More on Narendra Modi

For over 10 years I have believed Narendra Modi to be responsible for the 2002 riots in Gujarat – without ever trying to research the facts in any significant detail. Modi’s culpability has been an easy-to-believe narrative. He is a self-professed Hindu Nationalist (I have contempt for both elements of that combination). He belongs to a political party that has never hesitated to exploit religious insecurities for political gains. He was the Chief Minister when the riots occurred. Nothing could be easier to believe.

I have always regarded his culpability to be an indelible blot. A man responsible for the murder of thousands is not fit to live, let alone serve in any public office, no matter what his other accomplishments may be. And so, I have never bothered to research those accomplishments either. They seemed irrelevant, even dangerous. If this country is to be governed by *<insert non-genteel word of your choice here>*, I would rather have them be incompetent.

This blog is dedicated to the pursuit of truth – truth that has an impact on my life and is therefore worth discovering. Narendra Modi has succeeded in capturing the imagination of almost all my peers. Given the alternatives, he might well become the next Prime Minister. If he is the man I have suspected him to be – an efficient, ruthless fascist with a very dubious association with deeply illiberal political parties and no concern for such “niceties” as freedom of speech or justice – that is the worst thing that could happen to this country – far worse than the institutionalized socialist scams perpetrated by all the major political parties – chiefly Congress but not excluding the BJP.

The big question is: Is that the truth?

Modi, in a couple of speeches I have listened to, has been talking of a vision of empowering business and setting it free from the clutches of the government and the bureaucracy. Not by any fundamental reforms. Merely by using the existing government machinery effectively. That is clearly not sustainable in the long run. But it would still be an improvement over what we have today. Even if Modi’s vision is incomplete and short-sighted, it is refreshingly different from the socialist rhetoric that everyone else keeps spouting. To any socialist who has not deluded himself completely, Modi’s vision is extremely dangerous.

Is it possible that Modi is actually innocent and has been vilified in a targeted campaign by populists who would otherwise have no answers to the achievements he claims?

I chanced upon this post by Sanjeev Sabhlok: India should support Modi from the outside – conditionally. It surprised me and following links in that post, I reached this long article by Madhu Kishwar. In light of its contents, that is a question I am now forced to consider.

When a person becomes a statistic

I woke up today morning, picked up the newspaper and read the headline “Yet another Andhraite shot in US” or something like that. I browsed through the other headlines before reading the report itself. The face staring back at me was that of a former colleague – a person who worked for my company for over  an year.

After the initial shock, I turn to Times of India’s website for more details. There is a video on the page. Clicking it plays an advertisement before the actual content. I scroll down to the bottom of the page for other linked reports. There is a link saying “Do you like this story?”

Story. Yes. Story. That is what it is to us. That is the state of the world we live in and the extent to which we are de-sensitized. Everyday we see reports of crimes – murders, rapes, whatnot. We read them, sigh, and move on. These reports stay in our minds for not more than the few seconds it takes to read them. Not even enough time to think: “It won’t happen to me or to someone I know”. And then one day it does. And it is only then that the mind pauses to think.

After all the progress we have made over the centuries – and I don’t mean to belittle it, we have indeed made progress – a human life still does not mean to us what it should. A human life is sacred. It is the very source of the concept. And yet the loss of a human life is just a statistic, an abstract event that fails to move us unless the event hits home. As the headline goes “Yet another…”.

We have come a long way from the insane violence that used to be commonplace. But we still have a long way to go.

Autonomous political institutions

In a post about Swaminathan Aiyer’s recent article in The Times of India about “freeing the police”, Aristotle the geek makes a very good point:

All coercive capabilities of the state must always be under civilian political control.

Aiyer’s article reminds me of Fareed Zakaria’s book “The Future of Freedom – Illiberal Democracy at Home & Abroad” where Zakaria advocates the creation of autonomous regulatory entities not subject to political control. Both Zakaria and Aiyer seem to want to temper the consequences of a run-away democracy. There is a slight difference in context though. Aiyer writes about the police which is a legitimate state activity whereas Zakaria writes about areas where the government should have no role at all.

Regardless of the difference in context, both Zakaria and Aiyer are wrong. Both advocate the creation of an unaccountable bureaucracy. Both seem to forget that there is indeed an independent government entity not directly subject to political control – the judiciary. The judiciary can be independent because it deals with issues that are not political. In a properly limited and functional democracy, the judiciary should be sufficient to address any misuse of power by the agents of the state. The solution to a runaway democracy cannot be an unaccountable bureaucracy. Both need to be abolished. And that leads me to the point I want to make. Abolishing the ability of a democratic government to run out of control can only work in a culture that respects individual rights.

Political change is necessarily preceded by cultural change.

Aiyer’s article shows that despite all his claims to be a liberal, he does not really understand liberty at all. Anyone who thinks liberty can be achieved by political means fundamentally misunderstands it.

What’s in a name?

Shobha De writes

…Ten days ago, i received a call from a Muslim friend. She sounded a little concerned. Her anxiety had to do with her nephew’s admission into one of Mumbai’s better colleges. His marks were good, his conduct exemplary. He had been a prefect at school and participated in several extracurricular activities. I asked what the hitch was. She sounded almost embarrassed as she said, “Well, we are Muslims and that seems to be the problem in a lot of colleges.”

There is no getting away from the current polarization. … At the time (post- 26/11), we believed it was a passing phase that would disappear once everything ‘settled down’. Except that nobody quite knew what was meant to settle down or whether it would ever happen. … Two years down the line, there are no alibis, no screens to hide behind. Positions have obviously hardened to such a degree that now city colleges have begun to follow their own quota system and turn down eligible students because they are Muslims. … That awful attack was the work of hardcore terrorists. What we are doing may be much worse — we are killing the spirit of innocents. The latter crime may have far more lethal repercussions!

Ten years ago, I might have fully agreed with De. Today I know better. Religion is not like race or caste. It is not something you are born with or into. It is a label for a system of beliefs. Those beliefs can be chosen or rejected. When an overwhelming majority of terrorist activities are carried out by Muslims, it is clear that there is something about belief in Islam that incites people to violence. Religious profiling is hardly comparable to discrimination on the basis of race or caste.

On the other hand, it is also a fact that there are many, many Muslims who are just as rational (or irrational) as people of other religions. These people do not deserve to be profiled out just because they have a Muslim name. What are they to do? There is a simple solution. They can change their names. What’s in a name anyway?

One of my father’s PhD students suspected that her research papers were being discounted because of her gender. She simply resorted to using her initials and surname instead of her full name. Problem solved.

However, this solution only works for those who really do not care about their religion. And that is as it should be. Those Muslims who are irrational enough to believe that they are really losing something by adopting a non-Muslim sounding name get to live in a world filled with people just like them. In other words, they deserve what they get.

Ayn Rand’s contradictory life?

Via Muse Free, I came across this article in the NY Times by Adam Kirsch. From the article

When Bennett Cerf, a head of Random House, begged her to cut Galt’s speech, Rand replied with what Heller calls “a comment that became publishing legend”: “Would you cut the Bible?” …
In fact, any editor certainly would cut the Bible, if an agent submitted it as a new work of fiction. But Cerf offered Rand an alternative: if she gave up 7 cents per copy in royalties, she could have the extra paper needed to print Galt’s oration. That she agreed is a sign of the great contradiction that haunts her writing and especially her life. Politically, Rand was committed to the idea that capitalism is the best form of social organization invented or conceivable…
Yet while Rand took to wearing a dollar-sign pin to advertise her love of capitalism, Heller makes clear that the author had no real affection for dollars themselves. Giving up her royalties to preserve her vision is something that no genuine capitalist, and few popular novelists, would have done. It is the act of an intellectual, of someone who believes that ideas matter more than lucre.

Anyone who has read and bothered to understand The Fountainhead should remember the scene where Howard Roark refuses a contract for a building to protect the integrity of his vision when that contract is the only thing that can save him from bankruptcy. When asked “Do you have to be quite so fanatical and selfless about it?” Roark replies “That was the most selfish thing you’ve ever seen a man do.”

Perhaps Kirsch missed it or perhaps he just took it as an unbelievable part of the plot. “The plotting and characterization in her books may be vulgar and unbelievable, just as one would expect from the middling Holly­wood screenwriter she once was.” Either way he has no conception of what Rand meant by selfishness or capitalism. Kirsch should read this excerpt from The Fountainhead

“Dominique,” he said softly, reasonably, “that’s it. Now I know. I know what’s been the matter all the time.”
“Has anything been the matter?”
“Wait. This is terribly important. Dominique, you’ve never said, not once, what you thought. Not about anything. You’ve never expressed a desire. Not of any kind.”
“What’s wrong about that?”
“But it’s…it’s like death. You’re not real. You’re only a body. Look, Dominique, you don’t know it, I’ll try to explain. You understand what death is? When a body can’t move any more, when it has no…no will, no meaning. You understand? Nothing. The absolute nothing. Well, your body moves–but that’s all. The other, the thing inside you, your–oh, don’t misunderstand me, I’m not talking religion, but there’s no other word for it, so I’ll say: your soul–your soul doesn’t exist. No will, no meaning. There’s no real you any more.”
“What’s the real me?” she asked. For the first time, she looked attentive; not compassionate; but, at least, attentive.
“What’s the real anyone?” he said, encouraged. “It’s not just the body. It’s…it’s the soul.”
“What is the soul?”
“It’s–you. The thing inside you.”
“The thing that thinks and values and makes decisions?”
“Yes! Yes, that’s it. And the thing that feels. You’ve–you’ve given it up.”
“So there are two things that one can’t give up: One’s thoughts and one’s desires?”
“Yes! Oh, you do understand! So you see, you’re like a corpse to everybody around you. A kind of walking death. That’s worse than any active crime. It’s…”
“Negation?”
“Yes. Just blank negation. You’re not here. You’ve never been here. If you’d tell me that the curtains in this room are ghastly and if you’d rip them off and put up some you like–something of you would be real, here, in this room. But you never have. You’ve never told the cook what dessert you liked for dinner.
You’re not here, Dominique. You’re not alive. Where’s your I?”
“Where’s yours, Peter?” she asked quietly.
He sat still, his eyes wide. She knew that his thoughts, in this moment, were clear and immediate like visual perception, that the act of thinking was an act of seeing a procession of years behind him.
“It’s not true,” he said at last, his voice hollow. “It’s not true.”
“What is not true?”
“What you said.”
“I’ve said nothing. I asked you a question.”
His eyes were begging her to speak, to deny. She rose, stood before him, and the taut erectness of her body was a sign of life, the life he had missed and begged for, a positive quality of purpose, but the quality of a judge.
“You’re beginning to see, aren’t you, Peter? Shall I make it clearer. You’ve never wanted me to be real. You never wanted anyone to be. But you didn’t want to show it. You wanted an act to help your act–a beautiful, complicated act, all twists, trimmings and words. All words. You didn’t like what I said about Vincent Knowlton. You liked it when I said the same thing under cover of virtuous sentiments. You didn’t want me to believe. You only wanted me to convince you that I believed. My real soul, Peter? It’s real only when it’s independent–you’ve discovered that, haven’t you? It’s real only when it chooses curtains and desserts–you’re right about that–curtains, desserts and religions, Peter, and the shapes of buildings. But you’ve never wanted that. You wanted a mirror. People want nothing but mirrors around them. To reflect them while they’re reflecting too. You know, like the senseless infinity you get from two mirrors facing each other across a narrow passage. Usually in the more vulgar kind of hotels. Reflections of reflections and echoes of echoes. No beginning and no end. No center and no purpose. I gave you what
you wanted. I became what you are, what your friends are, what most of humanity is so busy being–only with the trimmings. I didn’t go around spouting book reviews to hide my emptiness of judgment–I said I
had no judgment. I didn’t borrow designs to hide my creative impotence–I created nothing. I didn’t say that equality is a noble conception and unity the chief goal of mankind–I just agreed with everybody.
You call it death, Peter? That kind of death–I’ve imposed it on you and on everyone around us. But you–you haven’t done that. People are comfortable with you, they like you, they enjoy your presence. You’ve spared them the blank death. Because you’ve imposed it–on yourself.”

But then, Kirsch probably won’t understand it anyway.

And while I am at it, consider this from Kirsch’s article

Rand’s particular intellectual contribution, the thing that makes her so popular and so American, is the way she managed to mass market elitism — to convince so many people, especially young people, that they could be geniuses without being in any concrete way distinguished. Or, rather, that they could distinguish themselves by the ardor of their commitment to Rand’s teaching. The very form of her novels makes the same point: they are as cartoonish and sexed-up as any best seller, yet they are constantly suggesting that the reader who appreciates them is one of the elect.

Mass market elitism? Talk about contradictions. Elitism, by definition, cannot have a mass market. Yet, Kirsch is desperate to label Rand’s ideas as elitist. Why?

Secularism, Enlightenment and India

A colleague sent me this link to an article in The Hindu and asked for my thoughts. From the article

For a long time it was held that a close link existed between the modernisation of society and the secularisation of the population. Consequently, it was argued that the influence of religion declined in post-enlightenment society. This assumption, Professor Habermas suggests, was based on three considerations. First, the progress in science and technology made causal explanation possible and more importantly, for a scientifically enlightened mind it was difficult to reconcile with theocentric and metaphysical worldviews. Secondly, the churches and other religious organisations lost their control over law, politics, public welfare, education and science. Finally, the economic transformation led to higher levels of welfare and greater social security. The impact of these developments, it is argued, has led to the decline of the relevance and influence of religion.
…the view that “the secularist certainty that religion will disappear worldwide in the course of modernisation is losing ground.” It is not only that this expectation has not been realised, religion has emerged as a powerful influence in the public sphere all over the world. This is particularly so in India.

The existence of the public sphere [in Europe] was contingent upon the access of all citizens to, and protection of individual rights by, the rule of law. In essence, the character of the public sphere as it evolved in Europe in the 18th century was secular and democratic.

Unlike in Europe the public sphere in India was not the product of a free bourgeois society; it took shape within the political, social and economic parameters set by the colonial government.
(Emphasis mine)

The article concludes with

Retrieving the secular character of the public sphere is therefore imperative; otherwise its religious character is likely to impinge upon the functions of the state.

The article with its implied positive evaluation of enlightenment ideas and recognition of their relevance to the issue of secularism is very much welcome in an age where enlightenment ideas have almost been forgotten. But it itself suffers from an incomplete understanding of all the implications of these ideas. Protection of individual rights by the rule of law is not compatible with democracy (atleast as we might understand it from concrete examples today). Democracy is about placing the control of human affairs in the public sphere. Individual rights are about limiting the control of human affairs to the actual individuals involved, primarily by the recognition of private property. (This might seem unrelated to the issue of secularism and the influence of religion, but bear with me for a while.) This uneasy relationship between democracy and individual rights (note the difference in character between the French revolution which was essentially democratic and the American revolution which instituted a government for the purpose of protecting individual rights) persists to this day and has been the apparant cause of the failure of enlightenment ideas to have as large and lasting an influence as might have been expected. But that is not all. It is worth noting that pre-enlightenment Europe was neither democratic nor did it have any conception of individual rights. How did both ideas emerge out of the same intellectual change?

I am no historian – or even a good student of history – but it seems to me that the enlightenment thinkers never really rejected religion in all its implications. Religion offers more than an explanation of the world. It offers moral principles. The progress in science that made causal explanations possible led people to abandon the role of religion in understanding the world. Note that this progress has been lasting. Even the church today accepts that religion is not a guide to understanding the world. But there was no equivalent progress in moral theory that would lead people to abandon the role of religion in evaluating the world and guiding human action. The enlightenment brought about political, scientific and industrial revolutions. It did not result in any moral revolution. The moral base of religion – altruism – was not challenged at all. On the contrary, it led some intellectuals to believe that morality is mostly irrelevant to progress. For example, the character of Enjolras in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables – the leader of an uprising, and in my reading, a mirror to Hugo’s own ideas – believed (if memory serves me right) that progress would be automatic and inevitable provided that people had access to (scientific) education. This was naive. Morality is indispensable to human existence.

It seems to me that enlightenment ideas split into two distinct streams. One stream could be characterized by the French revolution, militantly anti-religious and with an emphasis on democracy, equality and social justice. This stream secularized altruism without changing any of its fundamentals. It substituted God by society and the church and the king by the state. The other stream could be characterized by the American revolution, ambivalent to religion and with an emphasis on liberty and self-evident inalienable individual rights endowed by a creator. But a complex concept like individual rights cannot be self-evident. By not grounding individual rights in reason, this stream was left without a moral foundation independent of religion. The overtly-secular, altruist, democratic stream failed. It took Europe through several dictatorships, wars and misery. The liberal, pro individual rights but more religious stream succeeded. It allowed America to enjoy more than a century of uinterrupted peace and prosperity (except for the civil war that abolished slavery). But, over time, through lack of an explicit moral foundation, the American stream itself split into the modern secular Europe inspired liberals (an insult to the original classical sense of the term) and the religious conservatives seeking to conserve the political system of liberty with an incompatible base of altruist Christianity.

Note that no stream ever rejected altruism and it was the secular democratic, left-leaning intellectuals who upheld it most consistently. Now the case of India. Indian political leaders educated in Europe brought back the European ideas and attempted to foist them upon a servile, religious people. Worse, in attempting to fight colonialism, they absorbed Marxist ideas from Russia. Needless to say, they failed miserably, discrediting secularism in the process. As Gurcharan Das’s wrote in the article that I criticized in my last post, “Part of the reason that the sensible idea of secularism is having so much difficulty finding a home in India is that the most vocal and intellectual advocates of secularism were once Marxists”. Marxism – the most consistent political implication of altruism, is only for educated idiots. The uneducated “masses” – that Marx had such a disdain for – never have and never will accept it. But the association of secularism with Marxism does indeed make the spread of secularism difficult.

Anyone concerned with the increasing role of religion in public affairs in general and political affairs in particular should be looking to discover/establish a morality based on reason. Until such a morality becomes culturally dominant, it will be impossible to eliminate the role of religion. But that is not something the secularists in India understand. For a concrete example, consider the expose of the Khap Panchayat system in Today’s Times. Read it here, here, here and here. From the last link,

Daryal Singh, one of Tikait’s retainers, adds that “shameless people (lovers) deserve to die.’’ He gives graphic accounts of lovers being “hanged, tortured or nailed to death”. But Singh stands alone in providing the only real explanation for what sustains this medieval system: bad governance. “The government has failed to provide basic necessities. It’s impossible for people to survive without the samaj. They can’t challenge it,’’ he says.

It would be difficult to mis-diagnose the problem worse. Even the villagers are more intelligent than that. They know that they are following a moral code. Providing basic necessities is not going to change their moral code. And what basic necessities anyway? From another article in the links

There are pucca houses, cobbled streets, wellfed cattle, neat schools and sprawling green fields. It’s easy to be impressed by the colleges and professional institutes that dot the area. But Sanghi, like most villages in this prosperous belt, has dark secrets to keep. Here, rape is casual, murder-by-pesticide of teenage daughters acceptable and it is routine to dispose of their bodies by burning them in cattlecarts.

Defeat the morality and religion – with all its mindless rituals and superstitions – will go away. But without challenging the morality and in the lack of any alternative (socialist ideology is not an alternative), religion will continue to grow in influence.

The Times of India and its liberal writers

Two days. Two ugly pieces in The Times of India.

First, in a pice titled Dilemma of a liberal Hindu, Gurcharan Das writes about his discomfort in acknowledging his Hindu beliefs among his secular friends.

Why then do I feel uneasy about being a liberal Hindu? I feel besieged from both ends — from the Hindu nationalists and the secularists. Something seems to have gone wrong. Hindu nationalists have appropriated my past and made it into a political statement of Hindutva. Secularists have contempt for all forms of belief and they find it odd that I should cling to my Hindu past.

I admitted that I had been thinking of the Mahabharata. “Good lord, man!” he exclaimed. “You haven’t turned saffron, have you?” I think his remark was made in jest, but it upset me. I found it disturbing that I had to fear the intolerance of my “secular” friends, who seemed to think that reading an epic was a political act.

He concludes

As we think about sowing the seeds of secularism in India, we cannot just divide Indians between communalists and secularists. That would be too easy. The average Indian is decent and is caught in the middle. To achieve a secular society, believers must tolerate each other’s beliefs as well as the atheism of non-believers. Hindu nationalists must resist hijacking our religious past and turning it into votes. Secularists must learn to respect the needs of ordinary Indians for a transcendental life beyond reason. Only then will secularism find a comfortable home in India.
(Emphasis mine)

Das says “Secularists must learn to respect the needs of ordinary Indians for a transcendental life beyond reason.” It is amusing to see that Das knows that respect cannot be demanded. But he wants it nonetheless. So, instead of demanding respect for himself, he demands it for ordinary Indians.

Das is clearly a mystic. Yet he wants respect from people who are not mystics. That shows how much respect for the truth he has.

——————–

And today, Jug Suraiya has a piece on the ethics of humor.

The classic comedy scenario involves a man, preferably fat and pompous-looking, walking down the street, stepping on a banana peel and falling on his well-padded bottom…Perhaps of all forms of communication – the tragic, the poetic, the prosaic, the descriptive – humour is the one that is most in need of a code of ethics to regulate it. The reason is that humour has in it an intrinsic element of cruelty, of rejoicing in the misfortune of others…can you laugh at yourself? If you can, you’ve passed the first test in the ethics of humour: before you laugh at anyone else, first learn to laugh at yourself. Like charity, humour begins at home. There is one proviso, which is the second test in the ethics of humour. Legitimate humour is always directed from the lower to a higher level: always laugh at (or with) those who are metaphorically above you, socially, economically, physically, or in any other way.
(Emphasis mine)

Contrast that with Ayn Rand’s position on humor

Humor is the denial of metaphysical importance to that which you laugh at. The classic example: you see a very snooty, very well dressed dowager walking down the street, and then she slips on a banana peel . . . . What’s funny about it? It’s the contrast of the woman’s pretensions to reality. She acted very grand, but reality undercut it with a plain banana peel. That’s the denial of the metaphysical validity or importance of the pretensions of that woman. Therefore, humor is a destructive element—which is quite all right, but its value and its morality depend on what it is that you are laughing at. If what you are laughing at is the evil in the world (provided that you take it seriously, but occasionally you permit yourself to laugh at it), that’s fine. [To] laugh at that which is good, at heroes, at values, and above all at yourself [is] monstrous . . . . The worst evil that you can do, psychologically, is to laugh at yourself. That means spitting in your own face.
(Emphasis mine)

Suraiya’s position – “always laugh at those who are metaphorically above you” – is just plain disgusting. What can be more nihilistic than that? But it is not particularly surprising. Suraiya, after all, is quite happy to participate in The Times’ “experiment” of not capitalizing the pronoun ‘I’ on its editorial pages.

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