with a little common sense shiver in horror. Just observe rich nations throwing their surplus produce into the sea instead of distributing it among the needy and deprived. There are palaces of kings built upon the foundations laid with human bones. Let them see all this and say “All is well in God’s Kingdom.” Why so? This is my question.

One of my friends asked me to pray. When informed of my atheism, he said, “When your last days come, you will begin to believe.” I said, “No, dear sir, Never shall it happen. I consider it to be an act of degradation and demoralisation. For such petty selfish motives, I shall never pray.” Reader and friends, is it vanity? If it is, I stand for it.

via Why I am an Atheist.

Equity Over Excellence

There is an interesting piece in The Atlantic by Sergey Ivanov on the education system in Finland. Though the article is written from a viewpoint of an American, there are a lot of take home points for everyone and particularly for India. In this post I am trying to make sense of this article from an Indian standpoint. Through out the post if you just insert India for America (which I have done at places), it at once catches. For the problems Indians are facing are also the problems of the Americans, as we have more or less tried to follow their model of education. The basic theme that underlies the article
is this:

The Scandinavian country is an education superpower because 
 it values equality more than excellence.

To many in the Indian context who believe that excellence must be given priority over equity this might be surprising. Surprising because it undermines a basic premise in their logic: that to excel in science and technology the only way is to promote excellence. In India there have been two distinct approaches to education, there is a clear stratification of the students based on standardized tests, and it is these tests which filter out students. But as the Finnish experience shows us that this need not be the case.

The newly found fame for Finland’s educational system comes after excellence of their students in the PISA scores since 2000. This seems paradoxical when we learn more about the educational system. The tried and trusted formulae of instructionism and rote-learning, which many people swear by, have almost no place there. The Finnish educational system seems like an educational philosophers utopian materialized in the real world.

To understand why it is working, the way it is, Indians will have to give away their long cherished beliefs about educational system. This would make the government more accountable towards education of the people. This is not just cosmetic school reform, but a revamping of the complete educational philosophy with which we are running the show.

One of the most intriguing (at least for me) things to notice is:

“Oh,” he mentioned at one point, “and there are no private schools in
Finland.”

This notion may seem difficult for an American (Indian?) to digest, but it’s true. Only a small number of independent schools exist in Finland, and even they are all publicly financed. None is allowed to charge tuition fees. There are no private universities, either. This means that practically every person in Finland attends public school, whether for pre-K or a Ph.D.

(emphasis added)

Now, this is interesting. What can we say about India? In fact over the years there has been general trend that we are seeing, that the number of private schools is increasing. And then there are branded schools which are spreading their networks across the country. Not to tell that they charge really hefty fees, and are meant for the elite. And so is the case with the colleges, each professional degree has a price tag, only people who can afford it, get those degrees. The haves not, the non-elites, who are mostly from the deprived classes, remain with almost no education. The government keeps on talking about reaching out to people, and by allowing the private schools colleges to exist, it is actually preventing people from joining in. Another aspect about this is that since there are alternatives to the government schools, the government schools themselves have no pressure to perform. And as any intelligent parents will tell you, it is better to put your child in a private school than a government one. Most of the parents who are in a financial position to put their children in private schools, do so.

How many parents do you know who have enrolled their children in government schools, even when they can afford private schools?

There was yet another interesting piece If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person in which the author makes a case that it is parents who are driving the change of declining government schools. If the educated parents make a sustained effort of challenging and helping government schools to improve, they will surely improve. The parents adopt the path of least effort, and send their children to private schools, which are supposed to be better. This automatically creates a class divide without asking.

Even among the private schools there is an hierarchy. There are international schools, convent schools etc. So the social stratification that exists, is just reflected in the school system. Seen from this perspective, one can understand why are the government schools neglected. They are neglected because the people who are influential and who are amongst the rich and powerful are never affected by the dismal state of the government schools. They have an alternate avenue for their children where these schools never come into picture.

There is another thing that is striking in the Indian system, that is of the coaching classes. I do not know if they are present in Finland or even anywhere in the world. But in India, the coaching classes have a complete parallel system of cracking the educational system. The amount money that the coaching classes do attract must be comparable to the amount Government of India spends on education. This is another avenue where the class divide comes in. Only people with enough finances can afford to send their children to the best coaching classes. But the more fundamental question to ask is:

Why do coaching classes exist in the first place?

The answer to this question is not easy and it related closely to the way in which Indians look at education and its practices. The coaching classes exist because there is a demand for them. And what do coaching classes achieve. Most of the coaching classes are aimed at helping students crack some standardized test or the other. But why do you need standardized tests? Some of the rhetorical questions that one might ask against this question are:

From his (Sasi’s) point of view, Americans (Indians) are consistently obsessed
with certain questions:

+ How can you keep track of students’ performance if you don’t test
them constantly?
+ How can you improve teaching if you have no accountability for bad
teachers or merit pay for good teachers?
+ How do you foster competition and engage the private sector?
+ How do you provide school choice?

The answers Finland provides seem to run counter to just about everything America’s (India’s) school reformers are trying to do. For example the introduction of CCE or Continuous and Comprehensive Examination introduced as part of NCF 2005 is one such reform. Similarly we have incentives in forms of awards for best teachers, and of course the best students get rewards like getting admission to the best colleges. Their parents are proud, schools are proud, and their coaching classes are also proud. This can be seen by the number of advertisements the coaching classes put up. But all the exams like IIT-JEE, AIEEE, Medical Exams, Olympiads, etc. are standardized tests. These are the parameters of excellence in the country. Similar tests are also found in the US, like GRE, TOEFL, SAT etc. One would assume the standardized tests in Finland would be of very great quality, but in reality they don’t exist there.

For starters, Finland has no standardized tests. The only exception is what’s called the National Matriculation Exam, which everyone takes at the end of a voluntary upper-secondary school, roughly the equivalent of American high school.

The very idea of standardized tests emerged in the shadow of the Second World War. The mass recruitment of troops required a mass approach, which resulted in production of tests. In his book The Tyranny of Testing physicist Banesh Hoffman, criticises the standardized tests that were prevalent in the US, and takes to task the leading makers of these tests on the fundamental premise of their objectivity. Similarly one can, question the fundamentals of the standardized tests in the country.

Can any standardized test be really objective?

Personally, I do not think so. None of the standardized tests, take into account multiple factors that a student has skills in. These tests make the process of filtering students easier for the administrators. But do they help students at all (except for getting admission to a desired institute)? Do they really test the understanding of the subject matter? Do they take into account various social factors that is part of the mileu of the students? As Banesh Hoffman says the only thing objective about these tests is that once, the students fills in the answer sheet, the grading is objective. But why is that the teachers who are actually teaching the students cannot test them? Why do we need standardized tests to test the students?

And here comes in the idea of academic flexibility in the schools. In India even most university department do not have academic flexibility. There is a central committee which decides, what is to be taught and a committee sets a test with which we grade the students. This creates a definite goal in form of “completing the syllabus” for the teachers. This is a malice which pervades the educational system of India from primary schools to university departments. The teachers are in a race to reach the finish line of the syllabus, because if they do not, the students might face questions which they were not taught.

Though the teacher is the representative of the entire educational system in the classroom, they are nothing more than, to use a term by Krishna Kumar, “meek dictators” in the classroom. The real dictators are adminitrators and decision makers sitting at the top of the educational system. This perhaps is a colonial mentality which has been deeply embodied in the Indian psyche. But in Finland what happens:

Instead, the public school system’s teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher. Periodically, the Ministry of Education tracks national progress by testing a few sample groups across a range of different schools.

People say that then the teachers cannot be trusted that they will grade their students correctly. So how will they be held accountable?

As for accountability of teachers and administrators, Sahlberg shrugs. “There’s no word for accountability in Finnish,” he later told
an audience at the Teachers College of Columbia University. “Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.”

For Sahlberg what matters is that in Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility. A master’s degree is required to enter the profession, and teacher training programs are among the most selective professional schools in the country. If a teacher is bad, it is the principal’s responsibility to notice and deal with it.

This is where the responsibility of the Government comes in. Goverment slowly is trying to distance itself from its role in providing education to all its citizens. But if teachers are themselves left unsatisfied both monetarily and ideologically??, what results one can
expect. In this way the Government is indirectly encouraging the private schools and coaching classes, and thus making the class divide even more striking.

And while Americans (Indians) love to talk about competition, Sahlberg points out that nothing makes Finns more uncomfortable. In his book Sahlberg quotes a line from Finnish writer named Samuli Paronen: “Real winners do not compete.” It’s hard to think of a more un-American (Indian) idea, but when it comes to education, Finland’s success shows that the Finnish attitude might have merits. There are no lists of best schools or teachers in Finland. The main driver of education policy is not competition between teachers and between schools, but cooperation.

Compare this with the Indian attitude. Competition seems to be the key to everything and especially education. Where does collaboration of
cooperation enter in Indian educational scenario?

Finally, in Finland, school choice is noticeably not a priority, nor is engaging the private sector at all. Which brings us back to the silence after Sahlberg’s comment at the Dwight School that schools like Dwight don’t exist in Finland.

“Here in America (India), parents can choose to take their kids to private schools. It’s the same idea of a marketplace that applies to, say, shops. Schools are a shop and parents can buy what ever they want. In Finland parents can also choose. But the options are all the same.”

And in India there are coaching classes which prepare students to get into better coaching classes. With both private schools and the coaching class industry around the education and related services have been commercialised to furthest extent possible. This just works in the favour of the already existing class divide. Parents do choose best for their children, and thus do perpetuate the divide as they have no other choices.

Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity.

This is the state of the educational system in India now. And with the over emphasis on the excellence part which addresses a small set of mostly elite students, the goal should be creating equal opportunities for equity. The idea of equity in the academic circles is unfortunately equated with that of sub-standard or below average. There are people who will tell you, that “Look, there are bright students, and they need special coaching.” The government has to spend the money of bright students, so as to make the country excel in education. This is done at the expense of the average students. One may ask the question, how in the first place do you know a student is bright? The answer comes from scores of the standardized tests, which are the root cause of many problems that the educational system in India is facing now. If one is serious about changing the educational scenario in the country this has to be addressed. Though there are champions of the standardized tests, in India as in the US of Amerika, they are the ones whose existence is based on such tests. Without these tests their existence becomes meaningless. It will certainly increase the workload of lot many people a lot many times. But the problems of magnitude of changing educational system in India is no mean problem and will require solutions of these magnitudes.

Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to
learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location.

In the Indian scenario this seems to have been forgotten. And one of the main reasons for this is the presence of private schools and coaching classes where parents can shop for education.

Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.

This particular quote is exactly opposite of what the Indian
educational system does by promoting academic excellence over equity.
And this also relates to the qualities that Indians cherish. If good
education is equated with chances of making good money, then we know
where we are wrong. With private schools and coaching classes the
education of a student becomes a balance sheet, which will be brought
to green from red by the money that student will make after
completing education.

In the Finnish view, as Sahlberg describes it, this means that schools should be healthy, safe environments for children. This starts with
the basics. Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student
guidance.

In case of India we have seen implementation of the mid-day meal scheme. But does it extend to the other domains?

In fact, since academic excellence wasn’t a particular priority on the Finnish to-do list, when Finland’s students scored so high on the
first PISA survey in 2001, many Finns thought the results must be a mistake. But subsequent PISA tests confirmed that Finland — unlike,
say, very similar countries such as Norway — was producing academic excellence through its particular policy focus on equity.

And with so much emphasis on coming on top of the class in India, we are getting what we are sowing. Surveys will tell you that students,
including even those from the best private schools in the country do fail in simple evaluation. But is this unexpected? If the entire
focus of the educational system is to pass standardized tests, why should we expect our students to be better in something else?

That this point is almost always ignored or brushed aside in the U.S. (India) seems especially poignant at the moment, after the financial crisis and Occupy Wall Street movement have brought the problems of inequality in America into such sharp focus. The chasm between those who can afford $35,000 in tuition per child per year — or even just the price of a house in a good public school district — and the other “99 percent” is painfully plain to see.

Though India is yet to undergo Occupy BSE protests, it is not long before this happens.

Some people may point out that Finland is a developed nation. It is much more homogeneous as compared to India. Here it might become more complicated than in the US, but the central argument should hold through.

Yet Sahlberg doesn’t think that questions of size or homogeneity should give Americans (Indians) reason to dismiss the Finnish example. Finland is a relatively homogeneous country — as of 2010, just 4.6 percent of Finnish residents had been born in another country, compared with 12.7 percent in the United States. But the number of foreign-born residents in Finland doubled during the decade leading up to 2010, and the country didn’t lose its edge in education. Immigrants tended to concentrate in certain areas, causing some schools to become much more mixed than others, yet there has not been much change in the remarkable lack of variation between Finnish schools in the PISA surveys across the same period.

The social conditions in India do not match those in Finland. We have many factors like, caste and religion, which do strongly affect our educational policies in practice, if not in theory. So is this comparison valid? But comparing Finland with an country whose demographics are similar, namely Norway, we find different results. Which shows it is the educational policy which determines the outcome, and not the demographics.

Like Finland, Norway is small and not especially diverse overall, but unlike Finland it has taken an approach to education that is more American than Finnish. The result? Mediocre performance in the PISA survey. Educational policy, Abrams suggests, is probably more important to the success of a country’s school system than the nation’s size or ethnic makeup.

And time and again it is said that India does not have enough money to spend on its enormous population. Looking at the amount of GDP that is spent on education India ranks spends 3.1% of GDP on education (2006), while the US spends 5.5% (2007) and Finland 5.9% (2007). A more updated list shows this hasn’t changed much in the intervening years. A look at the graph below from the World Bank Data on these matters makes the picture clear. Though Norway spends more than Finland on education, the results are poor. So if we assume that this is the control then it clearly shows it is not the amount of money you spend or your socio-economic status of the people that matter. What matters most is the way in which you have planned for education and its spending.

gdp-educationPeople tell you that most problems in Indian education system will go away if we have enough teachers! But why are not there enough teachers one may ask? Isn’t it funny that in a country which has second largest population in the world, we do not have enough government teachers? It is surely not a problem of human resources, but of will, both political and social. We do not want to spend more on education, and yet we expect the things to be better. And somehow government is willing to spend on private partners for education, a sort of outsourcing if you want. And with more and more Public Private Partnerships for education, government is just abdicating its responsibility, in the field of education as in other fields.

Finland’s experience suggests that to win at that game, a country has to prepare not just some of its population well, but all of its population well, for the new economy. To possess some of the best schools in the world might still not be good enough if there are children being left behind.

Problem in India is manifold.

“Finland’s dream was that we want to have a good public education for every child regardless of where they go to school or what kind of families they come from, and many even in Finland said it couldn’t be done.”

Clearly, many were wrong. It is possible to create equality. And perhaps even more important — as a challenge to the American (Indian) way of thinking about education reform — Finland’s experience shows that it is possible to achieve excellence by focusing not on competition, but on cooperation, and not on choice, but on equity.

(emphasis added)

The problem facing education in America (India) isn’t the ethnic diversity of the population but the economic inequality of society, and this is precisely the problem that Finnish education reform addressed. More equity at home might just be what America (India) needs to be more competitive abroad.

Most of us think that utopian ideas are not practicable. The talk about equity in education is essentially seen with that attitude. But the Finland example has just shown us that this is possible. Though it is definitely not to say that we blindly follow that model. But it seems that utopian things are possible, just that we will have to give up on long cherished notions of what we consider excellence as.

Triple Standards

With the case of Tarun Tejpal exposed there was a media flurry for breaking the news to the audience. But it was a broken news, it did not need breaking. Though I am not against questions Mr. Tejpal, and some media houses questioning Tehelka having double standards this episode needs a deeper analysis.

Sometime back the Niraa Radia tapes appeared in the public. And they were breaking the news. But soon some very interesting personalities also surfaced in the tapes. They included the likes of Ratan Tata and Barkha Dutt amongst others. And suddenly there was a complete radio silence on that. It seems NDTV especially became really silent about this whole issue. But more importantly none of the other media houses dared to raise questions to Ms. Dutt, the tone and manner which we are seeing in case of Mr. Tejpal, via Shoma Choudhary. Since we have already crossed the double standards, I call this particular episode from media having “Triple Standards”. One for themselves, one for the general public and one for vendetta against fellow reporters who might have made them uncomfortable in the past.

Personally for me, the case against Ms. Dutt was for more serious and grave as the future of entire country was being decided, though no “individuals” were harmed. And also the intent and tonality of the Radia tapes just shows how powerful and at the same time morally corrupt the media have become. So far Mr. Tejpal is concerned he admitted to and will perhaps face law for what he has done. But what about Ms. Dutt? No cases, not even a CBI enquiry! The matter has been suppressed well. Forget about law, one has a feeling that collective amnesia that media is presenting in this case will make even people forget that this incident ever happened. Even after all this there seems to be no remorse and none of other journalist dared ask accountability from Ms. Dutt or for that matter anyone else from NDTV. So this vehement attack on Tehelka on this issue seems more like a soap opera which shows that they do not leave out people from media when they are exposed. What about themselves?

I just no longer see Ms. Dutt speaking on behalf of “We The People” for she is no longer one of us, but rather firmly on the other side.