Thursday, August 25, 2011

Democracy and demands: The case against Anna

Anna Hazare's reported call on August 24 for a "gherao" of Parliament deserves condemnation. Adequate consideration has been shown to Anna and his suggestions. He and his supporters ought now to allow Parliament to function. If they continue on their present path, they will be setting dangerous precedents.

Anna Hazare, howsoever well-intentioned, is functioning on the basis of certain fallacious propositions. The first dubious proposition is that elected representatives need to do the bidding of Anna, and the large number of people gathered to support him, on the principle of popular sovereignty. Even leaving aside the questions whether popular sovereignty vests in the venerable Anna alone and whether Anna's approach on the Ombudsman question is the only possible reasonable approach, there is another issue here. This is that there is a difference between being a representative of a constituency and being its "deputee". A chosen representative is entitled to the use of his or her own judgement about what is in the interests of the people. That is what they are chosen for. They are not meant to be attorneys doing a client's bidding.

The second dubious proposition which a large section of the media has swallowed is that Anna's tactics, strategies and activities are party-politically neutral and reflect no tacit political affiliations. They do. This is obvious from his selective political targeting and certifications. It is more than a little strange that He remains silent on the question of there being no ombudsman machinery in many states, including some states governed by the principal opposition party at the Centre.He appears to have got around this by suggesting that even in the states, the ombudsman machinery machinery ought to be created only through a parliamentary Bill, when his advisers are sufficiently well-informed on Constitutional matters to know that there would be questions here about Parliament's legislative competence to legislate on this subject in relation to individual states.

The third dubious proposition that Anna is implicitly playing with is that Indian parliamentary democracy may be challenged without limit even where it has given more than adequate space to Anna and his colleagues. I think Anna is inviting trouble that could put India's democracy and constitutional dispensation, painstakingly built up, back by several decades.

The fourth dubious proposition put forth by Anna is that there is a strong Gandhian element in his activities. This does not seem to be the case. Gandhi's struggles involved respect for his opponent. And whatever one of his religious associates may think, Anna needs to be reminded that Gandhi did not use fasts as a weapon during his civil disobedience campaigns. The fasts were usually on other issues, not in the course of mass activity. Anna's views on the death penalty are not quite Gandhian.

Even on the question of how long Anna would fast or remain at Ramlila Grounds there have been conflicting statements by Anna and his supporters. First it was to be 15 days. Then he said he would remain at Ramlila Grounds until the Bill was passed. Finally he said he would FAST until the Bill was passed. Now one of his associates has said that there must be written assurances before the fast would be broken. Anna needs to realise that he is now holding the country and its Parliament to ransom and that too for a cause on which his demands have been substantially conceded. I think this is most unfair and most un-Gandhi-like on his part. Now is the time to stop this tantrum before it goes any further. He may, if he prefers, think of suspending it indefinitely and re-examine the matter once the Parliamentary deliberations are over.

This blog post is by Anil Nauriya.

The issue of bringing the states under the Lok Pal bill seems to have been addressed today. There does seem to be a tendency to add on demands every day. However, this has not diminished the level of popular support that the movement has attracted. Do write in with your views. -Neelima.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Civil society again

The Lok Pal bill and Anna Hazare are much in the news and our minds again. Even those who support the objectives of the agitation (i.e. as against corruption) are not quite in support of some of the ensuing rhetoric.

It seems not irrelevant to point to an earlier post.

As I Please: Civil society and its concerns

There is also a very current comment by Anil Nauriya on this post. We look forward to further discussion on this issue.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Friday, August 19, 2011

`Uncle Eric'

For a very sweet reminiscence of the writer of the original `As I Please', see this link.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The arXiv is 20

Twenty years ago, a particle physicist named Paul Ginsparg got tired of the way in which pre-publication research was circulated. After a paper was written, the author, or a secretary, in the case of fortunate authors, made many copies of the paper, a circulation list was typed, and copies were sent to those on the list. In the process, some copies went to those who had not that much interest in the subject, and many more, who would have been interested in the subject, but not on the list, would only find out when the paper got published. This obviously meant several months, which was a serious handicap to those who worked in fast developing fields. The particle physicists, always the quickest on their feet, had a partial solution to this, they sent the first copy to the SLAC (Stanford Linear Accelerator Center) list, which was widely circulated, and hoped the paper would catch interest, resulting in many preprint request cards in their mailbox (not the electronic version, the little pigeonhole in their department office!). Physicists in all other fields yawned, and didn't bother. Heaven knows what people in other disciplines did!

Then 20 years ago, in August 1991, things changed. Ginsparg, who worked then at the Los Alamos National Lab, decided to harness the technology of the internet, which was of course, itself the major revolution of the last decade of the 20th century, for this purpose. What could be neater and more efficient than uploading your paper at a central archive, neatly catalogued, and searchable by area, title, author names, and keywords, from where anyone with internet access could download the paper? An idea this good, had to be a thumping success. Usage of the archive snowballed from the initial 400 submissions in the first six months, to 75,000 a year in 2011. Over the same period, the number of distinct users who access the archive increased to 400,000 a week and an astounding download of 1 million articles per week. The areas multiplied from a cosy community of particle physicists to all areas of theoretical physics, and across all disciplines to include mathematicians, biologists and computer scientists, admittedly those with a physics bias. Fields like medicine started their own archive with the help of publishers, and called it PubMed. The surprise does not lie in the number of people who use the archive, the surprise lies in the fact that a fraction of the scientific population appears to manage without it, even now.

However, the most important thing about the archive was the way it levelled the playing field, at least for those interested in theoretical areas. One internet connection, and no place was a backwater any more. The dependence on exorbitantly priced journals was, if not gone, greatly reduced. Though archive submissions are unrefereed, their status and versions are updated post publication in regular journals, for ease of reference. Papers can be submitted to journals directly via uploads from the archive. Mirror sites of the archive increase efficiency and download speeds. Just as the archive was the result of Paul Ginsparg's individual initiative, much of the effort in setting up this amazing framework has come from the tireless work of individual scientists. This is a good place to acknowledge the unstinting efforts of Kapil Paranjape in setting up the Indian mirror site of the archive at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai.

Finally, which way will the archive evolve further? It is really difficult to say. Ginsparg has said that better quality control may enable the archive to evolve from being merely a repository of information to a powerful and self-maintained knowledge structure. To see if this works, stay tuned in till the archive celebrates its silver jubilee in five years.

Tailpiece: Two tales from the late eighties.

A physicist named Joanne Cohn, an early pioneer in the field of matrix models,initially had a personal list of friends to whom she would mail all the preprints that she received. Soon, her reputation grew and even people who did not know her would send her their preprints hoping that she would circulate them to her friends. By the time Ginsparg took over, she had more than a hundred email addresses to which she would forward the preprints. This was not a small number then, so this was true public service!

There was also the time someone from industry came to talk to the physicists at Santa Barbara and suggested that scientists should charge something for their papers (intellectual property rights!) to be put up for public consumption. This provoked much merriment. Some one joked that most scientists would pay to have their papers read!

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

For an earlier post on the same subject by Rahul Basu see here.