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Anshul is a Political Science and Law graduate from the University of Delhi. He is interested in political, legal and policy developments and frequently writes on related themes. You can contact him on anshulkumarpandey [at] gmail [dot] com.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Amartya Sen vs The Clones of Hitler

This first appeared on Daily News and Analysis

The great fascist tamasha unfolding in India's political landscape threatens to brow beat and bully even the sanest voices of reason.

The communalists have only one thing to occupy themselves with, writes Dilip Simeon in his blog - spread hatred and cultivate hooliganism. Their ideas and practices, he continues, are the quintessence of patriarchy and machismo. Perhaps there has been no better vindication of these words through deeds than through the events of the past week. As soon as the word was out that Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate and distinguished Economist, was not a member of the Narendrabhai fan club, the right wing brigade on the social media immersed itself in a vicious campaign of ad hominem slandering.

This has been the standard repartee of the BJP fan boys. Unable to see beyond the constricted worldview of Hindutva which they unquestioningly gulp down in litres, their counter arguments and rebuttals have focused not on the merits of the argument put forward, but on the bona fides of the one putting forth the arguments. In such a scenario, even a Nobel laureate cannot escape the verbal lynching that is unleashed by people who do not even have comparable bona fides to begin with. The hooliganism practiced through threatening, bullying and malicious slandering knows no bounds and is safely practiced through the anonymous cover over the internet.

Such is the level of this intellectual vandalism that if you are a politically vocal observer using the social media, you would at one time think that the only option for 2014 and beyond for the development and advancement of India is to convert it into a minority free Hindu Rashtra. A false duopoly is created based on the Bush doctrine - either you are with us or against us. Political neutrality does not have any space in the ensuing discussions and if you try to be neutral, you are bound to be slapped with the label of a 'Muzzie' or a 'Congi Stooge' by some Tom, Dick or Harry. On such occasions, you lean back and heave a sigh, thanking your stars that this opinion exists in a bubble, and represents perhaps less than 3% of India's total population.

The main opposition party has been at the forefront of fanning these flames of hatred by covert or overt means. Moments after Sen's statement, BJP member of the Rajya Sabha and Editor of 'The Pioneer', Chandan Mitra, demanded that he be stripped of his Bharat Ratna when NDA returns to power the next time. Political sycophancy pervades the corridors of power we knew. But what we did not know was that some of our parliamentarians inhabit the same intellectual hemisphere as that of the trolls present online. Seen in the larger context of the freedom of speech and expression, this provides us a very worrying scenario of the analytical landscape of those occupying the seats of authority in a country already reeling with appalling shortage of application of the grey cells.

While such pandemonium persisted, another volcano erupted in the already scorched environs of Facebook and Twitter. This time, it was a crudely morphed allleged photograph of Sen's daughter in a skimpily clad manner. Circulated by the account of BJP Gujarat (official or unofficial, we do not know), this photograph had moral lessons plastered all over it for Dr. Sen. "Handle your daughter properly" it said, "instead of giving us lectures". There is no connection to be made between the personal life of Dr. Sen or his daughter and his statement on Modi, but then, that's an irrelevant observation. Logic is not one of the stronger areas of a fascist brigade blowing their own trumpet atop their moral high horse.

The slanderous vocabulary of the social media hindullectual receives patronage from the very top, when their leader uses phrases like 50 crore ki girlfriend or Kutte ka pilla in his addresses to the public and the media at large. It does not bother the conscience of those standing at the forefront of crowds ready to lap up and regurgitate such phrases as the gospel and when pointed out, the reply is a belligerent chest thumping of one's own patriarchal and sectarian credentials. Ignorance is indeed the marker of strength. One is reminded of Orwell's 1984 and of duckspeak as explained in this excerpted passage below:
Ultimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centres at all. This aim was frankly admitted in the Newspeak word duckspeak. Like various words in the B vocabulary, duckspeak was ambivalent in meaning. Provided that the opinions which were quacked out were orthodox ones, it implied nothing but praise, and when the Times referred to one of the orators of the Party as a doubleplusgood duckspeaker it was paying a warm and valued compliment.
Needless to say, the hindullectuals are indeed the masters of doubleplusgood duckspeak.

It is important, indeed very important, to grasp the graveness of this entire situation despite its blatant ridiculousness. By fabricating a militant consciousness of a false identity, the communal hate groups seek to further their own interest and in this grand fascist project, democratic ideals such as freedom of speech, expression and association, freedom of worship and faith etc. are but small sacrifices. Dilip Simeon calls these organized groups as 'clones of Hitler', as they are 'the champions of the fascist project to destroy democracy'. It is imperative that such cognitive homogeneity be arrested in its tracks since we have a limited capacity to bear the burden of only so many Hitlers.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Republic of Hurt Sentiments

This first appeared on Daily News and Analysis

The events of the past week involving the brouhaha over Kamal Hasan's latest film is a reminder of how intolerance and narrow mindedness has percolated the fabric of our society.

In 1927, Katherine Mayo, an American writer and Social Historian, released a book called 'Mother India' in which she highlighted the various ills of the Indian Society including the treatment of women, the Dalits and the 'character' of nationalistic politicians and made a case against Indian self rule. The book created a furore in the country with Mahatma Gandhi labelling it as "report of a drain inspector sent out with the one purpose of opening and examining the drains of the country to be reported upon, or to give a graphic description of the stench exuded by the opened drains." The book prompted at least 50 other books and pamphlets in response which rebutted all the arguments put forward by Mayo against Indian Independence. However, the most famous rebuttal came from Mehboob Khan, who wrote and directed a film by the same name. Mother India the movie needs no introduction. It is known to all and sundry in this country as Independent India's one of the most famous contribution to the world cinema, which lost the Academy Award for the best Foreign Film by a whisker.

Amartya Sen would agree when I say that the response to the publication of 'Mother India' highlighted the best Argumentative Traditions of the country at the time. Not only did the book receive powerful rebuttals that contradicted its claims, but in the end, the very idea of Mother India was usurped and transformed to rid it of all the negative connotations. However, while the India of 1927, with a tiny educated population responded in such an intellectually charged manner, it is a shame that the India of 21st Century has behaved like illiterati supreme over works of arts and literature that dwarf in comparison to Mayo's book. The events of the past few weeks regarding Kamal Hasan's Vishwaroopam or Ashis Nandy's comments over corruption in the country are an unfortunate reminder of how as a society we have become ultra intolerant towards differing points of view.

The social acceptability of a ban has encouraged the fringe political groups to soothe their sensitive egos in the limelight by jumping at a moment's notice to demand the immediate curtailment of someone's work of art or literature in the name of hurt sentiments. In a civilized society, those with hurt sentiments would have been immediately referred to a competent psychiatrist. Yet it is only in our country that these fringe elements, which rarely represent more than 5% of any community, are repeatedly entertained in the name of preserving 'law and order'. It is difficult to imagine how 20 people protesting a film can create a law and order situation for the entire city that would force the government to halt all the screenings in the entire state.

It is a mark of growing intellectual bankruptcy in the society that has allowed the conservative groups to rub the nose of artistic freedom on the ground and has sapped the vitality of the public sphere which allows an individual to make a reasoned judgement him/her self. It would not be wrong to say that in the absence of better debate and adequate control over these fringe groups, the state has shed its responsibility of protecting the freedom of speech and expression and has instead let these contractors of religion to dictate what's offensive and what's not. This is a dangerous practice inherently inimical to the values of the democracy that we so greatly cherish. For any progressive minded individual it is clear that the Muslims in the country are in a dire need of education and jobs. Instead of being treated like a vote bank, a mindset cruelly responsible for the steeply deteriorating respect for the freedom of expression in the country, they would be much happier if the government can provide them with a semblance of self respect by opening avenues of progress instead of bending over backwards every time a fringe group that does not even represent 5% of the community starts kicking and crying in the name of hurt sentiments.

One can only expect that the government recognizes the apotheosis of intolerance that the society has achieved and takes stringent remedial measures in order to restore an atmosphere of vibrant and level headed debate in the public sphere of the country where the power of brains instead of the power of lungs and numbers is recognized and heeded to.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Sexism in Science? No Kidding.

This first appeared in Daily News and Analysis

As Women enter workforce in the largest number for the first time in the history of human kind, they face entrenched bias and gender related hurdles even in the most unlikely areas.

In March 2012, a scientist employed by LabX Media Group, which owns LabWrench and publishes Lab Manager Magazine and The Scientist, decided to take her love of science away from the labs. She created a Facebook page called 'I Fucking Love Science' which soon started attracting people due to its often humorous and educative posts. However, when Elise Andrew decided to reveal her identity on the page last week, there was an explosion on Facebook. "What?" People wondered. "She is a SHE?"

As Andrews admitted in this interview with CBS, there were quite a few people who were shocked. That a woman administers and runs such a hugely popular page on Facebook (by the time of writing, her page has more than 4.3 million 'likes') came as a rude surprise to many. The National Geographic quoted Rita Colwell, a Molecular Biologist and University Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, as saying that "it was absurd and clearly indicates [that] although we've made progress over the past 40 to 50 years, we haven't made that much progress in behavior and attitudes".

Mrs. Colwell makes a valid point. Back in March, 2010, the New York Times reported on how bias in the scientific arena still posed a major hurdle in the career growth of Women (see infographic). Similarly, last June, Mark Fidelman of the Forbes Magazine wondered why were there so few women in technology related fields. Rejecting the old explanations (that women were not interested in Science, or wouldn't succeed at it or would not be happy and comfortable working in the field), he claimed that the main reason why there was a frustrating lack of women in technological fields was because women, while being interested in the field, were not choosing it because of the confusion regarding the various options and an ignorance about the economic potentials. To quote Fidelman:

"According to research by Penn Schoen and Berland (PSB), nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of teens have never considered a career in engineering. In another research study by Girl Scouts of America, only 13% of female teens say a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) related career would be their first choice. Why? It turns out Klawe was on to something. From the research results, PSB found that 74% of teens that considered engineering did so only after being explained the economic benefits and impact they can have on the world."

While Fidelman's logic does explain a great deal about what's wrong with women not opting for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) related careers in the US, it conveniently side steps the third reason: Why do women feel that they would be unhappy and uncomfortable working in STEM fields? As Andrew's experience clearly shows, the answer is Sexism. Of course Andrew in not the only victim of sexism. Last week, Adria Richards, an employee of Silicon valley based tech firm SendGrid, was unceremoniously fired from the company after she tweeted about the sexist comments being passed around at the PyCon Developers Conference in Santa Clara, which she was attending as an employee of the company. In an article posted on her site which details a blow by blow account of what occurred at the conference, Richards revealed her real motivation behind calling those two men out:

"I saw a photo on main stage of a little girl who had been in the Young Coders workshop. I realized I had to do something or she would never have the chance to learn and love programming because the ass clowns behind me would make it impossible for her to do so."

While terminating her employment, SendGrid did acknowledge the incident and its nature, but faulted Richards for her own conduct. According to the official statement issued on SendGrid's website:

"We understand that Adria believed the conduct to be inappropriate and support her right to report the incident to PyCon personnel. To be clear, SendGrid supports the right to report inappropriate behaviour, whenever and wherever it occurs. What we do not support was how she reported the conduct. Her decision to tweet the comments and photographs of the people who made the comments crossed the line. Publicly shaming the offenders – and bystanders – was not the appropriate way to handle the situation."

The issue of women in workplace in Silicon Valley has been red hot for quite some weeks now after the release of Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg's book 'Lean In', which deals with it. But what makes employees like Adria Richards keep getting fired and scientists like Andrews face sexist jokes? The real problem seems to be perception. According to Mrs. Colwell, there seems to be a perception problem among the larger population which sees women through the old fashioned glasses of tradition. As the nature and medium of technology and most importantly, work, changes, it is going to be rough for a populace that has grown accustomed to seeing half the population squat (according to them) at home - to see them come out and demand an equal share. It is refreshing to see this dialogue finally getting started in the US, whose media houses and publications scorned at the developing world last year for its high rates of crime against women. So the next time you go on a date or welcome a new person in the neighbourhood, do not be surprised if she turns out to be a scientist. After all, they are just starting to get your attention.