Sunday, April 3, 2011

Wide Angle 48 - Two wins

What a weekend, the sins of past and present life, the sorrows and worries of yesterday, today and tomorrow, and the imperfections in life have all been washed and papered over – we won!! For at least two days, this internal glow and the mysterious Mona Lisa smile will remain, probably making the non-Indians wonder what’s with him – we won!! I am unabashedly proud for a change, there is no “but” associated with this particular pride, such was the event – we won!!! We have won the World Cup after 28 years in champion style – cool, clinical and rock solid. It may be a while before we become the domineering West Indians or the Australians (if at all), this is the win of a side on the way there. Volumes are being written on the match, the tournament, Dhoni’s decisions, Yuvraj’s form, the “God”, the fielding and so on, there certainly wasn’t any need for one more and definitely not one which is anywhere near those standards. Hence I am writing this one from a very personal point of view, more so because the story of Indian cricket between 1983 and today is on different levels and scales the story of India and the story of me and you. Please bear with me for this won’t be too well formatted, it is coming from the heart and not the mind.
Free India can roughly be divided into two eras – the socialist, doubting, negative, scarcity-filled times till the reforms of 1992 and then the times when we opened up, faced the world and made some progress. The journey and changes between these two times are well documented and experienced as well. Me and a lot of folks from my generation (the ones in thirties and early forties) straddle both these times – we grew up and studied in the pre-reforms era and went to work and built a life in the post-reforms era. By and large, our parents were lower to middle class, most of their parents had been poor or dead so they had built up their lives in extreme frugality (dads bought pants and mums bought sarees once a year) and hard work – the only thing they drilled into their kids was the importance of education and good values. These were the tools that helped most of us make it big in our own ways in lives, we (and not just IT) propelled the growth and goodness that has happened in India with these tools – all the time using the benefits of the new open world. Cricket was our third companion (movies being the fourth), always something that brought us together wherever we were in the world, always something that served as a benchmark on how we were doing. The “two wins” then are quite symptomatic of these benchmarks, I am going to trace that cricketing journey between these two wins, lace it with the journey of my generation and that of the country.

Before 1983:
The Indian team often used to be whitewashed abroad, we gloated on rare wins like the England series or 1 test won in WI, most of the discourse was about well fought matches where we “went down fighting”. We were the laughing stock of the world in one dayers (Gavaskar scoring 36 in 60 overs) and more so in the World Cups. I remember the Pakistan series in 1982 when Imran took so many wickets and Zaheer Abbas and Miandad walloped us – still hurts. The Indian economy grew at 3%, there were many tensions within Punjab, Assam and North East. The Indian state was a laughing stock as well, the optimism of the post-independence environment had given way to humiliation in 1962, the eternal unemployment, the corruption, the Emergency, lack of opportunities, the failed Janata Government experiment, all showed the world that India was a dark corner, it had no hope, the only good place for an Indian was outside it. There were silver linings like the Green Revolution and the 1971 war but by and large, we were poor, hopeless and “losers”. Most of us kids were blissfully unaware of our parents’ struggles, we had enough to eat, ramshackle houses, lots of cousins, tons of homework, dark and dinghy schools, Doordarshan programs that we watched through long power cuts and report cards that showed us where we stood in the world.

To repeat a cliché, this was like the “Where were you when Kennedy got shot” moment. Sadly, when India won 1983, I was sleeping. My dad woke me up and told me we had won. For me who was slightly indifferent to cricket (mainly because my grandma would make everyone sit around the radio and make us guess what had happened, imagine the difficulty to do that when Lala Amarnath spoke amidst the stadium noise), the love affair had begun. Most of the world was startled, everyone attributed it to “fluke” and were proved right soon enough – WI came to India immediately after and beat the crap out of us. The doors had slightly opened – what these potbellied, middle aged men led by a young captain had done was shown each one of us that we were not downright hopeless as everyone (including ourselves) said we were.

There was new hope in the air with Rajiv Gandhi as the PM, his “let us get rid of the powerbrokers” speech, Sam Pitroda (who we should all thank for our jobs) and so was the cricket. We cheered the World Series in Australia where Shastri got his Audi and drove it around the SCG and such is the irony was named “Champion of Champions”. It was the time when suddenly you could make phone calls across the country – the acronym STD got a new meaning (decent too), that was also the time when my grades started improving. Then came the Reliance Cup – first time outside England, such high scoring close matches, we lost the first one to Australia by 1 run and then got swept out by Gooch in the semi-final, the world discovered Steve Waugh here first. Every time the refrain was the same, well fought, close matches, individual milestones but never convincing, consistent wins.

1988-till Ganguly:
This was the time of building, winning, losing, losing more, again many individual performances – Azhar’s centuries and magical onside hits with his rubber wrists, the GOD and his fury, Jadeja, Robin Singh, some wins here and there and then the match fixing scandals. There was the small matter of the liberalization of 92 (attribute this to PVNR and not MMS), the stock market scam by Harshad Mehta (fallout, we have a world class fully computerized stock trading system), the Asian financial crisis, the Y2K scare (where Indian IT suddenly found its feet and never looked back), the two United Front governments (Dewe Gowda), the dream budget of Chidambaram (first time personal tax rates came down to 30% and freed lot of cash for people to spend), the nuclear tests of 98, the Kargil War and the first stable non-Congress government. In between all this, we had discovered the guys who made so much difference in the next decade – Ganguly, Dravid, Laxman, Sehwag, Kumble.
I went through my life the same way, ambling through, neither high nor low, finishing engineering (never failed but never in the top rankers), joining a relatively less known field called IT. You’d be surprised that back then, everyone had asked me “Why are you leaving mechanical which is such a stable field to join IT which will go away after the Y2K is over?”.

We are extremely fortunate to have had the GOD but the next best thing after him that happened to recent Indian cricket was this man. So many moments, the sweetly timed offside fours, the thumping sixes to spinners (remember Taunton where he and Dravid destroyed the Sri Lankans in 1999 WC), making Waugh wait for the toss, the removing of the shirt at Lords, the 141 at Brisbane that set the tone for the historic Australia series in 2003. What this man brought to the team was the feeling that “You are inferior to no one, give it back and my oft-repeated line, the Western man is not special!!” Not to forget the team he had got, those historic partnerships between Dravid and Laxman, Kumble’s endless bowling and taking wickets through hard work, Bhaji’s wicket hauls and B and M gaalis, the Kolkata test (can it get any better?), Adelaide and the 2003 world Cup till the finals.
This was the time when the Vajpayee government had firmly established growth as part of the Indian story, had smoothed relations with US and the world and the world had also started noticing India (they imposed sanctions on us after the nuke tests and nothing happened) and its economy. This is also the time my generation was establishing its feet in their fields, trips abroad, promotions, the sudden exposure to the world that changed worldviews and enabled scaling up. The feeling that we are as good and sometimes better.

This win – I will not mention 2007 because that was an aberration. The story since Dhoni’s arrival is that of the new India. Let me quote this from Wide Angle 37 which was regarding the Portuguese conquest of Indian Ocean – “our mission is to make our country rich again and like I said before a “Great Power”. For that, we don’t need chest thumping jingoism, just the quite confidence of the able who believe in themselves and their abilities. It is our time now, better believe it.” Look at the way these boys played, believe in yourself, have patience, look for opportunities, always keep pushing and chipping away and win and then shrug it off, ready for the next battle. Look at the India story as well – despite the humungous corruption and bad governance, it is the new small town Indians who are struggling, innovating, working hard, saving, consuming and in general chipping away that is making that growth possible.
Look at me now, a boy from a non-descript Mumbai suburb called Borivali, growing up in a 1 BHK, studying in non-descript schools like Gokhale High school (the posh ones went to St. Francis or St. Annes), works for a world class company, looks the British man in his eyes and solves his problems. Look at you all now, spread out across the world, so successful, able to rig up watching the match anywhere, then celebrating out in the streets, bursting crackers (yes they managed to do it in my complex here), showing the world that Indians are good and can “do it”, and those who are back home, who are working hard and helping me hear for the first time in my life “It is so great to be in India, that 20% rate of growth” (Yes, British have said this to me) and an American president saying after a trip to India “We created so many jobs”. The story of the two wins is our story, those who rose from nothing, had only their abilities to back them up, believed that they could “do it” and then did.
The journey is by no means over and we are far, far away from real success (not Dhoni and his boys, I meant you, me and India), but we are now sure we will get there – this is the significance of this win.

Wide Angle 47 - Late Victorian Holocausts - Part 2

Welcome back. Let us dive right into the remaining part of this narrative and look at our story. The contours of colonial attitude towards famine were broadly touched upon in the last part, the country most directly affected by colonialism was India and by logic, it also suffered the most during the famines. I will describe the famines themselves, the specific colonial attitudes that caused the deaths, the colonial policies prior to the famines that made the populations vulnerable and then the global context of the exploitation that left us poor and desiccated.

The Famines:
There were 3 famines in this period – 1876-78, 1888-90 and 1896-1902 that hit us and hurt us.
The first famine hit areas in the Bombay and Madras presidencies – basically peninsular India and the areas around Delhi. Death toll was about 7 million people. While the story around people dying and horrors of malnourished and dead bodies around is repetitive, the prime driver for this famine was the strong belief by the reigning viceroy Lord Lytton that free markets should prevail, there should be no charity and that finances of British India should be “balanced”. There was also an established view amongst the Europeans based on the economist Malthus’s theory that population will ultimately outstrip food growth and there will be chaos – this was thought to apply to the Asian population which everyone said grew exponentially without any reason at all and so the famines were thought to be nature’s cure against it.
Lytton had firm support from the UK Foreign Secretary Lord Salisbury in these policies, in addition, he had to finance armed expeditions into Afghanistan for which he needed money and he simply couldn’t afford to spend money on drought relief. He had full support from his assistants, one of them being Sir Richard Temple who executed these policies to the hilt. There is a famous term called “Temple Wage”, this was basically the wage that Temple had decided for people “working” for food as part of “relief” (the thought was that people should be made to work for food and not given freebies never mind their physical state). This used to be of such low value that people refused to attend these relief camps, they would be forced to and then they died there. To put it in perspective, the Temple wage suggested a caloric value of 1627 for a person in the relief camp while doing heavy labour, the ration in Buchenwald (Nazi concentration camp) was 1750, the minimum war ration in Japan in 1945 was 2165 while the subsistence ration for an Indian adult in 1985 for moderate activity was 2400 (the approved diet on heavy labour is 3900).
The second famine was in 1888-90 which followed a boom of 10 years in the wheat belt of the North. This had relatively less deaths (about 800K) but it was a precursor to the horrific years of 1897-1902.
The third famine was much more widespread, starting from Deccan, it burnt Gujarat for 4 years turning vast areas into deserts, then it hit the United Provinces (UP) and killed many and finally hit the Punjab. Specific mention must be made of Gujarat which was quite a green land before the drought struck (those who have been to Gujarat recently can tell the difference), this was devastated, to quote a missionary “Once green as a park, had become a blasted waste of barren stumps and burned fields...every leaf was torn from the trees long ago for the cattle..”. The death rate in Ahmedabad in 1900 was 17 percent, in the Panchmahals 28 percent. The response of the officials of British India to this was thus “The Gujarati is a soft man, unused to privation, accustomed to earn his good food easily. In the hot weather, he seldom, worked at all and at no time did he form the habit of continuous labour. Large classes are believed by close observation to be constitutionally incapable of it. Very many even among the poorest had never taken a tool in hand in their lives. They live by watching cattle and crops, by sitting in the fields to weed, by picking cotton, grain and fruit, and as Mr. Gibb says, by pilfering”. The total death toll countrywide during this period was about 19 million (source The Lancet).
India was governed by two haughty Viceroys Lord Elgin and Lord Curzon during this time – in a repeat of what Lytton did, they declared that there won’t be any free relief, they set up poor houses where people would be given minimum subsistence, made to work and generally made miserable. A glittering ceremony marking Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee rule was held amidst all this misery and one of the comments Elgin made when he travelled the countryside during the peak of the famine was “the prosperous appearance of the country...”.

Colonial policies that led to vulnerability to famines:
India was a source of revenue for the British and nothing more. That was the guiding principle of the rulers so they only spent as much as they wanted to on the “extraction” process (hence the railways, post etc.) and as less as possible on the welfare of the people. Till the colonial rule, the local structure of the countryside remained constant despite rulers changing – there was a continuity of policies as far as agriculture, irrigation, taxation and drought relief went – the government taxed agriculture but never to break their backs and was flexible during hard times. Irrigation was localized with subsidies and grants given for wells, check dams and ponds. Droughts brought out effective government action with hoarders punished mercilessly, local rich made to open their treasuries and granaries and governments providing relief through distribution of grains. There was also emphasis on growth of crops that suited the area, its soil and food habits best. The common lands like pastures and forests were free for use for anyone, wandering tribes of herdsmen (the same tribes who were branded as bandits by British later on) were allowed to graze their flock and trade in them. This consensus lasted for centuries despite the battles and change of regimes.
With British rule, the peasants were suddenly exposed to the world markets. The unification of the country through roads and rails also brought in capacity to quickly transport grain to ports for export. The exports earned huge profits to the middlemen (essentially the zamindars, collection agents and the new class of local gentry that the British promoted) but it never reached the farmer. The British forced cultivation of cotton, indigo, opium and wheat – all cash crops that would reduce the productivity of the land , they marked each piece of land and handed out to people, in doing so they removed the rights of everyone on the common lands thus creating problems for small farmers in terms of grazing their cattle etc.
Local irrigation was ignored, entire spending focus was on irrigating the lucrative wheat growing fields of Punjab (which was obviously exported) through huge canals. The marking out of lands forced people to cultivate less productive land which would hit them when rains failed.
In addition, the entire world moved to the Gold standard by 1860s, what Britain did was that they marked the pound against gold but the rupee was tied to silver standard (obviously low in value). This meant that British imports from India were of low value while their exports to India were of a higher value. This led to instant impoverishment of millions of people.
When the droughts struck, most of the farmers could not grow crop because of the weakened capacity due to conditions mentioned above and hence could not afford to repay loans and had to sell land, this made them unable to afford the high price of grains (gouged by the middlemen) and thus starve. To add to this, there was no relief from the government and heavy migration and this amounted to complete destruction of country life in India and the substantial poverty that continues to this day.

Larger context of colonialism:
Let me quote some figures, this is the share (%) of the world GDP across the period of colonialism:

Country 1700 1820 1890 1952
China 23.1 32.4 13.2 5.2
India 22.6 15.7 11 3.8
Europe 23.3 26.6 40.3 29.7

This is another set of figures, share of world manufacturing output, 1750-1900

Region 1750 1800 1830 1860 1880 1900
Europe 23.1 28.0 34.1 53.6 62 63
UK 1.9 4.3 9.5 19.9 22.9 18.5
Tropics 76.8 71.2 63.3 39.2 23.3 13.4
China 32.8 33.3 29.8 19.7 12.5 6.2
India 24.5 19.7 17.6 8.6 2.8 1.7

Obviously, lot of people will say that the West had the Industrial revolution during this time and we were complacent and inward looking etc. Even assuming that is true, look at the figures at face value, battle of Plassey 1757, GDP 24.5, by 1900 it is 1.7, all during colonial rule – that can’t just be innocent happenstance. Multiple sources say that this was because the local industries were systematically destroyed to eliminate competition to British goods (we all know this), this created a reverse migration of skilled artisans from the city to villages. They were then hit by the droughts killing them. Local entrepreneurship was specifically curtailed and new technology denied to Indian entrepreneurs who wanted to try (was not their fault they couldn’t innovate, they were being ruled by the British), only British firms were allowed to manufacture, trade and export, not many locals were encouraged. We all know the struggles Tata went through before he could set up Tata Steel. This also puts the “khadi” movement in perspective.
The bigger game was in world trade where India and China literally bankrolled UK’s financial hegemony in the world. US and Germany put up high tariffs to build their industries and this made the UK manufactures uncompetitive during later 19th century. The balance of payments was maintained by the monies raised from India. India exported opium to China at high prices, the Chinese government had to pay for the opium through punitive taxes on their people. This money was used to subsidize British manufactured goods to be sold in India with high import duties. All in all, the British people in UK benefited with higher interest rates on bonds, cheap loans, plentiful jobs, cheap food while inflicting misery on the Indians and Chinese.
In addition, most of the unfair trade agreements were imposed by using gunboats (force was used about 73 times in Asia in China, Japan, Korea from 1850-1900). The world was Britain’s oyster, the pound the pre-eminent currency.

Keeping it brief, I hope the point has been made that the so called “benefits” that India has “received” by colonial rule are pure baloney. What are the benefits – railways (these were not created for us, they were created for smooth movement of troops and produce, Indians were stuffed in 3rd and 4th classes in these trains), roads and bridges (again the same argument – they were not for us, they only existed to extract efficiently), post (should I even elaborate), English language and education (the legacy continues till now, it is only good to produce “clerks”, rote learning, no independent thinking, no leadership built, I contrast it with what my son learns here). The only thing which I can qualify as a benefit is that we were formalized into a country (though it was divided in the end). I don’t think these “benefits” weigh much against close to 30 million deaths, complete destruction of the economy, indoctrination of “inferior” status through the education, pauperization and then being showed as if this was done to “liberate” us from darkness.
While we have done well after independence, why are we underdeveloped? The biggest reason is that the governance model, in fact the structure of governance is pretty much the same as created by the British. This was that of a predatory state, the government that “ruled” and beat people into submission, that sucked them dry and did not care about them. What really changed on the ground – the ICS officers became IAS officers, most of the laws still hold, the bureaucracy remained same and only expanded and the society which was mistrustful of itself continued to turn against each other. The heirs of this legacy are the present politicians who were trained under the same system, perfected the same methods of “extraction” (expect now the proceeds go into offshore accounts rather than another country) and essentially taught people that it was ok to loot.
What is the panacea then, simple, realize that this happened to you, realize that you were conquered because you were divided and then you were ruled by dividing you into many parts. The same happens today in a crude yet sophisticated manner, divide the rich vs poor (socialist slogans), the upper caste v/s lower caste (social justice slogans), religions and many more, just enough so that no one pays attention to real issues that affect them because you have been so battered in your collective memory that you accept anything as “providence”. The day we realize that we are all the same and say “enough”, things would have changed. We did that till 1947 and reached halfway, half the journey still remains, let us get there together.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Wide Angle 46 - Late Victorian Holocausts - Part 1

Interesting things happening in the world, Japan, Libya, the Royal Wedding and then the daily recriminations for the Central Government of India, very interesting indeed. The weather here has turned warmer which means happier times. Writing this amidst reading certification material and cooking (all those skills picked up during the 7 months of forced bachelorhood are helping with wife falling ill, pat on self back). Today’s WA is about a controversial topic (at least in these globalized and politically correct times), it is about a book I read last month called “Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the making of the Third World” by Mike Davis. I have attached the cover of this book (courtesy that will more or less give you the idea of what lies beneath. It was a huge emotional struggle reading this book – I am pretty much inured to human suffering having seen enough poverty and death (thankfully on TV but it is so regular in India), yet there were times when I stopped reading to calm down. That is also the reason I am writing about it after a while to write objectively.
Mike Davis is an American scholar and historian who has done significant study on the underprivileged around the world and generally traces the origins of these as well. He is also a leftist which makes him question the methods of the West (I am a left baiter but tip my hat to him on this one). The premise of the book is this – the late Victorian period is that from about 1870 to around 1910 was a time when European Imperialism was at its peak – the British rule in India was stable and under the crown, China was subdued, the Latin American countries were under the colonial toes and Africa was being rapidly conquered and carved up amongst the European powers. This was also the time when there were 3 major multi-year droughts that were worldwide in nature i.e. there was a failure of rains simultaneously in several countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America which led to deaths of millions of people and the impoverishment of swathes of populations across the world. The years of the droughts that led to famines and deaths were 1876-78, 1896-97, 1899-‘1902. I won’t go into specifics of how many died and when, read the book for it but it was simply millions in each of the affected countries, the descriptions by travellers of the starving, the dying and the dead shake you. What I will do here is outline the causes of these famines i.e. the El Nino phenomenon (ENSO to be precise), the colonial policies and then draw into why Indian government is the way it is right now. For simplicity sake, I will keep the discussion limited to India but what happened here was pretty much what happened in China, Brazil, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Indonesia and a host of other countries.
At the end, I will also establish that the colonial rule was NOT GOOD for India, if anyone says otherwise to you, throw this book in his face, you can also take a printout of this WA and throw it. To maintain brevity of reading at a time but ensure coverage, I will split this write up into two parts.

ENSO or the weather:
This phenomenon took a while to be discovered but what people finally know about the reason behind the worldwide failure of rains i.e. El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO). The world weather is essentially a result of winds and ocean currents that arise out of the Tropical Pacific ocean. This region absorbs and retains bulk of the solar energy. If you picture the Pacific Ocean on a flat plane, then Australia and Asia are on its West and the Americas are on its East. During the normal weather cycle, the warmer waters move westwards due to which moisture moves up into the atmosphere which the trade winds bring to Asia and Africa. This is also caused by the higher pressure on the East of the Pacific which causes the winds to move westwards towards Asia. The ocean is cold on the Americas coast (called Cold Tongue) and it is warm in the Indo Australian Convergence Zone (IACZ).
What happens during ENSO is that the trade winds that carry the heat westward in the Pacific suddenly reverse direction and flow eastward thus shifting the heat reservoir in the IACZ towards the central pacific. This reverses the direction of the pressure which is called the Southern Oscillation. The Eastern Pacific seaboard becomes warmer (hence the name El Nino – it is Spanish for Christ Child – this warming of water is observed by Fishermen around Christmas) and more winds flow towards it bringing it all the rain. Obviously, the IACZ countries don’t get this rainfall which brings in drought. It took about 150 years to find out that this is what happens and it has not been firmly established yet why this happens – meanwhile the colonial era scientists conjured up theories like sun spots to explain the droughts.
El Nino is also followed by La Nina which bring more than usual rainfall for a long period of time like the droughts which are also multi year.

Droughts and Famines:
Before going further, let me explain the difference between a drought and a famine. A drought is when rain fails, crops don’t grow and there is a dearth of grains available for the population – droughts are regular occurrences and do not necessarily cause deaths. A famine on the other hand is drought 10x where not only do the crops fail and grain is scarce but people die because they cannot afford to buy food due to high prices. What caused these famines and the many deaths as against the past (similar droughts were recorded during the Mughal and earlier times as well) was that most of the grain surplus was diverted for other purposes, government did not carry out any relief efforts due to indifference and dogma and the incessant demands on tax revenue (the movie Lagaan seems to be very historically accurate apart from the cricket). Apologists of the empire simply blame the weather for the deaths saying they were helpless, the facts say otherwise.

Worldwide effect:
Before I delve into the Indian context, let me give a round-up of what happened around the world. These types of famines and the descriptions of death were common in most of the countries. The pattern was also common. I will pick China and Brazil. China was too difficult for the British to conquer directly so they softened the population by infusing opium and then weakening them (more on this later), the emperor had become a puppet in Western hands due to which they had to yield to exorbitant tributary demands that led to continuous heavy taxation of the people. When the droughts struck, due to the taxation and the broke down local governments, food distribution ceased to exist leading to middlemen hoarding and selling grains at inflated prices. Mortality estimates show 9.5 million dead during 1877-78 and about 1 million during 1892-94. Similar fate struck the Sertao region of Brazil, which forms 2/3rd of the country. Rains failed for years, taxation continued, people ran out of food and couldn’t buy any, started dying or killing each other as well as migrating to the coasts. Areas that were lush green in 1868 had become dry deserts ten years later, death toll in millions again.
Some scenes as described by travellers and missionaries in China and Brazil. “Many towns and villages were almost empty...nothing but echo of our own footsteps as we hurried through...cities of the dead. We had the curiosity to enter into one of these houses, but the sight that awaited us there gave us both so terrible a shock that we went into no more. The misery was too deep to be discussed. Only in some homes were the dead in coffins or bricked in by their foil the certain alternatives of being exhumed and eaten by starving neighbours.” “The sad procession paraded along the streets of the capital at all hours...Real animated skeletons, with skin blackened by the dust from the roads and stuck to their skeletons, with skin blackened by the dust from the roads and stuck to their bones, held out their hands begging from everyone they met.”

Spoils of famine:
The misfortune of Asian and African countries came in handy for the predatory European colonial powers and their sweet tongued tail – the missionaries. Independent African nations so far were weakened due to the droughts which gave the Europeans opportunities to expand and that they did. A lot many African nations lost their independence during these times on the back of the famines and Maxim guns. China and Korea were further humbled by imposition of more unfair trade practices and taxation burden because of weakened populations. These tragedies were also god-sent (pun intended) for the Christian missionaries who elevated their “targets” and harvested souls in millions. The lasting effects of this bout of colonialism and conversions is still seen around the world (especially Africa where natural peoples and their nations were first conquered and later re-made which has resulted in ethnic strife in the now independent nations).

Fight back:
Local populations did not take this lying down at all – there were multiple revolutions especially in China. One of the movements which lasted for years and had many recruits was the Boxer Revolution. Blaming the problems on the foreigners, this movement of peasants killed foreigners or their local collaborators before being crushed finally by a consortium of European and Chinese forces. It was fearing this nationalist backlash in India (which had manifested in V.B.Phadke’s rebellion in the Deccan as an example) that A.O.Hume influenced the British government and formed the Indian National Congress to provide a safeguard for such “feelings”.
So much for today, will conclude this article in the next part where I will write specifically on what our “ex-masters” did to us in India – apologize for this rather boring write up today but I wanted to set the context and go round the world before writing the “fun” stuff i.e. India. What will follow will be horrifying and illuminating in equal measure. More than anything, this is a story that has to be told to every generation to help them realize what happens when you hand over your destiny to people whose interests don’t align with yours.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Wide Angle is back - 45 - Idiocracy

In the words of the great Shahrukh Khan from “Don 2..The Chase Continues”...I am back. Thanks to everyone who asked me during this hiatus on what happened to Wide Angle (WA), that they were waiting for it to restart, whether I was alright (because I stopped sending WA)...just goes to prove that some people actually read it. So why did I stop....well life was is back with me so had to arrange many things, move home, visas, work had increased 3 fold etc. The biggest reason however was that Wide Angle was moving away from the original intent i.e. to open the worldview of the readers to diverse thoughts through books, movies, songs that I had experienced and analyzed in a co-discovery mode – it was moving towards underlining my personal beliefs which was a slippery slope. Maybe it was also because I was running out of material. The break has therefore helped, have recharged batteries and promise to bring more and interesting stuff to you all. One last thing – if any of you want to be removed from this mailing list, please send me a mail and I will do so.
Today’s WA is about a very offbeat movie that I saw a couple of days back (have joined Love Film so I get to watch such movies which no one has heard of). The movie is called “Idiocracy” which was released in 2006 though it did not get a major theatrical release. The movie is essentially about the dumbing down of society in the long term future. I will narrate the summary of the story and then present my thoughts which are also based on my experiences in the Western World (and what I saw in the movie resonates with what I see).
In a nutshell, the story is of a very average librarian Corporal Joe Bauers from the US army who has spent most of his life sitting on a chair doing nothing. Along with a prostitute Rita he becomes part of a military experiment that freezes them into a pod and intends to send them forward by a year into time. Joe is selected because he is the most “average” person in the army so there is no risk to anything while Rita is selected because no woman in the army fits the “average” bill. Things go horribly wrong after they are put into the pod – the Colonel in charge of the experiment is arrested for running his own prostitution ring and the base is shut down. The pods stay there for 500 years and only open when they get knocked about because of a “garbage avalanche”. In 2505, the world has huge garbage mountains on which homes are also built.
Basically, what has happened is because of technology and easy life, the natural selection that used to favor “Survival of the fittest or smartest” has lost its edge. In addition, due to competitive pressures, the smarter people have less and less kids and the “not-so-smart” have lots. In due course over 500 years, the society has excessively dumbed down, everything is automated but runs haltingly because the things built by intelligent people long time back cannot be fixed – so one has leaking nuclear reactors, vending machines that take money but don’t give anything, guns that fire anywhere. In addition, the people have stopped reading, exploring, creating, they only exist. They watch TV programs like “Oh my balls” and speak a few words like shit, crap and so on with a few more grunts. Joe’s way of talking is laughed at by everyone because it sounds “faggoty”.
Soon enough, Joe gets into trouble with the law because he goes into a hospital and doesn’t pay (because he doesn’t have a tattoo – each human has a tattoo which can be scanned and money is debited from your account). His lawyer – Frito, argues against him and everyone makes fun of him in the court, the judge comes in to rock music playing and is generally monkey-like. In jail, Joe gets an IQ test, the question is what is 2 + 2 to which he answers 4. When he is getting his tattoo done, his name gets put down as “Not sure”.
He manages to escape prison – pretty simply by telling the guards that he has finished his sentence so he should be released. His high IQ (because of the 2 +2 question) is noticed by the US president who summons him to the White House and he becomes the Secretary of the Interior. The President and his cabinet are a story all by themselves. The president Camancho is a former pornstar and professional wrestler. His Secretary of State is a Bimbo, his secretary of finance is a teenager who has won a national contest and so on. The president assigns Joe or Secretary “Not Sure” the task of making sure the crops grow back (there has been drought for ages), fixing the water supply, fixing the reactors and solving every problem because he is the “Smartest Person Alive”.
Joe finally solves the problems of crops – there is a very interesting aside of the corporation Branwdo (makers of the Gatorade like drink Brawndo) which has become the largest corporation and made sure everyone drinks and uses only Brawndo (even for plants – the tagline is Plants like Brawndo because it has electrolytes). Everyone thinks water is only for the toilet. Joe solves this problem and saves his life and finally becomes President after Camancho. This is where the movie ends saying Joe did pretty well for him considering he is an “average” guy.

My Take:
I am going to sound very politically incorrect when I say this – I see a lot of this happening everywhere but it is more pronounced in the West. I am not talking about the very intelligent bankers (are they intelligent?), technology people, scientists or administrators. In my years in the West, I have observed that the average population has simply lost any incentive to exert their brains because of the comfort that technology provides and the cushy feeling that the riches of the society provides. In addition, the entire political correctness drama means competition has lost its bite so that the “losers” are not hurt (Vedant won a prize in Easter Egg decoration here, it was handed over in private). Isn’t this what dumbing down is all about? You tend to make everything palatable to the lowest common denominator of society (which is not a bad thing per se). As our society becomes more prosperous, this is increasingly happening to us as well. At any given time, the most popular programs on TV are – Saas-Bahu soaps or reality shows (not the Sa Re Ga Ma variety but Emotional Atyachaar or Big Boss or Rakhi Ka Insaaf). Times of India is the most popular newspaper but it is also the most dumbed down – half of its pages have semi clad women or some absolute fluff stuff on relationships, body fat or mid life crisis. The English language that most of the kids use these days on Facebook looks something like this “Enuf f d tlk, I m cming 4 d prty”.
There is nothing wrong with popular art and even colloquial language – the basic problem is when people give up the quest for knowledge or try anything that causes them to exert their brains or look beyond the obvious. This is when the dose of entertainment is a picture of Mallika Sherawat with her assets showing or Dolly Bindra throwing tantrums on TV. This is also when “reading” is about Chetan Bhagat or Femina. This is when talking history, geo-politics, science or anything else is “boring” or “not-cool”. This is about using the word “like” in every sentence twice and so on. In the West, it has gone five steps further where they just let go of even attempting Mathematics or Science (the very things that made them so powerful) so early on – as if the world is divided into geeks and non-geeks. I know of many families who have moved their kids back to India or China because the education here is not “good” enough.
So much for today, have left this question open ended, first Wide Angle after so long so may sound a bit scratchy – maybe I have dumbed down a bit too .