Thoughts

What have I changed my mind about?

The most exasperating part of social media debates is when both sides blame each other for not keeping their minds open. There isn’t usually any hope in hell of settling this meta-argument about which party is open-minded, if either at all is. But the issue is a good introspective opportunity. How would you know whether or not you are open-minded? Of course, you think you are. But are you?

finger-pointing-1991215

One good test is to see whether you have changed your mind in the last few years about any important issues. You may be so well-informed that you have never needed to, but statistically, most of us would not be in that group. Most of us would come across information or experiences which would challenge our existing understanding. So, it is a fair test to apply to yourself. Did you change your mind when it came to that?

I applied it to myself. I am happy to say that the exhaustive list of things I have changed my mind about is much longer. But talking about a couple of them is a good starting point.

This changing of mind comes about in two distinct ways. In one there is a clear moment of enlightenment. I can pinpoint exactly what idea, information or experience led me to change my mind. The other kind is more gradual, drawn out. There is no one moment of transition. But it isn’t difficult to know that the transition has happened. At one point of time in life my views are very different – even opposite of – what they used to be at another time in the past.

The latest experience is an example of the first kind. I was reading an article about Ambedkar and Gandhi and their differences over the issue of separate electorate for the Dalits. The compromise reached was reserved seats for them, but no separate Dalit electorate. Gandhi had to coerce Ambedkar into this compromise with one of his stubborn fasts. I had always thought that it was the right compromise and didn’t see any problems with it. It ensured a path forward for the Dalits without dividing the populace forever. But this article pointed out a problem there. Simply put, it is this. When Savarnas elect a Dalit candidate, they elect the one who will be convenient for them. If the majority of the voters are Savarnas, then even if the candidate is a Dalit his job is to woo the Savarnas and not the Dalits. In independent India, it ensured that most Dalit candidates elected were from Congress and not the Dalit parties – including Ambedkar’s. It was a lightbulb moment for me.

It doesn’t mean that the issues one sees with separate electorate disappear. But what it does mean is that there is a real problem the separate electorate was trying to solve, and this compromise does not solve it. So, I don’t know if separate electorates would have been a great idea in it is entirety, but reserving seats without separate electorate wasn’t the ultimate solution either! I changed my mind on the issue of separate electorate.

The other thing I have changed my mind about is the existence of God – God in a sense that most people find easy to justify. There has to be some power above us. How else is the world running? Humans can discover the formulae governing the physical world, but who made them that way? Even though I had given up on religion pretty early on, this concept of God was difficult to get rid of. If you keep asking “why” after every explanation, ultimately you run out of explanations. God was the only answer to the ultimate “why”. And living without that answer seemed impossible.

Unlike in the case of a separate electorate, I can’t pinpoint how or why my mind changed. But over time that necessity to have an answer to the ultimate “why” started sounding pointless, even childish. I was no longer demanding that answer. Because there was no right way of fulfilling that demand. Meanwhile, a lot of what was explained by God’s (rather inconsistent) ways could be explained better by evolution, probability, statistics, and the mechanics of human-made systems.

I used to think that what I came to believe was atheism. But someone better versed in philosophy than me explained that I was agnostic. That’s where I am. It has inevitably led me to believe that the world is purposeless. It is a difficult worldview to live with. But it is less delusional than believing in God. So yeah – I changed my mind about God.

What have you changed your mind about?

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Thoughts

Lies, Damn Lies, and Institutions

If you take a tour with a guide in Rome or Vatican, they will tell you a nifty tale about the source of the worldly power of the papacy in Rome. The first Christian Roman emperor Constantine (bless him!) shifted his capital to Byzantium (later Constantinople) in the 4th century and left Rome to the Pope, they will tell you. It is easy to believe. The first Christian emperor is likely to have the zeal of a newly converted. A donation to the Church was in order, right?

There is one big glitch though. And a few associated “minor” ones! The big one is this. Throughout the middle ages, Roman Catholic Church claimed the same story based on a document called Donation of Constantine, through which the emperor had supposedly donated Rome (and Western Roman Empire!) to the Pope. During the time of Renaissance, though, the document was proved to be a forgery. The forgery was perhaps done in the 8th century when an actual “donation” did come to the Pope from Pepin – the King of Franks (who was a usurper and whose kingship was legitimized by the approval and blessing of two successive Popes!). But not secure in their position, they perhaps felt the need to invoke the “ancient” Constantine to give legitimacy to this new donation. We don’t like to believe in anything unless somebody in past believed in it too, right? I say these Europeans are indeed Indians!

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Donation of Constantine

There are a few more reasons to not believe in the story. For example, Constantine wasn’t a Christian at the time he shifted the capital and this donation happened. He had proven himself tolerant towards Christianity with the Edict of Milan, which granted Christians the freedom to practice their religion and put a stop to their persecution. But he continued to patronize paganism and wasn’t baptized until he was on his deathbed (pious reasons have been discovered for this delay, but let’s not get into ecclesiastical debates here).

Constantine also didn’t seem to have any intention of giving away any part of his empire to anyone. A while before Constantine, Roman Empire had been divided into two parts – Eastern and Western – for administrative convenience. Otherwise, the empire had become too big to be managed by one emperor. So they had started having two co-emperors. Constantine had a co-emperor too. Until the partnership soured and he finally fought, defeated and killed his co-emperor to become the sole emperor of the empire. He is credited with unifying the Roman Empire again, not for chipping it off. The emperors that followed him also didn’t want to cede anything. Although ultimately they had to. Western Roman Empire was to collapse.

Finally, Bishop of Rome in the 4th century was not what Pope today is. He wasn’t the sole supreme leader of the Christian world. He was one of the bishops. Even among the important patriarchs, he was one of the five. In time Islam ran over the territory of three of them, Roman and Greek church parted ways, a lot of political, military and religious maneuvering happened before Rome and the papacy became the supreme symbols of Christianity (umm – just Catholicism actually).

Today the Vatican is this cute, little country sitting in the middle of Rome. Technically a theocracy, where visitor’s access is limited to only designated areas and where only Catholics can find work, it doesn’t invite outcries of bigotry or protests against “reservation” or “discrimination”. It is a harmless tourist destination, a nice eccentric piece of toy country to have. But even until the middle of 20th century, the papacy wasn’t this avuncular, harmless-looking institution. It was actively involved in the temporal politics of Italy. The compromise of leaving Vatican to them in return for them not claiming much else was arrived at by Mussolini. I suppose we could call Vatican a Donation of Mussolini.

For several hundred years now, the Rome (now the Vatican) hasn’t invoked the Donation of Constantine. But for almost 1000 years now we have known that they engaged in a forgery like that. Don’t you wonder how an institution with claims on superior spirituality survived such blatant disregard for right and wrong in pursuit of material greed? How did it not crumble under the revelation?

Well, it didn’t. It survived and it flourished. It conquered and it killed. Make what you will of human nature from this. But this is how things are with many more powerful institutions. With many powerful people too.

Time to stop wondering about how political parties, companies, and powerful individuals survive all the scandals and outrageously irresponsible behavior they engage in. There is something natural about their survival.

Thoughts

प्रिविलेज को पहचानो!

एक बड़े नामी अख़बार में एक जनाब ने बड़े पते की बात कही। कि दलित लोगों को भीमा कोरेगांव को लेकर इतना उत्साहित नहीं होना चाहिए। उस लड़ाई को दलितों की सवर्णों पर विजय बताना बेवकूफ़ी है। वह विजय अंग्रज़ों की पेशवाओं पर हुई थी। उस लड़ाई का जश्न मनाकर वे देशभक्त भावनाओं का अपमान कर रहे हैं।

बाकी उनको इससे कोई ऐतराज़ नहीं है कि दलितों का शोषण होता है और उन्हें आवाज़ उठानी चाहिए। लेकिन उस लड़ाई और उस कहानी के साथ नहीं।

क्या लगता है आपको, सही कहा उन्होंने?

मुझे शर्मिंदगी होती है यह कहने में कि कुछ सालों पहले तक ये तर्क मेरे लिए भी इस मुद्दे पर आख़िरी बात होती। इसके आगे कुछ बहस करने के लिए रह ही नहीं जाता। एकदम खरी बात जो है। वह लड़ाई दलितों और सवर्णों की नहीं थी।

लेकिन आज मैं इसपर आगे कुछ कहने को मजबूर हूँ। जो एक चीज़ मुझे तब समझ में नहीं आती थी और आज कम-से-कम थोड़ी-बहुत आती है, वह है प्रिविलेज। आप, हम, कई सवर्ण लोग, और वो जो इन अखबारों में लिख सकते हैं, अक्सर अपने प्रिविलेज को भूल जाते हैं। प्रिविलेज सिर्फ बंगलों में रहने वाले करोड़पति लोगों का ही नहीं होता है। अगर मेरी परवरिश एक धनी घर में नहीं भी हुई थी तब भी मेरा प्रिविलेज ये है कि मुझे कभी नहीं सोचना पड़ा कि किसी सार्वजनिक जगह पर जाने की अनुमति मुझे है कि नहीं। कोई माँ-बाप अपने बच्चे के कानों में नहीं फुसफुसाए कि वे मेरे साथ ना खेलें। मेरे गांव में रहने वाले संबंधियों को कभी गांव के बाहर, गंदे, उपेक्षित टोलों में रहने के लिए मजबूर नहीं होना पड़ा। उन्हें किसी ने नहीं कहा कि वे गांव के स्कूल नहीं जा सकते हैं। मेरी रिश्तेदारों में मेरी उम्र के वे लोग जो किसी काम के नहीं थे, उन्हें भी सड़कों पर रहने की नौबत नहीं आई। अगर मैने भी कुछ नहीं किया होता तो भी भूखी नहीं मर रही होती।  प्रिविलेज सिर्फ सोने की चेनें और दरवाज़े पर खड़ी गाड़ियां नहीं होती हैं। उन लोगों के मुक़ाबले, जो मुख्य समाज से बाहर पैदा हुए और कभी उसके अंदर घुसने का मौका नहीं मिला, हमारी रोज़मर्रा की रोती-झींकती ज़िंदगी बहुत बड़ा प्रिविलेज है।

और प्रिविलेज ये है कि हम अपने घरों और ऑफ़िसों में बैठ कर दलितों को ये भाषण देने में नहीं हिचकते की भीमा कोरेगांव की लड़ाई उनकी नहीं थी। और हम एक बार भी ये नहीं सोचते हैं कि हम कौन हैं उन्हें ये बोलने वाले? अगर 1857, जिसमें छोटे-बड़े राजा-रानी अपनी रियासत वापस पाने के लिए लड़ रहे थे, हमारा “प्रथम स्वतंत्रता संग्राम” हो सकता है, तो 1 जनवरी 1818 दलितों के लिए विजय का दिवस क्यों नहीं हो सकता है? हो सकता है कि हमारे विशिष्ट अख़बारी लेखक 1857 को स्वतंत्रता संग्राम भी ना मानते हों। ऐसा है तो वे कम-से-कम अपने सिंद्धांतों पर हर जगह अडिग हैं। उसके लिए साधुवाद। लेकिन दलितों को भाषण देना फिर भी एक प्रिविलेज है। जिस समाज ने उनका शोषण किया है, उसमें 1857 में पहला स्वतंत्रता संग्राम हुआ था, उसमें पेशवाई बड़े शान की चीज़ है, और उसमें अम्बेडकर से ज़्यादा दलितों के मुद्दों में गांधी को तवज्जो दी जाती है। आप ये सब उनके लिए सही नहीं कर सकते हैं। तो फिर उनकी ये ज़िम्मेदारी क्यों है कि वे सबकुछ आपके मापदंड और आपकी सुविधा से करें? जब बाकी का समाज तार्किक मापदंडों पर खरा नहीं उतरता, तो वे क्यों तब तक इंतज़ार करें अपने प्रेरक-प्रसंग ढूंढ़ने में, जब तक उन्हें कुछ बिलकुल सही तर्कपूर्ण कहानी ना मिल जाए? उन्हें भाषण देना आपका हक़ नहीं है। ये एक प्रिविलेज है जिसका इस्तेमाल आपको नहीं करना चाहिए।

और पता है प्रिविलेज क्या है? कि जिन सवर्णों ने भीमा कोरेगांव के उत्सव में जाकर हिंसा शुरू की, उन्हें कोई नहीं पकड़ रहा है। विरोध करने वाले दलितों पर सब चढ़े जा रहे हैं। और प्रिविलेज सिर्फ़ गुंडों की ही नहीं है। प्रिविलेज ये भी है कि हम दलितों से कह रहे हैं कि हमारी अर्थव्यवस्था, हमारी प्लाइट्स, हमारी ट्रेनें, हमारी रोज़मर्रा की ज़िंदगी तुम्हारी बात सुनने के लिए नहीं रुक सकती। ठीक है तुम्हारा शोषण हो रहा है, लेकिन विरोध ऐसे करो कि हमें कोई परेशानी ना हो।

जी। उनकी परेशानी हमारी परेशानी में ना बदले, ये हमारा हक़ नहीं है। ये हमारा प्रिविलेज है, जिसके इस्तेमाल के लिए हम उतावले हुए जा रहे हैं।

कुछ ऐसा ही है नारीवादी विषयों के साथ भी। लेकिन उसके बारे में फिर कभी।

Thoughts · Uncategorized

If you are a liberal, how can you be ‘intolerant’ towards me?

Being a liberal is not being stupid or mindless. Being a liberal does not mean we don’t stand up for anything. We stand up for giving space to ideas, for diversity, for freedom of expression, for the value of human life irrespective of people’s group identities.

Disagreeing is not intolerance. Liberals stand for the right to disagree, to argue their case, to bring change in the society. What is intolerance and what is not accepted by a liberal is bullying, oppressing, silencing and in the worst case killing of people and ideas. Most liberals will be particularly against a powerful entity like State (or a big corporation or a powerful person) indulging in or encouraging such oppression on people. And opposing THAT is not intolerance. It is very much being a liberal and being a human being with a spine.

I disagree with people who think there should be a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. But I don’t believe that they should be bullied, murdered or thrown out of the country for their belief. I will defend their rights to their opinion which is contrary to mine. And their right to express it. But I will not stand for it if they bully, threaten, harm or kill me or anybody else. And yes – I will also defend to the death my own right to disagree with them and express it without having to be fearful of persecution.

This in no way contradicts my liberal position.

Thank you!

Defenders of the regime these days think that they have closed the debate by asking this question to the liberals. “How can you say I am wrong if you are supposed to tolerate different ideologies?” is the question they pose in some variation or the other and think that they have illegitimized the liberals (‘libtards’ in their heads and even their speech all too often now) once and forever.

Above is an answer I wrote to one of them. If you get asked this question, and this answer helps, please feel free to copy-paste it. Just give a link back to this post so that some hate can flow towards me too and I can keep a track of just how f***ed up the world is.

 

IITK · Thoughts

21st Century isn’t What It Meant

IITK001At the turn of the century, I was an undergraduate student at IIT Kanpur. It was a time when I was looking on at the world in wonder. I was experiencing unprecedented freedom and independence. I was discovering new and varied ways of looking at the world and its affairs. I was learning that being judgmental about things you have not been exposed to wasn’t a great idea. That being open to different value systems could enrich your lives. That the right and wrong weren’t the absolutes I had grown up with.

It was a lot to absorb, but it was okay because that’s what 21st century had meant for us before it arrived. We used to worry about certain things. That we would have depleted ozone layer by then, or that population explosion would have ended the world, or that robots would have started ruling us.  But on the bright side, 21st century also stood for progress. We expected it to bring a more rational and liberal world at our doorsteps. A world where equality would be a given. A world that would value individuals for who they are, and not be bigoted about religion, nation, color of skin, caste, creed, gender, and sex.

Unfortunately, while the scary things 21st century meant for us have caught up with us in one form or the other, the good things haven’t. Refrigeration technology changed in time to save the ozone layer, but there are myriad of other environmental disasters that we have brought upon ourselves and continue to. Population explosion transformed into population dividend for a while, but our economics is in no position to really absorb all this ‘dividend’. Poverty and unemployment haven’t gone anywhere, even though you can slice and dice the numbers in different ways to make things looks rosy or its exact opposite, whatever be the flavor of the month. We may not be seeing tiny, humanoid robots as our liege lords, but automated systems, decision and policies based on large-scale number crunching, and data-driven ‘artificial intelligence’ are taking the world to a place where no human will be able to understand the systems that govern our lives.

The good things tell another story. Science and rationality aren’t making great strides into people’s lives. People are returning to religion, and not in a harmless way for personal consolation, or a useful way that could make them kind and considerate to others, but as a way of defining collective identity and practicing bigotry with impunity. The Internet and social media have given more people voices. But the technologies haven’t succeeded in making them listen to voices different or contrarian to theirs and broadening their horizons. The result is not a broad-minded world where different voices are coming together, but a cacophonous, nauseating world where every narrow viewpoint is fighting louder to drown out everything else. Crowdsourcing of wisdom is not bringing the progressive voices to the forefront, but only the most jingoistic and regressive. Liberal values are not an object of aspiration, but that of mockery. Individual’s dignity and freedom are being considered a fair sacrifice at the altar of clan, caste, religion, nation or even just megalomaniac leaders. Not in an apologetic tribute to the past, but in a stubborn claim over the present and the future. The more accessible, widespread and ‘democratic’ channels of communication have become even more of a powerful tool for pushing agendas, falsehoods and FUD than traditional controlled channels were.

And amid all this, I hear distressing news from my alma mater. A place where I had roamed in the nooks and corners with abandon at midnight, poring over whatever grand philosophical questions life throws at you at that age, without anyone ever batting an eyelid, has become such a paranoid place that students are being detained by the security at the flimsiest of the pretext, their movement controlled, their attempts at dialogues and exchange of ideas thwarted and alumni being threatened with police action for trying to be a part of the community.

Like the rest of the world, even at IIT Kanpur, 21st century isn’t what it meant.

Thoughts

Want to Fix Nehru’s Mistakes? Try These Three Suggestions.

Hey there! Do you think Nehru is responsible for all of India’s problems? I have good news for you. You can’t be proved wrong. After all, he was the first prime minister of independent India, a position he held until his death. So yes – most of our problems can be traced back to him in one way or the other. (For the same reason, most of the good things can be traced back to him too, but let’s forget about that for a moment. And let’s also forget that hindsight is 20/20.)

So, what now? Do you want to fix it? Great! But even if Nehru is in some way responsible for Rahul Gandhi’s existence, eliminating Rahul Gandhi from politics is not going to solve any of the real issues. Instead, how about we do the following to fix Nehru’s mistakes?

Repeal Sedition Law

Nehru strongly spoke against the law. It is a reprehensible relic of the colonial era. I don’t know why he did not repeal it. Independent India should have treated its citizen with more respect than the law does. But hey! What stops us from doing it? Let’s fix the mistake and repeal it.

Make it Easy to do Business

License Raj cannot be explained away with our colonial past, right? It is Nehru’s legacy. But even after almost three decades of liberalization, doing business in Indian is incredibly difficult. Why don’t we simplify our laws and make it meaningful as well as easy for businesses to follow them?

Stop Trying to Impose One Language on the Country

I have an explanation for this, but Nehru and his ilk seemed to believe that one language is necessary to keep the country together and it resulted in some unsavory Hindi imposition. Why continue that today? With technology at our service, why shouldn’t the government be focussed on taking governance to the people in whatever language they understand, not just scheduled languages, but everything else to0? Let’s do it. Let’s not resort to language imposition. Let’s instead serve people in their language. Whatever it is.

But I understand. This is too much work. So, let’s get back to bashing Nehru for Rahul Gandhi instead.

Thoughts

Sexual harassment? No, let’s talk about sexual predators.

[Note: The language in the article below assumes victim and victimizer as a woman and a man respectively. That just reflects the majority of the scenarios I have seen. It doesn’t mean that the situation can’t exist with gender roles reversed, or even between people of the same sex.]

For all our Vishakha guidelines and progressive judicial stands and outrage at the normalization of sexual harassment, whenever a case pops up, the discourse gets muddled up with the same old issue. Who do you trust in the classic he-said-she-said scenario? Even when there are “electronic proofs”, there is always a question of context, consent, and that ultimate conundrum – was it harmless flirting or was it sexual harassment?

For this post, let’s step back from the issue of individual incidents. Let’s talk about a certain kind of person instead. And quite unabashedly, I label this person as a sexual predator.

I don’t know if I can define it in completely unambiguous and objective terms – a definition you can put down in a law and be sure that it will serve you right every time – but I know a sexual predator when I ‘see’ one. What is different about a sexual predator? It is the predictable consistency of his behavior.  You will know one too when you come across them. But if you are young, inexperienced, uncertain or in awe of the person, you may choose not to know it. Or you may not feel confident enough in your knowledge. You may question yourself, rather than that person. And you may go on pretending that nothing is wrong.

Have you known someone who casts his net wide? Whose default mode of interaction with someone of opposite sex (sometimes restricted to a ‘type’ they have) is flirting or behaving more intimately than their level of acquaintance justifies? Who makes women uncomfortable and leaves them wondering if something is wrong with that person or if their discomfort is the result of they themselves being too puritan, uncool and stuffy. For whom women’s sexual liberation means freedom for themselves to make any interaction with the opposite sex sexual in nature – subtle or otherwise? And who, if they were not slapped by the woman right then and there, claim that there was consent for whatever they said or did, and howsoever they behaved?

Don’t let your answer be affected by the fact that the person may be extremely successful, even legendary, nor by him being a nice and helpful person, not even by him being an avowed and fierce feminist. It is mighty difficult to believe that a person can be all of these and still be a sexual predator. So please keep these observations aside for a moment and think if the answer to any of the questions I asked in the previous paragraph is true? If it is, then you perhaps know a sexual predator, even if everything else about him is nice, inspiring and grand.

I know at least two such people. I have known them to be sexual predators since almost my first interaction with them. But I didn’t consciously acknowledge it until I was old and experienced enough to digest the idea. And until I got some external verification. One of them has a type (young women), the other is quite flexible.  They happen to be the kind of people I want to professionally keep in touch with, even if there isn’t something I need from them at the moment. They are successful, approachable, immensely articulate, well-connected, well-moneyed, and always eager to help. Both old enough to be my father too. The reason I mention age is that it is a factor that makes young people instinctively want to trust them. But they are sexual predators.

How can they be so? Especially when they have so much to lose? Successful people always have more to lose, right? I wonder as much as you do.

And I wonder if there is a point in fighting them? Not just because of the hopeless social discourse such a fight brings about. But also because of how they react to it. How confidently defensive they get. It doesn’t look like they would improve if you fight them.

I also wonder if we should give them a benefit of doubt. I am almost ready to concede that they themselves are victims. That sexual predation is not as much of a choice as we may think. That it isn’t as much about the power equation as we tend to ascribe it to, especially in the context of sexual harassment at workplace. That it is something pathological. That they have a problem in their brains because of which either 1) they genuinely “do not know what they are doing”. That is, they honestly believe that in a sexually liberated society they are not crossing a line, even when they take advantage of the weaker or vulnerable position of the other person, or 2) they know what they are doing, but their urges are so strong that they can’t control it.

Yes – I am ready to concede that they are victims. Or rather patients. Dangerous kinds of patients, though. Because they are a threat to other people.

So, let’s do this. Let’s not try to treat them like criminals. Let’s not try to analyze each individual incident to see if there is technically a power-equation or professional relationship that makes their behavior wrong and for which they can be convicted. Let’s not public-shame them. Instead, let’s start sending them references of good psychiatrists. Like you would do for someone suffering from depression. Or of behavior therapists. Like you would do for someone who has an uncontrollable, violent temper. If you are someone close enough to them, don’t let yourself be fooled by their well-articulated defenses on why they are not ill and don’t need help. Do the right thing and get them help. And till they get it, keep them out of the situations where their illness can show its ugly symptoms. Just like people with pedophilic tendencies should not be put in a situation where children have a reason to interact with them, people with sexual-predatory tendencies should not be put in a situation where others have a reason to interact with them.

The rest of us, let’s send them get-well-soon cards. And flowers, if they are not beyond your budget.