Do Scholars have a social responsibility?

The amount of b&%* shit that I see in the ‘public domain’ on a regular basis makes me want to cry. Really.I am researching Islam in the U.S. and one can only imagine the amount of non-sense that there is, out there, along with genuine, credible scholarship. I would hazard a guess that at least half of the stuff on internet, about Islam is wrong or misleading information. That is another story, but in this piece, I want to focus on what responsibility scholars have, if any, to correct this anomaly.

Take the story of the Pythagoras theorem being an Indian invention or that Indians inventing flying and that they had airplanes over 7000 years ago. Absurd? Well, for some, in the hallowed corridors of power, in India, this is the ‘truth’, as absurd or illogical as it sounds. And there are well-meaning people who will point out that this is part of making India a ‘great nation’. What? A great nation, based on falsehoods and myth? One cannot build self-esteem by claiming thing that one has not done or by outright falsifying history.

Photo courtesy: beautifultrouble.org
Photo courtesy: beautifultrouble.org

To be clear, my beef is not with Indian culture. I love my country of birth and have no issues with my ‘identity’. I am very secure in who I am and have a lot of affection for my people and our ways of life. Thankfully, my identity is fully formed, despite having moved around, a few times. I do not place myself in the category of the self-hating Indian who wants to diss on Indian culture, while extolling the ‘West’. The West has as many problems as the East and we can talk about this till the cows come home. That is not the point.

My problem is with this self-congratulatory attitude of attributing all good exists in the world to some Indian scientist or mathematician . The same sort of myth making is at place here that exists when one speaks of the Israel/ Palestine conflict, an issue I am intimately familiar with, having studied it during my MA in International Affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. I do believe, on the contrary that tradition is important, culture is valuable and that we should draw inspiration from our past. But how do we do that?

Let’s first start with the question: Do scholars have a social responsibility? I have been thinking about this for a while, as I prepare to enter the hallowed field of the American academy. I must admit, I have been incredibly lucky to have worked with, studied and spent a great deal of time with some world-class scholars, who have contributed to the study of American society, religion, nonprofit management, international relations etc. in the past four years and have nothing but enormous respect for the time, energy and dedication that they bring to their work. But the question remains: beyond the three core responsibilities of – teaching, service and research, do University professors /scholars have a broader social responsibility? When debates of race, religion and war and peace come up, are academics supposed to provide only their ‘scholarly opinion’, i.e., specialist knowledge and not ‘take sides’ or actively jump into the fray and help the lay man make up his/her mind? Not an easy answer, that one.

In a debate of this sort, there are several large and small-scale issues involved. I list just three here,

  1. The State’s legitimizing of certain forms of knowledge
  2. Scholars own careerism and search for legitimacy
  3. What counts as ‘knowledge’

Each of these is a configuration and does not stand on its own. What the ‘state’ apparatus denotes as ‘valid knowledge’ is key. Think of the times of war and peace, when propaganda becomes ‘truth’ and all versions of truth that do not match up to this are considered ‘lies’. McCarthyism and Bush era propaganda are enough proof to show anyone that this has happened in the past, and will occur in the future. Sometimes, scholars get too cozy with the powerful, especially if they legitimize one’s knowledge. Think of Francis Fukuyama, Bernard Lewis, in the recent past and their relationship with the Bush administration. They have been discredited in part because of the policies of the government, but they also gained legitimacy and power through the regime, when their ideas were being converted to policies and these policies were being implemented. A more recent instance of blowback is that of John Yoo, who wrote the torture memos, for the Bush administration.

For a more theoretical and nuanced take on this, see Michel Foucault, here.

As the article points out, power and knowledge are not seen independently but linked – knowledge is an exercise of power and a ‘function of knowledge.’ Further:

Perhaps his most famous example of a practice of power/knowledge is that of the confession, as outlined in History of Sexuality. Once solely a practice of the Christian Church, Foucault argues that it became diffused into secular culture (and especially psychology) in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Through the confession (a form of power) people were incited to “tell the truth” (produce knowledge) about their sexual desires, emotions, and dispositions. For example, in The History of Sexuality, Foucault argued that a new discourse of “sexuality” had fundamentally changed the way we think about desire, pleasure, and our innermost selves. In Foucault’s argument, discourses about sexuality did not discover some pre-existing, core truth about human identity, but rather created it through particular practices of power/knowledge.”

Applying this to any form of knowledge production, one can see how a ‘regime of truth’ produces the kind of knowledge necessary.

So, in the case of India’s glorious past or that of Israel being the ‘promised land’, power/knowledge do come together to create myths and ideas that legitimize state policy. As the ‘New Historians’ in Israel Israel’s Ilan pappe and Benny Morris have shown, Palestinians did not ‘voluntarily’ leave the region, but were forced out in 1948 and the years following. Many of the myths held by Israelis as ‘truths’ have been debunked, with recent scholarship by these two scholars. Then there is Shlomo Sand, whose book The Invention of Israel

As this Guardian article points out:

“In 2009, Shlomo Sand published The Invention of the Jewish People, in which he claimed that Jews have little in common with each other. They had no common “ethnic” lineage owing to the high level of conversion in antiquity. They had no common language, since Hebrew was used only for prayer and was not even spoken at the time of Jesus. Yiddish was, at most, the language of Ashkenazi Jews. So what is left to unite them? Religion? But religion does not make a people – think of Muslims and Catholics. And most Jews are not religious. Zionism? But that is a political position: one can be a Scot and not a Scottish nationalist. Besides, the majority of Jews, including many Zionists, have not the slightest intention of going “back” to the Holy Land, much preferring, and who can blame them, to stay put in north London, or Brooklyn or wherever. In other words, “Jewish People” is a political construct, an invention.”

Myths, truths and half-truths

Then there are articles such as these that speak of airplanes in ancient India that went from one country to another. Myth and facts don’t seem to be separated in any of these accounts. While fantasy, myth and the like have a role to play in life, I think we cannot base the teaching of history on these ideas. The article, in a prominent Indian magazine says “Aeroplanes existed in India 7,000 years ago and they travelled from one country to another and from one planet to another, the Indian Science Congress was told today in a controversial lecture that examined ancient aviation technology in the Vedas. The hosting of the lecture, presented by Captain Anand J Bodas, a retired principal of a pilot training facility, had recently attracted criticism from some scientists who said it undermined the primacy of empirical evidence on which the 102-year-old Congress was founded.”

Where does myth end and facts begin? For the faithful, doubt has no place in mind. Blind-faith in any ideology can be harmful – be it nationalism, religion or science. In this case, Indian nationalism is being revived with utmost force and I am guessing the consequences are not going to be good. Each time this has occurred, there has been a war or a mass murder. Think of the partition of India, Wars with Pakistan, China and of course the countless ‘communal riots’ that take place in India, on a regular basis – that pit the Hindus and Muslims each as a ‘nation’, fighting it out. It looks like some people never learn their history right. And if they do, they do it in a way that boosts their own self-image and ego.

Scholars such as Shlomo Sand, Edward Said, Michel Foucault have all challenged, questioned the existing discourses of power that have legitimated certain forms of ‘knowledge’ as being true. Countless others continue to do so, in the academy and through their writings. Teaching of history, arts and social sciences is inherently a political exercise and one can take ‘sides’, while being honest about it. But I argue, what one should not and cannot do, is to be so blind to facts and one’s own biases. One cannot  blindly follow the path that legitimizes one’s world-view without seeking out alternative modes of reality, or reality, or peddling one’s own ideology as the ‘truth’.

To sum up, here is my take on whether scholars have a social responsibility. In short: Yes. They do. They do, because they are ‘powerful’ in that they have invested a lot of time, energy and money to acquire knowledge that is not accessible to all. They also have the power to legitimate a discourse. To misuse this power, either for personal gain or for gaining others favors is not only irresponsible, but also unethical. To ensure that one acts responsibly and ethically is the greatest responsibility that a scholar has. And this, I believe will be the test of true scholarship. Scholars are supposed to produce good, credible knowledge that advances our knowledge of the world, or questions injustice. Everything else is irrelevant.

My Wish list on India’s Independence Day

 

What do I wish for my country on its Independence day ( Aug 15th ?). Well, a few things come to mind – as I look at my country from the outside. Having lived outside the country for over 4 yrs now, I have firmly established myself as a Non-Resident Indian ( some would say Non-Reliable Indian), and  I am have become an outsider who has an insider’s perspective.

I believe it is a good position to be in, to analyse and look at a few problems which seem so entrenched and deep-rooted. We seem to have achieved much, since the British left the sub-continent in 1947, but we seem to have also squandered a lot too.

Here is my wish-list for my country and its people :

  1. End of poverty – It is only this year that I read a report on BBC website that there are more poor people in India than in the entire continent of Africa. Shocking, troubling and depressing indeed. But, there is also a great deal of resilience, dignity and courage in the Indian people.

I wish that there is enough for everyone to eat, basic healthcare for all and opportunities for advancement for those who want to progress socially and economically.

As a group of people, we Indians somehow carry on, plod through the problems and face life and what it offers us. This character seems to have evolved over thousands of years and generations of changes, both cultural as well as political. I firmly believe that gargantuan though this seems, the problem of income distribution is not just economic, but also cultural,  political and philosophical.With the right mix of politics and cultural reforms, we can achieve the end of poverty.  Amartya Sen, who has been infamously called the “Mother Teresa” of Economics has said rather philosophically “While I am interested both in economics and in philosophy, the union of my interests in the two fields far exceeds their intersection”. This perspective is also important to understand and de-construct India’s reality.

2. Equal rights and opportunities : When we speak of liberalisation, globalisation and growth, we are indulging in a very middle-class speak, which leaves out millions and millions of those who are not part of the “India”story. I think there has to be greater inclusion and also awareness that there is a huge segment of the population who are not able to participate in this story and who are denied equal rights, simply because of where they come from.

This should translate from just high moral principles in the Constitution to ground realities. We may use a combination of market economic as well as public sector initiatives to achieve this. Liberalisation since the 90s has achieved much progress, but I believe this must be tempered and integrated into the entire fabric of Indian society so the Indian economy doesn’t follow the trends of Wall street alone

3.End of bigoty and narrowmindedness : Regionalism, petty-politics of language, religion and caste is the bane of our society. While the multi-party system in some ways guarantees that there is diversity of opinion and participation by all strata of society and of all castes and creeds, I believe the amount of bigotry and narrow-mindedness that exists in Indian society is truly astonishing.

A dear friend told me recently that he thought the only way to get rid of this would have been to have Soviet style communism for a few decades. While that would seem rather strong remedy for the malady, perhaps some such drastic measure ( though democratic) would purge us of our narrow thinking.

4. Less corruption and greater civil society participation – With the brouhaha of Corruption and Lokpal having caught the imagination of our public and the media, which is ever-ready to pounce on any new issue that comes to the fore, there is also a need to look at practical measures to ensure there is less corruption. Passing a bill or law will not change much, unless there is a shift in consciousness of people.

Reform of the Administrative apparatus and also the civil services is a good idea. The Civil servants I have interacted with over the past few months ( who come to the Maxwell school of Citizenship) for training also point towards this fact. The pay-commission and its recommendations have apparently made life better for them, and the incentive to be “honest” is greater now. But, unless there is a more professional approach to public service, there is bound to be nepotism and red-tapism.

Platitudes and sloganeering may not really help much.

5. Regional peace – This is truly the Elephant in the room. With Pakistan at the brink of a social revolution, there is an opportunity for India to seal the deal with the neighbor that we have had trouble over the last few decades.

It is encouraging that we had talks with the Foreign minister of Pakistan a few weeks ago and there is at least a momentum to engage and discuss contentious issues. This should be kept up and both countries should ensure there is regional peace.

f there is something to be learnt from history, perhaps it is that when two neighbours fight, it is someone else who gains. Peace may not be the sexiest or cool thing to pursue, and it may even mean a few compromises; but diplomacy and politics is all about compromises and we should not forget this as we work towards becoming a regional super-power.

MENASA ?

The Acronym dictionary defines MENASA as – Middle East, North Africa and South Asia.

When you google it, MENSA throws up. Not a very smart acronym, this one. But try harder, and you will find the definition for it.

A new acronym. A fad. A smart ( and pretentious) way to club together groups of countries ? Well, that depends on the way one looks at it. But to me, this makes sense.

According to a few important reports that came out recently, this region will define the future of the world – the key argument being one of demographics and also resources. The one that i read in some depth is the one by the management consulting firm Mc Kinsey. If one observes the ongoings in the MENA region, with the Arab Spring, this seems like a far-stretched argument.

But let’s take the long-term view. Social change takes decades, not months and weeks ( often the time-span that traditional media uses as a frame of reference).

The arguments for MENASA can be summed up as :

A recent report by Mc Kinsey pointed to the demographics as well as the wealth of human resources in the region – which are full of entrepreneurial zeal ( refer:http://www.menasaforum.ae/partners/official/files/Perspectives%20on%20MENASA.PDF).

The region is set to generate nine per cent of the world’s total growth in gross domestic product in the next 10 years, up from its current five per cent share. And during this period it is slated to achieve real growth rates of six to seven per cent. The western economies have stopped growing or are experiencing deceleration, while the economies of MENASA continue to grow.

McKinsey estimates cumulative financial inflows from hydrocarbon exports in these countries could exceed $9trn by 2020.

India, Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey account for 92 per cent of the region’s population.

We also see that the widespread use of English in India, Pakistan and Egypt and French in Morocco, coupled with these countries’ significant pool of skilled people and the relatively low labour costs, make them attractive destinations for companies looking to outsource support functions and value-added services such as legal and accounting services. This is already happening in a big way and will continue to grow in the years to come.

But isn’t all of this fantastical thinking, in the absence of democratic institutions and also recourse to law and strong contractual systems ? This is a valid argument, especially when one reads of businesses suffering due to lack of transparency as well as red-tapism and corruption.

But with the growth in economies and greater demand for transparency and better systems, things are bound to change. In India, there is the Right to Information Act ( RTI), which is being implemented in several states, and has made the government more accountable.

Similarly, the Arab spring is bound to bring in better systems, which are more robust and responsive to the citizen’s needs.

I am inclined to believe that this region is where the action is. Despite the funny acronym, there is reason to believe that this is where the future lies.

The challenge of writing about India

An impossibly hard task – how do people do it ?

I  will start with a confession : This blog post is one of the hardest that I have written so far. Not because I don’t know much about my country of origin, but precisely because of it. India is such a complex, vast, diverse and mixed up place, anything that anyone says can be simultaneously true and false. It is a land of ultimate contradictions and can befuddle  a casual observer.

 

Additionally, I am not one of the most patriotic person you will find. My heart doesn’t skip a beat when India wins a cricket match against some team.  I hardly watch the sport, and don’t have much care for people who cant stop talking about the latest Bollywood flick.

Each time I read an Op-ed in NY Times or the Post,  I re-read the article to see where the writer is coming from, and how thorough his/her understanding is. I must admit, that ever after many years of living in India, most journalists don’t “get it”; as one of my dear journalist friend, who writes for the WSJ confessed.  A Jew from NYC who has been in South East Asia for almost  a decade, she told me that “the more I learn about India and Indians, the less I seem to know it”. And knowing her, I don’t think she was joking. She meant it. Seriously.

Hyperbole, exaggerations, simple interpretations of complex structures which have evolved over centuries  all make the writing weak.

I believe that one of the unique qualifications that one needs to write about India seems to be that the person should have lived there for years. Decades is better, as the country shows itself in so many different ways – over a period of time.

This is one of the reasons I have resisted about writing about India, but I will try – and hopefully do a decent job of it henceforth.

As India comes into its own and starts donating money to the world (according to a news item I read recently on Al Jazeera English), India just committed to a development aid of about $ 5bn to African countries just last week. This is truly a remarkable event. Coming from zero growth rate to one where the country is registering ober 9 % annual growth in Gross Domestic Product is amazing. This, when the entire world is feeling the effects of the recession.

Coming back to my original thought of why it is so hard to write about India : my hypothesis is simple : The India that VS Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Khushwant Singgh and all the “oldies” wrote about is changing. The “new” India is different. It is being defined by some very savvy, smart, self-assured people who are the movers and shakers in the global marketplace.

The new India is not about an India that receives, but one which gives to the world. It is an India which is realizing that there is strength in being the largest democracy ( by some accounts dysfunctional).  These people are not your regular “Indians”. They are global citizens who have seen the world, traveled widely, experienced the world differently than what their parents did and hence, have a very different self-image.

The “New India” is also one in which its position and the way in which the world sees it is changing.

It is also an India in which massive poverty exists alongside abundance of wealth. I still remember the furore that was caused by the 27 storied building that Billionarie Ambani built in Mumbai as a residence, overlooking the biggest slum in the world. This is also the new India – where gratuitous display of wealth is becoming the norm.  But there is also a renewed sense of confidence and a unique place under the sun.

I felt this during my most recent visit to India in March 2011. I was going home after nearly two years of being in the USA and I could see the transformation of the country, not only in terms of the purchasing power of the growing middle class, but also the confidence with which my fellow Indians spoke of their own careers, lives and the direction in which the country was going.

Lest I be accused of focusing only on the middle class, I must also add that many of the people I spoke with included the poor, un-educated and illiterate, who saw increasing opportunities in bigger cities – Hyderabad and Bangalore for instance; where better opportunities and chances of earning  a livelihood compelled them to move.

More about this in the next post…