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FAQs on life

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By KK Shahid

In recent times, there hasn’t been a bigger name in all of science than Stephen Hawking — especially for the audience outside the realm of science. This is owing, in large part, to A Brief History of Time published three decades ago, which went on to become a milestone in that very history of time for an entire generation of human population that has wanted to know a bit more about the universe, without any of the technical jargon that makes one leap towards ignorance instead.

Within that aforementioned realm, nonetheless, Hawking remains a messiah that has shown the path to scores, leaving an indelible mark on science before departing earlier this year into a dimension of which even a mind as extraordinary as his couldn’t provide many answers to — brief or otherwise.

Brief Answers to the Big Questions is a posthumous collection of Hawking’s essays and speeches, which in many ways provides a synopsis of some of his greatest ideas that reached the world outside his scientific dimension. It is a short list of the ten most frequently asked questions if you will, and Hawking’s attempt to answer them to the best of what was an unparalleled ability.

However, before Hawking digs into those 10 questions, each of which forms a chapter in Brief Answers, he begins with arguably the most important question of them all: why should we ask the big questions?

Why should we care where we’ve come from, how the universe began, or what the meaning of life is? Hawking addresses this question from outside the lens of ‘real science’ which he concedes is something most people believe is too complicated for their comprehension.

Hawking concedes that answers to some of the most critical questions remain unknown but expresses optimism that one day, humankind will find them: “One day, I hope we will know the answers to all these questions. But there are other challenges, other big questions on the planet which must be answered.”KK Shahid1

The book kicks off with perhaps the most frequently asked question, Hawking’s position on what has been known to anyone remotely aware of his work: Is there a God? Hawking underscores what he maintained throughout his adult life that religion was an early attempt to answer questions such as the ones asked in the book, but was later overtaken by science.

“When people ask me if a God created the universe, I tell them that the question itself makes no sense. Time didn’t exist before the Big Bang so there is no time for God to make the universe in. It’s like asking for directions to the edge of the Earth.”

After urging the readers to appreciate the one life that they have, Hawking moves on to the next question: How did it all begin? He offers his explanations on how the universe came into being, what it’s like and where it’s headed. Hawking describes the universe as small and dense at the beginning and is now expanding into infinite space, all the while encoding everything happening in real time.

Is there other intelligent life in the universe? Here, Hawking speculates over intelligent life’s development in the universe, generously including herein the human race, “even though much of its behaviour throughout history has been pretty stupid and not calculated to aid the survival of the species”. The chapter explores the probability of life existing elsewhere in the universe and its development in the future.

Can we predict the future? The brief answer is no since the future positions and speeds of particles at a given time cannot be measured accurately simultaneously, as per Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

What is inside a black hole? They’re characterised “by their overall mass, electric charge and spin outside the event horizon”. The horizon in turn has the information that reveals what falls into the black hole, which cannot be sufficiently described by the three aforementioned characteristics. He writes: “People are still working on these issues and therefore the information paradox remains unresolved. But I am optimistic that we are moving towards a solution. Watch this space.”

Chapter 6 has a fun question many might want to ask: Is time travel possible? Let’s just say that Hawking hopes that humankind will have a Chronology Protection Law in the future “to prevent people from going back and killing their parents”. Sci-fi fans should not lose hope.

Will we survive on earth? is perhaps, going forward, the most critical question in the book. Instead of providing a definitive answer, Hawking says complexities in space will increase rapidly and hence humankind would have to evolve — perhaps not over the next hundred years, but definitely by the end of the millennia.

Does this evolution require colonisation of space? The brief answer: we have no other option.

“We could have a base on the Moon within thirty years, reach Mars in fifty years and explore the moons of the outer planets in 200 years. By reach, I mean in spacecraft with humans aboard. We have already driven rovers on Mars and landed a probe on Titan, a moon of Saturn, but if we are considering the future of the human race we have to go there ourselves.”

Will artificial intelligence outsmart us? Hawking doesn’t rule it out at all. He alludes to humankind’s invention of fire and then the fire extinguisher after repeatedly messing up. But given the prevalence of destructive technologies like nuclear weapons, Hawking urges coming generations to carefully plan ahead with regards to synthetic biology and artificial intelligence, “because it may be the only chance we will get”.

So, finally, how do we shape the future? By looking up at the stars and not down at the feet. By wondering and by being curious, regardless of how difficult life appears to be. In brief, by unleashing the imagination: “We are all time travellers, journeying together into the future. But let us work together to make that future a place we want to visit. Be brave, be curious, be determined, overcome the odds. It can be done.”


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Opinion

A theocracy or a secular State

View from Pakistan

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By Tariq Malik

Another sit in by a religious group. Another state capitulation. Time has come to make a decisive choice. In order to ensure a viable future for itself, free from the kind of internal religio-political conflict just witnessed, the state of Pakistan should either become a theocracy such as Iran or Saudi Arabia; or, alternatively, adopt a modern secular state structure that is prevalent in much of the rest of the world.

For 70 years, the westernized liberal politico-military-bureaucratic elite ruling this country has tried to have it both ways – feeding people a heavy dose of religion while carrying on state business along largely modern western lines. In our Establishment’s view, while one part of the duality – state focus on and deference to Islam – provides the disparate masses of the country with a unifying religio-national identity and ensures a limitless supply of recruits ready to fight, the other half of this oxymoronic arrangement – western institutions of governance such as parliamentary democracy and quasi-modern judicial and administrative bureaucracies – makes possible at least a modicum of western-style individual freedoms and a relatively permissive cultural space for the upper classes.

The mayhem unleashed following the Supreme Court decision to free the blasphemy-accused Aasia Bibi has brought once again into sharp relief this self-contradictory duality that has marred the idea and existence of Pakistan from its earliest days. The lockdown of the country by stick-wielding hordes of a relatively new one-issue religious pressure group, and their open ridiculing of the three most powerful men in Pakistan – the Chief of the Army Staff, the Prime Minister, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court – is evidence enough that the 70-year old strategy of riding the two boats simultaneously is finally dead.

I personally would not want to live in such a society, given my own life experiences and attendant biases, yet, considering the extreme levels of religiosity now on display in the land of the pure, the option of turning Pakistan into a formal theocracy such as Iran or Saudi Arabia must be given serious consideration.

In a theocratic Pakistan, women and men would be active and equal citizens while occupying separate spheres. The new judicial system need not be “blind” like the heavily procedures-driven and unsatisfactory current British-style legal system. Islamising the economy could be tricky but if Saudi Arabia and Iran can work within the global capitalist system, so can a theocratic Pakistan. Similarly, a nuclear-armed state run by Mullahs would be a hard sell but given that both our military and our religious leadership have had collusive and symbiotic relationships with the West in the past, an arrangement acceptable to all can certainly be found.

Long ago, Islamic civilization spawned great research and scholarship. Perhaps in a truly theocratic Pakistan great learning, especially of science, would go hand in hand with religious instruction and strict observance of religion.

Such a theocracy might not be to the liking of our tiny English-speaking chattering classes who spend much time worrying about the future of this country every evening while drawing inspiration from their tumblers one sip at a time. But for the masses, who have been fed a steady diet of religion for 70 years and told ad nauseam how enforcement of Islam is the panacea to all their existential ills, such a theocratic state is the only option left.

If, on the other hand, for whatever reasons, a theocratic state is not palatable for our de jure or de facto rulers, then the only other sane choice would be to have a completely secular state – the most common form of government and state in the world today. Due to our establishment’s cynical manipulation of the masses through the use of religion, secularism has been deliberately misrepresented in Pakistan. In this country, being secular is wrongly interpreted as being against Islam specifically and against religion generally.

Contrary to this widely-held perception in Pakistan, secularism, unlike, Marxism, communism, or atheism, is not against belief in or practice of religion in any way. Many highly religious people practice and advocate secularism in the public domain and believe that in this modern era of multi-cultural, religiously-diverse societies, government should be organized and run along secular lines.

That secularism is not in conflict with Islam is evident from the “pro-secularism” positions of Islamic parties of India. Maulana Arshad Madani, one of the leaders of the Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Hind, has pleaded repeatedly for strengthening of secularism in the face of rising religious bigotry of right wing Hindu parties. Similarly, the Supreme Court of India has declared Jamat-e-Islami “an All India organisation professing political, secular and spiritual credentials with belief in the oneness of God and universal brotherhood”. In fact, secularism strengthens religion by protecting religion and the religious from governmental interference.

A secular Pakistan would, at long last, be the realization of Jinnah’s promise – “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State” – that he made in his August 11, 1947 speech before the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan. A secular Pakistan would, in the long run, lead to a harmonious society, as explained by Jinnah in the same speech when he said: “As you know, history shows that in England conditions, some time ago, were much worse than those prevailing in India today. The Roman Catholics and the Protestants persecuted each other….. Today, you might say with justice that Roman Catholics and Protestants do not exist; what exists now is that every man is a citizen, an equal citizen of Great Britain, and they are all members of the Nation.”

That something as toxic to Jinnah’s secular vision as the Objectives Resolution was carried in the same Assembly within a year of his death shows how quickly and meekly the nascent State of Pakistan surrendered to the very Islamic constituency which opposed its creation in the run up to the Partition. The capitulation has continued over the course of the State’s lifespan following the 1949 Objectives Resolution, the present surrender to the Rizvi Brigade being only the latest in a long litany of cynical and regrettable climb downs. If this trajectory continues in the country – a nation raised on the extolled virtues of shedding blood and sacrificing one’s life for the religious cause – a bloodbath that tears up our social and national fabric is inevitable.

It’d be easy for our guardian establishment to dismiss each of these two options presented above as “impractical”. However, what is really impractical and dishonest is this dual policy of continuously stoking religious nationalism amongst the masses while expecting at the same time that our British-style semi-dysfunctional institutions will somehow deliver us a modern, tolerant, prosperous society modelled on the present-day west. It is time to make a decision. Choose wisely, but do choose and then stay the course.

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Why nations fall

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By Ahmad Raza

The moral corruption of a nation causes its downfall. This is the simple historical observation that is derived from religious texts. The Quran testifies that no amount of material wealth, economic power and military might can save a morally corrupt nation from self-destruction.

In this context, there are examples from the past of mighty nations and communities that have collapsed. The story of Aad, Samud and Sodom is in the Quran as is the story of the Tribe of Israel and their killing by the pharaoh.

The Aad were a very strong nation. The Quran describes them as physically strong and tall. They developed methods of building carved houses in the mountains.

Technology and physical control made them arrogant and disobedient to Divine laws. Their cities were obliterated by a sandstorm which lasted for seven days and eight consecutive nights.

In Surah Yunus, 10:49, Allah says, “For every nation is a [specified] term. When their time has come, then they will not remain behind an hour, nor will they precede [it].” When ajal (death) of a nation is pronounced, then there is no refuge.

The downfall of unjust nations is inevitable.

The forces of ajal begin to operate when a nation exhibits three attributes: zalim, (tyrant, unjust), mujrim (criminal or prone to commit crimes) and fasiq (disobedient sinners). When a nation and its ruling elite become zalim, the countdown begins. The Arabic root of the word ‘zalim’ is ‘zulm’ which means darkness. A kind of social darkness is perpetuated through injustice and coercion. Tyranny as a norm in the social system means that a nation is a ‘dark nation’. Injustice and oppression cause the decline of unjust nations. The downfall becomes inevitable.

Resistance to tyranny can be internal or external. The Quran offers the example of ancient Egypt under the Pharoah. Powerful Egyptians enslaved the tribe of Israel. They plundered their wealth and resources and resorted to all sorts of injustice. The one notable tyranny unleashed by the Egyptians on the Tribe of Israel was massacre. They exterminated their males and kept their females to serve them as slaves. God inspired Hazrat Musa to challenge the mighty Pharaoh and his tyrant nation. According to the Quran, Musa was afraid but acted upon the Divine command. He was triumphant in liberating his nation from the unjust and tyrannical rule of the corrupt Egyptian elite.

The second attribute of the decadent nation is that they become mujrim. In the Quran (10:13), Allah says, “And We had already destroyed generations before you when they wronged, and their messengers had come to them with clear proofs, but they were not to believe. Thus do We recompense the criminal people”.

Criminal nations refuse to accept the Divine invitation to believe and uphold the truth. By rejecting Divine knowledge, these nations establish a false worldview. The Quran mentions the people of Aad, Samud, Sodom and Canaan, and several other powerful and wealthy nations who became extinct due to their falsehoods. These nations suffered from different moral and social evils.

Allah invites us to ponder over the fact that these nations cannot be traced today and one cannot sense that prosperous and powerful cities existed where ruin and wretchedness now prevail. Pomp, prosperity, technology and power cannot ensure the continued survival of nations and empires. Rather, obedience to moral law and the truth delivers a people from suffering.

The third attribute of a decadent nation is that they become fasiq. That means simply that they disobey and ridicule the boundaries of Divine laws. This disobedience is most pronounced in the affluent and wealthy class of a nation. This class indulges in all sorts of social, moral and psychological sins. They indulge in all sorts of social, moral and economic crimes with fellow members of their societies. They indulge in moral and sexual perversion. They plunder the resources of the poor. They flout the law and justice. They ‘buy’ judges and get judgements of their own choice written.

In Surah Isra, 17:16, Allah describes the state of affairs of such corrupt classes. Allah says, “And when We intend to destroy a city, We command its affluent but they defiantly disobey therein; so the word comes into effect upon it, and We destroy it with [complete] destruction.”

According to the Quran, cities and nations run by a corrupt and sinful affluent class are destined to perish. No force of skill can prevent their eventual doom. The wealthy and affluent class ridicule and disobey Divine boundaries and the legal limits prescribed by Allah’s prophets, hence inviting both natural and historical disaster. History bears testimony to the moral, economic and social corruption of the affluent classes. It is recorded by historians that empire after empire and nation after nation has fallen because of their sexual perversion, ethical decay, social and political injustices.

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Fashioning potent weapons of mass distraction

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By Bharat Bhushan

Unable to construct the Ram Mandir at the disputed site in Ayodhya, the ruling BJP finds itself in a quandary. Earlier, when it came to power, its excuse for not the Ram temple was that it had to follow the compulsions of “coalition dharma”, but when it gets a majority of its own it would bring in a law to facilitate the construction of the temple.

It has run a government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Centre for four and a half years now. What is more, it also has a majority government in Uttar Pradesh, where Ayodhya is located. Yet it has not been able to build the Ram temple it had promised to the faithful. The reasons for its inability are many. The primary reason being that the land where the temple is to be located is disputed. The adjoining area, which is not disputed, has been acquired by the government on the orders of the Supreme Court, which has also banned any construction there.

So what does the BJP do? It shows the faithful that it is still devoted to Lord Ram and that if it cannot construct a temple at Ayodhya, it can do other things to promote his glory — by renaming Faizabad district as Ayodhya, setting a Guinness World Record by lighting over 300,000 oil lamps in Ayodhya for Diwali and building the tallest statue ever of Lord Ram in Ayodhya on the Sarayu river. This, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath has pointed out, will help people in the “darshan” (viewing) and “smaran” (remembering) of Lord Ram.

The strategy seems to be that if the party in power cannot construct the temple at the disputed site, then it can at least convert the entire district of Faizabad, now Ayodhya, into a memorial for Lord Ram.

The party is also happy that some people have objected to the renaming of Faizabad, claiming that it was the first capital of Awadh under Nawab Sadat Ali Khan-I. This allows them to please their followers by asking the rhetorical communal question: “Is their Nawab more important and bigger than our Lord Ram?” This displacement strategy, conscious and well thought out, unlike the Freudian concept, serves several political purposes. It tries to convey the commitment of the BJP to those members of its core constituency who might be getting disillusioned with it because of its inability to build the Ram temple. The renaming of the district and the promise of a Lord Ram statue is a defensive strategy to keep the flock together.

The large-scale renaming of place names in Uttar Pradesh (so far that is the only state on a renaming spree) also suggests that the party, unable to showcase its governance, is keen on proving its Hindutva credentials and to show Yogi Adityanath as a proactive chief minister.

UP is where the main battle of the 2019 general election will be fought, and the BJP must prevent the alliance of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and dalits, represented by the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, if it wants to win. The Hindutva-laced campaign is for them too. The renaming and the Ram temple issue appeals to the common religious identity of the OBCs and dalits.

Simultaneously the BJP also addresses the stratification within caste groups by appealing to those who feel that the dominant castes (Yadavs amongst OBCs and Jatavs amongs dalits) have cornered the benefits of reservations. The BJP has tried to attract these smaller castes by its alliance with these groups such as the Kurmis (Apna Dal — Sonelal), the Rajbhars (Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party) or the Nishads (Rashtriya Mahan Gantantra Party). Those sub-castes which do not have a formal political party are given representation by the BJP by fielding them as candidates in various elections. It is important for the BJP to retain the loyalty of these non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav dalits through its renaming and Ram temple moves. Whether this strategy will trump the erosion of their social and economic position by government policies is an entirely different issue. The renaming strategy, however, is also an offensive strategy against the cultural power of the liberal intelligentsia. The more loudly they oppose the BJP’s renaming and statue-building plans in the name of cultural diversity and secularism, the more the BJP stands to benefit.

From the BJP’s point of view, their railing against its renaming spree helps the party project them as pro-minorities. By reducing the secularism of the liberal intelligentsia to nothing more than a pro-minority stand, its members can be projected as biased adjudicators of Indian public life. Indian liberal public intellectuals, therefore, need to think deeply about how to respond to this offensive strategy of the BJP before coming up with knee-jerk reactions.

If the renaming and Ram statue strategy is seen to be paying off even marginally in UP, there is every possibility of it being used to prepare the public mind for nasty communal developments as the general election nears. The large-scale gathering of the Hindu faithful for the Kumbh at Prayagraj, earlier Allahabad, in January may provide just the context for fanning the communal flames. It could provide the perfect context for the assertion of Hindu identity over their caste identity among both the OBCs and the dalits.

This will suit the BJP electorally. If there is one lesson the BJP would have learnt from the recent Karnataka byelections, it is that when the Opposition unites it will be pushed on the defensive. In those states where the BJP vote has been concentrated and where it has done exceptionally well in 2014, such as in UP, the party’s first attempt, therefore, will be to prevent the formation of an Opposition alliance. But failing that, it will attempt to divide the social base and the caste-equations of the Opposition parties. Hindutva and communal polarisation through changing place names, Ram statue politics and a Ram temple agitation are being tested as potential instruments to break the Opposition’s caste and community equations.

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