IITs should be role models in university politics

By Saurabh Chandra

The last thing we need in this country is for politics to become a ‘dirty’ word and people pleading to keep elite institutions away from it.

The recent controversy sparked by the suspension of a little known student group called the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle at IIT-Madras has again brought to fore the question of allowing politics in universities. The worst fears of the detractors seem to be in revisiting the horrors of the 80s when student politics often led to violence between factions, even leading to murders. Many a times students were used as muscle men by mainstream parties and the local university politics became a proxy for a larger game play.

The concerns are not unfounded but the solution that got employed has been most stifling – complete ban on all political activities on campus. In many cases, the student unions have been dissolved too. My alma mater BHU is a good example where University politics had simply overwhelmed the campus culture. Student politicians would decide not to pass their courses so that they could continue to stand for elections or continue to enroll in masters and then PhD courses in departments where faculty members were also more inclined towards politics than academics. Things went to a boil in the 90s and two students died, post which the student union was dissolved and politics banished from the campus. In the following years, the university got back its academic mojo with multiple faculties climbing various nationwide rankings. In parallel, we created a sterile atmosphere in the university when it came to political engagement and the number of politician alumni from the university is on a fast decline.

This is typical of the blunt knife approach often seen in India. To prevent crimes at night, the recommended approach is to close all shops and advise people to stay indoors. Taken to its logical conclusion: if there were no people then we would have no problems in life. The challenges of university politics need to be solved rather than throwing the baby with the bath water. Violence was an issue in the past and the solution is to impose the rule of law. If academic excellence is the goal of a particular institution then there are many ways to impose that too – mandatory attendance, minimum marks to be a candidate and so on. There is no one size fits all and each university should evolve rules and norms that fit with its culture. Mostly, politics should be like an extra-curricular activity in college that should compete with cultural, sports, literary and other activities in capturing a student’s attention. A bold faculty could even craft its instructional design around political activities.

University politics also provides an easy ramp for new talent to come into the system. For a country so young, it is tragic that the average age of the political class is more than twice the average age of the country. The young politicians are mainly family members of older politicians since genuine challengers from below are in short supply.

The last few years have seen a huge engagement from the student community in the India Against Corruption campaign and then as volunteers for various political parties in the general elections. Both of these events demonstrated the potential that youngsters have in India to contribute to the national political agenda. However, in the absence of politics in the iniversities, we will only see this community in support roles and being utilised by the larger parties or activist groups as ‘man-power’. Genuine leadership will emerge only through the competition and tussle of student politics leading to fresh ideas that provide relief from the same-old of current Indian politics.

The last thing we need in this country is for politics to become a ‘dirty’ word and people pleading to keep elite institutions away from it. If anything, elite institutions should be role models on how politics should be done.

Saurabh Chandra is a tech entrepreneur with an interest in policy.

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What is your most controversial view?

by V Vinay

The next time you meet someone you care about, engage them on this question.

A question I frequently ask students is to share a view which they believe is controversial. The puzzled look on their face is a sight to behold. Many openly admit that nobody has asked them this question. Despite being from the best institutions, many have not even thought of anything remotely interesting and controversial.

One of the primary roles of a university (beyond supplying manpower to industry) is to teach students to think for themselves. This involves another important aspect – that of questioning authority. Universities provide an ideal playground (in the sense of an isolated environment) to learn these skills without fear of

A key necessity for this is diversity. In the absence of conflicting thoughts, there is really nothing to mould. In fact, I would go as far as to say the greatest gift a university can impart to a student is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas without short circuiting their brain.

Political parties (whether in power or not) want followers but not people who question. Discipline and conformity is what parties seek. We are told the Janata experiment failed as there were too many ‘thinkers.’ Even a new entrant with claims of being different, the AAP, cannot support multiple points of view. The Congress enjoys discipline and conformity as a direct consequence of dynastic rule. Add to this a poor country where a degree is a way to get a better salaried life. In this scenerio, conformity is so much more easy on everyone.

The real world is messy. Universities cannot and should not isolate themselves from what is happening around them. However, the cost to being a contrarain voice is high. We may want to pretend the universities are playground but you never know when a bottle is thrown at a player. In a more heated moment, even a pitch invasion cannot be ruled out.

Let us take the recent IIT Madras episode. An anoymous letter is sent. The undersecretary could have ignored it, but didn’t. Instead she decided to ask for comments. The IIT could have ignored the letter or said something along the lines of “we will look into it.” Instead, they decided to act. They could have initiated a conversation with the forum under scrutiny. Instead they unilaterally suspended them. The reaction was immediate: a pitch invasion was imminient. One voice spoke of “touching a nerve” and another of “a civil war”. The ministry smartly washed its hands. Media and political parties jump in to complete the polarisation.

But really, where are the players in the playground? Empty playgrounds is an apt metaphor to much of our elite institutions. They just don’t seem to be engaged enough. Outside, we have a different problem. How can we have an informed debate when all sides give us ready made conclusions? And who is to participate in this debate when we are compartmentalised into one dimension as left or right.

What we need are political conversations in our society and in our elite institutions. Currently this environment does not exist (without grave costs). It needs to be created. As a first step, the directors of elite institues have to isolate the rest of the institute from their political masters. Second, they need to encourage students to open up and state their views, have an opinion, take a stand, construct arguments around it. One possilbe way to do this is to offer a credit and have students discuss current events in the class. (If you already dismissed off the idea, you now know where the problem lies!)

When dissent is no longer a novelty, you are unlikely to have anonymous letters being sent to the ministry.

But what I do not want in elite institutions are political parties creating camps that cannot and will not talk to each other. This may seem like political activity but is really conformity without logic or reason playing a role. It at best makes a dysfunctional campus. This may be how the real world is, but it is not for an institution to mirror reality, but seek to change it.

Let us get back to the need to hold some controversial views. You don’t have to defend 3 times 4 as 12. (Maybe Russell has to, but hopefully not you.) For anything else, you have to articulate a cogent argument to defend your views. Unfortunately most students have no idea how to because they have never been challenged. Let us make a small beginning. The next time you meet someone you care about, engage them on this question.

Indeed I should be asking you: what is the most controversial view you hold which you believe to be true?

V Vinay is a curious academic entrepreneur.

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SV Raju, the Keeper of the Flame

By Sameer Wagle.

It was with great shock that I read Niranjan Rajadhyaksha’s piece in Mint on the day of SV Raju’s passing. What made it worse in a way is the fact that I am currently overseas and have no means of talking to other people who knew Raju. Here are a few of my recollections of him: my humble tribute to SV Raju.

I knew Raju for more than 15 years since I first became a member of the Indian Liberal Group (ILG) in the late 1990s. I continued interacting with him on and off with him over that period first as a member of ILG and then later as an advisory board member on Freedom First (FF). When I moved back to India from Singapore in 2004 Raju persuaded me to join the advisory board of FF with the stated intention to get me more closely involved with the activities of ILG and Freedom first, along with some other younger members.

However, for a mix of reasons primarily related to career which kept me outside Mumbai for a large part of the last ten years my involvement with FF remained more peripheral. In particular over the last 2-3 years when I have been based in Delhi my interactions with Raju has been primarily only during the meetings of the FF advisory board which was held every 3-4 months.

In fact my last conversation with him was in one such meeting with him a few months back at the Ripon club in Mumbai when while discussing the ‘strategy’ for Freedom First going forward I tried to make the point that Freedom First should remain a “specialist” publication focusing on areas related to the liberal cause & history rather than evolving into a general new magazine line publication. After the meeting as we were dispersing Raju patted me, appreciating my intervention and urged me to be more involved. Unfortunately work and family commitments kept me from meeting Raju more regularly and this shall now always remain a regret.

Raju was quite a character with strong views and a bit of an autocrat, though well meaning, as far as running ILG and FF was concerned. Raju was a great story teller and to hear him talk about the history of Rajaji, Masani and the Swatantra party was always a great pleasure.

What I found fascinating about Raju was how dedicated he remained till the very end about making sure that the various activities that he was managing regarding the Indian Liberal Group and the Freedom First magazine were done in a regular and timely manner. The fact that the ILG and FF remained a “niche” group and publication after so many years of hard work must have been a sore point for him but what seemed more important to him was to make sure that that the liberal torch was carried on – through the regular publication of the FF & activities of the ILG.

His dedication and persistence should remain an inspiration for all of us looking to build a better India. Pray that his soul rests in peace.

Sameer Wagle is on the advisory board of Freedom First and an advisor to the Takshashila Institution.

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Geopolitics, economic reforms and the citizen

By Nitin Pai for Loksatta Whistle.

Let us be clear: the world is interested in India because our economy is growing. If the growth process stalls, the world will stop seeing India as a potential solution to its problems. It is important that the world sees us positively this way because that, in turn, creates an environment conducive for our own growth and development.

So, getting back onto a high growth path is as much a foreign policy imperative as it is a development policy goal. Economic power can be converted into military power, knowledge power, cultural power and other forms of power.

India in 2015 has a short window of opportunity to avail of a virtuous cycle of positive demographics, shifting global balance of power and the economics of development. If we miss the bus, it might be several decades before we get another chance.

This is why the goal of completing the process of economic liberalisation is important. It is also why the task of reforming the government to make the Indian state more competent is important. It is wishful to believe that either of these goals can be achieved by a citizenry that is narrowminded, parochial, illiberal and chauvinistic.

If economic and governance reforms are in the domain of political leaders, personal reforms are very much in our own hands. Can the politically awakened Indian citizen hold fast to the enlightened values enshrined in our Constitution? Let’s use the opportunity to reflect on this.

Author is co – founder and director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent think tank and school of public policy.

This piece was first published in Loksatta Whistle.

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The eightfold path to unlearn public policy paradigms

What are the eight things to unlearn in order to appreciate policymaking better.

by Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)

If one wishes to learn about public policy in the Indian context, there are several great pieces to refer to. For instance, Ajay Shah’s blog post Become a public policy thinker in three easy steps or Nitin Pai’s The eightfold path to transforming India are great starting points. However, as someone newly initiated to this field, I am interested in finding out what we need to unlearn in order to appreciate the intricacies of public policy. And based on my observations there are eight paradigms to let go of. This eightfold way of liberating oneself is given below, arranged in no particular order.

Paradigm 0: What I know is golden, so I can’t let go of it.
The zeroth step of course is being open to the process of unlearning. We come with our own biases, shaped by our varied experiences and perceptions. But our experience or knowledge is not be the way the entire world functions. An unrelenting hold on what we have learned is the equivalent of the sunk cost fallacy in economics.

Paradigm 1: Good intentions translate to good policies.
I defer to an inexact analogy here. Good motive is like the potential energy of a stone resting on the edge of a cliff. The stone has the capacity to get work done by virtue of its position. A good policy on the other hand is like kinetic energy of this stone falling off the cliff. Kinetic energy is the capacity to get work done by virtue of motion. Similarly, a good policy has the capacity to get things moving towards the desired outcomes. Just as both forms of energies have the capacity to get work done, good intentions and good policies also have the capacity of accomplishing objectives in public policy. But this by no means implies that they are same. Conversion of potential energy to kinetic energy requires a conservative force to act on it.  Similarly, good intentions need lots of conscious effort before they are ‘converted’ to a good policy. Moreover, the stone resting on a cliff also has the potential to kill if it falls on an unsuspecting passerby below. Similarly, good intentions alone can lead to negative externalities and even lead to an erosion of moral values. For example, the Morarji Desai government in 1977 ordered a prohibition on alcohol with the ‘good’ intention of improving the health of the citizens. But this ban turned out be a disastrous policy, leading to deaths due to spurious liquor, and the subsequent rise of organised crime like smuggling and money laundering, all having roots in the black market of alcohol. So good intentions does not equate to good policies.

­­­­Paradigm 2: The codes of morality that apply within a nation-state should also apply to the conduct between nation-states.
Trying to figure out the ethical dimensions of a US attack on Iraq or Afghanistan is a moot question to ask because the rules of the game differ according to the context. The morality of a nation-state within its boundaries is in most cases, based on a document like the constitution which every citizen and the government is expected to adhere to. A deviation from the principles of constitutionalism is thus considered wrong or inimical to the interests of the nation as a whole. On the other hand, the rules of the game that apply to international affairs and geopolitics are completely different. There is no constitution or a written code of conduct here. Instead, the fundamental law which applies to international relations is that of power.

Paradigm 3: India’s bane is that while the policies are good, their implementation is bad.
A policy that does not envisage its implementation is, in fact a poor policy to start with. Though one needs to discount the time scaling challenge that all governments face, a policy that remains oblivious to the implementation aspect is no good either.  The word implementation is often seen in terms of enforcement capacity and perceived stakeholder attitudes, two variables which are both prima facie known (even if not accurately) before a policy is made. Thus, a policy that does not envisage the role of these factors is by definition an incompetent policy.

Paradigm 4: Certainty and consistency of views over a long period is a hallmark of good policy analysis.
Stephen Walt, professor of International Relations at Harvard University has written a brilliant piece where he offers the Top 10 things he was wrong about and admits to a change in mind on these matters.  Such humility and lack of certitude is, in fact a boon for policy makers. If empirical evidence proves otherwise, one must replace their deeply held beliefs. And as some great economist (allegedly Keynes) once claimed — “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?”

Paradigm 5: Economics is about picking your poison—capitalism or socialism.
Economics is the bedrock of good policy making. It is the science behind the practice of policy making. The subject, at its core, seeks to understand the study of human behaviour. Economics is certainly not about eulogising the patron saints of economic theories, whether it is Karl Marx or Adam Smith. As long as our efforts are aimed at substantiating why, and how human beings behave, we can aim to have policies that can build the right incentives, nudges or restrictions. Being wedded to an economic theory in the face of contradictory evidence is repeating the folly described in Paradigm 4.

Paradigm 6: A government should be target all its energies at the most disadvantaged section of the society.
More often than not, change happens at the margin. For example, economic reforms initiated in the early 1990s greatly improved the lives of many people in India. But these reforms helped people at the margin — the ones who had access to at least one of three things — money, education or skill. The reforms could not substantially turn around the lives of sections which had none of the three prerequisites. A government can change the lives of many more people at the margin with a lesser effort. This certainly does not mean that governments should ignore those below the margin, but it is equally improbable to expect rapid changes with a one-dimensional strategy. Let the best not be the enemy of the good.

Paradigm 7: What works for me works for everyone else.
Difficulties of perception and memory lend themselves to different cognitive biases to different people. Not all people see the world in the same way and hence do not respond to the same incentives as I do.

Paradigm 8: Politics is a contestation for ideological dominance.
Ideology is just one of the many factors that shapes political opinions. A better definition of politics is that it is a contestation for narrative dominance. It is thus not surprising that it is often the narrative that wins before a party or person does. And since politics is a contestation for the dominance of a narrative rather than an ideology, those who are stuck in ideological silos often end up having egg on their face.

This, I submit is the eightfold path to unlearn and liberate oneself from the bondage. And this in my opinion is the entry point into the world of policy making.


Pranay Kotasthane is a policy analyst at The Takshashila Institution. He is on twitter @pranaykotas

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Shivaji Asaa Hota — This is who Shivaji was…

A review of the Marathi book ‘Shivaji KoN Hota’ which says that instead of a hollow invocation of Shivaji, it would bode well if we understood his life, his achievements and his struggles.

by Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)

Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 1.16.05 pmPossibly because they can no longer speak for themselves, historically important individuals are susceptible to massive distortions of their thoughts, actions and lives. This process of weaving myths around a historical figure holds particularly true in the case of Shivaji Shahji Bhonsle, the 17th century warrior king who went on to establish a formidable Maratha empire. It is with this aim of decoupling history from the prevalent demigod image of Shivaji that the CPI leader Govind Pansare gave a speech Shivaji KoN Hota? (Who was Shivaji?) way back in 1987. This was later published as a book and has been a Marathi super hit—the 38th edition of the book was released recently.

This book puts the life and times of Shivaji under perspective. The work is not as much a biography of Shivaji as it is an attempt to debunk the myths surrounding Shivaji. It begins with the question—of what relevance is the life of a feudal king in a democracy? Pansare says that although Shivaji was essentially a part of the 17th century feudal society, it was his vision that set him apart from the other rulers. First and foremost, Shivaji was a great state builder. Starting from a small paragana around Pune, he created a formidable political rule that extended throughout Maharashtra and beyond. Second, Shivaji was an administrative reformer. He modified rules of the tilling system in order to benefit the ordinary peasant. Unlike other rulers, he was able to break the traditional control of the Deshmukhs (highest local authority in a village), the Patils (a title for village chiefs), the Kulkarnis (village record keepers) and other dominant classes. Because he was able to break this nexus, he introduced land reforms that put an end to the discretionary exploitation by the village power elite.

In an interesting section of the book, Pansare debunks the myth of an idyllic 17th century village. He contends that before Shivaji’s rule, the king had no control or an interest in the operations of the village as long as the share of taxes duly reached the state coffers. The village economy was largely self-sufficient and exploitative. Under Shivaji’s rule however,  the administration was centralised. Taxes reached the state first and were then devolved to the village levels.  Moreover, the 17th century was particularly miserable for women. Physical exploitation was common and there was no appellate mechanism against the village elite. This changed in Shivaji’s administration. Pansare cites an instance where, for the first time a landlord was punished for the rape of a village woman. There was also a prevalent practice of women being employed as concubines for the soldiers of a travelling army. Shivaji prohibited that practice, disbanded a standing army and encouraged soldiers to take up other part-time occupations in order to retain stronger family ties.

The author’s take on the destruction of temples by invading armies merits particular attention. The conventional revenue earnings for armies came as a proportion of the loot. Hence, armies had an inbuilt incentive for maximum pillage while conducting raids. Naturally, temples which also functioned as wealth banks came under attack during such raids. Destruction of temples also served as a demoralising weapon—if the ‘God’ could not protect itself from an invading army, of what use was resisting such a powerful force? It was for these reasons that, regardless of religion, both Hindu and Muslim armies targeted temples. This is quite the opposite of the present day narrative where a few rulers have been singled out for destruction of temples. The author gives the instance of the Sharda Sringeri Temple which was in fact destroyed by the ‘Hindu’ Maratha army and was rebuilt by the ‘Muslim’ Tipu Sultan. What Pansare says is that the basis for statecraft was a conquest for rajya, and not dharma. Once the conquests were completed, there were several instances of kings rebuilding temples in order to assuage their subjects. The author says that even Aurangzeb rebuilt the Jagannath temple in Gujarat besides other important worshipping sites in Mathura and Benaras.

In recent times, the totem of Shivaji has been raised by many Hindu extremist outfits, calling him a Hindu ruler who stood up to the Muslim Mughals. Slotting Shivaji in neat compartments of religious dichotomy is factually incorrect. The book has excerpts of letters by Shivaji which are rich in Persian/Urdu words — like julum, farman, mulaaqat etc. Shivaji also issued ordinances disallowing destruction of mosques and temples.There were many Muslims who were happy with his rule just like many Hindu kings who collaborated to undermine his rule. Again, the message is that the basis for statecraft was a conquest for rajya, and not dharma.

The author rues that today, a cult of Shivaji has formed. Groups of people formed along caste and religious lines calling themselves shivbhakts are not difficult to spot in Maharashtra. However, what is conveniently forgotten is that Shivaji faced severe opposition from caste groups (96 kulis), who refused to be ruled by a person belonging to a caste ‘lesser’ than their own. But today, in their quest for narrative dominance, Shivaji was first appropriated by Hindu nationalists, then he was appropriated by various Maratha groups and then as a Gobrahman Pratipalak— the protector of the cow and the brahmin.

The problem with this competition for appropriation of Shivaji’s legacy by a religion, region and caste has been that while Shivaji was a very popular figure in many neighbouring states 50 years ago, his legacy has now been confined to Maharashtra. Pansare says that it is important that we distinguish the real shivbhakts from fake ones. Transforming a human to a god figure is easy because once a human is made a god, one disposes himself of the responsibility of changing his own behaviour. How can one emulate God, people ask. This is what we should be wary of. Instead of a hollow invocation of Shivaji, it would bode well if we understood his life, his achievements and his struggles. The lesson for all of us is that any nationalism obsessed with exclusion finds it difficult to limit the extent of the exclusion.

After all, history and mythology are separated by a thin, semi-permeable membrane. History enters the domain of the myth when historical figures are transformed into demigods, armed with superpowers. At a latter point, reason, as a means to gauge their power becomes dispensable and their lives attain an axiomatic character—beyond enquiry and too great to be analysed logically. We need to be extremely wary of this process which prohibits us from the spirit of questioning.

P.S.: Govind Pansare was killed by unidentified assailants in Feb, 2015

Pranay Kotasthane is a policy analyst at The Takshashila Institution. He is on twitter @pranaykotas

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Why don’t the Chapel Hill attacks count as terrorism?

By Saurabh Chandra

By conflating hate crimes with actual terrorism, we end up doing disservice to both.

Many people on social media asked this question: Why don’t the Chapel Hill attacks count as terrorism? Terrorism is violence inflicted to create a general environment of terror towards a political objective. So, the Church Street IED in Bangalore counts as a terror attack as do the 9/11 twin tower attacks and the 26/11 Mumbai shootings. The Chapel Hill killings are in all likelihood hate killings where the victims suffered due to their religion. Any murder is despicable but by trying to label all hate crime as terrorism, we lose sight of what terrorism is and how to counter it.

In the 9/11 attacks Al-Qaeda had a political motive for murdering innocent civilians. The message being sent to the United States was that if they do not withdraw from the Middle East, Al-Qaeda’s sceptre of terror would haunt all American citizens and hurt the US financial system by adding risk. Lashkar-e-Taiba, the terror outfit behind the Mumbai attacks has a stated objective of waging a holy war to establish a medieval Khilafat (or caliphate in anglicised form) over the Indian subcontinent. LeT’s mentors, the ISI and the Pakistani Army are the only professional army in the world to have a stated objective of “striking terror in the hearts of the enemy” (from the Quranic Concept of War by SK Malik, a mandatory reading in the Pakistan war college since late-70s). By conflating hate crimes with actual terrorism, we end up doing disservice to both.

Is this specific to a religion?
Terrorism is a political tool used when conventional confrontation is not an option and members of all religions have used it. The Irish Republican Army fighting for Northern Ireland was Catholic. The LTTE (pioneers of suicide bombers and using children as suicide bombers) was largely Hindu (but had members of other faith also). The perpetrators of terrorism are political organisations or at times individual claiming to act under inspiration from such organisation.

The term Islamic or Muslim terrorism is an unfortunate outcome of the fact that we don’t distinguish between political Islam or Islamism and the religion Islam. This is perhaps a legacy of the fact that the religious and political leaders since Mohammed were the same person in the form of the Khalifa (or Caliph). The terror organisations also are more interested in making it appear that there is indeed no difference – IS or the Islamic State being a case in point. It serves their cause to appear as if they speak on behalf of all Muslims. In contrast, IRA or LTTE did not seek identification with a religion and had nationalistic causes.

What about the killings of Shia Muslims in Pakistan?
That is not terrorism either. An act of killing a group of people on account of race, religion or some other attribute is a genocide. Instances of this would be the Nazi Germany against the Jews or what happened in Rwanda, against the Tutsi. There is no other way to label an attempt to kill Shias by certain organisations in Pakistan.

If we need to pick an act of terrorism within Pakistan, the recent killing of school children in Peshawar by Taliban was a clear act of terrorism. Taliban wants the Pakistani Army to stop its operation against them and allow them to run its own government in parts of Pakistan. The killing was not a mindless act. Taliban had clear political demands and a message it wanted to send to the Pakistan Army through that massacre.

How do we fix this?
We need to move away from lazy journalism where terror attacks are often explained away having been done by Islamic terrorists.  It is important to cite the organisation responsible for the attack together with its political objective.  Most organisations that commit such attacks want people to know their identity, which is never a mystery.  Often, shoddy journalism leads to reporting that blames Islamic terrorists, without sufficient explanation or granular detail. This creates the false correlation of Muslims with terrorists, especially for western populations, that live in homogenous societies. This also creates an atmosphere where a killings such as those which happened at Chapel Hill, without a political objective also gets tagged by many people as a terrorist attack.

The other part is public education – people need to know that all Muslims don’t subscribe to Islam as a political ideology and faith is a personal matter. Highlighting the distinction between political Islamism and Islam the religion will weaken the cause of Islamists and increase safety of Muslims.

Finally, we as readers should ask why. If the why does not lead to a political answer, it is not terrorism.

Saurabh Chandra is a Bangalore based technology entrepreneur with an interest in public policy.

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Deciphering the signals behind Asad Durrani’s utterances

The former ISI chief’s successive appearances on television last week are possibly aimed at building pressure on the US to fulfil their side of the ‘deal’

by Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)

Lt. General (retd) Asad Durrani, a former Director General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) appeared on the Al-Jazeera Network and BBC HARDtalk last week, and opened up more than one can of worms in the process. In his interview to Al-Jazeera, he assessed that the ISI harboured Osama Bin Laden and wanted to give him up in exchange of a favourable resolution to the Afghanistan political question. On BBC HARDtalk, when asked about Pakistan’s continued support for the Afghan Taliban, he expounded that statecraft is based on realism, and not on abstract emotions of permanent friendship and trust. What Durrani said during these television appearances did not come as a surprise to people in India who have long suspected that the Military-Jihadi Complex(MJC) in Pakistan is a powerful and irreconcilable entity. Nevertheless, this was the first admission of the nexus between Al-Qaeda and the Pakistani State by someone close to the MJC. Officially, the ISI still claims that they did not harbour Bin Laden and played no role in the 2011 raid. Thus, from an Indian perspective, it is not the content of these utterances that matter as much as the the reasons behind the timing of this disclosure.

The first reason for these statements could just be a personal vendetta between Durrani and Gen. Raheel Sharif, who heads the current military establishment, or a feud between Durrani and the ISI chief during the Osama Bin Laden raid, Lt. Gen. (retd) Shuja Pasha. Having figured out that there is nothing to lose personally, this could be a ploy by Durrani to voice his opposition to others in the military. Appearing on HARDtalk, Durrani appears to be critical of Operation Zarb-e-Azb on the grounds that it created more trouble than it killed enemies of the Pakistani State. In response to the military offensive against terrorists following the Peshawar attack, he hoped that the Pakistani military would calibrate its response based on what the terror groups stand for. In his own words: ‘In principle, groups which are ultimately going to be useful in the unity of Afghanistan and groups that are not against the Pakistani state will not be targeted, I at least hope that will not be done because that would be a very silly thing to do’. Such statements indicate differences between Mr. Durrani and the current military leadership. The possibility that these utterances are a part of a personal power play in the Pakistani military elite sounds like a damp squib but one can’t deny the role that personal differences play in such cases. This possibility however, becomes untenable considering that Asad Durrani has been the unofficial mouthpiece of ISI in the past and has served masterfully as a channel of plausible deniability for the MJC. If this modus operandi holds true even today, there are two possibilities that explain the purpose and timing behind these interviews.

The second possibility could be to pre-empt another revelation that might expose ISI’s duplicity further. By taking a stance now, Durrani is attempting to soften the impact that any disclosure which implicates ISI might lead to. When questioned by Al-Jazeera Network’s Mehdi Hasan that was Laden’s compound an ISI safe house, he responded ‘If ISI was doing that, then I would say they were doing a good job. And if they revealed his location, they again probably did what was required to be done’. Such statements are meant to shield the ISI against a domestic backlash as Bin Laden still remains an admired figure in Pakistan. What appears to have happened is that the ISI’s plan was to trade Osama Bin Laden at the right time and at a right “price”. What is not clear however, is whether the Abbottabad raid was a result of this deal or a consequence of an aborted one. After Asad Durrani’s outburst, the US seemed to be eager to deny his claims. US State spokeswoman Jen Psaki was quick to assert that  ‘we don’t have any reason to believe that the government of Pakistan knew about the location of Bin Laden’. This evidence suggests that a deal was indeed being negotiated when US took unilateral action, recognising that Pakistan was asking for too much in return.

The third and the most plausible reason could be that a deal indeed took place but Pakistan did not get what was promised. In this context, Durrani rued that ‘there was no co-operation by the US with Pakistan on Afghanistan’ after 2005. Solving the Afghanistan political question in terms favorable to Pakistan was the demand that Pakistan would have wanted in return of Laden’s handover. Since this demand was not met in its entirety, Pakistan now wants to remind US of its side of the deal. Praising Pakistan’s policy in Afghanistan, Durrani reminded the US, and the world that Pakistan would continue to support jihadi elements not harmful to Pakistan like the Haqqanis. He even claimed that the Haqqanis were given signals to move out of North Waziristan before Operation Zarb-e-Azb began. Apart from a stake in the politics of Afghanistan, these statements might be aimed at boosting the quantum of US financial aid for the Pakistani military. Since Pakistan has vehemently expressed its disagreement with the US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement, these interviews could be meant to seek a similar deal between the US and Pakistan.

What happens in the coming days will help understand which of these three possibilities turns out to be true. Meanwhile, a lesson for all of us from these events, to paraphrase Asad Durrani himself, is that ‘Statecraft is not about permanent friends…you play so many games, you keep many balls in the air. International relations are not based on trust’. Serves as a reminder to all of us that amorality is a feature, and not a bug in the domain of international relations.

Pranay Kotasthane is a policy analyst at The Takshashila Institution. He is on twitter @pranaykotas

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Stand-up’s tryst with destiny

By Devika Kher

The history of stand-up comedy has shown that, like all the other fields, the relevance of stand-up will grow along with its demand in society.

It was the decade after the Second World War. There was still anxiety within the western communities just out of a war. The rules that existed before the war no longer applied. It was during this time that the pubs around America started appreciating a new breeze of entertainers. This new stream of talent wasn’t restricted to the rules of entertainment followed before. They, unlike their predecessors, were pushing the envelope as far as they could. It was the turning point in the field now known as, stand-up comedy.

In America, stand-up comedy started as a part of the Vaudeville theatres in the late 18th and early 19th century. Vaudeville theatre was a theatrical performance with a series of different type of acts presented in a sequence. It was like watching a play, a song and a dance performance on just one ticket. Quite a famous genre, vaudeville theatre art was distinguished for having liquor free and mixed-gender crowd. It was this form of art that increased the number and the size of theatres across cities.Amongst the various routines presented, one of the genres sprouting was a set of burlesque shows. These shows used a new art form in which the artists presented a set of fast one liner jokes. At the time, the jokes were mostly ‘clean’ and kept a safe distance from politically incorrect topics.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom saw the rise of stand-up comedy within the music hall performances.  One of the famous names of the time was Max Miller, who use to chip in jokes in between a song and dance set. However, the taste for such shows developed post World War II as the Armed forces started appreciating the art form they discovered while attending wartime concert parties.

The space for stand-up comedy developed further after the war in both the countries. While America saw a rise of rebellious stand-up comedy, the workmen clubs in the UK provided space for comics who used racial and sexual stereotypes to entertain the audience. A series of comics like, the famous Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl were the products of this era, where comics like Bruce were being imprisoned on the ground of obscenity. The negative sentiment within the society after the World War became a fodder for these artists and the outcome was the stand-up comedy as we know of it today.

The modern stand-up comedy was no more bound by fear of censorship, and the comics slowly started delving into the topics which were once a taboo. The night clubs in the cities became the new breeding grounds for this genre of artist. A casual dress-code was brought into the act, and, various new forms of stand-up comedy were also initiated. Along with a rising number of followers, the post War period also saw the advent of communication technology. As the communication gap was filled by radios, televisions etc., the reach of these comics became global. Consequently, rebellious American stand-up comedians started influencing their British counterparts and stand-up comedy started spreading across boundaries.

As the reach of this profession continues to grow within new countries and cultures, it is important to remember where all of this came from. Not because it makes for an inspiring story, but to understand the nuances that are involved behind making it a culture within society. For instance, support for comedy as an art form is majorly dependent on the temperament of society. Making comedy a rebellious art form would not have been possible had the dominant temperament not been of insecurity and anxiety.

Another important observation to take away is the relation between political correctness and comedy content. As mentioned, comedy in its nascent stage was heavily censored: so much so that the content had to be passed through a censor board which would then mark the unacceptable content in blue. Later the comedy which focused on these unacceptable topics came to be known as “blue comedy”. After the war, the friction increased much more as various artists were sent to prison for obscenity. The fight between the two ends continued for a long time with famous comics like George Carlin and Richard Pryor facing the brunt.

Hence, it should not be seen as unusual for comics starting the genre within a community to start getting into trouble with the authorities. Stand-up content has had to fight through moral consciousness in all societies before the mindset evolved in its favour. One of the things which helped the most in this was the rising fame and demand for stand-up comedy, which made it an economically viable occupation. For some of the stand-up comedians it also brought fame and stardom which solidified the base for the upcoming talents and brought a legitimacy that the occupation needed. In other words, the budding comics from the countries with a comparatively new stand-up scene should look at early troubles as a rite of passage before they make it to a more accepting environment.

The history of stand-up comedy has shown that, like all the other fields, the relevance of stand-up will grow along with its demand in society. However, unlike most other services, stand-up does not only depend upon the choices and preferences of the people, but also their culture, norms and beliefs. The good news here is that even if it takes a long time, stand-up comedy as a profession will evolve as the society evolves.

Devika Kher is a Research Associate at the Takshashila Institution.

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The Indian Constitution and its Evolution

On the 65th anniversary of the formation of the Indian republic, V. Vinay shares some thoughts on the Indian constitution and its evolution.


The constitution came into being after nearly 3 years of debate, with 299 members. The drafting committee was headed by BR Ambedkar. The constituent assembly was an indirectly elected body created before independence. The first Loksabha elections were in 1952.

While India became a republic in 1950, it took less than 15 months for shortcoming to be found. Because judgements went against the govt. Freedom of expression became a thorny issue. Because the PM Jawaharlal Nehru didn’t like some cartoon and writings by the left. The first amendment was moved on 10th May and enacted on 18th June 1951. In this short while, our freedom of expression was curtailed.

It look less than six weeks for a slew of changes to the constitution. 13 changes in all including insertion of Schedule 9. Schedule 9 was created to be outside judicial scrutiny. Only recently the Indian supreme court said these provisions may also be scrutinised if required.

While the articles of the constitution have been amended 99 times until now, you would have thought we got at least the preamble right. But no, Indira Gandhi in the infamous 42 amendment decided to amend the preamble as well. This was on 1st April 1977. Oh, the irony! The preamble then and now:


This is how we became a socialist secular country. The Janata govt did not roll this back: lest our friends in Moscow be offended.

The 42nd Amendment touched/modified/inserted about 54 articles! This has been the largest surgery carried out on the constitution. In the meanwhile nearly 300 acts now find shelter in Schedule 9, away from judicial scrutiny. Many amendments were just showing the courts their ‘place.’ Here is the 24th:


Interestingly, one person who opposed changes to article 19 was Syama Prasad Mukherjee. Wonder if his successors have the courage to restore the article to its pristine form. Meanwhile, we have had 99 amendments. The Modi govt in surely bound to make the 100th amendment. A century! A number we all love.

But still this is the best we have. And this is what keeps us going as a nation. Happy Republic Day.

V. Vinay is a curious academic-entrepreneur living in Bangalore. He tweets at @ainvvy, and these thoughts were originally posted on twitter.

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