Saturday, March 28, 2009

Goebbels and the Hindu

Paul Joseph Goebbels was a German politician and Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945. Goebbels was a genius at propaganda which he used with great effect as editor of the Berlin Nazi newspaper Der Angriff (The Attack) and as the author of a steady stream of Nazi posters and handbills. His position on propaganda was clear -- ""That propaganda is good which leads to success, and that is bad which fails to achieve the desired result," he wrote. "It is not propaganda’s task to be intelligent, its task is to lead to success."

Today's propaganda article carried by the Hindu, commemorates "Serf's Liberation Day " a new national holiday declared by the Chinese authorities to commemorate, what they and, needless to say, Mr N. Ram call "Democratic Reform" (which) "did away with feudal serfdom and slavery and the theocratic system in Tibet, emancipated a million serfs, and laid the basis for the autonomous modern development of the region as part of the Chinese socialist system". (Democracy? In China and Tibet? Did I miss something; have I been asleep like Rip van Winkle and missed some momentous happenings?)

Congratulations. Not a word about the repression and killing of thousands of monks during this liberation in 1959, a fact that even the Chinese Government itself has acknowledged in the past as a mistake, when it undertook the repair of the Potala and Jokhang palaces which were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Not a word on the circumstances that drove the Dalai Lama and his band of advisers to India. Not a word on the years of repression documented by numerous independent Human Rights organisations, numerous news organisations like the BBC and the New York Times and numerous writers like Patrick French (hardly the kind of Westerners who look at Tibetan past through rose-tinted glasses and imagine it to have been Shangri-La like many Hollywood celebrities).

N Ram uses the favorite bogey -- the feudal system -- to justify all that has happened. But this is just a straw man waiting to be knocked down. Even his Holiness the Dalai Lama has acknowledged the feudal and unequal theocratic system that existed at that time and has spoken of a more democratic set up were he to ever return to his homeland. However the issue goes much deeper. And it has to do with the ethics of news journalism. As a veteran journalist, Mr Ram is surely aware that one does not mindlessly and mechanically quote Government handouts as gospel truth. He would not do so with Indian news sources emanating from the Government of India -- then why accept blindly that of the Chinese Government - one that is notorious for suppressing democracy movements, internet sites, press reports, in fact every type of free flow of information that happens to be critical of the Government and the party?

There is something deeply unprofessional, and downright dishonest about a journalist who reports uncritically, nay, admiringly, propaganda masquerading as truth. But it's more than that -- there is something deeply unethical in using the pages of your own newspaper to peddle propaganda by an authoritarian regime. It is one thing for Xinhua to parrot the outpourings of the Chinese Government. Xinhua does not pretend to be anything other than a Government news agency (there isn't any other kind in China). But for the Hindu to do it in the guise of news reporting and independent opinion is a travesty of the journalistic code of ethics. As Jon Stewart of Comedy Central told the business correspondent of CNBC recently, after the collapse of half a dozen finance institutions which CNBC failed to warn its viewers about: we both sell snake-oil, but at least we call it snake-oil. Here, for example is a quote from Mr Ram:

But right now, thousands of Chinese schoolchildren and university students are sampling the historical evidence at an exhibition on the ‘Democratic Reform in the Tibet Autonomous Region’ at Beijing’s Cultural Palace of Nationalities. You can see they are engaged, at points wide-eyed and wide-mouthed with astonishment, as they see and file past the documents, the photographs, the artefacts, and the instruments of the most savage medieval torture imaginable, which were employed, by both the lay and monastic serf-owning nobility, right up to the middle of the 20th century to conserve ‘friendly feudalism.’ In the last week of February, I spent a couple of hours at the Beijing exhibition, observing the exhibits as well as the reactions of the young visitors. It was a powerful and compelling unveiling of the truth.

The 'truth' according to whom, Mr Ram? For ages, totalitarian regimes have tried to brainwash the younger generation into believing that there's was the best system - the Nazis did it, so did the Soviet Union and of course so has China. Surely as the Editor of a major newspaper you are not so obtuse as to assume that an exhibition organised by the Government will tell 'both' sides of the story? Is this how investigative reporting is done - deciding on a momentous time in a state's history by looking at the "wide-eyed and wide-mouthed" faces of children watching some exhibits?

Perhaps I am just tilting at windmills...As my friend Ananthanarayan has pointed out in a comment in the past, do credit the readers of the Hindu with basic intelligence. Indeed, why not. Mea culpa.

Tailpiece: Just happened to see this piece through Rahul Siddharthan's blog.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A charming little Orwell story

What would it have been like to be brought up by George Orwell? Pretty grim, you might think. But you would be wrong....more...

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Back Channel Diplomacy

The long trail of lies, deceit and broken promises by the Pakistani army -- Steve Coll's account of back-channel diplomacy between India and Pakistan during the Musharraf era (March 2 2009 issue of the New Yorker -- subscription may be required).

Also look here.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Rudresh Mahanthappa

Rudresh Mahanthappa (who happens to be the son of the high energy physicist K. T. Mahanthappa who many of us in the field know well) is a jazz saxophonist who has experimented in recent years with Carnatic classical music along with the well-known Carnatic musician Kadri Gopalnath. The New Yorker recently ran a full length feature on him, which also talks of his most recent "astonishing" and "spellbinding" album Kinsmen. Part of the album is a collaboration with Gopalnath and the violinist Kanyakumari and it's an album that is truly remarkable (listen for example to the piece Longing or Kalyani).

Kinsmen is unfortunately not available in India as a CD -- however it can be legally downloaded from Pi Recordings, a small New York based label (Pi), for $9.99. Some of the individual pieces are also available for download in case you don't want to 'risk' buying the full album, for $0.99 a piece. Definitely worth the money.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Islamic Liberalism and Martha Nussbaum

In a recent article in the Boston Review, Martha Nussbaum discusses Islamic Liberalism and its plight in India. India is one of the few countries where Islamic liberal thought has always had a place in the Gandhi/Nehru tradition and Nussbaum takes as an example that of Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi and its present Vice Chancellor Mushirul Hasan. The article, regrettably is not a great example of scholarship - most of it is facile and one dimensional and it's also overly hagiographical about the Vice Chancellor. Prof Hasan is a distinguished academic and a very visible face of liberal Islam who has the dubious distinction of having been at the receiving end of threats and attacks from both the Hindu Right as well as Islamic radicals. However to present him as the large surviving Gandhian in the mold of Maulana Azad or Dr. Zakir Hussain is clearly overstating the case. Moreover, the sub-text of the article, the underlying image, is that of an overall liberal minority of Muslims under threat from a large majority of illiberal right wing intolerant Hindus. I think such a one sided picture helps no one and, like most things in India, the true picture is infinitely more nuanced and complex than what is presented here. It is also unfair to what I believe is a large majority of Indians, Hindus or otherwise who have shown no patience for the Hindutva chaddi brigade's brand of politics.

What is truly appalling though is the abuse, a veritable cascade of opprobrium that is heaped on her and the article by a dedicated band of Hindutva sympathisers. Calling her a racist, a bigot, an idiot and numerous other offensive epithets, asking for her to be fired, this committed group of worthies not only create a cacophony in the comments section but determinedly drown out all voices of reason - of which in any case there are few and far between. Like the many Jewish American advocacy groups that come down like a ton of bricks on any criticism of Israeli policy, real or imagined, it appears that there is a strong committed right wing Hindu advocacy group with a similar agenda with respect to criticism of the Hindu right in India. It would be unfortunate if they were to start playing an active role in the outcome of elections in India through money power.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Harvard's Masters of the Apocalypse

Blow the powder away and look at the evidence: Harvard MBA fingerprints are all over recent financial fiascos. Philip Broughton knows...

Harvard Business School alumni include Stan O’Neal and John Thain, the last two heads of Merrill Lynch, plus Andy Hornby, former chief executive of HBOS, who graduated top of his class. And then of course, there’s George W Bush, Hank Paulson, the former US Treasury secretary, and Christopher Cox, the former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), a remarkable trinity who more than fulfilled the mission of their alma mater: “To educate leaders who make a difference in the world.”

It just wasn’t the difference the school had hoped for.

In the late 1990s, their faculties rushed to write paeans to Enron, the firm of the future, the new economic paradigm. The admiration was mutual: Enron was stuffed with Harvard Business School alumni, from Jeff Skilling, the chief executive, down. When Enron, rotten to the core, collapsed, the old case studies were thrust in a closet and removed from the syllabus, and new ones were promptly written about the ethical and accounting issues posed by Enron’s misadventures.

Read about it here.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Oysters In Chennai

The new rather infelicitously named Taj Mount Road which opened recently on Club House Road, has a Saturday/Sunday brunch buffet which is different from the standard fare that is dished out in buffets in other hotels of the city. While the fresh sea food selection is nowhere as varied as at its sister hotel Fisherman's Cove, it has some unusual items (unusual in Chennai, that is) like salmon topped with caviar in the cold cuts section, a decent selection of cheeses, Gruyere, Brie, Camembert and even more surprisingly, fresh oysters on the half shell with lemon and an interesting sauce of onion, red wine and vinegar, served on a bed of ice. This is the first time I am seeing oysters served anywhere in Chennai and I suspect that they won't last too long, along with the salmon. Most Indians seemed to avoid it ("what, no masala, no jeera dhania just plain, almost raw?"), and so did the foreigners ("watch out for these so called fresh sea food in these third world countries!"). The salmon didn't fare much better, so my advice to people who would like to sample these, is to go soon. They also have a selection of sushi both veg and non veg, as well as Dolma (various condiments and vegetables wrapped in grape leaves).

The ambiance is nice - a long banquet hall like structure with a raised wooden platform, flooded with diffused natural light from a transparent sun roof. Saturdays and Sundays, 12.30 to 3, Rs. 950 per person + 12.5% VAT and includes sangria, a selection of cocktails and beer. It was very crowded when we went though that could be the novelty effect, but it's best to reserve a table in advance.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

A Wednesday - the movie

Warning: This post contains spoilers

The shortest description of this movie would be a movie made by imbeciles for imbeciles. It carries on the theme popularised by the other movie Rang De Basanti of vigilante justice. Let's begin with the story which is easily told:

The Police Commissioner of Mumbai gets an anonymous phone call warning of 5 bombs planted in crowded places in Mumbai which are set to go off if 4 dreaded terrorists are not released by Mumbai police by the prescribed deadline. To prove that it's not a crank call, the caller identifies the location of one of these bombs (planted just under the nose of the police, in the police station opposite the Commissioner's office) which is then found and defused. Despite their best efforts, the police are unable to either trace the other bombs or the caller and are forced to release the terrorists. The police are subsequently instructed to bring them to an abandoned air strip in Juhu and leave them near a bench (conveniently placed there) and depart, after which the terrorists would presumably be picked up by their friends. And here comes the surprise. The moment the police leave, a bomb planted under the bench goes off killing the terrorists standing there waiting hopefully for their saviour(s). (Actually one of them is killed later but that is a matter of detail).

The caller then calls and, helpfully, explains his motive - that of 'stamping out a cockroach that visits your house". In a long rambling lecture he goes on about how he is fed up of living a life of fear - fear of a bomb going off in a bus shelter, or a train station, or a mall or a crowded market or any one of the numerous places he might visit. How his wife has no peace at home, wondering everyday whether he will return safely from work or become a victim of another terrorist attack. This is his way of doing the job that the inefficient, incompetent and impotent Government is unable to do. In other words, summary justice meted out by the common man, without benefit of judge or jury, as a last resort.

This issue of summary justice is also the theme of Rang De Basanti where a presumably corrupt politician is shot dead by a bunch of youngsters in retaliation for the death of a friend who dies in a plane crash as a consequence of poor quality spare part replacement (the result of the Minister taking a kickback), and is something that is becoming more and more popular with the movie-going public. Both movies received rave reviews and continue to do so (regrettably some of my colleagues also think along similar lines). I would like to take up a couple of the premises of these movies.

Summary justice: The notion of taking the law into your own hands without the benefit of a legal procedure, no matter how slow or ineffective, is a simple case of vigilante justice. It places the perpetrator of this act at the same level as that of the terrorist who is also presumably meting out rough and ready justice as a reaction to perceived wrongs. It suggests that we are all justified, to use a cliche, in taking the law unto our own hands. If ever there was a prescription for chaos and anarchy, this is it.

Ineffective, impotent Government that allows such attacks to continue: This theme is a favourite not only of movie makers but also of the Opposition BJP which has now started to talk of a "muscular" foreign policy (I have visions of L. K. Advani visiting a gym regularly to develop six-pack abs along the lines of Amir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan and others). It is trivial to see that it is impossible to prevent terrorist attacks in public places. No Government can make every single public place secure. It's possible perhaps to put in a few scanners in the entrance to malls and so on (the Delhi Metro scans baggage and people now but it has given rise to humongous lines at rush hour) but with 14-15 million passengers travelling by train everyday, not even the most advanced technology in the world can scan every one of those 15 million (and their baggage) at all railway stations. Israel has one of the most invasive security set ups in the world and perhaps the most ruthlessly efficient. And yet, they have not been able to prevent suicide bombers blowing themselves up at bus stations, cafes and other public places.

The other imbecilic argument propagated by the likes of India Today magazine is to point to the absence of any terrorist attack on mainland USA after 9/11 . Tightening the borders is much easier in the USA which is essentially an island with the only ingress being through ports and airports where security has become extremely invasive. Land routes through Mexico or Canada are infinitely more difficult to infiltrate through than in India which shares a long and mountainous border with a hostile neighbour and even more hostile terror camps. It's impossible to patrol every inch of this territory.

In other words, while I might be willing to accept that the Government of the day could do more (that includes the BJP too when they were in power - just introducing POTA does not reduce terrorism) the present day fashionable theme of the chattering classes, of India being a soft and impotent state and therefore it's time for all of us to take direct action by going on a shooting spree, is one that can only be propagated by brainless twits.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The other side of India 'rising' (and China)

  • As Indian Growth Soars, Child Hunger Persists -- Malnutrition is worse in India than in many sub-Saharan African countries, a paradox in a proud democracy.

  • Tibet Atrocities Dot Official China History -- On the other hand, the problems with our neighbour are of a different kind. -- "During 50 years of development, Tibet has moved from darkness to light, poverty to affluence, dictatorship to democracy, and seclusion to opening up" -- huh? democracy? where?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

New Faces

  • Meet Narendra Modi the shining new star of the Bharatiya Janata Party

    “We are by and large vegetarians. Jainism and Buddhism impacted us positively. We want to create a Buddhist temple here to honor Buddha’s remains.” He then prompted me for my next question. He had nothing further to say. His terse responses spoke volumes: Muslims, of course, are meat-eaters.

  • And the shining new face of William Shakespeare.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Jon Stewart takes on Rick Santelli

One of Jon Stewart's best performances - (via 3 quarks daily and Huffington Post).

A bit of background for those who might not know the context. Rick Santelli, the ranting reporter from the business news channel CNBC came down like a ton of bricks on Obama's attempt to pass on some of the money from the stimulus passage to thousands and thousands of poor home-owners who were facing foreclosure. He wonders why tax payers would want to pay for the mortgages of these 'losers' who didn't see the portents and who want now the tax payer to pay for that extra bedroom or for doing up the bathroom. Never mind the fact that the sinking corporations were given billions of prop-up money which they went through like a shark going through a baby's flesh.

Jon Stewart takes up cudgels on behalf of the beleagured home owners and wipes the floor with Rick Santelli. See it here.

Inaugural Addresses

The age of oratory seems to be over -- at least in India where I think it died with Jawaharlal Nehru. Most interventions in Parliament create more heat and noise than light, and even the House of Commons no longer resonates with the words of the great masters of the English Language.

However there is still one last bastion, where soaring oratory is treasured. It happens every four years at the inaugural address of the new President of the United States. All President-elects spend days, sometimes weeks polishing their inaugural address with an eye to posterity and the history books. That does not mean they all succeed. Jimmy Carter's address was eminently meaningless, that of George W. Bush completely forgettable. By all accounts, nobody has surpassed Abraham Lincoln in oratory, though FDR and JFK came close. Barack Obama, while good, came nowhere near these three. Words from Lincoln's two inaugural speeches “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away” and ending with “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.” or those of Kennedy -- “Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are—but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle.” have become part of the common lexicon of the English language. This and much else can be found in Jill Lepore's humorous and highly readable article in the New Yorker. Apart from an overview of various inaugural speeches, the article also produces many fascinating facts.

For example the oath that the Constitution prescribes for the President (which famously both Obama and Roberts fluffed this time) says: I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. And importantly, it does not require a Bible. A special congressional committee at Washington's inaugural decided that it might be fitting for Washington to rest his hand on a Bible. After the oath, Washington then kissed his borrowed Bible and uttered four words more: “So help me, God.” Ever since, most Presidents have done the same, but some have dispensed with the kiss, a few have skipped those four words, and, in 1853, Franklin Pierce even refused the Bible. Unfortunately in recent times, no President has chosen to take the risk of dispensing with the Bible or those last four words.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Gandhi Memorabilia

So the Indian Government has managed to get its grubby hands on all that Gandhi memorabilia. The Government is happy to show that it still values the Mahatma (never mind the gap between precept and practice). Mr Mallya is happy that he has used his millions to show that he is a true and patriotic Indian. Presumably Mr. Otis is happy and so is the auction house. Even his descendants like Tushar Gandhi are happy. So it's one big happy occasion, like India winning the cricket World Cup.

Without wanting to act as a sourpuss dampener on these Cheeryble brothers, I can't help wondering what Gandhiji would have made of all this. The obvious ironies would not have failed to strike him. We have come a long way from Gandhiji's ideals. Even leaving aside some of his more quaint pronouncements (from celibacy to a village economy) we have even abandoned his universal teachings of love, brotherhood, truthfulness, integrity and non violence. Instead, we fall over ourselves trying to recover some of his material possessions, the last thing that he would have wanted anyone to do, that too with the help of a man who has made his millions selling liquor to the masses (it's unlikely Kingfisher airlines makes any money!). Knowing Gandhiji's views on the consumption of alcohol and on prohibition, this is probably the ultimate absurdity. For a supposedly booming economy, it appears we couldn't afford $ 1.8 million! Unlike many other great men, Gandhiji was well-known for his wry sense of humour. The Mahatma is probably having a hearty chuckle at the antics of fellow citizens of his beloved country, from wherever he is today.

But let's get a bit pragmatic here. Gandhiji led a long and eventful life of 79 years - it's obvious in that time he would have changed his spectacles numerous times (considering the amount of writing he used to do, that itself would have required fresh prescriptions). Despite leading an extremely frugal life, it is also likely that the bowl and plate auctioned were one of many that he used in daily life, to say nothing of the sandals. In other words, most of these belongings are probably one of many that presumably exist either in museums or in homes or have simply disappeared. As a symbol of his simplicity, they already exist in various museums (I have myself seen them in Delhi and Mumbai). What difference would one more or one less make, other than just that feel good factor? Having put him, of all places, on Indian banknotes, we have forgotten both him and his message, well and truly. Why then pretend to worship his bowls and spectacles?

Tailpiece: I can't help thinking that a suitable end to this comedy would be an overzealous customs officer demanding that Mallya pay 200% duty on this import - thereby not only getting the memorabilia into India but adding to the Government coffers in the process :) - didn't something like this happen to the last saga with Tipu Sultan's sword?

Friday, March 6, 2009

More on Drug Companies and Medical Schools

From the New York Times

Objections to the influence of drug companies in many Medical schools' educational curriculum.

Exiles keep Tibetan identity Alive

A BBC Radio 4 documentary.

Eleanor Thomas travelled to Dharamsala to make A Tibetan Odyssey: Fifty Years in Exile, part of the Radio 4 Archive on 4 series. It will be broadcast on Saturday 7 March at 2000 and Monday 9 March at 1500.

Mr. Ram, are you listening? You should do something to stop all this nasty propaganda by these ungrateful Tibetans....

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Gaspare Gorresio

Most Indians have heard of the many English Orientalists like William Jones (responsible for the classification of the Indo-European language group) or Richard Burton who translated the One Thousand and One Nights. Few, however, would have heard of the Italian Prof. Gaspare Gorresio, who occupied the first chair of Sanskrit at the University of Torino (Turin). Neither would I have heard of him, if it hasn't been for the fact that a colleague handed me the collected Prefaces of each of the books, of Prof. Gorresio's definitive edition of the Valmiki Ramayana. The ever reliable Wikipedia fails miserably in this regard, though there is some more information in the Italian version of Wikipedia on this entry. The Italian Embassy, Delhi web page also contains some basic information about Gorresio.

The first complete printed edition of the Valmiki Ramayana (as well as a translation into Italian) was published in Paris during 1843-1867. After several years of study under the great French Sanskritist E. Burnouf, Gorresio undertook to compile a critical edition of the monumental Sanskrit poem, the Ramayana in the original Sanskrit, together with an Italian translation. Of the two existing collection of manuscripts, the Northern and the Bengali or Gauda, he chose the Gauda because it was believed to be more ancient and also considered superior in artistic merit. The first volume was published in 1843 and the remaining six volumes were completed by 1867. The critical edition along with the Italian translation formed an opus of 12 volumes which took Gorresio 30 years to finish. This edition was published by the Imprimerie Nationale in Paris, with Devanagari characters specially made for the occasion.

In the 1980's, The Indian Heritage Trust reprinted this edition of the Ramayana, along with the publication of the volume of Prefaces, which for the first time was translated into English by Prof. Oscar Botto, the present successor to Prof. Gorresio in the Sanskrit Chair at the University of Torino. This is the volume which is now lying on my table and from which I have gleaned these salient facts.

Unfortunately this volume of Prefaces is no longer easily available. The original Ramayana of Gorresio is however available from Samata Books though I have not tried to get it for myself. In a sense, the book of Prefaces provides a pleasant introduction to the origins, sources, historicity and mythological origins of the Valmiki Ramayana, (though his insistence on dating the historicity of the Ramayana to the 13th century BCE and claiming that Valmiki and Rama were contemporaries, are, I think no longer tenable). The only place I have found it is on Amazon where it is available at an exorbitant price.

I am indebted to K. N. Raghavan for introducing me to Gorresio and his writings.