Friday, April 20, 2012

Is India's romance with communism over?

An year ago, India’s red states, West Bengal and Kerala voted the communists out of power after a historical tenure in the government. Many people raised the inevitable question: Is India’s romance with communism over? How is it relevant in the post-liberalization era and the world’s largest spiritually oriented nation? Let us examine the history and growth of Communism in India before we evaluate the relevance of the movement today.
The roots of the communist movement in India go back to 1920’s when Communist Party of India was founded as an alternative to the existing Congress led anti-imperialist movement. The movement was driven by angst against the economic injustice of the propertied classes of both Britain and India. The “revolt” was not against the imperialism of the British but against the capitalist system in practice.
Victor Hugo once famously remarked that no force could stop an idea whose time has come. In many ways, Communism feels like an idea whose time never really came in India. Communism in India as it was practiced and offered to the people was never in sync with the socio-cultural norms of the majority. In trying to bring about radical change through a revolutionary zeal, the idea missed the opportunity of changing things at the margin.  I cite two specific ideological errors made by the movement which I think explain the reason for its failures in India.
National identity: No real national spirit existed among a group of peasants, landowners and middle class proletariat who combined for socio-economic reasons. The fact that it failed to create a new national identity and unite the masses like Gandhiji and other Congress leaders did during the pre-Independence era was one of main weaknesses in its institutional structure. Not addressing the caste and religion issues through continuous dialogue was one of the biggest mistakes of the communist movement during this time. Imposing their caste and religion free ideology on the masses instead only further alienated them.
Means of revolution: The means of violence chosen by Communist movement was easy to be negated by the militarily powerful British opposition. Gandhiji's method, by contrast, was to slowly pick apart at the government's view of liberalism and tackle the issues on the margin. This proved to be highly effective because the colonial state found it more frustrating to battle a morally forceful yet peaceful movement. I would hence argue that this movement managed to damage the government more effectively than the violent and disorganized methods of the CPI.
Therefore, it is not surprising that Marxist roots only persisted in two of India’s most literate states of Kerala and West Bengal where people’s aspirations matched with the ideologies of the Left. However, the last year’s state election debacles of CPI and CPI (M) in both these states point to a trend of the movement losing public support even in these states. But it needs to be pointed out that the unruly offshoots of Naxalism and Maoism still dominate a third of our districts in India. After the Dantewada massacre where 76 jawans of the central paramilitary were surrounded and butchered in cold blood by well-armed Naxalites, the little romanticism public intellectuals and larger public had for such extremist ideologies seem to have evaporated. Our internal security as rightly pointed out by our Prime Minister is our greatest threat and needs to be dealt with utmost urgency and seriousness. In looking back at the history of communist movement and its loss to Gandhiji’s Satyagraha, Government and civil society will do well to pursue its own truth through a rigorous and community based development agenda in these affected districts. In a country like India, it would be hard and foolish to pronounce a judgment on the end of communist movement. But, by choosing to be not in sync with the socio-cultural and economic norms of the larger society, the communists are being clearly overpowered in the battleground of ideas.

Why am I optimistic about change?

Imagine that you placed two gold coins on the first square of a chess board. If you kept doubling the number of gold coins for each and every square, how many coins do you think will be there on the last square (64th)?
18000000000000000000 (18 followed by 18 zeroes)

Can you imagine that number in your head? I mean we can all visualize 2 birds, 5 trees, 10 buildings, a few hundred people, even a few lakhs and crores of money(Our politicians seem to have the acumen to deal in many more zeroes than us citizens though!).

Malcolm Gladwell articulates this cognitive principle of 'Tipping Point' brilliantly through a lot of social examples. His main idea in the book is how little unprecedented things can actually create a social movement and the factors which lead to that critical mass for the movement to explode. To further break it down, human mind does not have the cognitive ability to comprehend geometric progressions or in other words, big socially impactful movements (read World Wars, computer, internet etc.)

There are a few other mathematical theories to highlight the same principle (Long Tail, Butterfly effect etc.) but I will focus on one which really appealed to me - The Black Swan theory
The Black Swan Theory or Theory of Black Swan Events is a metaphor that encapsulates the concept that some events happen and taken all us by surprise, like the name used to represent it. It is very rare that we come across a Black Swan in our lifetime. The legend goes that the English did not believe such a thing existed till they came across one. Therefore, it is only in hindsight do we come to terms with the fact of the event.

The theory was developed by
Nassim Nicholas Taleb to explain three concepts:
·         The tail events which are extremely rare and highly improbable but not impossible. There exists a small probability of occurrence of such events in sciences and social sciences which happen to shape new frontiers.

·         Given the low probability of occurrence of such events, usually less odds than 1 in a million, it is difficult to use mathematical models to predict them.

·         Because of the nature of rarity and uncertainty of such events, the psychological biases human minds have towards low occurrence-high impact events.
Black Swan Events were characterized in his book The Black Swan. Taleb regards almost all major scientific discoveries, historical events, and artistic accomplishments as "black swans"—undirected and unpredicted. He cites the examples of World Wars, personal computer, Internet, 9/11 to prove his point.

Therefore, there are three major takeaways from a Black Swan event. First, that nothing in the past can potentially anticipate the possibility of its occurrence. It is clearly outside the realm of regular expectations and an outlier on a probability distribution. Second, most black swan events carry an extreme impact on society. Third, in spite of our inability to predict such events, human mind tends to find causal links to such an event in hindsight. The author argues that almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives can be explained through these events.

In my opinion, this is how change and social movements happen. We must surely reason on a daily basis. We must definitely plan for the uncertain future. We must ardently strive to achieve our planned goals. But we cannot predict our Black Swan moments. Life is purely probabilistic. And, at the tail of such a probability distribution is a black swan event waiting to happen in our life time. Therefore, we must believe at some level that high impact change is possible. It might not be around the corner and predictable, but there is some mathematical argument to believing the impossible is probable as well.

So ask yourselves, what is the ‘Black Swan’ moment that you can ‘probably’ dream of? What can you do to tip the scales of change in India? 

Where is the high moral ground?

The article on the book ‘Nanma Niranjavare Swasthi’ by Sister Mary in First Post is heart wrenching, disappointing and serious all at the same time. The fact that it evokes such diverse and mixed reactions is indicative of the sensitivity and complexity of the topic. Instead of giving a quick emotional response, I decided to delayer the three reactions. The views expressed are certainly personal but I do think they are reflective of the generation I belong to and it’s frustrations with the religion that our parents taught us to practice.
Firstly, the personal narrative of Sister Mary shook me up to the core. One, for the personal trials and tribulations she had to go through in spite of choosing the high noble path of service. And, also by the fact that her marginalization was compounded by her being female.  I can only barely empathize how it must have been to go through all that she did and yet manage to have the courage to stand up to her ideals. For living the message of service in the most pristine way possible despite the obstacles life had offered to her, I personally hold her in high respect and draw inspiration from her commitment.
However, abstracting to what the story symbolizes at an institutional and society level, it leaves me with disappointment. The story is a reflection of how church as an institution and more generally religious institutions, no longer stand on the pedestal of human excellence or the pursuit of it. In fact, this story reflects the slow but dangerous degradation of integrity of these institutions and our society as a whole. In the garb of high moral ground and a life of core values and service, these institutions in majority are turning out as platforms for debauchery and power exertion by men. Coming from a scientific and rational background, I would question the idea of celibacy and chaste life that most religions impose on their priests, nuns and monks. Especially, in the context of our modern social norms in which our films and all other forms of entertainment are becoming salacious by the day. It surely requires the highest degree of moral probity to not to yield to temptations of such messages. Either they have must stricter codes on how to uphold and practice the values they preach to their unsuspecting believers or these religious institutions need to question, innovate and think of adapting themselves to the changing societal norms. Values as they say are caught and not taught.
Lastly, the article raises serious questions about the role of religion and religious institutions in our society. To paraphrase Swami Vivekananda’s idea of religion, he said that if you can have the body of a Muslim, heart of a Christian and soul of a Hindu, you have reached the pinnacle of human life. What he meant was if you can practice austerity that Islam preaches, if you can serve others like Jesus did and if you can reflect within deeply like Gita says, you don’t need the crutches of religion to live in an uncertain world and pursue the highest truth. I hope that the story will make all of us question our own scientific temper and reasoning mind. What do we need religion for in life? Can we distill the teachings of all religions and practice them in an individual way? Can we question the lives of gurus, nuns and priests who use religion to manipulate unsuspecting people? More importantly, can we as a society or an aspiring modern society develop scientific temper and search for the fundamental truths through evidence, reason and debate?        

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Article on Higher education for YouthkiAwaaz

Our first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru said, “A University stands for humanism, for tolerance, for progress, for adventure of ideas and for the search of truth.  It stands for the onward march of the human race towards ever higher objectives.”

Cleary, a knowledge society cannot be built and an IT revolution cannot be sustained without strengthening institutions of higher learning. Let us examine where we stand at this moment and what must urgently be done.

The race we have forgotten to run – a number diagnosis
Though the contribution of higher education to development, whether private or public returns is well established and quite significant, India, like many other developing countries, has not paid adequate attention to it.   Allocations for higher education have reduced from 25% in the 4th Five-year plan (1969-74) period to hardly 7-8% in the Ninth Five year plan(1997-2002).

India and China had the same gross tertiary enrollment ratio around 10% in the late 2000’s. While China has managed to break away and grow at 15% every year, we have fallen behind by growing at 7%. The gross tertiary enrollment ratio has reached 15%, according to MHRD’s statistics on Higher and Technical education (2009-10).

International evidence shows that economically advanced countries with universalized secondary education that provide a fair degree of access to higher education have a gross enrolment ratio ranging from 40% to 90%. The converse is also true. No country with a low enrolment ratio of 10% to 15% can be an advanced country – economically, politically or socially.

In summary, higher education is clearly a race we have forgotten to run or chosen not to run.

The leap we never make in India – reports, committees and commissions to policy action
The Yashpal committee report (2009) on the topic of ‘Renovation and rejuvenation of Higher education in India’ is very instructive in understanding the challenges of the higher education sector. It also provides a logical agenda for action to recover the lost distance and the grand idea of a University. 

To summarize the report in a few hundred words would be gross injustice to the rigor of the analysis and to the complexity of the problem.  The challenges of social relevance of our Universities, architecture of learning to promote academic excellence and revamping current administrative and regulatory structures to deliver the public good of higher education are deep and multifold.

The agenda for action outlined is equally complex and challenging to carry out even for the most capable administration. Take for example, creating the all-encompassing National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER), a constitutional body to replace the existing regulatory bodies including the UGC, AICTE, NCTE and DCE and appropriate law for the commission’s functioning.

Instead of getting into the details of the report, I will instead focus on the political follow up of the report. India’s problem of policy action has never been ignorance. We have had significant thought leadership and intellectual capital working on the problem at the macro level, be it through National Knowledge Commission and this report to cite a few examples.

However, it is disheartening to note that India does not have a dedicated Minister for Human Resource Development. It highlights the urgency and focus with which our government has tackled the problem. Our past governments on both sides of the political divide have been equally lax in their vision.

In all debates which ‘3 idiots’ movie prompted on our higher education system, none of the focus was on the big gap in enrollment numbers we have chosen to neglect or on the course of political and administrative action we have taken for the last six decades. Instead, in narrowing the discourse just to culture of learning in IITs and IIMs, we have showed an elitist bias in our understanding of the problem.

To truly start to move towards delivering the ideals of higher education, a system based on core values of academic excellence, social relevance and spiritual vitality, we first urgently need to inject accountability into our political discourse.  A simple demand of a dedicated Central Minister to start with, to represent the 85% children of our country who cannot crash the barriers of higher education.

Debut as a public writer - Youth ki Awaaz article on TFI journey

“How does one become a butterfly?” he asked
“You must want to fly so much that you give up being a caterpillar.”

Metaphorically, this is the same question I started with on my TeachforIndia (TFI) journey as a fellow in 2009. What is my depth of drive to serve people?  I always had deep reverence and admiration for Gandhiji, as how much one single man could do for millions of spiritually starved people just by changing himself. I hoped that such an intense journey of personal transformation will lead to discovery of my inner self – my self actualization need and my drivers for it.

During January 2011, I was running a Writer’s workshops based on central themes of the Lion King story in my classroom.  Our big goal for the year was to plan, perform and organize the Musical for the story. My kids were into the story at a factual and sequential level in Reader’s workshops since September 2010.  Wanting to take it up high on Bloom’s cognitive development level, I hit on this idea on integrating it in to writing as well. As is the process, you need to model the way of writing on the topic to the kids. Also, being 10 year olds, I realized that I really needed to delayer the emotion to the basic level so that it made a deep connect with all of them. In the process, I realized the distance I have covered on the journey of personal transformation during the course of fellowship. The themes that we wrote on were -

“I was put to shame when…” (SHAME)
I was a 16 year old caterpillar, who couldn’t take the possible ignominy of not cracking the IIT- JEE test and ran away from hostel for one full week on the streets. Now, the butterfly can make itself vulnerable in front it its kids by sharing any story of my life in intricate details, just like little Simba got over shame in the end of the story!

“I fear about...” (FEAR)
From fearing about being judged in public like Simba, I have shed my cover and inhibitions as I found my purpose being a teacher in front of my children.

“My responsibilities in the Circle of Life are...”  (RESPONSIBILITY)
From being self driven, I am now driven to make the TFI vision of ‘one day all children will have an excellent education’ a reality by 2060. It has given my dreams new wings.

“I want to serve….” (SERVICE)
I truly feel that I want to serve now, not out of self righteousness but because I believe that my happiness and liberation is bound up with the underprivileged children of this country.

“I am attached…” (ATTACHMENT)
From being a product of the rat race system, I am no longer attached to the fruits of my action and only focus on working positively. I have found my objective equilibrium with the world.

It is with this rooted deep desire to do something for the country which is purposeful, passionate and impactful, I reflected deeply about the root cause of our governance failures and my possible contribution to it. I have grown to believe that answer to bad politics is good politics. Power when combined with passion, purpose and integrity can fastrack wellbeing of people. One of the fundamental questions I asked myself was, “What does it take for a young person with idealism, intellect, integrity and Indian as his/her only identity to win an Indian election in the current scheme of things?”

It has been 65 years since we have realized our dream of political independence. However, we have yet to realize our economic, democratic and spiritual independence.

Any other field or profession in India has success stories of people who have beaten heavy odds to be successful. My goal is to show that we can crash barriers to entry in the field of politics in India as well. Irrespective of identity and position in society, a patriotic and spirited individual must be able to qualify to win and rise in our system of democracy. My mission is to demonstrate that it is possible and hopefully in the process institutionalize it through the Indian School of Democracy.

Studying at Harvard Kennedy School for the last one year has made me realize the importance of India’s urgent need for a public policy school which not only develops the discerning intellect of a student but builds empathy and integrity through community experiences. William Faulkner, an American writer and Nobel Prize laureate from Mississippi, would say “to understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi”. I can vouch to that wisdom from my limited experience of two years in the Wadgaonsheri community in Pune at TFI.

I still do not have all the answers to the big question but believe in the direction which my ideas are leading me. Hopefully, going back to my roots after my study, understanding some of the towns and villages of India in all its hues and sounds, listening long and deeply enough to people and serving them in my own means might open up the necessary opportunities.
There is much to feel skeptical about the rationality of my logic and the audacity of my dream. To them I will politely quote Robert Kennedy, who paraphrased George Bernand Shaw’s, “Some men see things are they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say why not?

And on that day when I finally get to fly, you will know me and the fact that I have given up being a caterpillar!