Wednesday, December 31, 2014

क्रांति

प्रशासक कह रहे थे की कांग्रेस के लोगो ने नेताजी का हत्याकांड किया था, परन्तु फ़ौज यह बात मानने को तैयार नहीं थी। कलकत्ता में बहस चल रहा था और काबुल में विभाजन। भारत साम्राज्य में अँधेरा फैलने लगा। कुछ लोग प्रशासक के तरफ ऊँगली उठाने लगे - और उन्हें कारागार में डाला गया।

हत्याकांड के ठीक दो हफ्ते बाद, कुछ अजीब होने लगा। फॉरवर्ड ब्लॉक के एक अनजान नेता को रक्षा मंत्री बनाया गया, सारे वरिष्ठ नेताओं के ऊपर। प्रशासक के इस निर्णय से नेता तो गुस्सा थे, लेकिन फ़ौज बहुत ही खुश था। काबुल में अलगाववादियों को पकड़ा गया, मद्रास में द्रोही सुब्बीर अइयर को गिरफ्तार किया गया। सब इतने तेज़ रफ़्तार से हुआ कि कुछ दिन बाद मानो कुछ हुआ ही न हो !

हत्याकांड के ठीक एक महीने बाद, सब फिर से बिगड़ने लगा।  हत्याकांड के लिए मुख्य प्रशासक अज़ीज़ एवं फॉरवर्ड ब्लॉक के वरिष्ठ नेताओ को फ़ौज ने गिरफ्तार किया। एक आतंरिक जांच में उन्हें दोषी पाया गया। मामला इतना जटिल था कि किसी को पता नहीं था सच क्या था और झूठ क्या था - लोग स्थिरता चाहते थे। उसी श्याम, फ़ौज ने साम्राज्य के संविधान को विलय किया।  रक्षा मंत्री, जो एकमात्र नागरिक नेता इस सब में बचे, ने घोषित किया कि भारत साम्राज्य को एक गणतंत्र में पुनर्निर्माण किया जायेगा।

एक साल बाद, नेताजी के हत्याकांड के पहले सालगिरह पर, पुराने प्रशासन के रक्षा मंत्री ने भारत गणराज्य के पहले राष्ट्रपति की शपथ ली :

"मैं, सरदार वल्लबभाई पटेल, भगवान के नाम पर भारत गणराज्य के राष्ट्रपति बनने का शपथ लेते हुए… "

(समाप्त)

अन्वेषण

की हत्यारा फ़ौज का कोई था इस पर कोई संदेह नहीं था - गोली इतने सही रूप से मारना की केवल एक ही इन्सान को लगे, वह भी ठीक सर पर, और कोई हत्यारे को देखे भी न? हाँ, यह हो सकता था कि लक्ष्य नेताजी नहीं थे, पर कोई मानने को तैयार नहीं था। गलती से इतना सही निशाना?

परन्तु फ़ौज पर अन्वेषण करना  खतरनाक था - काबुल और लंका के साथ, पंजाब और मद्रास में भी अलगाववादियों के गतिविधियाँ बढ़ने लगी।  फ़ौज के अलावा कोई भी देश को एक नहीं रखा पाता।  पंद्रह साल पहले, जब फ़ौज के कुछ अधिकारीयों ने  तख्तापलट करने की कोशिश की थी, नेताजी ने उन्हें सज़ा-ए-मौत सुनाई थी, जिससे फ़ौज के कुछ पल्टन में ग़दर की पुकार  बढ़ने लगी। इस बार मामले को और ध्यान से देखना पड़ता प्रशासक अज़ीज़ को।

परन्तु एक बात किसी को अभी भी समझ में नहीं आई - कोई फौजी नेताजी का हत्याकांड करके साशन को हथियाने कि कोशिश क्यों नहीं की?  नेताजी का उत्तराधिकार योजना ठीक से चली, तो क्या प्रशासक अज़ीज़ ने ही हत्याकांड योजना बनाया था? या फिर क्या प्रतिबन्ध भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस के किसी युद्धकारी का काम था? अतः, क्या प्रशासक के जान को ख़तरा था? कलकत्ता में दोनों सिद्धांतों को मानने वाले आपस में बातचीत कर रहे थे। बाकी देश अलगाववादी आग में जल रहा था।

हत्याकांड के कुछ दिनों बाद प्रशासक अज़ीज़ अचानक से कुछ कांग्रेस युद्धकारियों को फांसी पर चढ़ाई - एक गुप्त परिक्षण में उन्हें दोषी पाया गया था।  हम पत्रकारों ने तो यही लिखा था, परन्तु सब को लगा था कि परिक्षण इतना गुप्त था कि प्रशासक के अलावा किसी को भी इसके बारे में पता नहीं था! परन्तु इससे फ़ौज में फिर से ग़दर कि  आहट बढ़ने लगी - फ़ौज अधिकारीयों को लगा की प्रशासक हत्याकांड को दफ़नाना चाहते थे।

इसी बहस में काबुल ने आजादी घोषित की। देश अब सही मायने में विभाजित होने लगा।

(निरंतर)

प्रवेश

भारत साम्राज्य के लिए बहुत बड़ा दिन तो था ही - ठीक पच्चीस साल पहले हमारे मुख्य प्रशासक नेताजी बोस के आज़ाद हिन्द फ़ौज, बर्मा से आते हुए अंग्रेज़ों को भारत से निष्कासित किया था। ऐसे ऐतिहासिक दिन पर राजधानी कलकत्ता फूलों से ढका हुआ था।

हम सब थे वहाँ पर कार्यक्रम को देखने और फॉरवर्ड ब्लॉक, नेताजी के एवं भारत के एकमात्र शासक दल, के आधिकारिक अख़बार जनगर्जन में लिखने के लिए।  वास्तव में बहुत ही कम लोग इसे देख पाते क्योंकि केवल दल और विदेशी मेहमानों को ही आने की अनुमति थी।  हम तो इसलिए आ पाये क्योंकि हम देश के एकमात्र अख़बार के पत्रकार थे और  हम से ही कल लोग इसके बारे में पढ़ते - जनगर्जन  का ग्राहक बनना  सब के लिए अनिवार्य थ।  फिर भी, हमें इस दिन के लिए विशेष प्रशिक्षण करना पड़ा: गलती से भी दल के बारे में कुछ बुरा लिखना राज-द्रोह माना जायेगा। परन्तु उस दिन जो हुआ, उसे हम भी अच्छे दायरे से नहीं लिख पाते।

फ़ौज के २ मणिपुर पलटन के जवान बैठे हुए नेताजी एवं विशेष मेहमान जर्मनी के अडोल्फ़ हिटलर और जापान के हिरोहीतो को सलामी कर रहे थे जब अचानक से गोली की आवाज़ सुनाई दी।  अव्यवस्था में सब गोली मारने वाले को ढूंढने लगे पर किसी ने यह नहीं देखा कि गोली लगी किसे - जब नेताजी ज़मीन पर गिरे तब ही सब ने उनके सर में बनी हुई छेद देखी।

हमारे नेताजी का हत्याकांड हुआ था। साम्राज्य में आपातकाल घोषित किया गया। काबुल और लंका में अलगाववादियों ने मौका देख आज़ादी कि मांग उठाई। अनंतिम प्रशासक अज़ीज़ अहमद ने एक ही बात कहा - किसी भी हालत में, देश का विभाजन नहीं होगा। परन्तु नेताजी के हत्या के बाद, देश टूटने पर आ गया था।

(निरंतर …)

2015 Resolutions

Yes, I'm going to do this. Despite absolute failures in the past, 2015 resolutions are quite different - for two reasons. One, some of them are inevitable. And two, because I largely managed to keep my 2014 resolutions - yes, I did! My first resolution was to lose weight, and I did that in the most epic way possible, virtually turning the clock back by 10 years or so! The second was to meet people from more countries and I do have a fair kitty of foreigners in my friends list, though to varying degrees of friendship.

For 2015 then, the resolutions are similar. Losing weight is the top priority again, though this time it needs to come with sincere diet control aside from exercise. The Fall '14 semester was somewhat of a setback on this path, but I now know that it was largely because of the hectic nature of the semester and I hope to be able to use that experience to insulate future semesters from such troubles. As part of this, getting rid of my addiction to nachos is also on the cards.

And then there's the resolutions for research. 2014 was a momentous year for research, with as many as three papers having been submitted and work being done for two or three more. This belied all my expectations. With some more work to go, 2014 will see me submitting what I believe will be a very good MS Thesis. That will be the crowning glory of my MS. In addition, I will commence my PhD, although exactly where that will be is still uncertain.

One more resolution for 2015 that I hope to keep but am not sure - to get an American driving license. While it is important, it has not gotten the attention it has received thus far. Maybe this year? 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Make in India, but without credit?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's key Make in India project got some fresh momentum this week with a national workshop being held to bring stakeholders together. Towards the end, the PM assured stakeholders that laws and rules would be suitably amended to encourage manufacturing, which is the only hope for India's young to find jobs, the defining issue on the basis of which the BJP won its historic Lok Sabha majority in May. Scared to make politically difficult decisions and under pressure from coalition partners, the Congress has systematically held down manufacturing growth while allowing services to flourish, resulting in a strong GDP growth but with little employment - 'jobless growth' in popular parlance.

However, a major issue, as highlighted repeatedly by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, is the high interest rates in India that the RBI continues to set with very little evidence of either its need or effectiveness. India's interest rates are one of the highest among Asia's top economies. Ostensibly, this has been because of the record high inflation under the UPA Governments. However, as of now, inflation is much lower and even below the RBI's own target rate. Moreover, the reason for the low inflation is the global collapse of commodity prices, crude in particular, and not because of the RBI's high interest rates.

One important structural fact that the RBI simply refuses to accept is that it has very little control over inflation, which is mainly due to supply-side problems in the Indian economy. India is currently coming out of a recession and demand has been very subdued in the last few years. The high interest rates that have prevailed over that period have actually contributed to the recession and the slack in demand but have failed to make a dent on inflation. This fact alone should make the RBI realize that in the game of growth versus inflation, it can either stoke or damage growth but barely control inflation, such is the Indian economy. Therefore, it would be much better for it to aid the government's quest to create jobs by lowering interest rates. 

Monday, December 29, 2014

A Historic Year

2014 is almost over and it stands out as the single-most important year of my life, a historic year that saw many firsts and laid the foundation for more. It was my first year spent almost entirely outside of India. In 2013, I made a resolution to finally shed some weight and work on improving myself on the health front. Unlike all previous resolutions, this one was a success, having lost over 70 lbs in a year and moving steadfastly towards a healthier lifestyle.

Academically, 2014 saw a reaffirmation of my academic credentials, with a perfect 4.0 GPA throughout. In the research arena, it was a roaring success, with my first paper giving way to another two, the acquisition of an Albedometer allowing me to collect enough data for some good journal papers, my first conference leading to my first publication and my first seminar to share my work with the UIUC community. These have also set the stage for an excellent MS Thesis that I will finish by the middle of next year and also my future PhD.

Socially, the year was a spectacular improvement over the miserable months on 2013 after coming to the US. Having separated from two of the worst roommates I have ever had, I was able to find someone much better to split the rent with. I became President of IGSA and met many new stakeholders in the Illini Union system, learning to deal socially with Americans and a diverse background. My interaction with fellow grad students in and outside of my research group increased greatly and I attended my first mixed party with people from a wide variety of countries.

Next year will have many more opportunities. I don't like to plan things too meticulously. But there will be some resolutions. In another post! 

Another Sweep in Fall '14

Despite the scare of CEE 509, Fall '14 was another successful semester academically. I managed to sweep CEE 405 with a massive 98% score, translating to an easy A+. This is an important course in the area of facilities, one of the best I have ever taken and gave me a clear perspective of just how far behind the US India really is - decades, really. 405 is also considered a leading course by industry in the US, making the A+ a welcome certification.

509 was a big disappointment though as the course turned out to be more like a Railway Engineering course than one on facilities. However, I did manage to make the most if it, particularly in the more theoretical aspects of heat and moisture flow, which formed the basis of my term project that I thought was quite good though complicated and, I dare say, boring. With that in mind, the A is actually good as I was quite sure I'd get less than that.

So another good semester over and I still have a perfect 4.0 GPA! 

Reading the Regional Lines

The 2014 elections in Jammu and Kashmir, India's only autonomous legislature functioning under its own constitution, threw up a hung assembly clearly split along regional lines, with the BJP taking a majority of seats in Jammu and the PDP sweeping Kashmir, with both the parties splitting Ladakh. No party has a majority even with independents and now the state will have to live under uncertainty.

A few important things are clear from this election: the strong turnout was clearly in Kashmir to prevent the BJP from repeating its strong showing in the May Lok Sabha elections, while in Jammu it was largely in favor of the BJP. However, the BJP itself has much to learn from the failed Mission 44+, which saw it attempting to use the media to win favor in Kashmir, which failed, and to dilute its core issues on Article 370 and appease Kashmiris, a move that failed not only in Kashmir but also led to loss of votes in Jammu. This clearly demonstrates that a soft approach that puts core issues on the back-burner will not work. The BJP should stick to its ideals, for doing otherwise only alienates existing votes but does not win new ones.

The PDP is actually the biggest disappointment, not having won as spectacularly as expected. While Mufti Sayeed still has a shot at being CM, it will be on precarious grounds. Teaming up with the NC is out of question, while doing so with the BJP would be political suicide for it. And yet, the Congress is known to be a bad partner and the party will put the PDP in a hard situation for its entire term. Moreover, knowing the PDP's strong stand on autonomy, the Congress too will face a hard time in Delhi if it forms a government with the PDP. There are no easy answers but the onus is on the PDP to find a way out. The Congess itself has come last in yet another election, highlighting how it is becoming increasingly irrelevant to Indian politics.

What is clear is that the regions of Jammu and Kashmir have some irreconcileable differences with each other. If Kashmir-based parties gang up to stop the BJP, it will be a sure sign that Jammu is and continues to be treated in a stepmotherly fashion by both Srinagar and New Delhi. While disturbing, that could create some new forces in the region calling for partition of the state. But that is left for the future. 

Scripting History in Jharkhand

The BJP's dream run since last December continued unabated last week with the party, in alliance with the AJSU, storming to power in the state of Jharkhand with an absolute majority, the first time in its history that such a thing has happened. Since it was created in 2000 by the then NDA Government out of the tribal areas of southern Bihar, Jharkhand has been thoroughly mis-governed by successive coalition governments that have left it as poor and backward as it ever was, despite being rich in natural wealth and having a surplus budget.

While the results bring good tidings for the people of the state, it also had some surprises. The JMM did much better than expected, coming out as the principal Opposition, despite the Congress having heaped venom on it. Presumably, the anger against the previous government was piled on to the Congress, which just goes to show how badly the party has been decimated this year. From being the default party of governance in India, the Congress has become the standard punching bag for all and sundry. Indeed, the party did not really fight this election and was more dependent on its newly-found allies, the JD(U) and the RJD, which themselves were buy fighting each other within their 'alliance'!

The election also saw some high-profile defeats: the BJP's first CM Babulal Marandi was defeated in both the seats he stood from, while the BJP's CM-hopeful Arjun Munda was also defeated. This then led to Raghubir Das becoming the new CM and the first non-tribal to do so, although the fact is that only 20% of Jharkhand consists of tribal people.

This victory is important for PM Modi as it will add more Rajya Sabha members to his kitty in due time, slowly eroding what has becoming a major stumbling block for him. And with it, the NDA's march continues, now controlling the most states (10) in history and reducing the Congress-led UPA to just 9. 2014 thus closes with a clear mandate to the NDA led by Modi's BJP. 

Sunday, December 28, 2014

An Amazing Holiday in Pondi

I just got back from a grand vacation in the Union Territory of Pondicherry with my good friend, Tarun, about a year and a half after another such wonderful trip to Amritsar in my final days in Roorkee. This vacation comes at a very different juncture in life though: my MS is almost over and is working out to be quite a good thesis thus far, but the time to choose on a path for a PhD is coming soon and with it, the paraphernalia that comes with a PhD. Cutting to the chase, this will be my last vacation in at least 24 months (it already came after 15), which is why it was so important. The half-marathon has been successfully completed, but the real marathon is just about to begin.

I had a couple of options to choose from for this vacation - staying at home, visiting people in Delhi, or going to Pondicherry. I chose the last, for this is the most time-tested friendship I have and one of two that I most cherish from Roorkee. Moreover, it was a perfect opportunity to further explore the South. And of course, I hate Delhi.

Pondicherry was a beautiful place, taking me back to my childhood by the sea, in Goa, Mumbai and Kochi. The sea has a magical effect on you - you can spend hours counting the waves, losing yourself in the process. But then, there was more to that in the former French colony: great food, the famous Auroville colony, the great drive along the ECR and much more. Not that everything is perfect there - the storekeepers do try to swindle you of your money and if you're not Indian, it can be very easy to fall for it (even being Indian can fail you many a times); the many beautiful statues are all marked in Tamil, which is not at all friendly for tourists from outside Tamil Nadu; and the police is in general rude and unfriendly.

But aside from the usual tourist spots, we did find some truly unique gems: Sasirekha Residency and the nearby idli stall to name just two. More posts on that soon. 

Monday, December 22, 2014

Daring Move

The Hindu reported today that the Narendra Modi government is looking at overturning India's historic support to Palestine at the UN, abstaining instead of actively supporting to it. This is in response to continuing complaints from Israel, an important ally that supplies India with much of its weapons, is irritated with Indian foreign policy, starting from Nehru, that treats the Jewish state as a mistress of sorts. If true, this is an excellent move that will allow India to harvest rich dividends.

There are two factors that are behind India's support to Palestine: an apparent moral obligation to the cause of a land that, like India, was partitioned by a foreign conqueror; and the need to appease the Muslim minority in India that feels a sort of brotherhood with them. On both these counts, the policy has hurt India greatly. For one, while Partition was a horrific moment for India, it does not have to leave us blinded to our own interests. As successors, our priority should be ensuring whatever territory we have left if strong and well-protected. As India's leading supplier of weapons, India has great use for Israel. Moreover, in terms of realpolitik, it gives India a good rapport with the US, whose support is absolutely necessary for India to meet its global ambitions, including the NSG and the UNSC. Although not the cornerstone, India's alliance with Israel (which is also the only democracy in the Middle East) is an important tool in India's diplomatic toolkit that deserves to be valued, not hidden from sight.

The second point has probably hurt India the most. India's Muslim minority, since Independence, has been viewed as a vote bank that can be swayed through emotions but divested of education, jobs and infrastructure. Indian Muslims have nothing to gain or lose from India's policy on Palestine, but they have been made into scapegoats for it by a political class that claims to be secular but is ruthlessly anti-Muslim in action. In supporting Palestine, India has gained nothing from Arab countries, which very much consider Kashmir Pakistani territory and sponsor terrorism that has killed thousands of Indians of all religions. By showing up Palestine as a cheap concession to India's Muslims, the so-called secular class has put a smokescreen behind what they have been unable to provide: jobs and education.

By changing its stance on Palestine, India stands to gain militarily through Israel, diplomatically through the US and domestically by allowing the government to focus on its premise of Sabka Saath Sabka Vikaas, instead of using cheap tactics to appease the Muslim minority to their detriment. 

A Lazy Storyline

THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY (2014)

Produced By: Dreamworks, Reliance Entertainment and others
Director: Lasse Hallstroem
Starring: Om Puri, Helen Mirren, Manish Dayal, Amit Shah and others
Pros: Makes you smile
Cons: Lazy story, hugely imperialistic and patronizing
Rating: * of 5 (1 of 5)

You hear a lot about Indians in the English World (Canada, the US, the UK and Australia) doing well for themselves. Less heard about are those in Europe, who often go through equally difficult journeys in lands that are not all that open to varied cultures and foreigners. After all, Germany can call multiculturalism a failure, but for the US (as for India) it's a fact of life, not an experiment that can pass or fail. So too for France does multiculturalism collide with 'France for the French'.

And that's exactly the most irritating thing about The Hundred-Foot Journey, a movie that boasts of great awards precisely because it makes such a big deal about an Indian pretending to be French and thus successfully coming out on top. This is not just a story of the underdog (which won Slumdog Millionaire several Oscars, no less), this is the story an underdog who turned into a cat. But of course, Murg Masala and the like are just terrible. But of course, bachamel sauce is the food of the sophisticated people of Europe. And but of course, a sprinkle of cardamom in a 200-year old recipe is just what you need - not a dash of hollandaise in chicken curry! This movie makes all the right noises for a European audience, ensuring them of their high place in the order of civilization while also giving space to the poor natives of foreign lands to successfully civilize themselves and earn their stars in the process! This is imperialistic and patronizing to say the least.

But then, I should've expected it. The movie takes the old route of political violence to explain emigration from India. No understanding of what's happening or why, just 'some election' that led to the natives fighting like the dogs that they are and some of them fleeing to the more civilized lands of Europe (at least they extended their condescension to Britain!). With that sort of a beginning, the end was already known. It may have been an underdog movie that makes you all happy in the right places, but I absolutely hated this movie. It was insulting to India and all eastern cultures. (OTFS)

Another Masala Movie from SRK

CHENNAI EXPRESS (2013)

Produced By: Red Chillies Entertainment, UTV
Director: Rohit Shetty
Starring: Deepika Padukone, Shah Rukh Khan, Nikitin Dheer and others
Pros: Hilarious plot, good cinematography, good music
Cons: Dumb story
Rating: *** of 5 (3 of 5)

After watching three refreshing but very serious films, and having sat in the same spot for over 10 hours, I was in the mood for something light and refreshing. And lo and behold, I found Chennai Express!

Now, I know SRK films tend to have the same plot, and this one was no exception, but when you're in the mood for some mindless comedy, it tends to hit the right place. The movie is hilarious and makes you laugh out loud, literally, every few minutes, even if the the jokes are somewhat racist against compatriots from the South! It is also very stereotypical, pairing a Punjabi with a Tamilian (a la 2 States), and hugely over-optimistic about the penetration of Hindi in Tamil Nadu. Nonetheless, it makes up for its northern bias through some great shots of the scenic beauty of Tamil Nadu, especially in the coastal areas along the Indian Ocean. It also comes with great music that has been part of the standard DJ Night fare for over a year now, including an homage to Rajinikanth over the credits!

Truly, the only place where the movie falls flat, as do all SRK films in general, is in the story, which races from being silly to mind-numbing in an overly long plot that almost never makes any sense. There is the love story of course, but there's also the big action scene that ends just before the protagonist is about to die after fighting off an entire village and... well, you get the idea. I'd buy the music but not the DVD for this one. (OTFS)

Refreshing Change

HIGHWAY (2014)

Produced By: Window Seat Films and others
Director: Imtiaz Ali
Starring: Alia Bhatt, Randeep Hooda, Durgesh Kumar, Arjun Malhotra and others
Pros: Good story, excellent cinematography, some good acting
Cons: Slow movie
Rating: **** of 5 (4 of 5)

2014 was a good year for Indian cinema, which of course made my long flight to India quite good, for it was the year of the story - movies that ha fresh, refreshing stories, many of them coming out of little-known production houses. Highway is one such movie that casts its actors in challenging roles that they come out of with flying colors.

I'm no fan of Alia Bhatt and she tends to stereotype herself as the dumb chic in movies. But in this case, that actually comes in handy as it lends credence to the basic plot of the movie. Randeep Hooda however, pulls off possibly the best performance of his career so far as a smuggler-cum-murderer who ends up transforming his life. The wonderful acting on his part alone adds an extra star to the film's rating! But the movie also stands on its own, with a fairly good story and some amazing shots of Himachal Pradesh that will definitely boost the state's already booming tourism industry.

The only drawback of the movie was its slow pace - at times, you just see unending images of a highway and you wish the director would just get on with it. The movie need not have been as long as it was. Still, it was fun to watch and the extra social angle added in to the end was the cherry on top. Definitely worth a watch. (OTFS)

What was that about?

REVOLVER RANI (2014)

Produced By: Wave Cinemas, Ponty Chaddha Productions and others
Director: Sai Kabir
Starring: Kangana Ranaut, Vir Das, Zakir Hussain and others
Pros: Amusing in parts, interesting in parts
Cons: Mostly senseless
Rating: ** of 5 (2 of 5)

Continuing with movies from my long flight back to India, this was one of the so-called women-centric films of 2014, Kangana Ranaut's second after Queen, but probably the weakest of the lot. A drama that tries to be political but mostly misses the mark, it was a good attempt that just failed to take off.

The movie isn't entirely bad. Zakir Hussain and his political machinations are quite interesting to follow and the story is good, with Kangana Ranaut pulling off some good acting (Vir Das has a stock expression on his face; he should just return to stand up comedy). It is lazy in terms of the politics, with all the standard formulas being applied, although the addition of a senseless mediaperson was a good move.

Nonetheless, the movie was largely boring, with little by way of logic or eve common sense. Despite the premise of 'women empowerment' (pardon the hackneyed term), it actually takes a big step backward in that respect. Not much fun to watch, I'd skip it. (OTFS)

Loose but Exhilarating

GULAAB GANG (2014)

Produced By: Benaras Mediaworks, Sahara Movie Studios and others
Director: Soumik Sen
Starring: Madhuri Dixit, Juhi Chawla, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Divya Jagdale and others
Pros: Fast and exciting narrative, good premise, good music
Cons: Loose story, incoherent at times
Rating: *** of 5 (3 of 5)

So this begins my series of reviews of the movies I saw on the long flight from Chicago to Hyderabad, starting off with this refreshing social tale of a woman who forms a private vigilante army to protect women and their interests in the face of unscrupulous opposition.

Gulaab Gang is much more than a feel-good movie though: unlike previous movies in this genre, this is based on a strong story, although it does falter and fails to make sense at times. Nonetheless, apart from bringing in tried-and-tested stars from the last generation, the movie comes with an excellent premise. It goes against, and even takes potshots at, political dramas like Rajneeti that are little more than a lot of senseless violence. This movie, set in virtually any Indian village, recognizes politics for what it really is and what it can be, which is its biggest strength and the credit for which goes to the director, of course.

Though it can be incoherent as a result, the story is fast-paced and keeps the audience engaged throughout the movie. The music is pretty good, with my favorite Teri Jai Ho being kept for the credits. Overall, a good movie that's worth watching. (OTFS)

Friday, December 19, 2014

A Well-Earned Vacation

In a few hours, I'll be on a long flight from Chicago to Hyderabad, taking my first long vacation of fifteen days in as many months. It's been a momentous change, even by the high standards of change that has been my life. If, at one point of time, I thought the move back to Hyderabad from Kochi, or from Saharanpur to Roorkee, were life-changing, my fifteen months in the US have been the most profound of all.

Unlike my other changes, I do not remember the transition from the US all that well. Probably, that's because I hit the road running with my research and courses - settling in or coping with a culture shock (which never really happened) were not on the cards. That doesn't mean I fit in snugly. The fundamental difference has been taking control of my own life and to stop expecting people to help you out. The term 'fresher syndrome' fits this best - in India, a fresher (to anything) expects to be treated easy, to have a path laid out at least for the first year. Not so in grad school in the US, where I have had to quickly realize that adults have to manage their own affairs and, most importantly, show results.

I could go on and on about the fundamental effects these months have had on me, but I will reserve that for a separate series of posts. But they have also been tiring - I have not had a break that goes beyond one weekend since the day I landed here (not counting the LCA Conference, which was officially work). And I am not complaining - it has been an exciting learning experience, both courses and research, and I am happy that my thesis is shaping up so well. But everybody needs a break, especially in the Christmas season. And so I too shall be taking a break for a few days.

Research for the year is done (well, one paper is due, but since it's a paid vacation, some work is acceptable); my table is cleared with an 'On Vacation' sign posted; my bags are (nearly) packed; and I've eaten whatever food I had cooked for the week. Now, it's just a long flight (two of them, rather) back to home. Only, will it really feel like home anymore? Or has life changed so much that, like it is for the Americans, it's now my parents' home? 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Noose is Tightening

As the Trinamool Congress continues with its obstruction of traffic and daily life in Kolkata, virtually overturning its own initial determination to end such behaviour that had become all to common under the Left, it is clear that the party is becoming desperate to save its top leadership from the investigation into the Saradha scam. Some gossip handles have already alleged that there is clear reason to believe that the TMC benefited directly from the Ponzi scheme, although that is finally left for the courts to decide.

Mamata Banerjee's strategy as of now is nothing new - a lot of noise, political violence, disruption of Parliament and ill-mannered name-calling, particularly against BJP President Amit Shah who, after scripting the BJP's spectacular Lok Sabha majority and victories in Haryana and Maharashtra, has set his sights on Bengal. Indeed, the BJP has completely occupied the Opposition space in Bengal despite its limited numbers in the Assembly, with the Left and the Congress sliding into irrelevance. And this is precisely what makes Mamata Banerjee so angry - for what was the Trinamool in its days against the Left, the BJP is today against the TMC.

However, political attacks can only do so much when the Supreme Court itself is monitoring the case. Contrary to what Banerjee would have her supporters believe, her Transport Minister Madan Mitra was not arrested merely because he shared a picture with the man behind the scam - there are very serious allegations and prima facie evidence against him, which will be probed. Instead, Banerjee should respond to Amit Shah's challenge to stating that all those arrested are innocent, instead of making repeated political accusations.

But all this is beyond her. Mamata Banerjee, as an agent to destroy the Left in Bengal, has served her part. Despite the initial energy, she has become worse than the Left and her TMC goons now strike the sort of fear as did the Left's. The future of Bengal is with the BJP and that process has already begun. For Bengal, once India's most prosperous province and today one of the most backward, an opportunity to enter light from darkness is near. 

Where is winter?

This winter in Champaign has been, well, quite warm! The first few days of December actually saw fairly warm nights. There is not an inch of snow on the ground, no frozen lakes and squirrels are busy making merry. Birds can be heard chirping in the (late) morning and you can roam around in a light jacket in the afternoon. Meanwhile, in India, I am told it snowed in Saharanpur and Chandigarh, two areas that you would least expect to see any snow ever.

And they say there's global warming! Well, that was just rhetorical, this is actually climate change in action, characterized by extreme weather. So last year, Illinois got a record cold winter while California got (and still has) a record drought; while in India, the country saw extreme heat waves and now extreme cold waves. Although this has probably made people quite happy this winter, it is bad news for all of us in the future. 

A Brutal Attack

The Pakistani Taliban's attack on a school in the strategic city of Peshawar, killing over a hundred people, mostly children and teenagers, is a horrific crime against humanity and possibly one of the worst acts of terrorism in recent history. The attack was in retaliation to Operation Zarb-e-Azb on militants in the restive North Waziristan area in FATA, a difficult operation for the army operationally and for embattled PM Nawaz Sharif politically.

This is not the time to play politics. The creation of these militants by the Pakistani state, first to fight the Soviets and then against Kashmir, was clearly a grand mistake that is now eating up the country from within. A plan to destroy India has now ended up killing over a hundred innocent children in school in the country itself. Humanity requires us to spare innocent children, who hardly have any control over events, from political battles. But then, the TTP has never really been humane.

Domestically, Pakistan is going to have to make up its mind. The likes of Imran Khan cannot talk about negotiating with the Taliban if this is the standard of humanity that they set. Fortunately, PM Sharif has called for resolute continuation of Zarb-e-Azb, a brave and difficult decision to make, and he deserves applause and support for it. Imran Khan has to give up his tactics and come down to the issue of making people safe - most particularly in KPK, whose capital city is Peshawar, and which his party the PTI governs.

Indian PM Modi did well to ask for schools to observe two minutes of silence in solidarity for the dead children of Peshawar. The city has a deep and ancient history with Indian civilization, which goes back far beyond Partition. For India and the rest of the world, this tragic incident is a moment to question just how far the world has fallen in this war. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

On the Re-conversion Game

Some RSS-affiliates created a flutter in (what else?) the Rajya Sabha this week when they converted a number of Muslim and Christian people in western UP "back" to Hinduism. If the liberal left is to be believed, this is a gross attack on India's secular character, the idea of India and other things such. Unfortunately, it is a well-known fact all over the country that Christian evangelical groups, backed by groups in North America, as well as Muslim groups backed by their gulf oil lords continue, even today, to convert Hindus, not voluntarily, but largely through taking advantage of their poverty and ignorance.

There are two separate issues here, not including the religious validity of converting anyone to Hinduism (like Judaism, you can only be born into Hinduism. The grey area here is whether you can be born into it, leave, and come back, even between generations). The first issue is about using inducements for conversion. Without a doubt, it is wrong. While people do and should have a right to choose their own religion, to use force of any kind, monetary or otherwise, to make them change it is wrong. This is not just for these lunatic Sangh Parivar-related groups indulging in this laughable display but also for, and in fact more so for, Christian evangelical groups and Muslim groups. Their activities are against freedom of religion in India as a whole.

The second aspect is the political fallout of this. Predictably, the so-called secular parties that have time and again used minorities as votebanks (so much so that the Congress party has just about been reduced to a modern version of the Muslim League, it's old rival before Partition) and their reaction in this case is no less. When Hindus are converted, it is a matter of freedom; when Christians or Muslims are 'converted back,' it is somehow a danger to the so-called idea of India (a phrase that has been thoroughly abused by now). Obviously, when Venkaiah Naidu suggested that all religious conversions be banned, they backed off because it would hurt their own votebank.

The politics of religion has divided the country for too long. Muslims have been left to bite the dust to defend so-called secularism (and loot in its name) while Hindus have been badly divided and the caste system has been made more entrenched than it was when it was outlawed. These problems will not be solved by pseudo-secular parties nor by religious groups that bring hatred wherever they go. It is hopes then that the Modi sarkar will simply ignore this silly issue (and as a law and order issue, it is with the UP state government). The Opposition, still unable to reconcile to the BJP's majority in the Lok Sabha, has turned the Rajya Sabha into a free-for-all to break the back of this government. They must not be allowed to win. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Murderous Month so far

December has proven to be a very difficult month thus far, with an unprecedented explosion of work in a very short amount of time. Of course, that much should be obvious from the fact that the first post on this blog came on Dec. 12! Usually, in any semester, work piles up before Fall Break, during which most of it is completed, and then its just exams left for the finals, which are usually simple enough.

But this semester seems to be very different. No, Fall Break was not relatively free, it was packed with work as always. Unfortunately, given how this semester has panned out, almost all of it went to research. I have two major regrets this semester: one, that I did not take thesis credits despite doing so much research; and two, taking CEE 509, a course almost completely unrelated to my research or interests except for one part of it, and which has proven to be exceedingly difficult... and boring.

Of course, it would be unfair to blame 509 entirely: its homework problems, though vague, have been simple enough and initial hiccups were quickly taken care of. The exams are very hard certainly, but for a 500-level course, that is not exactly a surprise (512 is testament to that). The take-home exam is a huge upset and makes everything so much harder - and takes forever to finish!

But overall, the real problem this semester was CEE 405: an very easy course that has too much of everything: too much homework, excessively long exams, long lab reports, long labs etc. It just sucked my time away. Now, I have about a week to bear it all until the semester really comes to and end - and I take my vacation to India! 

What to do with ISIS returnees?

India got a sharp jolt about the extent of dangers that ISIS poses to it this month with the return of an ISIS militant from Mumbai, allegedly after he became disillusioned with the group for making him clean toilets instead of killing infidels! Snickers as this may invite, this leaves open the very crucial question of what to do with this and future returnees, who are essentially fools that can be made to believe any kind of propaganda on social media.

The problem is, despite their toilet cleaning days, these fighters have been trained in the use of lethal weapons - a sort of training that is reserved only for military and paramilitary personnel in India. Therefore, aside from being very valuable for intelligence, they are a threat to the general public. The very reason civilians are not allowed this form of training is so that they don't use the skills on people around them. Therefore, to release this wannabe-terrorist back into the general public would be putting the public at large in danger.

Legally, he has committed a crime, since ISIS is a proscribed outfit and its membership is a criminal offense (this not only has legal basis in India but also internationally, as established by the Nuremberg Trials). While the quantum of punishment will be decided as per the law, the court must consider the repercussions of releasing him back into the general public even after a lengthy period of incarceration. Indeed, it may be necessary to keep him behind bars for life. That may seem cruel, but it is in the larger public interest and the terrorist in question has very much committed a crime that can and should ruin his life - as he sought to do to so many others. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Coming Soon: Indian of the Year 2014


Opinions 24x7 returns with its flagship series, Indian of the Year in its 8th edition as we celebrated the year gone by in India. Certainly, a historic one. The logo for this year celebrates the most spectacular event of the year, the largest democratic elections in human history and the victory of the Bharatiya Janta Party, which this blog fully supports.

But the lotus in the logo does not represent the BJP - it represents India's history and culture, on the basis of which this civilization must prosper. It was this belief that our civilization deserves to be prosperous, not wallowed down in the hopeless bogs of socialism, that led to the events of 2014. The logo celebrates that - the Indian chakra, a symbol of progress, resting on a lotus as it stands firm on the waters of the world.

Opinions 24x7 Presents
Indian of the Year 2014
Coming in 2015

Friday, November 28, 2014

Too Graphic

DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)

Produced By: Columbia Pictures and others
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christopher Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel Jackson and others
Pros: Good story
Cons: Too graphic, mindless, too long
Rating: ** of 5 (2 of 5)

This is not a movie but a video game with a rather elaborate plot. You don't have to feel for all the people killed - with just one bullet shot from any angle, in fact - nor do you have to think too much about the characters who stay alive. In fact, you can sit back and let your eyes pop out at this intolerably graphic creation that has received critical acclaim, confirming just why democracy leads to the election of very pathetic leaders.

Pause. Breather. OK, I didn't like this movie. To be fair, it has a good, inspiring story and will make you feel all good in the right regions. But for once, we have a good story backed up by very poor screenplay and cinematography. There's no doubt that Quentin Tarantino is good at what he does - the problem is what he does. His uncanny ability to make a story seem surreal, disconnected and even unnatural is the ultimate undoing of this movie. Not only is it too graphic to watch for the most part, it becomes a mindless series of murders. And when you keep that up for almost three hours, you have a disaster in the making.

I wouldn't watch it again and don't recommend you to try even once. (OTFS)

What Talks are Worth

This week marked six years since the ghastly 26/11 attacks on Mumbai, India's financial capital, that left over 160 innocent civilians dead. That day, the Indian equivalent of America's 9/11, remains one of the most traumatic days in India's modern history. For Mumbai is not just a city - every family in India, poor or rich, has a connection to it. It is the city of the rich industrialists, it is the city of poor inmates at Dharavi, it is the city of Sachin Tendulkar, it is the city of millions who dream to make it big in Bollywood. It is for no small reason that on the other side of the country, in Shillong, there is a cafe named 'Bombay Bites'!

We cannot and will not forget the horrors of 26/11. Years of talks after and despite of the Kargil War, 26/11 is what we got. Clearly, a week-kneed policy of talking from a position of weakness doesn't help - and we need not adopt it either. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

End of K&S

The Kevin and Sarah Show (K&S), my favorite on the local Mix 94.5 FM station, wrapped up today with co-host Kevin calling it a day after about 10 years on the job. Since I came to Champaign, K&S has been my staple morning entertainment that would get me charged up for the day. From great music to Hollywood gossip (they're big +Star Wars fans just like me!) to the local news, I've depended on the show to stay in touch with the local community. Indeed, it's been common for me to realize that it's snowing outside based on their weather report - I just forget to look out the window!

It's been a wonderful time and I'm sure whatever else the station comes up with will be just as good. 

Dramatic and entertaining

Q&A
By Vikas Swarup

Yes, I know there's a movie about this already. Yes, I know the book has been renamed after its movie. But cast all that aside because is book is decent enough to read as well! Years after I first tried to read this book as a teenager, I finally got down to finishing what I had started with this slick, fast-paced novel that takes you through a macabre world of survival in India's poor under-belly.

Yes, there are the prostitutes and the callous police. There is the overdone worship of the White Man. There's even the melodramatic reunion of lovers. Everything, just about everything, that could be put into a cheesy novel is in here. And yet, it's not a bad story at all - primarily because it's fast enough to charge through the clutter. Unlike a lot of novels that devote endless pages to nothing in particular that advances the story, every word of Q&A works to advance the story ahead. Now that's a smart author. 

I Hate this Love Story

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (2014)
Special thanks to the Department of Physics at the University of Illinois for a free Pre-Screening

Produced By: Working Title Films
Director: James Marsh
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Tom Prior, Harry Llyod, Michael Marcus and others
Pros: Good acting
Cons: Terrible story, boring screenplay, dumbed down
Rating: ** of 5 (2 of 5)

Don't we all love the underdog? Even if we have no idea just why Stephen Hawking's works have revolutionized physics, we can always enjoy the wonderful facets of his personal life. Paparazzi on the big screen? That's more or less what this hagiographic movie is about. If you expected to see a tribute to his revolutionary work, you can forget about it. This is a love story, through and through.

OK, perhaps I'm being harsh. Perhaps my expectations were too high. Sure, as a melodramatic film this one had every element of the 'formula' and hence, it is going to be very successful. The lead actors, especially Redmayne, did come up with some spectacular performances. But that's just not enough for me - there is just about no real story. It's a love triangle-turned-quadrilateral-turned-pentagon-turned-back-to-a-line. At one point, the sheer predictability is almost laughable.

But what really kills the film is that it is so boring - it just goes on and on. One hour through this 123 minute creation and I was yawning, hoping something interesting would happen. But it never does. There's always some scientific jargon added in to remind us who the movie is about, but when his revolutionary PhD thesis is summarized in about 30 seconds, keeping such hopes alive is but an exercise in vain. Now, I can understand that people don't want a movie like Interstellar, where you literally have to read an encyclopedia to make sense of the story. But even then, to dumb the life of such a celebrated scientist to a series of love affairs is just silly, insulting even.

I wouldn't recommend this movie. Take your kids to a planetarium if they want to learn science. Or watch some good ol' soap operas on TV if you want melodrama. Attempting to put both together made this movie an utter disaster. (OTFS)

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Has the BJP won J&K?

The first phase of the prolonged assembly elections in Jammu & Kashmir ended today with a record 70% turnout, largely in areas on Kashmir and Ladakh. Much can be said about the large turnout in defiance of the usual separatist call for boycott - it was the voice of people speaking up against violence and separatism, it was the desperate hope of people for a better life in the war-torn state... or, it was the huge fear of a BJP-led government in India's only Muslim-majority state.

Either way, all Prime Minister Narendra Modi has to ensure is that the polls in the state through this all subsequent phases is free, fair and as free from violence as possible. If his party manages to govern the state, it would be a huge turnaround for the state, a victory as spectacular as the one in the May Lok Sabha elections, where the BJP won its first Parliamentary majority and the first such majority in 30 years. It is a difficult proposition of course (although so was Mission 272+), and much depends on Amit Shah's hope for a successful poll boycott in Kashmir, a phenomenon that saw the party emerge as the largest in the state in May.

But if today's phase is anything to go by, that is not going to happen. While the BJP seems set to sweep Jammu & Ladakh, Kashmir will probably go almost entirely to the PDP and what happens from there, a coalition government, a minority government or President's rule and fresh elections, is anybody's guess. But the large turnout will certainly be a compelling card for India's Kashmir diplomacy as Pakistan once again tried to take the issue International (with little success). The conduct of a free and fair election in the state, after Rajiv Gandhi's shamefully rigged elections there, will go a long way to assuage some anti-India sentiments and at least blunt criticism of a high-handed Indian state that aims to suppress voices.

It seems then that, as long as the poll is free and fair, the BJP has already won the elections. Either directly, as the largest party in government, or indirectly, as the Central Government that safeguarded the democratic process in the state. And either way, it is a body blow to the already-hurt separatists. 

Wanted: A DMV

IL Secretary of State Jesse White's decision, coming soon after he was reelected to the position, to shut down the Champaign DMV facility, which serves Champaign, Urbana and Savoy (supposedly the third-fastest growing Metropolitan region in Illinois), is a very ill-thought out, even knee-jerk reaction to what has been a festering problem getting worse over years of neglect. It's no secret that the Champaign DMV facility was bursting at the seams - some people have even found that it takes less time to drive to Monticello, get your work done, and drive back than to do it in town.

The Champaign DMV needed an overhaul and a drastic expansion, nobody can argue against that. Things got so bad in the end that the building was getting overcrowded and the line stretched so far out that a tent had to be put up to protect people from the elements (or try to, anyway). The facility even had to end the system of appointments because of the huge rush and move to first-come-first-serve instead, which made it ridiculously hard to take a driving test. But all this didn't happen in one day, it has been building up over a long time. Enrollment at the U of I, which is at the heart of Urbana-Champaign, has been rising steadily while the Research Park near Savoy has been attracting more employment to the area over the last few years. It was obvious from simple census data that the Champaign DMV was far too small for such a fast-growing community. But inaction it seems is the way things work in Springfield.

While a new facility certainly needs to be found, the area cannot do without a DMV. It is not reasonable to give people no choice but to drive to Rantoul or all the way to Bloomington for a service that they pay taxes for in their own city. If it was just a matter of a few weeks, perhaps it could have been acceptable but the SOS Office claims it can take half a year - a completely unreasonable timeframe. The best way would have been to maintain a temporary facility, particularly for the large body of International students and the poor who do not own a car but would like to have a drivers license or State ID. This could have strictly enforced an appointments system or discouraged dependence to make sure that only those with no choice come to it. The mobile SOS unit, run once a month from the Illini Union, could also have been scaled up to possibly a week a month to handle some of the load. But to completely shut down such an important facility in the area is beyond reason.

Incidentally, some reports suggest that the surge in applications in the neighboring SOS Facilities because of this closure is straining the system even there. One hopes that Governor-elect Bruce Rauner makes it a priority to fix this surreal situation in Illinois, where the state is grossly unequipped and even uninterested in managing an issuing that has been building up for a long time. And Champaign-Urbana's current and newly-elected representatives need to do more than pay mere lip service. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Wise Move

The New York Times reported this week that President Obama has authorized US forces, significantly diminished, to continue combat operations in Afghanistan in 2015, undoing his hasty and ill-adviser retreat from America's longest war. Of course, the announcement has been kept under wraps and is not a complete climb down, as the 'remnants of Al-Qaeda' and not the Taliban per se are the targets. However, given that it is so difficult to distinguish between the two, this distinction is pure decoration to suit Obama's political compulsions.

Iraq is the classic example of why this move was necessary - the departure of American forces from there because Bush and Obama were both unable to conclude a Status of Forces agreement led eventually to the rise of ISIS, which has engulfed the region in flames and brought American forces back. Clearly, any sudden departure from Afghanistan will have a similar, devastating impact that will only bring America back. It is then in the best interests of the US to stay on in whatever diminished capacity and engage in active combat until Afghanistan finally stabilizes. This may take decades more of course. But it's much easier to enter a war then it is to leave one and this is quite unfortunately the price of liberty. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Sanskrit Issue

A fresh storm is rising in the corridors of Delhi and caught in it is the predictable Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani, who was increasingly become an embarrassment for the otherwise smooth six months of the Narendra Modi government. The problem is not that she is wrong in any way - in fact she is quite within the letter and spirit of the law that most people prefer not to talk about - the problem is that she has come out looking like a Hindutva despot in all of this.

The central issue here pertains to schools in the KVS umbrella (and that educates a minuscule proportion of students) offering German as a third language, which runs afoul of the Three-Language Formula in the National Education Policy. The formula clearly states that Indian students in government schools will learn three languages - English, Hindi and one modern Indian language, with necessary tweaks for local conditions (a southern language in the North and the mother tongue elsewhere). Therefore, there is no doubt that offering German fell afoul of the policy, which dates back to before the BJP even existed.

The problem with most of the critics is that they are badly out of touch with India itself. India is not a European nation - language has deep political meaning. Language was the central issue on which Bombay State was partitioned and on which the south threatened to secede from the Union. To remain an integrated nation, it is necessary for us to understand each other and communicate with accessory languages (and language implies culture, not just communication). At the same time, every Indian language needs to have its due share of respect. The original conception was to thus have Hindi and a local language, but this led to serious repercussions in Tamil Nadu, ending only with keeping English. And indeed, English has its benefits in giving Indians (the tiny minority in this case) an edge over Asian peers globally.

German distorts the formula. For one, it is not even a global language and is used in only a small number of countries in Europe, which themselves teach English to remain globalized. If the question is learning a foreign language to stay connected with the world, then English fits the bill much better than German and indeed, English is taught as a first language in many schools. The primary goal of Indian education should be to educate Indians about themselves - and that includes learning an Indian language other than your mother tongue. This can be any language, not just Sanskrit. Indeed, India would've been a much better place if Delhiwallas could speak some Tamil along with their bad Hindi and even worse English. Or maybe if they learned some Manipuri they would stop the racial targeting of citizens from the Northeast.

The Three-Language Formula has failed to bring about national integration - as former DMK MP Kanimozhi pointed out, the people who translate Tamil to Hindi are the same people who translate Hindi to Tamil. Haryana chose Telugu as its third language while Andhra Pradesh chose Hindi. How many Haryanavis speak Telugu and how many Telugus speak Hindi? The difference will tell you just how much national integration has failed. This is not about the Americanized youth in glittering malls - they will never need any language except English anyway. It is about people in semi-urban and rural areas, whose need for social mobility can be met by learning an additional Indian language and thus opening up more avenues. For them, German is useless.

Unfortunately, this has fallen down to Sanskrit vs German (as IBN put it), which is a tragedy given the common roots the two share. Smriti Irani needs to better communicate just why her decision was right and not allow extremist groups to hijack the issue. There are many who want everyone to learn Sanskrit, but there is no reason to give them any more value than those who want the same of say, Kannada. One foreign language in the curriculum is enough - learn about your own country first.

Disclaimer: I speak five languages, including two foreign ones, and understand about five more. 

Pressing need to repeal AFSPA

Two events in the past month have summarized the pressing need to repeal AFSPA and finally do away with a British-era law, written to clamp down on the Quit India Movement and Mahatma Gandhi in particular, and refurbished by the Nehru administration to clamp down on insurgency in the Naga areas. The Act has given blanket legal protection to security forces in so-called disturbed areas but has also become an excuse for failing to arrive at a political solution to festering problems created since the formation of the Republic.

The killing of two Kashmiri youth for failing to stop at a checkpoint highlights just how wrong AFSPA has gone. In any counter-insurgency operation, lethal force is to be used only as a final resort. However, because of AFSPA, it can and has been used as the first resort. There were many things that could have been done in this situation, including shooting the tires of the vehicle. It is understandable that there is a fear of a suicide bomb explosion, but by the very nature of counter-insurgency, using the 'enemy's' tactics on the 'enemy' is not going to work. The ultimate aim is to protect the Kashmiri people and look for a political solution, not to shoot them into submission.

The second incident is even more henious and shows that AFSPA has not just been misused but has been entirely abused. The leaked report of Th. Manorama's torture, rape and murder at the hands of men from the Assam Rifles, later buried by the unit as an encounter, is devastating to the conscience of our Republic and an insult to everything that the freedom struggle and the Constitution stand for. In a civil court, the soldiers involved would've been sentenced to death, for their brutal act was so shocking. Instead, the Army gave them the equivalent of a light rap on the wrist. It is no surprise then that the insurgency in Manipur remains. As this blog has asked repeatedly, if this is the value of human life that we Indians place, why would the Manipuris want to remain in India?

Much rhetoric has been made and too many lives have been lost. AFSPA must be repealed immediately and a political solution has to be found on a war footing. The country is not worth keeping if a part of its people have to live in fear of their own Army. 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

One of the Best

INTERSTELLAR (2014)

Produced By: Paramount, Legendary and others
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Ellen Burstyn and others
Pros: Excellent VFX, well-planned story, great cinematography, good acting, well-researched
Cons: Almost nothing
Rating: ***** of 5 (5 of 5)

Go out and watch this movie. Don't even waste the time it takes to read the rest of this review - just go and watch!

Now, coming to the review. In one sentence - this is one of the best movies I have ever seen. The five-star rating is a huge understatement: for science geeks and laymen alike, this movie just offers so much: scientific fact, philosophy and some good old fiction, all rolled into an extraordinary tale at the heart of which is human endeavor and the very Hindu idea of cycles of creation. And, a rejection of god to boot!

The visual effects in the movie are not just great, they're a scientific masterpiece. Everything from the wormhole to the blackhole are scientifically accurate in the way they're been rendered - scientific papers have been published by the VFX team! The story itself, as is typical of Nolan's skill, is well-planned with just the right hints at every turn but with the real tale revealing itself only in the very end. The director takes care to use cinematography to enhance viewer experience, but not to compromise the actual story (like Gravity ended up doing). Indeed, the director makes no attempt to treat the visual effects as the focus of the movie - there is always a strong story running through everything, which has become a rarity in cinema today.

Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathway steal the show with exceptional performances as they quite literally touch the far ends of human emotion. The script combines scientific jargon (simplified, of course) with myth, scientific needs with human emotion and nail-biting suspense with (limited) comedy. Indeed, it seems to have been written over a couple of times, because the story just makes so much sense. Yes, this is the perfect movie.

Well, almost. The problem is, unlike this reviewer, most people are not acquainted with relativity and it can get very confusing, even downright boring at some points. And to appreciate the artistic rendering of hr world inside a black hole takes a level of dexterity that should not be expected from the average moviegoer. That is the real reason some critics have voted this movie down. Nonetheless, this is still an exceptional movie and I highly recommend it.

If you haven't seen Interstellar, you haven't seen good science fiction. (OTFS)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Arnab v Swami Classic

Here's an amazing parody of the recent standoff between Arnab Goswami and BJP leader Subramaniam Swamy. Definitely worth listening to over and over!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

New Realities of Delhi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi completed the much-awaited cabinet reshuffle-cum-expansion today, increasing his Council's strength by a third including some very prominent faces in the Union Cabinet. Some, such as Manohar Parrikar's appointment as Union Minister of Defense (relieving Arun Jaitley of the charge), were expected in the gossip circles of Lutyen's Delhi. But others went down to the wire.

Suresh Prabhu in particular, is an interesting case. His appointment as Railways Minister - when was the last time an MP from Maharashtra held that portfolio? - is nothing short of poetic justice and could signal the beginning of the end of the Shiv Sena as a major force in politics anywhere in the country. It was in 2002 that Bal Thackeray had ordered Prabhu to resign, essentially for doing a good job without indulging in corruption, despite Prime Minister Vajpayee's protests. It was coalition compulsions then that allowed the Sena to dictate terms to the PM. Today, in this BJP-majority government, Modi has brought back Prabhu (he has been doing some background work with Modi for the G-20 summit) by engineering his defection from the Sena while ignoring the Sena's nominee and forming a minority government in Mumbai. The Sena is totally left in the mud and under Uddhav Thackeray's ineffective leadership, it is in a pitiful state before Amit Shah's BJP. Meanwhile, with a proven track record, Prabhu's appointment shows Modi's commitment to cleaning up the railways and ushering an era of high-speed trains. This is the most important appointment of all.

The Cabinet expansion certainly shows that this is the most Presidential form of government this generation has ever seen: despite his 282 MPs in the Lok Sabha and those in the Rajya Sabha, as well as the tally of the NDA partners, Modi has brought in Parrikar, who will be a Rajya Sabha MP from UP. In his quest for truly deliver on his promises (and thus ensure a second term), Modi is not afraid to tread any path, even if it is on the toes of allies (Rajiv Gandhi was the last PM to have that luxury). His choice of a Dalit face from Punjab is the clearest indication yet, after the Haryana elections, that the BJP is looking to finish the Akalis and become the biggest force in Punjab. Appointments from UP, Bihar and even West Bengal point to similar plans.

In the end however, electoral politics is only a means to a much larger objective of running a government. Manmohan Singh and his team have shown that merely having fancy degrees does not mean you can do that. Nonetheless, fancy degrees are the only reason we can hope for acche din: and this Cabinet has a fair share of them, including two doctorates, one doctor and two IITians (Parrikar and Jayant Sinha, who has a resume that is as impressive as that of RBI Gov. Rajan).

With the cabinet expansion completed, Modi will be out for sometime on foreign tours to Myanmar, Australia and (surprise!) Fiji. His new team will have to work overtime to prepare for the Winter Session of Parliament. With the Congress having diminished numbers and the NDA with a large majority, it should be smooth sailing in the Lok Sabha. And if the Rajya Sabha proves impossible to handle, Modi always has the option (constitutional) of holding a joint sitting and passing all bills but constitutional amendments. The task of maximum governance has started. 

Good but not worth the hype

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014)

Produced By: Marvel
Director: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Patt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Lee Pace and others
Pros: Excellent SFX, good narrative
Cons: Incoherent plot
Rating: *** (3 of 5)

Ah, comic books movies, they're all the rage! For the comic book aficionados, they're a confirmation of the pride and glory of their childhood (and sometimes adult) heroes. For the rest, they're a fast and much cheaper way to enter those hallowed portals. Whichever way, you simply cannot ignore comic book movies. Guardians of the Galaxy received rather rave reviews and a great deal of hype and while it is a decent movie, it isn't that great either, certainly not as much as some reviewers and social media have made it out to be.

As is becoming increasingly common, the biggest asset of this movie is the wonderful use of special effects to dazzle and delight the audience. However, the audience does have a fatigue limit and eventually, this isn't enough to keep the cash registers ringing. Marvel, which has a rich repository of comic book stories, should be a little more picky about the stories it chooses to put on celluloid, because the biggest problem with this movie is the lack of a coherent plot. This is pretty similar to what the Transformers franchise has turned into, what one reviewer called an "and then, and then" plot - things just keep happening through a series of absolutely random coincidences and the viewer is expected to believe it all (but then, with comic books, you have to suspend some intelligence for entertainment).

However, in the end, the movie did have a good narrative and was quite straightforward to follow. And it is entertaining, if you enjoy the general genre. Is it in the same league as X-Men or The Avengers? Certainly not. But it is worth watching - once. (OTFS)

With the #KissOfLove protesters

The #KissOfLove movement began in Kerala after VHP hooligans enforced moral policing at a cafe. It would have certainly remained a localized protest if the local Congress government in the state had not used the police against the rather radical protesters. With the police brutality that followed, the fire had to spread and it came calling right to the heart of it all - the RSS headquarters in New Delhi. There, the government (which was the Union Government) had the good sense to use the police only to maintain peace between protesters and counter-protesters and not to take any stand. Chandy, clearly, has much to learn.

The Kiss of Love Movement is not some Western-backed charade to attack Indian culture, as elements in the Sangh would have us believe. It is very much a product of a new India. What the RSS and its affiliates must understand is that the year 1991 changed India fundamentally. It was nothing short of a partition between generations - an entire generation has now grown up free of the all-powerful socialist state and exposed to the winds of liberty. These are the Children of 1991, who have a very different conception of the role of the state and who reject the idea that morality can be rejected. And the Children of 1991 are now the amorphous youth who even the RSS will acknowledge are the future of the country. Rather, the country's future is their's.

The RSS must reform itself and the first thing it needs to do is to induct more Children of 1991 into itself. A social organization cannot afford to lose touch with the realities of society, the fact that attitudes towards women have changed. It is telling that pictures of the protests and counter-protests in Delhi have one stark reality - the counter-protests had almost no women in comparison to the Kiss of Love protesters. These were women who, from another generation would've believed that a woman's place is at home, dutifully caring for her husband and children and quietly baring domestic physical and sexual abuse to save the honor of the family. That generation is gone and gone forever and if the RSS does not update itself to the new realities, it too will be gone and gone forever.

The fundamental mistake that these Sangh operatives that indulged in moral policing is to think that Narendra Modi's spectacular win was an endorsement for them. It was not - it was quite the opposite. Modi's win was an endorsement of everything that 1991 stood for: liberty, economic and social freedom, social mobility and individual freedom. It was on the themes of economic prosperity, social freedom and individual growth that the campaign was built on and won. Had Modi, who has always kept the RSS at an arm's length from the state, used the Sangh's themes, he would've been obliterated and UPA-III would have happened. The Sangh must not miss this important fact and must reform itself.

As for the Kerala Government, the Congress party is well-known to be one that wears a mask: liberal in words, devoid of any principle in action. Nothing else can be expected from it: while Ajay Maken will pooh-pooh the RSS in Delhi, Oomen Chandy will go two steps ahead of them in clamping down on freedom in Kerala. Anyone who truly accepts the right-wing state however, will stand with the Kiss of Love protesters: not because they agree with them, but because they believe that others can disagree with them. 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The 2014 US Elections

The recent round of elections in the US concluded (except for some run-offs scheduled for December) yesterday, with the Republicans riding on an anti-Obama wave and emerging victorious in ways that even they would not have imagined. The GOP now holds the strongest majority in the US House of Representatives since the 1940s, enabling embittered House Majority Leader Joe Boehner to breathe a little sigh of relief even as the toxic breath of the Tea Party continues to encircle him.

But that's probably the smallest of reasons to cheer, for the Party has also taken back the Senate, although not with a sufficient majority to counter any filibusters.  This makes things extremely difficult for President Obama, who will need to rely more and more on executive orders than legislation. Republicans still do not have the power to override a Presidential veto, if it comes to that. But certainly, Obama's lackluster leadership has been punished by the voters.

In Illinois, it was also a Republican sweep, another body blow to Obama. Republican billionaire Bruce Rauner defeated incumbent Patt Quinn, who himself is under the scanner and could add to the illustrious list of Illinoisan Governors behind bars for corruption. This was not entirely unexpected, given just how much Quinn has wrecked Illinois in his term. But his defeat together with that of other prominent Democratic politicians marks a departure in a state that had come to be a stronghold for the party. Incidentally, the 13th District voted back Rodney Davis with an enhanced margin.

What this means for the future of politics in this country is continued gridlock and increasing apathy. After all, this election saw one of the lowest turnouts yet. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Conference Call: The Day 2 Effect

In a three-day conference, Day 2 has quite a lot of value. Day 1 is set aside to get into the mold of the conference, to get to know the participants (and learn the names, of course!). Day 3 is almost non-existent as people have to catch a flight and have just enough time to wave goodbye. Thus, the real action of making social contacts and friends is on Day 2. No wonder then that the Pavement LCA 2014 organizers let us go out on our own for dinner on Day 2, which I used to get to know some guys from UC Berkeley.

To be sure, Day 2 is not all about socializing, it's also about getting results to make the conference more meaningful. We had good breakout sessions on that day, where the student registrants were asked to act as participants-cum-scribes. It is unusual for a conference to ask participants to help them in what is fundamentally an organizational role, but then since they offered a deep discount to us, we were happy to oblige. Day 2 saw some important results from the conference, where minds in the LCA area thrashed out some contentious issues.

I also got some decent feedback for my poster on Day 2, although I had hoped for more. But then, the area of Pavement LCA itself is so diverse now that many had little idea of the dynamics of UHI and were happy to just read the poster without asking questions. I also learned a lot from the other posters. The luncheon also gave me a chance to discuss some further research. Finally, I had a chance to see the UCPRC site, thanks to a very cooperative Dr. Hui Li. It was quite impressive, although I would still place ATREL above it.

Overall, Day 2 turned out to be the real conference (and I got enough sleep to not have to depend on coffee to stay awake, for the most part). The funniest thing is how suits slowly made way for jeans and shirts on Day 2! 

The ISL


Recently, I've watched a few games in the Hero Indian Super League, an experimental league to promote football (the International variety) in India. I'm not a big football fan and have only seen a few games before, but I know enough that the level of sport, while still poor by International standards, is fairly good for India and it will only get better. The well-marketed social media campaign and the large crowds are proof of its initial success. Let's see how it goes from here - the finals are all the way in December.

Election Season Again

For the third time this year, it's election season! This winter is set to see three hotly-contested states up for grabs - Jharkhand, Jammu and Kashmir and recently-announced Delhi.

It's been almost one year since AAP made a surprise debut in Delhi and it has been downhill for them since then. However, if gossip is to be believed, this will be a two-sided content, with the Congress going all-out to back AAP and determined to make Kejriwal the CM and its lackey to stop the Modi wave that decimated it in Haryana and Maharashtra recently. Moreover, this time, it doesn't seem to be a one-sided love affair with Ahmed Patel having dined with several AAP leaders at IIC, clearly setting the stage for a tacit alliance if not an overt one. The Congress, it seems, is out of all constructive ideas.

In Jharkhand, the JMM, a fickle-ally if ever, has broken ranks with the Congress and source say it is looking to dive in with the BJP. The BJP, in-turn, has tied up with the AJSU, so for better or worse, the JMM could be the kingmaker. Unless the Modi wave blunts them, as it did the INLD in Haryana with similar ambitions. If there was something like a 'failed state index' for Indian states, Jharkhand would come out on top, with its graph nosediving since the partition of Bihar out of political turmoil. This election could be the final chance for the state to redeem itself, lest it joins the ranks of the former BIMARU states.

The keenest election of all will be in J&K, where an entrenched dynasty could be facing defeat on two fronts, one from the BJP and the other from the fledgling dynasties in the PDP. It all comes down to how (if?) Kashmir votes, with the BJP looking at a sweep of Jammu and Ladakh.

A winter of change is coming! 

A New Dynamic?

 The Jammu & Kashmir Assembly elections will indeed be happening this year, despite the unprecedented floods that destroyed the Kashmir valley. This then, could be CM Omar Abdullah's greatest nightmare, as a strong anti-incumbency factor against his administration (or the lack thereof) as well as the continued decline of the Congress across the country promises to deal a major blow to the former ruling alliance.

This election could perhaps see the sharpest divide between Jammu, the Kashmir Valley and Ladakh in history. In Jammu and Ladakh, nothing less than a BJP sweep is expected. Thus, the battle is on in Kashmir, where the NC and the Congress are staring at defeat at the hands of the PDP. Some are already calling out the PDP's Mufti Sayeed as the next CM of the state. But it is apparent that Kashmir is not so solidly behind the PDP that Jammu and Ladakh's voice will not be heard. And therein lies the real story of the changing political landscape of J&K.

There are two possibilities, and neither of them include the NC in it. The Abdullahs will just have to live with the fact that, without the Congress backing them from Delhi, they simply have no way to stay in power. If the PDP comes just short of a majority, the Congress could lend it support, as always to keep "communal forces at bay" (oh, the irony!). The Congress itself is on weak ground, but it will certainly garner some seats nonetheless. Unless the NC enjoys political suicide, it will not support the PDP.

But then, what is the PDP comes in significantly behind and the verdict is badly fractured between the NC, the Congress and the PDP in Kashmir? Then, all eyes will be on the BJP, which can safely be assumed to have a strong contingent from Jammu and Ladakh. And then, it could be possible that the BJP-PDP form a government, or the PDP forms a minority government with the BJP's support. It is no secret that the PDP, always more attuned to the people of the Valley than the NC, prefers the BJP's handling of the state over the Congress-NC's. This could provide adequate smokescreen for a highly unlikely alliance.

Clearly, a very interesting contest is on the cards. 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Week of Diwali


Last week, the UIUC campus was alight with Diwali, the Indian festival of lights that has become a global celebration for the diaspora and their adopted communities, with President Obama also sending his greetings on the occasion. On campus, from being a small festival celebrated by Indian students, it has grown into a large celebration, with various organizations jostling for space to host events. The Asian American Cultural Center got the prime spot on Diwali day itself, organizing a lighting of the Ikenberry Commons Quad and great Indian food in the dining hall. While my organization, IGSA, was fortunate to be a partner, we also managed to enjoy some of the great food. What impressed me most was the fact that the Indian food had the longest line - we've come very far from being a backward, forgotten country in Asia.

The undergraduate ISA followed that up with their Diwali Night, a closed-door event with performances and dinner. It has always impressed me how familiar the Indian-American kids are with what is basically their parents' culture, which they continue to hold as their own, together with their American identity. Indeed, for them, there is no contradiction with being Americans and celebrating Indian culture in America. That was an inspiration for IGSA, the graduate association, to organize our signature Diwali on the Quad. Despite the hiccups because of the new team in the RSO office that's changed all the rules, it went off perfectly and made for some truly memorable pictures. For me, the best part was explaining to a Chinese student that we were going to light the Quad with candles, only to be told, "Oh! You're celebrating Diwali!"

There are some private events by the Indian Cultural Society of Urbana-Champaign, the faculty and resident association that also keeps the light of their homeland alive. All-in-all, Diwali has come to symbolize a unity of Indian people, of all nationalities. Because being Indian is not about holding an Indian passport - it is a philosophy that transcends time and space. 

Conference Chronicles: The Poster Session

The poster session is an interesting component of research that every student must cross. It is a compromise between two opposing forces: the need for students to present their work in order to keep the peer-review system up and running; and the utter disdain for reading full papers at a conference. Thus, you have the poster session: whole papers turned into pictures and graphs to succinctly describe what was done - sans the nuances, of course.

Somehow, I liked the poster session, despite the fact that there was so little of it. It's quite different from a presentation, where the communication is largely one-way and the questions are more general (except in the highly unlikely case that someone is taking notes). In poster sessions, if someone finds the poster of interest, they discuss it; otherwise, they move along. Of course, if the area is very niche, you might not have any visitors at all, but that's highly unlikely because every niche area is part of some larger area and academics, by design, love to learn new things!

I designed my first poster on Publisher, a tool that I used to a limited extent before. Thus, this poster was my first big project with the tool and I'm pretty happy with it. In January, I'll be presenting another poster at the TRB Conference. This time, as a veteran!