Thursday, September 30, 2010

Ram Janmasthan is in Ayodhya: A split verdict for national unity

By John Cheeran
Three judge Allahabad bench of Lucknow High Court has given a split verdict for national unity. The Ramajanmabhumi-Babri Masjid disputed land is to be divided into three parts --- Sunni Waqf Board, Nirmohi Akhara and Hindus – in what can be interpreted as an out-of-the-box judgment. Judges Sharma, Sudhir Agarwal and SU Khan delivered three separate judgments on the title dispute.
The bench rejected the claims of Sunni Waqf board and Nirmohi Akhara but in a reconciliatory gesture said that the land will be divided in three.
The most significant decision of the bench is that it affirms the place below the central dome of the disputed stricture is the birthplace of Ram. It also said prior to the construction of Babri Masjid in 1528, there was a temple structure at the site but it cannot be definitively said whether it was a Ram temple. The bench relied on the evidence presented by the Archeological Survey of India for this.
What emerges is that the bench has clearly gone beyond the brief given to it when one considers the fact that it pronounced that the place is Ramjanmasthan. It has apparently arrived at this decision considering the majority community’s faith and available evidence such as the ruins of a temple.
It also upheld the installation of Ram idols into the Babri Masjid on December 22, 23, 1949, arguing that there never was a Masjid to begin with at Ramjanmabhumi. The bench said as per the Islamic tenets a mosque will not have legitimacy if it is built over an existing place of worship by destroying it.
The court may have also taken into consideration the observation made by Justice JS Verma in 1994 that in Islam, Muslims can offers prayers at any place and therefore a mosque is not place that cannot be taken over by the state, claiming sanctity.
Of course, in a nutshell, the judgment of Allahabad Bench is a vindication of the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the stance taken by the Bharatiya Janata Party.
It remains to be seen whether Indian Muslims will fight the legal battle and ensure that the long festering wound does not get any salve at all.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The most famous mikes in Delhi now…

By John Cheeran
Who the hell are Mike Fennell and Mike Hooper?
Are they the new mikes for Commonwealth imperialism?
Are they George VI?
To order, shove and shout against Indians?
The ruckus created around two aspects -- of security and hygiene – by these two as New Delhi races towards hosting the Commonwealth Games is incredible. It has been spearheaded by two bureaucrats from Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF).
At most places, if you had perceived a problem of hospitality, you would not hold press conferences to castigate the hosts. There are many other ways to fix such issues. Why such niceties were not observed by Mikes?
And who are these gentlemen to issue deadlines to the Indian government? IANS reports that Fennell had given India a 24-hour deadline to clean up the Games Village!
The fact of the matter remains that Australian cricketers are currently in India. People do fly down to Delhi all corners of world despite the threats of Dengue, lax security, and floods. And dust.
If Ponting and his men can play in India, what’s the problem with rest of the Australian athletes? Ponting knows all these years he has been given regal hospitality wherever he has gone in India. May be better than Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra, for that matter.
So, again, for whose common cause are Mikes are shouting from rooftop?
And why do we, especially our journalists, fret about national calamity and shame?
It’s time to get out of Commonwealth.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Why is this national breast-beating over Commonwealth Games?

By John Cheeran

Ah! The sound of national breast-beating over the conduct of Commonwealth Games has turned me deaf.
Yes, we have goofed up certain things. Things could have been done better. Rs70,000 crore could have been put to better use.
But what has happened?
There is indignation and outcry from certain quarters. It is quite sad the outcry has been coming from the white supremacist and insular nations such as Australia, New Zealand, Scotland and England. They have been threatening over the last few days to pull out of the Commonwealth Games, citing a long list of reasons which includes inadequate security cover, poor hygiene and living conditions, etc.
Individual athletes have already announced their withdrawals, including Australia’s women’s world discus champion.
Lalit Bhanot, secretary of Amateur Athletic Federation of India and secretary of Commonwealth Games Organising Committee General secretary has a point when he spoke about different standards of cleanliness on Tuesday.
He may be wrong about standards of cleanliness.
But he is spot on when it comes to double standards.
India has a great tradition of hospitality. We also have infuriating approaches to getting things done which can unnerve others.
But the points – security and cleanliness – raised by white nations are merely points of posturing. Please remember, the kind of cleanliness and security these privileged class are quibbling over are 24x7 realities for people like you and me in New Delhi and elsewhere in Indian subcontinent. It also holds true for All the African nations, including South Africa.
Let me say this. This grandstanding of pulling out by a cabal of nations --- Australia, England, Scotland and New Zealand – is only that – grand standing.
Otherwise, it is going to be the end of Commonwealth as we know it.
But the most important guest for India, Pakistan, yes, they haven’t threatened us with a pullout, citing hygiene and security.
If there was any nation in the Commonwealth who should have used the current opportunity to settle political scores, it should have been Pakistan. But they are coming, amply explaining the point made by Bhanot the other day.
Everyone knows that no nation can afford to pull out of Commonwealth Games citing reasons such as security and hygiene. Montreal Olympics witnessed the massacre of Israeli athletes that did not turn Canada a sports pariah. People haven’t stopped flying into New York after 9/11.
But is there an assurance that terror won’t strike again the United States?
Just because of the collapse of a foot over bridge and false ceiling, it is juvenile of news organizations to cry SHAME, SHAME.
Let’s still cling onto to some reserve of self-respect and look at the brighter side. Yes, we will not have a large haul of medals. But let’s thank our political establishment for that. Imagine, following the Chinese model, turning our sports camps into gulags to produce champions to add to national luster.
Journalists are now comparing how China managed to stage Beijing Olympics with India’s amateurish efforts. Tonight I was told that venues for the 2010 Asian Games to be held in Guangzhou from November 12-27 is ready. But, then, in China, journalists will be invited only for the opening ceremony and will be given cues on when and where to clap their hands.
We, instead, have democracy. A third world democracy, that is. India has a different template even when it is going to put the rest of the world in it.
By the way, please understand that the comity of Commonwealth nations is too big than those who are making a hue and cry over the arrangements.
Today I went through the list of nations (as reported by AFP) that are scheduled to take part in the Delhi edition.
It is long. Be calm. The havoc is only on television studios. Cracks are on newspaper columns. Commonwealth Games is happening. Come on India.

Friday, September 17, 2010

KN Panikkar exposes fundamentalists in Kerala

By KN Panikkar in The HIndu

A lecturer with Newman College in the town of Thodupuzha in Kerala, T.J. Joseph, was brutally attacked on July 4, 2010, allegedly by members of a fundamentalist group. It was an act of retribution: Mr. Joseph had framed a question for an examination for his students in the college, which offended their religious sentiments. The punishment meted out by the aggrieved group was to chop off his palm: it was reminiscent of medieval practices.

The authorities of the college, apparently endorsing the claim of the fundamentalists, suspended the ‘delinquent' teacher and ordered an enquiry. The enquiry committee concluded that he had deliberately subscribed to an activity that promoted feelings of enmity between different communities/ religions.

The controversial question paper by itself had not lead to any manifest enmity between different religious communities, as the enquiry report had suspected. But the fundamentalists created a law and order situation by resorting to rioting.

Consequently, the lecturer was dismissed from service, and thus debarred from “future employment in any of the institutions maintained by or affiliated to the university.”

Mr. Joseph had had no record of communal bias or instigation during his career in the college. He is reported to have been a conscientious teacher with a rapport with students and cordial relations with colleagues: this is evident from the public testimony of students. To them his dismissal was thoroughly unexpected, and they struck work demanding his reinstatement. But the college authorities did not relent. They took the position that they would reconsider their action only if the Muslim community made an appeal to reinstate him, or the court issued an order to that effect. A highly irrational act was thus sought to be imbued with legal respectability and given a communal character.

This incident is symptomatic of the creeping influence of fundamentalism that has led to violence in the country at large and certain recent outbursts in Kerala. What has happened to Mr. Joseph is also indicative of the vulnerability of academic space and the authoritarian tendencies of certain managements of educational institutions in the State. Mr. Joseph almost lost a limb (it has since been reattached through a difficult surgical procedure) to the brutality of religious fundamentalism, and he has now been deprived of his job by an insensitive and inhumane college management. While the fundamentalists resorted to the act in order to terrorise the ‘deviants' and ensure that their religious fiats are carried out by all, the college management saw it as an opportunity to enforce discipline and to nip in the bud the influence of critical and rational thinking. Both actions are highly deplorable. Unfortunately, these have not led to a sufficiently strong reaction from the public.

It appears that there is ambiguity in the public mind about Mr. Joseph's own role. The reason is that the charge against him involves meddling with religious sentiments. Although new religions and sects emerge out of non-conformism and as a critique of the present, the established religions mostly see their interest to be linked with the status quo. That was perhaps why the Catholic Church was not moved by appeals to their humanitarian and philanthropic credentials. The Church has now issued a pastoral letter supporting and justifying the action of the college management. It is surprising that in a State that is surcharged by protests and a variety of public interest litigation processes, except for teachers' and students' organisations the liberal intelligentsia has not come forward in defence of Mr. Joseph.

The ‘crime' he committed was to frame a question by reproducing a conversation between God and ‘Muhammad' from a text written by film-maker P.T. Kunhi Mohammed, who is a believer. The ‘mistake' he made was to change the name of the character of a lunatic in the original, to ‘Muhammad.' The fundamentalist group was enraged by the use of the name of the Prophet.

Why Mr. Joseph changed the name is unknown. He is reported to have stated that he was not influenced by any religious reason but used a shorter version of Mr. Kunhi Mohammed's work. ‘Muhammad' is a popular name among Muslims, and there is nothing in the text of the question paper to suggest that it was the Prophet who was implied. Nor did it contain any critique of any religion — including Islam, Christianity and Hinduism.

But to a fundamentalist group that resorts to terror tactics as an instrument of coercion, it provided an opportunity to further its cause. Among Hindus, Rama and Krishna are popular names and are worshipped as incarnations of god. Imagine a situation in which a reference to these names, in literature or academic texts or in a question paper, is considered blasphemous! If this happens, soon writers will find it difficult to give a name to their characters.

That fundamentalists indulge in such irrational behaviour is not surprising. They still live in medieval times, and with hardly any respect for human values. But that cannot be expected from those who have taken the responsibility of imparting education to people. The authorities of Newman College where Mr. Joseph has taught for 25 years quickly took the questionable step of first suspending and then dismissing him — all in the name of communal harmony and secularism.

Unfortunately, they did not realise that the greatest threat to secularism and communal harmony is religious fundamentalism. That is why the management's offer to withdraw the dismissal orders if the Muslim community made an appeal for such a withdrawal, becomes self-contradictory. The management seems to have overlooked the fact that by doing so it was reinforcing the communal, and not secular, consciousness. What was done would only help legitimise the fundamentalist forces and not strengthen secularism, as the college authorities claim. In fact, they should have stood by Mr. Joseph and defended his academic freedom as a teacher. Instead, they compromised with fundamentalism and extended to it a helping hand — also sullying the Christian character of the institution.

It is high time that the managements of public-funded private institutions are brought under a democratic structure, so that healthy norms prevail in these institutions and higher education becomes accessible to larger sections of the population, including the poor. It is to be hoped that either through legal intervention or democratic struggles Mr. Joseph would be reinstated, or adequately compensated.

But the brutality of the fundamentalists on the one hand, and the irresponsibility of educational entrepreneurs on the other, have already vitiated the academic atmosphere. In order to overcome this situation, new steps are called for, both from the part of the government and civil society.

It also raises the larger, even if contentious, issue of the management of education in Kerala. Since 1984, the government, through a system of financial aid, meets the entire expenses towards payment of salary and maintenance of private colleges. The share of the management is meagre. What the managements typically do, however, is to milk these institutions through various means. It is common knowledge that most of these colleges indulge in corrupt practices, both in the matter of appointment of teachers and grant of admission to students. Since there is practically no control exercised by the government or the universities over aided institutions, many managements treat colleges as a source of income. Some of them also fatten their purses by conducting self- financing courses, utilising facilities created by public funds. The Central government has introduced in Parliament a Bill to prevent the prevalent unfair practices in the field of education. How far it will succeed in doing so is anybody's guess.

Religious fundamentalists are on the rise among Muslims and Hindus. Permitting them to influence the practices of education has long-term implications. The most dangerous possibility is the state of social and political consciousness such compromises would produce. Compromising with religious fundamentalism, as the authorities of Newman College have done, is likely to lead the country to Talibanism.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Why values should matter…

The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman writes..
“China and India have been catching up to America not only via cheap labor and currencies. They are catching us because they now have free markets like we do, education like we do, access to capital and technology like we do, but, most importantly, values like our Greatest Generation had. That is, a willingness to postpone gratification, invest for the future, work harder than the next guy and hold their kids to the highest expectations.
In a flat world where everyone has access to everything, values matter more than ever. Right now the Hindus and Confucians have more Protestant ethics than we do, and as long as that is the case we’ll be No. 11!

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Vagrants by Yiyun Li: A Review

By John Cheeran
People are the most dangerous animals in the world, says teacher Gu while recalling how his only daughter Shan was betrayed as a counter revolutionary by her boyfriend in the Chinese immigrant author Yiyun Li’s debut novel The Vagrants.
Living in a totalitarian state Gu cannot be blamed for losing faith in himself and those around him. Betrayals often come from the most intimate and beloved people in one’s life as the teacher realises. Gu, at the end of his tether, is still left guessing whether his first wife used him as an anticipatory bail if the revolution did not take off.
Between two executions Li tries to portray a picture of China coming to terms with the immediate aftermath of the end of Cultural Revolution in 1978.
The Vagrants, which won the Guardian’s First Book Award, promises a lot but fails to deliver in the end. The lack of a central character to build her story saps the energy from Li’s narrative.
You expect a certain kind of stories from a writer who has left behind a totalitarian state. It’s almost a habit now. In that context, much of what the US-based Li, 38, writes fits in with readers’ idea of a stifling atmosphere.
In Li’s China, God is Communist party. In Red Star school, young Tong is reminded of how much the Party cares for its children. “Everybody’s equally loved by the party, but when someone makes a mistake, just as when a child makes a mistake, the party will not let a single wrongdoer slip by.”
Not much of that situation has been changed, if you recall the kind of elaborate arrangements the Party made to prevent the Chinese converging on Tiananmen Square on the 20th anniversary of the suppression of the student protest last year. Till now, there has been no recrudescence of Tiananmen Square.
The Vagrants starts on a somber note. Li evocatively portrays the emotional trauma teacher Gu and his wife faces, preparing for the day of public denunciation and execution of their only daughter, Shan, condemned to death after being branded as a counter-revolutionary by the Party.
It is teacher Gu who shines through this bleak novel, despite his doubts and disappointments, putting counter revolutionaries such as Shan and Kai into the shade. Despite being a teacher revered by villagers, Gu, however, could not determine his daughter’s fortunes.
Shan, revolutionary-turned-counter-revolutionary, we watch only from a distance and get to know through the reminiscences of her parents.
The angst, in the aftermath of Shan’s execution, comes home to roost with Kai, the voice of the revolution. The big change and support that Kai and Jialin expected from Beijing never arrive and the protest fizzles out with another bullet.
In the end you agree with teacher Gu. The only way to live on, he had known most of his adulthood, was to focus on the small patch of life in front of one’s eyes.

Title: The Vagrants
Author: Yiyun Li
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Price: 7.99 pounds
Pages: 338

Thursday, September 02, 2010

No-ball troika from Pakistan: Presumed Innocent?

By John Cheeran
This is the month of Ramadan. Three Pakistani cricketers ---captain Salman Butt, fast bowlers Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Aamir -- on Thursday said they were innocent and the rest of the world, I mean, The News of The World is torturing them. May be, they are not lying.
Pakistan is a colourful nation and often that colour is blood red. I remember that during the last cricket World Cup in 2007, held in the West Indies, Pakistan’s coach Bob Woolmer was found murdered. The team manager, then faced with a moral crisis, said while facing the global media that he asked his players to swear on Koran, by placing their hands on the book, that they had no role to play in the most foul murder. There was no incriminating video footage in the West Indies.
Here in London, nailed by the video footage, no such exercises are coming forth. Now the tagline is Presumed Innocent. Till yesterday Butt, Aamir and Asif were seen smiling but now they have said they are not in a mental frame to play cricket.
They are not suspended by the Pakistan Cricket Board. They are not dropped. They have simply walked away from the centre.
To argue that a brilliant bowler such as Aamer was not the cause but the consequence of circumstances and should not be banned for life from the game, as former England captain Mike Atherton has argued, is nothing but sophistry.
When you stray from the line, batsmen punish you. When you err, you get punished. Till now cricketers accused of colluding with bookies could wriggle out since there was no evidence of having taken money for falling in line with the bookies.
Here, for the first time, players are caught on camera along with the bookie, of accepting money. But Imran Khan, that opportunist par excellence, now wants the brilliance of young Aamir to be protected. Match-fixing and spot-fixing, too, need martyrs, Imran. Aamir, if he is found to be guilty, deserves no place on a cricket field in any form of game. Ditto for Butt and Asif.
Cricket’s problems stem from the fact that its administrators lack the will to take impartial and tough decisions. They need to serve the game, not the petty power and personal equations with in the respective national boards.
The spirit of forgiving should take a back seat this Ramadan.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Freedom of choice comes with an emotional tax: Interview with Sheena Iyengar

By John Cheeran
No one asks better questions, or comes up with more intriguing answers, that’s how Malcolm Gladwell describes Sheena Iyengar, 40, a professor at the Columbia Business School, who has written the highly acclaimed book The Art of Choosing.
As a daughter of Indian immigrants, Iyengar had to make tough choices while growing up in United States.
When Iyengar was three years old, she was diagnosed with a rare form of retinitis pigmentos, an inherited disease of retinal degeneration. By 6th grade, Iyengar had lost the ability to read, and by 11th grade, she had lost her sight entirely and could only perceive light. When she was 13, her father died of a heart attack.
Despite such trying circumstances, Iyengar says she has chosen the big things in her life. During a visit to Bangalore, she speaks about the emotional tax that each one of us has to pay for the freedom of choice.

Excerpts from an interview:

Has this book far exceeded your expectations?

I didn’t really know what expectations to have. Yes, exceeded. It changed my life, actually. It really depends on your definition of exceed and expectations. Everything that has happened since the book has come out is positive. I’m generally a positive person.

Has life chosen you or you have chosen life?

I would say that the big things in life, to some extent, I have chosen. So much of our life is determined by what happens to us. The only choice we have is how we react.

Have you ever felt that your choices have been limited by your circumstances?

I think that’s true for everyone that our choices are based on our circumstances. When I applied for my PhD programme, I actually was thinking of becoming a clinical psychologist. And I went to my advisor when I was an undergrad. My professor wanted a list of schools I was applying to so that he would write a letter of recommendation. I gave him the list and he said he cannot write this letter until I put Stanford University on the list. Stanford didn’t have a clinical programme but since my professor insisted I put Stanford on the list. I wanted to go to Yale. I was told my some other professors that I have made it to Yale and they congratulated me. But I didn’t get the offer and kept waiting. And when I went to see my professor, the one who insisted on me adding Stanford to the list, said ‘Yale called me but I told them you don’t belong there.’ You need to go to Stanford, he told me. Then Stanford called and I went. That effectively changed my life.

Had you been living in India, would you have written this book?

Oh. I don’t know how to answer that question. Who knows what I would have been had I grown up in India. I don’t think I’m capable of figuring that out.

Do you believe in free will? In India, many believe that everything in life is pre-ordained. So do choices matter?

I do think choices matter. I don’t think you have free will about everything. I think from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed, or the moment you born till the moment you die, you are constantly being manipulated by circumstances, your family, friends, your government, no matter what it is, they are manipulating you, influencing you.

To go to the other side, and say you have no free will is also incorrect. If you consciously decide that something is important then you have the ability to veto the negative influence. I can say that, to a certain degree, I can exercise some degree of free will. I have the power to exercise my free will and say no or yes or do something different in certain situations.

Can beggars be choosers?

Yes. Why not? They make choices. They may have fewer choices. Certainly beggars have more constraints but everybody has the ability to make choices in the midst of constraints.

What’s more important -- having multiple choices or having information on whatever choices you have?

It is much more important to be able to understand how your choices differ. I could it put another way. The value of choice depends on your ability to perceive differences between the options.

Do you think Indians are ‘super thinkers’ when confronted with multiple choices in daily life?

No. I wouldn’t call them super thinkers. I do think that they have certain decision making methods. Indian women are more likely to, when picking out a sari, jewellery, do it in a group and get multiple opinions and reach a consensus.
That is probably how they better cope with the rise in a range of options. It seems consensus is the driving criteria for determining which is the choice you make.

For a society such as India what’s true—the more is less or the less is more?

I think if there is one thing the Indians can benefit from, in terms of thinking about choice, is how to create choice.
There is a lot more emphasis here on difficulties and limitations in Indian society. And sometimes, I think, that thwarts the ability to be creative. The less can be more if you are able to use those constraints to generate new and useful options.

Do you have any tips for Sophie as in Sophie’s Choice.

Aaaah. That’s what so terrible about that choice, right? Can you advise her anything? If you tell her not to choose the outcome is terrible. If you tell her to choose, the outcome is terrible.

What would you tell her?

I don’t think you can tell anybody what to do in that case.

Is choice a science or art?

It ultimately is an art. Science can help you become more skillful but in the end your ability to choose depends on your ability to balance the pros and cons, the possibilities and the limitations, the uncertainties, the contradictions. And so much of what makes the choice work out in the end is what you do with the choice you make.

Do you think your book will help one make better choices?

I hope so. That, certainly, is the intention behind the book.

What’s next for you?

It will take a few years for me to write another book. I may write about globalisation, something I teach about and research about. Or I might write about the psychology of money.

You write that freedom of choice comes with an emotional tax. Who pays it more, man or woman?

It does. In different ways in different domains. I don’t think one pays more tax than the other.

Is there anything else I should have asked you, which I haven’t?

No, I think that’s fine.
John Cheeran at Blogged