Monthly Archives: July 2015

Ways we react

India, as every white man who has ever sat on a Taxi has already written, is a land of strange dichotomies. And by virtue of such a large population, the sampling bias leads us to unearth an almost endless supply of dichotomies.

During the 2008 terrorist strikes in Bombay, India’s former Prime Minister VP Singh had passed away. The terrorist strike killed about 164 people and provided for a breathless television spectacle. But ultimately, it was another data point in a long list of such incidents in the proxy war that India and Pakistan have been waging against each other for decades. The lives of 164 people who were killed and possibly thousands more who were severely affected in direct and indirect ways is non-trivial; no society with a free press will downplay such an incident. But did that coverage require drowning out all other news in the country? Including the passing away of VP Singh?

Let’s assume the people who were affected directly and indirectly form 1000x the death toll. That is 164,000 people. Now let’s consider the impact that VP Singh had: he was at least in part responsible for implementing the Mandal Commission Report that sought reservations of 27% for OBCs. Even an uncharitable view of reservations will concede about 30% of the overall beneficiaries of such reservation were worthy; and an uncharitable critic of VP Singh will agree he deserved a third of the credit for implementing it. In terms of newsworthiness of someone’s death, let’s say only 1% of the actual people that they materially had an impact on counts as a measure[1]. That rough calculation still puts VP Singh’s measure at about a million people. An order of magnitude higher than the 164,000 of Bombay. The numbers sort of justify a Marxist critique that the bourgeoisie are only concerned about their own ilk and a corporate media plays to that; ignores whatever the larger interest of society maybe. The critique may or may not be valid, but its basis isn’t empirically unfounded.

Earlier this week three newsworthy things happened in roughly the same news cycle: a terrorist strike in Punjab that killed about 10 people, APJA Kalam and Suniti Solomon passed away.

The Gurdaspur region of Punjab is not a metropolis like Bombay. So let’s assume the multiplier on it is a 100x. That makes it 1000 people on a newsworthiness scale.

APJA Kalam was by all accounts a good man. His contributions to Science though are not known to those of us who did not work with him. His Google Scholar citation has no Science in it. DRDO’s policy possibly had something to do with this. But fact is we can’t celebrate or rate what we don’t know. He headed a bureaucracy that’s credited with missile technology. But it’s reasonable to assume what he did there was part of his job description. Many countries with similar budgets have indigenous missiles, making it unexceptional. His Presidency outside of delaying clemency petitions had the only significant event of assenting to a request for dismissing a duly elected state legislature via fax. Which makes one wonder about the extent of eulogizing by the bourgeoisie. They seem inspired by what he said or represented in their eyes; that rather than his material impact seems to be a unifying theme of eulogies. That puts the eulogized firmly in the camp of politicians who’re still relevant in some way. Unlike VP Singh in 2008.

Then there was Suniti Solomon. If we assume the 1986 initial AIDS infection rate of 6% among target populations in India as a starting point and use the mean of similar low income countries now as a benchmark, India has outperformed by at least 2 percentage points. It’s clearly not Suniti Solomon’s personal success. But even if we assume she deserves 1% of the overall credit, she’s saved about 500,000 lives. That’s way more than what’s the cost in terms of lives we calculated for terrorist strikes in Bombay. But our yardstick for VP Singh makes us take just 1% of that for newsworthiness of her death. That’s 5,000.

The reaction of a society, which in any case is always lead by the bourgeoisie, is interesting. Only because it reveals the distance between what’s petit and what’s not.

[1] – One assumes the 1% measure discounts the great man theory while still not ignoring men and women.

Doesn’t India Owe Reparations to Dalits?

Two individuals have argued for reparations in two very different contexts in the recent past. There was Ta-Nehisi Coates making an arresting case on reparations to African Americans for slavery. Then there was a slightly more gimmicky Sashi Tharoor making the case that Britain owed India reparations for colonialism.

Coates’ basic premise is indisputable. America is what it is today because it was built on slavery. And for 350 of the 400 years its existence, African Americans have been targeted and exploited and not let to realize their potential in a systematic and state sanctioned manner. That as late as 1960s the rules of federal and local governments were such that African Americans could not really get to own property takes a while to digest. If a community does not own property, of course its social capital is going to be so limited. And then add to it all the other forms of continuing discrimination.

Coates’ second book, Between the World and Me, is the kind of polemic that one wishes a Dalit writer in India wrote. Viewed through this prism, Britain owing India reparations seems insignificant both as a moral and economic debt compared to what India owes its own Dalits. The African American, after all, had been enslaved only since 1619. The Dalit has been denied property rights and consequently generational growth for millenia. The social ostracism’s cost on culturally influenced personality aspects, such as perseverance, may be even higher.

Repairations to Dalits raises an important question on the construct of civilization. In recent times, a lot of liberalism has been explained by outcome. For example, having a diverse classroom that includes Dalits we are told improves the overall learning outcome. That may well be true. But what if it isn’t? What if paying that moral debt is not additive in civilization’s continuous arc of greater consumption? What if liberalism is not utilitarian? Coates never gives up on that arc of ever greater consumption.

A Dalit writer approaching this topic may well give that assumption up. I wish to read that.