Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A tryst with destiny - 2

As I watch the debate of communalism and the so-called secularism, I'm filled with a sense of shame. I don't see any difference between either of them.

I'm pained when lot of "hindus" I know try to justify attacks on minorities. The point being, I haven't yet encountered a hindu, who knows hinduism in its real essence. How many know or bothered to know the Upanishads ? How many have read the works of Vivekananda ? Does Hinduism even have a God - how many understand the concept of Brahman ? So, how are you better than anyone else ?

At the same time, this great debate about conversion is ridiculous. Truth is truth, be it uttered by a vedic seer, or a Buddha or a Jesus or a Muhammed or a Vivekananda. Personally, I think Garuda Purana is a little silly and Tibetan Book of the Dead is a phenomenal work. Though being a hindu (which I guess was an accident of nature), nothing has stopped me from reading books about other religions. I mean, wasn't Jesus born a Jew or wasn't Buddha born a Hindu ?

That is why I'm free and can "dare to think".

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Tryst with Destiny - 1

Two years ago, during PanIIT 2006 meet in Mumbai, Shashi Tharoor first brought to my attention the concept of "Idea of India" and he has been harping on it every week in his sunday column in Sunday Times. Since then, the meaning of a nation has occupied my thoughts considerably. I came to the conclusion that his arguments though correct, have a very superficial basis, focusing entirely on differences in the language, custom, caste etc. But the concept of India requires a pretty deeper and subtle study.

In our society, Independence Day is given a lot of prominence. Of course, it is important because obviously, we became independent that day. But, something tells me, it isn't as important as the other national holiday, the Republic Day on Jan 26th. I mean, any fool can fight and claim to be important. A few guerilla fighters and you have an independent area of land. But what matters is what do you do then. That is the litmus test. Many countries in Asia and Africa became free from colonial powers during the last 50-60 years. How many of them are prospering ? So, the logic seems to me that they told colonial powers: "Who the hell are you to exploit us ? We will exploit ourselves, we will kill ourselves, we will massacre ourselves". Even today, Kashmir wants to be independent, notwithstanding the significant problems in answering the questions - what is the business plan ? I mean, where will you get the money to develop ? What sort of a statehood are you looking forward to ?

Till a few months ago, for me Republic Day was just a public holiday - no school, no college and no office, yet another day to laze around. An encounter with constitution law (part of MBL course) changed all that. To say that India became a republic on 26th Jan 1950 is a suppression of the fact that something far more important happened - that we defined ourselves as a country for the first time since time immemorial. We finally got a constitution that contained a broad enough vision that opened arms to everyone (in the preamble) and that contained directives that the politicians will probably spend the next 200 years trying to follow.

So, anybody is a citizen of the country as long as they can uphold the principles of the constitution. What was also significant was that though the country was (and still is) full of superstitious, bigoted, prejudiced, racist and casteist people, we determined ourselves to tolerate each other and let the State treat everyone as equal... a very significant achievement that has led to the current optimism and confidence and also probably kept us together throughout the "dark ages".

Now, the crucial test - can democracy be a mobocracy ? Can't the parliament through a majority suspend fundamental rights and thus violate the initial conditions of a "contract" between the State and the citizen ? That's what used to happen ... till the Supreme Court came up with the celebrated Kesavananda Bharati case, where it judged that the basic structure of the constitution is inviolable even by the Parliament. So, our fundamental rights or the vision in the Preamble can't be taken away - they are eternal, as long as India exists. So, theoretically, a minority can't be enslaved to a majority - no matter what ... though in practice, things seem different.

Which is why I don't see any value in all these independence movements ... if the whole country can be yours (and mine too, at the same time), why want control over a small patch of land ?

So, talking about the idea of India or the value of independence without understand what they mean is pretty silly. Yet, how many of us have read the constitution ?

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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Bharath Darshan - life inside a train

Having travelled over 5500 km in a period of 11 days on trains in all modes - 2nd AC, 3rd AC, AC Chair Car at one end, to standing on 2nd Sitting class at another, I feel compelled to give some tips to Indian Railways.

First off, nothing matches a train journey. The gentle rocking of the coach, a welcome opportunity to tolerate and indeed befriend co-passengers, and an opportunity to watch the endless fields passing by, an opportunity to eat junk food sold at various stations, and of course, an opportunity to *not* do anything, an escape from a life bound by endless emails and phone calls. The second AC is a little worse than others because it allows passengers to draw curtains around the berth in the name of privacy and thus reduces interactions. Sleeper is the best because of unrestricted access to the people who try to sell the tastiest local food. It also is a microcosm of the Indian society.

I've never been a happy traveller. Perhaps, my mental inertia is so much that I get adjusted to a routine and don't look forward eagerly to changes. Indeed, before 2005, I hadn't travelled much  north, and definitely hadn't travelled north of South India. It was perhaps good to study in a hostel (that's a different post !), because it forced me to travel. Till April 2006, I hadn't been inside an airport. Now, I travel like a pro - I have flown some 30+ times, primary to and from Bombay, Delhi and once from Pune. And I still hate it. 

I liked the service in Rajdhani and Shatabdi, where the cabin attendants serve you without the obviously artificial smiles and fawning over that I usually experience from flight attendants. Though, it was a little bad when the Rajdhani attendants _demanded_ a tip for the services rendered.

However, if there are a couple of things that don't make me travel by trains much much more ... they are:
a) Guaranteed ticket - Having travelled a lot in flights, I expect to get a ticket (even if it means paying multiple times the original price) to travel at short notice. Railway reservation doesn't allow that. Even though there is the superb IRCTC and a tatkal scheme, the last time I wanted to book the ticket from Lucknow to Bangalore, there was waitlisting for normal ticket on day 1 (90 days before) and waitlisting Tatkal just 10 minutes after 8:00 am on day 1 (5 days before). 

To travel from Lucknow to Bangalore in 2nd AC, I'm ready to pay even thrice the original amount, so why can't railways have a few seats reserved and sold using "dyna fares".  An easy way for IR to make money too ...

b) Good food - The food, even in 2nd AC, is often atrocious. I can't eat puris that are hard and elastic. I can't eat the dry and bland food that they serve. 

c) Clean Toilets - Of all things I can think off, the nightmarish part of a train journey is using the toilets. They are usually filthy, and it is hard to use them, when the training is moving to and fro. I hope something is done, though I'm not sure what.

That said, it is an experience in a class of its own ... if you want to know India, travel in a long-distance train.


Terrorism and security

I was in north India on a vacation when the bombs exploded in Bangalore and Ahmedabad, and I saw at close quarters the meaning of "security". 

I was at the Nizamuddin Railway Station in Delhi, sitting in front of the waiting room, waiting for the late evening Rajdhani Express to Bangalore. And in walked a horde of uniformed men and a sniffer dog, all belonging to the GRP (Govt Railway Police) I think. They ignored me and most of the people, though we all had tonnes of luggage and zeroed in on a poor man lying on the floor. On learning that his train was next morning, told him to get lost. He was having a gunny bag and they let the sniffer dog examine the bag, while at the same time, not even looking at the rest of us.  This is what we call security. 

And when I hear our journalists demand "Why the government can't do anything" from the ruling class, it becomes a complete joke. I know there are forums like BRF that term our media as DDM, short for "Desi Dork Media", and I feel that the cluelessness of the journalists is exceeded only by that of their editors ... I mean what does the journalist expect the Government to do ?

That is why I think our society's response to terrorist attacks - mourn but forget immediately - is brilliant. Firstly, our so-called security is a loose cannon that can't keep us any more secure. And, after all, you really can't protect against someone hell bent on killing himself. Secondly, cruel as it may sound, whatever be the number of terrorists, our population is much much higher. How many can you kill after all ? So, unlike other countries, I like the fact that we have tried to convert terrorism into war of attrition, and outlast the terrorists, than actually fight them. And, most importantly, we don't tear the social fabric that miraculously holds this unwieldy country together. I think this is brilliant. 

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