Monday, February 27, 2017

Thugs on campus

Radioactive nationalism causes intellectual death 

(Published on February 25, 2017 in Business Standard)

Another day, another display of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad’s thuggishness. The student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh specialises in taking violent offence. This time, it was a two-day seminar called 'Cultures of Protest', planned at Ramjas College, Delhi University. One of the segments, called Regions of Conflict, was scheduled to include the Jawaharlal Nehru University research scholar Umar Khalid, who, last year, was jailed for allegedly raising seditious slogans.

In case you missed the episode on account of being dead at the time, the JNU campus event blew up into national hysteria, spearheaded by the BJP, RSS, ABVP, and fire-breathing news anchors. The Union home minister got involved. Everybody pledged their lives to the motherland, firing over the shoulders of the armed forces. People told each other to go to Pakistan. There were melodramatic speeches in Parliament. JNU was branded a nest of anti-national vipers. In other words, we had a collective hissy fit about nationalism that made our previous collective hissy fit about tolerance look like tea with the Queen.

By the end of a long slanging match, two things had happened: First, Khalid had been let out on bail for lack of evidence, and second, the words ‘nationalism’, and ‘anti-national’ had graduated from emotive to truly radioactive. Today, the mere words are enough for people to shut down their brains and break out the pitchforks. The nationalism bugle is blown often and loudly; and once it is blown, reason can see itself out the door.

The ABVP, a collection of nationalist vigilantes eternally on the lookout for anyone threatening the nation with an idea, met with Ramjas faculty and promised a peaceful protest against the inclusion of Khalid in the seminar on the grounds that he is anti-national. It doesn’t matter that there is no evidence to that effect. The police, which has consistently displayed its partisanship alongside every ABVP tantrum, declared that it would not be responsible for Khalid’s safety. As a result of that meeting, Ramjas College retracted its invitation to Khalid. Following this, college faculty and students, including from the All India Students Association (AISA) and students from JNU, organised a peaceful march protesting the ABVP’s intrusion into the seminar.

It is at this point, inexplicably—after the objectionable speaker had been cancelled, after the college had conceded—that violence broke out between, among others, members of the ABVP and the ABVP-led Delhi University Students’ Union (DUSU), and AISA. Students were locked into a room, bricks were thrown through the windows, rocks and hockey sticks were reportedly used to wound people, a Ramjas professor was almost strangled, students were beaten up, some of the police allegedly took off their badges and waded into the fight—in short, all hell broke loose.

There is no earthly justification for the violence. Why on earth did it happen at all? The ABVP’s political parents are certainly not asking, because the ABVP is the tip of their educational spear, enforcing a culture of fearful intellectual servility. Students are universally the perfect proxy—young enough to be cut some slack, old enough to be effective, free of reputations to protect. As far as the talking heads from the BJP and the RSS were concerned, naturally violence is condemnable, but of course it’s understandable that youngsters whose hearts beat a tattoo of ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’ cannot contain their emotions. Union Minister Kiren Rijiju, a consistent advocate of brain-free ultra-nationalism, repeated last year’s mantra: We will not let universities turn into hubs of anti-national activity.

Who, then, is going to hold the ABVP accountable? The ABVP itself flatly denies starting the violence. A police probe is on to investigate what happened, but the police is firmly controlled by the central government, and not known for its espousal of academic and intellectual freedom. A drama festival at Khalsa College is now in the sights of the ABVP, which has declared some of the plays anti-national. There is going to be no defence of freedom of thought from this government. 

It’s heartening to see students themselves marching in protest against the ABVP’s hooliganism, as one hopes they will against hooliganism from any party’s student proxy. Only students themselves, committed to the idea of academic freedom, and intellectual possibility, adventure, exploration and achievement, can rescue Indian education from the slow throttling grasp of ‘one nation, one thought’ politics.

It is a desperate shame that in an increasingly complicated world, we cannot see the value of equipping our young people to open their minds, and to think for themselves. It is only going to get worse, and it is going to be up to students to fight for their own minds.

F for effort

India continues to fail its schoolchildren

(Published on February 11, 2017 in Business Standard)

Most parents’ number one priority is to give their kids the best possible chance in life. A basic ‘three Rs’ education—reading, ’riting, and ’rithmatic—is a ticket upward from misery; a reasonable education is a chance to make it to the middle class dream; and an excellent education can turn the world into your oyster. The street-smart and the gifted might still make it with a poor education or none at all. Some of the privileged are born having made it. But for the average kid, the classroom is where temperament, talent and skill are honed into greater empowerment. Educated children make a better citizenry, and a better workforce. It’s what you might call a no-brainer.

As a nation, we’ve constitutionally guaranteed our children’s right to an education—but that’s about it. One of our most unfortunate national traits is to adore a few visible successes, and ignore the unglamorous need to improve the fundamentals. That’s how you get expensive marble on the floor but seepage from the ceiling; sports cars crawling their way between potholes; Digital India before adequate electricity or internet access. It is why we have only handfuls of amazing alumni from a handful of rigorous institutions, and thousands of free schools incapable of teaching a basic standard.

We’ve spent so long priding ourselves on star institutions that we’ve forgotten to fear for the millions of unremarkable children who attend thousands of RTE-mandated schools that are no more than a couple of rooms, where teachers either don’t show up, or faithfully replicate unjust societal structures and behaviours in their classrooms, privileging higher-caste children, imposing gender injustices, and in the best case, not deviating beyond a dubious syllabus. 

Schools and universities, which should be spaces of learning and questioning, are increasingly becoming political battlegrounds, fought by the likes of Rajasthan’s School Education Minister, Vasudev Devnani, who last year denied that the government had anything to do with the excision of Nehru, and Gandhi’s assassination by Godse, in the social science textbook—but who also said clearly that the state was redesigning textbooks to make sure they didn’t produce any more Kanhaiya Kumars.

It is the same Devnani, along with former Higher Education Minister Kalicharan Saraf, and Urban Development and Housing Minister Rajpal Singh Shekhawat, who today is backing a proposal to redesign a university syllabus with what the world now mockingly calls ‘alternative facts’. In this case, they wish to re-imagine the Battle of Haldighati between Akbar (in Rajasthan they’ve dropped ‘the Great’ from the books) and Rana Pratap, so that Rana Pratap wins. That’s not academia, it’s political brainwashing. In a fine example of everything that is wrong with the RSS-BJP educational orientation, Kalicharan Saraf was quoted as saying: “A distorted version of history has been taught to generations of students. But the fact is that Akbar was a foreign invader and Maharana Pratap was a brave, patriotic ruler. And if there is a proposal to correct this mistake and tell students that Maharana Pratap actually won the battle, then what is wrong with it?”

There is no shortage of educational ugliness. A recent environmental studies textbook tells kids to enclose a kitten in an unventilated box, and contemplate, from its eventual death, the value of oxygen. What kind of cruel moron thinks this up, and what kind of profiteering moron publishes it? In a Maharashtrian social sciences textbook, a bridegroom can ask for more dowry if the bride is ugly or handicapped. It makes you hold your head in your hands.  

We have not managed to commit ourselves to integrity in education—to getting the best educators, to sticking to fact, questioning, evaluating things honestly, and encouraging critical thinking and fearless expression. We have not taught children their rights and responsibilities, nor life skills. We impose loyalty on our citizens by diktat—in adulthood as well as in childhood—instead of earning it. The bottom line is that if you neglect the rot at the base, it eventually vitiates the top. A country that gives its history into the custody of politicians, and gets unqualified people to teach its children, is skidding down a slippery slope, fast. Politics will always try to discredit reason for its own ends; citizens have to be able to call that out. The alternative is a creeping stupidification, and creeping authoritarianism.

That we think of teaching as a kind of lame, last resort, part-timer’s profession that needn’t be paid much, will probably be our downfall. We should be treating our educators like VIPs—giving them the best training, and the best incentives to take their service to the remotest corners of India. That would actually change the face of the country for the better. But there’s that creeping stupidification.

The Donald is in The House

But don’t worry, Mickey is at his side. Oh, wait.

(Published on January 28, 2017 in Business Standard)

So the USA did actually go there—The Donald is in The House. He’s scaling back the Affordable Care Act. He has pissed off the CIA. He’s planning to start building the wall in a month. He’s into bringing back torture. And, true to his pussy-grabbing, female-rating, daughter-checking-out self, he has blocked federal funding to organisations that help women access information on abortion. He told ABC News that he “can be the most presidential person ever, other than possibly the great Abe Lincoln, all right? But I can be the most presidential person. But I may not be able to do the job nearly as well if I do that.” You have to presume that compulsive tweeting about how he won the popular vote, not Hillary Clinton, falls under doing the job well.

The popular vote, gigantic women-led protest marches following Trump’s inauguration, and ‘resistance’ twitter handles from the US National Park Service, NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, give one heart that today’s White House, led by billionaires, racists, misogynists, obscurantists, and anti-intellectuals, does not represent new American constitutional values. That the American press has decided—albeit belatedly—to unitedly fact-check every statement, and call out every official infraction of data, law, and civil rights, instead of just chase TRPs, is heartening. But that is cold comfort to those who have to watch a cabinet of under-educated rich people take an axe to, say, arts funding and Planned Parenthood.

How does a Trump end up in the Oval Office? According to a recent Oxfam study, the richest 1% of humans own more wealth than the rest of the planet. You would think the dispossessed would be looking warily at a narcissistic billionaire who, as President, refuses to divest himself of his personal business interests. But no: almost as many people who recoil from him, love him, because at the end of the day, Americans still worship power, celebrity and wealth. Trump paints himself as an outsider to the rotten politics of Washington, a change maker, a guy who shares your contempt and resentment of oligarchy.

We have some of the same problems in India, where we are today led by anti-intellectual, misogynist, Hindu chauvinists and ultra-nationalists, and equally hobbled by our fetishisation of power, social and caste status, celebrity and wealth. It makes sense that we elected a man who does not come from a privileged background, and promises increased prosperity and an end to the corruption that has hollowed this country out. He does have very rich friends, but Narendra Modi, too, is an outsider to the discredited politics of Delhi, a man projecting himself as a change maker who shares your contempt and resentment of oligarchy.

But while that makes sense in a country understandably sick of institutionalised corruption and ostentatious sycophancy, Modi’s election has also revealed a country more majoritarian-minded than ever before, empowering those who see the Constitution as an inconvenience. Assuming that we believe our wallets are fuller—according to the Oxfam study, 57 individuals own the same amount of wealth as the bottom 70% of the population—we seem much less interested than we should be in holding power to account.

It behoves us in India to watch how the US is pushing back. It’s a lesson in rising to the defence of constitutional values when the administration won’t. The pro-Modi argument, that a person who won a large electoral mandate should ‘be respected’, i.e. not challenged, is as popular as it is nuts: it is exactly when great power is accorded that great watchfulness is needed.

We have come to the point, on this planet, where large sections of people see the well educated, the reasonable, and the inclusive, as a snotty, out of touch enemy that breeds and dominates a nebulous ‘system’ that works exclusively for itself. To the extent that liberals have a hard time understanding other ways of being, it is. But the idea that you have to be privileged and rich to worry about the environment and the arts and gay rights and minorities Muslims and human rights, is utter nonsense. It’s one thing to say that everyone should have access to a good education and the chance to stand with pluralism or agnosticism or universal human rights. But to say that those things are irrelevant, or a luxury, or out of touch, is the same as declaring oneself to be, at best, uninvested in one’s country, and at worst, outright racist, misogynistic, bigoted, chauvinistic, and casteist. Understanding where someone comes from is not the same as agreeing with where they’re going.

To say this is not to be out of touch. It is to call something out that needs calling out.

Column break

Inter alia did not appear on January 14 as I was on holiday.