Archive for November, 2013

Mulayam’s notoriously regressive anti-English rant

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

Mint, 19 November 2013

Talk about the leopard not being able to change its spots. Mulayam Singh Yadav’s demand that English be banned as a language of discourse in Parliament finally removes all illusions that the Samajwadi Party (SP) has moved away from its notoriously regressive views.
For all those who hailed Akhilesh Yadav’s appointment as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh 19 months ago as the emergence of a progressive face, should now know for certain that it’s business as usual: the SP’s politics remains steeped in the same hypocritical rhetoric aimed at keeping the state underdeveloped, and its people impoverished, so the party can make hay.
It’s ironic that the day before Yadav’s rant, Akhilesh tweeted, in English: “Bharat Ratna for Sachin is a well deserved honour for the son of India.”
In the run-up to the 2009 Lok Sabha election campaign, Mulayam had condemned the use of computers. But in the 2012 assembly polls, one of the SP’s main campaign promises was that it would give away free laptops if voted to power.
Mulayam himself has of course made sure that his own children get educated in English-medium schools, and go to college in Australia and England.
The reasons Mulayam has given for his anti-English rage are the usual: that it’s a foreign language, and it’s the language of the privileged. One should not even get into arguing at length about the first reason: if we banned everything foreign, we might as well ban everything but the bullock cart for transportation, drumbeats for long-distance communication, and the oil lamp for light.
As for the second reason, Mulayam is actually correct in a warped sort of way. The knowledge of English does confer some privileges, and that is exactly the sort of privileges that the common Indian aspires for, and should aspire for.
Whether we like it or not—and Mulayam can have long discussions with Germans or Russians or Arabs about it through English interpreters—English is our planet’s principle medium of both communication and commerce. One of the crucial reasons that Indians have prospered across the world for decades, from small businesses to mega-corporations, is their knowledge of English. The Chinese, for instance, recognize that and have been pouring in enormous resources to teach their children the language.
The only reason that the printed English media is growing in only two major countries in the world—China and India—is that every year, millions of ambitious young men and women are learning English and want to make their way in the world and achieve their dreams. Every small town in UP teems with English-medium schools and English-speaking coaching classes. Sure, many of them are fly-by-night operators, but they are a symptom of young India’s ambitions. Indeed, it is a glorious indication that the young Indian feels that he is ready to compete with anyone in the world, that, in Amartya Sen’s words, he wants to be “a falcon, not a frog”.
Mulayam is trying hard to keep his people impoverished but he cannot keep them ignorant. His electorate knows what is good for them. They have seen the possibilities and know that they have it in them to grasp those opportunities and achieve their potential.
In the early 1980s, the Left Front government in West Bengal banned English at the primary school level in all institutions that received government aid. The ban lasted 20 years and created two generations of unemployable Bengalis. It is no wonder that Mamata Banerjee has been the first politician to slam Yadav’s statement. While she called it “worrying”, Trinamool Congress spokesperson Derek O’Brien said: “The anti-English comments…(represent) disconnect with energies of new India and today’s youth…We in Bengal suffered for decades due to Left Front government’s ban on English teaching at primary education level.”
Besides, why should English stand in the way of learning your mother tongue? Millions of Indians speak, write and read in at least two languages, and if language is the limit of our world, as philosophers like Ludwig Wittgenstein postulated, then it just makes Indians more intelligent. I am sure Mulayam would be the first one to shout from the rooftops that Indians are the most intelligent race in the world. Well, Mr Netaji, if you think they are, then you should also try to understand that a key reason is that, more than any other race on earth, they are comfortable in more than one language. And being comfortable in English opens up the entire world of thought and action to us.
Yes, Mr. Netaji, you can try to keep your people impoverished and vote-banked, but you cannot keep them ignorant any more. The innate common sense of the Indian people and much larger forces of history than you can fathom are working against people like you. And when you lose your campaign for ignorance, as you inevitably will, you will lose your larger battles too.

Why we love conspiracy theories

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

Mint, 14 November 2013

There’s total bedlam out there, with Narendra Modi turning dubious history teacher, Rahul Gandhi revealing his till-now unsuspected knowledge of planet Jupiter, a Congress leader demanding the Bharat Ratna to be taken away from Lata Mangeshkar for endorsing Modi, the stock market and the rupee doing random calisthenics, Tamil leaders forcing our Prime Minister to stay away from the Commonwealth conference in Colombo, and hardly any aam aadmi getting tickets for Sachin Tendulkar’s last Test.
Next on the agenda will surely be many conspiracy theories, so, given that the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination is only a week away—22 November, it may be a good time to ponder over them.
Opinion polls in the US have shown that 60-80% of Americans do not believe that Kennedy was not killed by a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald—there was a deeper conspiracy that led to his death. As much as 25% believe that 9/11 was engineered by the George W. Bush administration, and investigators constantly produce masses of “evidence” to prove this claim. An equal number are convinced that Barack Obama is foreign-born (so cannot be a legitimate US President) and faked his birth certificate.
The moon landing was, of course, a giant hoax, shot in the deserts of Nevada. The AIDS virus was created in the secret labs of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as a tool of quiet genocide. But the virus escaped and the dark-science guys couldn’t control its spread. And you can always draw a line from almost any sort of calamity to big corporations like energy companies and global banks, or the “military-industrial complex”. And amateur Biblical scholar Joseph Atwill is claiming that Jesus Christ never existed, but was a fiction thought up by canny Roman administrators to subdue Jewish insurrections.
In India, nothing will ever convince the believers that Subhash Chandra Bose died in a plane crash in 1945. Theories range from Bose being captured and executed by the Russians under direct orders from Stalin and with the full knowledge of Lord Mountbatten, to him turning to spirituality and living the rest of his life as a sadhu near Ayodhya.
Many in the BJP believe that Syama Prasad Mookerji, founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, precursor of the BJP, was poisoned in a Kashmir jail, after he defied the government’s dispensation that no Indian citizen could enter the state without a special permit.
In contrast, Congress leader Digvijaya Singh, in 2010, officially released a book by Urdu journalist Aziz Burney that claimed the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks were a conspiracy of the RSS, aided by CIA and the Mossad. Conspiracy theories abound about the Nehru-Gandhi family, many of them aggressively promoted by that tireless trouble-maker Subramanian Swamy. A decade ago, a senior Armed Forces officer, a few drinks down, whispered to me that Pervez Musharraf, then ruling Pakistan, was the highest-placed Indian agent on earth (he gave his reasons for believing so, which I won’t get into here).
Of all these, the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theory is the most powerful, in the sense that it never goes away, and has already spawned hundreds of books, and hundreds more are threatening to hit the stands to coincide with his death anniversary. There seem to be three reasons for this. One, that, as US president, he was the most powerful man on earth, and the bigger the disaster, the more conspiracy theories thrive. Two, at that point in time, a lot of people could have had reasons to kill Kennedy: The Soviets (the USSR had just been humiliated by Kennedy over the Cuban missile crisis); the Mafia (whose thriving businesses in Cuba had been shut down by the country’s new boss, Fidel Castro); Castro (who may have learnt of CIA’s covert attempts to kill him, and decided to give it right back to them); anti-Castro Cubans (who felt let down by Kennedy after he refused to provide US air support to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion); CIA (which also felt let down over its carefully-planned Bay of Pigs operation); the Federal Bureau of Investigation (whose supremo J. Edgar Hoover was being systematically hunted down by attorney general Robert Kennedy); and white supremacists (who were aghast at the way Kennedy was proceeding towards equal legal rights for African-Americans). Three, it is quite amazing that Oswald, though trained as a sharpshooter in the US army, was able to hit a target in a moving car spot-on, twice, firing from a sixth-floor window. No clear motive was ever established except that Oswald was mentally disturbed. And before he could have his say in court, he was shot dead by Jack Ruby, who also died in prison soon after, apparently from lung cancer.
The question that remains is: Why do so many of us love conspiracy theories? In fact, I think everyone (even though the vast majority of us are not secret-plot zealots) believes in some conspiracy theory or the other (I certainly do). The most obvious reason would be an innate distrust of the establishment. But maybe it runs deeper. Is it because most of us feel that we don’t have full control of our lives, and our belief in our pet theories vindicates our core insecurities? Do we all suspect that the world we see around us is a veil hiding most of its actual machinery—the wheels and gears and levers? Maybe conspiracy theories confirm our worst doubts, and give us a perverse pleasure. Hey, you can’t fool me, I know what really happened! And the pleasure is proportionate to the scale—or sometimes, bizarreness—of the theory. It lets us wear a knowing smirk at least some of the time in our generally clueless lives.