Thursday, November 26, 2015

India's Escape from Freedom: An article from the past

In December 1992 the situation in India was rather tense following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya (December 6). There followed riots in many cities including Bombay - as it was then called - which peaked in early January 1992, with 60 deaths on a single day. Most of the affected were poor and homeless, many of whom left Bombay together with their meagre belongings. Many say the city changed forever from that day. In March 1993 the city was rocked by an awful series of bomb blasts and things got even worse.

Together with colleagues in TIFR, I volunteered to help at a "refugee camp" in Malad where doctors had gathered to provide medical assistance to the poorest slum dwellers - not those who had a small shack with a tin roof and some pots and pans, but those who had four bamboo poles connected up with plastic sheets. It was a grim experience. Not being a doctor I had little to do but observe the affected people. Injured or not, they all looked dazed and blank. With very good reason, for they had done nothing to deserve what had happened to them.

A month later in February 1993 I read Erich Fromm's book "Escape from Freedom" about the psychological roots of Nazism, written at a time when this ideology was still very much in existence. The ideas in this book inspired to write an article in the Indian context. It was published in a Bombay newspaper that has since folded, and I don't have a copy of the original, but have fortunately saved the tex file.

The situation in India today is somewhat different, but a few observations in the article may resonate. For example the "intol******" word featured even back then!

The link is here:

Sunday, November 22, 2015

How democracy works elsewhere

This evening the Mayor of Vienna hosted a reception for the delegates at The World Academy of Sciences meeting. It was held in the grand ballroom (or whatever it's really called) of the Rathaus, or City Hall. The room is five miles long and looks like this:

The food didn't risk winning any awards, but was quite OK. The wine was plentiful. The live jazz band played standards of Antonio Carlos Jobim, evoking an altogether different city from Vienna.

But the fun part was the ride back to the hotel. The taxi driver was shaped like a wine barrel and, as P.G. Wodehouse would have delicately put it, "pickled to the gills". I was slow to figure this out and risked life and limb by sitting in front, next to him. Here is the dialogue as I recall it:

Driver [while accelerating to the speed of light]: So how was our mayor?
Me (vaguely): Oh, he was great.
Other occupants of our taxi: The mayor wasn't there.
Me (embarrassed): Oh he wasn't? Well someone gave a speech. Maybe it was the Deputy Mayor.
Driver: The Deputy Mayor is a woman of Greek origin. She's called Vassilakoy.
Me: Well, it definitely wasn't her.
Driver: Was it a young man who spoke well?
Me: Yes that was it. He did speak well.
Driver: That's the second Deputy Mayor. You know how politics works, one from every party.
Me: Could you please try killing fewer pedestrians as you drive? [I didn't say that out loud, only in my mind]
Driver: He speaks well, right! Well he should. He makes 20,000 Euros a month. So, he really better speak well.
Me: [Eyes closed as we nearly crush a few cars in the next lane]
Driver: I probably pay one cent of his salary. So, if he doesn't speak well, I can go to him and say "hey you should speak well".
Me: Yes you should definitely do that. We've reached our hotel. [totter out and say a quiet prayer of thanks]

Friday, November 20, 2015

Albie Sachs and "soft vengeance"

The most moving lecture at the Vienna meeting of The World Academy of Sciences that I'm presently attending was a talk by Albert Sachs, anti-apartheid campaigner and former constitutional judge from South Africa. He has a colourful history. During the apartheid era he was exiled to England and later Mozambique, where in 1988 the South African security services placed a bomb in his car. He survived the attack but lost an arm as well as an eye. What happened after that is something to which I'll return below.

The "Grootboom dilemma" that you see in the title of his talk refers to the case of a poor woman called Mrs Grootboom who, along with several other shanty dwellers, was served an eviction notice because their shanties were on private land. The High Court was sympathetic to the shanty dwellers and ordered the government to provide them "rudimentary shelter irrespective of the availability of resources". On appeal, the Constitutional Court (with Albie Sachs as one of the judges) again sympathised with the shanty dwellers and ruled that "the state was obliged to take positive action to meet the needs of those living in extreme conditions of poverty, homelessness or intolerable housing". But at the same time, this court held that "land invasions" were not acceptable.

The above details are available on Wikipedia. But what moved me greatly during the talk was the question that Albie Sachs repeatedly raised and that had clearly exercised him as a judge: how could the state not intervene on behalf of people living in distressing conditions? And at the very same time, how could the state allow people to grab private property? The talk beautifully evoked the tension created by these two contrasting, but important, legal and constitutional concerns. What came across was that the judges did not blindly uphold one, or the other, of these concerns. Rather, they pro-actively convinced the government to find a compromise solution and ease the living conditions of the homeless as expeditiously as possible.

In the end though, Mrs Grootboom died before permanent housing could be found for her and her family. Albie Sachs said the image of her lying in her bed with a plastic sheet for a roof and the rains due to arrive, kept haunting him. "What have I done to deserve this?" he imagined her wondering.

I don't want to go into too many details of the impact this discussion had on me. But I will admit to an enormous feeling of shame that I personally have not focused much of my life on improving the lives of socially deprived people in India. I see it as a sign of the greatness of the South African courts, as well as the government, to have taken so seriously their obligations towards the poor and deprived.

Now let me return to the impact of the bomb. Albie Sachs recuperated in London and then returned to South Africa to help in drafting the new democratic constitution after which Nelson Mandela made him a judge of the Constitutional Court. On the way, he came up with the notion of "soft vengeance" which is in the title of his autobiography on which a  recent movie has also been based. This notion is based on the Gandhian view that "an eye for an eye will make the world blind". In the case of Sachs, this could have been taken quite literally - he had lost an eye, as well as an arm, and South African nationalists were vowing to avenge this on his behalf. But Sachs disagreed with vengeance based on violence. He felt that helping to bring in democracy and working for the poor were, in fact, his soft vengeance. I'll leave you with his words on the subject:

"The whole achievement of our wonderful new democratic constitution is soft vengeance. It totally smites the horror, the division, the hatreds, the separations of apartheid but it does so in a way that is benign and creative and humanising. It's a far more profound vengeance than doing to them what they did to us."

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Polarised optics

Polarisation can be useful in physics, but it's a danger to society. There is widespread discussion in India on this topic these days, but very little attempt to highlight what's so bad about it. So I'd like to contribute my bit to the discussion.

Though we often forget, in fact we all have multiple identities. Within India we have a regional identity, a linguistic identity, a gender identity, a religious identity, a class identity, a caste identity and a professional identity, to list just a bare minimum set. Some may deny having one or other of these identities (e.g. one sometimes hears the pious declaration "I don't believe in caste"), and that's also an available option. We are also free to add other identities, e.g. one's allegiance to a particular soccer team.

Our multiple identities force us to maintain an active thought-process. In principle we may want to uphold all our identities, but usually we focus on some of them and compromise on others. These compromises will vary from day to day and it takes mental work to figure out what is most important at any given time. I believe this is really what keeps human beings going. In contrast a single identity would enable us to be mentally lazy as we can just pick some representative of our group and follow everything they say. Our diverse identities also help us internally: they create interactions between multiple parts of ourselves that result in our becoming more complex, more subtle and more interesting.

Let me offer this thought-experiment: if a marathi female physicist and a kannada male physicist are both given a national award at the same time, they would be most likely to congratulate each other in a friendly spirit and try to set up a collaboration between their labs. The same people might get worked up over language if they live near the contentious border of their two states, or about gender if there is a debate about sexism in academia. And in all these cases they would have completely forgotten their religious identity, if any. As long as their disagreements remain within acceptable limits of behaviour, such a process is a very positive one and leads to a healthy society.

Another example comes from the world of Hindustani Classical Music, one of the greatest surviving art forms in the world and an essential feature in the soundtrack of India. Its evolving history led to repeated intersections between the lives of orthodox hindus and equally orthodox muslims. In those days it was particularly sacrilegious for a member of one community to live inside the house of another but guru-shishya-parampara often required this. It is documented that muslim teachers generously permitted their hindu students to run separate vegetarian kitchens within their houses. Both sides would follow their religions closely but not too closely: many of the muslim vocalists enjoyed a drink or three, and the caste hindus were not above "tasting" a morsel or two of "non-veg" from time to time. Through the slight cracks caused by such violations, a new shared identity seeped out and gave the world the most sublime and creative music.

To digress briefly, there is an amusing corollary. Given two people who have almost all identities in common, they are likely to squabble about the few remaining differences. It has been remarked that no regional hatred comes close to that felt by residents of one Swiss canton towards those of the neighbouring canton. Likewise, for Bengalis the terminal struggle can be between the relative supremacy of prawns or Ilish. But these squabbles dissipate instantly if a Swiss person meets, say, a German (with Bengalis the struggle never dissipates! Joke!!). For the same reason, if Martians decided to invade South Asia then all the fractious neighbours on the subcontinent would instantly make peace.

To return to the main point - what's going on in India, not for the first time, is an attempt to make us forget who or what we are in pursuit of a uniform religious identity. It is an attempt not just to make hindus feel more hindu, but also to make muslims feel more muslim. This is a singularly anti-national and unpatriotic activity, but it's very profitable for religious leaders and the politicians who are loyal to them. The more we assert our religious identities, the more these people can assert power and control over us. It's no secret that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are frequently quoted in an almost approving tone ("you make fun of our gods? Try doing that in Saudi Arabia"). Similar comments emerge with regularity from the American Bible Belt in pursuit of their fundamentalist brand of christianity. Religious fundamentalists may appear to dispute each other's truth but in reality they depend on each other for sustenance, as nicely highlighted in this article. They are successful in that all too many people are happy to suspend their better judgement and line up alongside.

Fortunately for the nation, even in today's atmosphere other identities continue to trump religion at regular intervals. For an eloquent example, read this recent open letter from a malayali. By itself it may seem a little polarising on regional lines, but when seen as a counterpoint to religious polarisation it serves an important purpose.

It's important to point out that we are not only seeing polarisation in favour of religious conservatism, but also in the opposite direction. One sees some liberals giving up their rational thought process, their commendable breadth and diversity, to stand up against communalism in a unipolar way. The moment a communal argument or statement rears its head, we start up a shouting chorus and link it (often incorrectly) to all previous/future occurrences of everything vaguely similar. Occasionally I see this happening in myself too and it makes me uncomfortable.

So I would like to take a moment to praise all my friends who have shown some diversity in their liberalism. For example I enjoy the noisy arguments about the return of national awards as a form of protest. In my view there really is no "right" or "wrong" about this. Some people have done so and it is their right, others can argue against it and they have valid points to make too. So liberals are divided over this, but united in their disapproval of communal/religious polarisation. This sort of nuanced range of views, much more than a unipolar stand of opposition, is what makes liberalism strong. I would also like to praise those conservatives who still hold shades of opinion rather than just aligning with whatever is going on. I'm not referring to the right-wing politicians who've recently sensed an opportunity to bash their own side, but to those who argue coherently that certain things this government is doing should be supported while other things should be opposed. That is the way many liberals including myself responded to the previous government, and indeed it is the only healthy response to any government in a democracy.

In conclusion let me say that I'm all for Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and would like to facilitate a cleaner India in any way I can. At the same we must build a genuinely modern Indian society based on fraternity amid diversity, and we shouldn't accept anything less than that.