Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Waka Waka

The comedian Dave Barry once wrote about the difference between men and women in the following terms (I'm recalling this from memory so it's not an exact quote). When two men bump into each other by accident on the street, the result is this:

Man A: Watch where you're going!
Man B: No, YOU watch where you're going!
Man A: Oh yeah?
Man B: Oh yeah. I'll teach you.
(they fight)

In contrast when two women bump into each other, it goes like this:

Woman A: I'm sorry!
Woman B: No, I'm sorry, it was my fault.
Woman A: What nice shoes!
Woman B: I got them on sale.
(they go shopping together)

As a paradigm of competitive vs cooperative behaviour this is unbeatable. Somehow it came to my mind yesterday when I happened to see the amazing video of Shakira and the South African band Freshlyground performing the FIFA theme song "Waka Waka". It opens with a goalie gearing up and facing a penalty shot, then cutting to Shakira in a grass skirt, looking fresh and vivacious and singing the song with four African women dancing alongside. Then it goes back and forth between scenes of men colliding, stressing, shouting and weeping over football, and women joyously dancing together to this delicious rhythm.

I wondered why they didn't just drop the football scenes and have everybody dance instead. So much more cooperative! Imagine if instead of football championships they had huge festivals (in places like South Africa) where everyone would dance and sing together. I'm sure a lot of people would love the idea -- but of course, men wouldn't settle for it.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The worst of American and Indian cultures

The recent judgement on the Bhopal gas disaster saddened many people including myself greatly. This disaster occurred during my first year in TIFR so its tragic aftermath has been a sort of constant through my entire career. Like so many other people, and mostly following the lead of the press, I've given it some attention in brief spurts but it's dropped off the radar for the rest of the time. Now the judgement has brought the issue back to centre-stage. Unfortunately it will fade again from the press and then from the lives of the rest of us who are not directly affected nor courageous enough to be activists.

Still I feel a few points are worth commenting on. First of all the judgement three days ago is merely the foregone conclusion of a trial for criminal negligence whose maximum sentence was two years. So the judgement can hardly be termed a "disappointment", given that this maximum sentence was handed out to all the accused. Now the reason for this low maximum sentence appears to be a 1996 decision of the Supreme Court that this case involved criminal negligence and not culpable homicide. This decision was based on their understanding of the law and without being a legal expert, I don't know how I can question it. Note that they did not "reduce the sentence" as is implied in current discussions, but merely stated what are -- and are not -- the valid charges.

The key question in this case, which no one seems to be asking, is why is two years the maximum sentence for criminal negligence? (when 7 years is the maximum penalty for eve-teasing!). It seems that the courts may be taking the rap for a failure by the law-makers. Other failures by the law-makers are of course quite visible in this case. Warren Anderson's quick repatriation in 1984 seems an obvious case of collusion and strongly suggests the Indian government at that time was anxious not to displease the US government, while the latter was anxious not to have its corporate honcho in a foreign (or domestic) jail whatever he might have done. The recent judgement eloquently blames "the synergy of the very worst of American and Indian cultures" and I couldn't agree more.

But all the talk today is about punishment. Despite its valuable role as a deterrent for the future, what possible benefit can punishment bring to victims who have lost their dear ones and their own health? Focusing excessively on this, it seems to me, results in a loss of focus on the one thing that even at this stage can help the sufferers: compensation. This issue was fundamentally lost over a decade ago when in 1989 the Indian government settled for a mere 470 million dollars in compensation from Union Carbide (compared with 350 million that Union Carbide offered on their own, and 3 billion that the Indian government claimed in its lawsuit). Why did they accept such a compromise? I don't know, but one can hardly blame the courts for it. What can be done today? Again I don't know, but baying for the offenders heads seems to be a distraction from this key issue.

There's one more relevant matter that's getting a minor fraction of the press coverage: cleaning up the site, from which contaminants are still leaking into the soil of Bhopal. Let's hope today's governments in both countries are stung by the judge's remark about "the worst of American and Indian cultures" and will effectively rehabilitate the site.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Boat attacks helicopters

A newspaper magnate once said that "dog bites man" isn't newsworthy, but "man bites dog" -- that is news. We now have a similar situation in the brutal world of peace activism.

The New York Times (ever the beacon of responsible journalism) has raised a subtle point about the recent struggle on board the Mavi Marmara, a ship carrying humanitarian aid for the besieged people of the Gaza strip. In a recent article a certain Brian Stelter suggests that it is difficult to determine who was the aggressor in this conflict. The article in question starts "When Israeli commandos attacked the so-called Freedom Flotilla...", which appears to resolve the issue, but spin-doctoring must be hard work and evidently Mr Stelter forgot this line while writing the rest of the article. Instead he went on to say:

"But what is missing so far from the flotilla clips on both sides is context: it is difficult to establish the sequence of events or, more simply, to determine who attacked first."

How true. Without having been on the spot, how can we know whether Israeli helicopters attacked the boat, or the boat attacked the helicopters? It all boils down to plain conjecture. Of course we do know that peace activists are aggressive by nature and their boats are equipped James-Bond-like to make gigantic leaps into the air. So my guess is it was the latter that happened - the Israeli helicopters were snatched out of the air and slammed down on the boat, caught totally unawares while they thought they were safe in "international airspace".

One feels a pang of sympathy for the Israeli government, which despite being the victim has received criticisms ranging from "deeply concerned" to "terrible". Knowing how sensitive they and their army can be, is it fair or responsible to denounce them thus? What if they get depressed and discouraged as a result?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Research scholars and Dr Bhabha

One realises one's age when every new occurrence brings back a memory. In this case, the occurrence was the Foundation Day lecture at TIFR this morning by His Excellency A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, former President of India. Dr Kalam started his talk by recalling how he had gone through a file at Rashtrapati Bhavan which documented an invitation from Dr Rajendra Prasad, first President of India, to Sir C.V. Raman to receive the Bharat Ratna award. In his reply Raman regretted he could not attend the award ceremony because he was guiding a Research Scholar whose thesis was due for submission. With this story Dr Kalam emphasised the importance of Research Scholars in the scheme of things, and deservedly won the hearts of those who were in the audience today (the rest of his talk was a fairly generic utopian vision of the future).

Now for the memory this brought back to me. A mere fourteen years ago, in the same auditorium, TIFR celebrated its Golden Jubilee with a glittering function that included the then chief minister, Manohar Joshi of the Shiv Sena, and the then union telecommunications minister Sukh Ram who released a postage stamp of TIFR. There were also speeches by TIFR Council Chairman J.J. Bhabha, younger brother of TIFR's late founder, and some other major figures. When about to enter the hall, I discovered that three entire batches of Research Scholars at TIFR were not allowed into the auditorium for the function, supposedly because of a lack of space. In protest I did not enter either, and watched the proceedings on closed-circuit TV in a lecture room.

Thereafter I penned a somewhat melodramatic missive to our late founder Dr Homi Bhabha and put it up on a notice board in the TIFR lobby. It was removed by the chief security officer who scolded me and warned me not to put it up again. Today he is retired (and moreover Manohar Joshi is in the political wilderness and Sukh Ram has been sentenced to three years in jail for corruption!!) so this may be a reasonable time to exhume the letter. I reproduce it below.

Dear Dr Bhabha

February 9, 1996

Dr Homi J. Bhabha
c/o God

Dear Dr Bhabha

I am writing to tell you about the Golden Jubilee celebration that took place at TIFR this evening. I did not enter the Auditorium, but watched the function from outside on closed-circuit TV. If they have closed-circuit TV in Heaven then you might have seen it yourself, but somehow I think you were not watching.

Dr Bhabha, this was a function on a grand scale. The elaborate arrangements would have impressed you. The dignitaries all looked suitably important and spoke with seriousness (except the Chief Minister, who looked bored but spoke with humour). And the audience contained all the important people in this Institute, in their finest clothes.

Some people were turned away at the door. They had invitation cards, so they thought that they were invited. Not so. There was a complex and subtle system to make sure that only the right people got through.

The cards came in three colours of envelope: white, blue and pink. This meant: big shot, medium shot and small shot. Then the white and pink envelopes were further divided into those with the Stamp and those without. (No, not the postage stamp, that was only worth 2 rupees! The Registrar's Rubber Stamp was priceless.) A foreign visitor to TIFR remarked that this looked like an elaborate caste system.

On a white envelope, the Stamp meant: Big Shot Plus Spouse. That went to Senior Professors, Heads of Sections and Chairmen of Committees, plus some people who did not fit in this list, but were known to be important just by virtue of their importance. It also went to hundreds of non-TIFR people, including army and navy top brass, who came with their spouses.

On the pink envelope, No Stamp meant: "You are invited, but you can't come in." It was actually a non-invitation. So these were the people who got turned away. I was standing near the door and watching their faces.

Who were these people, you might ask. The pink non-invitations were issued to second- and third-year Research Scholars, and later also to Visiting Fellows, after a protest on their behalf. They were also issued to some categories of non-academic staff. (There was still one lower category --- the first-year Research Scholars received NO invitations. They shared this privilege only with the daily-wage workers.)

In particular, Research Scholars and Visiting Fellows who have research publications at TIFR were turned away from the Auditorium. What made the Institute famous in the first place, Dr Bhabha? Sorry if I forget sometimes.

Of course, those who couldn't get in had the option to watch the ceremony outside on closed-circuit TV. But many Research Scholars chose to play cricket instead. Maybe they didn't care enough about the Institute, or maybe they were hiding hurt feelings. Who knows.

I chose not to enter the Auditorium, in sympathy with the non-invited persons. But I was very interested in the programme, and watched every detail on TV. Many of the speakers talked of the bright future of TIFR. They all said very kind words about you, Dr Bhabha. They showered generic praise on your achievements as a scientist, administrator, and man of culture. Your brother said something more precise: that you used to identify talented young persons, and give them the freedom and encouragement to become successful and eminent scientists. He asked a question: What would Dr Homi Bhabha have done if he had been here today?

At that moment a strange idea entered my head. I thought: maybe Dr Homi Bhabha, had he been here today, would have pointed out that the Research Scholars and Visiting Fellows are the future of the Institute. He might have suggested that their pink non-invitations were inappropriate. He might have insisted that the priorities be revised so that the Auditorium could accommodate the future leaders of Indian science. Perhaps he would even have politely asked senior members of the Institute to desist from bringing their families?

Maybe I am wrong, Dr Bhabha. Maybe you would have done something different. But your spirit was definitely not here today, even though most of the talk was about you. Frankly, I feel that the more we talk about you, the less we think for ourselves.

Yours sincerely,
Sunil Mukhi