Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Us and Them

I have been ploughing through Ramachandra Guha's massive tome India after Gandhi a biography of India (I mean indeed a biography rather than a history of a young nation finding its feet) since independence. Despite the ponderous and stolid nature of the subject, the book is a very easy read and has some amusing snippets about many important events. Indian democracy may have its flaws but it is not without colour and Ram Guha makes full use of this, while not ignoring the strong ideological underpinnings given by Nehru and Gandhi that many of us believe have kept India together. One of these events that caught my attention was not about domestic polity but a border issue. This refers to the events that culminated in the India-China war of 1962. For the preceding three years Jawaharlal Nehru and Chou En-Lai had exchanged numerous letters over the border issue, these turning more and more acrimonious with time. Border skirmishes became a frequent occurrence and public attitudes towards the Chinese started to harden both amongst the public at large and amongst political parties (except the communists). There were frequent demonstrations against China and Mao and a large number of harsh letters were also exchanged between the officials of the two countries. One of these incidents, as described by Guha took place in Bombay. The Chinese version communicated to New Delhi by Peking described a group of protesters who raised slogans and made speeches against China's putting down of the Tibetan 'rebellion'. What is more serious, they pasted up a portrait of Mao Tse-Tung on the wall of the Chinese Consulate-General and carried out wanton insult by throwing tomatoes and rotten eggs at it... and some more along these lines. It was clear that pelting tomatoes at the great Helmsman's portrait was not on and constituted a huge insult to the head of state of the PRC and the respected and beloved leader of the Chinese people. In a measured and mature response the Indian Government, used as it was to the public burning of effigies of its leaders and numerous other such 'insulting' behaviour, deeply regretted the discourtesy shown to a picture of Chairman Mao.... and while the behaviour of the protesters was 'deplorable', added, perhaps with more than a touch of smugness, The Chinese Government are no doubt aware that under the law in India, processions cannot be banned as long as they are peaceful. Not unoften they are held even near Parliament house and the processionists indulge in all manner of slogans against high personages in India. Incidences have occurred in the past when portraits of Mahatma Gandhi and the Prime Minister were taken out by irresponsible persons and treated in an insulting manner. Under the law and Constitution of India, a great deal of latitude is allowed to the people as long as they do not indulge in actual violence. It was clear at that time and from subsequent events, that this nuance was totally beyond Peking's comprehension. However, before we get too complacent, let me add that this was the Nehruvian vision of a democratic India that was speaking. Today, we as a nation and as a Government are far more intolerant of dissent. The Government is intolerant of differing opinions (though even now it would be unthinkable in India to ban the kind of protest marches that the monks tried to carry out in Tibet a few months before the Beijing Olympics and paid dearly for their actions) and we, as a people are intolerant of others in our society who do not share our opinions. And while we are nowhere near to being a totalitarian state like China, it is time to think about how far we have left behind the democratic ideals of people like Nehru and Gandhi.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Some Links

Why don't we do it on the road? -- for once, not about Indians but about the British Farmer in Chief -- The era of cheap and abundant food is drawing to a close and how to rework food habits and the food industry Four Letter words and Freedom's curse - Steve Pinker argues that four-letter-peppered speech gets tedious, and malicious epithets can express condemnable attitudes. But in a free society, these annoyances are naturally regulated in the marketplace of people’s reactions.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Fake or Real?

Followers of this blog will have noticed that I have been more than cynical about police claims regarding the Balti house encounter. Much has been written on blogs and in newspapers on the incident without shedding much light on the issue. However Praveen Swami, the Hindu correspondent and one of the most well-informed, clear and balanced voices on terrorist violence in India, has given a detailed account of the so-called encounter which points out why it was extremely unlikely to be a fake one. At the other extreme is Harsh Mander, a well-known human rights activist who has essentially dismissed the whole encounter as a fake one, without calling it so. This too is from the Hindu. I leave you to decide.

Which life is more precious?

In a recent development. all the DMK MPs at the centre have been asked to resign by the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Mr. Karunanidhi as a means of putting pressure on the Centre to lean on the Sri Lankan Government to ease off on the offensive they have launched in Northern Sri Lanka to flesh out the LTTE. In the process, many innocent Tamil civilians have either lost their lives in the cross fire or have been severely affected by the ongoing hostilities. Now, any action that tries to ameliorate the suffering of innocent civilians in an ongoing war (and indeed, what is happening in Northern Sri Lanka is little short of war between the Government and LTTE forces) should be encouraged. However, what I find more than faintly repulsive is the unwritten assumption that the lives of the Tamilians there is more valuable that those of others. The suicide bombers of the ferociously violent and ruthless LTTE have killed thousands of innocents, Sinhalese and Tamilian alike and I recall no particularly action by the DMK on such occasion except the usual platitudes muttered about innocents being killed. Is the life of a Tamilian more valuable than, say, the lives of others in Sri Lanka or for that matter in India? What about all the people killed in bomb blasts here, the thousands of Kashmiris killed in terrorist violence and in cross fire? Does not the DMK feel the same for all these people. Why is the life of a person of one's own community (that too in another country) more valuable than those of others? Before I am accused of harbouring anti-Tamil sentiments, let me hasten to add that this kind of chauvinism is not limited to Tamil Nadu politics though it does tend to rear its ugly face there more often, perhaps due to the proximity of Sri Lanka and the ethnic conflict there. I am sure Mr Raj Thackerey would consider the life of a 'Marathi Manoos' more precious than that of a Tamilian (definitely that of a Tamilian -- after all at one time they were the ones accused of taking away jobs from the locals). The same, I have no doubt, would be true of a blue-blooded Bengali -- even a distinguished intellectual like Sunil Gangopadhyay once fulminated against these Marwaris in Kolkata who were destroying Bengali 'kalchar'. Mercifully it remained at that level and there were no lives at stake though I can imagine scenarios involving next door Bangladesh. Mr Karunanidhi, as a senior statesman may fulminate at being compared to Raj Thackerey, considered by many to be just a rabble-rousing thuggish politician, but surely there is little difference? If hordes of 'North Indians' -- Biharis, UPites, Assamese invaded Chennai the way they do Mumbai, I am willing to bet my last Galavati kebab that the reaction of Mr Karunanidhi and the DMK would be very similar. The point is that after more than 60 years after independence, we continue to be prisoners of our caste, creed, ethnicity, language, religion and community. This is usually the point where I am accused of having a typical rootless elitist Westernised education (in India that only means going to a, perhaps convent, English medium school) and have therefore little sense of 'belonging'. This may or may not be true, but I must confess that I do feel far more de-racinated than many people I see around me, particularly in Chennai. If that is the result of my education, so be it. But I feel no reason to be apologetic about it -- in fact, I think a little more deracination is overall a good thing for an excessively diverse country like India. By that I do not mean to imply that one should not have any appreciation for one's own art and culture, literature, food, customs -- Maharashtrians can celebrate their Ganesh festivals and Bengalis their Durga Puja and Tamilians their Pongals and Diwalis (perhaps the one festival that seems to have become truly pan-Indian). But unfortunately it doesn't end with that. One's own existence becomes superior to that of people from other communities, chauvinism is just a step away and jingoism just around the next corner. Kashmiri Pandits feel only for Kashmiri Pandits, Sikhs are worried only about whether the Sikh Maryada is being compromised (one heard much of such statements during the Khalistan problem), Bengalis worry about fellow Bengalis being slaughtered next door by the mostly Punjabi Pakistani army and the DMK worries only about the Tamils in Sri Lanka. One can presumably look at the good side -- at least someone is worried about innocent human lives being lost, even if those are from just one community. But wouldn't it be nice if we could, for once, have concern for a fellow human without worrying about the person's ethnicity?

Saturday, October 18, 2008


Sometime later this week (between 22 and 26 October) India plans to launch its first (unmanned) Moon mission Chandrayaan-I. Subhadra Menon traces the history of India's very successful space program in this article in Nature (subscription required).

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Nobel, Delhi and all that

Since I left Delhi in the late 80's this is the first time I have spent 2 weeks at a stretch here. However, a hectic lecture schedule which involved two and half hour lectures daily, coupled with a dodgy internet connection meant that my blog has remained neglected for some time. First things first. So we all got it wrong -- the Nobel went to Nambu, Kobayashi and Maskawa, and while all of them are most deserving, it's unfair that Yoichiro Nambu had to wait this long (he is, I believe 87) to get the prize and then share it with two others. To get back to Delhi. When I was growing up in Delhi, in the 60's and 70's, Delhi was a charming city, with tree lined avenues, beautiful and stately buildings, and shopping complexes (can you compare Connaught Place with these present day monstrosities in Gurgaon) and lots of wide open areas. The ugly concrete jungles of South Delhi were yet to crop up. During the 80's and 90's when I used to visit Delhi for short periods, Delhi literally seemed to be falling apart at the seams -- the traffic was horrendous and polluting, the people even more rough and crude, and hideously ugly concrete jungles sprouting everywhere. Moreover, from an academic point of view, there was little reason to visit Delhi University. In a couple of visits in the last two years, I am happy to see that this downward slide has been halted. There are still horrible traffic jams in rush hour, people are as arrogant and rude as always (though in all honesty, not much worse than Chennai). However, there is the wonder of modern technology actually applied successfully to an Indian city - the Delhi Metro. Spick and span, perfect timing, and completely professionally run, the Metro has truly changed the face of Delhi in the areas it runs. Part of the traffic is now transferred to the Metro, resulting in better traffic management. It takes 20 minutes to go from Central Secretariat to the University, something that used to take upto an hour or more depending on the time of day. There are two other lines one of which goes all the way to Dwarka on the outskirts, so it's not the one-line wonder like the Kolkata metro. Of course South Delhi still has its jams but hopefully when the metro reaches those parts, things will improve. (Nothing will change the classic Delhi attitude though -- I noticed that people would rather spend an hour in one of their airconditioned limousines stuck in a traffic jam, than take the metro and be seen with the hoi-polloi). Dare I say it -- without naming names, some of my well-heeled friends have never even seen the inside of the Metro and its been around for more than two years! Nothing also will improve the average Delhi temperament. Too much money has brought with it a brashness, a rough and ready tendency to take matters into one's own hands, a general disdain for others' convenience. In the last two weeks, a women journalist has been shot while driving a car, a man had petrol poured on him and set on fire because of some minor dispute, and road rage has resulted in all kinds of fights, altercation and police cases. In the midst of this, the blue line buses continue to contribute their mite in keeping the population in check. Which reminds me -- DTC now has neat and clean low floor buses, some airconditioned, (with doors which open only at bus stops), which are actually cleaned everyday (no, I am NOT making this up). A colleague of mine once said pithily, Delhi is all history and no culture. While the latter is not quite true -- being the National Capital, there is a huge amount of cultural activity taking place somewhere or other in the city -- it's true when applied to the general 'culture' of the place. Delhi will always remain my favourite city, despite its people and its traffic jams. Perhaps it has to do with where one grows up. (I am always astonished when children of my colleagues think that Chennai is the best city to be in). And now with academic activity in Delhi University showing an upward trend with many good appointments, I look forward to using that excuse to reacquaint myself once again with one of my first loves.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Nobel Prize - this year's picks

Here are some picks from various sources including Physics World: Daniel Kleppner : Hydrogen Maser Perlmutter and Schmidt: Increasing expansion rate of the universe and hence dark energy postulate Guth and Linde: Inflationary scenario Berry and Aharanov: Aharanov-Bohm effect and also the related Berry phase Pendry and Smith: Negative refraction Penrose, Hawking: various developments in General Relativity and Cosmology Suzuki (Super-K) and Macdonald (SNO): neutrino oscillations Unfortunately the Guth-Linde inflationary picture is not yet completely confirmed experimentally, and Penrose and Hawking do not have any specific prediction tested by experiment which is what the Swedish Academy looks for in theory prizes. Do put in your nominations -- even though the Swedish Academy is probably not one of the regular readers of this blog :(

Friday, October 3, 2008

The net and the ArXiv

For an interesting overview of the development of the internet, the web and the attendant repositories like the ArXiv from an academician's point of view, take a look at this interesting article by Paul Ginsparg, the 'father' of the Cornell (earlier Los Alamos) arxiv. Update: My friend Ananthanarayan pointed me to this article on Paul Ginsparg, dating from 2001. You may not be able to download it if you are not a subscriber, but the following paragraph points out that it was Spenta Wadia whose complaints about too many preprints flooding his mailbox led him to think of a central repository -- so there seems to be an Indian connection in the genesis of the arxiv server. In June 1991, at the Aspen Center for Physics in Colorado, Ginsparg overheard physicist Spenta Wadia of the Tata Institute in India fret about the e-mailed preprints that flooded his disk while he was away. Realizing that it would be much more efficient to circulate only the abstracts and archive the full papers, Ginsparg spent that afternoon at the Aspen gym working out an automated preprint archiving and distribution system. He wrote the code later that month and opened the server in August.