Monday, October 31, 2016

It is our responsibility to fight the indifference and darkness around us: Shashi Shekhar

To explain what I am trying to say, let me share two heart-rending stories.

In the first, at the beginning of the week, a woman leaves her home in Gurgaon for her workplace. To board the Metro she enters the MG Road station from gate number two. She is surrounded by a sea of humanity. CCTV cameras keep an eye on every corner of the station and so do the soldiers of the Central Industrial Security Force. Suddenly a stalker attacks her with a knife.In the presence of hundreds of people, the assailant stabs her 30 times. The woman cries out for help. She tries to escape and writhes in pain, but no one comes forward to help her. The attacker keeps stabbing her till she dies. Hailing from a remote place in the North-East to make a living by doing odd jobs in Delhi, neither the woman nor her loved ones would have thought she would meet such a tragic end in the national capital.

The second story is from Muzaffarpur in Bihar. Sarita Kumari, a junior engineer with the state government, is burnt alive after being tied to a chair in a house opposite her home. All that the police recover from the spot is her ashes and some burnt bones. With a lot of difficulty, on the basis of her slippers, Sarita Kumari’s mother manages to recognise that the victim of the barbaric act was her daughter. Like the woman from the North-East, Sarita could not have dreamt that she would meet such a violent fate despite having a government job in a large town in Bihar.

These heart-rending stories leave behind a number of questions since the person attacking the women wasn’t the demonic Ravan. In the past, there was just one Ravan, but now there are thousands of Ravans among us.

Those crying themselves hoarse about similar issues for political gains don’t express any sympathy for women, child and Dalit victims of such barbaric acts. Do you remember the “rape” on the Bulandshahar highway? The tears in the eyes of the victims haven’t yet dried, but the deluge of public sympathy for them that swelled up at that time for political reasons has already dried up.
Why am I diverting your attention from all the festive cheer a day after Diwali? Because there cannot be a better time to discuss such issues. Diwali is the festival that celebrates the victory of truth over falsehoods, of justice over injustice, and of light over darkness. Thousands of years ago, when the class-system was at its zenith, two princes of Ayodhya joined hands with the oppressed and the tribals to take on the most powerful emperor in the world and defeated him.

Of course, everybody knows that Diwali was first celebrated when Ram and Lakshman returned to Ayodhya after defeating Ravan. People were happy about the ushering in of Ramrajya. After South Africa, Gandhi, too, fell back on the pipedream of a Ramrajya. By linking Swarajya with Ramrajya, the Mahatma stimulated the interest in among Indians and worked miracles. Gandhi didn’t realise that one day Ramrajya would turn into a political slogan and evolve into a farce. The manner in which politicians in independent India have distorted the traditions of Indian politics has led to a number of challenges that are staring Indian society in the face. The two stories narrated above, and the Bulandshahar incident, are examples of such tendencies.

How will we secure freedom from these?

It is a fact that we are among the fastest growing economies in the world and our literacy is bringing economic benefits closer to the people. On the flip side, the growing urbanisation and indiscriminate use of technology hasn’t just made us citizens of the global village, it has also made us move away from human values to a large extent.

In a land where helping the helpless is considered a religious duty, a woman is stabbed more than 30 times at a Metro station in Gurgaon. Instead of attempting to save the victim, people began making videos. These days the propensity to make videos of victims of accidents or violence, instead to trying to save them, is growing. By doing this, they commit two kinds of crimes. First, they contribute to the creation of an insensitive society. While doing this they forget that tomorrow if they became victims of mishaps or violence, they would be treated in the same manner. Second, by posting these videos with sensational text on social media, they accumulate “likes” for themselves. But they don’t know that they are going from

At times, it is tough to differentiate between the wordplay and dishonesty of intellectuals. One hopes your homes would still be lit with the lamps and fairy lights that you bought for Diwali. It is likely you may be surrounded by the mess and dust created by the crackers last night. Don’t you think that today, fighting society’s indifference and darkness isn’t just the responsibility of Dashrath’s son but also yours? Just cleaning up your home and neighbourhood won’t do. You also have to uproot the demonic tendencies mushrooming around you.

see also
Empathy: the power of mentally identifying oneself with, and so fully understanding another person. Sociopath: a person with a psychopathic personality whose behavior is antisocial, often criminal, and who lacks a sense of moral responsibility or social conscience.

Ramesh Babu - Kerala will turn into dogs’ own country, says anti-stray campaigner

He says the powerful anti-rabies vaccine lobby is behind the chorus against the culling of violent strays...“Recently a senior IAS official wrote an article saying in India rabies vaccine business is worth Rs 7,000 crore...Kerala is their biggest market. They want strays to multiply so that their business will thrive.” 

Indias 20,847 deaths are over one-third of the world’s total - the highest incidence of rabies globally -  BBC

For almost two decades Jose Maveli, a Kochi-based activist, has been rescuing abandoned children and helping them piece together their lost childhood but lately he has been in the news for the wrong reasons. The 66-year-old activist has floated a statewide movement to eradicate stray dogs and is facing eight cases under the prevention of cruelty to animals act. He was arrested and released on personal bail in seven of these cases.

After the death of a 90-year-old man, who was mauled badly by a pack of violent canines in Varkala in south Kerala last week, he visited the area and that triggered a mass killing of 40 street dogs. When the police rushed to arrest him angry locals foiled it. But the mounting cases have failed to deter Maveli, whose Jana Seva Sisu Bhawan is home to 250 destitute children. Aggrieved people are calling him regularly to seek his advice. Last month, an alumni association in Kottayam district’s Pala even gifted him an air gun “in recognition of his meritorious service.”

“We killed many cattle when foot and mouth disease broke out and two years ago in Kuttanad (central Kerala) and lakhs of ducks were culled in the wake of bird flu threat. No cases were registered against anyone then. Why are not dogs killed when they pose a grave danger to people?” he asked indignantly.

While animal lovers call him a ‘demon Maveli’ - Maveli was an asura king - he said a true philanthropist was one who loves human beings and animals equally. “Animal-lovers call me a mass killer. It is not true, I have never killed a dog. I love my pets and reared dogs till recently. What can we do when monstrous strays attack small children and elderly people?” he said adding dog menace was not a recent phenomenon and he has been warning about this quite some time.

According to a survey conducted by the state animal husbandry department, there are around 9.23 lakh domestic dogs and 2.70 lakh strays in the state. Government figures say four people were killed in the last four months in stray dog attacks and 701 people, including 175 children, were injured across the state. This year, 53,000 people were treated for dog bites in government medical college hospitals alone.

According to the police, his movement is encouraging people to take the law into their hands but Maveli says the action is spontaneous and he has nothing to do with it. He said last year’s attack on a three-year-old in Kothamangalam really forced him to sit up and think. “Hailing from a poor family, his face was totally disfigured in stray attack and he underwent a couple of surgeries. Authorities and animal-lovers never came for his help. Had he been from an affluent family it would have been a big news,” he said. “Since most of the local bodies don’t have any system to control multiplying canine population, poor people are at the receiving end. Ten persons died this year and 35,000 bite cases reported in last four months alone,” he lamented.

Animal lovers blame poor waste disposal methods of the state for the proliferation of strays. There are only about 1,500 veterinarian surgeons, but the state needs at least double that number to effectively carry out its sterilisation programme. Since a majority of the local bodies don’t have the infrastructure for animal birth control, quick, but ineffective, measures are relied upon. Most are yet to switch over from traditional sterilisation methods to the modern keyhole surgery, a standard procedure followed globally. Veterinary doctors say if keyhole surgery is performed, a dog can leave the hospital in two days; other methods require at least four days of recovery, burdening an already inadequate infrastructure. As a consequence, culling strays has become commonplace.

He said the powerful anti-rabies vaccine lobby is behind the chorus against the culling of violent strays in the state. “Recently a senior IAS official wrote an article saying in India rabies vaccine business is worth Rs 7,000 crore. True, Kerala is their biggest market. They want strays to multiply so that their business will thrive,” he said, alleging the vaccine lobby was funding some of these groups that want to protect even the violent dogs.

He said besides bites, strays were responsible for at least 30% of accidents involving two-wheelers in the state. Millionaire businessman Kochouseph Chittilappilly, who triggered an organ donation drive in the state after he donated one of his kidneys to a poor patient, has pledged support to Maveli. Chittilappily, the chairperson of V-Guard Industries Ltd, staged a series of protests including a three-day fast to highlight the issue to the authorities.

Last week, Animal Welfare Board of India board member Anjali Sharma criticised both for instilling a fear psychosis among people. “If the situation continued like this, God’s Own Country will turn into dog’s own country in no time. I will continue my work till authorities take drastic steps to save poor children and elderly,” he said adding 70% of bite victims belong to poor families.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Eric Sherman - What The Dakota Access Pipeline Protest Says About Race And The Sad State Of American Democracy

We are witnessing a critical moment of resistance in Standing Rock. Over 200 tribes have coalesced, uniting in peaceful protest. Thousands of people have come together to ask only for what is theirs ― land and water, yes, but also basic human rights. They demonstrate because their sacred home has been routinely and callously violated by a profit-hungry, colonial machine.

Colonization still thrives in America. It simply cleverly hides behind the glossy PR of opaque, faceless corporations. The Dakota Access Pipeline is a literal tentacle that reaches deep into the pristine, but untapped natural resources of the vast Bakken Formation, leeching oil to the unquenchable refineries of south Texas. Death to the colonized happens more slowly than 200 years ago, but just as inevitably, as communities relegated to the surrounding reservations are excluded from access to quality health care, non-toxic surroundings, and economic opportunity.

Be cautioned that the media will inevitably condemn and vilify the violence that has escalated and assign blame to the protesters for disturbing the status quo. We saw the same reaction in Ferguson, Missouri following the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014and in Baltimore after Freddie Gray’s death in 2015. This escalation comes not from protesters, but from our heavily militarized police force’s arrival. In all three instances, the dystopian images of men in riot gear facing unarmed men, women and children is deeply troubling. This is state violence against the poor and powerless, plain and simple. In Standing Rock, we see cool steel pointed at supple feathers. The metaphor is clear and powerful.

We must connect these acts of defiance and resistance in our minds and in the current American narrative. Our distorted and unchecked capitalism allows for the destruction of sacred land, the violation of black bodies and the cannibalizing of our own citizens. This event does not occur in isolation, but joins the recent string of attempts by the poor and politically disenfranchised to bravely stand up to a faceless, powerful, and ever-hungry capitalism. One that lumbers forward seeking only profit and leaves in its wake total destruction. The politically neglected, yet savvy and noble, are using their number, which has been proven time and time again to be a powerful and singular tool against exploitation.

We still hesitate to invoke race in these cases, choosing instead any other specious reason for state violence. Standing Rock exposes, yet again, systematic oppression and state sanctioned violence against black and brown folks in the U.S. So, for contrast, I will urge you to revisit the armed occupation by white militants of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year. A “peaceful resolution” was given highest priority by the FBI, for the safety of the armed terrorists and for the police involved. Leader Ammon Bundy was not arrested until after provocation from the public, following lengthy negotiations with FBI. Arrests were eventually made, but the seven primary defendants in the case were all acquitted of primary charges.

The protest in Standing Rock is critical and pivotal in our national fight for greater justice. It shows that all lives do not matter in the United States. It shows that capitalism can rape our natural resources and cannibalize our own citizens unchecked for profit. It shows that political dissent is met with state violence. And as a result, we should deeply interrogate and resist our democracy that allows for these perversions of justice.

Saturday, October 29, 2016


For King and Another Country: Indian Soldiers on the Western Front, 1914-18
by Shrabani Basu

Reviewed by Kate Imy (University of North Texas)
Published on H-Asia (October, 2016)

As a journalist and author of popular nonfiction, Shrabani Basu has an eye for a good story. This proves to be a major asset throughout her impressive new book, For King and Another Country: Indian Soldiers on the Western Front 1914-18. Any narrative of India’s contributions to the First World War benefits from the dramatic realities of the historical events. Over 1.5 million Indians including combatants and noncombatants served in the conflict, resulting in the loss of over 72,000 dead or missing (p. xxi). South Asians served in all fields of battle—from Singapore to France, Hong Kong to Mesopotamia—although Basu focuses almost entirely, as her title suggests, on the western front. Yet she recognizes that British concerns about sedition and revolution during the war spanned the globe, leading to decisions that contributed to some of the most heated and dramatic events after the war, forever changing the relationship between South Asia and the British Empire. To this well-known series of events, Basu adds a surprisingly detailed and intimate account of several individuals whose lives were forever changed—or tragically lost—by this unprecedented conflict.

The most unique feature of the text is Basu’s decision to signpost the work with a series of individual stories. She takes readers along on the journey with many different “characters” inspired and informed by real-life people whose historical lives have hitherto been confined to names on memorials or official correspondence. She considers some of the thoughts and feelings that may have occupied everyone from Sukha, an “untouchable” sweeper, to the Ganga Singh—the Maharaja of Bikaner—who was among the signers of the Peace Treaty in 1919. She details, with the flair of a novelist, the journey of a Garhwali soldier as he leaves behind his young wife in the hills, and Indra Lal “Laddie” Roy, who left his privileged upbringing in Kensington to become a pilot. Especially gripping is the complex tale of brothers Mir Mast and Mir Dast—one of whom won the Victoria Cross while the other switched sides to the Germans in the hopes of returning to his home on the North West Frontier.

Basu’s work is divided into thirteen thematic chapters, which provide a unique lens through which to view the conflict. The first chapter, “Monsoon,” proves an especially engaging introduction. Pulling from the symbolic tension between the relief that rains provide in India and the sense that the First World War was a series of storm clouds gathering, she uses the opportunity to introduce the diverse men and women who populate the book. This chapter opens and closes with a young Garhwali wife as she sees her husband for the last time. In between are the tales of mothers, sweepers, Oxford cricketers, Cambridge boxers, and men destined for infantry and flying corps. Subsequent chapters, including “Brighton,” “Bandobast Sahib,” and “Comfort Kameti,” provide great insight into the range of British official perspectives of Indian troops—which were at times sympathetic and attentive, and at others cautiously skeptical of the men they treated as near-prisoners and would-be mutineers. Of course, some chapters are stronger than others. In “First Blood,” the narrative sometimes comes off as a “greatest hits” of the most famous or triumphant stories—usually pulled from regimental reports. Others, such as “Trenches” and “Winter,” drift away from the main theme of the chapter, losing focus.

What helps Basu’s story throughout is that she not only considers stories from the distant past, but also examines how the war has been remembered. She takes readers from the Chattri memorial in southern England, where Sikh and Hindu soldiers’ bodies were burned, to the many graves and plaques commemorating Indian troops in France and Belgium, ending finally with the triumphant statues of individual soldiers that fill squares in India. She even includes numerous photographs of these sights, giving readers the chance to visualize the physical traces of the conflict around the world. In fact, several helpful images—from the postcards sold to commemorate the use of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton as an Indian hospital, to pamphlets and posters of Indian soldiers—provide readers with the opportunity to engage meaningfully with the visual memories of the war. Readers can see how English photographers and audiences hoped to represent and view Indian soldiers—as with the numerous wartime photographs produced for official purposes. At the same time, Basu also provides a unique glimpse into how such men presented themselves, as in the case of “Laddie” Roy, who proudly posed for a headshot dressed as a pilot and even drew his own illustrations of the aircraft he flew.

One of the most valuable features of the text is Basu’s use of interviews with soldiers’ descendants in India. These remarkable accounts fill in the details of soldiers’ lives that are so often absent, missing, or outside the purview of the immediate concerns of imperial and military record keeping. Striking examples include details about Garhwali soldier Gabar Singh’s life before the war, and the life of his widow, Satoori Devi, as she wore his Victoria Cross and carried on his memory when he did not return. This helps to supplement the innovative research of scholars such as David Omissi, whose Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldiers’ Letters, 1914–18 (1999) utilized hundreds of censored Indian letters, a strategy which Basu also employs effectively as well.

One area that could have been improved in the text is Basu’s engagement with secondary source literature. Lengthy sections providing seemingly contextual details have few or no footnotes, leaving attentive readers and scholars wondering about—or hoping to learn more—about the source of the information. This proves especially true in sections dealing with Indian sedition during which Basu relays several interesting anecdotes with minimal reference to either archival or primary source texts (pp. 58, 73). In fact, major events such as the Singapore mutiny get little more than a couple of paragraphs (p. 107). One noteworthy absence in this regard is Maia Ramnath’s Haj to Utopia: How the Ghadar Movement Charted Global Radicalism and Attempted to Overthrow the British Empire (2011), which could have provided ample context about the international anticolonial networks emanating across Afghanistan, India, England, the United States, and beyond. Some of Basu’s sources indicate why there are absences in these stories, as she often relies on British and regimental archives, along with military memoirs, slanting the story toward a loyalist account. Engagement with Gajendra Singh’s recent work The Testimonies of Indian Soldiers and the Two World Wars: Between Self and Sepoy (2014) may have enlivened Basu’s analysis of sources by considering the complexities of using colonial archives to convey South Asian soldiers’ experiences.

In other ways, one wishes that Basu were more precise in descriptions of certain commonly held misconceptions about the British Indian Army. She occasionally restates the features of the “Martial Races” recruiting strategy, arguing for instance that Nepalese Gurkhas were descended from Rajputs with “a strong mix of Mongolian blood” (p. 30). At other times, she repeats the assumption that all the soldiers were “illiterate” peasants despite later admitting that between ten and twenty thousand letters poured out from Indian soldiers per week (p. 50). This suggests that some, if not many, soldiers were either literate or found it easy to find literate men. While it is true that some men received assistance writing letters in hospitals, it is also true that many learned to read during their time in military service. 

There are a few moments when oversimplification clouds what would otherwise be powerful moments in the text. This includes Basu’s characterization of Udham Singh’s assassination of Michael O’Dwyer in 1940 as an act of vengeance against General Dyer’s massacre at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar (1919)—events separated by over twenty years (p. 185). A more nuanced picture of the changing dynamics of Punjab, of O’Dwyer’s other debilitating policies, and the particular context of the Second World War would have been more convincing, but may have fallen outside of the purview of this work. Without it, however, the story, however interesting, mostly seems out of place.

Nonetheless, Basu’s text is such a fascinating read that one may wish that she had not confined herself to the western front alone. A similar analysis of other theaters of war—which were neither so well managed nor commemorated, would have added much to her later gesturing toward postwar anticolonialism. It would have been noteworthy to examine why exactly Indian troops won the same number of VCs in the first 1.5 years of the war on the western front as were given through 3.5 years on other fronts. Did soldiers become less brave or worthy of praise? Or did the celebration of Indian soldiers lose its political significance as they shifted farther from Britain’s home front? Examining other fronts would have been a useful contrast to the more well-promoted aspects of Indian service in the First World War, by considering how these spaces affected the postwar world as service got even messier, more grueling, and provided more connections with international anticolonial networks.

Minor scholarly protestations aside, Basu’s work is a very engaging and thoroughly researched addition to the expanding field of Indian participation in the First World War. It is a valuable asset for scholars, who can benefit from the interviews and less well-known stories that Basu engages. It also serves as a fascinating introduction to the topic for general readers. Basu is able to combine attention to detail with a flair for storytelling, giving these soldiers a well-deserved tribute. Her sympathetic novelistic approach is ideal for modern audiences, who are not untouched by the hardships of war, empire, and feelings of being adrift and isolated in an interconnected—and fragmented—world.

also see

Sam Alexander - “The pain we feel is capitalism dying”

I was drifting through cyberspace recently, not really absorbing the words in front of me, when I came across a sentence that tripped me up, so to speak, and forced me to pay attention.  That sentence read: “The pain you feel is capitalism dying.” The writer went on to explain that it hurts because we are inside this dying system, we are inside this unsustainable form of civilization while it is undermining the life support system we call Earth, and what is perhaps most unsettling about this is that it’s not yet clear what comes next; nor is it obvious that the global problems we face even have smooth, painless solutions. The hour is dark and a bright new dawn is not guaranteed.

The words left an impression on me I think because they describe that strange, existential ache that we probably have all felt at some time or another, when contemplating how we should live our lives in a world that seems so tragically off track. I am referring here to the emotional or what one might even call the spiritual challenge of living in an age of crisis; of living in an age when the myths and stories that have shaped and grounded our cultures and even our identities have begun to breakdown, unsettling our sense of purpose and place in a fast-changing world.  

But this crisis of meaning in our culture, if I can put it that way, presents itself to us, I think, as a heavily disguised but tantalizing opportunity. One of the most promising aspects of the biological world we live in is that the cycles of nature embrace death and decay as a necessary part of rebirth – as anyone who composts knows very well – and if we understand this, then we can see that as the existing form of life deteriorates in the face of environmental limits, new ways to live will inevitably evolve, and are evolving, like green shoots peeking out of the widening concrete cracks in capitalism. 

Our challenge is to face this inevitable breakdown with defiant positivity and set about turning today’s crises into opportunities to reinvent ourselves, our cultures, and our economies in more localized, more resilient, more humane ways. We are, it seems, like tiny microbes inside this massive, decomposing system, being challenged to work creatively in our own small ways, building the soil from which a diversity of new worlds can emerge. In short, I would say that we are being challenged at this moment in history to compost capitalism, and in the rich soil of resistance bring renewal to our task, our collective task, to seed a new Earth story.

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Kashmiri Pandit Sangarsh Samiti (KPSS) Letter to Prime Minister - Security Concern of Non-Migrant Kashmiri Pandits living in Kashmir Valley

NB: A petrol bomb was thrown last evening (Oct 28) on a Kashmiri Pandit's house in Kulgam in south Kashmir. The handful of Pandits in south Kashmir, especially, have been feeling very threatened after the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani. In several cases, policemen guarding Pandit camps have been attacked and their weapons snatched. Repeated requests to PMO and HMO from the local Pandit activist, Sanjay Tickoo, have gone unheeded. 

Please see the latest appeal to Mr. Modi by Sanjay Tickoo. It is the government's responsibility in Kashmir - and elsewhere in the country - to protect and ensure the safety of the minorities. In 1990, the government utterly failed to do so, leading to the mass exodus of the Pandit community. This time as well, the current government has shown no interest so far to provide adequate security to the minority Pandits. If any member of the minority community in Kashmir is harmed, the blood will be on the government's hands Rahul Pandita

To: The Hon’ble Prime Minister,
Union of India,
South Block, Raisina Hill,
New Delhi - 110011

Subject: Security Concern of Minorities (Non-Migrant Kashmiri Pandits) living in Kashmir Valley

Esteemed Sir,
With reference to the subject cited above it is most humbly submitted as under:

As per government records nearly 808 Kashmiri Pandit families are living in Kashmir Valley after the mass exodus of KP Community after 1990 armed uprising in the State of Jammu and Kashmir. These families are living at different places in the Kashmir Valley and till date these families were provided security from the State Government by creating “Minority Security Pickets” close to the KP dwellings. 

Though, in Kashmir real security to life is only in the hands of God Himself, but for presumed security these “Minority Security Pickets” are playing a big role and is one of the basic Security Confidence to the Minorities living in Valley. But after the encounter of Hizb Commander Burhan Wani, this security cover is withdrawn at most of the places, making the minorities more vulnerable for any untoward Security mishaps. Either this is being done deliberately to create Security panic in the minds of minorities and they leave Kashmir of their own or there is some under-cover agenda to pave ways for another massacre of the Kashmiri Pandits living in Kashmir Valley.

It may not be out of place to mention here that after the encounter of Burhan Wani, the count of militants in Kashmir Valley has increased many folds and are causing threat to the security of the State as well as to the minorities living in Kashmir Valley.

As such, it is requested to review the decision of withdrawal of Security to the minorities living in Kashmir Valley at an earliest and a further request that the security be re-install at all the places with additional man force, else it will be clear that some conspiracy with malafide intentions is being hatched against this miniscule community living in Kashmir Valley.

Yours faithfully
Sanjay K. Tickoo
President, Kashmiri Pandit Sangarsh Samiti (KPSS)

Copy to the:
Hon’ble Chief Minister, State of Jammu and Kashmir, Srinagar

Friday, October 28, 2016

Shobhit Mahajan - An Infinity of Questions

In May, 1543, as the Polish polymath  Nicolaus Copernicus lay on his deathbed, he was presented with the printed version of his magnum opus, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium. With this work, Copernicus managed to not just overturn centuries’ old dogma regarding the structure of the cosmos, but also relegated human beings from the centre of the Universe to an insignificant corner. The beginning of what is called the Scientific Revolution can also be dated to the publication of this important work which proposed a heliocentric instead of a geocentric world.

The Scientific Revolution is when we take science as we now know it to begin. Bacon, Gilbert, Galileo, Harvey, Boyle, Hooke and Newton were amongst the pioneers of this new approach to understanding nature- an approach which placed experimentation and mathematical formulation at its heart while also adopting a mechanistic view of nature. Institutions like the Royal Society and the French Academy of Sciences also played an important role especially during the Enlightenment which followed this period.

The paradigm shift in the study of nature ultimately led to the development of more efficient machines and instruments and the Industrial Revolution. Better instruments led to new discoveries which helped resolve many issues in science. At the dawn of the 20th century, science had assumed a hegemonic role hitherto the privilege of religion in understanding and ordering the cosmos- Darwin had a solution for our origins, Maxwell had solved the mystery of light with his electromagnetic theory, Dalton’s atomic theory had proved successful in understanding matter at the smallest scales and Koch and Pasteur had made significant advances in our understanding of the causes and prevention of disease.

In 1900, Lord Kelvin is reported to have said that there is nothing new left to be discovered in physics and all that remains is more and more precise measurement. This hubristic confidence of the scientists was obviously misplaced. As more and more experimental and observational evidence came along, it was clear that Nature had many more mysteries in its fold which needed to be solved. 

Our understanding of the very large, namely the cosmos was clearly incomplete. On the other hand, the very small, that is the atomic domain, also posed a challenge to understanding within the framework of existing theories. Similarly, though much was known about the human body, medicine was still at a point where people had a higher chance of dying if they went to a doctor than otherwise. Of course, an understanding of life at the most fundamental level was completely missing at this stage.  Finally, even though agricultural production had increased in the last few centuries because of technology, it was entering a plateau with stagnant productivity leading to a fear of a Malthusian catastrophe.

Start with the very large. Although, the observations of Brahe and Kepler, together with the theoretical framework provided by Newtonian physics, seemed to explain the motions of heavenly objects, new observations of the cosmos needed to be explained. In particular, astronomers found a huge number of galaxies, apart from our own Milky Way, in the universe. Some of these galaxies exhibited peculiar properties which needed explanation. As it turned out, in the second decade of the 20th century, Albert Einstein developed what has been called the most beautiful theory in physics- the general theory of relativity which provided an alternative view of gravity. Einstein’s theory was a new way of looking at the universe where gravity was a property of the space-time itself. This led to the development of cosmological models which attempted  to explain the observations which were accumulating at a rapid pace because of development of better instruments.

Interestingly, Einstein’s theory reduced to the more familiar Newtonian theory for most of the cases 
of interest. Thus, the motion of the planets in the solar system could still be well explained with Newtonian theory as would the calculation of the path of rockets and satellites.  It was only in extreme cases of intense gravity that Einstein’s theory would really be tested. Unfortunately, these were not amenable to our instruments for almost a century because the effect is extremely small. And then in 1974, two astronomers discovered a star system called a binary (where two stars are orbiting each other, the most familiar binary  being the dog star or Sirius) populated by  a particular kind of star called pulsar. The pulsars orbiting each other were getting closer to each other in exactly the way that Einstein’s theory predicted.

The most spectacular confirmation of the theory however came in 2016 when a multinational collaboration, LIGO detected gravitational waves which are predicted by Einstein’s theory. The extremely sensitive instruments detected the passingof a gravitational wave produced when two black holes collided some 1.3 billion years ago and a part of the energy was emitted in the form of these waves.

Although Einstein’s theory has been verified, our understanding of the cosmos is still terribly incomplete. We don’t  know if there are other universes apart from our own. We know for instance that black holes exist but their exact nature is still a mystery. And as it turns out, we don’t actually know what exactly the universe is made of!

Our understanding of the very small similarly underwent a radical change in the first few decades of the previous century. The quantum theory formulated by Bohr, Heisenberg, Dirac and Schrödinger among others seemed to not only explain the nature of matter but also could in principle account for all of chemistry. Over the next 7 decades, more detailed theories of the structure of matter were formulated, culminating in the so called Standard Model of Particle Physics.  This model, populated with exotic sounding particles like truth and beauty quarks, seemed to agree very well with the observations. By the turn of the century, there was a general consensus that our understanding of the very small was pretty satisfactory.  Interestingly, an essential ingredient in the theory was a mysterious particle called the Higgs boson which remained elusive despite many efforts to detect it.

All this changed in 2013 when agargantuan particle accelerator appropriately called the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) found the particle thereby confirming what the scientists anyway believed to be true. The so-called God particle seemed to have exactly the properties as demanded by the theory. With the discovery of the Higgs particle, our understanding of the microscopic world seemed almost complete. Almost, because a major gap existed in the formulation of a truly universal theory.

This was the grand synthesis or the Holy Grail- the fitting together of the two great intellectual achievements of the 20th century, quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory. Although some of the best minds, including Einstein himself, have struggled with trying to unite these two theories, success has eluded them. Last few decades has seen the emergence of highly mathematical and seemingly unphysical models called String Theories. These theories are extremely elegant mathematically but don’t seem to have any connection with the real world. Thus, at the most fundamental level, our understanding of the very small, though vastly better than at any time in our history, is still very much incomplete.

In the field of medicine too, the first few years of the previous century marked a turning point. In 1928, the serendipitous discovery of penicillin by Fleming has been responsible for saving hundreds of millions of lives. This along with tremendous advances in diagnostics, medicinal chemistry and vaccine technology has decreased morbidity and mortality rates hugely. Major challenges still remain – the threat posed by the emergence of new diseases like HIV Aids and Ebola, an exponential increase in lifestyle diseases like diabetes and cardiac disease as well as effective treatment of cancer to name a few. Important as these are, possibly  the most serious threat to public health  is the emergence of antibiotic resistant microbes.

Over the last century, scientists have been able to isolate a large number of antibiotics (mostly from soil bacteria it turns out) which unfortunately have been used indiscriminately. The most extensive use of antibiotics has been for growth promotion in livestock and poultry. In a spectacular example of survival of the fittest, this has led to an emergence of microbes which are resistant to all the known antibiotics. Coupled with the fact that there are no new antibiotics in the drug pipeline has led to scientists predicting a nightmare scenario where even a small cut which becomes infected  might be fatal because of lack of effective pharmacological antidotes. The situation is so alarming that the United Nations had called a special session to discuss possible solutions in September 2016.

In biology too, there had been steady progress, though the big discovery came only in the middle of the century. In 1953, the molecular structure of the DNA was identified and over the next few decades, the essential basis of life at the molecular level had been fairly well understood. The fitting together of molecular biology, that is the understanding of the molecular components of life and theory of evolution led to what is called modern evolutionary synthesis.

The 1970s saw the birth of recombinant DNA technology which opened up the field of biotechnology. Tools like Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) allowed scientists to greatly speed up genetic analysis and soon whole genomes of several species were being sequenced. The ambitious Human Genome Project started in 1988 was the watershed movement in humanity’s quest to understand itself. Rapid sequencing techniques developed subsequently along with an exponential increase in computing power have made sequencing the human genome extremely  inexpensive and quick.

As the technology to manipulate genes evolved, the biotechnology industry boomed with many applications in agriculture, pharmacology and even industry. Pest resistant plants, medicinal agents manufactured by genetically modified bacteria and even bacteria to clean up chemical spills are all part of our post-industrial world today. In 1996, the first mammal to be cloned, the sheep Dolly gained worldwide fame though it also evoked fears of the technology being misused as in the popular novel and film, “The Boys from Brazil”.

One of the biggest breakthroughs in genetic engineering came in 2012 with the advent of a technique called CRISPR. This enormously significant advance has applications in many areas including genome engineering and medicine. It has also made possible selective editing of any genome including the human genome. The easy and cheap availability of these tools has provoked a lot of discussion among the scientists on the ethics of tampering with the human genome.

Despite the stupendous progress in our understanding of biological systems, we are still nowhere near answering several fundamental questions. We are, for instance, still not certain about how life began from a chemical soup some 4 billion years ago. The essential question of what is consciousness and how does it relate to our biological makeup is still open as is the conundrum of how a minute difference in the genetic makeup between humans and chimpanzees lead to us being what we are.

Some 10-12000 years ago, somewhere in the Levant, a bunch of hunter gatherers realised that they could domesticate wild grass and have a steady source of food. This Neolithic revolution ultimately led to the growth of cities and civilizations. Ultimately, everything was predicated on agriculture. Increasing the agricultural output for most of human history was mostly a matter of bringing new land under cultivation. Of course new technologies like selective breeding of plants, better implements etc. played a vital role. However, by the beginning of the 20th century, it was clear that our agricultural output will not be enough to sustain the growing population. The soil fertility was being rapidly depleted and yields were plateauing.

During the early years of the 20th century, Fritz Haber invented a technique to use atmospheric nitrogen to manufacture ammonia cheaply and efficiently. This allowed the essentially limitless nitrogen in the air to be used as fertilizer since ammonia is a precursor for making fertilizer. The availability of nitrogenous fertilizers allowed agricultural yields to increase dramatically and thus averted a catastrophe.  The advances in medicine had resulted in a sharp decline in the mortality rates and hence a huge increase in population. The development of high yielding varieties and pesticides etc. also allowed grain yields to be sufficient to feed the rapidly increasing population.

However, in recent years, fears of a climate induced agricultural crisis are again looming large. Our planet is inexorably getting warmer and this could lead to highly unusual weather phenomena. A sharp dip in agricultural production could easily result because of these factors. Increasing yields by increased use of fertilizers is no longer sufficient. Instead, scientists are trying to replicate nature and use genetic engineering to increase cereal yields.

Photosynthesis or the process of turning water, carbon dioxide and sunlight into food is how we humans get all our food ultimately. It turns out that, depending on the specific chemical reaction, there are two kinds of photosynthesis, C3 and C4 type. C3 type is less suited to thrive in hot and dry areas than C4 plants. They are also less efficient in converting energy into food than C4 plants.  Unfortunately, the most important cereals, rice and barley are C3 while maize and sugarcane are C4.

An important project underway is to use genetic engineering to see if genes responsible for C4 photosynthesis can be incorporated into the most widely grown varieties of rice. This will not only improve the food content of rice but also make possible its cultivation in more extreme conditions. If this is successful, it will prove to be as important a development in agriculture as the Haber process was in the previous century.

That science (and the derivative technologies) has made immense progress in the last 100 years is of course incontrovertible. Nevertheless, there are manyfundamental questions which science has not been able to answer. Thus for instance, the nature of time itself is a bit of a mystery as yet.  Is our universe the only universe that exists or are there multiple universes which we cannot access? Why does matter exist at all given that the early universe started off with equal quantities of matter and antimatter, which should have annihilated each other long ago?  Of course, scientists like to believe that it is only a matter of time before these mysteries would be solved.

However,  nature has recently stuck a final nail in the coffin of anthropic supremacists.  At the turn of the new millennium, observations of a particular kind of heavenly object called Supernova showed that ordinary matter, the stuff which we and our iPhones are made of, is only 4% of the total matter in the universe. The other 96% is a combination of mysterious stuff called dark matter and dark energy about which we know almost nothing. Thus, not only are we not at the centre of the universe, we are not even made of the stuff which most of the universe is made of.Copernicus would surely be smiling in his grave!

“March… Someone has walked across the snow,
Someone looking for he knows not what.”

The Old Astronomer to His Pupil

Reach me down my Tycho Brahe, I would know him when we meet,
When I share my later science, sitting humbly at his feet;
He may know the law of all things, yet be ignorant of how
We are working to completion, working on from then to now.

Pray remember that I leave you all my theory complete,
Lacking only certain data for your adding, as is meet,
And remember men will scorn it, 'tis original and true,
And the obloquy of newness may fall bitterly on you.

But, my pupil, as my pupil you have learned the worth of scorn,
You have laughed with me at pity, we have joyed to be forlorn,
What for us are all distractions of men's fellowship and smiles;
What for us the Goddess Pleasure with her meretricious smiles!

You may tell that German College that their honor comes too late,
But they must not waste repentance on the grizzly savant's fate.
Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.

Supreme Court slams Govt, says can’t let you decimate the system

NB: The Modi government wants a pliable judiciary dominated by the executive, but of course only as long as that executive is largely controlled/dominated by the RSS. In India the fascists will subvert the constitution through an accumulation of surgical strikes, and one of the most devastating, if they succeed, will be a subjugated, brainwashed judiciary. (Comment by a friend)

Questioning if the Central government wants the entire judicial system to be “locked out”, the Supreme Court said today that it “cannot allow the executive to decimate the system” by what it called was its “inaction, inefficiency or unwillingness” to appoint judges. Lashing out at the government for sitting over the files of judges’ appointments despite clearance by the collegium nine months ago, a bench led by Chief Justice of India T S Thakur said that the government can niether “scuttle the working of the institution” nor be allowed “to bring the entire system to a grinding halt”.

The bench told Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi that although the judiciary would not want a “clash” with any other institution, it was for the government to make sure such a situation is averted.
“This system of appointing judges (collegium) has worked well till date. We want this cordiality (with the government) to continue but we cannot allow the institution to be decimated by inaction, inefficiency or unwillingness of the cannot decimate the system,” the bench, also comprising Justices D Y Chandrachud and L N Rao, told the AG.

Hearing a clutch of PILs on shortage of judges and delays on the part of the government in making appointments, the bench got upset after Rohatgi put forth a list of names cleared by them since October 3. The AG said 18 names had been cleared but appointments would take another two weeks. When asked by the CJI, the AG said out of eight names approved by the collegium for appointment as judges in Allahabad High Court, only two were cleared. This irked the bench which sought to know what caused the delay when the eight names had been recommended by the collegium in February.

“What about the remaining six names? You don’t make appointments nor do you send back the names if you have any objection. Who are the officials concerned? We will have Secretary, PMO; and Secretary, Justice Department summoned here and they will now have to explain the delay,” retorted the bench. At this, the AG brought up the issue of the Memorandum of Procedure (MoP), which will guide future appointments after it is finalized by the judiciary and the government. Rohatgi pointed out that although one year has gone by, the MoP, in terms of the October 2015 judgment by a five-judge Constitution Bench, was yet to be finalized.

But the bench called this argument a “red herring” and clarified that until the new MoP is framed, appointments will keep happening on the basis of the old guidelines. It further reminded the AG that the government itself had declared that modification of the MoP had nothing to do with appointments.“You have cleared 88 names after the judgment. Have you changed your mind now and want a deadlock in matters of judges’ appointments?,” it asked the AG, who replied that the government did not want a stalemate but the old MoP was not in line with the October 2016 judgment that had quashed the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) but favoured a new mechanism.

However, the CJI discarded Rohatgi’s argument, saying: “Let us make it clear to you that appointment cannot stop for want of a new MoP. You cannot bring the entire institution to a grinding halt by insisting on a new MoP. Where is the question of sitting over names? You have cleared two out of eight names (in Allahabad HC) while the second lot is still pending. You cannot do that. Ultimately, we are the casualty of this delay and inefficiency.”

When the AG said that the new MoP could fasten the process, the court said that if the government chose to stick to this argument then they would sit in a five-judge bench and declare it once and for all that new MoP cannot impede the process of judicial appointments. “You cannot scuttle the working of the institution like this.are you waiting for some revolutionary changes in the system? It is not adversarial. It is not about ego of individuals. We don’t want to pass judicial orders in such matters. But this cannot go on like this. We don’t want to create a very bad situation where one institution has to clash with another institution. Please don’t compel us,” said the bench.

The court underlined that out of a sanctioned strength of 160 judges, only 77 judges were there in Allahabad High Court. “In Karnataka High Court, half the courtrooms are locked because there are no judges. There was a time when you had no courtrooms for judges and now most of the courtrooms are locked. You should very well have the whole institution.justice locked out,” it said.

The bench said that judges in the collegium were also human beings and they could make errors of judgments in recommending names for appointments but the government has to send them back with objections and not sit over them indefinitely, stalling the whole process. With the writing on the wall, the AG pleaded for some time to enable him deliberate with the competent authorities and revert with positive updates after the Diwali break. The court then fixed the matter for November 11 when the government would adduce a fresh status of judicial appointments.

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