Thursday, July 17, 2014

Chetan Bhagat, West Asia and the limits of Technocratism

I have been questioned on why I mocked Chetan Bhagat in this tweet. I have been giving several responses, but decided to compile a few of them to highlight my views and the reasons I chose to mock a certain tweet of his on the Israel-Palestine issue, which Mr. Bhagat described as out of context since it was part of a set of three. Perhaps not worth quibbling too much but a few points are in order.

My comment in the tweet was NOT ABOUT IITs but about misplaced priorities and imagined excellences in the social and public discourses.
IITs and IIMs, as far as I know, are not schools that teach politics or international affairs. Brains are required to learn any subject, and not all brains or not all schools are good enough to substitute each other. I am a master's in political science, and I don't think I can comment on bridges or factory equipment -- a civil engineer or a mechanical engineer may be better at that. An IITan will do fine for these subjects, thank you. I should expect C Bags to comment on why the Mumbai Metro got delayed, with his knowledge of engineering and management.
Someone compared with this politicians protesting on the same subject and questioned their legitimacy vis-a-vis Bhagat who studied in "the best of institutions".
It is important to differentiate between politicians who speak out of constituency concerns (Any vote bank leader) and others who are qualified (such as Jaswant Singh, Shashi Tharoor etc). Same goes for commentators. A pulpish writer taking positions on international conflicts based on casual knowledge is decidedly questionable. As an individual, he can voice his views. "It's complicated" when the person in question acquires questionable social legitimacy because he studied in a particular place or because he wrote a love story that went to Bollywood! People who have spent decades looking at this with a shade or two deeper perspective reserve their right to make the occasional caustic remark on such.
My quibble is on what defines the "best of institutions" -- The Bhatkande Music School is also "best of institutions" in its chosen field. IIT is about engineering. IIM is about management. There are excellent universities that teach social sciences, humanities, politics etc. So I compare within the category.
The aura built around Bhagat, which is a composite creature, has layers that invited my comment. His being an IIT+IIM pedigree is part of the general Indian middle class image or aura built around him.
You would rarely find a humanities major venturing to comment on serious engineering matters, with or without preambles. His comment shows the trivialisation of humanities and the faux aura built around "technocrats" that needs to be challenged. This is just my two-cent attempt. IITs are engineering schools. It is time to see them for what they are.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Boats to ferry votes in India's backwaters

FEATURE-Boats to ferry votes in India's backwaters.

By Narayanan Madhavan

(c) 1998 Reuters Limited

ALAPPUZHA, India, Feb 19 (Reuters) - A tourist brochure calls it the "Venice of the East". Locals call it Kuttanad -- which loosely translates as "the netherlands".

When the state of Kerala votes in India's general elections on February 28, officials will carry ballot boxes on boats around this unique corner of India as the state's backwaters participate in the world's biggest democratic exercise.

Boat travel is already de rigueur for political activists in the region, where some small islands have just one house each.

"The boat is a part of their daily routine," V.R. Padmanabhan, the chief of the district of Alappuzha, told Reuters of the people of Kuttanad, which lies one metre (three feet) below sea level on the Arabian Sea coast.

"It is considered an extension of their physical body."

About three-quarters of the 100,000 voters in the low-lying region live in villages that can be reached only by boat.

"In certain areas we have to go to small islands in the middle of the backwaters. Women officers are exempted from going there," Padmanabhan said.


There are six polling centres in Kuttanad, which falls in the constituency of Alappuzha

Despite the difficulties of transport, local residents take their right to vote seriously. Alappuzha recorded a 75 percent voter turnout in the last elections in 1996.

Spices from the hilly areas of the state come laden in large boats to the backwaters from where they go to the port city of Cochin, which now has an international pepper exchange.

The green waters, lush paddy fields, coconut tree and swaying fishing boats made of coconut wood have made the landscape a magnet for tourists.

Fishermen and farmers in cotton sarongs work in the lazy afternoon sun as the sound of motorboat engines mixes sleepily with the breeze.


But despite the idyllic setting, the region has plenty of political issues to address in the election, India's second in as many years. Voting in all but two constituencies are spread between February 16 and March 7.

Kerala state authorities have tried to develop Kuttanad as a holiday destination marked by rented houseboats and herbal body massages.

But its citizens say a more pressing priority is clean drinking water, which, despite the excess of water all around, is scarce. Health care facilities are also in short supply.

In fact, government efforts to boost tourism and agriculture have even exacerbated some of the region's problems, many residents say.

Villagers are used to drinking water from upland rivers in the region except during the monsoon season, when sea waters enter the area.

But local villagers say the tourist houseboats pollute their waters with plastic garbage and human excrement.

"As a result we get diarrhoea and itches," said rice farmer Scaria Joseph.

"Houseboats come and anchor at night near our villages. They do all sorts of things and we get diseases," says Puduveedu Sugunanandan. "We can't drink this water any more."


Officials say the use of pesticides to boost paddy crops has contributed to the water contamination. District authorities in Alappuzha send 10 boats carrying 3,000 litres of drinking water daily to the region, but its citizens say the water does not reach everybody.

"Drinking water is a major problem, especially in Kuttanad," admitted C.S. Sujatha, the Alappuzha candidate for the Communist Party of India-Marxist, which rules Kerala state.

The state government was trying to bring clean river water to the region, but needed funds and time, Sujatha said.

"The pumping capacity does not exist. We need a proper system to bring drinking water, whereas people think it is simply a matter of building pipelines," she added.

As for health care, authorities send doctors and mobile clinics to the villages, but regular medical help is not easy to establish.

"Doctors are reluctant to work in Kuttanad," Sujatha said.

The area's uniqueness has been a draw for tourists, but Sujatha said this uniqueness also brought with it peculiar problems which were not easy to solve.

($1 = 38.7 rupees)

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Liberal Indian sultan inspires religious harmony

FEATURE-Liberal Indian sultan inspires religious harmony. By Narayanan Madhavan (c) 2002 Reuters Limited SRIRANGAPATNA, India, March 25 (Reuters) - On an island where the swirling, green waters of the Lokapavani river meets the coconut-palm fringed Cauvery, some see not only a confluence of rivers, but also one of religions. While India reels from the worst Hindu-Muslim violence in a decade, Srirangapatna, the island centre of Tipu Sultan's late 18th century rule, offers an oasis of lessons in religious amity. As Hindu Brahman men with shaven heads and women in colourful sarees sat side by side with an old, bearded Muslim man washing his clothes under the morning sun, a muezzin at Tipu's mausoleum nearby praises him for blazing a trail of peace. "It is the sultan's prayer," the Muslim holy man says. "And it is the sultan's command." An admirer of the French Revolution and early rocket science, the sultan who ruled for 16 years to 1799 over a large swathe of southern India is now an inspiration for liberal Muslims. In late March, an institute named after Tipu will start a multi-disciplinary course for Muslim clergymen, based on the ruler's philosophy that Islam is tolerant. Kamaruddin Rahman, a former United Nations adviser who is setting up the Tipu Sultan Advanced Study and Research Centre, told Reuters the one-year programme was intended to remove narrow perceptions fostered by "madrassas" or Islamic schools. The course would teach the clergy comparative religion, English, environmental studies and information technology. It aims to turn Friday prayers into a forum for social integration. ISLAM MISUNDERSTOOD Rahman said Islam abhors extremism, and its concept of holy war is often misunderstood. "The word jihad is misused," he said. "It means struggle towards perfection and against inner weaknesses and ego." Rahman and Ziaulla Sheriff, a real estate tycoon funding the project, held seminars in northern India's Nadwa and Deoband Muslim schools last year, and have shortlisted 20 priests from 100 applicants for the course. "We had difficulty in selling the idea to the madrassas," Rahman said. "Citizen Tipu", as the sultan called himself, was depicted in portraits as a moustached, well-built man sporting a turban and gold-laced frock-like tunic. He fell to British fire at the age of 48 in his fourth war with the colonial rulers, but his legacy continues. His reign from Srirangapatna, located about 120 km (75 miles) from Bangalore, is seen as a model for a secular, democratic India offering equal rights for Muslims, who make up 12 percent of the country's one billion people. Hindus and Muslims on the island seem unperturbed by the religious riots in western Gujarat state, which have claimed more than 700 lives in under a month, or by the dispute between Hindus and Muslims in the northern town of Ayodhya that led to the violence. Rahman said the school will eventually have a sprawling complex costing about 500 million rupees ($10.3 million), but would start this month with open-air classes. "It is a beautiful location," he said. "A sangam (confluence) of rivers and of all religions". REFORMER An epitaph describes the sultan as a "defender of the faith" but his followers say Tipu was a modern reformer as well. "Italy got renaissance, Germany had reformation and France a revolution. He combined all these things in himself," Professor Sheik Ali told Reuters in Mysore, a town near the island. Ali, a top authority on the sultan and a former vice-chancellor at Mangalore University, said freedom-loving Tipu admired French thinkers Rousseau and Voltaire, and sought military help from Napoleon to fight the British. In the sultan's summer palace, now a tourist attraction, a colourful mural shows French cavalrymen in long hats, red overcoats and white breaches fighting alongside him. The sultan also had a passion for rocket science, which led him to build a 5,000-strong rocket corps. Rockets helped the army of Tipu's father, Haider Ali, to a famous victory over the British in 1780. Tipu inherited his dislike of the British from his father but also a liberal outlook inspired by Islam's Sufi sect that preaches unity of humankind. And both loved gardens. The sultan built Lal Bagh, or Red Garden, one of several attractions that anointed Bangalore as India's Garden City before it became a technology centre. RELIGIOUS TOLERANCE But above all else, Tipu is seen as a man who preached religious harmony, though a few stray and much rebuffed accounts describe him as a fanatic. An Internet site set up by his admirers ( quotes him as saying: "The (Koran) calls upon you not to revile the idols of another religion for it says: Revile not those unto whom they pray beside Allah lest they revile Allah through ignorance." Professor Ali said the sultan wrote to a well-known Hindu Shankaracharya (pontiff) to pray for his kingdom's welfare and once employed Hindus as prime minister and commander-in-chief. Srirangapatna is named after a temple to the Hindu god of protection, Vishnu. Pilgrims flock to the temple, whose tower overlooks a mosque built in 1787 which houses an Arabic school. "The saying goes that he (Tipu) would listen to the temple bells and muezzin's azan with equal respect," Ali said.