Monday, May 28, 2007

Is Hindutva good for Hinduism?

The golden ages of Hinduism began ending around 1000 CE, when Ghazni and other invaders realized that rich plunder was to be had and turned their sights towards India. Since that time, Hinduism has been in decline for a millenium, suffering periods of intermittent persecution and defamation at the hands of various Muslim dynasties and Westerners.

Hindutva rose as a response to such persecution and defamation during the independence struggle. Hinduism had survived centuries of Muslim rule, only to be defamed by the British who were motivated by multiple factors: orthodox Christian distaste, a need to justify colonialism, and the need for a divide-and-rule wedge between Indian Hindus and Muslims. Several Hindus evolved a body of thought which ascribed positive qualities to Hinduism, recognized its past and strongly opposed its orchestrated erosion and systematic denigration. Today, Hindutva is represented by organizations such as the Shiv Sena (SS), Bajrang Dal (BD), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHS) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

The stated goals of the Hindutva bodies seem reasonable: stop conversions of Hindus to other religions, ensure a level playing field for Hindus in India and stop denigration of Hinduism in popular media. Some of the functions that these organizations perform are essential if Hinduism and Indian culture are to survive. However, they often adopt methods that turn them into liabilities rather than assets to Hinduism.

Why Hindutva is Good for Hinduism

  1. Proselytism. Hindus traditionally did not proactively combat erosion via proselytism, restricting their opposition to resisting conversion. With the well-developed propaganda techniques and large funds available to Christian and Muslim organizations in India, a strong anti-conversion stance is required within Hinduism to prevent erosion.
  2. Scholarship. During the years of Hindu decline, Hindu scholarship was widely neglected among the Hindu population. This is in contrast to most of the other major religions, including Christianity, Islam and Judaism. It resulted in a dearth of articulation for Hindu viewpoints, and most scholarly voices on Hinduism were those of Westerners. Hindutva provides a Hindu-point-of-view critical evaluation of non-Hindu viewpoints on Hinduism.
  3. National Unity. The Hindutva movement strongly espouses the integration and non-differentiation of castes within Hinduism. In this sense, it acts as a counterfoil to parties like the Congress, which profit by splitting the country along caste lines. The Hindutva movement's solution, involving integration of all castes into leadership positions at all levels and fluidity of caste definitions, is preferable to the divisive policy of crystallizing caste lines by providing hard caste definitions and differential benefits to different castes.
Why Hindutva is Bad for Hinduism

  1. Proselytism. While Hindutva serves as a foil to proselytism, the methods adopted by Hindutva parties, which sometimes include physical violence, threats and rioting, lead to an unsympathetic attitude towards them. By association, any anti-proselytism movement, and sometimes even Hinduism itself, is viewed as violent. A major problem is that this viewpoint can take root even among Hindus (especially educated ones), who then distance themselves from any anti-proselytism stance.
  2. Scholarship. Hindutva provides critical evaluation of Western commentary on India. However, a lot of Hindutva scholarship and argument is of the quack variety. Unfortunately, it is clear from their writings that most Hindutva commentators have reached their conclusions even before examining the evidence, and the evidence is often manipulated and partial. Even respectable scholars whose views happen to agree with Hindutva positions are immediately suspect because of this. Additionally, Hindutva proponents are wont to subject scholars and artists they disagree with to violent defamation and even physical threats. This completely erodes any credibility that they might otherwise have had, since they are unable to participate in critical discourse. Again, Hinduism as a whole suffers, by association and because of errant behaviour by its self-proclaimed champions.

  3. National Unity. Hindutva actions are a form of feudalism that tend to polarize the nation. It is an ineluctable fact that India has large minorities of non-Hindus. This is not likely to ever change. The extreme steps taken by Hindutva organizations tend to create divisions along religious lines. While Hindutva organizations seem to work for Hindu unity, they simultaneously cause inter-religious rifts.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Dera Sacha Sauda versus The Sikhs

The recent violence in Punjab and Haryana over the Dera Sacha Sauda chief's choice of dress highlights one of the most fundamental problems in India. This is a problem which runs deeper than something like corruption or overpopulation (not to play down the importance of those issues).

The Sikhs (or anyone else) have no right to tell anyone how to dress. Blasphemy, in any form, is not an offense in any civilized society. Everyone should have the freedom to say and do whatever they please -- as long as it is not designed to cause disturbances. Unfortunately, the Sikhs in Punjab have failed to recognize this.

The recent incidents are neither isolated nor unusual. Second year students in colleges think they have the right to rag incoming freshmen. RSS and VHP activists think it is their right to smash the offices of newspapers that publish anything they disagree with. Naga christians think they have the right to chase Hindus out of Nagaland. National governments think it is perfectly fine to imprison and torture anyone who says anything against a minister (an outstanding example: the Emergency of Indira Gandhi). Soldiers think it is normal to torture Kashmiri kids, and kill them if they refuse to cooperate. Muslim organizations think it is their right to serve death sentences on authors who disagree with anything in the Quran. The Naxalites think they can dispense social justice to (maim and kill) anyone they don't like. Marathas think they have the right to prevent non-Marathas from working in Maharashtra. The CPI(M) thought it was within its rights to order its cadres to cut thumbs off villagers who don't vote for the party. Indians everywhere thought they could attack any Sikh in the aftermath of assassination in 1984. The police everywhere think it is their right to thrash and torture everybody in jail cells.

This lack of respect for individual civil liberties is characteristic of India. Individuals and organizations suffer from a God complex: "if it is within my power, I have the right to do it". The Dera Sacha Sauda incidents just serve to illustrate a greater malaise.

Getting back to the Dera Sacha Sauda affair, police have registered an FIR against the head of the Dera Sacha Sauda. This may be proper procedure when complaints are made against him, but it is surprising that the police is doing nothing about the rioting hordes who mortally threatened Dera members.

So, what are civil liberties worth? One of the questions we Indians must ask ourselves is this: "Do we serve our collective national soul better by granting civil liberties to others who disagree with us, or by aggressively enforcing our own opinions?"

The Natures of India and the U.S.A.

In the U.S.A., there is a sense that India is on the brink of something like a world takeover and is about to catapult itself into advanced-nation-dom. Many Indians have also started believing that this will be so, without paying attention to the fundamental systemic differences between the natures of the so-called advanced countries and India. This belief is no doubt spurred by the rapid expansion witnessed since economic liberalization in 1991.

But I think our pre-1991 economic structure accounts for only part of the backwardness. The rest is due to our ancient social structures. A long time ago, Indians invented a social structure that ensured stability and internal safety and removed much of the uncertainty associated with everyday life. This had its merits, but it also led to a society that is non-confrontational, too scared to assume leadership roles and afraid to innovate if it involves taking risks. Oh, it's easy to come up with counterexamples: in a country of 1.1 billion people, there are bound to be some who do all those things. But the average Indian is more likely to be a sheep than the average American, and less likely to be a lion.

Looking at this whole issue through a Dennett-ish Darwinian lens, one can see pseudo-evolutionary forces at work everywhere. Indians are probably among the most inbred people on the planet, and it shows in the number of congenital diseases and the general state of health. Our safety nets, which include nearly guaranteed intra-tribe marriage, seem to have nibbled away at our gene pool over the centuries until we remain a tired and spent population. In social terms we remain "safe", preferring life paths that lead to stability rather than achievement. Removing the bonds of what Gurcharan Das calls the License Raj is only the first step. The important question is, can we shed the bonds of our own degenerative culture?

The answer seems to be in the affirmative, as Western influences and the powerful new media wear down cultural barriers and our own Bollywood films encourage us to rebel against ancient socio-cultural mores. Cross-cultural marriages and heterodox life patterns are increasingly taking hold. But in adopting such novelties, is India headed towards a major shark-jump? Will the India of tomorrow be so different that it is not recognizably Indian? I think the answer is yes.

The U.S.A., in contrast to India, is founded on principles of evolutionary efficiency. America is not just a country, although it is strongly tied to its real estate. America is a meme, a concept: a country defined by the intelligence and ability of its inhabitants at any given point of time. The inhabitants themselves are less important than what they can contribute to this Amerimeme. An immigrant is only as important as the brains or labour that he or she brings into America; amazingly, this also applies to its citizens. The state gives citizens the opportunity to be useful -- but if they're not, they (and likely, their bloodlines) are doomed to oblivion.

India is a little more forgiving. A less-than-important man may, and usually does, father a multitude of offspring, some of whom may end up useful. No doubt this happens in America, too -- but less frequently. America is less forgiving of inefficiency and error than India is.

Reservations - The Right Way

Reservations are back in the news, and have been for a while. The Congress government has proved resolute and determined to implement reservations in sweeping steps. There are multiple consequences, including nationwide protests, accusations of a sacrifice of merit, concerns about the impact on the economy should reservations be approved for the private sector, increased polarization and mutual distrust among various socioeconomic classes.

The reason given for reservations is that in the current socioeconomic milieu, different categories of people face different challenges in obtaining education and employment. The social and economic obstacles are hypothesized to be so large that, even if education assistance is substituted for reservations, the impact would not be sufficient to ensure sustainable overall equality.

Multiple Index Related Affirmative Action (MIRAA)

One question that arises often is, why only caste? It would appear that the optimal way to ensure equality would be to use a basket of indicators including caste, gender, economic status etc. One such basket, named Multiple Index Related Affirmative Action (MIRAA), has been suggested by Prof. Purushottam Agrawal. The argument for using caste alone is that caste is the biggest indicator of underdevelopment. Indices such as MIRAA could certainly be more effective in improving the condition of people than caste alone, since they would allow reservations to be effectively targeted at the people who need them the most.

To understand MIRAA, we first consider the basket of socioeconomic indicators it suggests. The primary considerations when choosing such indicators should be as follows:
  1. The indicators should be indicative of education and employment levels
  2. Information on the indicators should be readily available
The indicators considered by Prof. Agrawal under MIRAA are the following:
  1. Caste/Tribe
  2. Gender
  3. Economic status
  4. Kind of schooling received
  5. Region where candidate spent formative years
  6. Educational status of parents/family
Each candidate is awarded 0 to 5 points based on his/her status on each of these indicators, for a maximum of 30 points. This then forms 30% of the score used by any institution to determine admissions.

Debating MIRAA

This system is already being debated on Tehelka. Praise for the system includes the fact that is is proven: Jawaharlal Nehru University has used it successfully in the past. The system is a self-organizing score in the sense that it targets the right sections of society in a manageable way. The need to target the right people is mentioned by several readers on the Tehelka debate. The system also appears to balance the needs of the group and the rights of the individual. Put another way, 70% of the final admission score is "merit" based.

Criticisms include one from Amit Sen Gupta, another commentator on Tehelka, who believes that:
Targeting of affirmative action to a section within “backward” castes will be used as a powerful tool to deny the benefits to as many as possible
and that the system would be a non-starter on a nation-wide scale. Some readers on Tehelka also expressed concerns about the exact weights given to various indicators.

The points raised by Mr. Gupta bear thinking about. One strength of MIRAA is that it is a single transparently computable score. This is good for scalability. MIRAA also does not explicitly target a section within backward castes. It targets those who are suffering the most; as an implicit consequence, it will target backward castes. Within backward castes, it would target specific sections, but this is still implicit. The system as a whole remains simple, based on a single score, and thus not prone to overly high levels of manipulation.

The unstated but most contentious issue is likely the low overall weight given to caste/tribe - just 5 points out of 30, or in the bigger picture, just 5% of the total candidate score. Resolving this bone of contention is crucial; most of the difficulties with MIRAA are likely to be about the relative weighting of the indices and about the total percentage of the MIRAA score included in the total candidate score.

Objections by other readers serve to strengthen this assertion. The exact weights used to compute the score here were selected based on the individual reasoning, personal experience, or personal preferences of a person or some persons. The 30% number was arrived at the same way.

In a word, MIRAA as it stands today is a subjective system.

Making MIRAA Objective: the Modified MIRAA Score

Turning MIRAA into an objective system requires only a little tweaking of the system itself. It would, in addition, involve some survey sampling and statistical analysis.

To understand how to make MIRAA an objective system consider what we mean when we say that a person belonging to a certain category, say an SC candidate, is at a disadvantage compared to a forward caste (FC) candidate.

An objective way of defining the amount of disadvantage is the following. In an examination, suppose the average SC candidate scores 12% less than the average FC candidate. Then the SC candidate is at a disadvantage of 12 percentage points compared to the FC candidate. In the above situation, the SC candidate should get a MIRAA score of 12. This is the correct score because it neutralizes the real disadvantage the average SC candidate has relative to the FC candidate. It is objective because the score is completely data driven; personal opinions don't come into the picture. The data and methods used to establish the actual disadvantage would be a matter of public record.

The MIRAA set of indices can be used to refine the above further. For example, SC women may, on the average, score 18% less than FC men, while the difference for SC men may be 10%. SC women should get a MIRAA score of 18, while SC men should get a MIRAA score of 10.

The same system can be extended to include all 6 variables. In this modified MIRAA system, there is no artificial percentage attached to group needs, such as the 30% in the original MIRAA. Their modified MIRAA score is is simply added to their score in the entrance exam to determine the candidate's final score. This final score may add up to more than 100, but that is not a problem if rank (based on the final score) is used to determine admission.

The modified MIRAA system handles the balance of merit and group needs in a more correct way by restoring to each candidate exactly the amount of merit that he/she was deprived of by the socioeconomic system.

Potential Drawbacks of the Modified MIRAA Plan

This method appears to have a drawbacks as well.

First, it appears to reward poor performance. The strata that perform the worst would have the highest MIRAA score. Thus it could be argued that this system may actually encourage poor performance. This objection is not valid in reality however. A counterpoint is that, within each stratum, candidates are selected by fair competition according to merit. Thus there is a strong incentive for each candidate to perform higher, and those who perform lower within each stratum would fail to obtain seats.

The second objection is that there is no single standardized exam in India (analogous to the SAT in the USA) on which the difference in score between different strata could be evaluated. This objection can be resolved by using statistical methods (such as "grading on a curve") to normalize the scholastic achievements in different educational boards. Alternatively, if it is felt that there are fundamentally different categories of examinations and the score should be different in each, several categories of exams could be created, with a different table of modified MIRAA scores for each.

Discussion and Conclusions

The existing reservation system does not necessarily get resources to those who need them the most; however, some sort of assistance must be provided to those who have historically suffered from socioeconomic discrimination. Prof. Agrawal's suggestion of MIRAA takes 6 important indices, as well as merit, into account when computing a score, and is simple enough to be implemented transparently. If implemented, it would be instrumental in giving specific socioeconomic strata of people the assistance they need. However, MIRAA as it stands today faces some objections that can be traced back to the subjective origins of its scoring system.

A "Modified MIRAA" score is proposed that achieves the same objectives as the original MIRAA system but eliminates the subjectivity of the score, potentially increasing its acceptability. The Modified MIRAA is also perfectly fair: it compensates each socioeconomic stratum for exactly the loss in merit imposed by the socioeconomic system. As a consequence it also balances merit and socioeconomic status in a natural way. The price paid for the objectivity of the Modified MIRAA score is data collection and statistical analysis; however, this could also be done using simple and transparent protocols.