Sunday, August 14, 2016

Independence Day Lecture: The burden of Azaadi

'Azaadi' has become a rather fashionable word these days among the Left-Liberals, who have welded their cause to that of Islamic fascism. The term, an Urdu one, directly implies the call for the Two-Nation Theory to take root again in the Indian subcontinent and further balkanize the wounded civilization. Back in those days of August 1947, when the subcontinent was torn apart, the term could be heard too - albeit with different meanings. For some, it was azaadi from the English colonists and their exploitation, for others, it was azaadi from the Hindu civilization that has existed in this land for thousands of years. And therein lies a lesson.

The day after
But what is this azaadi for? To what end? Consider the children of 1947: one has reached Mars, the other is the global center of terrorism (and the grandchild is actually doing well, despite its own problems). Of course, this is only today: a few decades back, things were quite the other way round. For many years, Pakistan did much better than India, and it is only in the last few decades that it has descended into the abyss. But that is not the point. What is azaadi for?

There are two theories to this. One is that azaadi has a value of its own, that freedom is not obtained for the sake of economic growth, but for freedom itself. This was an argument made for #Brexit to oppose all the doom-and-gloom scenarios that were predicted. On the other hand, there is the opinion that azaadi must be for the larger cause of improving the lives of people, both economically and socially. This is the argument used to further the causes of smaller states in India, most recently seen with Telangana.

So what is azaadi for? Is it both? But what if the two contradict each other. Take the case of the many smaller islands that are tied to former European colonial powers. If freedom had a value there and was achieved, it is hard to imagine those countries doing well on their own, without joining some sort of confederacy. Indeed, looking at the situation today, it is questionable as to what Pakistan and Bangladesh have gained from their azaadi (from India). In another case, look at Australia and New Zealand, which had progressed significantly well before they cut most of their ties with the British Parliament. What was the point there, if not for the sheer value of freedom?

The real question
The answer to this apparent contradiction lies in the related question: azaadi from what? From exploitation? Or merely from a benevolent but foreign ruler? In a post-ideological world, does the notion of 'foreign' even mean anything anymore? On the last question, there is actually a bit of a red herring, for we are told by academics that we are indeed in a post-ideological world, but Indian knowledge tells us that even that does not negate the existence of a common nation among various peoples. Thus, even in a post-ideological world, the idea of a nation remains, for no other reason that it being a part of human nature.

Therefore, we seem to have a test for the value of azaadi: the azaadi of a nation from another, and that of people within a nation for the sake of prosperity. The latter has an explicit reason, and a burden on the children of the new country. But what of the former? Is the freedom of a nation an end in itself, or can nations collapse after achieving freedom? The history of the modern nation-state is so short that the answer is difficult to guess, although if the term 'nation' can be expanded into 'civilization,' it does appear that the civilization can be destroyed by itself (with notable exceptions).

We then have an answer: the burden of azaadi of a nation is to survive, and for its people to survive. And while survival is possible without prosperity, it becomes very difficult. Indeed, the only nations that survive with little prosperity are those that force themselves to be in a constant state of war (real or otherwise) - North Korea, Eritrea, and Pakistan come to mind there. And if the nation cannot survive, then there was no point of azaadi itself.

Therefore, those who scream azaadi without knowing what it entails must be careful what they wish for. For to win a Pyrrhic victory is to win the present and lose the future. And without a future, what is the present really worth?

On the 70th Indian Independence Day, Opinions 24x7 greets the nation in celebration of 69 years of continuing our ancient civilization.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016


The summer of 2016, my third in the US and first as a PhD student, is a little under two weeks away from ending, with the Fall Semester set to begin on Aug 22. As always, I started out with a plan, a list of things that I wanted to finish doing by the end of the summer. From previous experience, this is a rather futile exercise, as things can change a lot over the three months of summer. Nonetheless, it is an old habit that is hard to break. And looking at all the work lined up (both expected and unexpected), I decided to avoid taking any courses.

To my surprise, I've finished all but one of the things I planned to do, and have done a lot of things I was not planning on too! And with two weeks to go, I hope to finish the last item on the list as well. This is quite surprising as I have never been able to finish everything on the list before, and is possibly an encouraging sign that, just one year into the PhD, I am able to make a realistic work plan and execute it. Or I just got lucky, but I'd like to think the former, for my own pleasure.

This summer, I got my second journal paper published, submitted two papers at a conference, had two abstracts approved, completed an extensive online course on Scientific Computing, learned to use Linux, learned to use ANSYS, figured out how to use a brand new piece of hardware, used an API for the first time... and some more stuff that I can't even remember! Of course, most of these are incremental, but a PhD is a series of incremental steps leading up to the final dissertation, and I hope these steps will go a long way as my second year into the program begins.

But that's the professional stuff. The summer also saw two stellar personal achievements that remain unrivaled - I finally got my US drivers license, that too on my first attempt, and my weight dropped to the lowest since 8th grade, effectively setting the clock back by a decade! In my opinion, these two are as important as, if not more than, the professional achievements. Of course, it hasn't been a smooth ride: a paper of mine got rejected (again), and it's been hard to keep my weight in check without constant vigil over what I eat. And at one point, I was gripped with a sudden fear that I was going to be kicked out from my research group - something that seems laughable now, but was based on some plausible reasons then.

So that's been Summer 2016. Incidentally, this was the hottest summer in 2 years, with a heat wave and extreme humidity, not to mention all the bugs. Certainly, plenty to remember for.

Why I stopped following Newslaundry

That the English news media is compromised and partisan is no surprise to anyone. In fact, an actual word - presstitute - has been coined to describe the sort of work that alleged journalists these days are up to. In such a world, the true capitalist's answer would be to have a media house dedicated to keeping tabs on the media itself - and that was what Newslaundry was supposed to be. I remember the time when it did some excellent interviews of journalists - Karan Thapar, Rajdeep Sardesai, Barkha Dutt, and their ilk - and asked some really tough questions, so much so that Mr. Thapar could be seen trying his best to keep his cool when confronted with his own style of journalism.

Alas, those days are long gone. I recently stopped following Newslaundry, for two reasons. One, they were simply not doing what they were supposed to do i.e., keeping a tab on the media. Instead, it had become another media house in itself (more on that), and others like actually did a much better job than Newslaundry at holding the media up to the high standards of truth and equanimity. Two, having become a media house itself, its quality degraded precipitously, for which I squarely blame Abhinandan Sekhri.

It's not that I disagree with Mr. Sekhri's political views (I do) - I don't mind listening to a logical argument that I disagree with. The problem is quality. Consider the tweet I posted on top, part of the #NLprimetime initiative of live-tweeting a running commentary of prime time news (English language news, to be precise). While it might seem like a good idea to some, to me it looks like low-quality, illogical trolling. Not just the specific tweet itself, but the entire idea. Far from holding up journalists to a standard, this initiative is akin to wallowing in mud with a pig. And that's not all - from the choice of topics in NL Hafta podcasts to the tone and tenor of interviews, Mr. Sekhri comes across as a very poor journalist who wears his bias on his sleeve.

Add to that the newest troll on the Newslaundry block, Akash Banerjee, who did a 'Why so Serious?' series that was just plain trolling passing off as an op-ed, and you can only cringe at every new thing that they did. Of course, they did have some good journalists like Madhu Trehan and the redoubtable Anand Ranganathan (who I was fortunate to have a discussion with over Twitter about scientific temperament). But one bad apple spoils the basket, and Sekhri and Banerjee are as bad as they get.

I'll let Rahul Roushan have the last word, and express my sorrow at seeing a good forum like Newslaundry degrade into garbage.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

History made, much to follow

The Rajya Sabha just passed the historic Constitutional Amendment Bill to enable the introduction of a nation-wide Goods and Services Tax (GST) that will transform India into a unified market by establishing a customs union, thus allowing for governments across the country to make the most substantial changes to the tax framework in the country since the Constitution of India was adopted. The Bill, over a decade in the making, finally cleared the last hurdle with the BJP government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi making an unprecedented push to bring in the states as well as the Opposition, including the Congress, whose isolation on the issue finally made them see reason.

Of course, it was still a nail-biting finish, with the Congress bringing in a new demand for an assurance that the subsequent GST bill(s) would not be moved as Money Bills (in which case the Rajya Sabha is reduced to an advisory role). It kept with this demand right to the very end till the Dy. Chairman called for a vote, and after the AIADMK walked out, there was a fear that the Congress would do the same. Of course, as Finance Minister Arun Jaitley rightly said, it is an unreasonable demand and the Constitution - which clearly defines Money and Finance Bills - should be followed. But of course, the Congress is no stranger to flouting the Constitution, so it was always going to be close, until LOP Ghulam Azad finally backtracked on behalf of his party.

Right now, the Prime Minister and his team deserve full praise for steering through this important reform unanimously. Former PMs Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh also deserve praise for their contribution. And last but not the least, state FMs that worked overtime to bring this to fruition deserve commendation. India has made history as a single political union. Of course, there is still much to be done. Half the states will have to ratify the amendment, and then the actual GST bills will have to be taken up in Parliament and each and every state. And all this hopefully before Jaitley's deadline of April next year.

However, all those bills will require simple majorities and some complicated technology to back up the system. It will not be easy, but the biggest hurdle of all has been passed. The future is now in our hands.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

A Spectacular Self-Goal

Republic Presidential Nominee Donald Trump's outburst over the last few days of Khizr Khan, father of late Capt. Humayun Khan, who died fighting in Iraq, is perhaps the most spectacular self-goal so far by the candidate in a race that is already packed against him by virtue of the liberal stranglehold over the media. Indeed, this goes beyond anything that Mr. Trump has done so far to induce outrage from his own party ranks, including that forgettable time when he attacked John McCain. The tragedy of it all is that this should've been a cakewalk for Mr. Trump.

Consider this: Hillary Clinton voted in favor of the Iraq war, something that has kept the US in the region to this day. Capt. Khan died in a war authorized by her, on spurious intelligence that didn't match up to the facts later. Like so many others, Mrs. Clinton's trigger-happy foreign policy led to an unnecessary and sad death of a proud soldier. But somehow, all this escaped Trump's attention, and instead he chose to attack the late soldier's faith and his mother. While it is commendable that Mr. Trump is looking to break away from the political correctness that stifles logic, there is no need to sacrifice decency at the altar of a campaign. And not only is it unnecessary - it is potentially damaging as well.

What Mr. Trump needs immediately are two things: a good, political adviser to guide his campaign strategy, and the willingness to listen to such an adviser. Arguably, his running mate Gov. Mike Pence could be that adviser, but Mr. Trump has to listen to him. Basically, he has to learn to listen to other people and not just act on instinct. It might have worked in the primaries, but this is a different ball game. Mr. Trump has rightly called out the dangers of an HRC Presidency. If he wants to avoid it, he needs to take this seriously and stop gifting the Democrats victories. On Capt. Khan and his family, Donald Trump is unequivocally wrong.