I spent the last week at the Ideas for India conference in London. This conference had different strands, and brought the diaspora Indians, India watchers and a number of delegates from India together.
Because Rahul Gandhi chose to attend - a rather last minute thing which changed the published agenda somewhat - the media narrative revolved around his 40-odd minutes of talk. And, of course, a sense of discomfort hung over the whole conference: A wholly new thing for me and it shows how much India has changed. Somehow, the people in India seemed to think that no conversation about India should happen anywhere else in the world, a strange thing for a country which is anxious to assert its global importance. Additionally, anything outside the official channel is seen as conspiracy. Gone are those days when the presumptive opposition candidate, the current Prime Minister, could freely interact with the diaspora Indians and slam Dr Manmohan Singh's lack of initiative; today, this would be considered treasonous.
Therefore, the whole conference was conducted within an atmosphere of fear, and every person, however impartial, could sense the same. This was perhaps my first take-away: The space for discussion about India is rather limited.This also provides an answer to another question: Why was this being held in London? It was rather clear that this could not have happened in India without turning into a full-blown political event, which it was not. The very fact that a Higher Education minister from a BJP ruled state could address an audience with opposition leaders on the National Education policy was testimony why this could only happen outside India. Besides, there were many discussions about UK-India cooperation, India's climate goals and the Free Trade Agreement (UK's Chief negotiator spoke at the dinner), which necessitated a London venue.
However, none of this was reflected in the media coverage the event received afterwards. The censorship came not from the State, but the media acting on its behalf. Stories that came out twisted bits of speech under purposeful headlines hinting at conspiracies and unleashed hate speech and memes in equal measure. It was clear that the danger to free speech emanates from the media, rather than the politicians, who are often endearingly incompetent.
But there were other conversations, debates and questions which were far more interesting than those which drew the headlines. Speakers did not agree with one another, creating the most interesting moments for those who were actually listening. Sometimes, the speakers invoked ideas without fully exploring it at first, without realising that their superficial inanity made the opposite point stronger. And sometimes, probing questions from the moderators opened the Pandora's box, unleashing trouble but, at the same time, hope that there could still be a future of conversation in India.
For me, there were three such moments, which I reflected on below. I did not get answers, but then I was not looking for answers; but the unleashed questions I came away with were made all of this worthwhile.
Celebrity vs celebral politics
First, there was this question about how could a democratic opposition function if their preeminent party isn't democratic itself. This was a question, ably raised by the moderator to a senior leader of Indian National Congress, evidently about the dynastic nature of the party's leadership. The answer given was rather superficial and predictable: That the structure of the Indian society somewhat makes it necessary! Look at Bollywood, Indian businesses and media - dynasties are everywhere, the leader said! Of course, that was the wrong answer and the Indian Prime Minister, who came with no lineage, is the greatest counter-example. This answer also misses the point: The problem is really elsewhere and all parties equally indulge in it. I am talking about the culture of personalities - celebrity culture - that has taken over all conversations about India. No one talks politics in India, they just talk about personalities. What's called tabloid in Britain is usually mainstream media in India. In fact, the conference and its coverage were examples of just that, how we love to talk about personalities only! The celebrity culture ultimately destroys democracy, as it is doing in Britain now. This, rather than the dynasties, is the problem, and indeed, it is a more education and media problem than anything else.
Duties vs rights
Then, there was a moment when a panelist berated the Home Minister of India for saying duties come before rights. Such an inverted priority would indeed be sacrilege for the political left, whose politics since the French Revolution was been built around political rights. However, such obsession with rights have led them to succumb to identity politics, the indugent political equivalent of self-destruction button! The clever Indian Home Minister is actually one step ahead in this debate here: Duties unite whereas rights fragment, and he is dog-whistling majoritarian politics as effectively as one could ever hope for. But there is a bigger issue at stake here than electoral politics of first-past-the-post.
For all my sympathies for the marginalised, I would find myself even morally agreeing with the primacy of obligations over rights. As Simone Weil said, obligations come first because rights are what we give to each other. If I become, by some freak accident, the only person alive on the earth, I would have no rights because there would be no one to give me the rights, but I would still have obligations, including those to myself. A society can't be built on rights but only on obligations. Once the society is formed, it can grant rights to its members.
Connectivity vs equality
Finally, there was a brief and enlightening moment of disagreement between two speakers on the podium. This one was about equality. One of them, a technocrat, believed that hyperconnectivity changes everything, including the political paradigm we live in. The other, an erudite and thoughtful political leader, stated the quest for equality would still be at the heart of policy-making, no matter what.
But hyperconnectivity does indeed change everything. Equality of what, one would ask, when technical reality makes possible a different kind of society where multiple life-objectives can successfully coexist?
Don't get me wrong: I am not suggesting that a selfish society is good and we should deny people basic health care, education or unemployment benefits. I am rather envisioning this in the context of universal basic income, which a robot-tax in a hyperconnected world may make possible. Would equality still remain the key objective? We have to accept that human beings are constitutionally unequal, not just become some people are fairer, taller, prettier, more intelligent or more hardworking than others, but also because we want different things. Human dignity, freedom to live one's own life, freedom from oppression would surely trump equality as the key political goal, and even more so in a hyperconnected world.
Sadly, the reports coming out of the conference have not considered such issues worthy of mention. Rahul Gandhi's presence has dominated the coverage, perhaps appropriately for the celebrity-obsessed nation. The bits that were meaningful in his speech - like, his observation that the usual economic policy levers, designed for a US-dominated world, stopped working after the great recession - got no attention whatsoever.
In the middle of all this, I have achieved one thing for myself. Carlo Ginzburg said, "the country one belongs to is the country one is ashamed of." I got a country now.
Popular posts from this blog
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
Nations are ideas. We try to fashion them as territories. But how can a river, a mountain ridge or sometimes an imaginary line in the middle of a field can explain the wide division in the lives, thoughts and futures of the people who live on different sides? Nations are not the people too. Indeed, people build nations and become its body. But the soul of the nation is an idea: People come together on an idea to build a nation. While that's what a modern nation is - an idea - and that way exceptionalism is not an American exception, very few nations are as completely defined by an idea as Pakistan. There was hardly any political, geographic or military rationale of Pakistan other than the idea of an Islamic homeland in South Asia. [In that way, the ideological brother of Pakistan in the family of nations is Israel] This, abated by the short term political calculations of some backroom colonialists, created a modern state which must be solely sustained on that singular idea. Religi
Today, Helen Goddard, 26, a highly popular music teacher of a City School for Girls, has been sentenced to 15 months in prison. Her crime was to carry out a year long lesbian affair with one of her pupils, who appeared in the court and admitted that the affair was consensual and it was she who pressured Helen into the affair. For Helen, a bright musician and a devout Chistian, this is an extraordinary lapse of judgement. Also, she was teaching in the £13,000 private girls only school in London. She was surely aware what the consequences of her action will be. The fact that she still could not stop herself tells us that lovers do not always act rationally, something we always knew. There is more in this affair than personal tragedies. For a start, this has all the dramatic elements: a bright, beautiful teacher more in Julia Roberts mould [as in Mona Lisa Smile], a stiff upper lip school [not unlike Wellesley] and a story like Notes On A Scandal with an added twist. Indeed, Helen was gui
Introduction : The Business of Gift Giving 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 et al , 1991). Arunthanes et al (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 s
This post is a reaction to Aatish Taseer's evocative obituary of secular India in the Atlantic ( read here ). While I agree with it mostly - and share the reservations about the direction and the future of India - I differ with the author on one key aspect: I do not agree with his portrayal of a resurgent Bharat eating up a secular India. In fact, I believe while Mr Taseer regrets the Indian elite's loss of connection with the realities of day to day life of the country, his very presentation of Bharat and India as oppositional entities stems from that incomprehension. While I understand that he is only using these categories as RSS uses them - to effectively other the English-speaking elites and non-Hindus - I believe it is a mistake to describe the profound changes in contemporary India as the ascendance of Bharat. I grew up in Bharat. I never learnt English until late in life, when I started working. My growing-up world was one of small-town India, vernacu
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
Introduction: Hastings in the history of Indian Education Whether or not one includes Warren Hastings in the history of Education in India is a matter of perspective. If writing the history of education means writing the history of schools, the impact of Hastings' administration would be quite limited. If anything, the rapid implosion of local rulers in Eastern, Southern and Northern India during Hastings' tenure had meant a bleak period for the indigenous education system, as patronage and funds would have dwindled away for many of them. The Company administration really concerned itself with the schooling of the natives only after 1813, as Nurullah and Naik rightly pointed out ( see my earlier post ) and one can legitimately start the story at this point. However, if history of Education in India is to encompass the transformation of Indian Scholarship, on which foundation the new, colonial, system of Education would be built, the story must start with Warren Hast
Buzzwords have disadvantages. Right now, experiential learning is one, and that means we put the label on everything and it stops to mean anything. Also, this means reasonable conversation about experiential learning becomes difficult - at times such as this, either you preach experiential learning or you are traditional, antiquarian and hopelessly out of touch. But, overlooking the limitations of experiential learning can cause big problems. Experiential Learning does many things - putting practice at the heart of learning is an important paradigm shift - but not everything, and it is important to be aware what it does not do. Usually, we equate the terms Project-based Learning (the method) with Experiential Learning (the idea) and Learning from Experience (the ideal), treating them as one and the same and using the terms interchangeably. Any talk about distinctive meaning of these terms is usually seen as pedantic, but really represent very different ideas about education.
Introduction Erna Petri née Kürbs, a farmer’s daughter from Herressen in Thuringia, arrived in Ukraine with her three year old son to join her husband Horst in June 1942. Horst, an SS leader inspired by Nazi ideologue Dr Richard Walter Darré, settled in the plantation of Grzenda, just outside today’s Lviv, to become a German Gentleman-Farmer. Erna saw Horst beating and abusing the workers in the plantation within two days of arriving there, which was, as Horst explained, necessary for establishing authority. Erna joined in enthusiastically, settling into a combination of roles of ‘plantation mistress, prairie Madonna in apron-covered dress lording over slave labourers, infant-carrying, gun-wielding Hausfrau.’  However, there were clear rules in the plantation, and Erna was very much expected to play the woman’s role of being a Cake-and-Coffee hostess. When four Jews were caught in the estate while trying to escape from a transport to a death camp, Horst told Erna and her female
As India's democracy reaches a critical juncture, with a very real danger of a authoritarian take-over, Rabindranath Tagore's birth anniversary is a perfect occasion to revisit the founding idea of India once again. There are many things in his politics that we may need to dust up and reconsider: Tagore's political ideas, because of his inherent aversion of popular nationalism and enthusiasm about Pan-Asianism and universalism, were outside the mainstream of the Indian National Movement, seen as impractical and effectively shunned. He was seen mostly as the Poet and the mystic, someone whose politics remains in the domain of the ideas rather than action. Tagore himself, after a brief passionate involvement in politics during the division of Bengal by Lord Curzon in 1905, withdrew from political action: He never belonged to the political class, despite his iconic status and itinerant interventions, such as returning the Knighthood after the massacre of Amritsar in 1919.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.