Sunday, February 19, 2017

Don't believe what people say - IV

An oft-repeated shibboleth is that education is the only way to get rid of India's ills.  The SC recently said that “it is only education which gives a human being the power to discriminate between right and wrong, good and bad”. I don't agree with that conclusion and I have written about it. Education is important but the idea that it is a silver bullet that can solve all the problems of a society is an exaggeration.

The consequential terrorists in most terrorists organizations have received secular modern education and are Internet savvy - they are doctors, engineers, software professionals, etc. Gandhi's assassin was an educated, middle class Brahman who was well-versed in scriptures and in Gandhi's speeches and writings. Every other day one comes across instances of educated people not being able to distinguish between right and wrong, good and bad so it is surprising how the SC came to such a conclusion.It is not necessary to be educated in order to be ethical. In fact a strong case can be made that modern education favours instrumental rationality over ethics.

I once saw a headline about an interview that Virat Kohli gave which stated that he believed that his team would become the best in history which I thought was an over the top statement. But when I saw the full interview, I did not find the actual sentence that the headline stated. The sentence had been made by taking a couple of words from different sentences and pasting them together.

This reminded me of what Ashis Nandy had once said. He had been involved in a controversy a couple of years ago regarding a statement that he had made about Dalit corruption. He said that he had never made the particular statement that was attributed to him. Some words from different sentences that he had said were pasted together to form the sentence that was attributed to him. Some channels kept flashing this statement which soon became the truth.

In the Preface to Animal Farm, George Orwell wrote, 'Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.' Giving journalists government awards is one way to make them more sympathetic to the government of the day. Persistent intimidation and violence against writers makes them exercise self-censorship which is worse  than overt censorship. Anything can be swept under the carpet in name of respecting religious sentiments or safeguarding national security.

You can use statistics to lie convincingly. These days documents, photos, audios and videos can be doctored. ( I saw a Malayalam movie called ivide swargamaanu which showed methods of doctoring documents that I had never heard about.) Immense pressure was brought to bear on legislators to reduce the age limit for application of the Juvenile Justice Act in spite of there being evidence questioning the idea. Mob justice will be recommended as a good idea. News channels in their race for TRPs will blow up a small incident into an earth- shattering event. Or they may not give much coverage to some news because of pressure from advertisers.

Some channels  and some social media sites are hyper-nationalistic and call for sedition charges at the drop of a hat. (There is something strange about nationalism. We decry individual selfishness but put group selfishness on a pedestal and call it nationalism.) For some time now, the news channels that I mainly listen to are the public broadcasters - LSTV and RSTV. I find them better than the private channels - more calm debates (except in live transmissions from Parliament), more programs on science and culture and, most importantly, there are no product advertisements.

The only TV program that I know of that looks at how different media outlets slant the coverage of news items is media manthan on RSTV. You learn for example that hardly anyone had heard of Kailash Sathyarthi before he had received the Nobel prize because the area he works in is ignored by the media. There will be meagre coverage of rural India and saturation coverage of a minority thus presenting a false image. Channels will not have the money to send a reporter to cover an anti-dalit atrocity a 100 km from the state capital but will have the money to send a reporter to Perth to cover an India vs UAE World Cup match.

There is a phenomenon called 'private treaties' where certain media companies enter into agreements with listed companies for a stake in them and in return provide media coverage through advertisements, news, reports, editorials etc. A SEBI letter to the Press Council warned that “Private Treaties may lead to commercialization of news reports since the same would be based on the subscription and advertising agreement entered into between the Media group and the company. Biased and imbalanced reporting may lead to inaccurate perceptions of the companies which are the beneficiaries of such private treaties.”

People will be subjected to bruising media trials on the flimsiest of evidence (or no evidence). People are quick to jump to conclusions and indulge in character assassination, especially in social media, as Fareed Zakaria shows in this article. If  some process is followed for determining the guilt of a person and the process takes some time, there will be heated debates about why the the decision should be made quicker.

In Umberto Eco's novel, The Name of the Rose, there is a trial scene in which the Inquisitor contrives to find  a person guilty of heresy. The narrator of the story, a monk named Adso, asks his mentor, another monk named William, 'What terrifies you most in purity?' William replies, 'Haste'. To my mind, 'purity' refers not just to religious certitude. It refers to any social situation where a person thinks he is 100% correct. It is good to have at least a smidgen of doubt that it could be wrong. As a Zen maxim says, 'Great doubt: great awakening; little doubt: little awakening: no doubt: no awakening.' In Doubt:A History, there is a quote by one Pierre Charron about doubt:
It alone can provide true repose and security of our spirits. Have all the greatest and most noble philosophers and wise men who have preferred doubt been in a state of anxiety and suffering? But they say: to doubt, to consider both points of view, to put off a decision, is this not painful? I reply, it is indeed for fools, but not for wise men. It is painful for people who cannot stand freedom, for those who are presumptuous, puritan, passionate and who, obstinately attached to their opinion, arrogantly condemn all others...Such people, in truth, know nothing. They do not even know what it is to know something.
There sometimes is talk of reforming the Rajya Sabha or doing away with it altogether in order to quicken the making of laws. This is a typically blinkered view from some sections of the educated, impatient middle class (and noisy NRIs). It is said that 'the will of the people' should be taken into account. Every party  that has come to power in India has got less than half the number of votes. The government of the day will not have representation from many states. Listening to 'the will of the people' that is talked about would mean ignoring  the will of the majority of people.

Members of the Lok Sabha  represent their constituencies while members of the Rajya Sabha represent their states. State issues often get raised in the Rajya Sabha and giving states a voice is important in a federal structure. 1/3 of RS members change every two years depending on the results of state elections so it gives a more current snapshot of public opinion than LS. The delay in the Rajya Sabha prevents hasty decisions being taken by a party which has a brute majority in the LS.  This often results in more moderate laws which reduces the alienation in many sections of the population than would have been the case otherwise.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Don't believe what people say - III

Apparently, one reason why some students of JNU were suspended was because they had a puja of Mahishasur instead of Durga. This is ridiculous. By that criterion, I can also be dubbed an anti-national since I am not a  fan of any gods, goddesses or godlets. I remember reading that those who talk the most about Indian culture know the least about it. In Doubt: A History, Jennifer Hecht says that the Cervakas in 7th century BC were the earliest example of radical doubt in the human record. Some of their views may be more extreme than those of the New Atheists.

(I have not been reading any literature criticizing religion for about 3 years now- except the book Doubt: A History. I decided to take the Issac Asimov route: 'I don't have the evidence to prove that God doesn't exist, but I so strongly suspect he doesn't that I don't want to waste my time'. I also saw a note of caution by Gandhi who now seems wiser than anybody who has studied in a business school - 'I am prepared to maintain that humbugs in worldly matters are far worse than the humbugs in religion.')

I learnt later that there are tribes that worship Mahishasur. There is an attempt to push one version of Hinduism modeled on the Semitic religions and having the gods and and rituals of the upper castes. In the process, the folk religions of Scheduled Castes, tribals and other disadvantaged sections of society are ignored. (This process is by no means happening only in the last couple of years.)  The religion of Hinduism can more properly be viewed as a collection of Hindu religions.

In his essays, A.K. Ramanujan indicates why there is no simple formula for 'unity' and 'diversity' in the Indian subcontinent. He says that "India doesn't have one past but many pasts. There are many different traditions like Brahmanism, bhakti traditions, Buddhism, Jainism, tantra, tribal traditions and folklore, modernity as well as Islam and and Christianity all of which have porous borders. 'They look like single entities, like neat little tents, only from a distance.' (A study shows that about 11% of the communities in India cannot be clearly identified as belonging to any of the conventionally defined religious groups.)

The attempt to force one version of Hinduism was seen in forcing a ban on 300 Ramayanas, A.K. Ramanujan's essay which gives an idea of the various versions of the Ramayana in existence. In Folktales from India, Ramanujan writes about the tales, 'Figures of power like kings, the law, Brahmans and gurus, gods and goddesses...are all shown to be stupid, easily outwitted and all too flawed.' In instances where a ban is sought, it is said that the sentiments of Hindus is hurt. The question is: which Hindus?

The gods of Hinduism are not the remote incomprehensible gods common in most other religions. And like in Indian epics, there is something of a demon in a god and something of a god in a demon. Thus gods and demons are not wholly good or wholly bad; they are only relatively good and relatively bad. Onam, the main festival of Kerala (some people may know it better as India’s Somalia!), is celebrated in the memory of a demon-king whose reign was supposed to be just and prosperous till he was finally deceived by a pious Brahmin. So a demon-king has the last laugh in God’s own country!

There was an attempt by the BJP to call Onam Vaman Jayanti, Vaman being the dwarf avatar of Vishnu who deceived the demon-king. (The Indian category 'asuras' is not exactly coincident with the Western category 'demons' although it is generally translated into English as such.) It was another attempt to make the non-conforming bits of Hinduism conform to one dominant narrative.

In a video, an audience member says that it would be a good idea to make Sanskrit compulsory in schools - the student would then be able to read the  ancient Sanskrit literature for themselves and find out how distorted is the view of Indian culture being currently propagated. He adds tongue in cheek that it will also enable them to read some good erotic poetry! In a couple of essays in Bonfire of Creeds, Ashis Nandy says:
Since about the middle of the nineteenth century...there has been deep embarrassment and discontent with the lived experience of Hinduism...For nearly a hundred and fifty years, we have seen a concerted, systematic effort to eliminate these god and goddesses from Indian life or tame them and make them behave...these reformers wanted Indians to get rid of their superfluous deities and either live in a fully secular sanitized world in which rationalized and scientific truth would prevail or, alternatively, set up a regular monotheistic God, as 'proper' Muslims and Christians have done.
Those given to this modern version of religion find all other spiritual experience low-brow, corrupted and, thus, meaningless, uncontrollable and fearsome. That fear of religion of the uncontrollable kind (to which the majority of Indians of all faiths give their allegiance) is part of the fear of the vernacular, the democratic and the plural. It is the fear that the majority of Indians are religious in a way that is not centrally controllable and does not constitute a 'proper' religion in contemporary times.
As a slight digression , there is  an interesting story (probably apocryphal) that Ashis Nandy tells about the depth of devotion to Ram of the politically vocal Rambhakths. During his only visit to an RSS shakha, Gandhi saw the portraits of some of the famous martial heroes of Hindutva like Shivaji and Rana Pratap on the walls. Being a devotee of Ram, Gandhi asked why no portrait of Ram had been put up as well. The  RSS leader who was accompanying him around said, ‘No, that we cannot do. Ram is too effeminate to serve our purpose.’