Category Archives: Review

This Fissured Land – Review

My second book by these two authors – Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha, ‘This Fissured Land’ is as much an exercise in understanding systemic biases against those who rely on their local ecology for sustenance as it is a history of India from an ecological point of view. It also makes clear the ecological roots of the various tribal/peasant vs. forest department conflicts that continue to plague India to this day, nowadays very much in the news due to the Naxalite problem.

The agenda of the book is to understand usage of resources by various types of communities, which are classified from lowest impact (hunter/gatherer, pastoralist) to the highest (Industrial/urban dweller), and the conflict that these usage patterns have caused and who eventually won. It also examines the belief systems, technological capabilities that made each type of community what it is. In short, the hardware and software of coexistence and conflict of very different human communities are examined here.

Books such as these are as important now as when they were written, just to give some historical perspective on what seems extremely ‘odd’ or ‘natural’ in our society today. For example, shifting cultivation terrifies ecologists as much as wildlife sanctuaries reassures them. While shifting cultivation may no longer be a sustainable practice nowadays and wildflife sanctuaries may have no alternate, it is instructive to understand under what circumstances this has come to be the case. Most opinions about tribal poaching and Naxalism are held without any historical context, and thus the actual problem is never identified. This leads to strange prescriptions like ‘kick the tribals out of the sanctuaries’ and ‘send in the army to wipe out Naxalism’, which are not assured of positive results but will definitely increase the suffering of those who are already at the brink.

The book  starts off interpreting prehistorical societies in India as being shaped by their environment and technologies, and given ecological explanations for the rise of the heterodox traditions of Buddhism and Jainism, and finally an interesting explanation of caste as a system to prevent resource conflicts. It then comes to the Colonial Era and outlines the major changes in the belief systems especially with respect to the utility of forests, whom they belong to, and the inevitable clashes when traditional users of the forests were excluded from them in the name of British interests.

It then outlines how a change in administration did nothing to change the forest policy of the State, with British interests being replaced by State and industrial ones. The subversive acts of those who were denied what their ancestors assumed to belong to them are then highlighted and this seems to be the only thing that people outside seem to care about.

Reading this should ensure no one ever blames tribals for the present state of the environment in India. Its strong focus on equity and its insights into understanding how conservation is not a value-independent notion, but stems from a certain world-view are useful take aways from the book.

The difficulty of being an ‘Indian’ in India.

As a working definition of an ‘Indian’, “A person rooted in tradition, but eager to learn and absorb from other cultures” will do as well as any other. The number of people in this category is quite small, but surveying the present political and economic landscape one can see that this species is being driven toward extinction like many other non-human ones in India.

To begin, one must differentiate this definition from the more schizophrenic prescription that Vivekananda had for Indians to develop, that Indians learn from the West about the material world and they learn from India about the spiritual world. Considering the recurrent crises in economies modelled after the Western ones and the Climate issue that is a direct consequence of such an arrangement, to claim that economics is something that we should learn from the West can defnitely be challenged. Anyone travelling across India will tell you that most Indians are as spiritual as the investment banker on Wall Street. Therefore, whatever else one accepts from Vivekananda, this particular prescription must not be accepted. Rather, a more subtle approach which also recognizes and appreciates local economic arrangements and great thinkers from the West is in order.

The reason I call Vivekananda’s prescription schizophrenic follows from my previous post – material arrangements cannot be divorced from non-material ones. For example, a culture that does not allow cruelty to animals cannot advance anatomical knowledge through dissection of live animals – some other means will have to be found. A culture that treats some people as untouchable cannot provide equal opportunity to all. Thus, whole hearted appreciation of western material arrangements can lead one quite far away from one’s cultural roots, leading to what has been called as ‘anxiety nationalism‘, made famous by bands of thugs known as Shiv Sena or Rama Sene. It can also lead to complete westernization, but these are too busy shopping in malls to be politically active, so they are not very relevant to this discussion.

The intellectual scene here seems to be dominated by what one can call ‘Instant Nirvana’ intellectuals – those that read a couple of (propagandist?) books or blogs and claim to have understood the realities of India today, forming what is known as an epistemic community – their world view, shaped by few leaders of the community, is infallible and any opposition to it can only be due to delusion of the opponent. A good example is of people who seem to suffer from the ‘persecution complex’ – Babur tried to destroy Indian culture, therefore all Muslims are bad, and therefore we need to acquire nuclear weapons. One cannot really follow the logic, but similar arguments will be used against Chinese, Christians, anyone who does not worship at a temple anywhere in the world. Another example is of those who see Indian history as a systematic oppression of everyone by the Brahmins – We know from Marx and other great people that all history is about someone oppressing someone else, bourgeois culture is symbolic of this oppression, India is ‘of the Brahmins, for the Brahmins’.

Like most ideology, both these examples are both true and false – unless one understands that, there is no dialogue, only rhetoric and finger pointing. Here lies the problem for someone who wants to see the whole elephant rather than only some of its parts – say one is true, you are branded a Communalist. Say the same for the other, you are branded a Marxist. There are a couple of reasons that I feel have led to such a sad state of affairs.

The first is the domination of Indian political language by non-Indian terms – Anyone or thing is either Left or Right, Communalist or Marxist, Middle, upper or lower class, neoliberal or Maoist, Libertarian or Statist. One can always appeal to Samuel Huntington, Koenraad Elst, David Frawley or if one has different tastes, Marx, Foucault or Bakunin are always present. All one needs to do is look at the newspapers – the immense epistemic void in our political vocabulary will be immediately evident. There is even a Dalit group called the ‘Dalit Panthers of India’, reminiscent of the Black Panthers of the USA. This, of course, is not to deride people who have made contributions to the understanding of India from their own perspective, but just that understanding India from an Indian’s perspective seem to be contributing very little to the public sphere (another western term, sigh!!).

Not that we have not done anything in understanding ourselves – M. N. Srinivas, Muhammad Yunus, Ela Bhatt, Krishna Kumar are names that immediately come to mind. The problem may just be that of language – almost all of the Indian intellectual sphere is dominated by English speakers who cannot (will not?) read intellectuals who write in the vernacular. As Ramachandra Guha laments in a recent article, the multilingual intellectual is a rare species in India. Unless the language and epistemic barriers are broken, one sees little hope for furthering mutual understanding and respect. Are there political and economic frameworks that have been generated within India, which can by used to analyse a country that always frustrates external analysis ? I don’t know, but neither does anyone else I guess.

The second is the pseudo war-like situation that we find ourselves in nowadays – Opposing intellectual groups are fighting to imprint upon the populace their imagination of India. Thus, if you are not for us, you are against us. There are giants like M. K. Gandhi who are claimed by most groups for their own due to the fact that none really understand him well, but lesser mortals are forced to take sides, else a side will be chosen for them. War always has a homogenizing influence on society – unity, after all, is strength. Thus the preponderance of rhetoric from all groups, rather than meaningful dialogue. We cannot even have sane dialogues within the country, and we want to further dialogue with Pakistan!! Hypocrisy is nowhere are colorful as in India. Easiest way to see this is to see programmes like the ‘Big Fight’, which is the standard intellectual fodder (gulp!) for most Indians. The point of people to get onto such programmes is to abuse and condescend rather than understand.

These are some issues that one can immediately see, without too much analysis or reflection. Maybe there are more. But the fundamental constraint stays – unless you understand yourself from within, and understand yourself from another’s perspective, without getting carried away by either in any field – economics, politics, science etc. etc., there is really no hope for a truly ‘Indian’ identity.

Review: A Pedagogue’s Romance by Krishna Kumar

Contrast between the Ideal and the Real
Contrast between the Ideal and the Real

This book is a collection of the author’s short essays and deals with a wide range of topics, ranging from spitting and its implications to selection of ‘talented’ students for special attention to concern about lack of understanding of adolescent development in the Indian context to concern about elimination of Nature and Handicrafts from schools.

Anyone with an interest to work with children and would like to understand what one is getting into rather than jump right in and wreak unintended havoc (like yours truly) must give this book a shot. Not only does the author try to discuss the various reasons why education in India has become a new means of social exclusion, like the caste system, but also what can be done to make it better, and what should be the ultimate goal of an education.

Even though the themes are varied, all of them have a strong connection running through them: As the author puts it (paraphrased) :

Education is reflection in the process of relating (to one’s environment, society, etc )

Reflection, in the sense of leisured observation and understanding. Most of the author’s analyses use this as the analytical looking glass to view the system by, and obviously it fails miserably to live upto such an ideal. He discusses many problems which make education such a difficult system to reform like lack of social status for teachers, competitive and narrowly focused, results-oriented pedagogy and the social scenario within which a school is embedded. He also deals with gender issues and induction of everyday life into schooling.

He deplores a system which is so mixed up as to require a separate ‘value education’ or ‘moral education’ class. Another major issue, that of a scientifically based caste system which is being set up due to our primary schooling system, which eliminates almost 80% of children by class 10 takes up quite a bit of his time.

Culturally and linguistically relevant education is also something that he stresses and having handicrafts as a core curricular activity to both learn the value of manual labor and save the varied heritage of India which is fast disappearing.

Definitely worth anyone’s money.

Review – Rajaji: A life by Rajmohan Gandhi

Go Buy!!
Go Buy!!

There is not much that one can say about a biography, other than that it is written well or not. This one, written by one of Rajaji’s grandsons is quite masterful, intimate yet critical, sweeping yet detailed.

One of the main reasons to read (auto)biographies for me is to understand the freedom movement or contemporary India from various angles and try to stitch together a coherent view of the past, on which today rests.

This biography of a man who can only be described as a present day prophet for his foresight will definitely have enough in it to entertain and inspire anyone who is interested to read. The research is good, prose is excellent, insights are valid and impartial.

One feels about Rajaji the same way as about Gandhi – if only people had listened to him!! Again like Gandhi, Brahmins hated him for being anti Brahmin, Dalits for his being pro Brahmin, North Indians for opposing Hindi, South Indians for espousing Hindi, Muslim League for being opposed to Partition and Rest of India for proposing a formula for Partition. When lesser minds try to understand genius, this seems to be the inevitable consequence – lack of understanding leading to misunderstanding leading to dislike.

One of my all time favorite personalities from now onward.

Review: Debates in Indian Philosophy

yes, yes, I had promised not to do much philosophy in these pages, but this book deserves an exception. With an agenda as good as the exposition itself, it is worth recollecting.

I will not try to explicate  the arguments (which require atleast a couple of readings to understand properly), instead will try and give an overview so that anyone interested can pick it up themselves. The book concerns itself with the question of the lack of debates in contemporary Indian philosophy, which were a regular feature in classical times (Upanishads are a good exmaple), and also of Western philosophy at all times.

The author tries to understand the conflation of philosophers who differed in important aspects like Vivekananda and Gandhi as something that was required in the colonial scenario, since a show of unity was important to the nationalist agenda. He tries to set the record straight by bringing out the differences in their thought which he hopes will provide fresh material for debates to continue.

He also tries to understand the socio-cultural milieu in which they existed, wherein classical Indian philosophy was not the only factor to consider, but Western ideas needed to be imbibed and used to make their voices heard and understood by their colonial masters. He argues that contemporary Indian philosophy does not have a direct continuity with either classical Indian but has lost a major structural feature which is the dialogic tradition.

This being said, he embarks upon a journey to read from these philosophers and show differences which were never expressed directly even though they were from the same time. He chooses three hot spots : Vivekananda and Gandhi, Savarkar and Gandhi, and Sri Aurobindo and Krishnachandra Bhattacharya.

In the first, he shows how Vivekananda supported a ‘barter’ between the East and the West, gaining material progress from the West in exchange for our spiritual knowledge, and how Gandhi rejected Modernity and tried to define progress in a manner different from the Enlightenment’s notion of increasing rationality and material affluence. He argues that Modernity is a completed task in the West, whereas in India the modern and the pre-modern coexist, often on the same street. He argues that Modernity is anthithetical to pluralism due to its focus solely on the individual and not on the community and rejection of differences between people of different communities (This is something I have personally noticed when in conversation with Indian friends in the US). Something like a Brave New World scenario. You can call it the Melting pot scenario as well. The difference in the cosmopolitanism of a New York and a Mumbai or Bangalore make this distinction all the more stark. Communal identities are still strong in Indian megacities unlike in the Western European or US ones. The author tells us that Gandhi’s was a more realistic ideology since it was based in the realities of the Indian social structure.

Addendum: some parts of the argument above was taken from the Savarkar-Gandhi chapter, but can be justified since both deal with the same issue: nation/state building vis-a-vis society building.

I will not go into the other two debates, between Savarkar and Gandhi (one politicizes religion, the other spiritualizes politics) and Aurobindo and KCB (one says science and metaphysics complement each other, the other that science denies metaphysics), but if the one above sounds interesting, then this book is for you.

Review: Godel’s Proof

KISS at its best
KISS at its best

This was something that I had to stop reading because of the exam season, and finally finished within 24 hrs of the exam getting over.

It is a rightly acknowledged classic in the field of popular mathematics (Stuff which makes abstruse mathematical ideas accessible to the (almost) general public).

Like the title says, it deals with a set of proofs that Godel published which demolished one of the most ambitious projects of modern times, to axiomatize all of mathematics.

It was believed that given a finite set of axioms and a set of rules to operate on them, one can mindlessly manipulate symbols to generate every known theorem. A simple example would be translating geometry into algebra (x^2 + y^2 = c^2 is how a circle would look in algebraic terms ). So, we can say that if  algebra is consistent, then geometry is consistent.

Hilbert developed a method to provide proofs of consistency, which was then taken over by the logicians of the time to try and provide similar proofs to certain parts and eventually all of  mathematics.

That is, until Godel came along. How he did it is explained beautifully in the book and is unecessary to reproduce here. Godel proved that any system for number theory that is consistent is incomplete, i.e,  you can produce a true theorem which cannot be proved within the system. Thus, we cannot have a formal system describing all of mathematics. We can have formal systems with finite set of axioms, but not for something like number theory, where Godel proved it was impossible to generate a finite set of axioms.

The book also has a section on the philosophical implications of this proof, which essentially says that present day A.I is a far cry from imitating the human brain, and unless we can actually describe the human brain as a logical system with a finite set of axioms.

There are many approaches to imitate human intelligence, like neural networks, but they run on a system with a very limited set of axioms and rules of inference commonly known as a digital computer. Maybe we need some new kind of ‘computer’. Researchers have a lot of work to do!!

Simply, a must read.

Back!!

After months which were ostensibly spent in preparation for GATE ’09, thought i’ll get back on track. Exams can be quite a distraction. Good news for lovebirds who are facing opposition from their families, all you need to do is hold hands and walk the streets on Feb 14, and Sri Rama Sene will take care of the rest. This group has been a great source of comic relief in the past month for me, don’t know what I would do if they did not burst onto the scene like they did.

Added a new page which lists those books that I have read recently, with a short note for each. It is called ‘Reading List’, and appears as a tab. Hopefully, it will get updated regularly.