Saturday, August 30, 2014

Tolerance of dissentinting opinions- II

In India the choice could never be between chaos and stability, but between manageable and unmanageable  chaos, between humane and inhuman anarchy, and between tolerable and intolerable disorder. - Ashis Nandy, sociologist 

In the years after Independence, the civil service  was shielded from politics so promotions, transfers and the like were not dependant on whether you please your political masters. Post retirement sinecures were not dangled before them as inducements to toe the line. These days, almost  the first action of any  government is to transfer bureaucrats perceived to be loyal to the previous government and appoint their own favorites. If all top decision makers think similarly, there is a problem. (The same thing happens in corporates where a new CEO surrounds himself with yes-men and refers to them as 'my team'.) Ramachandra Guha says in India after Gandhi:
As P.S. Appu points out, the founders of the Indian nation-state respected the autonomy and integrity of the civil services. Vallabhai Patel insisted that his secretaries should feel free to correct or criticize his views,so that the minister, and his government, could arrive at a decision that was the best in the circumstances. However, when Indira Gandhi started choosing chief ministers purely on the basis of their loyalty to her, these individuals would pick their subordinates by similar criteria. Thus, over time, the secretary of a government department has willingly become an extension of his minister's voice and will. 
Following Indira Gandhi's massive victory in the 1971 General Elections, Kushwant Singh commented ,"...if power is voluntarily surrendered by a predominant section of the people to one person and at the same time opposition is reduced to insignificance, the temptation to ride roughshod over legitimate criticism can become irresistible." Ambedkar had warned against the dangers of bhakti or hero-worship, of placing individual leaders on a high pedestal and treating them as immune from criticism. Ramachandra Guha writes:
...most political parties have become extensions of the will and whim of a single leader. Political sycophancy may have been pioneered by the Congress Party under Indira Gandhi, but it is by no means restricted to it. Regional leaders such as Mulayam, Lalu and Jayalalithaa revel in a veritable cult of personality, encouraging and expecting craven submission from their party colleagues,and their civil servants and the public at large. Tragically, even Ambedkar has not been exempted from this hero worship. Although no longer alive, and not associated with any particular party, the reverence for his memory is so utter and extreme that it is no longer possible to have a dispassionate discussion about his work and legacy.
Witness the furor over an innocuous cartoon that both Ambedkar and Nehru would have laughed over. Many people seem to take themselves too seriously and lack a sense of humour. Arguing with people who lack a sense of humour is an impossible task. As is arguing with people who are proud of their ignorance, as Christopher Hitchens says while discussing the fatwa on Salman Rushdie.

As soon as some senior person raises his or her voice against the ruling party, CBI, Income tax dept. etc seem to find cases against them. The CBI is a useful tool to harass your opponents so no government will grant it autonomy. They will all speak in self righteous tones when in opposition but will sing a different tune when in power. It is like the Women's Reservation Bill - everybody seems to be for it but it never gets through parliament.

Have you heard one word from the BJP about CBI autonomy even though they had made a lot of noise about it earlier? Don't tell me you are surprised.Saying one thing when in the Opposition and doing something  else when in Government is nothing new. One is reminded of the conclusion of George Orwell's Animal Farm: 'The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.'

Whenever I hear comments in news channels like 'people are wise', 'people know the truth', 'people can't be fooled', etc., I can't help smirking. Really? Winston Churchill's most famous comment is that 'democracy is the worst form of government if it were not for the rest' but he also said that 'the best argument against democracy is a two minute conversation with a vvoter'. Talk about 'informed voters' reminds me of a nurse who asked me, "What is this BJP? Is it Congress?" Kejriwal will say ,"I told  you so."

Democracy often works because of the idea of emergence - a lot of units that are individually stupid giving rise to group intelligence - but there are some assumptions in it which could cause problems. Even the wisest and most educated among us have only a partial idea of what is really going on and we reach our own conclusions based on our own biases. (You don't have theses biases of course. I mean other people.) Like the protagonist of Joseph Heller's Something Happened, you never really know what happens behind closed doors.Contrary to what this song says, the public doesn't know many things.

PS : Democracy of Our Times, a talk by Prof. AndrĂ© BĂ©teille

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Tolerance of dissenting opinions- I

It is not the function of our government to keep the citizens from falling into error; it is the function of the citizen to keep the government from falling into error. - US Supreme Court Justice Robert R. Jackson

I came across an interesting comment by J.B.S.Haldane in Ramachandra Guha's India after Gandhi. Haldane was a famous British biologist who moved from London in 1956 to reside in Calcutta. He joined the Indian Statistical Institute and became an Indian citizen. He once described India as 'the closest approximation to the Free world'. When an American friend protested at this surprising statement, he said:
Perhaps one is freer to be a scoundrel in India than elsewhere. So one was in the USA in the days of people like Jay Gould, when (in my opinion) there was more internal freedom in the USA than there is today. The 'disgusting subservience' of the others has its limits. The people of Calcutta riot, upset trams, and refuse to obey police regulations, in a manner which would have delighted Jefferson. I don't think their activities are very efficient, but that is not the question at issue.
The reference to Jefforson is because he believed that one of the chief duties of a citizen is to be a nuisance to the government of his state. I saw this comment at around the time when there was news about an IB report about Greenpeace. The report sounded silly stating that Greenpeace reduced India's GDP by 2-3%. Greenpeace is an advocacy group that puts forth its point of view and there are others who convey the opposite point of view. If there is anything illegal, prosecute them otherwise what is the problem? Magnifying the effect of a contrary position is a good strategy before clamping down on it.

In some talk show, a BJP spokesperson said they have nothing against NGOs who do "good work" but will act against NGOs that "create mischief". Who defines these terms? What is "good work"  for me may be "creating mischief" for you. One BJP spokesperson implied that the IB should  not be criticised. No institution, individual or idea can be beyond criticism otherwise it becomes the refuge of choice for scoundrels. A prime example of this is religion.

In a talk show about something else, about 70% of the studio audience was in favour of a proposition. A BJP spokesperson said that if you ask the same question in a year's time, 100% of the audience will support it. I would be uncomfortable living in a society where 100% of the people are for something. That level of conformity is a ready recipe for an unscrupulous leader to '"create mischief". We are not talking of philosopher kings here. If we know only our side of the argument, there is a problem. In his celebrated  treatise, On Liberty, John Stuart Mill says:
If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind..... If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan writes:
Even a casual scrutiny of history reveals that we humans have a sad tendency to make the same mistakes again and again. We are afraid of strangers or anybody who's a little different from us.When we get scared, we start pursing people around. We have readily accessible buttons that release powerful emotions when pressed. We can be manipulated into utter senselessness by clever politicians. Give us the right kind of leader and, like the most suggestible subjects of the hypnotherapists, we'll gladly do anything he wants - even things we know to be wrong.
Most of us are for freedom of expression when there is a danger that our own views will be suppressed. We are not upset though when views we despise encounter a little censorship here and there.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Prediction

I sometimes deliberately delay getting new books in order to re-read some old books. I would have forgotten many things in these books so it will be almost like reading new books. I thus read again India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha. It is a book that I liked because it covers a period of history that does not appear elsewhere. It was interesting to read about things I had very little idea of like integration of princely states, resettlement of refugees after partition, debates in the Constituent Assembly, linguistic reorganisation of states (language can still evoke passions as shown in this debate), etc.

I had mentioned earlier that long-term predictions about complicated situations are generally off the mark.  In this book, there are many mentions of dire predictions about India's disintegration and slide into military dictatorship which did not happen. But there is mention of an article called "After Nehru..."  by  an anonymous writer that appeared in the Economic Weekly in the summer of 1958 which contains predictions of broad trends that have generally come true.

In 1958, Jawaharlal Nehru had been Prime Minister of India for 11 years. He was around 70, and the last representative of the old guard within the Congress. The great men who had worked with him in uniting and integrating India were all gone or going. Vallabhbhai Patel was dead, Maulana Azad was on his death-bed, Govind Ballabh Pant was ailing and Chakravarti Rajagopalachari was in retirement. The party, and nation, were both held together by the moral authority and prestige of the PM. There was no obvious successor among the next generation of Congressmen. What would happen after he was gone? This was the question being addressed by the writer:
The prestige that the party will enjoy as the inheritor of the mantle of Tilak, Gandhi and Nehru will inhibit the growth of any effective or healthy opposition during the first few years. In later years as popular discontent against the new generation of party bosses increases, they will, for sheer self-preservation, be led to make increasing attempts to capture votes by pandering to caste, communal and regional interests and ultimately even to `rig' elections.
The writer said that in this situation the Congress party would find it hard to resist the temptations of business interests. Thus
in a politico-economic system of mixed economy, in which the dividing line between mercantilism and socialism is still very obscure and control over the State machinery can give glittering prizes to the business as well as the managerial classes, the monied interests are bound to infiltrate sooner or later into the ruling cadres of the party in power.
Finally, the writer predicted that the growth of caste, communal and regional caucuses would lead to an "increasing instability of Government first in the States and later also at the Centre". This instability, in turn, might also lead to a competitive patriotism among the different national parties.
for instance, the Congress Party may try to unite the nation behind it by warning of the dangers of `balkanisation', the Jan Sangh by playing up the fear of aggression from Pakistan, the P[raja] S[ocialist] P[arty] by emphasising the competition between India and China and the Communist Party by working up popular indignation against dollar imperialism.
Who was this far-sighted writer? Ramachandra Guha speculates that he might have been a Western political scientist, who would have felt constrained to write anonymously about a controversial subject concerning another country. A more likely possibility according to him is that he was a civil servant precluded by his job from speaking out in his own name. This latter possibility is suggested by the remark that "senior civil servants are hoping that they will retire before Nehru goes"

During an Internet search, I came across this article by Ramachandra Guha with the sub-heading " `... do you think there is any chance that he could have written it?'
'He' referred to Nehru.

P.S.: Here is a talk by Ramachandra Guha on Indian Democracy's Mid-Life Crises

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Myopic discounting

Myopic discounting is the tendency of people to prefer a large late reward to a small early one but then to flip their preference as time passes and both rewards draw nearer.  For eg., you decide before dinner to skip dessert (a small early reward) in order to lose weight (a large late one) but succumb to temptation at the time of placing the order. Or a person will give up smoking in order not to risk lung cancer but will start smoking again when friends tempt him. In How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker writes about an economist named Schelling:
Though myopic discounting remains unexplained,Schelling captures something important about its psychology when he roots the paradox of self-control in the modularity of the mind. He observes that "people behave sometimes as if they had two selves: one who wants clean lungs and long life and another who adores tobacco, or one who wants a lean body and anther who wants dessert, or one who yearns to improve himself by reading Adam Smith on self-command...and another who would rather watch an old movie on television. The two are in continual contest for control." When the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, such as in pondering a diet-busting dessert, we can feel two very different kinds of motives fighting within us, one responding to sights and smells, the other to doctors' advice.
I observed myopic discounting happening in me a few months ago when Jaya had to undergo a routine operation to remove the gall bladder. She was suffering from occasional pain in the abdomen and scans had revealed the presence of gall stones. She was told that surgery was not urgent because the issue with gallstones is that only a third of population with gall bladder stones become symptomatic and the rest stay undiagnosed or have no symptoms and can live with it all their life. She could wait and if the pain became frequent later, she could have the surgery.

The problem was that if she had to go in for surgery later and there was no home nurse at that time who could understand my dumb charades then we would find ourselves caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Or between a rock and a hard place. Whichever was worse. (One wag said that Bush was caught between Iraq and a hard place!) At that point of time there was a home nurse who could understand me so we felt that it wold be safer to get  the surgery done immediately rather than wait for a later time when we may be caught between, well, maybe Scylla and Charybdis.

But as the date of the surgery neared, I began to hesitate. Jaya will not be able to lift any weight for some days so perhaps I will not be shifted to the chair for a while? The watchman volunteered to do it along with the nurse but I was not sure how they will manage. The nurse could understand my dumb charades but Jaya will not not be able to assist for a while so there will be some discomfort. Maybe Jaya belongs to the 2/3 part of the population who live comfortably with gall bladder stones? Is prompt surgery really required?

Fortunately I resisted the temptation to postpone the surgery. Everything went off quite well and I only had minor discomforts during Jaya's period of rest. The alternative scenario of perhaps having surgery when there may have been no nurse would have been a nightmare.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014


Sometime back I saw some photographs that I didn't know I had. I decided to put some here along with a couple of my school photographs that I stumbled across on a friend's Facebook page.

This is a photograph from Std. V or VI. The best part of it was that I didn't know where I was. Jaya had to point me out to me.

Where am I?

This is a rare photograph of a school picnic because I don't think I have ever again worn such a psychedelic shirt. (Whenever I see this song from the Malayalam movie Classmates, I am reminded of this trip - not because of any incident in the movie but because this song involves a college bus trip. Incidentally, the movie contains one of my favorite Malayalam songs.)

Red Storm Rising

A time when this song fit:

With Jaya soon after our marriage was fixed

On tour in Bangalore with friends from Bajaj Auto Ltd.

Looking sophisticated in Lungi at IIMA

My room at IIMA

With my doom mates at IIMA

Sujit when he was about six months old

Sujit when he was 3 years old

(Sujit is now in a boarding school in Kodaikanal.)

In Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry, when  Gustad Noble walks around  Chor Bazar in Mumbai, it brings back a flood of memories from childhood and he muses, "How little it took to wake up so many sleeping memories." Indeed!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Attitude of a teacher

Further to my rant about educational standards, there was an incident that I wanted to mention. When one student who had scored just above 80% went for admission to Std. XI in his own school, the vice-principal shouted at him and told him that he was 'unfit' to be given admission in the school. How can a teacher talk like that to a student even if he had scored 40%? In this article, Richard Dawkins writes about the attitude of Sanderson of Oundle, a much-loved educator of long ago:
Far from coveting garlands in league tables by indulging the high flyers, Sanderson's most strenuous labours were on behalf of the average, and specially the "dull" boys. He would never admit the word: if a boy was dull it was because he was being forced in the wrong direction, and he would make endless experiments to find how to get his interest... he knew every boy by name and had a complete mental picture of his ability and character. It was not enough that the majority should do well. "I never like to fail with a boy," he once said.
In spite of - perhaps because of - Sanderson's contempt for public examinations, Oundle did well in them. A faded, yellowing newspaper cutting dropped out of my secondhand copy of Wells's book: "In the higher certificates of the Oxford and Cambridge School examinations Oundle once again leads, having 76 successes. Shrewsbury and Marlborough tie for second place at 49 each."
In this TED talk, Melinda Gates says that whatever facilities are provided will be useless in the absence of an effective teacher. In the above article, Dawkins writes about his recollection of a zoology class.
I recall a lesson about Hydra, a small denizen of still fresh water. Mr Thomas asked one of us, "What animal eats Hydra?" The boy made a guess. Non-committally, Mr Thomas turned to the next boy, asking him the same question. He went right round the entire class, with increasing excitement asking each one of us by name, "What animal eats Hydra? What animal eats Hydra?" And one by one we guessed. By the time he had reached the last boy, we were agog for the true answer. "Sir, sir, what animal does eat Hydra?" Mr Thomas waited until there was a pin-dropping silence. Then he spoke, slowly and distinctly, pausing between each word.
"I don't know... (crescendo) I don't know... (molto crescendo). And I don't think Mr Coulson knows either. (Fortissimo) Mr Coulson! Mr Coulson!"
He flung open the door to the next classroom and dramatically interrupted his senior colleague's lesson, bringing him into our room. "Mr Coulson, do you know what animal eats Hydra?" Whether some wink passed between them I don't know, but Mr Coulson played his part well: he didn't know. Again, the fatherly shade of Sanderson chuckled in the corner, and none of us will have forgotten that lesson. What matters is not the facts but how you discover and think about them: education in the true sense, very different from today's assessment-mad exam culture.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


Once the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly happily fluttering around doing as he pleased. He suddenly woke up and didn't know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or he was a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. I was in a similar state of confusion when I started regaining consciousness after my stroke. But all through that period of haze, I remembered some dreams that I had seen during that period of unconsciousness:

  1. There  was a lighted candle near my bed. A  nurse periodically came to my room, looked at the candle and went away. The sense I  got was that she was checking to see if the flame had gone out which would signal my death.  She seemed to be saying, “Out, out, brief candle!"but the flame never went out.
  2. A large crowd seemed to be gathered for my funeral and my body was lying nearby. a large black bird was flying high in the sky and everyone was looking at it.  The sense I got was that I was not yet dead and that my death would be signalled by the bird flying away.Everyone was waiting for the bird to disappear but it never did.
  3. My body seemed to be lying on what looked like the moving belt of an assembly. The belt seemed to be moving towards what I felt was a furnace in an electric crematorium. (I have never seen an electric crematorium.) When I passed inside the furnace, I cringed at the prospect of getting roasted but the temperature never rose.

Memory is a very unreliable chronicler of events so much so that someone said that all autobiographies should come with a warning  "based on facts". My memory of the dreams could be even more suspect since they happened such a long time ago and they are after all dreams but I can assure you that they are "based on facts".

 I related them to Jaya after our communication protocol was well established. I then didn't dwell on them figuring that they would have been random images caused by  the firing of different parts of the brain due to the various drugs that were being given and the various noises and voices that I used to hear. The bullshit detection meter in my brain was off and it was concocting fantastic stories.

I later read about Near Death Experiences (NDEs) which seemed somewhat similar to the dreams I had had. NDEs have some things in common: there are accounts of a bright light (the candle in my dream was a light but it was not bright); there will be descriptions of passing through a tunnel (I suppose going into the furnace in the electric crematorium was like passing through a tunnel although the experience was so long ago that I don't remember the details). In US people having NDEs write books about it which top best-seller lists. Sam Harris examines one such book.

Oliver Sacks has written a book called Hallucinations which guessed it...hallucinations that people have in various situations - in the haze when falling asleep or waking up, under the influence of drugs (medical or recreational), sleep deprivation, when blind , epilepsy, migraine and also when near death. About NDEs, he writes:
Kevin Nelson and his colleagues at the University of Kentucky have presented evidence suggesting that, with the compromise of cerebral blood flow, there is a dissociation of consciousness so that, although awake, the subjects are paralysed and subject to the dreamlike hallucinations characteristic of REM sleep ("REM intrusions") -- in a state, therefore. with resemblances to sleep paralysis(NDEs are also commoner in people prone to sleep paralysis). Added to this are various special features: the "dark tunnel" is correlated,Nelson feels, with the compromise of  blood flow to the retinas (this is well-known to produce a constriction of the visual fields, or  tunnel vision, and may occur in pilots subjected to high g-stresses). The "bright light" Nelson correlates with a flow of neuronal excitement moving from a part of the brain stem (the pons)  to subcortical visual relay stations and then to the occipital cortex. Added to all these neurophysiological changes may be a sense of terror and awe going with the knowledge that one is undergoing a mortal crisis -- some subjects have actually heard themselves pronounced dead -- and the wish that dying, if imminent and inevitable, should be peaceful and perhaps a passage to a life after death.
A curious happening was that my physiotherapist asked me about a neurological condition called narcolepsy which I had never heard about that was included in the plot of a Tamil movie that he had just seen called Naan sigappu manithan. A couple of days later, I read about it in this book.

Here is Oliver Sacks on Fora.TV about his book. He had written an article about NDEs, OBEs (out of body experience)and prayers. There was an Intelligence Squared debate on life after death.