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A society is ridden with superstition

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By Jayant V Narlikar

The year was 1989. The University Grants Commission had decided to set up in Pune, a national centre, which would serve as a think tank and facilitator for the faculty and students of all universities in the field of astronomy and astrophysics. One of our early steps was to ensure the accessibility of the centre through fax and phone. We asked it to be listed in the new telephone directory as the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics.

However, the day the directory came out, a scientist from a neighbouring institute walked in with a wicked smile on his face. He opened the new directory at the relevant page and pointed to the entry of our institution. It read: Inter-University Centre for Astrology and Astrophysics.

 

After we recovered from the shock and engaged in post-mortem, we discovered that somewhere in the editing department of the telephone company, a “wise” man felt that our entry word “astronomy” must be wrong and we must have meant “astrology”.

The above episode indicates how the general public feels comfortable with astrology. This example was, indeed, no different from my later experience. A typical member of the general public on learning from me that my study is mainly in astronomy would immediately ask my view on how the planets influence our destiny. Likewise, when I was giving a conducted tour of IUCAA facilities to a group of visitors, one lady visitor asked if our computer could cast horoscopes.

To the extent possible, I try to explain the difference between astronomy and astrology: elaborating on why one is science and the other a superstition. The listener politely listens and (most probably) forgets what I said.

These examples are indicative of the general low rating for scientific temper amongst our people, educated or otherwise. While writing Discovery of India in the Ahmednagar Jail, Jawaharlal Nehru had expressed the hope that the lack of scientific temper would be gone once India became free and its people learnt to take their own decisions in a rational way. This has manifestly not happened! Buying new items in the so-called “Pitru Paksha” is avoided, as this period is considered inauspicious for launching new programmes or buying new items. The so-called Prasthan is a device to enable setting out for travel on a day not considered auspicious. The logic behind it, for what it is worth, goes like this. Suppose you have to travel on a particular day but your astrologer advises you that the day is not auspicious. He recommends travelling on the previous day. How do you solve this problem without compromising your belief in astrology? You resort to Prasthan. It requires you to pack your travel case and leave it in your neighbour’s house on the previous day, which has been declared astrologically good. Your journey, therefore, will be assumed to have begun on the previous day. If you now leave for your travel on the day you had chosen earlier, you will not have broken any astrological rule!

There are numerous such stratagems invented to satisfy the superstitious mind. In India our special feature seems to be to import superstitions that originated elsewhere and improve on them. The housing sector in particular takes vastu shastra seriously and supplements it with the feng shui of Chinese origin. These inputs often require breaking the existing building so as to reconstruct it as per the prescribed rules. The “rules” again have their own logic which would defy commonsense. The client, however, believes in that logic and insists that the architect redesign the residence. One may ignore such activities by saying that if the client wishes to burn money, it is his business. But one needs to be alert against any wastage of public money. For, there have been cases of breakage and reconstruction of public buildings to suit the beliefs of the political head.

These and many other examples paint a picture of our society as a superstition-ridden organisation believing unproven belief systems. Another visionary, former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, felt that by bringing science closer to the masses we might make them appreciate and use the scientific temper. Indeed one feels that our countrymen have a mindset appropriate for the 18th century rather than the present one. But what can be done to rectify the situation?

Any public education programme, I feel, should concentrate on schoolchildren. Their parents, the adults, are perhaps too deeply set in their beliefs and are less likely to change. Children, on the other hand, are generally open to discussion, will think more openly and ask more questions. In fact, my suggestion to schools is to allow every week, one period for open discussion with children encouraged to ask questions.

So far as adults are concerned one should design experiments to test belief systems. Horoscopes in astrology, vastu shastra, miracles performed by the so-called holy godmen, can be tested with suitable experiments. A test was designed in 2009 to see if the horoscope can tell whether it belongs to a bright child or a mentally retarded one. The test was performed in Pune resulting in demonstrating that horoscopes fail to do so.

However, when all is said and done, don’t forget the human ego. I am reminded of the story I heard in my schooldays. The Sun and Wind argued as to who was the more powerful amongst the two. As a test they decided to see who could remove the coat that a hiker was wearing. “Easy!” muttered the Wind as it blew harder and faster. But the man held on to the coat tight. So the Wind gave up and the Sun took over. It simply resorted to shining brightly. At last the hiker felt very uncomfortable and took off his coat. The moral: One should not be aggressive in speaking against a superstition: if you do so the person will hold on to it more tightly! A tactful approach is likely to be more effective..


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Congress Making It Easier for Modi

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By Prem Shankar Jha

Prime Minister Modi has convinced most of the political class that he has turned the tragedy at Pulwama into a great military and diplomatic victory against Pakistan. As a result, many of those who are in politics only to line their pockets are seriously considering jumping on to the BJP boat even at this late hour. Do they not realise that everything Modi has done since February 14 is pure theatre – whose only purpose is to somehow win an election he was destined to lose because of the amateurish performance of his government, its scant respect for the rule of law and the coming together of the opposition?
In 2014, the BJP came to power because its vote share jumped 13 percentage points from 18% to 31%. This happened because a large part of the electorate, which had seen growth slacken sharply in 2011, believed his grandiose promise to bring back “acche din”. i.e revive economic growth, and create millions of jobs. Instead, all he has created in the past five years is a factory for the suppression or falsification of economic data.
What he has not been able to suppress or misrepresent is the near-complete absence of new jobs, the loss of 11 million jobs in industry, and further millions in construction, and the rise of the totally unemployed, to 6.2% of the workforce – the highest level in 45 years.
The spreading disillusionment had already been reflected in a string of defeats in recent assembly elections and bye-elections, Modi knew that the BJP could not possibly win on its own, so he turned to that “last refuge of the scoundrel”, patriotism. Pulwama gave him the opportunity he was looking for and he has taken full advantage of it – with a ruthlessness that is strongly reminiscent of his opportunism after the Gujarat riots of 2002.
The irony, which the big media won’t focus attention on, is that the government had received no fewer than three warnings from the Intelligence Bureau and a more detailed one from the Kashmir police warning of the threat of an imminent attack. The golden rule in intelligence analysis all over the world is that for a piece of information to be taken seriously it must be obtained from two independent sources. The pre-Pulwama warning passed the test.
The CRPF brass, presumably, took the threats seriously, and asked for its jawans to be transported by air instead of sending them by road. It may have also suggested this because heavy snowfall had forced a bunching up of two convoys and was certain to slow their movement to a crawl. But the fact remains that it made the request, and the request was denied.
Who had the power to deny such a request? In such an important matter, it is unlikely that the Ministry of Home Affairs would have declined on its own. What is more, had it actually done so, the air would have been full of recrimination and denials in the days that followed. But a full month later, there has been only silence. So it is beyond reasonable doubt that the request was denied by the PMO. And that means Modi. Why he would do that, only knows.
This is not the first time Modi has tried to turn mass death into political advantage. Modi was able to use the Godhra fire tragedy and the orchestrated massacres which followed to advance the Gujarat elections by four months, win it and remain the chief minister of Gujarat for the next 12 years. It would have been against his nature not to seize the ‘opportunity’ that the death of CRPF jawans would give him.
Everything that has happened since then has been excellently choreographed theatre. First, Modi promised a ‘surgical strike ‘ in retaliation. That took place 12 days later on February 26. Within hours of the IAF attack on Balakot in Pakistan, which the Indian foreign secretary said had wiped out a key Jaish-e-Mohammad training camp, BJP ministers put out the claim that 300 to 400 terrorists had been killed. Since then, satellite imagery and explosive analysis suggests that the madrassa at Balakot is not only standing, but might have suffered very little damage, and that any casualties would have been far fewer than the political claims being bandied about. The air force itself said it would be “premature” to say how many people had been killed in the airstrike.
Satellite imagery apart, the most credible evidence has come over the phone from what a student at the madrassa told NirupamaSubramaniam, the highly respected journalist who used to be correspondent of The Hindu in Islamabad and is now with the Indian Express. He said that a ‘huge’ bomb had fallen close to the madrassa, after which the army had hastily evacuated the students to safe locations elsewhere.
But one does not have to choose between conflicting second hand reports and satellite analysis to arrive at this conclusion. The clinching proof is not even Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s assertion that there had been no casualties, but in where he made it. For this was in Pakistan’s National Assembly. Since Balakot is in Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa, is it credible that an MNA from the area would not have stood up, challenged his statement, named some of the dead and accused him of being a coward who did not want to confront India? No elected prime minister can take such a risk, and that is doubly so in Pakistan.
So if no one was killed, was it because the Indian Air Force is so monumentally inept that it missed a stationary target ­– a large complex – with not one but four precision-guided bombs? Since this idea strains credibility to the extreme, only one explanation remains: that the attacks were intended to miss.
This is the only hypothesis that explains two other anomalies: the first is US President Donald Trump’s curious statement a day earlier that he believed India would launch a reprisal attack and he would ‘understand’ if it did. The second is the care the Pakistan Air Force took not to cross the LoC in its retaliatory strike, and to attack only uninhabited sites ‘in order to show the PAF’s capability’. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that the US helped to orchestrate the two reactions in order to ensure that the conflict did not spill over into war.
From Modi’s point of view, therefore, the entire operation has been a monumental success. But for the nation, it is an unmitigated disaster. Yet, sceptics may ask, does one swallow a summer make? No, but the air strike was only the last of several other swallows. Another is the hue and cry that Modi has made over the declaration of Masood Azhar as an international terrorist. Modi tried to do this before the UN Security Council met on Pulwama, but failed. In fact, the UNSC resolution did not even condemn the Jaish-e Mohammad directly, but only acknowledged that it had claimed responsibility. Modi brought the listing matter up again after the tit-for-tat airstrikes and, predictably, China again vetoed it.
Azhar richly deserves to be both named and sanctioned, and the Chinese refusal is a blatantly immoral act born out of the basest form of realpolitik. But how much importance should India attach to a purely symbolic declaration that will change absolutely nothing on the ground? For Masood Azhar has shown no desire to travel abroad since his return to Pakistan in 2000. So the ban means nothing to him, or to Islamabad. What will India gain from such a declaration? The answer is ‘nothing’. But Modi’sself image as a lohpurush would gain a great deal. That is what he has been willing to endanger India’s relations with its most powerful neighbour for. The brinkmanship this involves is in many ways even more irresponsible than what he has shown over Pulwama.
What would have happened if the IAF’s bombs had actually killed 300 students inside the madrasa, whether he was training to be a jihadi, or was simply the son of a poor man who could not afford to pay the fees for a regular school? Would Pakistan then have responded with four attacks on vacant land in POK? And if it had done more, how long would it have been before the conflict escalated? This is the kind of risk that Modi was willing to run in his ruthless campaign to get re-elected, yet the Congress is unable to point this out to the people.
Today, the only sure way to prevent the Sanghparivar from returning to power is for the Congress to maintain a solid front with the opposition and establish a commonly agreed set of criteria for the allocation of seats among alliance partners. In the Congress, the main opposition to this common-sense strategy is coming from the local cadres whose capacity to raise money on the pretext of meeting election expenses and promising favours to donors in return, will vanish the moment their constituency is given to another party. This thinking is threatening to create three-cornered contests in UP, Delhi, MP, Bihar and other states, which could end by bringing the BJP back to power.
The only person who can overturn this suicidal strategy is Rahul Gandhi. It is time he brought his party back under his control. If the Congress is exposed as having only 5% of the vote in Delhi, and 8-10% in Uttar Pradesh, and is responsible for the failure of the mahagatbandhan, this will not only end the hold of the Nehru family over the party but also destroy its cadres’ standing in their constituencies.

 
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How did Pulwama happen?

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By T K Arun

Speaking at the 80th raising day of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), National Security Adviser AjitDoval said that the nation’s leadership is capable of reacting to any terror attack, and will decide if the retaliation should target terrorists or those who control them. That is very well, but what about preventing another attack?
When a suicide bomber drove a vehicle laden with some 300 kg of explosives into a convoy of CRPF personnel at Pulwama, the result was tragedy. Over 40 security men were killed, several more wounded. The immediate reaction was sorrow, anger and outrage. The attack was claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), headed by Masood Azhar. In retaliation, the government sent Indian warplanes into Pakistani territory and bombed targets there.
The response was powerful, justified and recognised as such by most global powers. Pakistan came under immense pressure to release the Indian fighter pilot it had shot down and captured. India won diplomatic support for putting Masood Azhar on the UN’s sanctions list from most countries, save China.
The general reaction in India was one of jubilation at breaking free from Pakistan’s nuclear thrall. Prime Minister NarendraModi who dared to take the decision to use air power, even if only for a “pre-emptive, non-military” strike, basked in the glow of public approval. But, in the process, one vital question has been left to blow forlornly in the wind: why and how did Pulwama happen? When military men die, the popular response is one of grief and admiration for their heroism. Rarely do people ask whether those deaths were necessary.
Not though the soldier knew someone had blundered. Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die/ Into the valley of death/ Rode the six hundred. The Charge of the Light Brigade evokes awe of military bravery and sacrifice, but it also deplores blundered loss of life.
The mid-19th century Crimean war, in which a traditional British light cavalry brigade charged a deployment of Russian cannon, providing Alfred Tennyson with the material for his poem, caused so much needless loss of life and treasure that the resultant public outcry led to professionalization of the British army and the conduct of war.
In India, the death of brave soldiers provokes similar awe at their bravery and sacrifice. But the needed follow-through of professionalization of conduct in matters of war and security just does not happen.
The Pathankot Air Force Station was attacked in January 2016. Six soldiers were killed. India handed over proof to Islamabad of their non-State actors’ involvement in the attack, even invited their people to investigate the crime scene. Deadpan, Pakistani investigators declared that India had stage-managed the attack to malign Pakistan.
Six months later, an army brigade headquarters at Uri was attacked. It left 19 soldiers dead. India performed its surgical strikes on terror launch pads across the Line of Control and declared vindication.
Two months later, terrorists attacked an army base at Nagrota, killing seven Indian soldiers. Evidently, the surgical strikes were more effective in spawning Bollywood josh than in preventing further attacks.
After the Pulwama attack and India’s counter-attack, the National Security Adviser is again threatening retaliation for fresh attacks. Could we have some serious thought on how to prevent such attacks, foiling incipient attacks through intelligence that lives up to its name and pre-emptive action?
If we value the lives of our soldiers, we must focus on preventing such attacks, not revelling in our ability to strike back when a fresh attack happens. For that, fresh attacks must be recognised as security failures on the part of the government that cannot be offset by any subsequent show of force.
Nor is this failure at the level of policing and intelligence gathering alone. Essentially, the failure is that of politics, failure to live up to the promise and challenge of democracy. It is now commonplace for an encounter in Kashmir between India’s armed forces and separatist militants to draw a local crowd of protesters, who seek to shield the militants and help them escape. Some of these civilians end up as collateral damage. Every civilian death breeds yet more alienation and yet more militants.
One such young man drove a carload of explosives into the CRPF convoy at Pulwama.
For far too long has India sent its security forces to wage war against its own people in Kashmir, the northeast, the tribal plains and jungles of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. This strategy has produced alienation and discontent, propelling the conflict forward from one generation to the next. Soldiers have been killed, as well as civilians and rebels. This strategy must be abandoned.
India’s biggest strength is democracy. Democracy must be the means to resolve separatist conflict and rebellion. Brandishing the sword of retribution serves not to deter fresh attacks, but to whip up nationalist frenzy. That is not the way to honour the dead.
(Economic Times)

 
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Leaders must draw from NZ PM’s courage

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By Gopal krishna Gandhi

Wisdom in tranquillity, like courage under pressure, is admirable. But not unknown. But wisdom and courage, both, being displayed in a situation of unprecedented tension, are exceptional. If a Nobel Prize for Peace could be given to a spontaneous statement for wisdom and courage, rather to a person, New Zealand’s Prime Minister JacindaArdern deserves it. The words spoken by her after the terror attack in Christchurch were few. They are unforgettable. One single, three word sentence, the most so. Referring to the 49 or more killed, she said: “They are us”. Not “they are one of us”, or “they could have been you or me”. None of that cautious, self-insulating, self-indemnifying vagueness. Simply, they are us.
Those learned in Sanskrit scripture would call this pure Advaita, captured in RamanaMaharshi’s way of looking at things in the term “I am Thou”, captured by the Indian philosopher Ramchandra Gandhi for the eponymous title-theme of his extraordinary book. If at one level Ardern gave us a metaphysical statement, at another level she also gave us, spontaneously, a highly practical political philosophy that is critical to human survival today.
Reversing the “us” and “them” binary, throwing old concepts of otherness out of the window, giving no space to either cliché or platitude, she then said “…the person who perpetuated this violence is not”. The significance of both statements is mutual, colossal.
Almost all the targeted victims were Muslim, the attacker or attackers, white and Christian just like Ardern is. In saying that the terrorist or terrorists behind the attack may have been from New Zealand’s majority community but they do not represent it, cannot represent it, for they have done something inhuman, something that goes against civilisation, she said something that each New Zealander needs to know. She could have said she was grieved, agonised, appalled. She could have said ,as the head of government, as one who has to maintain order and uphold law, that she was horrified, angry, in righteous fury. And that would have been considered right, termed appropriate. But no, Ardern spoke from a thinking heart and feeling mind to say something that was totally different, totally timely and timeless. The perpetrators of terror are the aberration, she conveyed, the anomaly, the deviation, divergence from civility, from humanity that places them in a universal not one of us-ness. She made a difference, drew a line that was not about ethnicity but human decency. And then, in an amazingly topical observation for a world that is closing its eyes and shutting its doors to immigrants and refugees, she said, and I quote her exact words, “Many of those who will have been directly affected by this shooting may be migrants to New Zealand, they may even be refugees here. They have chosen to make New Zealand their home and it is their home. They are us.”
And in so doing, she said something that philosophers in positions of statesmanship have, like the emperor Asoka did, for their times and for all time. Being the other, being migrants, refugees, immigration or asylum seekers, being in a minority, being different, being isolated, bereft, in other words, being orphaned, is a condition that can be ours, yours or mine, at any time anywhere.
On the subcontinent of India, in South Asia, the condition is endemic. Each one of us is, in the next mohalla, a potential other.
A Christchurch-like mosque or temple exists in every city, town and village in India and can be the scene of terror attacks, exactly like the mosques in Christchurch. And since Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs now inhabit places outside India in large numbers, Christchurch repeats can happen anywhere, across the globe. What will be the effect? Perpetual revenge, retribution, vengeance. Perpetual , mutually sustaining hatred.
If extremists practising their macabre method under the name of Islam now wreak vengeance on churches and chapels with Christian congregations at prayer, the world will not have a day of peace, its religions no freedom from tension, fear, hate. No immigrant anywhere outside South Asia , whether Hindu or Muslim or Sikh will then feel secure. Nor Christians, of an ethnicity same or similar to that of Christchurch’s mass murderer.
India’s leaders have to draw from Prime Minister Ardern a lesson in spontaneously courageous wisdom or wise courage to say that victims of violence are us, and no perpetrator of violence is us. More specifically, that migrants and refugees seeking shelter in India from ethnic prosecution are in their own home. Non-refoulement could not have been defined better than in JacindaArdern’s words.
The darkness of that massacre has met the only light that can dispel it.

 
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