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. 🙂

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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 ‘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.





India’s own Wehrmacht and their massihah

27 07 2013

Mark Twain, in his familiar sardonic tone, had noted long ago to never underestimate the power of stupid people in large numbers. Well of course, one could go on arguing whether such a condescending language was really warranted or that he was less than charitable in mocking the political or social processes that goes on in a country. If anything, the incidents that have been rolling on news media during the past few months, does suggest a discrete possibility that Mark Twain’s words might turn prophetic. Yes, I’m describing the Modi mania going on at the national stage.

First of all, let me make one thing clear. I have nothing against people discussing the credentials, achievements or shortcomings of this person, or any politician for that matter, passionately arguing for or against. That is part and participle of a political process. But the circus, allegedly put up by his able marketing team, has went ahead challenging every notion of common sense and rationality expected in an informed election campaign. Baba Saheb Ambedkar while handing over our constitution, had long warned that in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship. When criticisms or contrarian views are met with shocking euphemisms, to the extend of applying the binary logic that you are either with Modi or have to be an anti-national, we have to realize that there is something seriously wrong here. After the eye wash with (wrong)statistics, the Ramboesque feats claimed during the Uttrakhand flood and then denied, the  newly mopped up visa controversy, an unwarranted diatribe against Amartya Sen over his opinion by a loyal member of this league of extra-ordinary gentlemen and then regretted, we get a rough picture of what is in the store. To put it blunt, what goes on is not just a political campaign based on a personality cult, and make no mistake about it- it is a fan club in a political backdrop.   And for that very reason, we shouldn’t expect reasoned arguments or freedom of conscience to differ. It is simple not in the offing for the internet wehrmacht is ever ready for the offensive if fuhrer is portrayed in anything less than glorious terms.

It has long been argued, and quite convincingly, that the rise of Hindutva brigade has a got direct psychological link to the crisis of Indian masculinity. Even more so is the new phenomena of NaMo fan club. It is an old story, often repeated as tragedy and farce, the one involving a so-called  “un-corruptable”  man of action, a nationalist with little regard for the democratic etiquettes, and with a proclaimed agenda of development, all the while carrying a baggage of contempt to hostility towards minority groups. These alpha males have come in various garbs in several nations, some more destructive than others. They are loved by a majority of the dominant pure nationals, which in the Indian context translates to predominantly upper caste, middle/upper class, urban/semi urban, Hindu men. They often share a common sentiment, the mild version of which is the need for a disciplinarian, nationalist and fast track administrator, while the strong version might extend to an outright xenophobe whose wet dreams are soaked in militarist adventurism. And of course, how can you not mention it- the corporates love him for he is their own massihah who has promised to bring order in the labour force, economic stability and let markets have their say. The way it is going, the parallels to the time before the creation of the third Reich are unmistakeable, if not as intense.

On a realistic note, NaMo might just be a façade that will last up to an year into his rule. He might not get the arithmetic right this time and will have to wait for the fall of a coalition. And given the diversity of India’s political terrain, he might have to cut down his own self-obsession and go for compromises to stay in power and/or limelight. I certainly hope so. But given the NDA regime’s track record in re-writing history textbooks, introducing unscientific disciplines like astrology into universities and the celebration of militarism, this one might even go the extra yard. It is hard to imagine him successfully implementing any final solution as far as Muslims or dissenters are concerned, thanks to India’s constitution. Yet, my dear fellow citizens, especially the members of the fan club, the wehrmacht, be very worried. As it is often said, be careful what you wish for you just might get it. In the meantime, as the show goes on, just take a note of this classic confession from the film Judgement at Nuremberg





IITs and higher education- It is not all about money, honey!

7 06 2013

The mood at IIT Madras is by and large pensive. Some of the students are agitated and everybody is concerned about their future. The hostel seat rent, gymkhana fee and the medical insurance fee have all gone up. The effective fee hike (tuition + living expenses)for PG students and research scholars comes to 40% and the new B.Tech’s will have to pay Rs. 90K as annual tuition fee in place of Rs. 50K. The increase is applicable to all courses in more or less the same proportions. But there are more reasons for apprehension than a one time fee hike. The officials have categorically told that the hostel seat rent will be further increased in the coming semesters. The Kakodkar committee report titled ‘Taking IITs to Excellence and Greater Relevance’, has proposed to raise the UG fee to the level of Rs. 2.5 lakhs per annum, while there is a lot of ambiguity with respect to the post-graduate fee and support. Further more, the case of economically backward students, which by the way are people who cannot afford to raise approx. 12 lakhs over the four years for an education (that would be more than 95% of Indians), is addressed with wishful thinking, assurances and in my opinion, a dangerous idea of involving banks, loans and debt.

Image

Scenes from the protest march conducted by IITM students against fee-hike and privatization of higher education.

A panel discussion on the broader issue of privatization of higher education was held on 6th June, 2013 with Dr. Rahul Sidharthan from IMSc, Chennai, Dr. Venkitesh Artreya, former HoD Economics, Bharatidasan university (also an IIT alumnus from the 64′-69′ batch) and Mr. Jimraj Milton, lawyer and social activist. I was fortunate enough to be the moderator, whose role was limited to explaining the context of the discussion, introducing the speakers and laying down the guidelines for the discussion. Rahul Sidharthan has given a more or less fair summary of the discussion along with his views in his blog. I thank him for initiating such a discussion in the cyber space. Barring a few emotional responses, rhetoric and out of context statements (which were to be expected given that students were very much concerned), it was an open exchange of views. In deed, we need more of such exchanges touching up on various aspects of education (both basic and higher), health, science and technology policy etc. It is especially relevant given that we live at a time when Parliamentary discussions are considered nuisance by the executive and all important policy discussions are imposed without a proper debate. It is a hope against hope to be able to challenge this manufactured consensus. But one has to try.

The level of sympathy for IIT students in issues like fee-hikes among the public is quite low. It is understandable given the picture painted about these holy cows, and even justifiable to the extend that many, if not all, get a free ride for their life because of the IIT tag and many among them apparently do not contribute to the society that gave them these riches. This is not a new question either. The term brain drain has been there in vocabulary since a long time. Given the nature of people at large, moving to greener pastures are to be expected in any given system for idealists will always be a small percentage. But one should not confuse between issues here; making IITs self-financed and more dependent on the forces of capital is neither the solution to the problem of so-called brain drain nor going to bring excellence. It is this aspect that I would like to highlight through this post, which hopefully will be one of the many posts to be published about this issue.

As often said, houses are more than bricks and mortar, institutions are more than the money invested. If it were, as Dr. Rahul Sidharthan himself pointed out in his blog, private universities must have out smarted any centrally funded Indian universities all of which are pygmies by any international yard stick, by now. The reputation of institutions are built by its faculty, alumni and intellectual contributions. If IITs retain a reputation, however meagre or far from desirable, it is because they are by and large the only technological institutes in the country which have made headway in delivering quality education. If the aim of the Kakodkar committee report was to increase quality, increased fee from students does not make any sense since it will definitely discourage most people from the lower middle class and everyone from the working class. The mushrooming of expensive IIT coaching institutes is definitely an issue that need to be tackled and it is long due by now. This is a major issue both from the point of equity – i.e. only those who are able to afford an expensive coaching is likely to get into IIT – as well as quality – coached students have a better chance to make into IITs, over several naturally intelligent people with good aptitude. But how do we do it- by asking people to pay more?

Let us just look at the scenario logically. After such drastic fee-hikes, the people with more than, say, Rs. 10 lakh per annum will still send their wards to those expensive coaching centers. Their business might be affected, but only marginally. The dreamy middle classers will work harder and mostly perish. The ones who go for coaching will face a double jeopardy. Unless the pattern of exams changes drastically so that coaching will hardly help, the people who end up in IITs would  have spend as much money on coaching, but the parental income range of the incoming students will have a sharp upward shift. So we will have an exclusive club of elite Indians with very few lower middle class and virtually no one from the working class. It is argued that IIT UG’s come mostly from elite and upper middle class families and now, they will be much more exclusive.

Undergraduate education at IIT has a huge market for sure. But I doubt whether the committee or the people who support such astronomical fee-structures in a country where the per-capita income is Rs. 53K (which even by purchasing power parity calculation is less than 1/13 th of USA) have thought about the access to education question. Let us take a comparison between the proposed IIT fee structure and in-state fees charged by much superior state universities in US – University of California, Berkeley & Purdue university.

IITs

UCB

Purdue

Tuition fee

$13,213*

$12,946

$11,792

State PCI

$3608

$22,711

$28,783

* The value arrived at a conversion rate of Rs. 56 per dollar and considering the fact that PCI of $1219 translates to $3608 in purchasing power parity terms.

Note that we have not taken into account the superior quality of education that UCB and Purdue provides. If I just move to the European continent, the picture itself changes drastically. We have countries like Germany where higher education is virtually free. One might argue that many US universities give cross subsidy by charging more up on out-of-state and international students. Even then, the fee as fraction of income level is much lower than the IIT scenario. Thus, even by the capitalist economy standards this is an abnormally excessive fee. Much more than that, the writing on the wall is clear- the elite institution should be exclusively for the elite Indians!

Does increasing fee and being “self-sufficient” in operational expenditures help improve quality? Remember, inside the institution we still have the same people doing same things. Attitudes and abilities does not change with source of funding and there is no incentive for the “fee paying” students to demand more since they have already reached what is believed to be the pinnacle of excellence in Indian system. If the argument is that foreign universities will come up with campuses in India and that will create competition, it should be worth while to see how well the satellite campuses of international universities have performed. Most of them thrive only based on the reputation of their main campus- i.e. the value of the brand name and nothing else. There is no incentive to do advanced university research in India primarily because of the lack of a strong industrial R&D, which is not going to emerge any time soon. In every country, fundamental research is mostly funded by the government and unless that funding goes up, we are nowhere in picture.

Most importantly, this is not a mere question of money, it is a question of principle. How do we value education? Is it a private good or a public good? While we can and should find ways to avoid free riders, increasing the fee is not the way forward. It is unfortunate that people suggest ‘soft loans’ or ‘super loans’ as solutions. As Prof. Milind Brahme opined during the panel discussion , you are coercing people into a system that most people morally detest. This is not just entrapping future generations of students, but clipping their imagination and creativity for ever. More over, going by the Indian experience, this is just the tip of the iceberg. If government is ready to divorce IITs, the situation in none of the state or centrally funded universities is going to be different in times to come.

To be continued …..