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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Secular Imagination and Indian Politics
That India has a secular constitution, seems to be a great progressive leap for many people. India was, and is, the world's largest Hindu country, with a long history and heritage. Hinduism, and its 'sacred geography', seemed to have provided Indians their common identity, despite being divided by language, castes, customs and preferences! And, Hindu (and Budhdhist, the other major religion that originated in India) icons are everywhere in the imagination of Independent India, from the invocation of the 'Mother India' to its national flag and anthem. It seems the secularism of India is a deliberate, progressive turn, a statement of aspiration to build a modern nation by leaving its religions and superstitions behind.
And, indeed, it was. The leaders of Modern India, particularly Nehru, was intent on building a nation based on economic independence (from the West) and technological progress. With the horrors of racialism in context and battling the 'two nation doctrine' that successfully won over Pakistan, tearing through the 'sacred geography' and peoples and families, the modern, technological, forward-thinking nation was the logical option. Not many Congress leaders would have stood by the ideology, but the politics made it a common sense option. Besides, the various groups and linguistic communities that needed to be united - one of the most contentious issues in the Constituent Assembly was to decide on the Official Language, and despite the insistence of all top leaders, English had to be left in its place for a number of years - and it would have been impossible to unite them for a Hindu country!
Then, there was hope! The moment of independence, darkened as it was by the Partition and the violence that followed (in the enduring words of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, this was not the morning they set out for), was a great moment of hope and opportunity, not just for India, but the entire colonised world, whose freedom was to follow. For the makers of Indian state, they were conscious of their historical responsibility, to be a beacon of freedom, as they saw India to be, within a continent of misery and servitude. And, many of them saw the partition as an artificially imposed mistake, a part of the Colonial mischief (which it indeed was), something that was to be healed with time, perhaps with a reunion. Their politics could not have been the inverse of Pakistan's. Besides, they were conscious of the many million Muslims who chose to remain in India, refusing to buy into the two-nation theory, or simply seeing through the absurdity of it. It fell on them to build an united, progressive state, whose minorities felt empowered and free, keeping the door open for Pakistan for a rapprochement one day.
It was then. But the historical context changed, and what appeared common sense then, it does not any longer.
Once India came into being and was moulded into a powerful state, we have come to take it as a given. The state's voice has obscured all the dissenting voices - of the displaced peoples, of Aborigines, of landless peasants, of those smaller minorities, of hill people - and steamrolled everything under one narrative of economic growth and national superiority in the league table of nations. Secularism was common sense, it was an essential glue keeping the country together, but this is no longer deemed a challenge.
More so as India failed to heal the rift with Pakistan, fighting three and half wars and becoming its geopolitical rival by succumbing to Big Country power-plays. The Pakistani elite and its army found the main justification of its continued rule in its 'jihad' for Kashmir, and with American money, bankrolled various conflicts till it came to bite them back. Indian politics, though, failed to rise above the narrative, and in time, became defined by its opposition to Pakistan. While Vietnam may have reunited, and even Koreans dreamt of coming together one day, Pakistan (and its offshoot, Bangladesh) and India drifted apart ever further, and memories of a common past receded in the background. It made no sense to keep the door open anymore.
Finally, even when the Indian state is powerful and ever ascendant, the question of Indian identity came to the fore. New melting pots in the form of big modern cities and IT services firms with their mixed gender workforce and 24x7 schedule emerged, and made possible what the secular constitution failed to do: Pulling Indians into marriages across caste, religion and even linguistic communities (the last one, I reckon, being most difficult), and yet, what is an Indian may have remained unresolved. This is perhaps because the shaky hold of Hindi in India - despite being the national language, more Indians do not speak Hindi than they do! Hindi movies, while popular, failed to reach a lot of Indians, and IT service firms linked India through English rather than Hindi. While the globalisation hit and Indians craved for an unified Identity, it found nothing: While the big city drawing rooms settled for the weak alternatives of cricket, Whiskey and hatred for Pakistan, for the people at large the 'sacred geography' and the ideas of a redemptive religion remained irreplaceable.
So, it has become much easier to argue that India is essentially Hindu and secularism was only a political stance that is past its sell-by date. In fact, Indians have invented a term and using it liberally: 'psuedo-Secular'!
The conditions that dictated Secularism - the diversity of the country, the need for a reconciliation with Pakistan, the need to build a modern dynamic 'opportunity society' - all exist and if anything, they are even more urgent and important today than they were sixty-nine years ago. However, the context the Secular ideal was presented with has changed. The Indian State, its ruling party (parties, one should say) used 'secularism' as a tool for political advantage and as an empty slogan (the meaning of 'psuedo-secular') and failed to supplant the ideal of secularism with a secular imagination.
I shall argue that the time to do so is now. The secular narrative is truly broken, particularly in the economic stagnation of the last several years since the Great Recession, and a new identity politics of Hinduvta has arisen. The hope that this is a passing phase is mistaken, as, without a re-imagination, secularism may never regain its place in Indian polity. This is not about the electoral fortunes of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, but the power of the concept itself: The questions, is secularism integral to India, and why, need to be asked again.
And, its answer, I shall argue, is Economic and Political: The secular is not just about religion anymore, but opportunity. India's development, urgent as it may be, will not come through technocratic solution, as the current government and all those politicians advocating change from above believes. India has come to the point when the Government needs to step aside, concentrating its energies in restoring the rule of law: Curbing corruption, making Courts and police forces functional, reigning on black money (which drives corruption) and allowing level playing field for small and medium businesses. This can not happen within a state that wants to dictate social preferences, and runs on a majoritarian politics. The point of secular is to not to accept Diversity, which is anyway an inescapable feature of India: It is about making it a core economic strategy, an advantage, something that we compete on.
This line of argument, thinking of secular as an economic, rather than moral, argument may be loathsome to some people. But I shall argue, while being secular is moral ideal for private persons (as it is for me), in Statecraft, both religion and secularism are strategies, that need to be adjusted with social and economic realities. Secularism made sense in India in 1947, and it does now. However, one needs to re-imagine secularism - as a precondition to opportunity society - rather than try to hark back to the world of the past that has irrevocably changed.
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 …
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 …
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 …
Since October, as I walked out of my job, I have been looking to fine-tune my ideas about Education-to-Employment transition.
The first step of this was to look at the experiences of last six years, which I spent developing, first, an online competency-based education programme and then on building employer-engaged online project-based education. These were all good ideas, and the reason that I am not doing these any more are partially operational: The first business was underfunded, and the second one was poorly conceived and implemented. But those are discussions for a different day. I am focusing currently on understanding the key conceptual elements - what works and what doesn't work - of a successful education-to-employment transition.
Indeed, the claim that we can make a student employable with a few months of training is apparently pretentious. The years of schooling, family background and the students' dispensation, and luck, plays a much bigger role than any traini…
Earlier, I claimed Ed-Tech is over-rated: It promises too much and delivers too little. Worse, the noise of EdTech obscures Education Innovation, which encompasses lot more than gadgets and apps. My point was that the Education Innovation happening away from the limelight of twenty-somethings, venture capital and conference circuits deserve attention. (See here)
The question is what innovation is really there in Education. Raphael's School of Athens makes a popular slide in Conferences, as the speakers often claim that the classrooms today look exactly as they were in Ancient Greece. That statement is symptomatic: It is instructive to pause at School of Athens and reflect on the claim - what counts and does not count as Innovation in the Conference Circuit.
Surely the classrooms do not look anything like Raphael had painted them. Raphael's school is an Open Portal, and don't have rows of chairs and tables, people seating in neat rows. There were no black, white or smart …
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…
It is possible to see the recent history as an interplay between Politics and Economics, and 2016 as some kind of inflection point that made politics interesting again.
Allowing for a broad generalisation, my point is that the narrative of harmonised economic interest keeping the status quo, which effectively meant a professional political class indulging in risk-free politics, is no longer the only story in town after 2016. The broad consensus that kept emotions out and interests predominant in public affairs has taken a serious beating in Brexit, Trump and myriad other political changes around the world. This includes the failed bids too, as Marine Le Pen reaching second round or AfD entering Parliament make politics something that all intelligent people should be engaged into.
And, yet, if the 2016 was only the beginning, the events in Catalonia yesterday mark a political turn that all the preceding events pointed to. Whether or not this really leads to a Catalan secession, this …