Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Entrance: The birth of an empire

The Chola Empire was one of the largest maritime empires in history, an empire that united all of India south of the Tungabhadra river and colonized lands as far as Indonesia and the Maldives, introducing Hinduism to those lands, which continues to have an impact to this day. Yet, despite this massive empire, very little is known about how this ancient empire started. The best sources are Mauryan inscriptions and the Tamil Sangam literature.

The Three Crowned Kings
Southern India, particularly what is today Tamil Nadu, was primarily ruled by three dynasties: the Cheras, the Cholas and the Pandyas, collectively called the Three Crowned Kings. Of these, it was the Chola Empire that represented the peak of these southern Empires. But the Chola Empire itself was created and lost in stages. Broadly, these are the early Cholas, who primarily consolidated their homeland in and around the fertile plains of the Kaveri river; the middle Cholas who vastly expanded their territory, defeating the Palas on the plains of the Ganga in Pataliputra (Patna) as well as the Srivijaya Empire in South-East Asia, annexing vast and diverse lands including parts of Bengal in the process; and the later Cholas, who lost territory in slow increments until the entire dynasty strangely vanished from history. Indeed, the history of the Chola Empire is full of fascinating holes that only our guesses can attempt to fill.

The Sangam Age
Tamil Sangam literature is an exceptionally useful source of historical information, although it is also a difficult source to use because there is no way to verify its claims. Sangam literature was meant to be a work of art, first and foremost, and not history; therefore, segregating the fact from the fiction is not easy. The literature speaks of mythical Chola kings with their capital at Urayur (modern Trichy).

After the Sangam Age however, it is generally accepted that two dynasties held sway over southern India: the Pallavas and the Pandyas. They gained and lost territory over centuries but in general held control, except for a period when an obscure dynasty invaded and tool control. It was in c. 850-870 when the first Chola emperor Vijayalaya reigned. This king started off as a dependent of the Pallava dynasty, when he saw an opportunity to seize power during a period of struggle between the Pallavas and the Pandyas. In midst of struggle, he seized Thanjavur and made it the capital of a new Chola Empire.

Following the conquest of Thanjavur, the second Chola Emperor Aditya I (c. 870-907), consolidated his empire and defeated the Pallava Dynasty in territories held by them, unseating them but not entire removing them from power. In 885, he defeated the Pandyans in their capital Madurai, establishing the Cholas as the sole Tamil power in South India. This was a dramatic change from less than a century ago, when the Cholas were non-existent.

But the Cholas continued to win territory in southern India. Aditya I invaded and occupied parts of the Kannada territory. To consolidate his gains in the Kannada regions, he held marital ties with the Western Ganga dynasty in the modern region of Mysore. By this time however, the Western Ganga dynasty had allied with the Rashtrakutas in the Deccan, temporarily halting Aditya Chola's conquest.

The next wave of expansion came with through his son, Parantaka Chola I, who conquered and annexed Sri Lanka, radically expanding the empire. With this new acquisition, the Chola Empire prospered. Parantaka Chola II used that power to build a massive military force to conquer the Rashtrakuta Empire and annex territory up to Bhatkal in modern Karnataka.

Thus, by the end of the first half of the 10th Century, the Cholas has radically transformed the southern part of India and Sri Lanka, establishing themselves as a great power. It was in the next century however, that the real expansion took place.

Next: The Middle Cholas

The Absurdity of Pak fighting in Yemen

The Saudi Arabia-led campaign to stop Iran-allied Shia-rebels in Yemen from taking control of the whole country has turned into a full-blown International escalation, with Iran today sending in much-needed supplies to the rebels even as Sana'a continues to be bombed by Saudi-led forces. The US is dithering as its focus remains on concluding a nuclear agreement with Iran, over the objections on both Israel and Saudi Arabia. After over a decade of war that has brought nothing but misery to the US, President Obama seems determined to keep his country out of the Shia-Sunni brew that is the new great game in the region.

If only Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif has that luxury though. It is no secret that Saudi Arabia, after the US, is the main paymaster of the Pakistani establishment, providing them with cheap oil, soft loans, outright aid and even protection to its leaders, as Sharif himself has used. In return, it is well-known that the Pakistani armed forces, including its nuclear weapons, are to be kept ready for use by Saudi Arabia whenever required. Pakistani dictator Zia ul-Haq once claimed Pakistan would be the 'sword arm of Islam' - it ended up becoming the mercenary of Saudi Arabia instead.

This is the worst possible time for Pakistan to get involved in a confrontation anywhere in the world, least of all in an expeditionary mission when it has no expertise in how to run one. After the murder of over a hundred school children in Peshawar, Pakistan has finally begun to take on the terrorists holed up in KP and FATA - the global epicenter of terrorism. At the same time, Punjab-based anti-Shia outfits like the LeJ are also being tackled by Pakistan, after infinite dithering. The country just received its latest trench of money from the IMF to keep its collapsed economy afloat. In all this, it seems very stupid to indulge in what is basically a sectarian war in Yemen and to devote its limited resources there. Short of using nuclear weapons - which the US will not allow it to do - the Pakistani army will just be cannon fodder in the Gulf of Aden.

Moreover, Pakistan's relationship with Iran is quite difficult as it is and the last thing Islamabad needs is trouble on its western border, since the eastern one is a source of unending self-inflicted pain anyway. While Pakistan has tried to make peace with Afghanistan so that it can tackle India without distractions, becoming a proxy for a larger war with Iran is the last thing it needs. And yet, it seems Sharif actually knows and understands all of this and yet still dithers.

Saudi princes come to Pakistan to hunt a certain bird, whose hunting is outlawed by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. That alone says a lot about what the Saudis think of Pakistan. Ultimately, and unfortunately for the Pakistani people, it will be the dealings between the Saudi Arabian leaders and the Pakistani Army that will make the final decision in this case - the democratically-elected government is, as it has always been, just a cover. 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

End of Spring Break, but so what?

Spring Break 2014 is technically over and boy, has it been a wild ride! In the last nine days of the break, the biggest 'break' I've had is a few hours at Purdue University, which was a great experience. But aside from that, it has indeed been a very productive week. There were some targets set and not all of them have been met. This is partly because the targets themselves were very ambitious in the first place, while some were simply overshadowed by unexpected work that came in that could not wait for later.

Four hours in the Laser & Spectroscopy Lab was the major deviation from the set schedule, as it set off a chain reaction for some urgent work that needs to be completed by April in order to be included in my Master's Thesis. A presentation outline for a workshop was the other outlier, although that didn't take much time. Some minor homework, aside, the biggest achievement was a preliminary understanding of C#, my first major upgrade to computer programming since learning C++ about six years ago.

The two term papers that were on the cards have been big failures, though not as bad as it was in the Fall Semester of 2014. This will be a big problem and I've given myself a one week extension to finish them. In some ways, it feels good that Spring Break is over, since the pressure of doing a whole lot of work by a given date is gone and there is more time. But this is the last full month of the semester and the clock is ticking away very fast. Much remains to be done, with little time left.

The most difficult phase of the semester is about to begin. 

IOTY14: The Hope of a Generation

In choosing an Indian of the Year for Opinions 24x7, there are usual a few contenders, men and women of equal footing who have, in their own way, changed the destiny of the nation. 2014 was however, an exception, for there was one man who changed the country in every way possible - an appeal to the aspiration of a new generation, an appeal to those left out in the political wilderness as mere votebanks, an appeal to the vast diaspora waiting for their motherland to return to its great glory, an appeal to end the political grip of a dynasty that has sucked Indian democracy dry.

Narendra Damodardas Modi embodies the hope of a generation. From selling tea on a railway station to help make ends meet for his poor family, he has risen to become the Prime Minister of India, not through a godfather or political connections, but through sheer will and the perseverance to lead his party through the longest and most difficult electoral process in the history of the world. In his victory, lies the true victory of the 'Idea of India': a land where anyone can aspire to rise to the very top through their hard work, an idea that has been lost in the wallow of crony socialism and the grip of the Gandhi dynasty.

Modi's victory is the victory of our generation. It is the victory of a dream - a dream of an India where hard work is enough to achieve any dream. A dream of an India that is not ashamed of its past or its customs, but is proud of everything that defines it. A dream of an India that stands tall, head held high, and leads the world. For representing the greatest 'idea of India,' Prime Minister Narendra Modi is rightly the 2014 Indian of the Year. 

Indian of the Year 2014

  • Indian of the Year 2014

Narendra Modi
For redefining Indian democracy, creating a new idea of India and leading his party to a once-in-a-generation parliamentary majority followed by a string of electoral successes that has made the BJP India’s dominant political party. 2014 was surely the year of Narendra Modi, who is all set to lead India’s most powerful government in 30 years.

  • Special Awards

India CAG: Citizens for Accountable Governance
For bringing young people directly into the electoral process, modernizing elections and using technology to increase the scope and breadth of democratic participation.

Indian Space Research Organization
For taking Indian space exploration to a new orbit through the successful execution of the Mangalyaan mission

  • Political Awards

Troublemaker of the Year: Azam Khan, for repeatedly making communally offensive comments in UP and using the state machinery for personal benefit
Politician of the Year: Amit Shah, for masterminding the BJP’s historic performance in UP as General Secretary and subsequent electoral victories in states as President
Memorable Visit of the Year: PM Narendra Modi’s visit to the US and address at Madison Square Garden

  • Community Awards

Best State of the Year: Gujarat, for better or worse, defining a path for a more prosperous India
City of the Year: Bangalore, for being the hub of the start-up revolution that is changing the landscape of urban India

  • Media Awards

Best News Publication: Swarajya Magazine, for bringing together right-wing thought and reviving Rajaji’s great legacy
Best News Channel: Times Now, for the Rahul Gandhi interview
Best Movie: Queen, for its celebration of Indian women in the modern era

  • Sports Awards

Team of the Year: Atletico de Kolkata, for winning the inaugural edition of the Indian Super League
Memorable Event: The Indian Super League, for breaking the monotone of the I-League and reviving Indian football

  • Business Awards

Company of the Year: Flipkart, for its Billion Day sale and bold attempt to create a new online retailing culture post-IRCTC

  • OTFS Awards

Series of the Year: 2014 Elections, for analysis of the most exciting general election in a generation

Documentary of the Year: The Marshals, for honouring great Indian officers in the centennial year of World War I

Nobody Cares

Social media has this new hashtag - #AAPWar - which can safely be described as the most pointless hashtag ever, even more pointless than #TheDress. It all comes down to what I had predicted back in Feb. 2015, when Arvind Kejriwal's party won a sweeping majority in Delhi and he became Chief Minister for a second, hopefully longer, time - to use the phrase of a comment on Facebook, a circus has been elected with regular entertainment to all viewers through non-stop press conferences. And that's exactly what's happened.

Actually, this was coming and the signs were all there. There is no doubt that Yogendra Yadav aka Salim holds strong political aspirations in Haryana, although his political acumen stops outside TV studios. When Arvind Kejriwal refused to expand beyond Delhi into Haryana, it was a direct rejection of Yadav. No doubt, Kejriwal learned a lesson from his hard defeat in the Modi wave of 2014. Prashant Bhushan too has had plans to implement his grand vision through executive power and not just an endless stream of PILs. For all three, AAP has just been a tool to further their own ambitions. And the people of Delhi, largely oblivious to real issues, were prime for the kill.

Today, the hollowness has been laid out to bear. AAP's highly-vaulted Constitution, which is supposed to put its high ideals on a concrete footing beyond the environs of rhetoric, is more observed in the breach. The AAP Constitution clearly spells out 'one man, one post,' similar to the BJP's Constitution. When Rajnath Singh became Home Minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's cabinet, he left his position as BJP President. With Kejriwal however, the post of Delhi CM and National Convener lie with the same person, with a pliant Manish Sisodia acting as Dy CM of such a small city-state to give Kejriwal the best of both worlds: enjoy the perks of being a CM while not actually doing anything, and continue to control the party with an iron fist.

Of course, none of this is surprising. In the way it is constituted, AAP is just like the Congress and the one-man/one-family parties all across India (except the BJP and CPM, which are cadre-based parties). The volunteers are there because of Kejriwal, he controls the funds, he is the sole face of the party: he is the party, in short. The very fact that Kejriwal has not loosened control tells us that this party will go the way of the Congress: a single, large party and several breakaways that will come together every now and again for power. It is the same politics of power that Modi talked about in the 2014 campaign - far from being a party with a difference, this party is more like a typical Indian party than most others.

And the sad thing is that none of this matters. Yadav and Bhushan did not get their due from Kejriwal, so they tried to sabotage him. Kejriwal decided to use his heft to through them out to further consolidate his power. Meanwhile, Delhi's streets are littered with garbage as cleaners have not been paid even as the CM and the Mayors of Delhi fight it out over funds. Kejriwal, who has never cared much for rules and procedures, has shown the door to his own state's corporations and callously asked them to go to the Central Government - that is, to other states - for funds. Far from responsible leadership, this is the sort of recklessness that Mamata Banerjee is better known for. Kejriwal is at war with the Haryana Government over water supply while Delhi continues to dump untreated sewage into the Yamuna. Delhi is looking at load shedding for the first time in years, while the only thing the AAP Government has done is to invite RFPs for free wifi.

AAP is not going to fizzle out slowly, it is going to implode with a loud bang. And only silly Delhiites will suffer for it. After all, #5SaalKejriwal. 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Tribute to a Hero


Produced By: Black Bear Pictures and others
Director: Morten Tyldum
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear and others
Pros: Good acting, good plot and narrative, excellent ending
Cons: Somewhat historically inaccurate
Rating: **** of 5 (4 of 5)

History is perhaps the best source of good films these days - if handled well. It could very well go like The Theory of Everything, that was a bore and hardly a biopic, or it could become a classic like Gandhi. While not exactly a classic yet, The Imitation Game certainly counts as an excellent film, rightly earning all its Academy Award nominations. But aside from all the glamour, it is truly a philosophical movie, asking questions about how society treaty a veritable war hero - Professor Alan Turing, well-known to computer scientists and mathematicians, but almost unheard of elsewhere.

Benedict Cumberbatch stands out as the star of the movie all the way with his portrayal of Turing, verily moving from excitement to dejection. The strongest point of the movie is, in fact, it's ending, when Turing's suicide is handled extraordinarily well by Cumberbatch. The director also deserves full points for suitably managing time transitions, which could have easily broken this movie. Clearly, not only was it executed well, but it was also planned well.

The only problem with this movie is that it was somewhat historically inaccurate - not everything shown was how it really happened. Of course, some of the events in Bletchley Park are so classified that we will never really know how it happened. But there are some historical liberties that the director has taken. For puritans, this is a problem. However, as this is a movie and not a documentary, this should be fine for most people. A must-watch, especially for science aficionados. (OTFS)

Thursday, March 26, 2015

A game well played

Yesterday was a sad day for Indian cricket fans as the Men in Blue were eliminated by Australia from the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015 in the semi-finals. Everyone was excited to watch the match but in the end, the Indian batting just didn't live up to those hopes. As a whole however, the defending champions have had a stellar tournament - winning seven matches in a row (starting with Pakistan's humiliating defeat), taking all wickets in that process.

Compared to when the tournament started, the performance has been well above expectations. India has been in Australia for three months now and in that period, have lost one bilateral series against Australia and been completely washed out in a trilateral one with Australia and England. Coming from that, nobody even expected India to reach the quarter finals, leave alone retain the World Cup. And yet, they came all the way to the semi-finals, the only South Asian team to do so.

The real star of this tournament for India was Captain MS Dhoni, who proved his detractors wrong. Compared to the shrill so-called mainstream media at home, Dhoni kept his cool and that was a hugely motivating factor for the team. He already goes down in history as India's most successful cricket captain ever, winning the ODI World Cup, the T20 World Cup and the Champions Trophy, while also leading Chennai Super Kings to multiple victories in IPL. There is little chance that he will be with Team India in 2019 and he will be sorely missed.

Meanwhile, #ShameOnTimesNow is rightly putting that loudmouth He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named in his place! 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Landmark Judgment

A two-judge bench of the Supreme Court delivered a landmark verdict today, holding Section 66A of the IT Act (an amendment introduced by then Union Telecom & IT Minister Kapil Sibal) as unconstitutional and directly damaging the freedom of expression of citizens guaranteed by the Constitution. There are now several instances of the section being misused for political gains, be it the first one that came to prominence (two girls being arrested for speaking out against the Shiv Sena-sponsored bandh on the death of Bal Thackeray), which led to the original PIL being filed by Shreya Singhal, or the most recent one regarding a post against that tyrant from UP, Azam Khan.

The reaction of political parties was quite hilarious, with the Congress speaking in favor of the judgment, when it was their own government that introduced 66A. And then there was P Chidambaram, whose son used the act for precisely the kind of political gains that the Court struck it down for.
It was quite a sorry sight to see the Attorney General trying to defend the Act as well, knowing full well that he was asking the Court to go by the Union Government's assurances on interpretation, when it would be states that made that assessment.
However, this is only a small step. Indian laws are replete with language that allows the state to strike fear in the hearts of people. The patriarchal state that Nehru envisioned and created controls us all and dismantling it will take a very long time.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

An Exciting End


Produced By: New Line Cinema, MGM and others
Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Graham McTavish and others
Pros: Fast-paced, meaningful action scenes, good music score, good VFX
Cons: Confusing for the uninitiated, too much noise
Rating: *** of 5 (3 of 5)

For fans of JRR Tolkein's fiction, this movie marks the culmination of a long, momentous journey through Middle Earth - from The Lord of the Rings Trilogy to this The Hobbit Trilogy, it has been a grand adventure. For the uninitiated though, this movie can be confusing, though still fun to watch (which is quite an achievement considering what Transformers is like for everyone but the fans).

The movie picks up exactly from where the last one left off - Smaug destroying the village. And then it goes on to set up an epic battle, complete with amazing VFX and a thrilling music score that makes sure you pay attention. The action is fast-paced but meaningful, so that you don't land up with an hour of mindless violence (a la Transformers). And this is important, considering the long run time (about 150 minutes).

However, for those without adequate background into the trilogy, the movie comes off as being difficult to comprehend. A major problem is the noise that plays when the characters are talking to each other, making it difficult to understand what they're saying. This is a production defect and it would've helped if everyone on the production crew was not familiar with the storyline. Nonetheless, a good movie to watch and I recommend it, with the others in the series. (OTFS)

Friday, March 20, 2015

Back to Spring Break

Spring Break has started for me today (technically it starts on Monday, but it doesn't matter). What does that mean? It means that I don't have any classes or any new homework this week Hurrah! OK, not really, because 'homework' would mean more than just work from classes, and there's plenty of that. And then, I just alluded to new work - the old work, deliberately piled up for the Break, is actually a little more than what I'd do on average every week. OK, a lot more. 

So for the 2015 edition of Spring Break, I have two term papers and my taxes to do, as a very minimum. These have to be - no question of that. The last Fall Break proved how disastrous missing the term paper deadlines is and I have intention of repeating that mess. In addition, there is some lab testing to finish and a paper to finish-up. If (and that's a big 'if') I still have time left, I will have to learn some C# and VS2010 for my summer project (can't disclose more about it for now). And yes, there is one rather long homework to finish too! 

So, am I saddened by this vast amount of work I have at a time when everyone is headed to the beaches of Florida? Not really. For one, I'm used to it by now - two Fall Breaks and one Spring Break on, the idea of having to work when most people make merry doesn't seem that bad anymore. More importantly, I like my work - I didn't have to do this if I didn't want to! The road to a PhD is long and arduous and I knew that before I stepped into it. It wasn't going to be a big, difficult exam, but a series of little tests (mostly of patience) like this one. 

In the end, the sight of useful data to put into my thesis and two completed term papers will give me all the joy I need. If that's not enough, the tax refund should do the trick! 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

A strategy for the BJP

Despite all the comments from the so-called mainstream media to the contrary, this session of Parliament has actually been one of the best in recent history and has immensely benefited the NDA Government's agenda. Much will be said about the LARR (Amendment) Bill, and I will get to that in a bit, but the fact is that, with a day of the first half of this session left, the NDA has passed an excellent Railway Budget, is guaranteed to pass an excellent Union Budget and has converted six of its ordinances into acts of Parliament. Two ordinances are out of their select committees and should be able to pass the Lok Sabha. Simultaneously, 2G spectrum and coal auctions have gone on quite well and, for once, in a transparent manner. Despite all the loud noise about law and order, which is the responsibility of the states, the government has done very well this session.

However, roadblocks remain. The latest news is that the controversial LARR (Amendment) Bill will be kept aside for later, as the ordinance has not actually been applied to anything except highways. Instead, the GST Bill, a Constitutional Amendment Bill, will be taken up first. This is very sensible, because GST enjoys widespread favor, enough to pass the necessary numbers. It was mainly BJP ruled states that were opposed to it in the first place. GST is quite possible today and even necessary if Arun Jaitley's target of April, 2016 is to be achieved. Now is the best time to get it done, once and for all. GST will have a huge effect on business in India, including the current ones. Even without fixes to land acquisition issues, on its own GST can achieve a lot.

As for the LARR (Amendment) Bill, that has to be dealt with eventually. The BJP has lost this round - with Rahul Gandhi out of the way for reasons best known to him, Sonia Gandhi has once again managed to unite the opposition, as she had done against Vajpayee. This is not a battle of logic - which is clearly on the BJP's side - it is a battle of perception and Round 1 goes to the opposition. But, Round 2 can be won. Making speeches in Parliament is one thing, but the sad truth of our democracy is that nobody cares about it, least of all the sold out media. This battle has to be political and on the streets, it must be widespread. Logic is on the BJP's side, it must use it. People voted for jobs and infrastructure and they still want those - talk about them link it with land.

Use optics - hire a media adviser. Ignoring the media worked for Modi in Gujarat, it does not work in Delhi, the media has to be managed. There are many right-wing journalists who are quite in favor of the BJP but who are completely overshadowed by the liberal media - the government can fight this. Before it can finish off the all-powerful media estate itself, it must finish-off those most inimical to it, and building allies is one way to do just that. It is the same ecosystem that the Congress uses to sustain itself - but the BJP can take the historic plunge and make it its own, before finishing it off once and for all. Eloquent speeches help, but the real power is in the strong optics and statements.

There are some who are saying that the BJP Government is finished and the party will be wiped out in 2019. They are living in a fool's paradise and have no idea how elections work. Nobody can be written off so quickly in politics - even with its continuing debacles in state elections, the Congress is still a force to reckon with. So is the BJP. Politics can change over night and power is the ultimate tool to do that - something that the BJP has plenty of right now. But the strategy much change - do not be a passive viewer, take control of the discourse. Make your agenda your own, not that of just the government. The reasons why the BJP became and is still so popular are all there - find them again, talk about them on the streets, and victory will be yours. 

Those were the times

Edge of Eternity
By Ken Follett

The concluding book of the century trilogy distinctly stands out from its predecessors - while those were largely war novels, with hundreds of pages devoted to military strategy, this one was the most political ever, indicating just how World War II changed the idea of warfare. But politics can only pull you so far - this one, more than the others, focused on the people who were part of this amazing journey through a defining century.

Edge of Eternity is also a concluding book in every way, for it finally closes two of the greatest tales in the book - that of Grigori and Ethel, who remain the polar opposites of the book to death and yet are united by one common thread: hope. And that is the real message of this trilogy: why do we do what we do? Why do people - communists, socialists, imperialists - want change? Hope, for a better future. But better for whom?

That is the question. 

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Why I oppose the striking students

Last month, India's premiere and not-so-premiere research institutions, most notably IISc Bangalore, saw research students going on strike, demanding that their monthly stipend be raised, a demand that Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani eventually agreed to. The demand saw support from several MPs such as Trivandrum MP Shashi Tharoor. While the issue is important as research alone will make us a better society, scientifically speaking, I oppose the students. And I am a research student myself.

It is true that many students, in or out of research, come from humble backgrounds. A vast majority of India comes from poor and lower-income groups and their talent needs to be supported - and it is. The problem is what Gandhiji had warned against: "The world has enough for people's needs but not for their greed." Listening to the testimony of the students, their problem appears to be that the money is not a full salary and they are not able to save enough. They already live in hostels and eat in messes (except married students, who earn more as well), where economies of scale kicks in and allows them to live a higher standard of living at much lower costs. After that, they don't save a whole lot and have just enough for recreation.

The students' problem is that they want to be paid like a full faculty member even when they are students and are not as productive or useful as faculty members (yet). Many come with stories of having to support their parents from their stipends. While this is sad, the truth is that under such circumstances, the student should not be in research. It may be a Utopian dream that anyone able and willing should be able to do research, but in the real world, funds are limited. The MHRD assistantship can support a student but definitely not their entire family including parents. Such students, unfortunately, should not be in research, even if they're good, because of circumstances. That's not to say that only the rich can indulge in research, but we are not talking about binaries here - rich or poor - but about a certain level under which it simply cannot be done due to circumstances. That is the reality of life. Even above that level they may not be very well off but still good enough to spend some more years on a student income.

Most importantly, students cannot be paid as much as faculty. They are not as productive and their contribution, though commendable, does not match faculty members' contributions. In return for the extra years of study, academia welcomes faculty members to work virtually until they die through the position of emeritus professors, and many do it for the love of teaching and research. The reason I cannot support higher stipends is that it creates a sense of complacency in students and we see them take far too long to earn a PhD, which is a bad practice, a drain on he public exchequer and unfair to the next generation. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Disappointing End

The second season of Sleepy Hollow on Fox ended on a very damp note. In reality, it ended at about the middle of the season, when the great demon Moloch was killed by the second horseman. But the producers decided to keep it going anyway and it was disastrous. At one point, it seemed the show was going from a main story to a basic theme - killing demons - and thus turning episodic. If that's the case, it was a failed strategy because it made most of season 2 very boring to watch.

Then came the teaser to season 3 (did you miss it?). Yes, the point where we're told that Abbie will be adding on to a little book of spells written by her ancestor. Well, that's just fine, but I doubt this show will get a third season if it doesn't move up the value chain and re-establish itself with what it was best known and loved for in season 1 - the unexpected twists and the strong underlying story, not to mention the clever use of historical events (although season 2 was commendable on that front). Much has to be for this series to come back to its glory. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

India's Daughter: in solidarity

(This post is blank in solidarity with NDTV's quiet protest against censorship by the government. It does not endorse the content of India's Daughter or any of NDTV's other policies.)

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Revoke the Ban

If Home Minister Rajnath Singh and his party have any common sense left, they'd revoke the ban on the documentary India's Daughter, which has already been seen by millions of people in India itself and can be found over a variety of illegal video streams. The floodgates have been opened - the longer you ban this film, the better you will erase the message on the back of which your party won its Lok Sabha majority. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, more than any other politician, knew very well that the India that voted in 2014 was a very different country, a country that was connected more than ever before, where information flowed freely. Where once generations thought it was their fate to grow up and die in poverty, today's generation believes things can change and anyone who stands in their way will be tossed aside.

And the BJP Government is in danger of being tossed aside by the same generation that elected it. First of all, bans on media are counterproductive. Unlike beef, it is virtually impossible to control information today - that is the age that we live in. Instead, the ban just created more curiosity and increases viewership. The danger is that the government is slipping into the quick-and-fake fix solution of banning things, virtually re-creating the censorship culture of Nehru and Indira. Far from being a government that understands young people and the new generation, it is looking like a rotten old government of old people who refuse to entertain the desires of the young.

For your own good, and for the good of the country, revoke the ban on the documentary. Let Parliament discuss it, let people discuss it. If the producers breached contractual obligations, prosecute them in a court of law with evidence, not arbitrary decisions. It does not matter what the US, UK or anyone else thinks of India - we are a country of 1.2 billion people with one of the largest economies in the world, we have nothing to fear from anyone. The issue is not India's image - the issue is the status of women in our society. Join the discussion, take action, fix things - or, far from being re-elected in 2019, risk turning into a lame duck government in record time. 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

On the SAARC Yatra

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's new Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar, who comes with an already impressive track-record in the MEA, completed his 'SAARC Yatra' to continue the Modi government's push for regional integration and understanding and also restart dialogue with Pakistan, which seems to have learned its lesson and stayed away from the Hurriyat Conference in Kashmir for now. But SAARC is in turmoil and needs India's leadership and the SAARC Yatra should have driven home that point.

In Bangladesh, the country is practically under siege as the BNP-ordered general strike makes life impossible for people. The Awami League government is in danger of being reduced to nothing and India needs to help both sides come together to bring some sense. Ultimately, it seems unlike that the AL government can last its full term, given the controversial way in which it was elected (though not it's fault). In Nepal, the CA is stuck and there seems no hope for a Constitution anytime soon. India needs to particularly work to push this process along for there is the constant danger that the Maoists might try to snatch back power by force after losing their majority in the last CA election. The Maldives is clearly going through a dangerous time as former President Nasheed, a staunch Indian ally who was deposed in a coup, is being held for trumped-up terrorism charges, even as the current government there tries to give China a footing in the Indian Ocean. India should not repeat the mistake of seeing its ally being deposed unconstitutionally - it must guarantee a constitutional process in the Maldives for both countries' long-term benefit.

Sri Lanka offers a glimmer of hope, after pro-China Rajapaksa was defeated in an election, supposedly with an Indian hand in it. The new President Sirisena has made all the right noises with regards to China and the Tamil question in the island nation. It is up to Modi's government to use this opportunity. In Afghanistan, President Ghani is looking for talking with the Taliban (and its benefactor, the ISI) on one side and making it impossible for them to win any more territory on the other. Barack Obama's effective cancellation of the deadline he had set for a retreat makes things better. India enjoys immense goodwill in the country and, even as Ghani tried to build bridges with Pakistan, India must remain there for the long-term.

Bhutan is the one country where everything is just fine - and the government should keep it that way. True, China is trying to eek in there, but that seems unlikely to be a problem in the near future. Pakistan is the only country which seems totally hopeless as of now, with its economy continuing its slide and the explosion of terrorism there. The FS meeting followed the usual script with accusation (without any proof) of Indian interference in Balochistan and FATA. Although PM Nawaz Sharif did meet the FS, it seems the only hope of a real breakthrough can come in the 2016 Islamabad SAARC Summit, when PM Modi will probably travel to the country, that was once a part of ours. Till then, talks are fine, but nothing can be expected to move. 

Stop wasting your time

The BBC Documentary, India's Daughter, that is making airwaves in the English media - which is a few thousands of a percentage of India's population - rightly puts a mirror at a mindset that is rampant in India. Although it only interviews the convict (whose case is under appeal in the Supreme Court) - and does a pretty bad job of it - it very well applies to a large, perhaps even a majority, of men and even women in India. While the liberal Left may rightly berate him, the truth is that you will find a lot of paying agreeing with what he said - both men and women.

It is sad then that the best response that the Union Government to think of was to ban the screening of the documentary. This is wrong on two counts. Firstly, it does not even come anywhere near to solving the issue. It is the same old concept of burying the issue and pretending it doesn't exist, when it very well does and is a very serious matter. As BJP MP Kirron Kher rightly asked, what is the point of doing campaigns like Beti Bechao if we are not going to address the fundamental issue head-on? There is only so much laws can do to prevent rape in a society where it is rampant - mindsets have to change and for that, we have to confront it first.

The second count on why banning it is useless is because to ban anything is redundant today - it just cannot happen. Information technology - which India knows very well - simply does not allow anything to be banned for long. Dictators might think they can ban Facebook or YouTube, but there are hundreds of ways to get over it. A democratic society cannot even hope to do it. Millions in India will watch that documentary over the next few days, ban or no ban. And the government is wasting its time in trying to use CERT-In to find each and every place the video keeps popping up: there is literally no end to this.

The real question on this particular documentary is why this rapist is still alive. Why does any criminal case take forever? Why do we have so few courts and judges? Why do judges hand out adjournments at the drop of a hat? How corrupt is out judicial system? These are not rhetorical questions - in Nagaland, a group of villagers lynched a rape-accused to death. People are losing faith in the Indian state, starting with those place where it hardly exists. This is the problem that Rajnath Singh should try to fix, not banning a documentary which is, after all, just saying what everybody already knows. 

What's the Beef about?

Recently, social media and some parts of traditional media have been talking about the Maharashtra Government's new law to ban the slaughter of buffaloes in the state (cow slaughter was already banned), effectively ending the entire beef industry in the state, or pushing it underground. Comments have ranged from the very ecstatic on the far right to the absolutely outraged on the far left, with the latter making most of the noise.

Let's examine the issues here. Article 48 of the Constitution of India states that the state shall aim to end the slaughter of cows and other milch animals in the Union. This is of course a minor irritant for the leftists who otherwise express deep love for constitutional principles, and they prefer to ignore it. Unfortunately for them, the Constitution is written to be followed in full, not on those lines that suit them (the Uniform Civil Code is another aspect of this). A fair question is that, since the Directive Principle is only on cows and milch animals, can buffalo slaughter be banned as well? Answering that question requires going in to the reason behind the Article in the first place.

The sad reality of India today is that there is a very small, micro-minority that is physically in India but mentally somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. It is them that is speaking the loudest against this move. India is overwhelmingly Hindu, that is a fact. The principles and practices that the Persian invaders and then the British colonialists collectively called Hinduism are varied, but a central tenet is most groups that follow it is worshiping cows. The reason is quite simple: cows as well as buffaloes were important for the society under which those practices were established: they were farm animals that helped till the land, they were milch animals that provided milk, their dung was used for everything from fuel to wall finishing.  No other animal could compare to this level of utility and hence, for society, killing cows and buffaloes (both) was unthinkable simply because it would be like shooting themselves in the foot. It is these traditional practices from where what we call Hinduism today (which is really a Persian word) came.

It is also for this reason that the groups in India that would most support the ban are those that have owned land. Obviously, Dalits eat beef, because they never owned land until the abolition of the caste system in the very young Republic. But even this is not the general case: Dalits who depended on their landed masters for their meals would not be able to get any beef either, and that is where the practice originates from. It is not a religious diktat - Hinduism does not have an equivalent of the ten commandments - but a cultural practice.

India is a secular country, which means the state shall not favor any religion. But no state can exorcise a society of its culture - the Communists in Russia once tried and they had to establish death camps and forced labor for that, and they still couldn't do it fully; the Nazis tried but had to make peace with the Church to avoid a massive rebellion in their own ranks. India's cultural roots are common to all people irrespective of religion, and indeed to all people of what is called South Asia now. However much Leftists and those in Pakistan might try to play up the two-nation theory and show that Muslims in India are fundamentally incompatible with Hindu culture, they will always fail because a 60-year old idea cannot defeat a 5000-year old continuing civilization. They are simply wrong.

The people who are shouting out against the beef ban are those who would themselves not talking about eating beef openly in society, if they even do it in the first place. A vast majority of states in the Union ban it, including Muslim majority J&K, but it is only the Maharashtra Government's ban that is inviting criticism. Why? Because it is not about beef - it is about Narendra Modi and the fact that it is impossible for Leftists to accept the fact that he won a landslide election. The people who gloated that the BJP was an upper caste, North Indian party that could never win more than 180 seats in the Lok Sabha are those who cannot believe that it won a majority of its own and is now a pan-India party and are determined to use every opportunity to undermine him, aided by a sold-out media that wants its special privileges restored. This is a political issue, have no doubt about it. And it will meet a political response when the time comes. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Avoidable Confrontation

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's controversial address to the US Congress has laid bare the faultlines in US politics and more so his chasm with President Obama in what was an avoidable confrontation that does very little to settle the two major problems at hand - the status of Palestine and Iran's nuclear program. While Israel has proper concerns over Iran's nuclear program, wading into extremely partisan domestic politics in the US is not going to solve that and will certainly create more problems that it solves.

The biggest culprit in the game is Speaker John Boehner, who should never have requested the address without taking the Obama administration into account. It is no secret that Boehner would like very much to discredit Obama to the point of no return. However, to side-step the administration on a matter of foreign policy and effectively try to run a parallel administration is taking things too far. Now that the faultlines are wide open for all to see, any damage to US-Israel relations will squarely land on Boehner's table, no matter how much he tries to push it on Obama.

The real issues at hand are two. First, the question of the status of Palestine cannot be left hanging forever. The world is turning against Israel for its tactics against Palestine, even if it is to fight off Hamas terrorists. There is simply no reply to dead children in a school that was bombed by the IDF. It is in Israel's best interests to quickly move on the two-state solution and once and for all, end illegal settlements in the West Bank - the world, including the US, in absolutely clear on this matter. Time is of the essence - the world itself is changing and the US cannot continue to unilaterally protect Israel forever. And Israel itself must realize this.

The second issue is over Iran's nuclear program. While the current President of the country seems conciliatory, Israelis cannot forget Ahmedinejad's proclamations that 'Israel should be wiped off the map.' The onus is on Iran to correct that mistake its leaders made and it should not expect the world, especially the US, to help it do that. Iran itself has turned Israel into a part of the cynical Shia-Sunni battle it wages with Saudi Arabia and thinks nothing for the Palestinians. Every time more hot air comes out of Iran, Israel becomes angrier and Palestinians continue to suffer. Far from nuclear weapons, Iran's supreme leadership - which does not change with each election - does not even deserve to get a microphone. Obama's weak foreign policy does not even come close to addressing Israel's concerns.

In Washington, as Netanyahu addresses Congress with several key democrats skipping the event, lawmakers who care about the whole issue should see that the ultimate problem comes down to the question of Palestine, which has waited decades to have its own state. Rabble rousing and playing petty politics will not help - the world is growing tired of an Israel and US that are doing very little to really conclude a two-state solution. And it is happening fast. 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

CU: Buried under snow

As far as weather forecasting goes, snow is quite the challenge. Even then, the extent to which forecasts missed yesterday's snowfall, which ended only today, is surprising. Here's some 101 on weather forecasting: weather models, using things called CAPE and CIN, can determine whether it is going to precipitate or not at a time step. Based on the forecast soundings (the vertical temperature profile), they can also predict whether that precipitation will be snow, freezing rain or simple rain.

The problem comes in determining the quantity of precipitation (and also the time, really). Models express precipitation in liquid equivalent - for snow, that means the amount of water (in in. or cm) that you would get if you melted a certain amount of snow (10 in or 10 cm). But to convert that liquid equivalent to actual amount of snow on the ground is more an art than science, because it can depend on a variety of factors. People who have lived in snowy regions will know that snow can come in a variety of forms, only some of which are conducive for snowball fights! So, it's pretty hard to determine the exact thickness of snow that you get.

Still, this week was quite a spectacular fail, with forecasts by and large predicting 4-6", while outside, there is at least a foot of fresh snow on the ground, if not a foot and a half. That's off by 100-200%! And that means, instead of trudging on the sidewalks, pedestrians are forced to literally trek through mountains of snow. Yes, we're buried in here!