Category Archives: politics

2014 elections: the death of decency

The ordeal is finally over. After more than a year of having to endure twitter/facebook posts on economics, history, politics, ethics and conspiracy theories by people whose only information came from a couple of books and random websites, one hopes things might cool down a little (for now at least). We have a new government, and its immediate effect should be the suspension of catfights on social media. The social media websites must have been banging their heads about using precious hardware to store the crap generated by Indians over the past year, all of which pointed to the same thing: the death of decency within Indian society.

It may matter who holds power at the centre, or it may not. But one thing is certain: to call ourselves citizens of one nation, members of one civilisation or simply human beings requires traits that have been completely abandoned over the past year. Mutual respect, restraint in thought and action, tolerance of opposing world-views, attempts to put oneself in the other’s shoes — all these are vitally important as we Indians march towards a future where each and every individual has the capacity to hurt many people, both physically and psychologically. Like someone once said, it is foolish to expect that leaders will be good or even decent; It is upto the people to provide the counterbalance to the inevitable abuse of power by political leaders. This is possible only when we embody the traits mentioned above, among others. Without these, we become susceptible to manipulation and eventual physical or mental slavery.

Before going ahead, one thing must be acknowledged: Politics, however practiced, is a dirty game: one cannot sip tea in elegant settings and talk high-minded philosophy in the process of engaging in politics. Politics is a game to garner as much power to oneself within the framework of certain rules (which are rarely followed, unfortunately). It is unlikely that someone indulging in politics, for however noble a cause, will come out of it more emancipated than before he entered it (There are exceptions to this rule, but that’s what they are: exceptions). The only hope is to emerge out of politicking with at least the same amount of dignity that one went in with. It is by this metric that the ‘politically awakened middle class facebook user’ has miserably failed.

I mention Facebook simply because that is the one medium to which I have been exposed (not fatally, one hopes), dinosaur that I am. But without doubt, this has been the case with every medium out there, web-based or otherwise. Long-term friendships have broken apart. Prejudices in the form of ideals have hardened due to the incessant brainwashing. Respectful dialogue has been replaced by invective. Personal identities have been drowned by the mob identity. Self-criticism and introspection has given way to a smug self assurance typical of morons, even among otherwise discerning people. All this in the name of getting this or that crook into power.

This is one fact that all of us must agree upon: politicians, regardless of their place in the spectrum, are crooks. And all we have achieved is break bonds and burn bridges in the name of one or the other, arguing that this or that crook is less crookish than the other and therefore a great hope for the nation. The politicians, party workers and other assorted hired guns have always been hungry for power, regardless of what they tell themselves or others. It has been justified by various means: For a United and Strong India. For a Corruption-Free India. For a Secular India. For the Dalits. For the Muslims. For the Hindus. No matter what the justification, all one wants is the means to power. I am not being cynical, but merely stating a matter of fact. What one does with power is normally secondary during elections to the actual acquisition of power. In the song-and-dance sequence that is the Indian elections, any and all means to attract attention is used, and most of them have the unfortunate consequence of dividing people. What the British taught us over a hundred years ago, we have learnt well. Probably, too well.

About the elections themselves, one thing was certain: the Congress Party was going to lose, and lose spectacularly. This was obvious for a very long time. Even if there were no scams, the sheer force of anti-incumbency would have removed them from power. The scams and the global recession/volatility (which was not under their control) helped a great deal, no doubt. The same thing happened in Karnataka, when the extremely corrupt BJP government was overthrown and power was handed over in a platter to the only alternative by the people. This would have happened even if the Karnataka Congress Party had sleepwalked through the elections.

The reason I brought this up is to underline the fact that the Indian voter is not stupid, and not insulated from the happenings on the ground (unless he is posting photos of what he ate on Facebook). The spectacular fall of the BJP in Karnataka happened without major drama in the social media and without the spewing of venom at all and sundry. This begs the question why this was the case in the national elections.

Though religious missionaries are always in the news for almost always the wrong reasons, we have seen the emergence of multiple missionary orders during this elections. Facebook Missionaries of BJP, AAP and INC were of course the most vociferous,  but others were present too. Their activity was the source of both amusement and concern. They ensured that our elections became Americanised, with cults of personality taking prominence over ground realities. It was sad and shocking to see one politician’s ‘undeclared’ wife being subjected to a media circus. Another politician being slapped or having a shoe thrown at him was celebrated with glee. ‘Friends’ on Facebook were calling each other Fascists, Naxalites and AAPtards (whatever that means). Caricatures were no longer for irony, but for vicious attack. One conspiracy theory video on Youtube was answered using another video, left-leaning articles being shown as the reply to right-leaning articles. A sad way to expend the enormous energy and creativity India today radiates, to the whole world’s envy. Like all missionaries, the desire to impose one’s world view on others at all costs has disabled the lifeblood of Indian civilisation, that which has kept her alive for thousands of years: the capacity to understand, assimilate and create.

All in all, India now has a poisonous, divisive and menacing air about it. Of course, this is not the product of one elections, but a progressive trend caused by the systematic application of the tactics of the British Raj by all the political parties with the hope of ‘harvesting our souls’, as someone put it. With the polity in tatters and hopelessly divided, no counterbalance exists to keep our leaders in check. That, to me is the greatest contribution of the BJP, INC and AAP in this election. Congrats, and all the best!

Advertisements

Generation ‘W’

Shiva had to find Kailasa, Jesus had to spend 40 days without food or water in the desert, Shankaracharya had to climb Kodachadri without a jeep. The things Gods and men have done to find a peaceful place (and then, find themselves) has been quite remarkable. The basic premise of the ascetic way of life is that reduction of sensory inputs helps us focus on ‘inner reality’,  and help us to ‘realise’ ourselves.

But if any of the above mentioned are looking down at today’s world, they would feel somewhat short-changed at the options they had to isolate themselves from the rest of the universe. Our extremely innovative generation has revolutionised the concept of asceticism by turning its basic premise on its head. The Generation of the Walkman (or Generation ‘W’ in my terminology) has completely rethought the way to isolation by realising that an overload of sensory inputs helps us break away from the world, rather than the other way round.

For most of human existence, sound and light have been media for communication between individuals: language, smoke signals, and so on. It seems that using sound and light to achieve the complete opposite — a breakdown of communication — is quite a recent achievement. If one must attribute this to any one artefact, it must be the Walkman. Leisure and entertainment had until then been largely a non-individual activity: you could not play a tape/radio without everyone else listening, and TV time was also a family affair. The earliest form of personal entertainment was probably the boom box:

not very personal, and not very convenient either. Sound and light still played the role evolution had anointed them to play — bringing like minded people together.

With the advent of the enormously successful Walkman and other portable devices like small TVs and ‘transistors’, all this changed. Leisure and entertainment has now become a highly personalised activity. However, Generation ‘W’ has truly matured only in the past half a decade or so. The near universal penetration of the mobile phone and the near universal conversion of mobile phones into miniature boom boxes of the sort above has created a profusion of sound everywhere you go: those who spoke about cacophony and the Tower of Babel ten years ago had no idea what they were talking about. Travel by a night bus or train or sit in a movie theatre, and you will see what a profusion of light means: the advent of super-bright LCD displays has obviated the need to install lighting in most places Gen W frequents.

The sensory load due to listening to four songs and five heated conversations in six languages and the glare from your neighbour’s gigantic LCD display is simply too much for our primitive minds to bear, and they promptly start blocking everything and trying to focus on something inward. And voila, instant nirvana! Whether you want it or not, you will be as disconnected from the rest of the people as they are from you. Of course, then you have the more refined members of Gen W who keep everyone out by using superbly crafted earphones. It removes the necessity of wearing a ‘Don’t disturb’ sign around your neck (or wearing a stern look on your face) while serving the same purpose and informing you about the latest Bollywood hits. And you still have your fingers and eyes to play Angry Birds! The possibility of any sort of conversation with co-travellers who cannot SMS you is gone, and you are in a world of your own. Take that, ascetics who had to struggle in forests without Lays and popcorn!

The most innovative use of this sensory overload, however, is to use them to create virtual islands within larger public spaces. The idea is simple: In the days before the Walkman, if you wanted to have a discreet conversation, you needed to speak into someone’e ear or signal using a predefined code or use Pig Latin. Now, each boom box creates a radius beyond which you are not heard (or so you think), and there seems to be no need to be discreet anymore. You will see this everywhere: Go into the nearest Coffee Day and people seem to be speaking as freely as they would at their homes and, wonder of wonders, you cannot hear a thing. The back seats in a bus are occupied by students who play loud music (how long do their batteries last, really!) and hold even louder conversations, while whispering sweet nothings via SMS to their girlfriends sitting in the front of the same bus. This creation of private spaces amidst increasingly overcrowded public spaces seems to be a very interesting achievement of today’s technology.

The technology of today not only serves the purpose of ‘Disconnecting People’  from each other, but also from the social and natural environment they are a part of. With generous phone makers deciding to throw in a camera along with a phone (and a music player and a video game console and a …), and cameras which make it possible for complete ignoramuses (like yours truly) to take fantastic pictures, nature is no longer something to be savored and enjoyed but something to be pursued and captured in a JPG file. We seem to be taking every small pleasure in our lives and converting them to neuroses. This, of course, perfectly suits those selling these items of desire, but what does it say about us as a society and a culture?

The sense of entitlement

The primary focus of economic study is what you are entitled to, given what you have and what you are capable of doing with what you have. In short, economics can be called the study of entitlement, given endowment and capabilities. Of course, many economists will beg to differ, and say study of endowment and capabilities are as important (Amartya Sen and Karl Marx, two examples from different parts of the economics universe.)

The problem economics faces is that entitlement needs to be quantified to make the subject earn a (pseudo)-scientific status. Therefore, what you are entitled to is reduced to numbers or very detailed set of services. This to me pushes a lot of questions and intangibles under the carpet, as will be explicated below.

The best place to start will be the trains in India. When you reserve a ticket, all you are entitled to is your particular seat or berth on it. On a particularly crowded day, like during festivals, it is inevitable that people will crowd into the compartments reserved as well, and request or shove (depending on which part of India you come from) you for some place. Some oblige, some don’t, but always grumbling about how they have reserved this place and they are entitled to ‘better’. It is not uncommon to see people grumbling if people even stand inside a reserved compartment. Their sense of entitlement for a reservation goes beyond an assured seat to a comfortable, non-crowded, no standing people journey.

Most of the politics that happens is due this sense of entitlement that cannot be captured within economic frameworks easily. Reservation is such an issue. Those demanding reservation say they are entitled to justice for historical wrongs, whereas those opposing it speak a very ‘economics’ language of efficiency and meritocracy. It is not surprising that the debate normally goes nowhere. Reservation has economic implications, sure, but it does not stop at that. The same goes with the debate on climate change as well. Though we say big things about economics driving the world, there is little economics at the core of climate change debates, which talks about the entitlement of countries to pollute like the West did historically and continues to do.

This non-tangible part of what you think you are entitled to makes all the difference in your attitude toward other people in general. It is not uncommon to hear idiots trying to gain the upper hand in an argument by invoking their past and family and qualifications. They somehow feel that getting a Master’s or being a Manager in a company entitles them not to deal with ‘incompetents’, as they would put it. Similarly, someone dining in an expensive restaurant would be mortified if the waiter was not ultra-polite, unfolding napkins and capable of an intelligent conversation about their food and liquor range. They believe that their paying that ‘extra’ justifies having an attendant who just stops short of kissing their feet. You would give ugly stares at that neighboring table who just can’t keep their voices down, since of course you are also entitled to a certain etiquette from all the other customers in the restaurant. However, since none of this is printed on your bill, economics cannot really play any role in determining it.

The other extreme would be people who think they are entitled to very little, and take away from an economic transaction even lesser than what a traditional economic analysis or policy would put in your pocket. This is typical of how the poor are treated, which is well documented is the case of the MNREGA programme. Whatever they get is a blessing and nowhere is this better observed than in the general compartment of a train. 6 people on each seat, 6 on the luggage rack, 5 on the floor between the seats and a very large number on the aisle, it sometimes seems that the ticket they buy has no value at all. They seem to be entitled to only going from place A to B, without any consideration as to how. In fact, the more spectacular acts of kindness and generosity comes from the people in the general compartment, not those in the 2AC, which is strange since economics would say that only the rich can ‘afford’ to be generous and kind. This is simply due to the fact that each views what they are entitled to in a very different manner.

The rich get richer and poor, poorer. This is because those who have tend to overestimate what they are worth and those who don’t consistently underestimate the same. More than economics, culture and social norms play an important role in determining one’s sense of entitlement. However, one should not forget that this has important economic implications. An artist feels he is entitled to earn lakhs for a painting is indulging in the inexact science of translating those intangibles into a price, which is why there are so many poor artists for every one that makes it big. This inexact science depends on luck, where you live and who you know, none of which are economic variables.

In the long run, we are all dead. Can’t we take the opportunity to be kind and thoughtful without trying a rational analysis of our entitlements? Apparently not.

‘Anna’lyzing Hazare

I rarely worry about current affairs, since they are not my interest, but the situation in Delhi has some historical precendents that prompted me to add my two bits to the equation.

For the second time in recent Indian history, an honest, practically saintly man is threatening to bring down an Empire (for that is what Indian Governments for the past few decades have been) by simply refusing to eat. Indians, emotional as ever, suddenly are consumed by a nationalist frenzy that should be scary even for a hardened dictator, let alone an economist-politician.

Is it a creation of the media? in part, without doubt. But there simply is no other way of mobilising so many people that I’m aware of. But the recent spate of politicians gettting too stupid to get caught contributed to this, without doubt. Also, the new generation of Indians, growing in self confidence that comes from world-wide admiration for our IT sweatshops, who think they have analyzed the situation perfectly and know best what is good for the country, have also added fuel to the fire.

On the side of the muted minority, a few who are wary of such frenzies occluding the real issues, whatever they may be, are criticizing the new Great Indian Show as shallow and ignorant of ground realities. They believe that it simply exposes the shallowness of Indian democracy and worry that the democratic process will be hijacked by the coercion of a few capable of moving millions.

Whatever may be the case, it is undeniable that this fast has fired the imagination of the country like very few events over the past few decades, including winning the World Cup and the Godhra mess. The reason for this seems simple — people can relate to and understand the anger against corruption, since they face it in their everyday lives, all the time. Though it may seem desirable, but worrying about Irom Sharmila and the AFSPA, or what conspired in Gujarat early in the 21st century or the inhuman treatment of tribals in Jharkhand or Orissa can hardly be part of their daily exertion to make ends meet. When someone raises their voice in support to Anna Hazare’s fast, they have that clerk in that department in mind, not Ratan Tata paying off the UPA government or the Birlas buying out tribals in Orissa.

If not word for word, but in spirit, the exact same debate had been carried out between Gandhi and Tagore some 90 years ago. I had described it, though with a more abstract focus, for a term paper last year. When Gandhi roused the people to join the non-cooperation movement in the 1920s, Tagore took exception to his methods, which to him depended heavily on the presence of a strong personality like Gandhi to be around to work. It would not ‘deepen democracy’, he said (though not in the same words), as some journalists have been murmuring about the Anna Hazare movement. It had the potential to degenerate into empty flag waving and slogan raising and to smother genuine criticisms and concerns, according to Tagore. For more details, have a look at the above pdf.

90 years on, Tagore’s fears did pan out, and India still requires a saintly figure to stop eating to rouse them against the Empire. The methods are still fundamentally anti-democratic, like Gandhi’s fast against separate electorates which spawned the Dalit movement of today (which hates him for it), or his throwing out of Subhash Chandra Bose from the post of Congress President. Gandhi’s political proteges chafed against the tight leash with which he held them back, to advance his ideas of a non-violent nation which they neither understood nor appreciated until the horror of the Partition. They would have gladly ignored him if it was politically feasible, and this happened during the final talks with the British before they left India.

That this debate continues in present day India is significant in atleast two ways: One, the question of how to involve the mass of the Indian population in the governance of the nation has not been solved satisfactorily. Two, the intellectual and moral legacies of those great Indians, Gandhi and Tagore live on to this day.

What model of governance would suit a country where the ‘Northie’ and the ‘Madarasi’ still cannot see eye to eye, and the Brahmin and the Dalit still cannot sit at the same table? The easier way would be to try and homogenize the people by means of an imaginary past, like the RSS actively are doing all over, or rouse people based on issues close to their hearts, however temporarily, like Anna Hazare is doing. The harder way, which Tagore espoused and which Gandhi implicitly agreed to later in his life when he resigned from the Congress and plunged head on into the Constructive Movement to help villages become self sufficient and the centre of any economic organisation in India, is to ‘deepen democracy’ so that people can in some sense rule themselves (which is after all what ‘Swa – raj’ means), and exert control over their lives.

This, however, would require a very different kind of socioeconomic organisation from the one bequeathed to us by Ricardo, J. S. Mill, Marx and Manmohan Singh, in chronological order. The British legacy in India was to fundamentally alter the material lives of people in some respects, and as I have mentioned before, to change it requires a lot of time or a lot of violence. So too for the society and economy which derive from it.

India has grown in confidence, no doubt, but it is a result of the arm twisting tactics of the World Bank and IMF (who first forced the Indira Gandhi government to asymmetrically distribute agricultural inputs to usher in the Green Revolution, and then forced the P. V. Narasimha government to implement what has come to be known as ‘Manmohanomics’) rather than any innate genius of the Indian people. Our so called ‘gifts to the world’ that Swami Vivekananda was so proud about, are only inheritances from our ancestors, which only goes to show that as a civilisation, we are stagnant in the 16th or 17th century. Like Tagore, my hope is that India can show the world that a Northie and Madarasi need not see eye to eye to build a prosperous nation, that a Hindu and a Muslim need not dissolve their individual identities to forge a strong country. That will be her greatest contribution, a mark of her genius.

View from the outside – reality or caricature?

Social situations suffer from problems of interpretation, as much as any literary work or puzzling movie. The dynamics which make a situation what it is are very widely spread, both in time and space. From the immediate spark to historical wounds, from neighborhood feuds to global markets, all play their part in shaping interesting situations.

For this reason, much like in the natural sciences, social thinkers have tried to find the ‘essence’ of the situation — Marx saw class war as the dominant dynamic, others see markets as playing this role, Nationalists see it as an ‘us vs. them’ logic, and so on. The problem does not lie in an analysis for personal clarity, but in drumming it around as the way to look at things. Since forceful views feed back into popular perception, the analysis becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For example, tribal communities have always been handed the short end of the bargain for a long time. So also the Dalit community all over India. However, there are many facets of tribal or dalit life that is simply inaccessible to the external analyst (who is normally urban and middle class), their daily lives, routines, modes of resistance, their culture, songs, Gods and loves. If an external analyst tries to learn about everything he/she can no longer be ‘external’. However, given the respect such a person normally accords, normally due to eloquence of speech and unsubstantiated self-assurance, the way these people view the world and themselves changes. Dalit writers themselves have documented this change, with Dalit leaders despising their own roots in the villages, consistent with Ambedkar’s analysis. The loss of a world view has to be replaced, and modern, Western thinking and contempt for non-European thinking set in, with an intensity that only occurs in new converts to a way of thinking or a religion.

Another example is that of the current trend of acquisition of rural land for personal gain by the BJP government. It is being seen as a farmer vs. corporate/politician nexus. This, however, does not explain why quite a few farmers (always with large amounts of land) seem to be willing to sell. Rural Karnataka has had to my mind three major changes over the past few decades.

One, with laying of roads everywhere due to the Prime Minister’s Gram Sadak Yojana (started by Vajpayee), transport to the nearest city/town centre has become very easy. With urban wages and a rural lifestyle both being within reach, most of the labor force prefers to work on construction sites. Farmers with lands larger than they can till (not just absentee landlords) are consequently finding it impossible to find farm hands. This was something I noticed in Bihar as well on a recent trip. The advent of television and the boom in rural telephony due to cellphones is also facilitating wider awareness of options beyond the rural economy, driving people out.

Two, the trend of waiving away farm loans was started in Karnataka and is now there everywhere in India. This is not a very new idea, with landlords historically having done this during bad years. However, now neither the fine grained differentiation between deserving and otherwise is no longer possible, with the latter gaining more, nor is there accountability, with farmers taking loans from the local bank and waiting for the Government to waive it off. Access to credit at low interest rates has also enabled over borrowing, say borrowing 3 lakh when all you need is 1 lakh. An interesting case was of a woman setting up a shop using microcredit and using it to buy a TV and refrigerator (even though her roof still remained a thatched one) in an urban slum which was documented by one of my classmates. Oh, and she defaulted on the loan as well.

Third, NREGS work is highly attractive wherever it is working even half well, and there have been cases of laborers not working and simply paying off the contractor to get wages, which in the case of men inevitably goes to the nearest toddy shop-owner. Farmers growing time sensitive crops like rice, which simply have to have certain things done at certain times, are unable to find workers and this forces them to shift to horticulture or other alternatives. Ironically, the proper working of NREGS seems to be putting people out of work in such cases — there are many farmers who are simply giving up cultivating more than what is necessary for personal consumption.

Thus, it is not as if the rural population is a passive, mute spectator to emerging trends, but very aware, discerning and looking at how to profit from change. The only difference is that they don’t use excel sheets.

When a community listens to an outsider describing it, there can be two reactions, both flowing from an awareness of what is important and what is convenient. Most would go with a path that makes things more convenient, like developing a victim complex, which is present in Muslims, Brahmins, Dalits, Christians, rural and urban communities if one cares to look closely. Any ideological stand that facilitates a way to not do inconvenient things and gain political power is preferred, even though it may have no internal coherency. The second, harder way of actually learning what is relevant from an external analysis without losing self identity is rarely taken, and such attempts are celebrated for very good reasons. From being a real, living community that had its own way of looking at the world, we get a community that sees a caricature of itself, which focuses only on some aspect of their life, as reality.

Subsidizing spirituality

If we define as ‘spiritual’ pretty much anyone who does not worry (or have to worry) about getting his daily bread (which would include swamis, scientists and musicians), then it seems strange that those who actually put in hard work to earn money somehow willingly part with it to keep the other kind alive. It does not seem to end with just economically subsidizing them, but also allowing them to behave in ways simply unacceptable normally even though they are, for all purposes, under the mercy of the people who pay them. You do not have to think hard to find examples — Musicians, actors and spiritual gurus have not all been exactly role models, but they still seem to get by pretty well, even better than those who collectively keep them alive.

A straightforward and somewhat simple-minded reason for such collective insanity would be that the ‘spirituals’ are somehow brainwashing the mob into such behavior, that some version of class antagonism goes on behind such dynamics. It is of course valid in some situations, but cannot explain the general trend. Similarly, one can give evolutionary explanations saying the if a society has to evolve, it must always have variety, and somehow this is unconsciously understood by everyone and this is the reason why we subsidize cranks and academics.

However, a deeper look into human nature always shows a desire for transcendence. No matter how rich or poor and regardless of location, this is always noticeable. To transcend time and space, to leave a mark which remains beyond personal existence has forever been something we have been striving for. From hopes of being immortalized by folk tales and songs to training our children to be like us (or better), this desire crops up everywhere. Since the’ spiritual’ section of humanity aims at creations which seem to fit exactly such ambitions, the synergy between some strange kind of demand and supply is hard to miss. From gurus puporting to explain inner space and scientists outer space and musicians trying to link both, all the while creating edifices of thought, emotion and technique which remain with humanity for ever, these people naturally have something that the people can tap into, either by ‘consumption’ of their works of looking up for guidance in their own quest.

However, this relationship is not as one-dimensional as the above description might suggest. A good example is that of the Sringeri Math in earlier times. It was the largest landowner in the region and simply because of its size was dependent not only on the donations of the common people but also the good-will of the local rulers. Similarly, the rulers understood the influence the Math had in the region and patronised it for political reasons if nothing else. Hence the basis for the extremely cordial relations between the Math and Tippu Sultan.

All over the world, religious institutions played an important role in the material life of people, and continue to do so in India. The best recent example is the Gadag land acquisition issue where in the forefront of the agitation were the heads of the various Maths in the region, since the local BJP MLAs obviously would not do anything about it. In fact, until the deliberate attempts of the British to dismantle it, everyday life in India seemed to revolve around local institutions and were largely insulated from the vagaries of the large scale political vagaries. In such a situation, an ‘impartial observer’ who was largely insulated from the demands of normal life was naturally needed, and in a strongly religious country like ours, no guesses as to who would be that observer.

Afer India went onto the path of modernization, and the temples of modern India were being built, there are again no surprises as to who were to lead the discussions and debates on how life should be organised. New religions require new priests. Scientists of Nehru’s time were very active in public life due to the mandate given to them to build a modern nation, a trait that is not very conspicuous among scientists today, given that India has a new religion called economics. There were, of course exceptions to the rule, people who were truly unaccountable for their actions either due to extreme mass appeal or asceticism, but these are exceptions that prove the rule.

Societies seem to subsidize certain capabilities and allow strange behavior when they see how influential they can be in everyday life — either by helping them forget the humdrum of daily life, if only for a moment, as entertainers or inspirers, or by making life easier to live by reaching for concepts not everyone has the time or the talent to absorb. Spirituality, on the other hand, cannot survive unless it comes down from the skies once in a while and actually dirties its hands in the slush that all those who support it have to wade through daily.

Those on the ground want to reach for the skies, whereas those up above will do well to keep their ears to the ground. Just as life flourishes where the earth and sky meet, civilization can sustain itself when the farmer and the philosopher can actually understand each other.

Social Science Research and Categories

Humans, by nature, seem to have an urge to explain what goes on around them. It is this urge that lead to questions in metaphysics, which eventually turned to natural philosophy and then fragemented to its present day avatars of the various natural and social sciences and the humanities.

Some parts of our experience have turned out to be not very hard to explain — physics was thought finished until Einstein came along, and anyways most of relativity and quantum mechanics are not part of our everyday experience. Chemistry also seems quite well established. Biology is where we start feeling uncomfortable, since evolution by its very nature ensures that we can never know all the facts ever. Even understanding the physics of cells in their entirety has proved to be a challenge to this day. Maybe eventually we’ll get there, but it does not seem it will be as easy or the theory will be as clean as classical mechanics or thermodynamics.

The place we get even more uncomfortable is when we start studying human beings. One of the problems is that if we consider the human being as a box, the things external to the box cannot be left out during analysis. An electron will work in the same way here or in Mars, but humans (indeed, most living beings) are relational entities, and our behavior is dependent on things related to us, human and non-human, material and non-material (like emotions). Due to the fact that we have a memory and try to predict the future, some relations are with entities not even present at this very moment. Thus, it is not simply about data, but the context surrounding the data which matters when studying people or life in general. This is what we mean when we say that we lead meaningful lives.

The normal road that any human explanatory endeavour takes is to observe something, make a hypothesis about what the underlying phenomenon could be, see if it explains observations and the iterate this process. So, if I take a one kg stone and throw it many times and see how fast travels, maybe I can come up with F = ma. Maybe from this somehow I can figure out Newton’s laws as being sufficient to describe it. Newton’s laws don’t exist outside your head — they are simply how you explain what is happening. To paraphrase my professor, the stone does not follow any laws, you laws explain well enough to you what is happening to the stone.

Mathematically, one can think of this as an inversion problem — you are given certain obervables y = f(x), and you have to figure out what x is. All inversion problems have two issues — you do not have sufficient y's observed to make any conclusions, which is easily rectified, or the functionf is not one-one and onto, i.e, there does not exist a unique inverse. Thus we come to a situation where f^{-1}(y) = x_1 = x_2. Very often in the social sciences, this will be the case — any behavior that you observe can have a large variety of possible explanations. The way you would solve this problem if it was mathematically posed was to put constraints on the behavior of f(.) — it cannot do this, it cannot go there, etc., and gradually eliminate the possibilities. The way this is done in the social sciences is to invoke a ‘framework’. For example, an economist believes that we are homo economicus, and suddenly greed is the only motivator for most human actions. Similarly, a Marxist historian believes that all history is the war between classes (which comes from Hegel) and classes are formed mainly due to economic processes (which was Marx’s contribution). Again, a lot of alternative explanations are rubbished, and a smooth (if somewhat long and tedious) explanation comes out.

The way any framework develops in social science is not straightforward — normally critics of one framework write books or theses criticising it. It develops within a particular historical, cultural and social context, and explains best what happens within this context. So, one can probably understand more about 19th century Vienna from Freud’s theories than about human nature — definitely not a place I would like to be in! Similarly, the outrage against Marxist interpretations of Indian history is not because Marxist historians are perverting the truth, it is just that we are not used to seeing ourselves from a economic/classist lens. Unfortunately, Marxists don’t seem to think anything else exists, and that makes the problem even worse.

Any science, by virtue of its attempt at uncovering universal truths, will try and extrapolate from local experience to global analysis. This extrapolation necessarily worries only about what is common to all, and not the particularities. When one civilisation tries to study another, especially one as maddeningly complex as the Indian one, it becomes hard to know what it is exactly that one has learned. To take a trivial example, Europeans were probably the only civilisation that used benches and stools and tables to sit and to eat. Thus, travellers to other civilisations looked upon the practice of sitting on the floor as ‘animal like’. Similarly, change was more the norm in Europe from a very long time, and this makes more conservative civilisations like our own to look upon them as ‘rootless’.

It is because of these problems that any attempt to understand a people must be from their own terms. The end product of such a study must first and foremost be comprehensible to the people that are being studied, else the most important maxim of any science — to explain what humans experience, as opposed to explaining away what we experience — is violated. M. N. Srinivas is someone who comes readily to mind when I bring up this point. Though he attempted to understand all rituals and traditions in terms of their function in holding the social structure aloft (which need not be the case), i.e, from a social anthropology perspective, his analytical categories are very much Indian, and that is what has made his work all the more valuable as a mirror to ourselves.