Reading Rushdie in Iran

I would never have imagined that reading a book could harm anyone, but consider this family’s story:

The family’s complicated journey began after the couple fled Iran and arrived in Toronto in January 1995. They lived here for 10 years while seeking asylum, giving birth to a son. But on Dec. 6, 2005, with all legal avenues exhausted, the parents were deported back to Iran.

The boy’s father claimed he had been originally persecuted in Iran after he was discovered with novelist Salman Rushdie’s book. Once they were sent back there from Canada, they were detained and tortured for three months while the boy lived with relatives. Once released from custody, they again fled, reaching Turkey with the help of relatives. They bought fake passports and eventually travelled to Guyana, the parents said.

On Feb. 4 they boarded a direct flight from Guyana to Toronto aboard Zoom Airlines, planning to seek refuge again in Canada. The boy’s father said the plane was diverted to Puerto Rico after a passenger suffered a mid-flight heart attack.

There, they were detained for having the fake passports they’d earlier used to escape persecution, and sent to a detention centre in Texas. There they remain as I type these words, still trying to get away from the consequences of reading a book by Salman Rushdie. I hope they make it to Canada and get asylum, but they’re just one family, and at least they got so far. What about the millions of people still in Iran, unable to find escape even in a book?

(Link via email from Manish Vij.)

Amitabh for president?

I’m amused by all the speculation around whether Amitabh Bachchan will consent to being a candidate in India’s presidential elections. If anything, it shows how meaningless the post is, a vestigial organ of government. In the past, it’s been used to kick politicians upstairs, reward old partymen for a few decades of service, or make a symbolic gestures about inclusiveness. (The calculus of caste and religion plays a part; see here and here.) But at least most previous presidents have had some kind of experience in politics and governance. Why does Bachchan deserve to be president?

On the other hand, do consider who won it last. I can’t imagine Bachchan coming up with anything quite like APJ Abdul Kalam’s poetry. I can live with “Eir Bir Phatte.”

On alarmism

The global warming people are called alarmists. Once, when it was in vogue, just three decades or so ago, the global cooling people were called alarmists. People who speak of apocalypse are called alarmists. People who warn of imminent nuclear warfare or the ozone layer getting screwed or biological warfare ravaging continents or super-resistant bacteria destroying mankind or mosquitoes with battleaxes taking over the White House are called alarmists.

I don’t know whether all the people above are alarmists or not, but I think of the world around me staying as it is, and I feel alarmed. What’s that about?

Anna Nicole Smith and America

Tunku Varadarajan writes in the Wall Street Journal:

[Anna Nicole] Smith was the object of a fierce popular fascination. It could be said—and said not entirely as metaphor—that Anna Nicole Smith embodied America. She embodied its bounty as well as its overabundance; its exploitability, and its propensity to exploit. She embodied, also, its litigiousness, its enterprise, its universal offer of the chance to remake oneself (Gatsby did it one way, Anna Nicole Smith did it another). And to many foreigners—particularly foreign men—she embodied America in a literal way, too: in a brassy blondeness that people in repressed cultures marvel at.

The thing is, the USA stands for a lot of things—you could replace Smith’s name in the above quote with that of vitually any American celebrity, and find that they ‘embody’ their country in as many ways as she does.

And what of India? I’d argue that Mallika Sherawat and Rakhi Sawant embody our country as much as Narendra Modi and Pratibha Naithani do. Do not shudder at the thought—perhaps you embody India too. To use a cliched expression, countries contain multitudes—and so do you.

The magic of Shruti Nelson

The partner, as some of you may know, curates and organises art shows. A show she’s put together is running in New York at the moment, but I’m far more excited about a show that opens today in Mumbai: it features works by Shruti Nelson, a painter from Baroda, and while I’ve long been a fan of hers, some of this work is way beyond even my expectations.

You can check out some of the paintings featured in the exhibition here. My favourites: 1, 2, 3, 4.

Heck, they’re all good, and they’re much better close up, so visit the exhibition if you’re in Mumbai and check them out.

Reason vs Rationalisation

A shorter version of this piece was published today as the second installment of my column, Thinking it Through, in Mint. I also posted this on the old India Uncut.

Often when I argue with friends, or on the internet, I am dismayed by how intransigent some people are. No matter how many facts I throw before them, or how solid my reasoning is, I simply cannot convince them of my point of view. No doubt they feel the same about me. “He refuses to listen to reason,” they think, even as I bemoan how unreasonable they are.

This is not a phenomenon peculiar to me: we live in deeply polarised times, and around half the world believes that the other half ignores reason altogether. Well, it is my belief that we overestimate reason to begin with. The Scottish Philosopher David Hume once described reason as “the slave of the passions,” and I believe that much of the time when we feel we are being reasonable, we are actually rationalising conclusions we have already arrived at, positions that we already hold.

An excellent illustration of how our mind does this comes from neuroscience. In the 1960s, neuroscientists Michael Gazzaniga and Roger Sperry carried out a series of experiments on patients with split-brain epilepsy. A common treatment for such patients used to be to sever the corpus callosum, the part of the brain that connects the two hemispheres of the brain. This effectively splits the brain into two: rational thought is carried out by the left hemisphere, but the two halves of the brain stop being aware of the happenings the other half.

Describing the experiments in his book, “The Blank Slate,” Steven Pinker wrote of how “the left hemisphere constantly weaves a coherent but false account of the behaviour chosen without its knowledge by the right.” One example: the experimenters would flash the word “walk” in the visual field of the right hemisphere. The patient would get up and start walking. But when asked why he did so, his left brain, which would be unaware of what the right brain had seen, and would effectively be doing the replying, gave answers such as “to get a coke.” The remarkable thing is that the patients actually believed their explanation, even though the conscious mind arrived at it after the unconscious mind prompted the body to start walking.

Pinker called the conscious mind “a spin doctor, not the commander in chief,” while Gazzaniga referred to the left brain as “the interpreter.” In his book, “Phantoms in the Brain,” VS Ramachandran wrote, “[t]he left hemisphere’s job is to create a belief system or model and to fold new experiences into that belief system. If confronted with some new information that doesn’t fit the model, it relies on Freudian defence mechanisms to deny, repress or confabulate – anything to preserve the status quo.”

In other words, the left brain’s job to to make sense of the world and build a coherent worldview. This isn’t easy. The world is full of complicated phenomena, and the most intelligent among us would not be able to make sense of it all if we tried to place each disparate event in its proper perspective. We would be perpetually bewildered.

To deal with this, our brains evolved to seek patterns in everything. Michael Shermer, in his book “How We believe,” wrote: “Those who were best at finding patterns (standing upwind of game animals is bad for the hunt, cow manure is good for the crops) left behind the most offspring.” Of course, while we are especially good at seeking patterns in everything, not all patterns are meaningful, and many simply come from confusing correlation with causation. Thus, a cricketer who makes a century when he happens to have a red handkerchief in his pocket may carry that handkerchief with him for the rest of his career.

Indeed, this explains religion. For much of our existence, science hasn’t been around (or able) to answer the big questions of the day. We’d have gone mad thinking about it all if we didn’t have religion to give us ready-made patterns that explained everything. Similarly, in the modern world, we have all kinds of belief systems that help make sense of the world around us, and provide us with cognitive shortcuts to think about the world.

When these belief systems are attacked, it is natural for us to not want to have to rethink them. As an economist would say, that would be inefficient, wasting too much time and energy. Thus, various kinds of defence mechanisms originate for this purpose, such as the confirmation bias, which is a tendency to consider only evidence that fits our existing beliefs. A believer in astrology would do this, for example, by considering all correct predictions by an astrologer to be proof of its validity, while ignoring the ones that turn out false.

And indeed, this is why most arguments, especially about politics and economics, are so frustrating. If both sides have firm beliefs, they stand little chance of convincing the other person, for most reasoned argument in such cases is rationalisation couched as reason. The next time you get into one of those arguments, and witness one of them, you will actually be able to observe this happening. The delight of it all is that the people involved will not be aware of this process, and will honestly believe themselves to be open-minded individuals who are, well, thinking it through. But that is mostly self-deception.

Where’s the Freedom Party

My weekly column for Mint, Thinking It Through, kicked off on February 8, 2007. It will appear every Thursday. This is the first installment, also posted on the old India Uncut.

It’s frustrating being a libertarian in India. Libertarians, broadly, believe that every person should be have the freedom to do whatever they want with their person or property as long as they do not infringe on the similar freedoms of others. Surely this would seem a good way for people to live: respecting each other’s individuality, and not trying to dictate anyone else’s behaviour.

Naturally, libertarians believe in both social and economic freedoms. They believe that what two consenting adults do inside closed doors should not be the state’s business. Equally, they believe the state should not interefere when two consenting parties trade with each other, for what is this but an extension of that personal freedom. And yet, despite having gained political freedom 60 years ago, personal and economic freedoms are routinely denied in India. Even worse, there is no political party in the country that speaks up for freedom in all its forms.

Consider our Left parties. They speak up for personal freedoms (though often as a matter of convenience), such as for free speech and against censorship, but, bound by dogma, they oppose economic freedom. They do not understand that when two people trade with each other, they do so because they both benefit, and that allowing people to trade freely creates prosperity better than government handouts can. They do not see the good that our limited reforms of the last 15 years have done. They point to the existence of poverty as evidence that the reforms have failed, not admitting that the reforms have not been carried out in the areas that affect our poor the most.

The Left claims to speak for the poor, but most of the policies it supports, such as the labour laws and the minimum wage, harm poor people the most. It does not accept that poverty is a result of inadequate employment and insufficient productivity, and that unleashing private enterprise, by removing all the barriers to it that still exist, would solve these problems. It opposes foreign investment, as if anything but employment and prosperity could result from it. It views economics as a zero-sum game, and assumes that the only way to enrich the poor is to steal from the rich.

Then consider the Right. The religious right routinely tramples on personal freedoms in the name of religion and tradition and suchlike. It takes offence at any criticism, and is an enemy of free speech. The extreme elements of it, which are more common than we acknowledge, and even won a state election resoundingly not long ago, treat an entire minority as subhuman. And yes, inspired by nationalistic fervour, they often oppose economic freedoms as well.

But why blame the political parties? Politics is all about demand and supply: our politicians do not value freedom because our people do not demand it. There are a variety of different reasons for why this is so.

When it comes to economic freedoms, it so happens that many of the great truths of economics are deeply unintuitive. The fact that markets aren’t zero-sum, for example, or that the spontaneous order of millions of individuals working separately towards their self-interest can produce and distribute goods far more efficiently than central planning can. Also, most of us have grown up in a socialist framework, and instinctively look to our mai-baap state for solutions. We look to the government to provide jobs, to lift people out of poverty, to provide free education to all, and so on. “What does a poor man care about freedom?” an IAS officer friend recently asked me. “All he wants is food.” And indeed, the connection between economic freedom and jobs and food on the plate is not one that is immediately obvious.

When it comes to personal freedoms, we are so used to living in a country where they are denied to us that we don’t even notice their absence. As a matter of routine, films are censored, books are banned, and our personal and sexual preferences are restricted. Free expression is endangered in this country, and whether it’s MF Hussain painting a Hindu goddess nude or an Orkut forum about Shivaji or a comedian making fun of Mahatma Gandhi, our default reaction is to ask that it be stopped. How can free speech thrive in a country where giving offence is treated as a crime?

Am I hopeful for things changing? Yes and no. Yes, because as the cause and effect of economic freedom becomes clearer, people will see through socialist rhetoric and realise that only free enterprise can provide jobs, lift our living standards, and raise this country out of poverty. On the other hand, such a clear-cut utilitarian case is harder to make for personal freedoms, and political parties, in any case, thrive on catering to special interest groups. They are, thus, generally likelier to restrict freedom even further instead of removing existing restrictions.

Immense sighs emerge. Perhaps I should simply have been a Communist or a Fascist.

Bollywood hails the free market

A version of my piece below was published on January 19, 2007 in the Wall Street Journal as “Bollywood’s New Capitalist Hero.” (Subscription link.) It was also posted on India Uncut. It isn’t meant to be a review of “Guru”, towards which I have mixed feelings, but a comment on one aspect of it.

Who would ever have thought that one of the villains of a Bollywood film could be import duty? “Guru”, the latest Bollywood blockbuster by the respected director Mani Ratnam, is that rare film—perhaps Bollywood’s first—in which free markets are lauded as a force for good. Aliens emerging from the Taj Mahal would be less surprising.

“Guru” stars Abhishek Bachchan as Gurukant Desai, a character inspired by Dhirubhai Ambani. Ambani was that rare tycoon who went from rags to riches during the worst years of India’s license raj, building Reliance Industries, which today is India’s largest private sector company. In the era in which Ambani flourished, the state throttled private enterprise with licenses, regulations and sundry restrictions that had at their core Jawaharlal Nehru’s pithy sentiment: “Profit is a dirty word.” Ambani built an empire in spite of this system, enriching millions of middle-class shareholders in the process, for whom he became a folk hero well before his death in 2002.

Ambani’s means were sometimes controversial, and the film reflects this. Towards the end,  Desai is on trial for economic offences that have much to do with import duty and the like. He stands up to make his final statement, and is asked if he is going to speak standing up. In a memorable moment, he thunders, “Do I need a license to stand?”

Desai then evokes the name of Mahatma Gandhi, and implicitly compares Gandhi’s freedom struggle against imperialism to his own struggle with the forces of economic oppression. It is an apt comparison, stated with all the drama and flourish that Bollywood is famous for, but it is almost unbelievable that it is being made in a Hindi film.

In Bollywood, over the ages, one of the template villains has been the businessman. He will look suitably sinister, will alienate his own children, and will either deal in drugs or arms on the side, or spend his time evicting slum dwellers. Anything for profit, especially murder and rape. Most Bollywood businessman villains were classic caricatures of “the evil capitalist,” exploiting the workers and growing rich on their blood and toil. They often freelanced as mafia dons or were crony capitalists, but when the hero raged against their greed, this distinction was lost: business—and the profit motive—were itself painted as twisted, and the rare benevolent businessman stood out starkly as an exception to the rule.

Indeed, Abhishek Bachchan’s father, the screen legend Amitabh Bachchan, himself acted in many films as the angry young man who speaks up for the poor against big business. The senior Bachchan’s best years were in the 1970s, when the Soviets were idolized and America and free enterprise were reviled. Times have changed, and for the first time, Bollywood has acknowledged that change.

Why India needs school vouchers

This piece of mine was published on January 15, 2007 as an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal Asia. (Subscriber link.) It was also posted on India Uncut.

On India’s Republic Day, January 26, the New Delhi-based Centre for Civil Society will launch a campaign for school choice. It’s an apt day for the event. While India’s constitution guarantees universal and free education, the government has utterly failed that mission. It’s time to encourage the private sector to step in.

Public primary education in India is in dire straits. According to a 2006 study by Pratham, a nongovernmental organization, more than half the children who join school in the first grade drop out before reaching eighth grade. A study conducted the prior year by the same organization found that 35% of school-going children surveyed between the ages of seven to 14 failed a reading test involving a simple paragraph; 41% of them couldn’t subtract or divide properly.

Little wonder that private schools are sprouting up like wildfire to fill the gap. Often illegal, these schools don’t just serve the rich and middle classes, but the poor as well. And the quality of education these schools provide is often higher than in their public counterparts. A 1999 government report titled the “Public Report on Basic Education in India” found that private schools across rural parts of North India were vastly superior to public schools in terms of facilities and learning environment. On surprise visits during school days, the researchers found only 53% of the accredited public schools actively engaged in teaching.

The Centre for Civil Society’s campaign aims to enable more parents to send their children to private schools by promoting school vouchers. (Currently, India doesn’t boast any school voucher schemes, though a few are in the works.) Inspired by Milton Friedman, vouchers enable parents to enroll their child in a school of their choice. Variations on the idea include tuition reimbursement and direct cash transfers. In each scheme, the principle is the same: empowering parents with choice to increase competition among educational institutes and engender better quality education.

Much more could be done. Currently, India’s private sector is actively discouraged from setting up educational institutes. To offer state-approved degrees, a school must meet a number of parameters, including government-trained teachers, large playgrounds, and other onerous requirements. Above all — inanely — private schools cannot operate for a profit. Entrepreneurs evade these hurdles through innovative financial structures such as trusts, but the necessity of this kind of manipulation scares away many would-be entrepreneurs. According to a 2001 CCS study, it takes 14 different licenses from four different authorities to open a private school in New Delhi – a task that, if done legally, could take years.

India’s parents aren’t waiting for a government fix. A 2005 study by education specialists James Tooley and Pauline Dixon showed that 65% of schoolchildren in Hyderabad’s slums attend private unaided schools—for which their parents had to pay—rather than a free government alternative. In a similar finding, an October 2006 survey by CCS showed that 14% of households in Delhi earning less than 5,000 rupees ($113) per month opted to send their children to a private school.

It is a common canard that the cost of education is higher in private schools than in public schools. Numerous studies have shown that private schools use capital as much as twice as efficiently as their public sector peers. Why? When competition is absent, waste ensues. Voucher schemes, put simply, allow public money to be put to better use.

As in any society, education is the foundation of future economic success. The Centre for Civil Society’s campaign for school choice may be a nascent effort, but it’s of critical importance to the India of today — and of tomorrow.

*  *  *

Further resources: Do check out Pratham’s comprehensive reports, ASER 2005 and ASER 2006. Tooley and Dixon’s landmark report is summarised and available in full here. Andrew Coulson’s paper, How Markets Affect Quality  (pdf link), is an excellent resource on the subject. You can read about the PROBE Report here, and buy it here and here. Mayank Wadhwa’s CCS paper on the licenses required to start a private school in Delhi is here, and the findings of the latest CCS survey are summarised here.

My thanks to Gautam Bastian and Shruti Rajagopalan for sharing their valuable insights with me on school choice, and directing me to many useful resources. Gargantuan gratitude grunts gregariously.

Fighting against censorship

A version of this piece by me was published on October 3, 2006 in the Wall Street Journal as “India’s Censorship Craze.” (Subscription link.) It was also posted on India Uncut.

American pop icon Paris Hilton corrupts Indian minds. That, at least, is the fear held by mandarins of Indian culture. So they’ve barred television channels in India from airing Ms. Hilton’s new music video, “Stars Are Blind,” in yet another example of the censorship fever sweeping the country.

Movie channels in Mumbai were recently blocked because they purportedly showed adult content. That’s despite the fact these channels routinely edit out all nudity and sex. And it’s only a few months since the film version of “The Da Vinci Code” was banned in several states after Christian groups protested.

In such a climate, nothing is too trivial to escape the target of aspiring censors. One Mumbai-based crusader for tighter controls on Indian television, Pratibha Naithani, has even called for an investigation into “violence on cartoon channels.” Why stop at violence? Perhaps Ms. Naithani hasn’t noticed yet, but in addition to routinely knocking things over, Tom and Jerry also frolic in the nude.

Such extreme examples are a reaction to the foreign cultural influences that have flooded in since India began opening up its previously closed economy to the outside world in 1991. That produced a predictable backlash from traditionalists whose sense of identity, and even their political base, is threatened by foreign influence. They seek refuge in arguing that India’s religion, culture and traditions need protecting from the forces of globalization.

Unlike the U.S., the Indian constitution provides little protection against censorship. Although it professes to give all citizens “the right to freedom of speech and expression,” that is qualified by so many exceptions as to make any protection almost meaningless. These include “the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.”

Naturally, it falls upon government bureaucrats to decide what falls within these exceptions. And the problem is that India has long had a climate where it’s considered perfectly acceptable for the state to meddle in what its citizens can watch, and listen to. In 1968, for instance, “abbreviated skirts” and scenes “suggestive of soliciting” were enough to send “A Tale of Four Cities,” a documentary by KA Abbas partly set in Mumbai’s red-light districts, all the way to the Supreme Court. India’s top judicial body duly upheld its ban , setting a precedent for censorship that is still cited today. It ruled that films had to be scrutinized more carefully than other media because “a person reading a book or other writing [or] hearing a speech or viewing a painting or sculpture is not so deeply stirred as by seeing a motion picture.” In the view of the court, thus,  Indians were like putty in the hands of these powerful media, incapable of making their own decisions or using their own discretion.

Such paternalism was quite in synch with the Fabian Socialism that India had adopted. The state was supreme in all matters, and whatever freedom it allowed its citizens—“subjects” would be as apt a term—was at its discretion. In India, we call it a mai-baap sarkar, which literally means “mother-father government,” indicating the all-encompassing authority of the state. Initially, most Indians took this for granted, and did not protest too much. The freedom that mattered to them in the early years of independence was political freedom, which was their source of national pride.

But, in recent years, things have begun to change. The economic growth triggered by India’s opening up has created a much larger middle class. And the intellectual influences that have poured in from elsewhere in the world have made this middle class more alive to the need to fight for freedom of expression.

That means the recent trend toward increased censorship has not gone without a fight. Where once censorship was taken for granted, it is now debated, and the army of news channels that have recently opened shop regularly feature debates on the subject. Online petitions protesting censorship are common, an early example being one four years ago in support of “War and Peace,” a documentary by Anand Patwardhan that was initially banned for criticizing India’s 1998 nuclear tests. Earlier this year, government instructions to ban a handful of (mostly innocuous) Web sites without giving any reasons provoked widespread outrage, especially after local Internet providers overreacted and mistakenly extended the ban to cover a large number of other sites. Bloggers across India filed applications under the Right to Information Act in an effort to discover the reasons for the ban, and some now plan to go to court to continue the battle for freedom of speech.

Such voices are still few, and these protests not yet loud enough to counter the regressive forces that routinely stifle freedom of expression in India. But they are growing, and offer hope for India’s future.

You can check out Article 19 of the Indian Constitution, which deals with freedom of speech, here. Article 19 (1) (a) states the principle of freedom of speech, but Article 19 (2) lays out the caveats to it. The history of how 19 (2) came about after 19 (1) (a) was written is quite fascinating, and was covered in an essay by Vikram Raghavan in a book titled “Reflections on Free Speech and Broadcasting in India” (OUP 2006; I don’t have the book, but Vikram was kind enough to email me his essay a year ago). Raghavan wrote about the KA Abbas case in his piece as well, and Anand Krishnamoorthi also had an excellent post on that subject.