On Corruption and Technology- A Debate Speech

26 10 2015

The transcript of the opening speech that I made, in a debate competition  held at IIT Madras CLT, on 26th October 2015, on the eve of Vigilance awareness week.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I oppose the motion : “recent improvements in technology engender new ways to protect tight networks of wealth and power and are therefore more likely to enhance corruption than prevent it”

At the outset, let me mention that my argument is a qualified position. The foundations of my reasoning does not emerge from any Huxelian vision, although it certainly is reinforced with a sense of history. I wish to state my case in the reverse order of terms framed in the motion statement.

Let us perform a thought experiment. Imagine that government of India chooses to place five rupee coins in a huge open jar on this podium with a banner “this belongs to the sovereign and shall be distributed to needy children for buying toffees”. There are no measures to protect the money, or ways to determine the neediness or what is the age limit for definining children. But at least we do know that the intended beneficiaries are not students of IIT Madras. Given the population mix of this institution- its age, economic background and level of education, we can expect that a large majority of people present here might honour the intend of Indian government. Well of course, a rare few mischievous ones might steal, given that no protection is available, for the fun of it or just because easy money is available. It might be a totally different situation if we were to place this jar near a statue at Anna Salai.

Now, let us play the game of raising stakes. Imagine the case where we have 100 rupee notes in a box. Government of India wishes this to be spent on providing two square meals a day for the poor; again unprotected and improperly defined. This time, the situation will definitely change a bit. None of the people present here are underfed, or so I hope. Still, a couple of free 100 bucks for the mobile data recharge is not a bad deal after all! It is easy money, although Government does mention about poor people, I’m sure that at least a few will reason that this money will any way be pocketed by the agents who are responsible for implementing the scheme. We know these rascals, don’t we? Some might think it was stupid of the government in the first place, although it does not prevent them pocketing a few notes. Again raise the stakes by putting 1000 rupee notes and gold coins, with a wish to create a new school for under privileged children. The number of angels will go down as the stakes are made higher while protection measures and implementation procedures remaining the same. To be noted is the fact that here will always be people who abstain from this form of corruption. But why did the number of Devils increase? Is it because money is the root of all evil?

Corruption, or at least its massive proliferation, is a systemic issue. It is not a moral issue. If it were, the moral science classes from the convent schools or Bharateeya Vidyabhavans, or classes on ethics conducted at Lal Bahadur Shastri Institute for that matter, should have made all of our IAS officers upright people. It is not a question of ruling political ideology either; at least not in its widely understood sense. If it were so, a large many party bosses from CPSU should have been the favourites even after the fall of the Berlin wall. Let it be the case of Laissez-faire free market utopia (an absolute Libertarian dream though not fully acknowledged) in today’s Somalia or the mercantile capitalism period of the 18th century. They should have solved the problem of production, distribution and justice once and for all, or at least by and large!

Corruption, in my opinion, is largely the result of misalignment in power, responsibility and accountability. My argument is not that corruption is simply a delivery problem, the popular version of which is known by the mantra good governance, but that even a structural question has a system dimension when it comes to implementation. Given any structure, combating corruption is an institutional challenge which can only be achieved by placing the right set of checks and balances, and incentivising good behaviour. This is something places like Singapore and Hong Kong understood, and came to tackle, mostly with success. I am not trying to bring down the comparison to relatively smaller and arguably less complex societies. This is an attempt to point out that there is a huge systemic aspect.

Concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few, is a perennial theme. In fact, it is as old as the history of human civilisation which has found resonance with people at different space and time. We find this discussion in Plato’s Republic, Chanakya’s ‘Arthashastra’ and Machivelli’s Prince, from various perspectives of course. And yet there is no definitive solution acceptable to all, or a majority, so to say, to this problem. We have seen that historically, this concentration has resulted in certain forms of usurping. It also need to be acknowledged that this process has propelled greed, created scarcity and resulted in denial of justice, at least in a long run, in almost all of the places. 

My second argument comes from a historical premise. The networks of wealth and power are self preserving entities. Even in a stagnant society, as it were during say the Dark ages, they did survive. The ones who were able to adapt and evolve with time  definitely stayed longer. But irrespective of the presence of the variable new technology, they made every attempt to stay buoyant, mediating through structures and choosing courses of actions that they had thought  as beneficial for survival. My proposition is that the relationship is inverse; it is not the technology that create structures with concentrated wealth and power- the military industrial complex, if you will, but the existing ones adapt the technology faster often strengthening their position.

The licence raj in India was no paradise for a common (wo)man at the expense of the Tatas and Birlas. An inefficient and expensive telephone system, in which a lightening call – as it was called for a privileged instant long distance call – to a distant town was charged at 12 times the normal rate but had as much probability of dialling the right destination as the toss of a coin, or a single channel television in which news meant reporting things that minister in charge approved of, if anything had presented with an increased possibility of bribery or denial of justice at large. While it is true that today a multinational conglomerate could buy the mainstream media for a cover-up, the proliferation of internet and more independent cyber media, has opened up a fighting chance, however small it is. And finally my favourite anecdote to explain this point: abolishment of slavery was not an really an act of Christian charity, not by the Southern gentlemen who prided themselves for faith at any extend, but largely due to the industrial revolution, however imperfect it were, that had engulfed the North.

My position is that development in technology, by and large, has played a significant role in democratising the world and hence reducing corruption of all forms. Slowly and steadily, science and technology is taking material wealth, information and ideas to the masses to whom it were denied through out the history. This is not necessarily a linear process and shall have ups and downs. Yet, to me the trend is definitely towards better.

My third proposition is that whatever should you mean by the word recent developments, whether we like it or not, all technological feats will proliferate into the masses at a rate faster than before. One only need to look at the time it took for radio to become a part of every Indian household, and compare it with television, then telephone, the mobile phone and today’s smart phone! This process is irreversible, at least for a foreseeable time into the future, even with the most regressive patent laws, attempts to bring Orwellian cyber-laws or surveillance mechanisms. For a project like PRISM by NSA of US, or its Indian counterpart if any, there shall also be Edward Snowdens to expose. The app world citizens could be easily tracked, and perhaps framed for wrong reasons. Agreed. But they also are able to report crime and corruption faster than ever. They can keep a check on how complaints are dealt better than before. What ails us in reaping the benefit are our sluggish institutions. Spectrum auctions might present opportunities for the rich and powerful to make money, but e-governance and checks for maintaining transparency shall be the very seeds that could expose them.

Let us be clear that all power structures- ruling benches, social structures or bureaucracies – seek survival, pretty much like human beings. While technology need not provide the ultimate solution to all structural issues, it is indispensable on the implementation side, and in particular for increasing the efficiency.

I would like to conclude by saying that despite every questionable practice done with the help of technology, solutions to our structural as well as systemic issues can only be materialised with better aligning the existing, or perhaps better, technology with ethical considerations. Like it or not, designing institutions towards this goal present the key. Bashing technology or wrongly accusing it as if it were a conscious individual or a scheming enterprise, will not solve the problem of corruption, or concentration of wealth.

Thank you.

PS: I had to cut down on some parts, because of time limitations (5 minute opening) that I came to know only before entering the stage. All the same, got second prize.🙂

Hold your peace forever?

24 10 2015

Some thoughts on the recent student suicides at IIT Madras, and the debate on mental health that followed.

IIT Madras had witnessed two suicides during the last couple of months. Apparently, these unfortunate incidents have no common denominators except the decision to end one’s own life. The shocks from the incidents did incite some serious discussions on mental health within the campus and among the larger stake holders, especially the alumni. As often as they turn out to be, this time too the exchanges in social media and newspaper were filled with bitterness.  I hate to say this on the eve of every major incident from the campus, but the reactions from both sides to me, appear too far fetched, although definitely not in equal terms. I fully concur with the requirement of sensitisation and debate on this matter. As pointed out in the article in ‘The Hindu’ certain gargantuan moralist fossils that have long stayed and become a rigid part of the system should be placed in the museums, from where they could be marvelled by glorious past enthusiasts at a safe distance. But having agreed on these, I do find some of the generalisations in the absence of adequate data problematic. On the other hand, I find  Khap panchayats in favour of preserving the institute honour, who have time and again used this policing tactic to extinguish the scope of the debates  or attempted to put the blame squarely on people who dared to speak out, much more deplorable and offensive.

Do we have a problem?

I have read that during the period of Raj, the designated purpose of an English grammar school was to remove every bit of tenderness from young boys, so as to  prepare them to become foot soldiers for the imperial enterprise. Every other aspect of the imperial education was tied to this aim. Unsurprisingly, even sports. As the eminent writer and historian Ramachandra Guha had pointed out in his LSE lecture:

Cricket, wrote Christopher Douglas, the biographer of the controversial English cricketer Douglas Jardine, is a game that teaches its pupils to be “honest, impervious to physical pain, uncomplaining and civilised”. In the introductory words of Professor Michael Cox- it’s a game that turned “lads into chaps, chaps into men, and men into gentlemen”. These are sensibilities supremely English, and cricket, surely, the supreme English sport.

 The colonial enterprise has long withdrawn from India, but again unsurprisingly, our education system still embeds the ghost from that era. In my opinion the stout refusal to acknowledge the problem of mental health in professional education, and create workable, self evolving systems in place comes from the very idea of “ideal engineer” or “professional” who has no place for “weaknesses”. The question is not whether students of professional courses should be prepared to handle stress – both academic and personal, which all reasonable people would agree that they should be, but the kind of coping mechanisms to be promoted and systems to be put in place.  Unfortunately, the professional institutes in our country, even the elite clubs like IIT’s, have not moved far from the 70’s thinking in the western world. In short, we are at least 40 years behind the world universities in dealing with mental health issues. 

Much worse is the false sense of pride inculcated in the alumni of this exclusive club, who more often than not, are completely privilege blind so much so as to attribute their superhuman qualities to their success, as against a realistic assessment. The problem with the IIT system, in my opinion, is that very often otherwise competent people, who are probably less strong mentally or have different requirements, get crushed under the weight of the system. And since we do not have to talk about them most of the time, all is well and hallelujah! This survivorship bias, unfortunately, has become the hallmark of the dominant discourse, and this is very much a part of the problem.

The Academic part

In my opinion, the root of the problem is not the competitive nature of the programme. Of course, I do believe that relative grading is not a very good idea under most circumstances. Even software companies have started to move away from relative assessment in appraisals. Academic stress for some part is inevitable in any system, although the option for self-paced programmes and giving more electives from the third year onwards can handle some aspects of this. The extraordinary attendance requirement, though not religiously followed by every faculty, in my opinion is a total nonsense. This only helps to protect incompetent faculty members, and never students. This is also a burden shifting, wherein the important duty of an undergraduate teacher to make the subject interesting and engage the students is transferred to the students, who in the process are penalised for having bad teachers.

It is unrealistic to expect every student to perform well in any given course or project. The principle should be to positively reward the ones who do well and put effort.  The disinterested should be allowed to scrape through with an average grade, given that a certain required minimum level of conceptual understanding and/or effort is demonstrated. Very often, this required minimum is not made clear at the outset, and this lack of proper information results in frustration and unnecessary stress. The delays and extensions in the final year project have very often been the reasons for suicides during the past. IIT Madras has taken note of the issue and now has a provision to substitute B.Tech project with courses, which is a good start. In any case, I have felt that there is a certain lack of transparency in some project evaluations. This is not to make any insinuations of personal vendetta or arbitrariness as such from my part, although there have been hearsays of such nature, but only to suggest that it is certainly possible to tell students at the outset as to what is required.

The Human part

Living inside a huge campus, especially during the most vibrant as well as impressionable years of one’s life brings in the question of dealing with human relations. It is an inescapable fact that campus dwellers exist in a web of relationships from platonic friendships to romantic love of hetero or/and homo varieties. This is exactly where the system in place is so fragile and conservative. Even when there are many aware and compassionate faculty members and supportive peers, the culture of frowning and refusal to acknowledge continues. The prevailing  conservatism is  often suffocating to someone who might not have any relationship issues at all, as I have felt many a times while listening to some younger friends. Of course, IITM is still three notches above the private colleges in South, by and large, in this regard. But the more relevant question is whether one would like a national institute to be compared with pathetic moral policing ones from the state, in the same breath. I have heard from friends that the counselling and guidance unit, for all the good work they do, lack a non-judgemental approach towards relationship issues. This simple fact, if true, alienates many a people who need real help.  The alleged use of students as some sort of information gatherers or even spies, can only make things worse. In my opinion, such moves are reprehensible and displays a kind of colonial hangover.

On top of the relationship questions, there is the issue of perceptions. This is the way-too-dangerous-zone which is almost unmanageable. Particularly vulnerable are the perceptions about caste and gender. The general perception about most Dalit students by the upper caste ones is pathetically prejudiced, not to mention completely wrong. The language in which it comes out is often very covert, but the under tones are easily distinguishable. I have had personal encounters with these prejudices as a teaching assistant in a basic engineering course. The same goes about gender relations. Young men generally believe that women have it easy, quite unreasonably,  and are so cocksure about their superiority. The question of LGBT is frowned up on, and some, both from students and faculty, are openly hostile.

Personally, I know the dynamics that goes on only too well. Having graduated from an NIT (or Regional Engineering College, as it were when we had joined) a decade ago, which too had a similar mix of population and a highly skewed sex ratio, I understand the popular perceptions in such a high testosterone campus. Trust me, they are far from reality by any yard stick of reasonability! It took me a few years to realise the mistake in perceptions about gender relations and even the elephant inside the room- caste. This is as much applicable to faculty as students. I believe that given the situation, sensitisation is the only way forward. But a systematic mechanism should be in place to make sure that this is done along with the academic orientation during the first weeks of the class. In fact, it is high time that we think about coming up with a systematic regime for sensitising on  gender, sexuality and caste prejudices.

Way forward..?

To be frank, we do not, as yet, know the extend of the problem. It is beyond me to speculate about any all weather solution too. But if anything, the discussions should begin. The naysayers and honour brigade might go on with their usual businesses of personal attacks and questioning intend, but it is also important to bring them to the table. It is absolutely unfortunate that some otherwise well meaning people have interpreted the debate, to put it mildly, as a mere perception difference between Humanities students and Engineering students. Not only is this kind of tagging ludicrous, but it does show a certain inability to engage with ideas and confuse them for people. As far as I have seen, this is a peculiar IIT Madras problem, where many engineering or science students (even faculty) have an unwarranted sense of intellectual supremacy. In fact, most these supremacists do not have any clue about the questions they address any more than a commonsensical grasp, which too is often wrong.

In any case, if you ask me, the first step in the right direction is to come with a speak out campaign. As a student and while inside the institution, nobody, for no reason, should be made to hold his/her peace forever. The institutions which are supposed to handle such issues should be asked to adhere to a completely non-judgemental approach. And we certainly do not need more moral policing, even if disguised in the security and safety jargon. Every student should realise that there is no worth in suffering in silence.

After the storm

9 06 2015

Some thoughts on the IIT Madras de-recognition controversy and its aftermath

The controversy surrounding de-recognition of Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle is (hopefully) over after the club has been reinstated to its previous status of being an institute recognised independent club. Now that the case is more or less settled, I think there is nothing wrong in posting my comprehensive view on this matter. I did make an earlier post on a related issue and the crux of this controversy – the right to dissent – which you can read from here.

At the outset let me make one thing clear- this is not going to be a neutral opinion. More accurate statement in this connection shall be that there can be no neutral opinions on such contested matters. At least no helpful ones. I intend to look at it as who I am – a rationalist, liberal, someone passionate about freedom of expression, somebody who spent time and effort to understand the discourse surrounding caste privileges and a student of the institute. I did consider viewing things from other vantage points, although I could only sympathetically disagree with many of those takes, and vigorously reject the ones I thought were bigoted. For instance, I consider Dr. Krishna Jagannathan’s article on Quora as a well articulated perspective from a concerned faculty to which I respectfully disagree on many points. At the same time I consider this despicable hate propaganda piece as the epitome of a crazy conspiracy theory, where the author(s) seemed particular that there should be at least one lie in every sentence. For the sake of full disclosure let me also mention that I have not been a member of APSC, but have attended most of the events they had conducted. Some of its active spokespersons happened to be people I know well. I have had email exchanges with student representatives, and informal conversations with a few faculty members to know their perspectives too. Ever since the issue blew up, many of these viewpoints are doing rounds in the social media.

The Story as I saw it

According to their own claims and records, Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle was formed on April 14, 2014 with the stated objective of propagating Ambedkarite views and Rationalistic thoughts of Periyar through initiating discussions on various socio-political issues. According to them, they were asked to change the name of the club many a times by representatives of the IIT Madras administration stating it to be polarising and controversial. If their allegation is true, we need to consider that this happens in a campus with a Vivekanda Study Circle, which has been working with all the blessings from the administration, and still is surprisingly not considered to be polarising or controversial. Personally, I would consider Ambedkar three notches above Vivekananda in any scale of comparison, but that isnot to be discussed here.

The group conducted talks, discussions and distributed pamphlets, on Sanskritisation, beef ban, non-vegetarian food apartheid, Caste discrimination and the economic policies of the Central Govt. Needless to say, many people were uncomfortable or disagreed with the issues they had raised. Some did not like the engagement style, about which my own personal view is that they should make it more inclusive in order to raise the level of discussions. One group of people, who claimed to be students of IIT Madras, wrote an anonymous letter to the Ministry of Human Resource Development complaining about the activities of this group. The complaint was of kindergarten level; a typical madam, I didn’t like the colour of that kid’s ribbon and so please scold her, type (courtesy, Veena Mani). MHRD took this letter seriously, when it was rule-bound by a Central Vigilance Commission instruction to ignore all anonymous or pseudonymous complaints. It sent a letter to the institute Director seeking comments. While one might argue that there is nothing wrong in seeking comments, the speed of this action (in less than a month), the priority it gave to something it should have ignored in the first place, and the fact that even an official instruction to comment by the funding agency on an issue that does not come under its purview, can be construed as a pressure tactic. This puts the whole affair into suspicion.

The institute administration acted immediately upon receiving the letter. If the documents that APSC has put up has to be believed they were de-recognised as the first step before seeking any explanation in this regard. It is unclear how administration concluded that a violation took place before officially asking the group about their position. According to the letter to MHRD, the anonymous had complained to the IIT Madras administration several times, and they chose not to act. Now, it is only a matter of deducing ‘2+2=4’ that whatever be the official response, the letter from MHRD was indeed the trigger. The issue flared up in a couple of days. Articles were published in social and print media. The institute made an official statement describing this as an internal issue and that the group was de-recognised for violating certain existing guidelines with regard to the functioning of independent student bodies. Later news channels took over and it became the talking point. The group explained their stands through a mail to the concerned authority, which was later published here.

What followed was dramatic. There were reactions from various corners of the nation, and even from abroad. The visual media did go overboard on certain occasions. A few media outlets did report some aspects of the issue incorrectly. It was TRP business as usual. Even then, I do not think they were entirely wrong in projecting it as a question of free speech and space for dissent. I shall explain this point in the coming paragraph. Mr. H. Raja of BJP, TamilNadu, added fuel to the fire with a statement to the effect that he had asked the Director to ban this group some time before and was happy that it was done. Political and social organisations took up the issue for various reasons ranging from a chance to dent the image of the ruling front, through concern for silencing dissent, to solidarity with the social justice causes. Meanwhile, MHRD withdrew from the scene to save its face. The front gate of IIT Madras became a battle ground and this did affect the normal life within the campus.

Once the storm gathered momentum Ambedkar Periyar Study Circles mushroomed from all corners of the country and people including renowned academicians began writing letters to the institute administration. Finally on 7th June 2015 the institute reinstated the organisation, and the de-recognition was lifted unconditionally after an 8 hour long talk with APSC representatives, as per them. The concerned authority clarified that the de-recognition was lifted because the information regarding the rules was disseminated after the event in question had happened. APSC has also made a statement that “IIT Madras administration accepted to modify the guidelines through SAC (Student Affairs Council) and also accepted uniform implementing of these guidelines to all independent student bodies”. So it seems every one is happy and now we can end the story with so they lived happily ever after, or may be quite not so.

Reading Between the Lines

One does not need a sixth sense to understand that the actual reason for de-recognition had very little to do with an ill-thought of guideline. I used the word purposefully because as Dr. Dheeraj Sanghi from IIT Kanpur had pointed out and later put up as a parody possibly by sympathisers of this group, how could any group within the institute avoid using IIT Madras in their communications! If such a rule does exist, I am appalled by the logical faculty of the student representatives who drafted such a guideline. Truly, you must be joking. On the other hand, institute can and should rule that no organisation within should misrepresent itself as the official voice of the administration. Personally, I could not see this club misrepresenting their opinion as IIT Madras’ official view. Also at least three other clubs, one of which enjoys the active patronage of IIT Madras faculties and possibly management given that they have a web space in the institute server, have been using the name IIT Madras and even its logo, even when this event was unfolding. Once the issue got publicity some of these clubs did change their webpages. Clearly, for any person with a minimum common sense, this could not be a simple question of guideline violation. One must admit that technically the administration was right in pointing out a violation. Therefore in my considered view, this was indeed a question of either curtailing dissent or action against a perceived hate speech. It was definitely triggered by the pressure from MHRD.

Freedom to dissent vs Hate speech, debate

Many articles have been written from this angle. Two of them, published by the student run institute news portal -The Fifth Estate -opens up this debate. I tend to agree with Aditya Narayanan’s piece on placing the alleged controversial statements from the pamphlet in their proper context. Of course, there are many who choose to disagree and this is one such view, although I personally found the arguments weak. Essentially it brings down the issue to whether institute has behaved impartially, as it is mandated, in dealing with various perspectives.

At the outset let me say that IIT Madras is not a monstrous place where anybody who disagrees is ruthlessly dealt with. Having said that, from my own experiences I have found instances of preferential behaviour when it comes to supporting certain views, whether it be by accident or design. One of my friends from another independent club ChintaBAR, had once claimed that they were made to run extra yard and often snubbed for conducting programmes that did not go well with some concerned senior faculty members. It is true to a certain extent that there is a certain kind of unwarranted protectionism at operation here. Unpopular (inside institute) yet perfectly legitimate discourses are dealt more cautiously as against the red carpet given to some loony varieties which are neither intellectual nor sensible, like this, this and this.

Free speech and its limits (?) are hotly contested topics everywhere. Was the club well within their rights to criticise Hinduism for the nature of its functioning? My answer would be yes. And I would definitely support if somebody does that to Islam being a non-believer or ex-Muslim (as in the case of atheists from Bangladesh, for instance) or Christianity, which actually have been shredded apart more thoroughly by the works of Nietzsche and Russell. My personal view on this matter notwithstanding, it is a widely recognised that free speech in the context of a university is more than a facilitator, and a mere right. It is the very essence and substance. This is not to say that every opinion is equally valid, or to go for such a post modern claptrap. I merely argue that we must recognise the fact that this is a university and not the public road. Every taboo subject should be allowed to be discussed and fiercely debated, not recognised or officially sanctioned. People who find this problematic too can express their criticism. It suffices to say that sensitivity of an issue should not be the reason for censoring it in any way.

Arguments out of ignorance and arrogance

One lesser discussed aspect of this issue is that, whether we agree or disagree with them,APSC has raised questions on sociological issues. A good percentage of the institute’s science and technology community displays a certain amount of smugness in dealing with sociological questions. Especially if they are connected to caste, gender, sexuality, religion and politics. Although most students and faculty members are highly competent in their own domains they somehow assume, without bothering to read and understand the underlying issues, that their opinions are as correct and valid in such sociological questions. I am sure that I would protest if a pastor who has not worked in fluid dynamics shows the audacity to claim that Navier Stokes Equations are rubbish, because of some arcane theological reason or because his observations suggest so. This is often the case with many undergraduates, research scholars and even faculty from science or engineering background when it comes to discussing caste or gender. Of course, this ignorance could well be mutual, if and when the Humanities and Social Science students or faculty discusses scientific or technological questions. But being a predominately technological institute the balance is loaded in favour of the engineering departments. And trust me, the highly vitriolic attacks targeting HSS is not just a coincidence but a combination of ignorance and arrogance on sociological issues.

Where should we stand?

Now that the issue has subdued, it is important that we, the IIT Madras community, do an introspection. I suggest that the question should be, what do we hope to become – protectionist campus, where status-quo is always held sacred, or a vibrant one where ideas are contested? It is in this context that I disagree with many well intended people who have argued that institute does have that ample dissenting space and it was all about a few fringe groups making unnecessary issues.I would rather stand with this statement by a Masters student, I came across in social media: “the ‘liberal spaces’ in our campus are interstitial in nature. They exist because they are not policed. And not because the institute in general is ‘liberal’” . As a liberal, an ardent advocate of free expression (even unpopular ones that I detest of), I believe that. If not for anything else, the institute should at least take into account of the changing society. There is a democratisation process at work and this is reflected in the composition of student body and their perspectives. Most importantly it should not let down a future society by curbing discourses on socio-political issues today, in any form- even the most unpopular ones.

When universal adult franchise was introduced in an utterly poor and illiterate country which had just received its self rule, in 1950, virtually the whole world called it the greatest gamble in history. All of us are products of that gamble and I believe it has fared well and gave rich dividends for all the faults it still has. The trust deficit between the administration and some students, when it comes to giving full rights to expression and dissent is centred around such an apprehension. Will they overdo it? Will there be fights and media uproars? I believe that this is misplaced. In my opinion, we care far too much about culture, traditions and etiquettes than for understanding ideas. Culture is a relative and subjective term. We will acquire maturity only when we give freedoms and responsibilities that are not curtailed by touchy-vouchy sensitivities. I dream of the campus which is mature, vibrant and engaging rather than just being cultured and polite. While I do not advocate usage of vulgar language or hate speech, maturity is in ignoring such expressions with the contempt it deserves and discussing the underpinning ideas, if any.

The future of dissent: My take on the IIT Madras controversy

4 06 2015

For the uninitiated, IIT Madras de-recognised a student forum called Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, after a group of anonymous people send a letter to MHRD which resulted in MHRD seeking comments from the Director about the allegations raised in the anonymous letter. This created a huge controversy, the waves of which are still in the air as I write this. The student body of IIT Madras, created a survey seeking opinions of the General Student Body (consisting of all IIT Madras students and research scholars) on this matter. This is an edited version of a letter I had send to a responsible student body member after the survey was delayered. I am publishing this to declare my stand on the issue.

I am writing to you in the capacity of an IITM research scholar as well as an active member of an independent club/forum – QUEST.I would like to register a strong note of dissent and protest against the survey being conducted to seek opinions on APSC and the issues related to that.

At the outset let me give a brief description of the independent forum that I claim to be a member of. QUEST is an association of students, faculty, alumni and people associated in various other capacities with the institute, for promoting scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform, in accordance with the Article 51A(h) of the Constitution of India. We are a group of Atheists, Agnostics, Rationalists, Skeptics, Humanists and other free thinkers, who have resolved to come to a common platform in order to defend secular values. Our major priorities shall be to encourage informed debates, question superstition and irrationality wherever it produces harm and to enhance our own understanding about both the material universe and the world of ideas. As an association we shall remain politically non-partisan, although our individual members shall have every right to support political or social ideologies they choose in their personal capacities. You can read more about our views and some of the events from this not-yet-complete webpage/blog.

I would not like to make comments about the institute’s decision with regard to ‘de-recognising’ APSC and the technicalities involved in it. Having said that, the manner in which the issue has panned out worries me a lot. It is in this context that I find your survey questionnaire extremely inappropriate and a setting a dangerous precedent. Let me try to explain, why I think so.

I am sure that you are aware that there is a major difference between a liberal democracy and majoritarianism. Nobody can, or should,legislate up on fundamental rights of a group or individual. Think about it, will you allow a mob to lynch a person or few people,accused to have committed some crime, just because 95 out of the 100 people present over there agrees with it? What is the difference between IIT Madras SAC and a Khap panchayat, if we are to follow this kind of a mob justice?

We must tread carefully over this line. I request you to use your best judgement, be fiercely independent and think about all dimensions before concluding, for such is the weight of responsibility up on your shoulders. Please ask yourself a 100 times before succumbing to opinions or pressures. The group in question is very likely to be not the favourite of the IITM GSB. But you must ask yourself why it is so? Is the GSB being analytical and objective in coming to that conclusion? Does its caste and class composition have a major impact on this?

You must understand that Ambedkar is a hero, and for good reasons,for Dalits and marginalised communities who are thoroughly under-represented even in our institute. When the majority, including a person like me, are from privileged castes and classes, do we really expect people to take a fair view on the ideals or functioning of this club? Add to this the fact that Dalits are discriminated in several ways inside this campus, and most of us are unaware of many subtle forms of discriminations. We can disagree with them on the language they chose or some of their ideals. But would you really blame them for having a shrill voice? The point is that, we hardly think from their shoes, and greater responsibility lies with the dominant and privileged mass.

As a non-believer and secular humanist, I and many members of our group often fall in such situations. If you were to ask whether skeptics such as us should function within this institute, what answer do you expect from the GSB? Forget us, do you think people will use their fair and rational sense if the question were to be whether Muslims should pray inside the Institute? Remember we are an institute with three functioning temples and people conduct poojas all time.Still in a politically charged atmosphere do you think the majority of these people might consider it fair game for a different set of people? You might very well be disappointed, if you were to believe so. We as a group are highly critical of religions, but we would not dream about discriminating religious people for what they are or them speaking their minds out. We might disagree but never wish to silence them. Unfortunately, we have not been accorded this courtesy most of the times. I would not like elaborate up on this further. I wish you understand that unpopular opinions too are opinions. If people are to judge the validity of opinions by sentimental engagements we are doomed as an institution.

Given the context, I am surprised as to what do you intend to show with an IITM GSB survey? Have you thought about the fall out of this precedent? Tomorrow, if another issue happens will you just ask the GSB again whether the new group in question should function? Will you ask which festivals should be allowed to be celebrated in our public spaces? And what next tomorrow?

I am sure that you must have gone through Field Medalist and Harvard Professor, Dr.David Mumford’s letter to the Director of our institute. Although I wouldn’t even dream to compare, let me just mention that I too stand by those words. More so, because this has got definite implications on the future of free expression inside our institute. All of us find unpleasant and disagreeable things in our surroundings. It is important how we go about dealing with such things. It is a historical fact that bans or silencing of ideas does not really work. Take this incident itself, it was the action taken by the institute that gave this group wide publicity through out the nation. As a professor from one of our neighbouring institutes remarked, “thanks to IITM, (E. V. Ramaswamy) Periyar is famous all over India“.

As a representative it is your duty to ensure that our institute has a space to dissent, and fearlessly dissent. There is no freedom in allowing expressions which all of us agree to or are comfortable with. It is the dissenting speech that needs protection. We are a university. And please make sure that as a student’s representative, we act like one. The very idea of a university is to allow every kind of blasphemous speech . Otherwise it ceases to be one. Every bit of expression which is not prima facially harm intended or against the law of the land, should be protected. This is to remind you that future legislations in the SAC or BoS should reflect this mature attitude. I request you to be not a party to any present or future attempt to build walls and artificial comfort zones for expression, in which there are selected and privileged ones.

Let me narrate you an incident. During the last programme we had conducted, which happened to be an open panel debate on ‘Is secularism in India a failure?’, a member of the audience made quite a few bigoted comments targeting Muslims. The same person wanted us to conduct a discussion on ‘Reservations and Merit’, with a clear statement that he thought reservations are against merit. Almost the entire audience found this person’s words tending to hate speech and definitely bigoted, but nobody used cat calls and hoots to silence him. Many engaged with him. Being the moderator, my only concern was that people should back up their claims and should not make declarative statements out of thin air. Not even once did it turn into a chaotic guerilla war. The ability to discuss ideas, even reprehensible and prejudiced ones, is what makes us qualify to be a place of higher education. I do believe that we have that capacity, even if there might be a few rotten apples.

To conclude, my request to you is to not use such a survey as an argument or even evidence for the appropriateness or the lack of it, of any club or forum. This is a lynch mob justice. What we need is a well thought, coherent and consistent set of guidelines for the functioning of clubs. The existing guidelines are unfortunately too narrowly interpreted. It should reflect the spirit of university that we aspire to be. It should allow fearless dissent and promote a culture of debate. I look forward to you to stand up as a voice of reason, and healthy democracy.

The ‘untouchable’ lightness of reality

4 12 2014

My opinion piece on the controversy that followed the latest IHDS-II caste survey results on ‘untouchability’. Essentially a rebuttal to the “survey methodology was questionable” and “project to malign Hinduism” arguments from the Hindu right-wing libertarian quarters has been published at Bodhi Commons. You can read it here.

A Case for Memory Against Forgetance

13 02 2014

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting

Milan Kundera

There is an interesting petition circulated in social media addressing the director of IIT Madras to stop inviting people like Teesta Setalvad. (I have already posted my version of the chain of events that happened there)  I liked the like, and could not help but laugh for a few seconds. It accuses among other things, ideological bias and that the person in question has dubious credentials. Now, I do not intend to write any rebuttal to this petition and would like to support the free expression of opinions, even the silly ones. Also it is a known fact that people with a definite Hindutva ideology have had given several lectures in my own institution, and continue to do so. In fact, I am not worried about any kind of ideology question as long as a person talks sense, and is ready to engage in a proper discussion. I suspect this petition comes from the frustration of a few people, because they were unable to cause damage despite, the unruly behaviour demonstrated during question and answer (Q & A) session that followed Teesta’s lecture. But this is not my concern as there is a much bigger problem that lurks above us like the sword of Damocles. It is the tone, tenure, presumptions and sheer dehumanised rot, that oozed out from some of the questions that were raised during the Q & A. I write this post to address only one question- why we should never stop to forget such genocidal acts like Delhi 1984, Kashmir 1989, Bombay 1993 and Gujarat 2002, among many others which have plagued our existence as a nation.

All reputed human right activists, especially those who work for inter communal harmony and for delivering justice to the under dog, have invariably been demonised by a section of jingoists from the majority group. Take the case of Asma Jahangir from Pakistan. She has remained a crusader for delivering basic human rights to Hindu minority in her country. The ones who dislike and spread hatred against her are so predictable. Does that ring a bell? Or do remember what Franklin D. Roosvelt said “I ask you to judge me by the enemies I have made“.

It is often said that the most touching and tragic picture from Mahabharata is Gandhari’s trip to Kurukshetra after the war. A mother who has remained  blind voluntarily ever since her marriage, identifies the bodies of her sons and grand sons from their dismembered parts. Many poets, fiction writers and painters have chronicled this, ever since. Every war, whatever be the ideals for which it will be fought, however principled the protagonists happened to be, will invariably end up in a heap of dismembered human bodies, churning out  a feast for the hawks, while an ocean of sorrow for the beloved ones. There are no just wars. Let us pause for a while and ask this question- what did Mahabharata teach us? The glory of doing a so-called duty even if it involves murder, or that there can be no glory in such horrendous acts of violence? Now, take out the ethical dilemma pertaining to dharma and see a communal riot with a naked eye. How many Gandhari’s, sung and unsung, roamed in those killing fields? How many children? How many women raped and tortured? How many lives, families and dreams shattered?  If these gory images makes you feel uncomfortable, let me remind you there is a reason why Gandhari vilap is the  most unforgettable part from our epic. And it is not the brutality of that image, but because it serves as the best reminder to the horrors of such acts of violence;  why they should never happen.

If according to Bible, men cannot live with bread alone, so it applies to wealth or the new found slogan- development. I am not being cynical here for there is no denying that development is important. But this is to suggest that no amount of economic prosperity is a substitute to justice. In a constitutional democracy it needs to come from the very institutions that promises to deliver it. Most victims of communal riots that happened in India ever since Independence are denied of exactly that- justice. Why is that so? Now, here is where we need to understand the situation which is pretty much the same in most developing countries.

Institutional bias is an alien term for most people belonging to a majority or the dominant community, in any nation. In India, this translates to the upper caste, upper class, heterosexual  Hindu men. This becomes Sunni Muslim men in Pakistan or Bangladesh. For people who do not belong to that category, it is a fact of life that they face almost everywhere, every time. During such acts of madness as a communal riot, the vulnerable is always at the receiving end. In addition to this, the cases are not often reported or when they insist, their narratives are labelled as fictional or biased. This has happened invariably during every instance of communal violence, some at a larger scale than others. The point our Hindutva brethren never understand or pretend to ignore, even while using the Hindus of Pakistan or Bangladesh card is that their henchmen is doing exactly the same as their Muslim counterparts in these countries do.

One important aspect of such crimes is that lack of justice as a precedent emboldens future crimes. Had the victims of Delhi 1984 riots -the Sikhs- received justice, the Kashmiri pandits been able to return to their home in peace, had victims of Bombay 1993 – the Muslims- received justice, at least the Sri Krishna Commission which gave a thorough report about the abuse of state power been acted up on, there would have been no Gujarat 2002. At least, nothing of that scale. This fact has been reiterated by many human rights organisations throughout India. The involvement of the state apparatus, policemen helping the rioters etc. are not isolated incidents.These have been reported in many other riots that happened in our subcontinent. That includes the anti-Ahammadiya riots, or the recent anti-Shia violence in Pakistan, the genocide in the then East Pakistan before the 1971 war, or the recent incidents of fundamentalists targeting minorities in the present day Bangladesh.

Last but not the least, if there are people who believe that such acts should be left alone, a word to them. If they believe in let the wounds heal, I would advice them to think why we know so much about Holocaust. After all, it happened in 1940’s. Why are films or novels with its backdrop still reappearing? Is it some sadistic pleasure? Some do argue that it is because of lobbies, but the accurate answer in my opinion still remains no. It lies in a simple idea- lest we forget. Those crimes were not committed by aliens from space, but by people, often then respected ones. It is a reminder about our immense ability to get into a narrow identity trap and create horrific destruction. It is a reminder that it was we who failed. And this is not just about a Holocaust.There were crimes of the same or larger magnitude which have not been acknowledged so far and they should be.

I would like to end with these beautiful lines by the Pakistani Urdu poet, revolutionary and an uncompromising humanitarian- Habib Jalib. It is from the poem Dastoor, and speaks about the khule jhoot or naked lie that the sectarian violence abetted by the state was all over, and the wounds were healing.

“Phool shaakhon pe khilne lagey” tum kaho,
“Jaam rindon ko milne lagey” tum kaho,
“Chaak seenon kay silne lagey” tum kaho,
Iss khule jhooth ko,
Zehn ki loot ko,
Main nahein maanta,
Main nahein jaanta.

Who is afraid of Teesta Setalvad?

13 02 2014

The sane report

Teesta Setalvad gave a talk at Central Lecture Theatre (CLT), Indian Institute of Technology Madras, on February 10, 2014, between 5:30 and 7:00 PM. The question and answer session that followed was a pandemonium. A few people, probably with a Hindu right-wing background, tried to disrupt the programme by not allowing her to complete her answers. Their behaviour was not just indecent, but also highly undemocratic in denying any opposing view a space. The whole idea behind the drama was disruption rather than rational engagement to prove her wrong. Once they did not succeed, they have started a cry baby online petition urging the director to stop inviting people like Teesta. This is my account of things that happened there. I am not taking a position that there cannot be anything wrong on Teesta’s side with respect to the allegations levelled against her, for there is no way of knowing the facts for sure. But if we are to boycott people who have an otherwise long-standing proven track record, more than 90% of the politicians should never give a lecture in a university. None of the industrial giants or media mavericks can be eligible by that count. Therefore, my own position is that rather than censuring people or disrupting an engagement, people should learn to participate in a battle of ideas, no matter what the political inclinations are.

The insane report or who is afraid of Teesta Setalvad

Disclaimer:  Factual details are correct to the best of my knowledge and belief, while the interpretations and comments are matters of opinion. There is no intention to personally insult any individual and therefore I have refrained from taking names. But if the comments have somehow hurt the convictions or ideologies of any person or group, it is entirely intentional.

I live at a place where (for many) vanity level in the blood shoots up the moment you join. I’m not talking just about the garden variety vanity that usually comes from the privileged class or caste background or ideological hegemony. This is unique in the sense that a notion of intellectual superiority against and within the group, is so systematically cultivated, that many are fond of being pampered as the cream of the nation and a few among them take it seriously for no apparent reason. While, it is possible (and very likely to be true) that by and large IITians might have better technical skills, high ambition and confidence, the intellectual superiority if anything is a humbug. But then, as engineers we have every right to ask proof and so it should be. I welcome you to battle ground CLT. The match was between, the ones I would like to call as Self-proclaimed Samskaric Spartans (SSS), a well organised team of 15-20 angry young IIT men (and women*), and Teesta Setalvad, who I believe do not need an introduction. It was an uneven match. I mean, to be fair these hyper masculine alphas (and female comrades, if at all any) will not be a match to this lone crusader woman activist, even if they were 100 in number and much more samskaric, just  short of being athi-samskaric, i.e manhandling.

The Spartans, i.e. SSS, who do not have any connection with an entirely cultural organisation which has the last two letters in common with them, came to the venue early enough and spread out. Their punctuality is admirable should I say. The second thing which gave rest of us goosebumps was the perfect discipline that they maintained through out. After asking a question, they swarmed like bees pestering and making loud, often irrelevant and false, comments at will without letting the speaker complete her answer. Intimidation and bullying was the name of the game. These self-appointed generals of the king-to-be-crowned in what we were not aware till then as a court marshal room, was so sure about themselves, and apparently thought  that their superior sense of knowledge and justice, not to forget sanskar, was the only thing worthy of being shouted at will. After all, her answers are irrelevant!  She is only an extra mural lecture speaker, an invited guest, and how dare she question their convictions so openly and triumphantly? And yeah, Modi is an entirely non-partisan, champion of development (whatever that means) and even a democrat!

There was something really interesting going on. All of them had come up with a few specific questions on many points which were continuously used against her, presumably by her opponents. That was fair enough. But when she replied to each of their questions up to the point, the anger of the cream of the  nation just went up. I think these were some of the genuine questions going on in their minds.

  • Despite our best efforts, how dare you not get intimidated by our bullying?
  • How dare you answer our questions head on? Aren’t you a woman? As per Bharateeya samskriti, women should not counter question men!
  •  How dare you ask questions about our Bhagawan Modiji? Of course, we can ask any question about you and consider you shit!
  • We being the majority, should have the right to dictate terms in every engagement. If not, that is foul even if we are wrong. Actually, especially if we are wrong! How dare you challenge this status quo?

The match, as it turned out, was no match at all. The woman beat a bunch of hooligans like a cake walk. She did have crowd support, but would have done just as well without that. The behaviour of the SSS was so amazing that some of the senior professors pleaded to behave in a civilised manner. Well, actually not all of them. One did comment that  it seemed not all of us were civilised. And I’ll tell you that he was not referring to Teesta or the majority which maintained decorum and cheered her for the sharp rebuttals.

This was one direct encounter with fascism. I mean, if you could expect this from the so-called cream of the nation, why complaint about the behaviour of some monkey army or trisul dharis. But in the end, it also served as an eye opener for a few confused people. Yes, we really got a glimpse of how things might be done in the reign of their Bhagwan. Shutting down dissent, intimidation, ideology on steroids and absolute lack of rational capacity to engage.

After the battle, our Spartans were visibly tired but nonetheless whining non-stop. One of the stalwarts commented that he did not accept our definition of minority. I thought about it for a while. Now I understood, what his problem was. I wish, an MA student should have replied

What if we don’t agree with your Navier-Stokes equations? Does it make any less correct? Who gives a damn whether you agree with the definition of minority? Are you even qualified or well read to make an alternative yet intelligent definition? When you have loads of presumptions and nonsense drilled into brain through propaganda, no matter where you get your degree from, you are just an idiot. At least, show some capacity to engage in a dialogue.”

For the day’s game it was Teesta – 10, Hooligans (SSS)  – 0. But, I’m more interested in the message she passed on.  Never stop the resistance. If we do, it is not just us but the future generations which will die out of this cancer of communalism. And ever since the events unfolded, I have been asking this question- who is afraid of Teesta Setalvad?

*- Women supporter/s were present according to some, but disputed by others. Not sure.