Monday, September 29, 2008

Love and Hate

Another day and another bomb blast in Delhi. This time a young child of 11 or so, killed because he tried to return the package the motorcyclists had dropped. How much hate do these people carry within themselves, that they are willing to kill, maim and orphan people they have never seen, who have done them no harm? If their fight is with the state, why don't they pick someone their own size? The Delhi Police, in its new found efficient avatar has immediately declared, even before it seems all the evidence is in, that this is a different (apparently Bangladeshi) group. Of course by their lights it has to be, after all they killed the 'mastermind' Atif (or was it Sadiq, I can no longer remember all the 'masterminds') and eliminated the Indian Mujaheddin (IM) 'module". Some more people have been arrested, and everything is back to normal, till the next blast. Mr L. K. Advani has reiterated that Manmohan Singh is our weakest Prime Minister ever. (Correct me if I am wrong, but haven't we heard this from LKA not once but several times over -- has his speech writer gone on vacation or is he no longer able to save any of his new speeches since his disk is full??). In the meantime (and a less depressing environment) just as we were all praise for the contrast that a dignified Dr Manmohan Singh presented in his meeting with Sarah Palin, with that of a gushing and breathless Asif Zardari, Sardar Saheb has gone and declared, on our behalf, our deep and abiding love for George W. Bush. What is it about Dr Singh that in the presence of George Bush, the normally dignified and reticent PM turns all mushy and emotional?

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Hindu gets it right

This blog has frequently been critical of the Hindu and its editorial policies, particularly with regard to Tibet/China/CPI(M). In fairness therefore, one should commend it for the stand it has taken with respect to present events which I have written about in the last two posts. Specifically today's editorial makes exactly the point I made in the previous post (not that my point is particularly new or original -- which makes it all the more surprising that so few people seem to get it!) - the amazing inability of the BJP in distinguishing between the offer of legal aid to an accused and the moral justification of a heinous crime. One interesting fact that I discovered is that Mr Ravi Shankar Prasad the BJP spokesman who asked for the VC's head, is actually an experienced lawyer. Maybe belonging to the BJP is injurious to the brain... And now the Nanavati commission has, for all intents and purposes, absolved the Modi Government of all guilt in the Gujarat riots of 2002 -- "There is absolutely no evidence to show that the Chief Minister, his Council of Ministers or the police officers had played any role in the Godhra incident or that there was any lapse on their part in the matter of providing protection, relief and rehabilitation to the victims of communal riots". Maybe we do have a flat earth after all. Makes you want to emigrate...

Thursday, September 25, 2008

How low can a 'national' party sink

Another day and another master mind arrested. This is exactly how NDTV announced the arrest of the 5 alleged terrorists, one of whom, 'Sadiq' is supposed to be the mastermind. This is to be distinguished from 'Atif' whom the Delhi police killed in an encounter, who is also a mastermind. If terrorist ranks are full of masterminds, who does the actual dirty work? Or does each police force want to outdo the others in claiming that they have the mastermind! However, despite my scepticism, it's perhaps best not to pass judgment at this sensitive stage. No, in fact this post is about something else. It's about how low, how partisan, to what pathetic levels the BJP can sink in trying to prove they are tough on terror. Ravi Shankar Prasad of the BJP has insisted that the respected Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) vice chancellor Mushirul Hasan be fired for wanting to provide legal help to the students of his university who have been arrested for their alleged terrorist links. It is rare indeed to find a vice chancellor who is willing to stick his neck out and take a clearly unpopular stand to do the right thing by his students. The BJP which is the fount of all that is retrograde, reactionary and contemptible, wants to stand all jurisprudence on its head by claiming that the culprits are guilty until proved innocent. It is up to the courts to decide that fact, not for Mr Rudy and his miserable cohorts to pass judgment either on them or on the VC. Given the conviction rates under TADA and POTA (it was 0.89% under TADA, much lower that what I said in my earlier post, see Rajinder Sachar's article here) this is all the more important in our country and in the present charged atmosphere. (Incidentally and for what it's worth, the VC's decision has been cleared by the Ministry of Human Resource Development). I realise that the BJP has its own agenda, its own ideology and its own constituency to worry about. But just as one wonders at the kind of environment that breeds the terrorist mindset, where do you have to be born to develop a saffron sheen? Tailpiece: "It is heartrending to note that day in and day out we come across news of blood-curdling incidents of police brutality and atrocities alleged to have been committed in utter disregard and in all breaches of humanitarian law and universal human rights as well as in total negation of the constitutional guarantees and human decency..." This is not the loony-left-liberal talking, people whom the BJP holds in contempt. It is the Supreme Court of India, quoted by Rajinder Sachar in the article I quoted earlier.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Blasts and Arrests

Ten days in Goa meant that I had fallen way behind in work and particularly in my lectures. This is partly the reason for the long gap in my posts, a fact brought to my attention verbally, by email, by chat, by every other mode of communication! (If indeed I have so many committed readers, why do I get an average of 0.5 comments per post? ) The other reason for this long gap is that I have been meaning to write on a somewhat sensitive topic and wasn't sure how to. I have decided to plunge in nevertheless, though I should warn you that this post is somewhat more rambling, woozy and ill-structured than my usual smart, clear, scintillating posts on other subjects :-) ... This is about something that has been bothering me for some time. The Delhi blasts have happened and Delhi police, in a remarkable show of efficiency, have apparently managed to kill 2 terrorists, arrest some 8 more and a few have escaped. In the process, one of their highly decorated officers has lost his life. Now I realise that it's easy (from the comfort of your armchair) to point fingers and find fault, but this same Delhi police completely mismanaged the Aarushi murder case (to the point of throwing the girl's father in jail for no fault of his own), mismanaged the Nithari murder case, made a pig's-breakfast of the Jessica Lal murder and allowed the BMW killers to escape until sustained media pressure forced them to open the case once more and arraign one of the guilty. (As an aside, not a single one of these people is a minority). How is it that the same police not only managed to find the terrorists who planted the bomb within a week but apparently are now in the possession of clues which will help the Rajasthan police wrap up the Jaipur bomb blast case too? If indeed their intelligence is of such high caliber, how is it that it never worked earlier, nor for that matter did it work before the blast which would have saved scores of innocent lives? I am, in fact, amazed at the details of the planning that they have uncovered. For example one report, which appeared in the TOI, claims that one of the accused was running ahead of schedule and therefore stopped by an ice cream vendor to have an ice cream and finally moved only because the autodriver balked at waiting for him so long to finish his ice cream. This level of detail is truly 'impressive'. So, what am I trying to say. No, unlike a certain section of the goofy-left, I am not saying it's all fake, that it's all a plant, or Pankaj Mishra style, claim that it's the police themselves who set off the bombs. However, as anyone who has been around, and not on Mars will vouchsafe, there is a tendency on the part of the police (and other parts of the law and order enforcement machinery) to label people by their names. It is no secret that not only in J&K but even in Delhi, UP, MP, young Muslim men have been dragged out of their homes, beaten and tortured in an effort to make them confess. Large numbers of them have eventually turned out to be innocent. When just the fact that you have the 'wrong' name is enough reason to be picked up, it is only fair that we use a standard substantially higher than the norm, to decide whether the evidence against the accused stands up to the highest level of scrutiny. If any evidence for miscarriage of justice is needed, the fact that the conviction rate under POTA and its infamous predecessor TADA was less than 10% should convince any sceptic. Unfortunately there is always the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, who believe that re-imposing POTA would magically drive all terrorists away. It's heartening then that many newspapers, not just the left leaning Hindu but even the Times of India, Indian Express and others have led with serious articles, for example here and here about the alienation of the Muslim minority in this country, thanks to such heavy handed practices of the police force and the army (in J&K). As Rahul Siddharthan points out here, even if such actions radicalise only .001% of the Muslim population, that still comes to 2000 -- a number sufficient to cause a lot of damage. Perhaps indeed, for once, the Delhi police have proved that they can perform when they have to. But why is it that I still have some niggling doubts? Is it because in the country today, when after all the mayhem of looting, burning and killing in Orissa of the Christian minority by the goons of the Sangh Parivar, and also in Karnataka, just one solitary person, who happens to be the head of the Bajrang Dal in Karnataka has been taken into custody (he might even have been released on bail by the time you read this)? The UPA Government, who I sincerely believe are non-communal, are so much under pressure from the opposition BJP to take action, that it is falling over backwards trying to prove that we are not a 'soft state'. What other reason can there be for a normally reticent and sober Prime Minister to start talking of tougher laws to control terrorism, only to be contradicted by other members of the Party as well as the coalition (as indeed they should).

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Sarah Palin's interview

Sarah Palin, the Republican Vice-Presidential nominee's first interview to the media, that was eager anticipated as the first opening to who this woman really is, turned out to be a damp squib. (Those who missed it can see it here). Charles Gibson, the ABC anchor was suitably deferential and asked all the 'right' questions. Bob Park, the physicist who runs the very popular and extremely acerbic newsletter 'What's New' has the following open letter to Mr Gibson about the interview. I can hardly describe it any better, so I will just reproduce his letter here. THE PALIN INTERVIEW: CHARLIE, WHAT WERE YOU THINKING? Dear Mr. Gibson: Having agreed to be "deferential" and being a nice guy besides, you were picked by Sarah Palin’s handlers to conduct her first media interview since the nomination. You were not unaware of how little the nation knew of her. As the only reporter granted this privilege you had a responsibility. In view of her links to Pentecostalism, and what little we’ve been able to piece together about her views on other issues, I was praying, figuratively speaking of course, that you’d start right off with the big one: what is your opinion of Charles Darwin’s theory of human evolution? All the others, sex education, stem cell research, choice, gay rights, church/state separation, are easy once that one out in the open. You greeted her politely, if at arms length, and went right to the first question: "Can you look the country in the eye and say, I have the experience and the ability to be not just Vice President, but perhaps President if the United States of America?" Isn’t that the same question McCain was asked? "I do Charlie, I’m ready," she replied. What did you expect her to say? No, I’d better go back to school and find out how things work outside Alaska? For weeks we’ve heard not one unscripted word and all you can think to ask her is whether she’s ready? And you wouldn’t let it go. "When he asked you to be VP," you persisted, "did you think for a minute, 'N'?" If she did, she’s not going to tell you on nationwide television. Are we supposed to spot look for beads of sweat or a shifty look in the eyes? "I did not," she said, "I thought yes, right off the bat". You wouldn’t drop it, "And you didn’t say to yourself, am I ready?" "I didn’t hesitate, no." My God! Give it a rest Charlie. "Doesn’t that take some hubris," you asked? "I answered yes," Palin responded, because I know you can’t blink." It probably got better, but I was asleep by then. And here for good measure are some of Maureen Dowd's questions (none of which were asked or will ever be asked). What kind of budget-cutter makes a show of getting rid of the state plane, then turns around and bills taxpayers for the travel of her husband and kids between Juneau and Wasilla and sticks the state with a per-diem tab to stay in her own home? Why was Sarah for the Bridge to Nowhere before she was against the Bridge to Nowhere, and why was she for earmarks before she was against them? And doesn’t all this make her just as big a flip-flopper as John Kerry? What kind of fiscal conservative raises taxes and increases budgets in both her jobs — as mayor and as governor? When the phone rings at 3 a.m., will she call the Wasilla Assembly of God congregation and ask them to pray on a response, as she asked them to pray for a natural gas pipeline? Does she really think Adam, Eve, Satan and the dinosaurs mingled on the earth 5,000 years ago? Why put out a press release about her teenage daughter’s pregnancy and then spend the next few days attacking the press for covering that press release? As Troopergate unfolds here — an inquiry into whether Palin inappropriately fired the commissioner of public safety for refusing to fire her ex-brother-in-law — it raises this question: Who else is on her enemies list and what might she do with the F.B.I.? Does she want a federal ban on trans fat in restaurants and a ban on abortion and Harry Potter? And which books exactly would have landed on the literature bonfire if she had had her way with that Wasilla librarian? Just how is it that Fannie and Freddie have cost taxpayers money (since they haven’t yet)? Does she talk in tongues or just eat caribou tongues? What does she have against polar bears? Imagine, she might just become the "leader of the free world" some day.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Cultural Relativism and the end of the world

Cultural relativism is defined by Wikipedia as the principle that an individual human's beliefs and activities should be understood in terms of his or her own culture. Unfortunately, in recent times and in popular thought and discussion, it has also meant that all views are equally valid (after all, each view is a function of the person's own cultural mileau). This point of view, which is the result of taking an idea to its extreme limit in this day of political correctness, was forcibly brought home to me on the issue of the doomsday scenario being predicted as a result of the LHC startup. Television and newspaper reports have been full of predictions of black hole formation, that will eat up the earth. (In India, the two channels particularly guilty of this hype have been Aaj Tak and India TV two sensation mongering channels). Unfortunately the net result has been that scientists have been scrambling to give well reasoned arguments why this is all hogwash, taking precious time away from doing more useful work. While it is true that scientists have occasionally been guilty of arrogantly dismissing the public's right to know what kind of research they are doing with public money, it is also important to dismiss crackpots as crackpots. After all, we don't engage 'flat-earth' proponents in any serious debate. Both sides of an issue do not carry equal weight in such arguments. To take a example more relevant to the US, creationism and evolution are not two equally valid theories of evolution of mankind. The same applies to the doomsday scenario. Of course it's another matter that the theories themselves that predict black hole formation are pretty far-fetched in my opinion, that make many assumptions of the nature of space-time and the kind of particles that live in some extra dimensions. However, these are still scientific theories, published in peer-reviewed respected scientific journals, and hopefully subject to being falsified. They cannot, on any account, be compared to theories propounded by crackpots and eccentrics with only a nodding acquaintance with the structure and methodologies of science, and in this particular case, high energy physics. Therefore, after having taken sufficient trouble to quantitatively demonstrate why these fanciful ideas have no basis in fact, scientists should just ignore this phenomena and get back to their work. Otherwise, by engaging these people in prolonged debate, one is conferring ill-deserved respectability on them. What is most amusing is that most newspapers and TV channels have now gone off the doomsday scenario, believing that yesterday's beam test by CERN was proof that no black holes that eat up the earth were produced. Ironic when you think that no collisions took place! It just shows that the airheads are ignorant of the very scenario they are purveying. (The Times of India even had an editorial claiming that if you are reading this paper the next day, it means it's all safe and nothing has happened). Tailpiece: If anyone is interested in a lay-man level article on this issue, please read this description by Michael Peskin.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Goa and Pondicherry

Today being Sunday we took a trip to Panjim the capital and walked around the mostly empty streets (probably because it was too early). Panjim in many ways retains its European (Portuguese) influence. It has wide boulevards with wide sidewalks where people can amble along in the evenings. The facades of houses and buildings have a Southern European feel to them with bright colours and columns. There are small parks dotting the city and small town squares kept reasonably clean and green. We had lunch in a well known restaurant called O Coquiero -- Coconut Tree (in Porvorim/Mapusa) which has a nice mix of Goan and Portuguese food. It is also (in)famous for the place where the notorious international criminal Charles Sobhraj was captured -- an event immortalised by a plaster cast of his sitting at the table where he was having his dinner when his sins caught up with him. The Portuguese influence in Goa is still quite strong. Many people dress in western clothes (women really, men anyway dress in western clothes all over India), there are a large number of d'Souza's and Vaz's and d'Mello's, all the churches that the Portugese built are still functional with regular service and very European architecture and ambiance, though they are nowhere as well preserved. Large numbers of Goans are Christian, the food is a fusion of local (Konkan) and Portuguese influence, and so is typical Goan music. However, except in the names of places and people, there is very little trace of the Portuguese language. Even some of the higher end hotels' and restaurants' waiters speak the three language formula of India (English, Hindi and the local language which in this case is Konkkani), very few people speak Portuguese. I couldn't help comparing this with the other 'colonial' era town I know well, Pondicherry (or Puducheri as it has been renamed). Pondicherry, except for a small 'French' quarter, is a typical small Indian town -- noisy, chaotic, no sidewalks, vehicles with horns blaring. Except in the street names, there is little French influence of the kind Goa has. There are no more Christians than in the rest of Tamil Nadu, the food is standard local food (except in special restaurants which serve a generic form of European food), almost everyone dresses in the Indian way (western dress for men, salwar-kameez/saris for women) and hardly any churches of note (again, no more than the rest of India). However, the French language is still very much in existence, large numbers of people still speak French, it's still traditional for children to learn French in school (aided by the Aurobindo Ashram whose schools actively promote French), there is even a French language bookstore, and incongruously enough, the policemen wear kepis. In other words, French intellectual activity survives while popular culture has become totally Indian, almost in exact contrast to the Goan experience. Perhaps there is an explanation for this, and it doesn't need a rocket scientist to figure it out. (Of course I could be wrong). The Portuguese were responsible for very aggressive proselytizing and large scale (and occasionally forcible) conversions. At the same time though, the Portuguese inter-married with the local population more freely than other colonial powers, resulting in a large fraction of people in the population of mixed blood. Like all examples of cross-pollination this produced a rich new (Christian) fusion sub-culture whose remnant we see today in Goa. The Pondicherry experience was very different. The French with their Gallic aloofness, never tried to convert (in any case their republican ideals would not approve of such actions) and never inter-married with the locals. The two sections always existed separately (and peacefully) for the most part. However they introduced the French language in their schools and their administration, which meant that the language (and its associated intellectual structure) slowly percolated amongst the local populace. Thus, while popular culture remained local (in this case Tamil), French language and literature flourished and continued to do so, even after the French left. The fact that the French departed from India amicably meant that there was no strong movement to banish all vestiges of the colonial past. Whatever be it, one can't help feeling that while India may have been invaded many times over, a fact that is regularly met with much bemoaning and breast beating by the BJP and its Parivar, in the final analysis it has left India richer in its cultural and intellectual heritage and given her its unique syncretic culture.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Goan or Coming?

Have been in Goa for the last few days. I have come for a meeting, whose pace, in keeping with the spirit of the place, is not exactly frenetic. The mornings are reserved for tourism. Work starts languidly around 2pm. By 6 or 6.30 we are done and free to do whatever suits our fancy. (My only regret is that there is no siesta time). Of course there are advantages. It allows me to prepare my talk as well as my Field Theory lectures which I am missing back home and which I will need to make up once I return. Goa is of course a tourists' paradise. I mean for the locals, not the tourists. That means you are allowed to charge tourists approximately three times what you would charge in the rest of the country (a bit like Jaipur as I have mentioned elsewhere). A taxi ride of 8km costs around Rs 300. A taxi ride around 6 km costs Rs. 300. A taxi ride around 4 km costs...well, you get the point. Beyond around 10km, the cost makes a substantial jump. The numbers are independent of size of the car, petrol or diesel or any other such piffling details like number of passengers the car can carry. The locals are relaxed and easy going (another word is l... well never mind). However, if you think I am over critical, perish the thought. Yesterday, while we were walking along the road, a scooterist coming towards us spontaneously toppled off the scooter and came a cropper. A car passing by immediately stopped, the people got out and asked him very solicitously if he needed help, and what they could do. (As it turned out, the poor guy had had a pint too much and there wasn't much damage done). This would be unheard of in Chennai (or any other major city in India). Car drivers would just whiz past (if you are lucky) or run you over (if you are not). Nobody would think of stopping, let alone ask about your health. Punjabification of food has not left Goa untouched. Everyday at the centre we are staying, we get Paneer Masala/Makhni/Butter Masala/Badami, Chicken Mughlai/Masala/Butter Masala/Xacuti along with tandoori roti, dal makhni/tadka, and some other non-descript vegetable. Goan cuisine is conspicuous, if I may be allowed a cliche, by its absence except for that one Xacuti which unfortunately tasted the same as the others. However there appeared today, a pleasant coconut based prawn curry mixed, somewhat disconcertingly, with bhindi(okra). In a couple of days, I will have something nice to say, I am sure. And so to bed.