Monday, April 30, 2012

Wings of fire

Our apologies for lifting the blog title from Abdul Kalam's autobiography, but the title couldn't be more appropriate. With the successful launch of Agni 5, India has joined the elite group of nations with intermediate range missile capability, admittedly far behind the remaining five, viz. the U.S., Russia, France, U.K.  and China.

Is this an achievement to be proud of? Technologically, surely. This is not the kind of technology that is handed over from one nation to another, unless the two nations do it in a clandestine fashion, with the donor nation extracting its pound of flesh in return. No such trades have ever been associated with the Indian missile programme, and India can justifiably be proud of the technological and managerial skills of its defence scientists. Moreover, Agni 5 is dead on schedule, since it was announced in 2007, with an expected launch date in 2011 or 2012. If only India's civilian scientific programmes like the Indus synchrotron, the Indian Neutrino project, the Hanle telescope could match up to the enviable record of the Agni series!

Is this an achievement to be proud of from other points of view? Are we not adding to the proliferation of missiles? Well, given that this was a missile test, it seems to have raised hardly any hackles. There were a few cracks about how Agni's range had been carefully kept below 5000 kms precisely to avoid raising hackles, and also some apprehensions that the real range of the missile is about 8000 kms, which brings it to the level of an intercontinental ballistic missile, but they seem to be unfounded. Is it ethical on the part  of India to make missiles, on this scale? Our record on nonproliferation has been exemplary, and has been recognised as being so, as is indicated by the remarkable absence of international opproborium on this missile test.On the other hand, independence and sovereignity are hard to sustain without military might to back them up, said George Orwell, in one of his essays. This is especially true given our experience with hostile neighbours and their allies. So perhaps this missile test was necessary, despite these other reservations.

Finally, the mission chief of Agni 5 was a woman,  Dr. Tessy Thomas. Congratulations, Dr. Thomas, on scaling a very macho male bastion, a missile mission. We are very proud of you!

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A pointer and a tribute

Rahul Siddharthan, a fellow blogger, has requested a pointer to his recent blog post which draws attention to the plight of Dr. Partha Sarathi Ray, a bioscientist at IISER Kolkata, who has been arrested by the Kolkata police last Sunday for peaceful protest and remanded to jail for 14 days. Please see this link for further details, and a petition. See also the Nanopolitan .
This pointer is a singularly appropriate place to homage to the memory of Fang Lizhi(February 12, 1936- April 6, 2012), a Chinese astrophysicist, whose dissident movement was one of the contributors to the Tiananmen square protests of 1989. After the massacre of June 4, Prof. Fang and his family took refuge in the U.S. consulate for nearly 13 months, after which they were allowed to leave for the U.S, ostensibly for medical treatment. Thereafter, he worked as a professor of physics at the University of Arizona, and lived there till his death on April 6, 2012 at the age of 76, remaining active in the human rights movement. One of Prof. Fang's early brushes with authority arose due to an unlikely sounding article entitled “A Solution of the Cosmological Equations in Scalar-Tensor Theory, with Mass and Blackbody Radiation.” This article introduced the Big Bang theory to Chinese physics circles, and was regarded as being heretical as it contradicted Engel's notions of the universe being infinite with respect to space and time.
A more obvious challenge to authority was contained in his speech, made 26 years ago to students at Tongzhi University in Shanghai, where he said, “Human rights are fundamental privileges that people have from birth, such as the right to think and be educated, the right to marry, and so on. But we Chinese consider those rights dangerous. If we are the democratic country we say we are, these rights should be stronger here than elsewhere. But at present they are nothing more than an abstract idea.”
We in India have always fancied we were better off in this respect. We hope we are right, and will be proved right by the response of the Indian people and the state to cases like Dr. Ray's.
This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Monday, April 2, 2012

A new day?

Early projections for the recent by-elections in Myanmar predict a sixty percent fraction of the vote, and about 40 seats of the 45 seats contested to the National League of Democracy party of Aung San Suu Kyi. Given that the total number of seats in parliament is 664, of which one quarter are reserved for the military, the victory will be more of a moral and symbolic nature rather than translating into numerical strength for the issues that will face the house. However, the moral strength of the victory which will result in Suu Kyi returning to the house for the first time since 1990, may pave the way to amendments reducing the military strength in the house. Already, key electoral reforms which paved the way to this wekend's ballot went further than the cosmetic measures which were supposedly undertaken to facilitate Myanmar's chair in the ASEAN nations. Once in parliament, Suu Kyi can influence policy and help to tilt the balance of power from the dictats of the military to the wishes of the common people. Of course, the composition of the Myanmar parliament is such that the NLD will hold little legislative power. On the hand, there is no doubt that Myanmar has opened up to an extent which could not have been predicted even a year ago, leading to the hope that sometime in the not too distant future, the country may finally be freed from nearly half a century of military rule.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.