Books; People; Ideas : These are few of my favourite things. As I live between day-to-day compromises and change-the-world aspirations, this is the chronicle of my journey, full of moments of occasional despair and opportune discoveries, of connections and creations, and, most of all, my quest of knowledge as conversations.
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On A Naked Fakir in the Parliament Square
The unveiling of the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in the Parliament Square in London is a moment of triumph for the British Asian community. The statue of the man, who, like no other, represented an unique resistance to British commercial imperialism, being put at the very heart of such institution indicates the prominence and influence of the British Asians in the public life of the UK. The representatives of the community turned up in large numbers, along with a number of students from Hindu faith schools in London. It was a great moment of asserting a community identity and of celebrating integration in the life of their adopted country.
This is a triumph without a corresponding defeat though, fittingly for the man being celebrated. This is not one identity getting better of another - which is the usual zero-sum meaning we associate with the word 'triumph' - but the realisation of a much subtler message Gandhi embodied in his work. Vijay Merchant, the ex-Indian Cricketer who dropped out of the Indian Test Cricket Team in 1932 in protest against the treatment of Indian Nationalist leaders including Gandhi, told a story about Gandhi, which might be appropriate for the occasion. Mr Merchant described the moment when he had the opportunity to meet Gandhi in person first time and presented him with an autograph book, belonging to his sister. Gandhi took the autograph book and chose to sign on the page containing the autographs of all the members of the 1933 MCC Cricket Team (captained by Douglas Jardine) - and he appended his name at the bottom of the list, signing as "17. M K Gandhi". [A slightly different version of this story appears in Judson K Cornelius' Political Humour, which put Laxmi Merchant, Vijays sister, as the main protagonist] The message was indeed unequivocal - Gandhi saw no quarrels with the English Cricket Team, and by extension, the common people of England! Indeed, for a long period of time, he also served as a loyal member of the empire, serving as a Nurse in the Boer War and recruiting Indian servicemen for the Allies in the First World War. He, as a man who believed in the goodness of English people and the British sense of fairness and justice (not unlike many of the Founders of America, including Benjamin Franklin), does indeed have a rightful place in the Parliament Square in London.
However, an observer may also note the omnipresent irony, again quite fittingly for a man who was a master of sarcasm. It would not be amiss that the statue presents Gandhi in his trademark loincloth, which he adopted after dismissing his gentlemanly attire, and which earned him the epithet from a dismissive Churchill - "A Naked Fakir!" The presence of David Cameron, the Conservative British Prime Minister so keen on resurrecting some of Britains past glories, also highlight the irony - Churchill, the last Conservative Prime Minister during Gandhi's lifetime famously demanded to know "Why Gandhi is not dead yet?" when he was told about dying millions during the Bengal famine. The statue was unveiled by Shri Arun Jaitley, the current Indian Finance Minister, who built his political career as a leader of the student wing of Rashtriya Sayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu supremacist organisation which plotted for and carried out the assassination of Gandhi. To heighten the irony, the presence of a left-wing economist, Lord Meghnad Desai, and a famous Indian actor who made his name as a drunken violent young Indian, Amitabh Bachchan, should also be noted.
The timing of the unveiling of the statue also represents many a contradiction that marked Gandhi's life and career. He abstained from sex in his later life as he blamed himself for indulging in his lust for his wife during the moment his father, who he was supposed to be attending, died unattended. He spent 15th August 1947 without celebration and in fasting, in a decrepit house in Calcutta, as he saw India's independence, which came with partition, as defeat, not a victory. The unveiling of his statue, fittingly, comes as India intends to embark on an undefined quest of 'Development', visualised as an unrestrained opportunity to evict the farmers from their lands to create roads, bridges and factories, in a direct opposition of whatever Gandhi stood for.
To conclude, Gandhi's statue in the Parliament Square sums up his legacy in more ways than one. And, we may as well return to the theme of patricide, a powerful obsession throughout Gandhis own life, to understand what Gandhi means to Indians. The Swiss Philosopher, Bernard Imhasly, observed the deification of Gandhi - in his statues and numerous Mahatma Gandhi Roads that mark the Indian urban landscape - but the desertation of his message in modern India. Somewhat like a modern day Moses, who, in Freud's incisive portrayal, was killed by the Jews, the same people he helped liberate, Gandhi stands as a symbol, as our feeble minds crave for one and can not go beyond a statue to grasp the complex, higher order principles he really stood for. In that sense, the statue of Gandhi is both an illusion and a hope : An illusion, as this visible celebration undermines the abstractness of his vision which we proved ourselves incapable of carrying; And a hope, because it is a reminder of our patricide, a guilt that we may collectively carry, and a redemption that we may eventually seek.
1. Vijay Merchant In Memorium - Published 1988 by Marcus Cuoto, Bombay.
2. Moses the Man and Monotheistic Religion (1938) - Sigmund Freud
3. Why I Assassinated Gandhi (2015) - Nathuram Godse, Surya Bharati Prakashan, New Delhi
4. Gandhi and Churchill (2009) - Arthur Harman, Arrow
5. Churchill's Secret War (2011) - Madhusree Mukherjee, Basic Books.
6. The Death and Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi (2015) - Makarand R Paranjape, Random House India.
A friend has recently forwarded me a quote from Lord Macaulay's speech in the British Parliament on 2nd February 1835. I reproduce the quote below: "I have traveled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such calibre, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native self-culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation."
The email requested me to forward me to every indian I know. I was tempted, but there were two oddities about this quote. First, the language, which appeared …
Business gift giving has always been common and contentious at the same time. Business gifts are usually seen as an ‘advertising, sales promotion and marketing communication medium’ (Cooper etal, 1991). Arunthanesetal (1994) points out that such gifting is practised usually for three reasons: (a) in appreciation for past client relationships, placing a new order, referrals to other clients, etc.; (b) in the hopes of creating a positive, first impression which might help to establish an initial business relationship; and (c) giving may be perceived as a quid Pro quo (i.e. returning a favour or expecting a favour in return for something).
The practitioners of gift-giving generally argue that doing business is often an aggregation of personal interactions and relationships, and gift-giving should be seen as a natural way of maintaining and enhancing these relationships. ‘Business gifts, especially one given in the course of the festive season, is …
In most societies today, making profits are accepted as moral, if not especially praiseworthy. This was not as obvious as it appears today – people used to be embarrassed about making a profit not so long ago.
Crazy as it seems today, it is worth thinking why it was so.
Profits, as economists will put it, is the reward for risk-taking, for putting a business enterprise together in the pursuit of an objective. In this definition, remember, profits are not what it is commonly understood to be – the gross middle-line towards the bottom – but a figure net of entrepreneur’s earning [wages for his labour], dividends and interests on borrowed capital, and provisions for building and other physical assets [a sort of rent, offsetting what these assets could have earned if leased out]. This pure profit – surplus – accrues to a business as a reward to its organisation, for the act of entrepreneurship itself.
Economists were divided on how this surplus comes about. The conventional wisdom was, as I …
This has been the best and worst of the times for Higher and Professional Education. While people pursuing Higher and Professional Education has attained a new peak globally, new questions about its relevance and cost have arisen too. The expansion of formal education has crowded out the ecosystems of informal learning, in effect depriving societies with one of the tried-and-tested coping mechanisms for social and technical change (see my earlier post on this), but it has offered little in its space. Its claims on the territory, in various avatars of Lifelong Learning or Massive Open Online Courses, have underachieved, being too structured, too bureaucratic, too content driven and too top-down. Finally, its claims of being able to assess everything overshot its capability, and created dissonance with employers as they struggled to work out hard measures of the 'soft' skills.
However, among all these debates and questions, one that attracts maximum attention is the one about …
There are two reasons why I am writing this post, which is really a retake of an earlier post - Should Britain Apologise? - which I recently shared on Social Media.
The first is that there is a renewal of this debate. The recent political twists and turns - Brexit and emergence of Hindu Nationalist India most importantly - have brought the question of British imperial folly to the forefront, engaged in animated debates and denials (see here).
The second is a renewal of interest in history itself, made possible by the deliberate wrecking of the Post-War world system by Conservatives in America and Britain. After being presumed dead, history has been regularly invoked in claims, particularly by British and American politicians who are good at pointing follies of other nations. Hollywood made a film about Holocaust denial, though the question of American imperialism in the Pacific was never deemed worthy of retelling. The British Secretary of International Trade, Dr Liam Fox, recently …
I remember this awkward dinner conversation. I was with my colleague in Northern Ireland, and a friend of his joined our table. After we were introduced, he wondered at my name and asked me what religion I belong to. I went for the simpler answer and kept my doubts aside: "I am Hindu", I said. That made him even more confused. "What's a Hindu?" he said, "Is that some kind of Muslim?"
When I tell this story to my friends in India, they are usually outraged. What an ignorant person, they would say. Particularly treating Hinduism as a branch of Islam, when Hindus love to believe that everyone was originally a Hindu, upsets them. I have also reflected upon this conversation later. It may indeed be that he did not know. He was particularly ignorant, just as ignorant as the lady, who, standing inside the Irish Bar at Mumbai's ITC Grand Central hotel, asked my colleague - the same person as it happened to be - where Ireland was. But the confusion about …
Seventy years on, the Republic of India is now at one of those crossroads when its foundational ideas are being questioned. Its middle classes, in the throes of an existential crisis as the globalisation that made them reverses, have found their demon in the idea of India itself. Nations, usually, consider their origin stories with a special fondness and deep reverence, enshrining the creation ideas as the basis of all new imagination: Despite the passing of the years, the British therefore looks at the Glorious Revolution, the French to French Revolution, the Italians to Risorgimento and the Americans revere their Founding generation. But, in India, as a newly-rich, recently disappointed middle class hunt for the ghosts, they find their Republic flawed, its democracy rickety, its people disunited, and above all, the idea that unites it all misdirected.
This makes a re-examination of the idea of India worthwhile. Surely, this is much discussed, but as the optimism turns to pessimism…
In an earlier post, I pointed out that the application of 'platform thinking' in education misses the mark, as it fails to understand how value is created in education. Since this apparently contradicts my earlier enthusiasm for the university as a 'user network', this statement needs further explanation.
To start with, Clayton Christiansen's idea that the universities of the Twentieth Century needs to evolve from its current 'value chain' model - wherein its value lies in its processes - to a form of User Network, where its value emanates from its community, still resonates with me. The Value Chain model, with departments, examinations, textbooks and degrees, that we know the university for, is very much a late Nineteenth/ early Twentieth century formulation. And, indeed, one can claim that the universities were always communities, and its value came from being a member of that community rather than its end product - the degrees - for much of history. It …
University making in India is entering a new phase. The rushed expansion of the Higher Education system is perhaps over, with many of those new colleges and universities in crisis. There is a definitive shift in the regulatory environment: The unrestrained and often useless Distance Learning Study Centre business has been effectively shut down, the unregulated institutions have been challenged and there is greater clarity and order. However, university making in India has not stopped - there are new institutions being built and planned every day - and more and more serious philanthropists and entrepreneurs are entering the fray. I see these developments with some optimism, and believe that we are at an inflexion point, from which a new Higher Education system would emerge.
This may be overtly optimistic and there are a number of things that can go wrong in India. For a start, we now have a nationalist turn, and the 'not-invented-here' syndrome has become all pervasive. That r…
The inspiration behind this post comes from several conversations with my colleague Pratik Dattani, the former UK Director of FICCI, an Indian trade body. Pratik, in a regular column he writes for Dainik Bhaskar, pointed out India's meagre tally of 30,000 odd foreign students, against 450,000 in China (which is growing at 10% annually), is a huge missed opportunity, in terms of foreign currency earnings, 'soft power' and diffusion of foreign cultures and ideas. And, besides, number of foreign students in India may be going down rather than up, and several factors, not least anti-African sentiments in some Indian cities, are contributing to it.
Pratik and I have collaborated on a number of projects over the years and I have been closely involved in a Conference, now in its fifth edition, that he organises on Education Innovation in London and in India. We both agreed that India's continuing weaknesses in attracting foreign students is something we want to put on the a…