Sunday, August 31, 2014

Personalities Matter

It was already a fact in Assembly elections, where the entire cabinet has been reduced to the Chief Minister, but it took over three decades for Indira Gandhi's style to bring itself back in the form of Narendra Modi. Never since Indira Gandhi was a national election so focused on one individual - indeed, this government, guaranteed a five-year term without any coalition blackmail, is neither an NDA Government nor a BJP Government - it is the Modi Sarkaar.

But going deeper, this shows that our Constitution-writers made one fundamental flaw in their assumptions about Indian society - they assumed that a Presidential system would not work. In reality, most states have turned into a de facto Presidential system and after Indira Gandhi's administration, this is yet another such system. We are inevitably moving towards it, despite our Constitution. In fact, Manmohan Singh's faceless administration was a direct reprimand against the Westminster System: people want the government to have a face, for the Prime Minister to take responsibility and be held accountable for his Cabinet, which he must have full control over. That is exactly what people voted for in 2014.

The 2014 Lok Sabha elections clearly show Indian democracy moving naturally towards a Presidential form of government. Personalities do, indeed, matter. Perhaps that also explains the Congress' dismal numbers.  

Thursday, August 28, 2014

These Sons of the Nation


These sons of the Nation, it is they who move forward,
It is in their strides that soldiers march ahead and onward. 
These sons of the Nation, the stars of our history,
It is they who remind us of who we were,
And what we can be. 
These sons of the Nation, give purpose to our freedom,
We move ahead, step in tune, under their Marshal. 

This concludes our series The Marshals, in commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of the beginning of World War I, which saw millions of Indians participate in theaters across the world. We hope you enjoyed it.

(Series Concluded)

The Daredevil

The last of the Marshals of the Indian Armed Forces is also the only one still alive today, a living legend who had many firsts to his name. Soft spoken, avoiding controversy and enjoying his golf, Marshal of the Air Force Arjan Singh is the Indian Air Force's first and to date only five-star officer, a man whose career oversaw the growth of the air wing of the Armed Forces into the sixth-largest Air Force in the world today.

A New Force
But it wasn't always like that. In the year 1919, when Arjan Singh was born in Lyalpur in what is now Pakistani Punjab, British-India did not have an Air Force. The Air Force in the British Empire in India was formed only in 1932 as an auxiliary Imperial force, being upgraded to the Royal Indian Air Force in 1945 after World War II and the Indian Air Force after the formation of the Republic of India. When he finished his early education in Montgomery, near Lahore, and joined the RAF College Cranwell in 1938, air warfare was still very new to the subcontinent. He was one of the first Indian officers to fly in the air.

However, there was little time to learn. In 1944, he was the Squadron Leader in the No. 1 Squadron IAF in the Arakan Campaign, the first campaign by the Allied Forces to retake Burma from Imperial Japan. For his stunning bravery and success, he was immediately awarded the Distinguished First Cross (DFC), a lifetime honor. With Partition, his family moved to India and received land to farm on, but as a soldier, he continued his service to the new country. On 15 Aug., 1947, he had the unique distinction of leading a fly-by of over a hundred IAF airplanes over the Red Fort in Delhi to commemorate Independence.

Operations
In 1949, he was promoted to the rank of Air Commodore, having completed a course at Staff College, UK. He took over as Air Officer Commanding (AOC) of Operational Command, which later became the Western Air Command. He once again held this post from 1957-61, the longest officer to serve in that position, when he was promoted to Air Vice Marshal.

The year 1962 was a dark day for India, for it was then that India was defeated in the Sino-Indian War. Arjan Singh has always held the failure of the Ministry of Defense to use the Air Force as a major cause of that defeat, believing that India had a superiority in air power over the Chinese and could have reversed the tide if New Delhi had used that superiority. After the massive defeat, with Defense Minister Menon being forced to step down after huge public pressure of the kind that even PM Nehru could not resist, Singh was made Vice Chief of Air Staff. The next year, in 1964, he became Chief of Air Staff, an Air Marshal-equivalent rank. He was awarded a Padma Vibhushan in the year 1965.

The Second Kashmir War
In 1965, India and Pakistan once again plunged into war over Kashmir. For the Indian Armed Forces, so recently humbled by Mao's People's Liberation Army, it was a testing time. With Operation Grand Slam, Pakistan began its invasion of Indian border towns and the Indian Army was still not fully prepared to repel it. It was then that the Cabinet requested CAS Arjan Singh to deploy his forces, which he did in an hour in the strategic town of Akhnur. This played a major role in stopping Pakistani Field Marshal-President Ayub Khan in his tracks as he tried to seize Kashmir.

For its leadership role in the Second Kashmir War of 1965, the rank of Chief of Air Staff was upgraded to the four-star rank of Air Chief Marshal, in line with the practice in the Royal Air Force in the UK, and Air Chief Marshal Arjan Singh became the first Indian to hold that rank. The same year, he became Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, his highest military honor for another four decades.

Civilian Life
After retirement, ACM (Retd.) Arjan Singh was posted as Indian Ambassador to Switzerland and the Vatican in 1971, beginning a new phase of life. In 1974, he became Indian High Commissioner to Kenya, members of the Minorities Commission of India from 1975-81 and finally Lt. Governor of Delhi from 1989-90, when he finally resigned from public life over disagreements with new Prime Minister Chandrashekhar.

Arjan Singh was a fine officer of the Air Force, having flown over 60 types of air crafts in thousands of sorties. In 2002, to honor him for his services to the nation, the President of India conferred upon him the rank of Marshal of the Air Force, a lifetime, five-star rank that he continues to hold today, the first and only such Air Force officer. The move came as a surprise to him and his family, but it was a pleasant one for the Forces.

He continues to live today, remembering his deceased wife, occasionally visiting Air Force installations. His deep knowledge of tactics makes him a formidable warrior even today. As the highest-ranking Officer of the Indian Armed Forces, second only to the Supreme Commander, the President of India, he receives the highest honors.  

Painful Process

This summer, I embarked upon an ambitious project of pulling an old program out of its tomb, updating it and using it for something it was never meant to be used for. And thus was born the C++ version of the EICM, a landmark effort that will certainly find pride of place in my Masters thesis. More importantly, the program will be my stepping stone for another paper or two and possibly for the larger aims of the research project.

When I first saw the legacy code in FORTRAN, I had no clue about programming in that language. I had to take a crash course on its syntax, although I could logically follow it given my knowledge of C++. Nonetheless, a 7000-line program is no mean challenge and I admit that I did put if off for a few months, focusing my energies elsewhere. But when it became apparent that there could be no forward movement without it, I finally took up the challenge in the summer. Initially, I had hoped that it would finish in the summer itself and indeed, it did seem possible in the beginning, with rapid progress having been made.

But around the middle of June, it became apparent that this code was not going to be so easy. With a lot of support from my adviser and a series of meetings with people who were part of the original foundation of the program, I finally managed to pass through a major barrier, a set of three functions - FCOMB, FPRESO and FFINSO that made absolutely no sense. The day I got through those with my own set of functions - fmult and fgauss - was a landmark day in the development of the new code.

And yet, it did not end. Even after the code was ready, substituting archaic syntax and structure with modern ones and removing unnecessary parts of the code, there were many bugs in it. It took me weeks of delving into the inner working of the program, following the flow of logic in figuring out just why errors kept blowing up, leading to large, indeterminate numbers in the output. At one point, I was extraordinarily frustrated, worried that there was a problem in the logic itself, despite having verified it months back from the theoretical model. Amazingly, the final bug was found not in the same place I had started it, my office in Newmark, but far away in the ATREL Classroom while I was waiting for my safety training to start!

The EICM_CPP is to date the most elaborate program I have ever written, running into 2000 lines, well-commented with a multitude of subroutines and analyzing millions of pieces of data in a matter of minutes. While I do have the highest respect for FORTRAN and its enviable speed, I do believe that's its time researchers took to the challenge of updating legacy code into newer, modern languages. With my small part, I'm glad to have added to the body of knowledge. It was long, painful and at one point of time seemed hopeless, with the greatest fear that it would run into the entire Fall semester. But in the end, like all research, I hope, it came out well. 

The Liberator

India's first Field Marshal, Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw, born to Parsi parents in 1914 in the then British-Indian city of Amritsar in the province of Punjab, is arguably India's best-known wartime hero, a distinguished soldier who fought at home and abroad and who oversaw the Indian Army's most spectacular victory, the Liberation of Bangladesh, in modern history. Known for his military genius and organizational acumen, he was respectfully called Sam Bahadur in the forces first and then among the masses. In many ways, he was the most popular army man India has even produced.

Joining the Army
Having completed his early education in the prestigious Sherwood College in Nainital, now in Uttarakhand, Sam wanted to study medicine in England but his father refused to pay for him. Then, as an act of sheer rebellion, Manekshaw wrote the exam to become one of the first batches of Indian officers to be recruited into the Indian Military Academy in Dehra Dun in 1932. After graduating, he became a second lieutenant in the British-Indian Army, starting of a four decade long career in active duty and about eight-decades in association with the Indian Army.

The first war he participated in was World War II in the Eastern Theater, playing a decisive role in the Burma Campaign against the combined forces of Imperial Japan and the Azad Hind Fauj. He was nearly killed in that war and for that campaign, was awarded a Military Cross. He was then sent to the 9th Batallion of 12 Frontier Force Regiment (FFR) in Burma and participated in the Japanese surrender in Indo-China, leading to his promotion to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. Upon Partition, his Regiment became a part of the Pakistani Army and he was posted to the Punjab Regiment. Through the hardships of Partition, he participated in the First Kashmir War of 1947-48. He was then posted to the 8 Gorkha Rifles and GOC-in-C of the Eastern Command, where he was awarded a Padma Bhushan for tackling the insurgency in Nagaland.

The 1971 Bangladesh War
However, all of Sam Bahadur's achievements are eclipsed by his unmatched victory against the Pakistani Army in then East Pakistan in 1971. Two years earlier, he became Chief of Army Staff, succeeding General Kumaramangalam. When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi decided to extend support and training to Mukti Bahini insurgents in East Pakistan, it was felt that India would not really need to openly participate in what was then an internal crisis of a neighboring country. However, the massive refugee influx, which ended up doubling the population of Tripura, made it obvious that India would have to intervene.

India's participation did come with some careful steps, though. In April 1971, General Manekshaw refused to enter the war, defying Indira Gandhi, because he did not think the Army was ready yet or that they should have to compete for railway rolling stock during the harvest season or drown in the flood waters of the monsoon. In an unprecedented turn of events, Indira Gandhi asked her entire cabinet to leave and held a private discussion with the General. There, it is said, he guaranteed her victory if he could declare war on his own terms. Gandhi agreed, a rarity for someone with known and proven dictatorial ambitions, and that changed history.

In December 1971, the Allied Forces of the Indian Army and Mukti Bahini in the Eastern Theater invaded East Pakistan, an invasion that was meticulously planned by General Makeshaw. In under a fortnight, 45,000 military and an equal number of civilian POWs were taken and the entire Pakistani Army in the East surrendered. In addition, the Indian Navy successfully held a naval blockade, and the Air Force an air blockade, in the East, preventing the Western Pakistani Army from reinforcing their Eastern forces, and in the process sinking the entire Pakistani fleet.

After the Great War
For his distinguished service to the nation, General Manekshaw was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1972. But the man had already risen well beyond such honors - he had proven to be one of the greatest generals in the millenniums-long history of India. In 1973, the Supreme Commander of the Indian Armed Forces, the President of India, awarded him the lifetime rank of Field Marshal of the Indian Army, the first Indian with such an honor, and to date only one of two, the other being Field Marshal KM Cariappa. Because he was popular among Gorkha soliders, Field Marshal Makeshaw was also an honorary General of the Nepali Army in 1972.

Known to be politically outspoken and forthright with his views, Manekshaw was unpopular with Indian politicians in Delhi, for whom he used the harshest of words after he retired from active duty and settled down with his wife in Ooty. On 27 June, 2008, he died of health complications in a Military hospital in Wellington, Tamil Nadu, but was not given the honor that a Field Marshal deserved. His funeral was not attended by any politician, leave alone then Defense Minister AK Antony, or any Indian military Chief. While the Chief of Army Staff was abroad at the time, the Navy and Air Force sent just two-star rank officers, certainly an insult to our great War hero.

However, despite politicians' problems with such a fine officer, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw remains a legend among military circles in India and indeed, all of South Asia. So deep was his impact on the Army that even military families hold him as an idol. In his grave lies not just India's first Field Marshal, but an inspiration for generations to come.

"There will be no withdrawal without written orders and these orders shall never be issued." - Major General Sam Manekshaw upon assuming command of the retreating 4 Corps in the 1962 Sino-Indian War

The Problem with PM Jan Dhan Yojana

Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the ambitious Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana today, a few weeks after he announced the policy in his Independence Day speech from the ramparts of Delhi's Red Fort. The plan envisages two bank accounts for every Indian household, thus bringing millions into the formal banking sector. However, there are several reasons why this plan is doomed to fail.

For one, the Indian banking sector is just too small. Despite the recent growth in rural banking, brought about by an increase in non-farm employment in the hinterland, the system is far from ready to manage such a large increase in bank accounts. Even if you add post offices, which serve as pseudo-banks by keeping deposits, it is still too small. Moreover, the existing banks are sitting on a hotbed of NPAs that have already put strain on them - and this is not the smaller cooperative banks, which are a complete disaster waiting to happen, but even the big behemoth, SBI.

Furthermore, even if state-controlled banks and the handful of private banks do somehow expand, they simply cannot meet demand. There was this sense of euphoria when Indira Gandhi nationalized the banking sector, with utopian ideas of 'people's banks' and all that garbage going around - decades later, it is apparent that bank nationalization, far from helping the poor, pushed a vast majority of Indians out of the formal banking system and right into the clutches of unscrupulous moneylenders, who have a dubious record of charging exorbitant interest rates to the least credit worthy customers and then employing downright illegal means to get them back.

The problem we face is two-fold: one, the stubborn refusal to allow well-regulated private banks into the system, borne out of a socialist legacy that left India one of the world's poorest countries, despite the fact that the public sector system has been unable to keep up altogether. While the RBI made a lot of noise about new bank licenses, the red tape that it has been stuck in has just about killed the whole idea. While Modi has made it a point to eliminate bureaucratic delays, this part of it seems untouched.

Two, the idea that has been embedded into people's minds that they don't need to pay back their loans, which flies in the face of every concept of honesty that anything remotely related to Indian tradition has taught. The socialist economy not just eroded our wealth but also our morals, with everyone expecting the government to bail them out using someone else's money. From Chidambaram to K Chandrasekhar Rao, loan waivers have been a hot political tool that have led to a steady building up of NPAs, posing a serious danger to the Indian economy. It is this attitude that has brought the banking system to its heels and has prevented it from expanding to a level that it needs to for such a large country.

It is for these reasons that, however well-intentioned, the PM Jan Dhan Yojana will not work, no matter how much time you give it. By using the same old Nehruvian formula of a big, benevolent state, Modi is making the same old mistakes again. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Read the Writing

The BJP's great defeat in the recently-concluded by-elections across the country should serve as a warning to the Narendra Modi-led Central Government as well as Amit Shah's new organization in the party. Winning and losing is a part of the political game but the 2014 Lok Sabha elections were different in that they gave the BJP an opportunity to become a genuine alternative to the Congress in every respect - a party, led by a man who would be able to take India on a new path. Unfortunately, the first 100 days has largely proven to be much of the same, with whatever economic recovery having occurred being on account of the honeymoon from the victory in May.

The BJP is not the natural alternative to the Congress party, even one as weakened as under Rahul Gandhi. People do not vote for the BJP automatically when they are upset with the Congress. In that respect, the BJP is a very large regional party. It took the combined might of Narendra Modi and the RSS to give the party a national mandate, a majority of its own in the Lok Sabha. What made the difference was the idea, beaten down in rally after rally, that Modi would be different, that he would be able to break the indecisiveness of the Congress, take hard decisions and bring in a prosperity that a country like India should have. Alas, so far he has moved along the same Congress-beaten path, mindlessly blaming hoarders for inflation while maintaining the massive welfare state that has put too much money into the system without creating any infrastructure; unnecessarily showing restraint after unending provocation from Pakistan; and continuing to maintain the upper hand of the incompetent public sector in the economy.

If people wanted more of the Congress, they would have just voted for it. People wanted a change, which is why Modi was able to transcend virtually every political barrier except the religious one. Contrary to what Arun Jaitley insists, India does not want small steps that essentially mirror the indecisiveness of the Congress - they are not just ready for drastic changes but demand it. The BJP was not given a majority to grovel at the feet of other parties for an elusive and rather dubious consensus, but to push through hard reforms that would ultimately create infrastructure and jobs. The by-election results should tell the BJP leadership as well as the Modi Sarkaar that they must make an immediate course correction. While Modi is guaranteed a five-year term, if he does not deliver, the results in 2019 will make the BJP extinct. 

A Chilling Dystopia

1984
By George Orwell

Soothsayers of lore attempted to predict the future and largely failed. Perhaps, the cause of their failure was the fact that they were too myopic about it, choosing to see the world literally. In 1984 then, Orwell stayed clear of this mistake and took a much larger view, indeed similar to the approach to dictatorship that The Party takes in this classic political work.

What surprised me were the parallels between this and Ayn Rand's We, The Living and the story of life in the Soviet Union. Indeed, by advantage of fiction, 1984 goes even beyond Communism and establishes a peculiar sort of dictatorship - one that seeks to control the mind and render reality mute. The style of writing is engaging although a little old-fashioned, which is understandable. But the author establishes the characters meticulously, taking care to highlight important aspects of them while also outlining the dystopia they live in. Clearly, this novel is well-written and well thought out.

As I often say for Atlas Shrugged, 1984 is the eternal story of our times. 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Time to Discuss AFSPA

Manipur's iconic social activist Irom Sharmila's release was a golden opportunity for the Governments of India and the state of Manipur to explore a way to bring closure to the over half a century-long conflict in the beautiful but troubled Northeastern State. But as usual, the Ibobi Singh government has done the one and only thing it knows to do: arrest her again. It is precisely this lack of creativity, this refusal to engage politically that has reduced the beautiful state of Manipur to the status of an Indian colony, ruled by far away Delhi and their local agents.

However, whether this new round of arrests, following 14 years of incarceration in a hospital ironically named after Jawaharlal Nehru, will stand legally is another matter. AFSPA is an issue that is not just alive but continues to burn, whether in Manipur or Kashmir. There is no sense in screaming that these areas are integral parts of the country while denying them the most integral guarantee of our Constitution: the right to life with dignity. This matter cannot be brushed under the carpet anymore - Manipur has lived under AFSPA for over half-a-century, entire generations have grown up under the gun of the state. This, in a land that takes pride that it overthrew a colonial power through non-violent means.

The problem of insurgency in Manipur is a political issue - it is a consequence of several factors going back to the colonization of the subcontinent. A political solution is required and that will take a lot of hard work by leaders who take an oath to defend the Constitution. This hard work has been put off for too long and in the mean time, generations have grown up fearing and hating their own country and their own army. This is simply unacceptable - the Union is incomplete without Manipur and the Manipuri people must have a stake in their future.

The time for AFSPA to go has come - it has been too long and too much has been lost. It cannot be done after things have settled, because things will not settle as long as it is in force. AFSPA is a shame on India's democracy, an insult to every teaching of Mahatma Gandhi. It must go - now. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Open Sexism

This article is in reaction to this

Yet another matrimonial website has come up in the already-sprawling Indian online market. However, unlike the usual mix of caste, community and religion-based websites that not just perpetuate but even highlight divisions in a society that supposedly stands by 'unity in diversity,' iitiimshaadi.com has something particularly different about it. Its primary focus is education - marrying 'intellectually compatible' people. Well, that's all well and good and some would rightly argue that its a refreshing change from the usual bandwagon of prejudices.

Except for one thing - the site places a much lower bar on women. It is not a site for prospective couples to find each other as much as it is a place where highly education men, the 'cream of society,' can find housemaids who they can also sleep with, legally. Of course, one can scarcely blame the website, for it is just catering to a market that very much exists. My own experience as an IITian has been is that IITians, overwhelmingly male, do not want a wife who can 'stand up' to them, monetarily and otherwise. The idea that a women's place is at home, taking care of the kids and doing the cooking and cleaning is very much ingrained in society.

However, we would like to believe in the value of education in breaking these barriers and so we expect IIT and IIM graduates to be above the rest. Not so, clearly, because if there's one thing that education cannot break, it is family indoctrination. The idea that smart men deserve a wife who is also an almost-free housemaid does not stem from the educational background, although it does reinforce it, but from their families and what they see while the grow up. It is no surprise then that, from my experience, most Indian men are boys who cannot cook or clean up after themselves. In fact, left to themselves and without the ability to hire help, they would die of either filth or clogged arteries from junk food bought at the local restaurant. What is the use of education if it cannot teach you to survive in hard times?

Perhaps the only silver lining is the fact that, by their own admission, the website has not been able to find too many takers. The reason is quite simple: the men do want housemaids, but they also want trophy wives whose education they can flaunt. Basically, the website is looking for well-educated women who are willing to give up everything they've earned for their husbands, who they have never met. Well, good luck with that! 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

No Way to Protest

The streets of Islamabad continue to be rocked by the now joint protest squads of Imran Khan and Tahir ul-Qadri, taking the ultimate stand for the Nawaz Sharif-led, elected government of Pakistan to step down and call for early elections scarcely a year after it won a historic election. Moreover, by marching into the Federal Capital's "Red Zone," the duo have clearly crossed a line.

To be fair, Sharif's government has not been awe-inspiring. It's tepid response to many of Pakistan's pressing problems, particularly on the economy and electricity, as well as absolute inability to do anything at all about continuing gang violence in Karachi and violence against minorities, as well as the Prime Minister's own shocking absence from Parliament have clearly demonstrated that the Pakistani voter perhaps made a mistake. However, democracy is not just about making the right choices but about respecting collective responsibility for wrong ones.

There is a reason why rules exist despite the fact that they may prove to be a roadblock for the country. The Constitution of Pakistan does not allow for any way for the elected government of the land to be dismissed except by a loss of a majority in the National Assembly. An extra-constitutional mob cannot be allowed to overturn a constitutionally-elected government, if democracy is to have any place in the country. It was not too far back, after all, that the Army itself kept toppling elected government either through direct intervention or otherwise. Today, Pakistan has a chance at restoring democracy and deepening its roots, a process that includes making and managing mistakes, and Imran Khan is blowing it.

From one dimension, the entire protest smacks of hypocrisy. In alliance with the Ja'amat-e-Islami, Khan's PTI has a government in KPK province, where it has been thoroughly short of its high promises and has faced a great deal of flak for playing politics with the country's security. In fact, his continued stand that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan is not a terrorist organization has eroded his original support base in the middle class. Now, the PTI is only left with populism to save face in Peshawar.

Nawaz Sharif, for the sake of democracy, must stand strong and reject Khan's ultimatum. He cannot succumb to the threat of violence. It is heartening that the PML-N's arch rival the PPP is also standing behind the government. If only Khan could take some cues from that. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Year in America

Aug. 14 marked the completion of one year since I landed in the Land of the Free. I still remember the days leading up to it - the excitement, the anxiety of studying in a new country, finally moving out of my parent's financial shadow into a more independent life. One year in America has been a year of great learning for me, professionally and personally. I started with very little idea of what research is, with my only windows into the world being my Munich internship, the minor project in Roorkee and PhD Comics.

But now, I have a pretty good idea of what research is like as well as the nuts and bolts of it - where courses fit into the whole scheme of things, the importance of networking, conferences, papers etc. It's an exciting world indeed! America has taught me the importance of ethics and being true to yourself, first and foremost. It is indeed highly rewarding to be be able to do something honestly and effectively, however minor it might have been.

My vision of America till a year back was through Ayn Rand - a world where individual rights take precedence over all else, a world where each individual is free to work right to the top. Well, it's not really like that here, but it's not all that far either. From the stifling confines of India's society and bureaucracy, America, even with its own gigantic bureaucracy, has been a whiff of fresh air, a place where I am free to rediscover myself. This, I believe, is the true American dream.

Friends and enemies have been made. Lessons have been learned, mistakes made and forgotten. In the end, this last one year, as memorable as it was, was simply another in my long story of moving to new places and new cultures. So it has been and so it shall be. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

CWG 2014: Medals Tally


In the recently-concluded 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, India finished 5th, two spots below its historic tally in the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games, but a definite improvement from just a few editions back. However, this should be seen in light of the fact that many events in which India was strong were not a part of this edition of the Games. So, overall, a pretty good performance! 

Independence Day Lecture: Before the Nation State

As India marks its 68th Day of Independence from the British Empire, there is a tendency to view India as having been born on that historic day in 1947, followed by a bloody Partition that effectively created three new countries from the ashes of an Imperial empire. Actually, 1947 was just one in a series of events in the world's oldest, continuous civilization. It was not the first time that an empire collapsed, nor was it the first time that new borders were created.

Going Back 
The history of the indigenous population of India is old and contested. One school of thought propounds the Aryan invasion theory, which divides Indians racially as Aryans in the North and Dravidians in the South. However, this theory has been well-contested by a body of scientific work that underlines the essential genetic unity of the Indian subcontinent, with the differences being insufficient to warrant a separate race. But to look upon the history of the subcontinent from a racial point of view would be quite against the very spirit of this land.

What defines India is not race or religion, but the land. It is the geography of the subcontinent, from the Himalayan rivers - the Indus, the Ganga, the Brahmaputra and the Irrawaddy - to the vast ocean named after this land, that has shaped the culture here. Indeed, no invading force, no immigrating people were able to escape the power of this land. Thus was born here Sufi Islam, rendered here was a new architectural style that fused multiples cultures, envisioned here were millions of Gods, a God for each one, and here was Mother Mary, draped in a white sari; here are the tribes of the hills, preserving their language and culture, here were given a home, the Jews expelled from Israel, and here are the people of the islands, unwittingly a part of a grand history with their land and their sea.

What's in a name?
This then, is India. Or is it? The very name is foreign to the land. Jambudvipa, Bharat, Hindustan, India... well before the formation of the modern Republic, this land has had many names and many empires within it - from the great Indus Valley Civilization to the Delhi Sultanate to even the British Empire. It was probably the Greeks who created the name India, and the Persians Hindustan. For the natives and immigrants, this land has, for much of history, had no name. It was just that - our land.

What then, constitutes the Indian nation state? By the European definition of a nation, India is not even close to being one - the diversity of the land is just incompatible with the homogeneous populations there. But then, since when has Europe had a monopoly on defining the lives of people. The Indian nation well predates the European notion of it and it is this land and its continuing civilization that define its people. Political borders are meaningless, for nature does not recognize them. Unlike the European ones, the Indian nation is a natural one, born of nature, a people united not by ideology but by the land and sea themselves. It is not backed by blind belief but by the experience of life itself.

The Day
Therefore, while we do celebrate Independence Day, and our neighboring countries in the subcontinent celebrate theirs separately, this is really just another event in the history of our shared civilization. Emperors' birthdays have been celebrated with pomp and glory before, events in the lives of Gods and Prophets have been fated before... this day to mark the birth of the modern countries within the nation is just one among many in that list.

The Indian Nation State existed long before the modern countries in the subcontinent appeared. And it will be here long after they have disappeared - as long as this land is our land, the sea is our sea.

Happy Independence Day
Jai Hind! 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

About Summer Courses


This summer, I took a summer courses for my funding requirements. I wanted something easy and so I asked around and narrowed my sights on STAT 400: Statistics and Probability I.  Another reason why I chose it was memories from my MIT application, which was derailed because, among other things, IIT Roorkee did not have a formal class on the topic and my knowledge was based on ad-hoc modules and a MOOC I took from NPTEL. But now, I had a chance to put an official course on my transcript - and with an A+, it was a worthy addition.

The good thing about summer courses is that they keep you on your toes in an otherwise lazy season, by forcing you to manage your time between research and coursework. Being an 8-week course, it can get pretty hectic, especially with the Statistics department, which is already infamous with its mountains of homework. However, the saving grace was that it was very easy. At a grand total of 99/100, I can certainly back that up!

So, should you take a summer course? I wouldn't recommend it really - it can be a little too much of a distraction, especially if you've got a clear, focused project going on. Thesis credits are recommended for the credit requirements. Unless of course, the course is very useful of extremely easy!

Geelani's Real Strategy

Outside the usual uncivilized din on Parliament that the mainstream media simply loves to cover, this week say a Calling Attention Motion on the recent cancellation of the Kausar Nag Yatra in south Kashmir. While Gaza seems to be reason enough for the primary Opposition to stall Parliament, India's own internal refugees, who have been languishing for 25 years now, gets a quiet after thought. Amazingly, it was K Kavitha of the TRS who made a strong speech in favor of the Pandits.

What is clear from the entire event, as rightly pointed out by Rahul Pandita, is that Kashmiri patriarch SAS Geelani is a liar when it comes to the pandits. While in public he may call them brothers to avoid being labeled an Islamist leader, he has absolutely no intention of allowing them to return to the Valley, their rightful homeland. By calling off the ancient yatra on the flimsiest of reasons - environmental concerns, as 70 pilgrims can do more damage than a thousand tourists - and using his supporters to violently stop pilgrims from making the trek, he has demonstrated what India needs to recognize: that Kashmir is not merely a political issue about autonomy. It has become a religious issue, with the Kashmiri separatist groups believing sincerely that any Hindus living in Kashmir endanger their control over the area.

These separatists overtly claim that they oppose the Indian state because of the atrocities of the Army, or because of their "special" culture. In reality, they oppose it because they want Kashmir to be an Islamic state, with all the dreams of global jihad against the infidels that follow. In 1947, the Congress unknowingly created a terrorist state by agreeing to Partition the subcontinent. Now, through their silence and through Omar Abdullah's shameless capitulation on the issue, the threat of yet another terrorist state on our borders looms large. And the so-called secular parties are entirely to blame. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Worthy Message

Inferno
By Dan Brown

Dan Brown is one of those writers that you can love or hate, but simply cannot ignore. While he has never been able to recreate the brilliance of The Da Vinci Code, his works sitll continue to create enthusiasm for Robert Langdon and symbology. With Inferno, Brown trudges into the world of literature, spinning a story around Italian writer Dante's famed The Divine Comedy. Of course, unlike Da Vinci, Dante is relatively unknown among the masses, so the book had to include a crash course on his works, making it rather academic. However, by integrating it with the story itself, Brown saved himself from going down the path of a Robert Harris.

Interestingly, Brown seems to have decided to include a message in this story, similar to what he did in The Lost Symbol but with far more impact. This is certainly an interesting development, although still in a somewhat nascent stage. Perhaps in his next work, the author will be able to develop it more. Till then, for all its faults, Inferno is still a good read. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

The World Needs to stop ISIS


US President Barack Obama, after months of dithering and some clear pressure from the Christian right, finally announced that he was ordering the US Air Force to hound the ISIS insurgency in Iraq-Syria, which has grown to become a de-facto terrorist state in the region. This is the first sign of Obama actually living up to his Nobel Peace Prize and doing what the whole world should have been doing: stopping the ISIS insurgency from becoming so powerful.

India, as always, has chosen to bury its head in the sand, delusional with the idea that it is somehow safe behind the Himalayas from events in Iraq. This is completely untrue as elements of the domestic population are becoming increasingly radicalized as well. In Tamil Nadu, a Muslim priest even distributed t-shirts celebrating the ISIS Caliphate, which were duly work by some youth. Ironically, they uploaded a group picture on Facebook to celebrate this. While the police have taken the priest into custody, similar signs have erupted in Kashmir. This volcano unleashed by ISIS however, is not restricted to Sunnis alone. There are reports of some Shias traveling to now lawless Iraq to fight ISIS. When these men return to India, they can only bring chaos with them.

And this is not the story of India alone but of many countries. Pakistan, long a failed state, has been a major source of fighters, as have several European countries including Britain, the power that created this whole mess after World War I. Therefore, the world must act now to stop ISIS and eventually push it back to Syria, where al-Bashar's forces can deal with them. And more immediately, the US must prevent the Kurds from falling to ISIS, ending the only oasis of stability in Iraq.  

A Quick Paper

For the TRB Conference next year, I wanted to submit something 'quick and dirty' for a presentation to get some feedback for my current research. The problem with research is that any literature review is most probably incomplete, for there is almost always going to be some research that somebody, somewhere forgot to or could not read. That's where conferences come in really handy - circulate your research around, take feedback and see what you missed. If you're lucky, you might just get some useful feedback that can help you move forward.

Now, when I said 'quick and dirty,' I did not mean a badly written paper. If I knew a paper is badly written, I would never submit it. Although this was meant for presentation only, it was a great learning experience for me because, as I now see, the first draft was really pathetic. My adviser was quite nice not to say it so bluntly, but I now see that I made some critical mistakes in the first draft. After getting it read by two of my colleagues, including one senior PhD student, I managed to figure out where I was going wrong:

  1. Make it as simple as possible, but no simpler. There's no need to write every single thing in a paper, but don't make it so concise that the reviewer misses the point. Instead, get to your point directly and explain it well, and leave it to the intelligence of the reviewer to figure out the little things around it. 
  2. A picture should be worth a thousand words. It's actually a blessing that TRB counts every figure as 250 words, because you can put in a massive amount of information into each figure. Therefore, it is important to design figures well. In fact, as my colleague pointed out, a figure should be able to stand on its own, so that the reviewer understands everything about it without having to refer back to the text. The caption is the lone text that is an integral part of a figure. 
  3. Make it obvious. If you're pointing out a feature on a figure or table, make sure you it is already highlighted there so that when a reviewer sees the figure/table, they instantly find what you're talking about. If you expect the reviewer to find it for you, you're making a mistake. 
  4. Look back. Use the past tense in your discussion. You used this methodology, you concluded that. This can be quite confusing because a lot of non-US authors tend to use the present tense, and indeed some well-known facts should be ("The thermal conductivity of a material is temperature-dependent"), but most of the paper would actually be in the past tense. 
  5. Look before you leap. Before stating anything, consider the implications to future study. Don't make sweeping generalizations ("A higher thermal mass is an effective solution...") but rather, stick to the findings of your work ("The results indicated that, under the assumed conditions, a higher thermal mass could be a potentially effective solution..."). Of course, that does make it quite a mouthful, but better safe than sorry! 
I actually made each and every one of these mistakes in my first draft and the process of correcting them led to me compiling the above list. It was painful to realize just how much I have to learn when it comes to writing papers, but overall it was an enriching experience. If a PhD is supposed to teach you how to do research, I'm well on track! 

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Prophet

Field Marshal Kodandera Madappa Cariappa, KM "Kipper" Cariappa, was Independent India's second Field Marshal and undoubtedly a prophetic one whose high ideals of service to the nation and professionalism in the Army continue to inspire soldiers and officers alike even today. Born in the erstwhile princely state of Coorg in 1899, "Chimma," as his family called him, was known to be excellent at sports and the fine arts, with a strong zeal that eventually took him to the prestigious Presidency College in then Madras.

Following World War I, under intense pressure, the colonial administration granted select Indians a temporary King's Commission. In 1919, Cariappa joined the first such batch in Indore and joined the Carnatic Infantry in Bombay as a Temporary Second Lieutenant and was promoted to Lieutenant in 1923.

As Captain, he served with the British-Indian Army's 37 (Prince of Wales) Dogra in Mesopotamia. In 1939, in the 2nd (Queen Victoria's Own) Rajput Light Infantry, he was made Staff Captain and saw action in World War II in Syria and Iran and later much closer to home in Burma. For his important contribution to repelling the combined forces of the Japanese Imperial Army and the Azad Hind Fauj, he was made Officer of the Order of the British Empire. After the War, he was made Brigadier in the Frontier Brigade, during which time he commanded Ayub Khan, Pakistan's first military dictator. Of course, at that time, nobody truly believed that Pakistan would even come to exist. In 1947, he became the first Indian to attend the Imperial Defense College in Camberly, UK.

Partitioning the Forces
In 1947, India was partitioned into two dominions and an Army Committee was setup to divide forces between the two new countries. It was a difficult time for everyone, but he took it in his stride, maintaining the highest levels of professionalism. After Partition was completed in 1949, was made Major General and appointed Deputy Chief of the General Staff, when the First Kashmir War broke out. As GOC-in-C of the Western Command, he was instrumental in securing, among others, Kargil and Leh from the invading force.

One defining trait of Cariappa was his refusal to see the Indian Army go down the same route as the Pakistani. While he was open to Indian soldiers practicing their faith, he refused to allow the Army to adopt any religious doctrines. He was clear that any man of any religion could serve in the Army as long as they remained faithful to India. Indeed, he reposed faith in the Indian Constitution and firmly believed in civilian control. This was indeed prophetic because the Pakistani Army, in contrast, wrested civilian control and took over the state soon after.

To this day, the Indian Army continues to hold on to their first native Commander-in-Chief's beliefs on political and religious neutrality, which is a defining feature that has distinguished India from all neighboring countries.

Post-Retirement
Cariappa used his significant experience to assist other forces in need after retirement. He traveled extensively to Britain, America and Japan and served as High Commissioner to Australia and New Zealand. Closer home, he visited the forward lines in the 1971 Bangladesh War of Liberation, which was fought by the Allied Forced of Mukti Bahini and the Indian Army in the Eastern Theater, and moved the troops to fight on. Significantly, these forces were led by Sam Manekshaw, who went on to become India's first Field Marshal. Indeed, given his decisive role in carving a national army out of an Imperial one, he was quite respected in the forces and continues to be so.

As a mark of gratitude for his services, he was honored with the Order of the Chief Commander of the Legion of Merit by US President Truman in 1950. In 1983, his nation honored him with the rank of Field Marshal, the highest military rank-equivalent in the Indian Army.

He died on 15 May, 1993, peacefully, in Bangalore, at the ripe age of 94. He had seen India go through the ravages of Partition, the Kashmir Wars (he died before the Kargil War), the Bangladesh War of Liberation, the IPKF in Sri Lanka, Indira Gandhi's Emergency, the Indo-China War, the 'Smiling Buddha' nuclear tests, and 1991 Economic Liberalization. As a patriot and a keen observer of the affairs of the nation, he certainly took an interest in the affairs of the country that he loved so dearly. And as a nation, we are forever grateful.

"An Indian to the last breath would remain an Indian. For me, there are only two 'stans' - Hindustan and Faujistan" - Field Marshal KM Cariappa. 
Acknowledgement: Opinions 24x7 thanks +abhinav singhal for pointing out an error in this article.  

Economy Matters

The 2014 election was focused primarily around economic affairs. The massive corruption scandals of the UPA regime coupled with the slow growth rate, death of manufacturing and massive unemployment was a ticking time bomb that now PM Narendra Modi effectively utilized. Similar to 2004, when price rise was the primary issue on which the NDA Government lost power, the 2014 elections too were based on the state of the Indian economy.

However, there was one key difference between 2014 and 2004: in 2004, the issue was almost exclusively price rise. The NDA Government, through its massive spending on infrastructure, has set off a job boom, which saw the unemployment rate significantly fall. The vote was for the problems of the present. In 2014, the vote was for the future. Not only had the UPA Government failed to do anything about high prices, they created a sense of hopelessness, that it was actually impossible to solve the issue. For better or worse, people did believe that Narendra Modi would improve their future, not just by bringing prices under control but also by creating jobs so that people could afford things as basic as onions.

Not since the first few years since Independence have people put so much hope into their government. Hope was indeed the key instrument on which the BJP's successful campaign ran. What the campaign showed us was that Indians, having already seen the benefits of economic prosperity, want more of it an will not allow any future government to take it away from them. This fact is corroborated by the way the Communists have becoming virtually irrelevant in national politics.

And perhaps, that was also Manmohan Singh's undoing: to raise people's hopes, to show them what they could be and then let their dreams come crashing down. 

New Documentary: The Marshals


A Marshal is the highest military rank in the Indian Armed Forces, a rare honor conferred only to the nation's greatest soldiers. While in the Army, the rank is called Field Marshal and was conferred upon just two people in Independent India's history, the Air Force calls it Marshal of the Air Force and has had one person holding that rank, and the Navy calls it Admiral of the Fleet but has never conferred that rank on anyone.

In this three-part series in honor of the brave Indian soldiers who fought in World War I in the British-Indian Army exactly 100 years ago, Opinions 24x7 biographies India's three greatest men of the armed forces: Field Marshal KM Cariappa, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw and Marshal of the Air Force Arjan Singh.

The Marshal
A Documentary 
This Month