Monday, June 30, 2014

A New Legal Entity

In Hobby Lobby, the US Supreme Court today made a tremendous leap of logic by equating small, family-owned enterprises as being representative of the family itself and therefore, entitled to its own religious views, which it can quite happily impose on its employees. In a 5-4 ruling on clear political lines, #SCOTUS deemed that such family-corporations need not pay for employees' contraception, reading down a provision of the Affordable Care Act.

The problem here is not with the ruling per se - contraception has always been a huge issue in America and nobody wants to really bring Roe v Wade back to the Supreme Court (especially this one), and the ACA is hugely controversial in that and many other respects - but with the logic of it, particularly that small, family-run businesses could be equated to the families that run them. This does not fit the doctrine of 'separate legal entity' that companies enjoy, an important doctrine that protects business-owners from unlimited liability, personal and financial. By stepping on this slippery slope, SCOTUS might have opened up a dangerous precedent that could prove dangerous.

Purely as an illustration, family businesses could fire workers for holding contradictory religious beliefs (a Catholic owner could fire a Protestant employee) because the business could be representative of the family itself, which does not want among its members, people of other beliefs. The legal difference between a business and an owner is necessary and important here. The effects of this verdict will be felt for years to come.

Incidentally, such a sharply divided verdict adds extra weight to the 2016 Presidential election because the next President will be able to appoint as many as three justices to the Supreme Court, as pointed out by ABC News. Democrats and Republicans has better buckle up. 

Time to end the PIL System

The news is that a PIL has been filed in the Supreme Court against PM Narendra Modi for not bringing good days (acche din) to the country, as promised in the election campaign and thus, misleading the public. This is, of course, just one more jewel in the PIL crown, that has seen PILs filed for as frivolous reasons as changing the national anthem to something purely in the realm of the executive, such as river-water interlinking.

Ever since Husnara, PILs have become a powerful tool of judicial activism, allowing the courts to explicitly determine what is or is not in the public interest. By bypassing the duly elected legislature and executive, PILs have become what many call the last hope for the country. And that is precisely the problem. PILs are an extremely paternalistic system that is grounded in the belief that people are incapable of electing a good government and therefore, courts can intervene in the realm of the executive and legislature to fix it. This idea is inherently undemocratic not because the courts are not popularly elected but because they act as a pressure release valve and actually allow the executive and legislature to get away with their pathetic performance. Because people believe that PILs can be a way out of their predicament, they do not adequately focus their energies on holding their elected representatives accountable.

It is not true that the people of India cannot come together in crisis - in 1951, 1991 and 2014, they showed that democracy could be used to fix a problem. But the problem is that Indians do not do this unless presented with a visible, clear and close crisis. Only in the last minute do we act and that too if there is no alternative. By giving such an alternative, PILs allow poor governance, caste and religion-based politics to continue. The poor do not gain from it - most PILs are not even about the poor and in any case, the greatest loot in India has been committed in the name of the poor. Poor people are not a license to break as central a tenet as separation of powers in our democracy.

Although Justice Kapadia did warn of substantial fines on frivolous PILs, they have continued to grow, overburdening our already overburdened higher judiciary. And the reason is clear - fines fight the symptom, and not the problem, which in this case is quite clearly an obscurity created in the separation of powers, through which litigants try to control an elected government and legislature. Courts do have an important role in our democracy and certainly, as an anti-majoritarian institution their role is not limited to the law books, but that role cannot destroy the doctrine of separation of powers. Because PILs do just that, the time has come to annul the system. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

State & UT Emblems of India 2.0

A rejig from our last and highly successful graphic showing the emblems of various States and Union Territories of India.

Updated:
  1. Emblem of West Bengal updated to the correct one
  2. State and Emblem of Telangana introduced
  3. Odisha's name written correctly (as opposed to 'Orissa')
  4. Delhi shown as a Union Territory
  5. Union Territories added (Chandigarh, Daman & Diu, Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Lakshadweep, Puducherry and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands)


Saturday, June 21, 2014

On the Origins of Asian Conflict

From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals who Remade Asia
By Pankaj Mishra

After a presumably unending series of fiction, I decided to go back, briefly, to non-fiction, which at one point of time was my mainstay. And it was with a book that I had heard about for some time now but only just got down to read - and I devoured it. Despite the obvious Leftist leanings of the author Pankaj Mishra, who despises capitalism by living in capitalist Britain instead of socialist India, as a historical record, this book is a gem.

The West has rather myopically seen itself as the center of the world, the source of human morality, spirituality and prosperity. In From the Ruins of Empire, Mishra outlines how this view was accepted by a conquered Asia for sometime, only to be entirely rejected and replaced by an Asian renaissance led by three thinkers from three corners of Asia - and in particular, of how Japan was the leading light towards this renaissance as the first industrialized Asian society.

This book has been written exceptionally well, full of deep research to fundamentally denounce the 'West and the Rest' idea of civilization  as a self-serving lie. It gives an idea of the narratives that developed as a result of colonialism that impact the world today - from Chinese Communism to Islamist extremism and, in particular, the Indian fascination for all things English and Western. This long narrative of history leading up to the modern day is the beauty of this book. Even if you disagree with the interpretations, it is hard to disagree with the view that colonialism is the leading cause of Asian conflict to this day. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

What India is Not

A lot of noise has been generated by a Government of India circular, asking all Ministries to use Hindi in the social media space. Indeed, there is news of English-speaking bureaucrats in Delhi being forced to find a Hindi dictionary in order to keep working. But a serious consequence of this is in all the non-Hindi speaking states of India (which make up a majority) and in particular, Tamil Nadu, which has historically opposed the imposition of Hindi to the point of threatening secession.

The problem lies directly with the Hindi-speaking chauvinists who believe that Hindi is the "national language." In fact, Constitutionally, there are 22 national languages and Hindi, along with English, is the official language of the Union Government while different state government have their own official languages (and most have more than one, not counting English). The Union Government is representative of all of India and not just the Hindi-speaking majority (a majority of about 41%, in fact) - it is not a tool for the majority to use against the minority. There are many millions in India who cannot speak Hindi and do not need it and they are in no way anti-national: they are as patriotic as anyone from Bihar or UP.

This entire controversy is pointless because it opens up what was a settled compromise. The three-language formula (English+Hindi+local language), however cumbersome and still favoring those whose mother tongue is Hindi, was an acceptable solution that has kept the nation together. English might be a foreign language but for India, it is the only language that does not come with the baggage of region or community and therefore, the only language that does not generate hate. The nation-state itself is highly unsuited to India because India, though one country, is made of many nations. The idea of a homogeneous nation-state where everyone speaks one language came from the European colonizers and is not worthy of emulation by their ruling successors.

It is important that the Modi sarkaar realizes that, despite most of its votes and seats having come from North India, it is the government of all of India. That is simply how democracy works and doing anything to the contrary will lead to situations like Iraq. The status quo of using both Hindi and English in its official communications, despite being set in favor of Hindi-speaking states, is acceptable from an administrative perspective. There is no need to turn a government into an agent of cultural hegemony by asking bureaucrats to promote either language. 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Is Afghanistan Next?

Events last week in Iraq, where the Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), have opened up a grim reality in the Middle East - terrorists are not just strong but they are gaining in strength and territory. Western intervention, which were supposed to stop the spread of terrorism post-9/11, have actually destabilized the region so badly that it has come to this. In many ways, Iraq is lost forever - even if America and Iran stitch up some sort of coalition to defeat ISIL, the Civil War there is not going to end, maybe ever.

But even as Iraq seems to be going down the road of no return, a greater danger is on the horizon for the entire world: the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, even as a good chunk of that country is under the control of the Taliban and the Afghan National Army not being prepared to take them on without active support from America. If Iraq is anything to go by, then the day when Kabul falls once again to the Taliban is not far. Indeed, when the US left Iraq, it was with the rhetoric of being a triumphant superpower that created the second Western-style democracy in the region (Israel being the other). In Afghanistan, we are seeing a full-fledged, much publicized retreat.

For India and all countries around Afghanistan, this is a crucial question for the future. A return of the Taliban will spell disaster for every country (except Pakistan) and this actually seems to be the most likely case. With America withdrawing, it is important for regional powers to do as much as they can to stop this threat. Of course, for a variety of reasons, a regional military occupation of Afghanistan can be safely ruled out - it is neither practical nor is there any proof that it helps. Indeed, the only time in history when Afghanistan has been at peace internally has been under the control of Afghans themselves. The best way forward then would be to strengthen the Afghan state, including its army. India has taken the first steps towards that by training Afghan soldiers and officers in its military institutions. There is talk of transferring Russian military weapons to the Afghans. For its part, China has a big role to play in shoring up Afghanistan's finances and bringing some measure of economic prosperity to its people, particularly in the Opium-growing belts.

To be clear, the danger of a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan is real and very clear and it will be far more devastating that ISIL's takeover of Iraq (although that too will have its repercussions). Unfortunately, America under its very weak President Obama, has chosen this time of all times to beat a hasty retreat. The world is quite truly multi-polar and this multi-polar world must rise to the occasion to protect its people from the scourge of terrorism. 

The Skype Life

Just a few generations back, traveling abroad was the equivalent of disappearing from the face of the earth for the people that you leave behind. For the period away from home, it was quite literally as though you left your 'old' life behind and were being born into a new one. That is still true in many ways, except that technology has made it possible for us to live two lives at the same time. And as technology progresses, the lines separating those lives continue to blur.

This weekend was one such demonstration for me. As with every Saturday, I had my Skype chat with family at home. With better Internet in India and better service in the US (whenever +Comcast feels like it), it was much smoother than usual. The biggest hurdle is that Skype does not allow me to hold conferences without paying for it and Google Hangouts is just not as good as Skype. Nonetheless, I do manage.

What was unique about the weekend was my conversations with some old friends from Roorkee. As I have said previously, I'm not accustomed to keeping old friendships alive because of the way I have grown up across India. Perhaps I am not very open to friendship as such any longer, which explains my limited engagement with people of other countries despite having ample opportunities to do so. Nonetheless, at least in some cases, I am making an exception.

And the conversations themselves had some deep meaning. In one case, it was about the life of another PhD candidate, the stories that we share in different parts of America and how we react to events back home from a pseudo-NRI perspective. In another, it was about starting a new, post-Roorkee life in India. Suddenly, I have a large number of friends in Bangalore, giving me a huge incentive to visit the one state in the region that I have never been to (I have otherwise lived or visited Goa, Maharashtra, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu!). Certainly, without Skype, it would have been impossible to relive old tales.

So, is this what the future looks like? Living in one continent and connected to another via Skype? It doesn;t sound very appealing but it is certainly going to be true for the next few years. And given my long-term plans to travel, it might just become the new normal! 

For a New Generation

QUEEN (2014)

Produced By: Phantom Films and Viacom 18
Director: Vikas Bahl
Starring: Kangana Ranaut, Rajkummar Rao, Lisa Haydon, Mish Boyko, Jeffrey Ho and others
Pros: Fantastic acting, progressive story, good music
Cons: Superficial story, unnecessarily long
Rating: **** of 5 (4 of 5)

There were once movies like Mother India that were all about the 'real' India - the conservative India in villages. Then there were Karan Johar's films that were about Indians who were not really Indian. And in between these two themes you have Queen, a refreshing film that is both feminist and aspirational and truly embraces what this new generation, my generation, stands for. In fact, aside from some avoidable problems, the movie was exceptional in many ways.

The real queen of Queen is Kangana Ranaut, who puts up a stunning performance as Rani, a Rajouri girl who is brought up in a very conservative, Punjabi setting who goes to the least conservative corners of the earth to discover that she really matters to the world in general and to herself in particular. It is this transition from conservative, timid girl to a confident and assertive woman that Kangana pulls of so well. Indeed, for people who know her own personal story, she fits the role perfectly. And that is also the kind of story that this generation thrives on, guaranteeing it monetary success if nothing else. An added strength is the good music from Amit Trivedi, who has given us gems in Udaan and Lootera before and continues his magic here.

Now, the drawback of such a progressive story is obviously that it is rather unbelievable. A single woman sharing a room with three unknown men is going to be in danger in most parts of the world, First or Third World. And the likelihood of conservative parents letting her do that in the first place is next to zero. However, cinema is not necessarily about what is true today but about what could be true tomorrow. In that sense, this is not necessarily a reflection of the present but a window into the future. Of course, this window could have been a little smaller, running in at about 140 minutes with several avoidable parts that added very little to the story.

Overall, this was an excellent movie, not fanatically feminist but certainly a good message for women all over. The ending certainly reinforced that! (OTFS)

Thursday, June 12, 2014

A Pleasant Surprise

And Thereby Hangs a Tale
By Jeffrey Archer

Short stories are very dear to me - I myself have written several and have read many times more but each new book of short stories excites me. There are the standard writers like O Henry, whose works have a certain method behind them that few others have been able to copy. Jeffrey Archer is not an author I would associate with in the world of short stories but And Thereby Hangs a Tale did surprise me with the sheer breadth of its stories and the use of surprise and irony in them.

What differentiates Archer from the likes of O Henry is the British-tone to his stories. And true to any Brit, he had to include a story about a high-flying Indian Maharaja's son - somehow, the British seem entirely unable to forget their former colony or its stereotypes. Nonetheless, the book covers a variety of topics and characters with stories that sometimes look to surprise and sometimes to inspire - certainly an excellent combination in one collection. 

New IITs: A Storm in a Tea Cup

In his address to the first joint session of the current Lok Sabha, President Pranab Mukherjee outlined the Modi Government's resolve to establish an IIT and an IIM in every state, a move that has strong opponents as well as strong supporters. Those who support the move believe, rightly, that a country as large as India must expand the pie of quality higher education by investing in institutions like but not limited to the IITs and IIMs. Those opposing it believe, with fair cause, that these new institutions are sub-standard and significantly dilute their brand credibility that was built over decades.

In my opinion, the truth lies outside of this whole matrix. There is no arguing that higher education in India is of very poor quality. It is not just limited to the high-profile fields of engineering, management and medicine but also to commerce, liberal arts and the entire post-graduate system across the board. Our higher education system is under-funded with poor quality of faculty and infrastructure. It is not just about the number of seats but about their quality. Five years ago, when a slew of new IITs and IIMs were established, they came with very grand promises of sprinting to the lead in the IIT/IIM system. Today, that seems like a crude joke: none of the new IITs has a permanent campus, most of them have failed to attract experienced faculty and depend largely on assistant professors, many of whom just recently earned their PhDs. And why just point to the new ones? The research in the entire IIT system is of poor quality internationally and the PG and PhD programs are archaic, with students being hopelessly beholden to faculty politics. Creating more such institutions will only increase the scale of the problem.

And even more importantly, does India need so many engineers? Indian industry is primarily services-based, a sector that employs extremely high-skilled workers mainly in the field of IT. Most engineers, irrespective of of which area of engineering they major in, are absorbed into this sector after about a year's 'training' after they graduate. Even engineers from the IITs are not immune from this. Effectively, this practice nullifies any undergraduate education, irrespective of its quality, and replaces it with a year's training. In fact, the biggest complaint of IT companies remains that their employees lack soft skills of the kind a liberal arts program inculcates. It follows then that India actually needs more liberal arts colleges that also teach some maths lessons. What then is the need for more IITs and IIMs? For all the talk of investing $1 trillion in infrastructure this decade, the last ten years has ended with shrinking of manufacturing and construction while services continues to expand.

However, the problem with the IITs is not limited to the external climate they exist in. The rot lies as much within: cheap, subsidized education has been taken for granted and the parallel and alternate system of MCM Scholarships is ridden with fraud committed on the part of students and their parents themselves. Among a vast majority of undergraduates at the IITs is a false sense of entitlement: that they do not need to work to move upward in life, that the mere act of clearing the JEE makes them perpetually superior and unanswerable. Within the IITs, undergraduates are known to be extremely intelligent but lazy, stubborn, short-sighted and dishonest. And at the end of all this, the very best of them either leave the country for greener pastures or become managers, completely negating whatever technical skills they learned (and learned cheap, at that). When IITians protest against the so-called dilution of the brand, they are actually pointing three fingers at themselves. The IIT brand was created decades ago by engineers who really contributed to the growth of the nation through technical excellence - the people who built our dams, our highways and our cities. The IITians of today have a very insignificant role to play in nation-building (at least the Indian nation) and those in engineering outside of computer science will know that being an IITian is not a guarantee of technical competence anymore.

Therefore, the entire storm being created over Smriti Irani's move to create new IITs seems silly. The IITs themselves are in a state of decline and it is not because of new, sub-standard ones being created but because the entire system of technical education is becoming a farce because of students who have taken it for granted, while research was already a farce for the most part for a variety of reasons. Creating new IITs will not solve the fact that there are very few 'engineering' jobs in India that actually need a four-year engineering degree. Whether you create more IITs or none at all, these problems will continue and the only difference will be in terms of scale.

But in all this, there is one truth that comes out - in a large country like India, a highly exclusive, privileged, taxpayer-subsidized system cannot continue forever. Those opposing creation of new IITs/IIMs on the grounds that there will be more haves than have-nots are entirely out of touch with the needs of the country and even the basic idea of fairness. And those propounding the creation of more IITs/IIMs should also remember that there are only so many expensive institutions like these that you can create - this system makes equity improbable, if not impossible. This silly debate, which will lead to nothing at all, is hiding the bigger and more serious issues that plague Indian higher education. 

What Eric Cantor's Defeat Means

Voters awoke to the shocking news that US House Majority Leader and Republican stalwart Eric Cantor was defeated in a primary in his district in Virginia, sending shockwaves through a Republican establishment that seemed increasingly confident of itself as Obama's presidency begins to wither away all the goodwill it enjoyed. What does this sudden defeat mean for the Republican party and the insurgency within, the Tea Party?

Ostensibly, the reason for Cantor's defeat appears to be his soft-peddling to Obama on the issue of immigration, a matter which has polarized Capitol Hill. While Democrats want a complete overhaul of immigration laws with a path to citizenship for about 11 millions illegal immigrants in the US, Republicans insist on first sealing the border with Mexico effectively and probably finding a way to deport illegal immigrants. This blog, of course, supports the Republican stand and believes that illegal immigrants must not be given a chance to become citizens unless they come back legally and go through the long process that legal immigrants need to face.

However, what Cantor's defeat ensures, despite Obama's claims otherwise, is that this Congress and with this President, immigration reform will not happen. And this is very bad for America because the current status quo is simply unacceptable for everyone - the American public and the illegal immigrants. Thousands of illegal immigrants flood into the Southern states every month, who are then put into transit camps and are kept healthy though probably not happy until Congress can figure out what to do with them. As long as the uncertainty remains, this flood of illegal immigrants will continue and that is why this issue needs to be fixed on a war-footing.

The Tea Party, whose candidate defeated Cantor, must remember that stalling reform will not help anybody. Therefore, while opposing the likes of Cantor for being soft on the issue, they must also work constructively to resolve this issue once and for all. 

Sunday, June 8, 2014

A New Stage is Set

X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014)

Produced By: 20th Century Fox, Marvel and others
Director: Bryan Singer
Starring: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence and others
Pros: Good story, suspense
Cons: Excessively slow
Rating: *** of 5 (3 of 5)

Just when you though X-Men was supposed to be a trilogy and some add-on movies, Marvel brings in another movie and if Days of Future Past is anything to go by, this is only the beginning. Starting off from what appears to be a Matrix-inspired plot, the movie quickly returns to that eternal X-Man: Hugh Jackman as Wolverine.

Overall, the movie is not as bad as other critics have made it out to be. It is the standard staple of X-Men that makes fans like me come back to it: a grand war with the mutants fighting each other as much as non-mutants, plenty of action and a thoughtful ending. All of that comes together in this movie with an underlying story that is plausible if you are willing to forget some elements from the previous movie. However, even those leaps of faith are excused because of the excellent work by the director in creating enough suspense, particularly in the second half, to keep the audience glued.

The problem with this movie though is that it is excessively slow for the most part. I could not help yawning and stretching during the moving (an almost empty auditorium certainly helped). Building suspense is one thing and delaying the story on purpose is another and for most of the movie, it was the latter, with the former coming to the fore only towards the last part. This is really what killed the movie for me although Jackman's acting was supreme, as always (the rest were decent, of course).

An extra plus-point for the movie is the rather sophisticated graphics. Now, I don't know what exactly was the need for it to be in some temple in a forsaken land, but it was good nonetheless, from a visual point of view. Overall, a decent movie and one that clearly states that the rules of X-Men are going to be written all over again. Worth a watch, but only once. (OTFS)

Saturday, June 7, 2014

New Documentary: Elections 2014: Lessons Learned

The 16th General Elections have ended and with it, so have many stereotypes that have defined Indian politics since Independence. The biggest shift in 2014 was that this was a true national election and not an aggregate of several regional elections. It was also India's first Presidential-style parliamentary election, much like Margaret Thatcher's second election. And the result itself was historic, marking an end, however temporarily, to the coalition era.

There are many lessons to learn from the 2014 General Elections and so, we present Elections 2014: Lessons Learned, a special documentary.

Elections 2014: Lessons Learned
A Documentary
All this year

Thursday, June 5, 2014

War on Vaccines?


Some disturbing news is coming out of the Midwest - hitherto eradicated communicable diseases like mumps are making an unexpected comeback with new cases being diagnosed among children. And the reason is as shocking as it is absurd - right-wing groups, ably supported by some elements in the Republican party, are discouraging parents from vaccinating their children, declaring vaccinations as a huge government conspiracy to make all Americans 'dependent' on 'questionable' science.

In some ways, this was expected. The Republican Party as a whole has been at war with Science for a long time, most famously over Climate Change but also against contraception, abortion, evolution, homosexuality and much more. It is this war that forced Republic Governor of Louisiana to famously declare that the Republican Party must stop being 'the stupid party,' and embrace science. Sadly, that has not happened. If anything, the War on Vaccines has proved once again that the Party continues to dumb down everything.

Let's be clear - there is consensus on the benefits of vaccination. It was vaccination that helped the world defeat smallpox; it was a relentless and sustained vaccination campaign that took India from being the world's largest pool of polio cases to being declared free of all polio cases this year. The overwhelming scientific opinion is in favor of vaccination. By cherry-picking questionable research and declaring that, because absolutely 100% of the scientific community does not agree, there is no consensus on this issue is plain foolish, shows a sick spin on the very term 'consensus' and most importantly, is entirely unscientific.

The irony is that there is only one other major group in the world that denounces vaccination as a conspiracy against their people - the Taliban. Yes, those crazy fighters in caves in Pakistan actually have something in common with the Republicans! As I have said before, if I had to choose, I would choose Republican over Democrat because the fundamental ideas of the party - respect for the individual and minimum government interference - are very much relevant to society. But to bury your heads in the soil and ignore overwhelming scientific evidence in favor of vaccinations is one step too much. Diseases kill children or render them crippled for life and by engaging in this pointless War on Vaccines, these 'right-wing nut jobs' (as described on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) are in effect destroying the future of children and that is an issue that is above politics.

Another Journey?

Star Wars Fate of the Jedi: Vortex
By Troy Denning

I'm a fan of the Star Wars movies, although I'm a little skeptical about Episode VII. I love the franchise and all the ritualism that comes with it - right from the heavy-breathing to respecting The Force. But when I found a whole case full of Star Wars novels, I was a little unsure about reading any of them. Would I realize that the movies have been substandard or worse, a lie? What would I do then? But, with The Force guiding me, I decided to give it a try and I was not disappointed.

Star Wars is much more that the movies of course - the novels are another world. There is simply no comparison between the two. Vortex, written in the era of the Galactic Alliance, when the Sith have been relegated to the rim of the galaxy and a once-united world tries to cobble up a semblance of an alliance, the Jedi Knights must unite with their adversaries to defeat an enemy much greater than them all - Abeloth.

The novel can be a little confusing, especially to those who have never read or seen anything related to Star Wars before, but it is certainly a great read for followers of The Force.

Almost a True Story

PILED HIGHER AND DEEPER (2011)

Produced by: Meg Rosenburg
Director: Vahe Gabuchian
Starring: Raj Katti, Alexandra Lockwood, Zachary Abbott, Evans Boney and others
Pros: Easily connects with any PhD students in the world
Cons: A little exaggerated
Rating: *** of 5 (3 of 5) and ***** of 5 (5 of 5) if you're a grad student

As the trailer says - they grade your papers and do your research and are right at the bottom of the ladder of higher education. Grad students - those funny people on college campuses that seem so uncomfortable around everyone else, possibly even scared to graduate for fear of looking for a 'real job.' But the life of a grad student can be very vibrant indeed and Piled Higher and Deeper, based on the hit comic strip, opens you up to just that world.

For the general public, this movie might seem a little exaggerated. After all, which professor is going to constantly threaten his students with being fired unless they come up with a miracle every other day? And indeed, that is probably just a very extreme condition that few experience. But then, this is satire and it is supposed to pick on these conditions. For a grad student though, most of the movie feels like their own story - from the impossible TA hours with undergrads who are only concerned with passing the exam to those spectacular moments of inspiration when a once-intractable problem is solved by what seems to be pure common sense.

In the end though, the movie has a message for everyone, no matter what they're doing, who hate their jobs but don't want to leave it: would you rather be doing anything else? That captures the essence of grad school. Together with some hilarious gags from the comic strips and the shock of finding out that our nameless hero is named Winston, this movie is worth watching, especially with other grad students! (OTFS)

Mr. President, What Have You Done?

As the debate rages on in America over the prisoner-swap to bring back Sgt. Bergdahl, an important aspect of the sordid affair has been missed. What does this prisoner swap, clearly an unequal one in favor of the Taliban, mean for India and South Asia? If history is anything to go by, it means very bad news.

For one, it signals that America has accepted defeat in Afghanistan. It is not some negotiated settlement or a stalemate but a complete sell-out, going against the administration's own stance of not negotiating with terrorists. After having created the mess in Afghanistan through the flawed support of the Mujahideen to defeat the Soviet Union, America has finally decided to run away from its own responsibilities under President Obama. And the saddest part is that it is doing so after having sacrificed so much already. It is now clear that Obama is simply looking to cut American's losses and run away, much like what happened in Vietnam. This Administration has failed to demonstrate leadership and has given a welcome invitation to the Taliban to overrun Kabul again by very publicly describing the timetable for the pullout of ISAF forces, a timetable which is not based on any tactical or operational logic but purely on buttressing his own legacy. How this will play out in the future, with many authoritarian states openly defying America, is not too hard to guess.

The other reason why this prisoner-swap was a mistake comes from India's own experience with the Taliban, when Indian Airlines Flight IC-814 was hijacked to Kandahar and was only returned when India handed over five deadly terrorists to the Taliban who, almost a decade later, were instrumental in plotting the 26/11 terror strikes in Mumbai apart from many other attacks. President Obama should know that these terrorists, even if they are holed up in Qatar for a year, will play a decisive role in the next attack on America, having seen the limitations of a weak administration and benefiting from it. And for India, it will certainly be a disaster, with Al Qaeda very much keeping it on their radar along with the US and Israel.

In defense, the Obama administration has only made sentimental arguments about bringing back a soldier. Questions about that soldier's loyalty aside, the Commander-in-Chief is supposed to take hard decisions keeping America's national interests in mind. He is supposed to think with his head and not with his heart. This prisoner-swap, which is a complete sell-out, aptly demonstrates Obama's failure in performing his duties. Whatever comes of it, a glowing legacy will certainly not. 

Post #2500: Why do I write?

February 7, 2007 was when I started this blog. It was right towards the end of Class 10 back then, preparing for the all-important and extremely hyped board exam and also thinking about my future. The debate then, like with every middle class Indian household, was on a career choice between Engineering and Medicine, the two staples for a supposedly 'safe' future. Fast-forward to today and that seems to be a tale from another world - Civil Engineer, IITian (with a medal to boot), PhD candidate, traveler and an extremely opinionated political commentator. And yet, between those two worlds, there is a link: this blog.

So why do I write? Few know about my tryst with reading and writing. I've been a bookworm since I was in Class 1 and had some grasp on English. The first author that caught my attention was, like most Indian Anglophones, Enid Blyton and her Noddy series in particular (sadly, I can't remember the exact title). That's probably the first book I ever read. Fortunately, either due to my genes from my mother or my lack of effective social skills or both, it was not my last.

One series that proved to be a tipping point though was the Goosebumps books from RL Stine and Make Your Own Goosebumps in particular, because it was with that that I decided to actually write my own book. Also, it came with the added bonus that it would supposedly help me improve my pathetic handwriting (it didn't). And thus was created my first original piece of writing - I can't remember exactly, but I think it was in Class 3 - modeled on the popular horror series. I wrote on and off during my early years in Bombay, ably guided by the Amar Book Shop and Library in NOFRA and the library in The Scholar High School, Colaba, which loaned me popular works such as Tintin. Indeed, libraries have been an important part of my stay in any city. The last book I wrote before we left Bombay was an unfinished work titled Super Rangers, which was supposed to be a sequel to the popular Power Rangers cartoon on TV. Unfortunately, I never held on to any of those manuscripts.

The next few years saw a lull in my writing as I focused my energies on improving my pathetic public speaking skills (another little-known fact, but that's a story for another day). But my reading continued unabated. From Class 5 onward, I started peeking into the school section of the local newspaper and in Class 8, courtesy Windows Longhorn, I started reading the business pages. Within the year, I was reading the entire newspaper. And thus began my other journey from someone who had no idea that parties field candidates in elections to commenting on politics almost daily.

The next (and current) wave of writing was a consequence of technology. Blogs (web-logs) were becoming popular then. Back in Bombay, I maintained a diary for a year or so, recording the events of each day. I thought of restarting that project with Trouble of the Day, my first blog that, like most blogs, was short-lived. Then came the more light-hearted Today's Day and Best Quote. But again, all of these were short-lived. By this time though, my interest in journalism had begun and I wanted to write about the world around me. And thus, one night, was born Opinions 24x7, the name of course being modeled on NDTV 24x7. And since that day, it has lasted, recording the events of my life, my thoughts and my actions. I did write often and elsewhere in Roorkee, mainly in Kshitij and InDePTh, but my blog has always been my medium of choice.

Many people have asked me to give them 'tips' on improving their writing, no doubt to be used in various entrance exams. To be polite, I give them some stock suggestions, knowing full well that most of them will never be implemented. For myself though, the idea of writing has never been about an exam or a single publication. My journey with writing has been much like people's journeys with everything around them - born out of curiosity, moving ahead on the hopes of making it big someday, enabled by a conducive environment at home and finally becoming a fundamental part of who I am. I cannot identify a single trick I used to improve my writing but I can certainly trace my long journey to Post #2500.

Where do I go from here? Well, I would certainly continue to write but I would like to write in Hindi more often. It's fine being Anglophone, particularly given the number of Indian states and countries that I have been to, English being the lingua franca of much of the world, but there are just some things that you can only say in Hindi: it's an entire world that I have only had a fleeting glance into. Finding Hindi books to read in America will certainly be a challenge but it is worth trying. After all, writing itself was once a challenge for me. Today, it's like waking up! 

In the Big City

The LRT in Minneapolis/St. Paul
Finally choosing to take a (rather short) break from research, I hitched a ride with my friend in Purdue for a Roorkee Royal Civil reunion in Minneapolis, the largest city in the Great State of Minnesota, the State of 10,000 Lakes. In many ways, it was a humbling experience for someone living in Champaign, IL, which is quite literally a land of cornfields. Of course, being a Civil Engineer at heart (and professionally too), the entire trip was a treat - from the Interstate to the LRT.

While much can be said about the things in Minneapolis, there are some crazy experiences that cannot be captured in pictures - words will have to do for those. One was the experience in Downtown, with some rather scary-looking people asking us all too many questions about Egypt (I don't even want to know why). Then there was the nice American restaurant in Campustown with the rather unpleasant restroom. And of course, how could I forget the fear of flying ducks by the Mississippi? These are the little stories that come out in a Big City - the story of my own life is a part of that.

But the truly memorable part of Minneapolis was the Roorkee-bakar with old friends. It's not usual for me to meet old friends in a new setting - I suppose it's only been in Bhavan's and IITR that I have been able to do that. It's a new phase of life but for once, it isn't entirely separate from the old ones. That is a big change for me.

Big city, big changes! 

Sunday, June 1, 2014

State of Lawlessness

The horrific double gang rape and murder by hanging of two Dalit girls in Uttar Pradesh should have been enough to shock the Akhilesh Yadav government in Lucknow into action over the continuously deteriorating law and order situation in the state. However, such a hope is based on the assumption that the younger Yadav can: (a) do something about it; and (b) wants to do something about it.

Let me put it in the simplest possible words: UP is a lawless state, where the most monstrous of crimes can be committed and the police, a tamed force at best, stands back and allows the perpetrators to get away with it. Of course, to save face, the SP Government prosecutes some of the minions involved in the crime, but the investigation is shoddy and after the initial anger dies down, they are sent free. Otherwise, they are given bail because the State prosecutor does not oppose it and the case is dragged on until nobody can remember a thing about it - that, assuming that the case actually begins its hearings in this decade. Such is the situation in UP.

And why has the SP succeeded in restoring the state to jungle-raj? Because most of the hooligans enjoy political support from the SP. This is not an Akhilesh Yadav government, but a government of his extended family and their loyalists. Everybody is a power center, everybody can act with impunity and the state dare not act against them. Such is the state in UP that nobody is really safe - but Dalits, who have always been with the BSP, are particularly unsafe as the caste-based violence unleashed by the SP's goons spirals out of control.

Clearly, the situation in UP is very grave. Law and order have continuously broken down and a CBI probe will not solve anything, neither will dismissing the State government. The real problem here is that the perpetrators can act without fear and that is directly related to the fact that the police remains beholden to the State government in discharging its duties while the courts are overburdened and understaffed. Police reforms are an anathema to political parties, who would lose their power to control justice; judicial reforms are an anathema because the judiciary can check police lapses. Ultimately, until these two issues are tackled seriously, there will be no end to the gruesome crimes reported from not just UP but all of India.