Archive for December, 2007

An Evening with Prof. Bhat

Prof. Chandrasekhar Bhat teaches Indian Diaspora at University of Hyderabad, from where I received my Masters of Arts degree in Sociology. I spent a wonderfully memerable evening with Prof. Bhat and his wife in Sentosa Island. He was visiting Kuala Lumpur for the Indian Diaspora Conference organised by GOPIO. He found some time to visit Singapore, where Amit ji and Rashmi ji gave me the opportunity to meet them and discuss about my time and experience in Hyderabad.


Will the Year 2008 be different?

January 1, of the year 2008 of the Julian-Gregorian calendar will be just another day in the steady flow of time. Some will celebrate because it is customary, while others will rejoice in the ever present hope of renewal, but most of the teaming poor and dispossessed of the world will not notice it. The wars will go on as legalized murder. It will be yet another day of misery and deprivation.

Most people, across the globe, at least wish for peace on Earth and equity and justice for all. They are kind and considerate as individuals. But as a group, “us versus them”, we conveniently forget that it requires treating the distant “others” as we, the “us” would like to be treated. It is easy to find tortuous reasons to justify selfish interests, resulting in wars based on the worst of lies, the self serving lies that we tell ourselves. They propel us to support the politicians who lie most convincingly that killing neighbors or a people in far off lands is necessary to preserve our way of life.

Religions become the most convenient hand maiden of the propagandists, and we willingly with enthusiasm profane what we purport to hold sacred. Eventually all wars do end, often with the exhaustion of all sides. In the past two centuries, the quantum growth in modern technology has provided unimaginable material conveniences. It has brought prosperity, but sadly there is even a greater growth in weapons to feed the wars; weapons that can be used without any danger to the user; impersonalized weapons.

In my name, with my taxes, a neighborhood full of people with similar dreams as mine, in a far off place, will be destroyed by a rocket delivered by a remote controlled plane, while I am celebrating the New Year festivities and talking of peace and goodwill. If confronted by the deception, the trite explanation will be “collateral damage”, or at best an oft repeated hackneyed phrase “Oops, a mistake for which we are extremely sorry.”

Ours is an age of information and instant communication. No technology can be secret for very long. Every weapon invented by an established government to oppress others in the name of crass nationalism will eventually leak out or are sold to those fighting the oppression, who after gaining power, in turn become oppressors.

The wars can not be fought or sustained unless the populace is duped into believing that the “ungodly other” or “beastly other” is trying to destroy them. The propaganda is self-sustaining and it grows until we are jolted after falling off the precipice.

Those who see injustice and keep quiet, end up being silent supporters of oppression. The “innocent” bystanders are no longer as innocent as they want to believe, especially in a democracy. If we do not object to our own government’s misdeeds at home and abroad, we are guilty, because in a democracy we are the government.

Many of us were not taken in by the lies of warmongers. We foresaw and wrote about the quagmire and destruction that the war would bring, but being right before a majority realizes the folly is perceived as a greater political folly. The strength of ethical principles and intellect is branded as weakness of brawn by the glib power seekers who keep trying to deceive the electorate by appealing to the baser instincts.

We need to speak in louder and clearer voices to inject backbones in politicians who want to be with the winning side. We also need to convince the popular media that people do want to hear the other side as well. It is not economically injurious. They do not need to imitate Fox news. Unless we do it in greater numbers, the malfeasances of the Bush administration in domestic policy and endless indiscriminate wars in the name of peace will continue to create more terrorists and wider wars.

The warmongers had their run. They have sown terrible death and destruction. They have the power of the latest weapons, but they suffer a great disadvantage. They have to be against others to be hegemonic. They thrive on hatred, pitting “us” against “them”.

The ideals of peace and of consideration of others as human beings may appear to be powerless, but they have one great advantage. They can unite across the false divide created by forces of ignorance and war. They extend a hand of friendship across the artificial divide. They can erase the dishonest divide.

Let us make the year 2008 a watershed, when the 21st century emerges from the deathly clutches of the wars of the 20 th century to claim its much needed place to unfold an era of peace in the flow of time.


@ Mirza A. Beg circulated to the South Asia Contact Group on 20 December 2007. 

More than Five-Point Someone

Nussbaum’s idea that deculturisation dehumanises the IIT grad is wrong


AHMEDABAD burned. The Sangh Parivar thugs attacked innocent Muslims and the police maintained they had no orders to protect them. Narendra Modi’s administration cted in ways which prompted a Supreme Court judge to compare him to Nero. There were many activists and journalists witnessing that orgy of violence and recording it. Among those who wrote movingly, angrily, and eloquently about the ghastly incidents at Gulbarg Society was Raj Kamal Jha, Executive Editor of The Indian Express. Not only did he narrate what he saw and heard, he pieced together missing strands meticulously, like an engineer building a superstructure. But he would, wouldn’t he? For Jha was an engineer by training: he studied at the Indian Institute of Technology, graduating in 1987.

And yet the American academic Martha Nussbaum condemned the “IIT mentality” in these pages for the decline of humanism in India. In her book, The Clash Within, Nussbaum weaves an intricate argument, in which she links technological, political, religious and economic forces which have permitted the rise of Hindutva, in particular its hold over educated middle- class Indians. Her exact words in the interview: “This IIT mentality — become technically competent engineers, forget about human values — is very dangerous, particularly for a country like India.”To be sure, there is some logic to this argument. Indian school children have to decide early on the career they wish to pursue. By the time they are 15, they must give up many subjects. Smarter kids are pressured to take part in gruelling exams for a spot in the IITs. Once there, the coursework is primarily technical; when an IIT grad starts working, the exposure he (even today a majority of IIT grads are men) has had to history is dimly recollected, if at all. As economist Ajay Shah, himself an IIT alumnus puts it: “Most people in India are getting too little history, politics or philosophy. Anyone with a semblance of IQ gets pushed into the science or engineering track and then you’re down to Amar Chitra Katha renditions of history.” But the conclusion Nussbaum draws — that this deculturisation somehow dehumanises the IIT grad — could not be more wrong. And it certainly does not make them supporters of genocide. IIT grads are often brilliant, with a quirky sense of humour, knowledgeable in some arcane aspect and respectful of the scientific method.

In every society there is the divide between what CP Snow called the Two Cultures. Indeed, Rajappa Iyer, another IIT grad says: “Some of what Nussbaum says rings true. Technocrats, economic libertarians are not empathetic and therefore propose solutions that don’t take human nature and consequence into account.” And yet the same IITs that Nussbaum criticises produced not only Jha but also Shripad Dharmadhikari, an associate of Medha Patkar; social entrepreneur Vijay Mahajan, who runs innovative lending programmes for livelihood assistance; Arvind Kejriwal, the Magsaysay-winning anticorruption crusader and left -leaning journalist Praful Bidwai. One of the loudest critics of communalism was Narayana Murthy of Infosys, who devoted his Darbari Seth lecture to expressing his anguish over the violence.

In other words, a large number of IIT grads think beyond their calculators. There is a strong meritocratic streak at the IITs— the students who get through the entrance exams do so because they’re smart; they are not part of India’s old-money elite, nor are they from the power elite. Shah adds:“My sense is that IIT-ians take pride in having fought their way up the food chain in a meritocratic way.” Contrary to what its critics say, IIT is a melting pot in India where the students often don’t know each other’s caste labels. As one grad told me: “You just don’t notice those things. What matters is being able to solve problems in fluid mechanics.”

As a result, IIT campuses are remarkably devoid of student politics, mainstream political parties, or coalitions representing the ugly reality of India interfering with the academic community. The IITs help the Indian undergraduate break with some of the more horrible aspects and difficulties of India. That’s a matter to rejoice. There is another famous campus where politics is ever-present, and Indian reality intrudes all the time, consuming the lives of its students. India is omnipresent there in its myriad realities, and the campus the stepping stone to political life. It is called the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. And it gave India Sitaram Yechury and Prakash Karat. Go figure.


@ From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 4, Issue 49, Dated Dec 22 , 2007

‘The IIT mindset feeds into the fascist nature of the Right’

Noted American political philosopher Martha Nussbaum speaks to SHOMA CHAUDHURY about her new book and the roots of Hindutva

What’s the central premise of your book?
The book’s main thesis is that we should understand the real clash of civilisations as a clash that is internal to all modern democracies. A clash between people who are willing to respect and live with those who are different, and people who anxiously seek domination. Then, agreeing with Gandhi, I say that at a deeper level the real conflict of civilisations is the clash within the individual self as the desire to dominate other people contends against compassion and concern.

What about India makes it susceptible to the hate ideology of the Hindu Right?
When I started the book in 2002, I thought it would be a grim story about the collapse of democracy in India. But it became a story of resilience. There is something about the political culture of India, including the strength of its press that enables it to survive. But there are real weak points. The key one is the system of education. There is not enough attention on critical thinking and independence of mind in India. Not enough on stimulating the imagination. We all have the capacity to understand what happens when we inflict pain on others. But this capacity needs to be trained and developed through the arts — dance, music, theatre. Tagore understood that, Nehru less so. The people behind Hindutva, on the other hand, have been very clever about culture formation. They have formed people into a killing force by using fun and games, the lure of solidarity in the shakhas, the clever use of symbols and rhetoric, and by a genuinely altruistic and self-sacrificing ideology which is very appealing. After Gandhi, this has been completely missing in the Left. They have left symbolic cultural formation completely to the Right. Partly because they felt economic issues were more important and partly because of the contempt for religion that most in the Left had.


It’s five years since Gujarat 2002, are you still feeling optimistic about India?
It’s lucky for the progressive forces that the BJP has no competent leadership at present. They haven’t found a younger generation that can appeal to voters. I do not think Arun Jaitley can, and after the death of Pramod Mahajan —

What about Modi?
I cannot imagine he will ever make it on a national level. Even the Right wants a leader who can woo the US, and he can’t even visit there because of his record of criminality. For the US to revoke an official visa is pretty amazing. To return to your earlier question, what I’m really discouraged by is the growing dominance of a technocratic middle class that is anti-political and for whom the suffering of excluded people doesn’t mean a lot. This IIT mentality — become technically competent
engineers, forget about human values — is very dangerous, particularly for a country like India. I’m afraid the need to make deals with the US is adding to this skew. I find that Sonia Gandhi says the right things. I think of her as somebody with a keen moral imagination, who really understands what women went through, say, in Gujarat, but of course she has to play her cards really carefully.

You argue in the book that one of the reasons a fascist Hindu Right mindset has taken hold is that the creative, sensuous, almost feminine ideals of Vishnu and Krishna have been replaced by a militant, virile masculinity. Can we go back to the old view?
This is what attracted so many of my generation to the study of India in the first place — the idea of a counterculture to American masculinity. In the Vietnam War era, they wanted to turn to a culture of love and peace. That’s why so many of them wanted to write about sexuality and the sex lives of gods. I think Gandhi knew how to give those ideas a modern form, of course it was a very ascetic form; it didn’t have the playfulness and the sensuousness. Tagore captured that in his school and in dance. He could certainly make that ideal very charismatic and viable. But today, I think the last refuge of this is in Bollywood — not the feminine forms of the Geeta Govinda exactly, but there is a kind of sensuousness to Bollywood stars when they dance or sing. Part of the appeal is that it isn’t a purely military use of the body. It’s also interesting that Bollywood is the one place where Hindus and Muslims intermingle and intermarry and there is not any great sense of the gulf between them. Maybe that’s where the softer ideal still exists.

You mentioned how the Left has distanced itself from any culture formation that involves the positive use of myth, emotional or religious symbols — ceding that ground to the Right. How does one combat this?
I think it is very hard now because when people here say, we should be studying the Ramayana, others turn to them and say, oh you are becoming communal. I have friends who’ve had that experience. And because the humanities are so devalued in India, intellectuals who might have been able to lead the way to a more progressive appropriation of tradition have moved to America and are happily teaching the Ramayana there! Dipesh Chakraborty can be a leading Left wing intellectual in America, but here he wouldn’t be respected. In the US, it was great that the civil rights movement was able to latch on to African-American music — it was the only creative musical force in America at that time. Blues, jazz — everyone could relate to that. Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit” — about a black man who’s lynched —pulled at everyone’s gut, all over America. I think in India, the challenge is to find such a meeting ground in popular culture. Tagore did that by writing songs that everyone could sing. But that is wearing thin — even Bengalis find Tagore a bit tedious now. I think the women’s movement can play a big role. And Bollywood, of course, has great possibilities, if it would use that power. The other area is vernacular literature. The English language market is too commercialised and too aimed at Americans, so it only touches these issues superficially. It’s really in the vernacular literature that people are confronting issues of communities and diversity. Keeping the vernacular literary and theatrical cultures going is important.

Can a utilitarian, globalised, technocratic society — with no interest in identity politics — lead to an uncommunal world?
No, I don’t think so. The minute you start thinking of people as simply inputs into an economic calculus, you’ve moved away from human respect and the ability to imagine others empathetically. This is reminiscent of the Nazi technocracy which was very efficient and found it very easy to talk about humans as things — as cargo — and this was a big part of what made the atrocities possible. I have a lot of colleagues who are economic libertarians, and they think a technocracy will be benign because people will follow their economic self-interest and hire anyone because it’s in their interest to do so. This is exceedingly naïve. People can hate others and refuse to employ them simply because of the stigma. My father was born in the deep South. He lived most of his life in the North but never lost that hatred of African-Americans and he really believed — this is a man who was a high-powered lawyer in a major urban firm — he really believed that a black person would contaminate anything he touched. When I married a Jew it was not quite as bad as if I’d married a black but he didn’t come to my wedding and didn’t speak to me for years. In some ways this has a lot to do with images of masculinity. I think, for my father, who grew up very poor, the son of factory workers, and who brought himself up, there was always deep insecurity, and the strong need to be above someone else. This operates in India in a different way. The insecurity here is historical. Hindu men have been dominated for centuries, first by Muslims (though that was not always an ugly domination) and then by the Raj. So the idea — enunciated strongly by Golwalkar — is that we have been dominated because we were weak and now we must strike back by showing that we are more aggressive even than the ones that dominated us. This is the sentiment that played itself out so horrifically in Gujarat, complicated by the fact that Muslims were economically stronger there than the elsewhere in the country.


@ From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 4, Issue 47, Dated Dec 08 , 2007

ISA Ph.D Laboratory in Nigeria



International Sociological Association organised its seventh Laboratory for Ph.D students in social sciences at the University of Maiduguri in Nigeria between November 18 and November 24 on the theme of “Globalization, Social Problems and Social Policy”. Students from various parts of the world presented and discussed their doctoral work. It was an interesting and wonderful experience to listen to other people’s work and about other countries.

Civil Democrats or Radical Islamists?

Prof. Robert Hefner – the inaugural Lee Kong-Chian NUS-Stanford Distinguished Fellow delivered a lecture on “Civil Democrats or Radical Islamists? Islamic Education and Democratization in Indonesia” at National University of Singapore.


According to him, Islamic education is a form of transmission of knowledge. He described Singapore as a knowledge society which not only talks about economic globalization but also about cultural globalization. No society has single education system, though some education system might be dominant. Islamic society pluralistic. Many have criticised that Indonesia’s Islamic schools have become the training ground for terrorist activities after Bali bombing. Prof. Hefner’s survey revealed that 89 per cent  of educators supported democracy as ideal form of government.

On the basis of his study, Prof. Hefner  made three basic concluding remarks – (1) There is a Military fringe in Indonesia as in other parts of Muslim world; (2) Primary challenge to Muslim society is not extremism but how to open/reinvigorate Muslim tradition to rational scientific inquiry and knowledge in today’s global civilization and not of western civilization. This would require more than technologies of modern science; and finally (3) There are great social forces in support of Islamic reform in Islamic world. Students and their parents want Islamic schools to strike a healthy balance between religion and Modern Scientific Knowledge.

Operation push back

The current episode of Taslima Nasreen once again has brought out the hypocritical attitude of many a Indians. I am amused about the hullabaloos made by the BJP the Sangh Privar and some others for this Bangladeshi writer. However, when it comes to dealing with the economic migrant from our neighbouring court, the same set of people wear the Hindu nationalist cloak and demand ‘operation push back’ for those poor and hungry people who want to feed their belly on the Indian soil. To them such people would turn India become a Muslim rastriya. The other hypocrisy that comes out very clearly from this episode is while the Sangh Privar  and others welcome Taslima Nasreen, a foreigner with open arms to live any where in India, they have booted out Sri MF Hussein, the living Picasso of India from his own country. It seems the ninety-year- old living legend is heading to become another Bhadur Shah Zafar who may bemoan for not getting two meters of land for his burial in his own motherland. Well I need to be educated whether there has been any painter that can be equated with personalities like Dadu, Nanank, Kabir, Pipa, Aryabhtta and many others who have left an  impression on the Indian civilisation. I tried to search a name in the field of painting that can match the greatness of such luminaries of India but  have not stumbled upon on any name. My idea is to say that M F Hussein is undoubtedly the greatest painter that India has produced in the mordern times. It’s irony that he has to live in exile for his alleged attempt to draw the Hindu goddess that many Hindus feel hurts their sentiments. But the question is was Hussein the first person to indulge in such an activity? We just need to flip through the pages of Indian history books to find that its littered with much worst kind of painting that Hussein has drawn. Then why single him out?. Perhaps because he bears a Muslim sounding name. Well such hypocritical attitude and many others glares on one’s face.


@ Syed Ali Mujtaba PhD, Senior Journalist – Chennai, India in South Asia Contact Group on November 28, 2007