Category Archives: Science

রোহিত ভেমুলা ও ঘরের কাছের অন্ধকার

১৬ জানুয়ারী ২০১৬ অর্থাৎ যেদিন প্রধানমন্ত্রী নরেন্দ্র মোদি  ঘোষণা করলেন যে ২৫ কোটি টাকা অবধি দরের ‘স্টার্ট-আপ’ কোম্পানি খুলে ব্যবসা শুরু করলে ৩ বছর আয়কর দিতে হবে না, শ্রমিক অধিকার ও ভাতা ঠিকঠাক দেওয়া হচ্ছে কিনা, পরিবেশ দুষিত করা হচ্ছে কিনা, এসবের কোন কিছুরই সরকার ৩ বছর অবধি পর্যবেক্ষণ পর্যবেক্ষণ করবে না, ঠিক তার পরের দিন,  গত রবিবার একজন ছাত্র আত্মহত্যা করেছে। এরম আত্মহত্যা তো কতজন করেই থাকে, কতরকম কি হয় আজকাল – প্রেমঘটিত, অবসাদ, ‘ড্রাগস’। একজন পিএইচডি গবেষণারত ছাত্র আত্মহত্যা করেছে।  সে ক্ষেত্রে আবার যোগ হতে পারে ‘স্ট্রেস’। কিনতু তারপর যদি বলি গ্রামের ছেলে, ইংরেজি মিডিয়াম নয়, দলিত – এমন একজন আমার-আপনার শহরের নামী বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ে দু-চোখ জোড়া স্বপ্ন নিয়ে এসে আত্মহত্যা করেছে, তখুনো আমরা একটু হাতরাবো একটু ‘স্ট্রেস’, একটু প্রেম, একটু ‘ড্রাগস’। কিনতু তারপর যদি আরো বলি যে তার বৃত্তির টাকা পাঠাত সে বাড়িতে, তা দিয়ে তার বিধবা মায়ের চলত, তখন হয়ত ‘ড্রাগস’টা বাদ পড়বে। তারও পরে যদি বলি যে সে স্বাভিমান নিয়ে প্রকাশ্যেই বলত যে সে বাবাসাহেব আম্বেদকরের  আদর্শে বিশ্বাসী, সে মৃত্যুদন্ড বিরোধী – তা সে ইয়াকুব মেমনেরই হোক বা কাশ্মীরে কুনান-পোসপোড়ায় কাশ্মীরি নারীদের গণ-ধর্ষণ করা সৈন্যদেরই হোক (পরের মৃত্যুদন্ডটা হয়নি, কোন দন্ডই হয়নি) এবং সে কারণে সে ছিল আমার-আপনার রাষ্ট্রের ঠিকাদারী নেওয়া বিজেপি দলের ছাত্র সংগঠন এবিভিপির চক্ষুশূল, তালে হয়ত বলবেন ব্যাপারটি ‘গোলমেলে’। এবং আরো যদি বলি যে মৃত্যুদন্ডের বিরোধীতা করে মিছিল বার করার জন্য বিজেপির এক সাংসদের অঙ্গুলিহেলনে নতুন  দিল্লীর হুকুমে জো-হুজুরি করা এক কেন্দ্রীয় বিশ্ববিদ্যালয় উপাচার্য্য তাকে ছাত্রাবাস থেকে বহিস্কার করে।  যদি বলি যে তার সেই বৃত্তির টাকা, তার হকের টাকা সে পায়নি বেশ কয়েক মাস? যদি এটাও বলি যে তাকে দলিত বলে সামাজিক বয়কটের মুখোমুখি হতে হয়েছিল নতুন দিল্লির কেন্দ্রীয় সরকারের এদেশে চলা হায়দ্রাবাদ কেন্দ্রীয় বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ে? আর কি কি তথ্য লাগবে, সত্যের আর কত পরত ছাড়াতে হবে এইটা বুঝতে যে হায়দ্রাবাদ কেন্দ্রীয় বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ের বিজ্ঞানে পিএইচডি-রত ছাত্র রোহিত ভেমুলার মৃত্যু স্থুলভাবে একটি আত্মহত্যা হলেও একটি অন্য সর্বার্থেই একটি রাজনৈতিক হত্যা?

এই রাজনৈতিক হত্যা কে করেছে, তার একটা সহজ এবং চালক- দায়সারা উত্তর হয়।  সেটা হলো ‘সমাজ’। কিন্নতু  তাকে কি দলিত সমাজ মেরেছে? তাকে কি হিন্দু সমাজ মেরেছে? তাকে কি মোসলমান সমাজ মেরেছে? তাকে কি উচ্চ-বর্ণের হিন্দু সমাজ মেরেছে? বৈষম্যের পৃথিবীতে সমাজ বলে কিছু হয়না, বৈষম্যের টানাপোড়েনে, ঘাত-প্রতিঘাতে লিপ্ত থাকে নানা গোষ্ঠী, নানা সমাজ। বৈষম্যের কারণে এই বিভক্তি আবার এই বিভক্তিই হলো শক্তি। কারণ বহির্শত্রু নিপীড়ক গোষ্ঠীর বিরুধ্যে আত্মশক্তিকে সংগঠিত করার জন্য দরকার আভ্যন্তরীন ঐক্য। আর নিপিরিতের এই নিজে নিজে গোষ্ঠী তৈরী করে নিপীড়ক-কে মোকাবিলা করার প্রয়াসের বিরুধ্যে নানা পাল্টা চেষ্টা চলে, চেষ্টা চলে বৈষম্যগুলিকে বাদ দিয়ে নিপীড়কের ধান্দা অনুযায়ী বিশাল একতার দোকান খোলা, এমন দোকান যার প্রধান মালিক হবে নিপীড়ক, অংশ-মালিক হবে নিপীড়িতের মধ্যে থেকে তৈরী করা দালাল আর লাভের গুড় খাওয়া হবে সকল মানুষের ঐক্যের নাম।  নিপীড়কের ঐক্যের নানা দোকান আছে – সেসব দোকানের নানারকম নাম আছে – যেমন হিন্দুত্ব, ইসলাম, ভারত, ইন্ডিয়া, সমাজ, সুশীল, ইত্যাদি। রোহিত ভেমুলা এইসব স্বপ্ন দেখত এইসব দোকান ভেঙ্গে একদিন খোলা মাঠে মানুষের হাট-বাজার তৈরী হবে।

আমরা বঙ্গবাসী। রোহিত থাকত দূরে। সেই দূর থেকে তার বন্ধুরা জানিয়েছে যে দলিত বলে, তেলুগু মাধ্যমে পড়াশুনো করে উচ্চ-শিক্ষার স্বপ্ন দ্যাখার ধৃষ্টতা দ্যাখানোর জন্যে রোহিতকে এবং তার বন্ধুদের শুনতে হতো টিপ্পনি , হাসাহাসি করা হত মফঃস্বল গুনটুরের গন্ধ গায়ে লেগে থাকা স্বপ্নালু মানুষগুলিকে নিয়ে। আজকে চুনি কোটালের মৃত্যুর প্রায় ২৪ বছর পরে আমরা এমন এক শিক্ষা-

সংস্কৃতি তৈরী করেছি যেখানে মেডিকেল কলেজগুলিতে শহুরে আইসিএসই-সিবিএসইর রমরমা (যদিও পশ্চিমবাংলার ১০% ছাত্রছাত্রীও এইসব বোর্ডে পড়ে না), উত্কর্ষ-কেন্দ্র প্রেসিডেন্সিতে নানা বিষয়ের প্রবেশিকা পরীক্ষা যাতে বাংলায় না হয়, তার পাঁয়তাড়া করা হয় এই বাংলার মাটিতে থেকে, বসে, খেয়ে মোটা হওয়া একধরনের আরকাঠি  গোষ্ঠীর চক্রান্তে, যাদবপুরের তথাকথিত ‘কুল’ বিভাগগুলি থেকে বাংলায় কথা বলাদের পরিকল্পিত ভাবে হতে হয় হীনমন্যতার স্বীকার, সেখানকার  ইতিহাস বিভাগে বাংলায় স্নাতকোত্তর স্তরের উত্তর লেখার জন্য লাঞ্চিত হতে হয় প্রতিবন্ধী ছাত্র রামতনুকে, অন্য সময়ে ভুলে যাওয়া দিনে এই রকম-ভাবেই বাংলায় লেখার জন্য হেনস্থা হতে হতে আত্মহত্যা করেছিল যাদবপুরের ইতিহাস বিভাগের ছাত্রী পৌলমী সাহা। এই বাংলা বাংলা করলাম এতক্ষণ কারণ বৈষম্যের জন্য  বাংলা একটা উছিলা মাত্র। বাংলা মানে শহর কম মফঃস্বল বেশি গ্রাম আরো বেশি, বাংলা মানে বড়লোক কম গরীব বেশি, বাংলা মানে হাতখরচা কম টিউশনি বেশি, বাংলা মানে গাড়ি কম সাইকেল বেশি – অর্থাৎ বাংলা মানে সেই সংখ্যাগরিষ্ঠ যাকে জোর করে হারিয়ে দেবার চক্রান্ত চলছে আমাদের এই বাংলাদেশে। প্রেসিডেন্সি যত বাংলা-বিরোধী শহুরে-ইংরেজদের আখড়ায় পরিণত হবে, ততবেশী অসবর্ণ  অধ্যাপক  মহিতোষ মন্ডল লাঞ্ছিত হবেন এই-সকল ‘সুপার-কুল’ পোস্টমডার্ন আখড়ায়। মেডিকেল কলেজগুলি তত বেশি করে গুরগাঁও, নয়ডা ও ক্যালিফোর্নিয়ার ডাক্তার তৈরীর কারখানা হবে। বাংলার গণ-মানুষকে, অন্তজ জনতাকে  জোর করিয়ে হারিয়ে দেবার এই চক্রান্ত বন্ধ হওয়া দরকার। দরকার জনসংখ্যার অনুপাতে সর্বস্তরে সংরক্ষণ। দরকার বিরাট একতার বুটিক দোকান ভেঙ্গে হাট-বাজারের দাপাদাপি। রোহিত ভেমুলার  সুইসাইড নোটটি ইন্টারনেট-এ পাবেন। সেটিকে পড়ুন। বামুন-কায়েত বিপ্লবী আর রেডিকেল-দের অপরাধ-বিলাসের জন্য চে গেভারার মৃত্যু অবধি যেতে হবে না। রোহিত ভেমুলার মৃত্যু আমাদের অন্তরের অন্ধকারগুলিকে  প্রকাশ্যে আনতে সাহায্য করুক।                                        

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Filed under Acedemia, বাংলা, Bengal, Caste, Community, Elite, Our underbellies, Scars, Science, Under the skin, Urbanity

Tropical universities and knowledge production / University rankings and India / University rankings and Indian academia

[ Daily News and Analysis, 16 Sep 2013; Kashmir Reader, 17 Sep 2013; Millenium Post, 20 Sep 2013; Shillong Times, 21 Sep 2013; Hitavada, 22 Sep 2013; Echo of India, 25 Sep 2013]

As world rankings of universities are being discussed, we are back to that sad truth. No university in the subcontinent figures in the top 200 universities in the world. However, one would not realize this when one looks at the cocksureness and pomposity of desi academics in the subcontinent. There is a Bengali idiom called ‘Bon gaye sheyal raja’ which means that in a far-way forested village, even a fox can be king. Such is the state of affairs around us.

Some would have us believe that it was not always so. Around the time of the great uprising of 1857 led by the mercenaries of the East India Company, 3 universities were also established in the 3 presidency towns of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. In no small way the result of a 1854 dispatch sent by Charles Wood, a top dog of the Company, to James Broun-Ramsay, the then governor general of Company territories in the subcontinent, these 3 institutions continue to be important institutions of higher learning in the Union of India.

Founded in the same year, all these institutions celebrated 150 years of their existence, with a lot of pomp. I graduated from one of these afore-mentioned universities and I was present at more than one such ‘celebration’. Four years after 1857, on the other side of the globe, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the institution I am affiliated to at present, was established. I was also present at its 150-year celebration events. Thus I had the opportunity to compare what I had seen and heard in the subcontinent and in Massachusetts, USA. The difference could not have been starker. Much of what I heard in the sub-continental anniversary celebrations was about a supposed glorious past, long-standing ‘heritage’, a lot of talk about famous personalities associated with the institutions and gloating over all this. At MIT, almost invariably I heard about plans about the future – new avenues of research, newer expansions, and newer challenges. There was not much mention of personalities in the institute that has produced 78 Nobel laureates till date. Neither is MIT peppered with ‘museums’ dedicated to Nobel laureates. Museums are same as temples and mosques – places of praying for things to go right miraculously, not places of action.

In the subcontinent, when one thinks of MIT, a centre of excellence for research in engineering and technology is the typical impression. While that is true, according to the 2013 update of the well-regarded QS World University Rankings published last week, in the whole world, MIT is second only to Harvard in Biological Sciences and Economics. What this means is that it has not simply stuck to its one-time strengths but has actively diversified its ‘priorities’. In doing so, it has also shut down departments and divisions whose shelf life was perceived to be over. These are signs of a living institution in conversation with the cutting edge of knowledge production – situated squarely within the social needs and agendas of the society it derives meaning from.

In the QS rankings, MIT tops the list Harvard, Cambridge, Stanford, Yale, Oxford and Princeton are also among the top 10. It may be news to some readers that not one of the top 10 universities of the world has a department of botany at present. In most cases, they ceased to exist decades ago. All that remains are museums bearing that erstwhile department’s name. Contrast this to the large departments of botany in most universities of the subcontinent. May be there is something we get that ‘they’ don’t. Given that the occidental university system and department making is something that ‘they’ taught us, could it be that there is something they get that we don’t?

It is worthwhile to continue with the example of botany. When the white colonial powers set up universities in the subcontinent, why did they set up departments of botany? What knowledge did they seek to produce? For whose benefit? What made them wind up or fuse certain departments? To cut whose loss? All knowledge production and prioritization exists in a societal context – the colonizer’s societal context fashioned their decisions, at home and in the colonies. Given that we are not only inheritors of such university systems but also active perpetuators, do we have an appreciation of our own reasons to do so? Why are there so few institutions like the Indian Statistical Institute that was conceived in a social context, whose agenda is in conversation with the society it derives funding from and blooms in and also is a centre of excellence?

But then this is part of a bigger problem. So let me broaden the ambit a bit.Why do certain things, like homeopathy and psychoanalysis, have long after-lives in the once-colonized tropics compared to places from where they were imported? Lets hone in on psychoanalysis. To understand the mind, one needs to study the mind and yes, people are studying the mind. Much of these studies are not aimed towards illness or pharmaceuticals, in any foreseeable way. If some have a muse in the form of psycho-analysis, an outdated fad which has all but died except in ‘fields’ insulated from currents around them, they can have it. Just not with people’s funds. The tropics can ill afford it. Understanding the mind shouldnt be a dead idea but unverifiable tracts cannot replace inquiry and can hardly be called a knowledge project. And again, the social context is crucial to all these things. The question in the piece is, why do such things continue to live in tropics long after they are dead in their places of origin. The answer may partly lie in the very skewed class-caste composition in the academia of the subcontinent – this enables socially insulated indulgence to a dangerous degree.

When the site of knowledge production is far off and they cater primarily to needs of alien societies, transferred knowledge and ideas create a sense of awe. This results in a lack of confidence to manipulate, to break, to discard. In so far as universities are fountainheads of societal knowledge yearnings, what do our societies want to know? Have we even asked? We better start doing that. Otherwise we risk becoming expert cleaners and preservers of other people’s furniture, even lacking the confidence of changing the arrangement. However the cleaner’s wage is paid by our own brown people. This is how the third world continues down the path of being  2nd class at the 1st world’s priorities and it is mightily proud about it.

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My vote for pluralism

[ Open Magazine, 14 Sep 2013 ]

On one issue, there is no doubt. If there was a murder most foul – it was Narendra Dabholkar’s. The slain leader of the Maharashtra Andha Shraddha Nirmoolan Samithi was, by any measure, a well-wisher of the people. He was a strong supporter of inter-caste and inter-religious marriages. He had been fighting, for decades, an unwavering war against ‘black magic’ practitioners and had ruined the business for quite a few. Threat to his life was ever-present. It is thought that the recent airing of his views endorsing inter-caste marriages and his long-term push for an anti-superstition bill finally did him in.

A doctor by training, Narendra Dabholkar cut his teeth in rural social service with another doctor-turned-activist Baba Adhav during the “Ek gaav, ek panavtha” (One village, one pond) movement. What set Dabholkar apart from many atheist-rationalists is how his work was deeply embedded in society – not preaching from above but militantly conversing alongside. He earned his legitimacy by living an exemplary life. The widespread shock and anger on his murder points to that. Urban rationalist talking heads might learn a thing or two from his life before complaining for the umpteenth time how ignorant the people are. During his lifetime, he was painted, with partial success, as someone who was anti-religion. That view also has serious currency. It is important to see why.

Dabholkar led a crusade against the deleterious environmental effects of divine idols. Water pollution was the holy cow that was used to elicit a court order banning certain kinds of idol-making substance in Maharashtra. Is that being anti-religion or anti a particular religion? Who knows. But put back in the context of a world where the people see the pollution and choking of rivers, lakes and other waterbodies by large-scale industrial effluents going unpunished, this particular focus on water pollution from idols does carry a different charge.  What conclusion should those idol-worshippers draw, who see both the ban against plaster-of-paris idols and the unchecked water pollution from other sources? Believers are not donkeys.

It is not a coincidence that nearly all the self-styled gung-ho rationalists or ‘magic’-busters of the subcontinent are also staunch atheists. A stupendous majority of the people is not. However, when preaching rationalism, the preacher’s atheism bit is downplayed or made invisible. We are not against religion but against superstition, they say. Believers are not sheep either and can identify patronizing double-speak. They are naturally left unimpressed by those who claim to be sympathetic do-gooders but actually could give two hoots about people’s beliefs and viewpoints.

The grand failure of such atheist/rationalist projects, in spite of having the full weight of the constitution of the Indian Union behind them, also has to do with the patently alien idioms of communication and propaganda that they use. That the rationalist propagandists themselves are often alienated from the living currents of their own society does not help matters.

When a miniscule minority aims to scare, browbeat and threaten people of faith by trying to get legislation passed that criminalize practices that believers voluntarily submit to, what we have is a most naked use of privileged access. This privilege follows the usual path of undemocratic access in the subcontinent – urban backgrounds, English education, Delhi connections, friends in media and so on. Every time such legislation is passed, it undercuts democracy – for, in their spirit, such legislations seek to act as wise elders, running roughshod over the beliefs and opinions of the people at large. It may befit a sociopath to assume that the masses are either juvenile or imbecile or manipulated or in darkness. It hardly is the ideal characteristic of a socially engaged being in a democratic society. Every individual is a complete moral agent with as much intelligence and responsibility as the next one.

In the absence of empathy and respect towards difference – things that are the basis of a harmonious society, we have elitocracy. When some urban rationalists shamelessly clap at ‘anti-supersetition’ bills and legislations that few believers would agree to in a referendum, they often let the mask of false empathy and democratic pretense fall off from their faces. They can afford to do this as throwing stones at glass houses far from one-self has always been a very non-risky affair. Some excel at this. It is in the context of this snooty and privileged way of looking down and talking down to the believing unwashed masses that Ashis Nandy, the shaman of our times, had said ‘There are superstitions, and there are superstitions about superstitions.’ Others chose to work amongst the people and live (and some, like Dabholkar, unfortunately die) in the consequence of their actions. It is this latter kind which has won some legitimacy from the people.

In some ways, the work of rationalists should have become easier with rise of textual religion in many parts of the world, including the subcontinent. The level of canon literacy that exists now among the believers is truly unprecedented. But text also pins down belief, making it vulnerable to the kinds of tactics that rationalists use to expose certain practices. Ostensibly, contradictions between a certain belief and empirical reality can be shown more easily as scriptures and canons have taken up a largely immutable form by now. For example, followers of scriptures which claim a flat-earth or that the sun revolves around the earth are ripe for engagement as part of the rationalists’ ‘blind-faith’ removal programme. Rationalists have failed to do even that.

Reminding the body of believers that the development of ‘scientific temper’ is one of the ‘fundamental duties’ of the citizen according to the constitution of the Indian Union does not win any friends, neither does it challenge rationalists to develop meaningful ways of  engagement for their cause. This compounded by the notion that such ‘juktibadi’ (rationalist) types even look and act in a certain way. They are not different from other posturing social types like the faux-westernized body-art loving ‘rebellious’ 20-something yuppie of the post-liberalization era or the jhola-beard-jeans-chappal type communist youth of the same era. That certain rationalists chose to boycott all social occasions like marriage, funeral and so on as religious rites are performed there does not help in their social immersion.

Lived religion, like any other aspect of human life, is not something unpolluted from a changing world. Religion is not what it used to be and that is how it has always been. Religion has also taken up characteristics and props of this age of mass production of material goods, easy transport, mass media and increasing literacy in a few languages of dominance and power. The peculiarities of this age put their stamp on religion to create bizarre products that are as much characteristics of the age as they are of religion that consents to such corruption. In a way, that is how religion has always ‘survived’ in any meaningful sense of the word ‘survive’. However, to use the specific peculiarities of an age to paint religiosity or practices in general as a timeless evil is neither honest nor tactically smart. Constitutions and new ‘values’ that disappear almost as soon as they develop cannot and should not speak down to faith. This point becomes especially poignant when one quotes Karl Marx out of context – ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.’

Let me make a final point. What is it to be human is a question that is hard to answer but a significant part of the world population, including the present author, believes that there are multiple ways of being human. Faith elements that are non-textual, that are handed down in communities, that makes their presence known in myriad practices (some of which may qualify in rationalist-speak as superstition) also contribute to the multiple ways of being human. These very many ways of being human come with as many world-views and whole theories of the workings of the world. These theories, world-views and practices – to what extent are they separable from one’s special sense of self and identity in this world? Religions, gods, goddesses and other beings, in so far as they are responsive to the changing world and living communities with which they are in constant interaction, also change. Being a certain kind of Bengalee, I grew up in the thick of brotos (practices to receive divine blessings) and many other acts, from which my particular kind of ‘Bengaleeness’ is indistinguishable. The gods and goddesses of my ‘Bengaleeness’, Ma Durga, Ma Monosha (often vulgarized off-hand as a ‘snake goddess’), Dhormo Thakur, and other divines who inhabit fringes of my ‘Bengaleeness’ like Ma Shitola, BonoDurga, and the practices and ‘superstitions’ associated with the particulars of my birth accident make me, in no small way. This Bengaleeness is not a static thing – static not even in a lifetime. Faiths and gods continue to communicate and adapt with the changing world their adherents inhabit. When some gods cannot adapt, they die too. An earlier time would have produced a different notion of selfhood in me.

Without this scaffolding, what kind of human would I be? Some may have no need of such things but what about the rest of us? What does this lack of particular scaffolding look like anyways?  Why do those do prescribe leaving such things, appear so much more similar to each other? Those who have some stake in the intrinsic plurality of the human condition and think that preserving that is a good thing, where would they stand if this homogeneity were the cost of inculcating a atheist-rationalist worldview. In any case, in colonial societies, the anti-traditionalist worldview can be as much received wisdom as any other tradition. Such a formulation might hurt the bloated egos of those who think that university departments and wistfully imported and badly digested bits of European post-enlightenment thought elevates them vis-à-vis their fellow hapless and ignorant brown people. Make no mistake; the hapless also have a theory about those who hold them in contempt.

Till ‘rationalism’ finds a way of preserving and strengthening the plural ways of being human that human societies believe they have produced in cahoots with their gods among other things, it certainly does not have my vote. An imported version of the universal brotherhood of man, something that some curious residents of the tropics always take to with more zeal and seriosity than the west itself ever did, is a cheap replacement for the loss of a million gods and a billion ‘superstitions’.

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Filed under A million Gods, Bengal, Caste, Democracy, Elite, Faith, Identity, Knowledge, Plural pasts, Religion, Science

Of Sati, Snake-bites and ‘blind’ superstitions

[ Daily News and Analysis, 2 Sep 2013 ]

Recently I was exposed to an interesting concept called Godwin’s law. Godwin’s law states that ‘As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.’ This means, the longer an online discussion gets, it becomes more and more likely that someone would bring in some comparison with Hitler or the Nazis. Those who inhabit the fractious world of online discussions (and I sometimes do) would be able to appreciate whether Mike Godwin has a point or not. The more general point of Godwin’s ‘law’ is that certain words, concepts and themes (like ‘Hitler’, ‘Nazi’) have such a wide currency (at least among a majority of Westerners and a minority of browns) as powerful symbols that they have been used in almost any context, to counter anything, to badmouth anyone. Of course that reflects poorly on the user of these terms. If every debate with me involves me throwing the same debate-stopping expletive at the other person, I have just put my intolerance on display. And if one cannot counter someone else’s point of view except by throwing back words that are mostly used as exaggerations out of context, then we have someone who is also petulant and insecure.

Be that as it may, this Godwin’s ‘law’ reminded me of certain similar things that I have often faced in discussion with some modern brown people (a.k.a. ‘enlightened Indians’ who have a particular distaste for those who use hair-oil). When one discusses any element that might faintly sound as a defence of things whose ethno-cultural roots are to be found among brown-people, certain alarm-bells and defences go up among the hair-oil haters. And by chance if something relatively indigenous is counterposed to something imported from a White domain, all hell breaks lose. Specifically two hells – Sati and snakebite. In that predictable and unimaginative barrage, any talk of being comfortable in one’s inherited brown mode of life in defiance of the newest imported flavor of the week makes one a supporter of wife-burning. And of course, the same person would be confronted with the ‘gotcha’ question – so what would you do in case of a snakebite?  Such is the potency of these two symbols of brown viciousness and backwardness respectively that even partner-assaulting modern males and patient-gouging medical practitioners liberally use these without an iota of shame and self-reflection. It is the ‘ideology’ that matters, stupid.

This same class of moderns typically exhibits a near-complete lack of understanding of the fall and the rise of Sati, its caste specificity, especially in the context of the subcontinent’s colonial encounter. Any engagement with modern Sati is apologia; any nuance is ‘obscurantism’. Again, when they go after ‘witch-doctors’ and faith healers with the certitude of a neo-convert, they hardly want to understand the reasons behind the continued presence of these institutions in society, against the tremendous odds of denigrating propaganda. This lofty non-engagement reminds me of those savarnas who ‘do not believe in caste’, ‘hate casteism’, have savarnas over-represented among their friend circles and cannot name even 10 shudra caste surnames.

The struggle against the practice of Sati were led by fighters with a social connect, and could not have been decisive without people’s consent. This was true then, this is true now. It is in this context that the Maharashtra ordinance against ‘black magic’ has to be seen. The anti-superstition bill criminalizes displays of miracles, doing ‘black magic’ to search for missing things, saying that a divine spirit has possessed oneself and various other things. Far from being criminal, many of these things are deemed to be within the domain of real happening by a significant number of people in whose name the ordinance has been promulgated. Paying homage to the respected rationalist Narendra Dabholkar is something, passing laws as a knee-jerk reaction that criminalizes activities which enjoy wide social acceptance is quite another. Yes, there are organized vested interests in some of these activities. But to think that whole people are being manipulated and that they need to be saved by know-it-all people is not only demeaning to the personhood of the believers, but also demeaning to the concept of unfettered universal adult franchise. It infantilizes the people, opening the gates of paternalistic legislation. And that, my friends, is not good for democratic functioning.

Beyond fundamental rights of individuals like right to life and right to consent to bodily intervention, whether a practice in society is harmful or not is not something that only ‘experts’ can decide. Social practices are multi-dimensional and can have more consent and agency built into them that have ‘uses’ beyond the immediate ‘efficacy’ of ‘black-magic’. One also has to understand how and why a witch doctor whose interventions could not save a life is looked upon as a bigger criminal than a MBBS doctor whose negligence causes the death of a patient. The social alienation of those who look upon the people as backward and superstitious might do well to ask themselves – why is it more likely that they have heard of Richard Dawkins, the fiery rationalist from England, but may not have a clue who frail, brown Aroj Ali Matubbor was? The problem is that metro-bred and metro-based alienated life-forms have infected the decision making and power centres of the nation-state – the government, the ‘NGO’s, the universities and the like. The socially alienated cannot expect people’s support and no wonder people’s support eludes them – if anything, they live in fear of their alienation and contempt being exposed in front of the people on whose name they so often speak and act. Narendra Dabholkar knew that and had been wise to avoid that posturing. I hope those who are mourning this selfless man’s death also keep that in mind.

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Envisioning excellence: Academic quality and autonomy in context

[ Frontier (web) 6 May 2012; Sakaal Times (Pune) 24 April 2012; The Hitavada (Nagpur) 30 April 2012; Daily Excelsior (Jammu) 28 April 2012 ]

In a recent piece, Prabhat Patnaik ( The Telegraph, 2 April, 2012) lays out what he thinks are major  threats to the  autonomy of the domestic intellectual discourse in India. He comes up with ‘coercion to conform’ to academic fashions of the North and its hegemony in deciding the worth of ideas as a prime suspect. He also reserves special fire for the insistence on quality when assessing academics. Finally, he talks about the anxiety of the NRI academic about being increasingly irrelevant in India’s academic circles. If one were to go beyond aimed-to-disarm self-congratulatory banalities resting on wistful anecdotes that the level of intellectual discourse in India was superior to Bangladesh, one might come to see the boy who cried wolf and the real wolf itself. I cannot argue for the autonomy to cheat millions of students, by posing the demand for quality as simply a conspiracy to defang heterodox ideas. The victims of the wolf may want  a hearing. That affair can get very dirty.

For academic discourse, two things that are of utmost importance are quality and iconoclasm. Both are easier stated than implemented.We need iconoclasm in the world of knowledge to both expand and question our conceptions of the world. Ideas, especially those on which the  reputation of stalwart academicians and their ‘intellectual’ children depend, those which conform to ideologies of the state, are especially hard to challenge and discredit. It is important to foster iconoclasm so that knowledge does not become a tool in the sustenance of the powerful, but becomes  Those who claim to want to change this equation between ideas and power, more than often recreate stifling power hegemonies themselves, if they happen to capture some part of the academic sphere themselves. All through the euphoric seventies and the pre-doomsday eighties, the way Marxist   academics in India coerced budding students into their ideological predilections, through thinly veiled carrots and sticks, peppering departments all over the country with their ideological kith and kin, should serve as a grim reminder of what intellectual fascism can be unleashed in the name of fighting conformity and hegemony. The veritable boom in the number of thesis and research papers coming out of JNU, CU and JU during that period, that employed ‘Marxian analysis’ is a sad testament to this. Ideological limitations, the need to reward loyalties and conformity,  combined with an intricate system of informal mutual back-scratching helped permeate close-mindedness in academia, right upto departments in small colleges. Atop this hierarchy sat the nomenklatura – now, not so much out of favour as it touts to be, more out of fashion than it wants to be. The pariah status that an academic of the class of Ashis Nandy was accorded is a telling reminder how erstwhile champions of things heterodox can quickly transform themselves into defenders of status-quo, discouraging multiple heterodoxies. Iconoclasm, while being aimed at existing hegemons, cannot be a pretext for spreading petty mediocrity, so as to entrench vested interests, making their uprooting that much harder. West Bengal is still reeling from this phenomenon. It is not clear yet whether the ‘greenwashed’ future will be  any different. Though employed here for the purposes of illustration, encouraging nepotism, spreading mediocrity, propagating hegemonies, creating a nomenklatura based on in-group loyalties, shrillness and service to power, is by no means an exclusively ‘red’ disease.

An ecology where reasoned iconoclasm reigns supreme needs, among other things, a democratic setup and the student-professor relationship that is like that one between peers. It needs to be a  space where deference to truth and evidence comes foremost, where plagiarism is dealt with ruthlessly, where students and research scholars who oppose the academic ideas of their mentors cannot be threatened with ‘dire consequences’, where individual brilliance of a student that surpasses that of the professor causes celebration rather than anxiety, where ‘stalwart academics’ can be heckled by sound logic and shown their place if need be. Finally, it needs to be place where that great unmentionable called quality reigns supreme. The last point is especially important for research, as many of the researchers will come to populate the teaching departments of India.

One way by which hegemonies are perpetuated in academia in India, are by faculty appointments on the basis considerations other than academic quality. In a scenario so rife with  nepotism and favouritism based on academic lineage, political inclination and other vested interests, setting an objective quality bar hits right at the heart of these informal structures of patronage. Though by no means perfect, one useful index of academic quality is impact factor or H-index. Academic research, in the natural and social sciences, is mainly published in specialized journals. Impact factor  or H-index are various measures of citation and quality of journal where one published their work, indicative of how many other people deem your research important or relevant enough to refer to it in their own work published in an indexed journal. There are many indexed journals in India too. While not prostrating totally at the altar of impact factor, a deference to that deity might serve well to separate the wheat from the chaff generated by prejudiced, ideological and nepotistic calls that faculty recruitment committees often make, using the cover of subjective assessment.

The claim that NRI academics in Harvard and Stanford suffer from some kind of relevance-to-discourse-in-India envy is a just that, a claim. There is absolutely no evidence to show that  academic in India is cited more than his or her Boston-based NRI counterpart by academics based in Pune or Nasik or Satara. In fact, for all the fire-eating talk of undercutting and inverting the global academic pecking order, the reality is much more sobering. Pre-eminent warriors of ‘autonomous’ discourse make their beeline for Oxford University Press, Routledge or Ivy-league university presses, be it Harvard University Press or Columbia University Press, to get their thick books published. These books cost a fortune to libraries in India.

There have been for sometime currents within the world of science that seek of remove the commercial barrier to knowledge access. Open-access journals which can be read freely all over the world are part of this. The charge that peer-reviews may be prejudiced against those espousing uncomfortable and heterodox ideas is now being countered with innovations in the methods of review, open review and even scope for open-debate during the review process. Journals with open access and newer forms of review are being cited highly and many have established themselves repute in a very short time. It is this process of open-access and open review to level the international playing field in knowledge production that India can ride high on, rather than viewing the demand for quality as a conspiracy.

On the question of quality and the conspiratorial scorn heaped at ‘refereed journals of repute’, let me mention P.C.Mahalanobis’s Sankhya. Sankhya, was and is, a refereed journal of repute, and at the same time, is published from India by the Indian Statistical Institute. It calls itself the “Indian journal of statistics.” Its impact factor is comparable to the better  journals of general statistics. Sankhya’s latest issue (Volume: 73, Series: A, Par: 2, Year: 2011) has 7 papers from 15 authors. All but two are non-Indians. These numbers vary but the underlying point is clear. It is simply a quality Indian outlet of academic research, that is also coveted by foreign researchers as a place to be published in. It would be absurd to argue that its high quality and concomitant stature in the globe hurts its autonomy or that it discriminates against research workers in India. The Sankhya project is no narrow nationalist project that some might paint it to be – rather it is a product of a certain confidence that a research journal can be Indian and of high quality at the same time.

Of course, all that there is or should be, has a context. It exists in the backdrop of India’s stark social inequity, a global order that seeks to promote and reward certain voices and stifle others, an increasing commercialization and corporatization of the vehicles of public discourse, a culture that equates research utility with the private profits that it can generate. India needs vigorous affirmative action and democratization of academic and institutional cultures. The institutions need quality and autonomy and the imagination to wed the two.

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Occupy National Science Day

[ Himal SouthAsian, Mar 2012, Hitavada, 4 Mar 2012 ]

Last month, February 28th was the ‘National Science Day’. Yes, there is such a day. And there been one for sometime. If you are hearing it for the first time, it is not your fault. It is reported that on this day in 1928, a 40 year old Tamil Brahmin called Chandrasekhar Venkar Raman sitting in 210 Bowbazar Street at the erstwhile building of  the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science in Kolkata discovered certain phenonmena regarding the scattering of light, which would come to be known as the Raman effect. The Nobel prize in Physics followed in 1930. His was the first one in science, where an Indian had done the research in India. It was also the last one. Under the prodding of the National Council of Science and Technology Communication (NCSTC), the honourable government of the Union of india has designated February 28 as ‘National Science Day’. Since 1987.

With name as lofty as ‘National Science Day’, this event largely bypasses most universities of the Indian Union. The major organizers are those who receive patronage and blessings from the central government. In states where the provincial education boards and councils are still dominant (for example, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, etc.), this ‘Day’ is largely unknown. Mostly celebrated in schools with ‘national’ Delhi-controlled syllabi, central government offices, especially educational and research institutions, the  events often bring in sarkari chief guests – from the dubious to the infamous to the occasional savant, lamps are lit, speeches are made, marigolds are worn and hung, a lot of tea and coffee is drunk, some samosas are consumed. And then they all go home. Some more things happen on this day. Awards are given for excellence is popularizing science and innovative science education. The prime-minister, the minister of science and technology, the minister of state for the same ( when there is one) light up the faces of some newspaper owners by providing full page ads exhibiting their gleaming faces and a one paragraph message to the nation. This is how we, the citizens of India, get our annual peg of the scientific spirit. In some schools there will be competitions and prizes. There will be energetic kids whose mirth will invariably be suppressed by the bureaucratic approach that many organizers will approach the event with. It will be made into one of that long set of state sponsored farces that a school year in this country is peppered with. A Raman, a Saha, a Bose, will meet an untimely death among those dreamy kids. Once more. Some  functionaries and bureaucrats will breathe lightly at the end of this day – as if their niece just got married. Some decorators, caterers and suppliers will do a little business, some will get small kickbacks. Such is the fate of us petty people.

What more can we expect from such an unimaginative, top-down exercise so divorced from people and society? The idea is – this would create among the populace an appreciation of science, among youngsters a dream to unravel the mysteries of this world, this universe, this human condition. On the question of decreasing popularity of classical music in Pakistan, Professor Arifa Sayeda Zohra of the National College of Arts, Lahore had said that the contemporary ears that are tuned to the ka-ching sound of coins are blunt to  the intricacies of khayal. A population whose idea of success is defined by 50 lakh salaries by IIM-types, whose best mathematicians-physicists-engineers end up being number crunchers for finance market speculators, has a rather poor appreciation of basic scientific research. In the absence of this appreciation, there is no social audit of science in India – hence many professors gleefully plagiarize, publish 3rd grade research work in 4th grade, mostly Indian journals which are read by few and cited by fewer. Some of them often pass of as experts, serving in sub-committees,  exuding a cynical notion of time-serving. Looking at these creatures, many youngsters are turned off from pursuing science.

In stark contrast to such Indian Union government bankrolled cynical and routine initiatives for the inculcation of scientific culture, there lies the people-centric initiatives that have been present in India. India has had a long tradition of science and rationalism initiatives that have been broad-based, have attained movement status and have been sustained in a bottom-up manner, gaining strength from participation and support from the grassroots. This has happened without state patronage and has been most successful when the idea of scientific culture has been integral to the day-to-day life issues and social realities of the people. The brightest examples are from certain epochs of the Indian nationalist movement and the anti-caste rationalist movements of Dravidian political current.

There is the scientific aspect of the idea of self-reliance often floated in Indian nationalist movement. This came to fore first during the Swadeshi movement in the first decade on the 20th century when boycott of British-made goods were aimed to be followed up by developing technologies ‘of our own’, especially in Bengal. Small scale industrial units inspired by a ‘Swadeshi’ bent were taking baby-steps. Swadeshi institutions of technical learning were also conceived – the most important one being the National Council of Education’s Bengal Technical Institute, which was to become Jadavpur University. Later, during the non-cooperation movement, when large-scale boycott of Raj-sponsored educational and research institutions was taking place, a concomitant stress was placed on building up independent institutions of science and higher learning. The saw the birth of the National Medical Institute (Jatio Aurbiggyan Bidyaloy) which would later become the Calcutta National Medical College – the Medical College, Bengal being the favourite of the Raj. Stalwart science figures like Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose, Meghnad Saha and Satyendranath Bose were invariably science communicators to the masses. They were not simply denizens of the laboratory but wrote extensively in mass-circulation publications in fiction and non-fiction forms, gave extensive public talks, started popular science magazines. Jagadish Chandra Bose became an especially potent symbol of the ‘scientific’ flank of the emerging pan-Indian nationhood. In the first half of the 20th century, one can see that also in the writings of Rabindranath Thakur and Rajshekhar Basu ‘Parashuram’, literary giants who also penned lucid articles of recent scientific discoveries and their muses on such issues. These point to a greater public engagement with science and a culture of being intrigued by scientific inquiry and discoveries. These articles generally went beyond the narrower formulations of nationalism inspired ‘Indian’ science. This is important for already those of the Hindu-nationalist ilk had started to claim that many new scientific discoveries and technological innovations were already present in ancient times in India and that looking into the scriptures of the elders would yield knowledge- that one would be able to rediscover and hence recapture some long lost glory. Meghnad Saha gave rebuttals to such claims, with his famous sarcastic quip ‘Shob byade achhe’ (Everything is in the Vedas) being elevated to the level of a common idiom in Bengali.   But when it comes to a more muscular presence of scientific culture, the crown goes to the anti-casteist and anti-Brahminical movements spanning present day Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. Rationalism being the core-principle, this no doubt elevated the status of scientific inquiry in those areas. . It should not be forgotten that in a so-called ‘essentially spiritual’ area like Southasia, Tamil Nadu has elected stated atheists and irreverent leaders to chief-ministership time after time. M Karunanidhi, a product of this current and a legatee of  the  E V Ramaswamy Naicker ‘Periyar’’s politico-phillosphical currency, publicly questioned the divine status of Ram on the question of building a land bridge to Sri Lanka by dismantling the mythical Ram Setu and has politically survived that statement, which is not a small achievement. This tells us more about the gallery he was playing to.  In more recent times, especially in the 70s and 80s, in West Bengal, ‘science and rationalism’ groups were formed sparked by popular science and rationalist publications like Utsho Manush (Human Origin) and others. Some of these reflect science in the use of the country , as opposed to science in the use of the nation-state.

In many ways, science policy in the Union of India reflects the nature of the Indian state – a ultra strong centre that aims to dominate the provinces by formulating common principles of policy. Before the Delhi-centric system of science policy implementation took hold after the paritition of 1947, a few things may be noted about what were the major forms of science communication. Especially important in this was the role of India’s languages and not only Hindi or English as languages in which science would be taught, conceptualized and discussed. Before partition, scientific discourse and education in India’s many vernacular languages was a living and expanding body of activity. Satyendranath Bose ( of ‘Bose-Einstein condensate’ fame)  created the Bongiyo Bigyan Parishad ( Bengal Science Council) and also started a science magazine called Kishor Gyan Bigyan ( Youth Knowledge Science) in the first half of the 20th century which continues to be published till the present day. These trends have now been sapped of their vitality by lthe general lack of support for non-Hindi languages in post-parition India. In the early days post-partition, India even served as a magnet for foreign stars of the scientific world to come to India to pursues their scientific careers. This included giants like JBS Haldane who joined the Indian Statistical Institute at Kolkata. Mediocrity, lack of autonomy, bureaucratic shackles and lack of inspiration has snapped this once-budding link between science and society in India. Bureaucratism has also kept private trusts and people of wealth from espousing causes of science and research with funding. While the house of the Tatas have a long record of such endeavours, the patronage of Rajen Mookerjee of the Indian Statistical Institute also merits mention. These grants to build up institutions are markedly different from the private businessman-educationalist model of science and technical education that has evolved in the Indian Union ever since, where people of wealth create low-grade institutions of science and technology largely as money-making machines. The contribution of private players in research and development spending in India is abysmal.

In the absence of sterling scientific research happening at home, science has become something that white men do. This not only leads to a lack of confidence in engaging with science, but in a broader sense, makes science, as a living body of knowledge, that much distant from reality, that much alien to the imagination of youth. Languages in this part of the world, especially Bangla, has had a century long heritage of widely read science fiction. In 1879, Jagadananda Roy penned Shukra Bhraman (Travels to Venus) with imaginary descriptions of aliens, notably about a decade before H.G.Well’s The War of the Worlds. He was not a one off figure – in 1882, Hemlal Dutta published the famous science fiction piece Rohoshho (The Mystery) in Bigyan Dorpon (The mirror of science), a picture-heavy science magazine of the time. This trend continued with Hemendra Kumar Ray, Satyajit Ray, Premendra Mitra, Mohommod Jafor Iqbal, Shirshendu Mukherjee and still holds seriousk currency up until the present day. Fictional scientist characters like Professor Shanku, Dr.Bhootnath Nondy have initiated a whole generation of Bengali-reading teenagers to the romance of scientific discovery. This no doubt gave science a wider currency in the populace and made the figure of the scientist something more tangible, the idea of discovery slightly more conceivable. With the increasing grip of Hollywood on the content of entertaintement in public consumption and hence the long shadow of alien idioms in even in sci-fi fantasies, the limited currency that local produce had, has been damaged, possibly irreparably.

How Southasia views its scientists also point to deeper pathologies in Southasian nation-states. It is in Southasia we have Nobel laureates being reduced to pariahs due to a religious identity that the state is not comfortable with – I am talking of Abdus Salam who was born in an Ahmadi Muslim family and and such was shunned during his lifetime by the powers to be in Pakistan who consider him a heretic due to his religious identity. It is also in Southasia where the most well known faces of science are those who represent a muscular nuclear toothed state – I am reminded to APJ Abdul Kalam of India. It is in Southasia that we have absurd myths ascribed to scientists, stemming from ignorance, insecurity and blind nationalism – the enduring lore that Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose ‘first’ ‘disoovered’ that plants have life. There are necessary pre-conditions to create a culture of science – they include freedom of speech and expression, an audacity to be loyal only to truth, an environment that supports iconoclasm in the world of ideas, however towering the icon may be, however sacrilegious the idea may be. If that were so in India, many would have protested the hoodwinking of people that is done in the name of scientific achievement by showing swadeshi aerial bombers, tanks, missiles and other mass-murdering devices. Against this dystopic idea of what science is and its fruits are have stood Indian scientists like  MV Ramanna, S Ramasubramanian, T R Govindarajan, Ashok Sen and others -scientists worth their salt, the Dandi variety. In 2012, the focal theme of the ‘National Science Day’ is ‘ Clean Energy Options and Nuclear Safety’. When the government is actively trying to reduce the liability to suppliers in case of a nuclear disaster, the tom-tomming of the Nuclear Safety slogan only shows how cynically the state can convert public awareness programs into theatres of propaganda. But all propaganda can be exposed. It will take time. Critical enquiry, a spirit of questioning dogma and culture of social communication of these values – in science and beyond – let these be our arsenal. Lets us not worship science. Like pujas where chant-words have lost meaning to those who offer it, soon enough the rot sets in and it become meaningless to the priests themselves. The gods of science have left for other spaces – where there is dance, mirth, inquiry, freedom of speech and thought, freedom to make love to science, the chance to be loved back, the opportunity to share the love of science, in the family, in the neighbourhood, among colleagues. Lets stop the  invocation and start questioning. Let us  occupy ‘National Science Day’.

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