The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod

evlution of cooperation.pngRemember that iconic scene in Wonder Woman, where she crosses No Man’s Land amidst enemy bullets and inflicts damage at the other side. Well, she was ruining a relatively peaceful ecosystem built on mutual restraint over mutual punishment. World War I, on a national level, was a zero sum game where loss on one side meant gain on the other. But on local levels, specifically along the Western Front, between France and Germany, a curious system of ‘live and let live’ emerged. Trench Warfare, limited within narrow trenches few hundred yards apart, with all its disgusting horrors became the stage for something amazing- a classic example of reciprocal altruism in a world of unconditional defection. A feeling of solidarity developed among enemy soldiers over time, and it was characterized by ad-hoc weather truces, common lunch times and even combined Christmas celebration. During Christmas Germans put up decorated table top trees over the trenches, and British-French soldiers responded by singing Carol songs. They left their weapons in trenches and came up to shake hands in no man’s land; swapped presents, traded stuff, buried the dead, shared barrels of beers and cigars till the whole morning. In some portions along this hundreds of miles stretch, the period of goodwill lasted as long as a whole week. This restraint was not due to weakness, but rather the rationale of defection being self-defeating; much like modern day deterrence between Nuclear States over fear of mutually assured destruction.

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In this seminal work, Robert Axelrod, with unusual clarity discredits friendship or kinship as the essential necessities for cooperation based on reciprocity, even in inception stage. And argues that, under suitable characteristics, cooperative relationships can well arise even between antagonists. According to Hobbes, and other earlier political theorists like Rousseau and Locke, human beings are primordially selfish individuals, who competed among each other for their own solitary, brutal and short life. Strong central authority (Leviathan) later entered into society by rationality of mutual interaction and hence, however unnatural of basic human nature, is required for maintaining cooperation among individuals. One can argue against this with evolutionary and biological examples that show social cooperation being hardwired into living consciousness. What Axelrod did was to arrange a computer tournament for an iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma problem and invite computer program strategies from his friends and colleagues.

 

Prisoner’s Dilemma is a thought experiment, a set of circumstances that forms the building block of Game Theory. In a Minority Report scenario, two potential prisoners are captured and interrogated separately for conviction. Each of them can stab each other in the back for lesser sentence or cooperatively deny for a favourable outcome of walkaway. The possible scenarios in ascending order of pay offs are as follows- unilateral defection from partner, mutual defection, mutual cooperation and unilateral restraint from partner. Since individuals cannot control the other person’s behaviour, each player is in a dilemma whether to rat out ones partner for maximum pay off or to cooperate for the mutually preferable outcome. Game theory expands this to behavioural problem with mathematical formalities and tries to optimize strategies for negotiations in economics, diplomacy, biology, psychology etc. In Axelrod’s tournament, various computer programs competed against each other for over 200 times in this non zero sum setting.

In all the possible interactions one strategy came out dominant pushing every other programs into extinction and its relative success had nothing to do with its author or brevity or length. This simple strategy known, rather appropriately, as TIT for TAT, was just two lines of code.

First line – be nice.

Second line – do what the other player just did.

So T4T starts off cooperating with the opponent and continue doing that till the other player defects.9_07-tit_for_tat It will then defect and again switch back to cooperation once the opponent starts to cooperate. Though mathematically the optimum option is to defect in all moves, the nicer strategies was found to be outweighing the meaner ones in competition, with TIT for TAT dominating them all. It was a very robust program- nice to begin with, retaliatory when required, and was forgiving and clear; but not free of failures. A signal glitch or mistake in translation might cause a string of recriminations and counter recriminations between players employing T4T. So, it would be extremely important to reduce the echo effects while employing the strategy for high stake environments, as defection strings can cause escalations as far-fetched as Cuban Missile Crisis. A forgiving TIT for TAT was found to be effective, though not immune of exploitation, in such conditions, where it switches to a forgiving strategy after certain rounds of mutual defection. Axelrod argues that the maximization of outcome depends on characteristics of a particular strategy, nature of other strategies with which it most interacts and the history of interactions.

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Trench Warfare, file picture

Coming back to the Trench Warfare, No Man’s Land basically represented a dynamic equilibrium of stalemate. The troops at both sides were large enough for accountability and small enough for controlling individual behaviour. Since not every bullet, grenade or shell fired in earnestness would hit the exact target, there was an inherent tendency towards descalation. Demonstration of retaliatory capacities and verbal arguments were internally suppressed by superiors, and during the rotation of troops, outgoing soldiers made it their business to familiarize the new recruits with the status quo. Infantries often offered delicacies for Artilleries as gentle incentives for not provoking the enemy side, since they were relatively safe with fewer stakes in this ‘live and let live’ system than them. And on a macroscopic scale, especially after the joint Christmas celebration, High Command of German, French and Britain wanted an end to these tacit truces as a pacified system will only sap morale from war’s ceaseless policy of offense.

Wonder Woman

Though I might come out as a heretic in this comparison, war time General’s behaviour can be observed in Wonder Woman too whose primary objective was killing Aries. The immediate and extended payoffs for both Aries and Diana were big enough to justify their actions. Though offensive demonstrations and firings can be heard in background, there was no direct enemy attack towards the trenches, even in the movie depiction. And it was her crossing of No Man’s Land that destroyed the truce and escalated the war on both fronts, killing the microscopic payoffs for macroscopic ones. Also, it would be worthwhile to note that the attack was instigated by outsiders (Trevor and Team) than the soldiers involved in the counterbalance, who might have been in the moral enigma of breaking their side of trust. Similarly in further history of actual WWI, High Command imposed raids and retaliatory efforts eventually collapsed the Trench Warfare system. Even during those orders for mandatory offense, ethics of cooperation was maintained keeping the per-functionary and routine firing aggressive enough to satisfy high command and contained enough to avoid any retaliation, as long as they could.

Axelrod extended his computer simulation strategies into an evolutionary scenario, where winning program gets to create copies of themselves, and running them for many generations. Even in a horribly hostile world, if the nice programs had enough chance to interact, it was found that they can eventually take over the world full of meaner strategies.

Cixin Liu Remebrance of Earth's past.jpgThe beauty of altruistic behaviour in negative spaces can be observed in evolutionary biology as well. Though rational agents always defect in Prisoner’s Dilemma, knowledge about options of other party drastically changes the scene. When third parties are watching, the stakes of current situation expands from those immediately at hand to the reputation and future interactions of players. Internet bullying under the mask of anonymity and friendliness a regular customer might enjoy in a shop can be considered as crude examples. Anyway it gets even more complicated with changing pay offs and concentrating interactions. I was constantly drawn towards Cixin Liu’s Dark Forest deterrence theory and its aftermath in later installments of Three Body Problem, as my very own literary example for applying the half cooked nuances of game theory and prisoner’s dilemma.

Real world problems are far more complex than Axelrod’s computer simulation, with multiple players and complex pay offs that demands sophistication in analysis. But this propensity for reciprocal altruism among antagonists was a theory robust and well-articulated enough to have my undivided attention. And this karma based upright, forgiving and yet retaliatory strategy is a nice take away for life, maybe with more leaning towards reconciliation.

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Check out the movie Joyeux Noel for a silver screen depiction of Christmas Truce during Trench Warfare of WWI. It has got Diane Kruger.

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The Idea of India – Sunil Khilnani

Khilnani-SunilToday’s newspaper had this shocking news of a disabled man being abused (verbally with snide remarks this time, but news of physical abuses has surfaced before) for not standing up during national anthem. Yeah, our Supreme Court has this weird obsession towards assertion of patriotism in inappropriate places. Like Amartya Sen rightly expressed: “Indian identity is a combination of internal pluralism and external receptivity”, and efforts to homogenize by coercion leads to perversions like this. The idea of India has been contested and validated over time, and now, we are more interested and invested in who we want to be in this world than who we are. Still even after 20 years of its publication, Khilnani’s trenchant analysis on this open, often revised idea of India is germane to our society in many ways.

Sunil Khilnani is an erudite scholar, and it is often reflected in his writing. On levels that it poses strict competition to Veronica Roth in finding jargons for naming factions in Divergent trilogy.  And language in this book is a bit baroque, if I may use words of his lexicon. I found many things rhetoric and repetitive in that narrative, well, they were hidden so well in his elegant prose that they rarely came up as irritants. He, in this book, tries to express Indian identity through conflicting ideologies of democracy, concepts of Economic progress and Social order. Though written during the time of disillusionment following Nehruvian socialism and emergence of Third Front in politics, it would be wrong to consider this book as a piece of rapporteur of things that has happened till then or as an irrelevant journal in light of events happened thereafter. For the arguments in this book are coherently articulated along the long history of India as a civilization than a nation state.

Democracy

The frustrating thing about India” according to Cambridge economist Joan Robinson is that “whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true”. With constitutionally guarded universal adult suffrage, the principle of one man one vote was recognized politically, but socio economic structure continued to deny individual and collective values, in this land of contradictions.

04.jpgThis book has aged quite well and a hermeneutic reading is required to appreciate the nuances. It was published during 1996, time of hung parliament and coalition politics. United Front formed cabinet under HD Deva Gowda, the first India president to speak neither Hindi nor English, the two languages that are considered official among the list of 22 national languages. In Khilnani’s words, it was a ‘talismanic moment’ in India’s public life as it marked strong federal departure(gap between two political terms) from majority of two parties that represented conflicting schools of Indian identities- socialist Nehruvian legacy under Congress and resurgent Hindu nationalism represented by BJP. He then examines the prospective reason for sustenance of democracy in India’s huge impoverished crowd against its hierarchical social order, with respect to subcontinent’s history as a civilization. According to the author, pre-colonial history represents a perpetual instability of political rule, with constant rise and fall of dynasties and empires, where political authority was more a matter of paramountcy than sovereignty. Crown rule or its clone rule by British Raj considered India as their expatriate state in an exotic location, with a language of administration that required its own vernacular vocabulary like Hobson-Jobson. Macauly’s 1835 Education minute imposing English language was intended on dividing British rulers from their Indian subjects and also Indians from other Indians. “Indians who knew their Dicey from their Dickens, and those who did not”, Khilnani puts. Government of India Act of 1935 bought more Indians into administrative representation, but less than one third had the power to vote. Even Congress, “a protean party with an exceptional capacity to constantly reinvent itself” considered individuality as a social being precarious, until Gandhi turned it into a mass movement with culture of dialogue. The secular fabric was further challenged during the event of Partition, an event no one really wanted, but everyone conspired for. Khilnani argues that constitutional democracy was wrested to the people as the political choice of elite, by a remarkably unrepresentative body. I found author’s neglect to the century old tradition of dialogue in subcontinent, and representative politics of very first government in cabinet and drafting committee a bit difficult to digest at this point. The unique federal structure of India left the matters of socio economic reform to states, while retaining military and fiscal powers at center. Further, the federal identities got strengthened after Mandal Commmission with various caste communities competing among themselves for the benefits of affirmative actions for being ‘backward’.

Author argues that the historic success of Nehru’s rule was in establishment of the idea of state in Indian society and establishing its sovereignty in international arena. He briefly goes through the political history and separatists movements which over time got more and more consolidated into community representation in myopic focus on elections. Regardless these seemingly conflicting tussles between regional and central nationalism, the prospectus of affairs being under the democratic control of a collective of equal individuals, as an idea, has entered Indian imagination with permanence.

Temples of the Future

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Bhakra Nangal dam inauguration where Nehru described Dams as ‘Temples of Modern India’

In India good reforms are considered bad politics. Though political freedom was attained from British Raj by 1947, it took almost half a century for India to be economically free, of the ‘License Raj’. The liberalization of market economy by 1991 was mostly a consequence of self-created fiscal crisis than reform for the future, and government sanctioned them half-heartedly and apologetically, with reiterations to socialist legacy. And modern polarized views are eager to point the finger than understand the wisdom of forefathers based on then world order. Khilnani traces the evolution of economic policies of India from colonial times and paternal role of state in it, from Dadabai Naoroji’s ‘Drain Theory’ to Bombay Plan to Karachi Resolution to National Planning Committee, and the ideological rifts between Industrialists and Gandhians. Historical reading, alongside global economy, is actually a perspective often ignored, a timeline of ground works that now enables the country to stand on its own, and evolution of economic and political stability through fiscal management. Khilnani’s treatment is highly comprehensive and might feel exhaustive without a prior introduction to Indian economy and politics.

Cities

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Delhi

Unlike principally universal European societies that are accessible to all individuals with common interest, modern Indian cities were designed and operated under strict criteria of exclusion. In this brilliant, the only portion of the book I genuinely enjoyed, Khilnani takes readers through the architectural history of New Delhi. It reminded me of Naipaul’s take on Indian Identity, which gave his expatriate grandparents a common history in foreign land; while in India, the same Indian identity tend to trace movement of goods and people even in most modern cities, along lines. Desired colonial interest in rational modernity of New Delhi was to let Indians see for the first time the power of Western science, art and civilization. City was designed in hexagonal grids with housing segments distanced from central acropolis in descending gradient of rank. Instead of creating a society of free intermingling individuals, Raj’s policies concreted the contrary tendencies of Indian society. I found this precedence extremely helpful in understanding the Gandhian economy and self-determination in villages in opposition with Ambedkar’s strong distaste for the same. Gandhi countered colonial nationalism that privileged urban educated elites with a say on behalf of whole country, with the idea of village. He decided to renounce colonial idea of city into village cosmology of Ashrams with his sartorial humility as ‘half naked fakir’ against British imperial pomp. He radically redefined public meetings like prayer meetings for nationalist purposes bringing women and lower caste into the spectrum of dialogue, while India’s colonial cities carefully avoided areas for public gathering in their design. To him, simple Indian occupation of departed English designs didn’t represent true freedom, and Gandhi advocated villages as sanctuary for civilizational powers. To Ambedkar, villages were beyond redemption and nothing but a parochial sink of narrow mindedness and communalism.

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Mumbai

Nehru on the other hand was more pragmatic in his approach to modernity, where he drew a distinction between inauthentic modernity, represented by colonial city and genuine modernity, that India should be rational not to reject. Khilnani further illustrates this with development of city of Chandigarh, intended to replace Lahore, that was lost in Punjab partition to Pakistan. Chandigarh’s renouncement to both colonial imagery and nationalist monuments, was intended to place India in international appeal. Well, the city never achieved the cosmopolitanism it craved for, and it’s something for us readers to contemplate on. And story of Bombay, the foremost modern city of India, construes a centripetal narrative towards parochialism from its cosmopolitan past. Khilnani has a wonderful take on Shiv Sena’s narrow efforts to annex and distribute the benefits of modernity to one closed community against Bombay’s congestion which make it impossible for rich to flee the poor or any other selectivity to sustain in first place. Bombay might not be as cosmopolitan now as we can observe in Manto’s pre-independence stories, but it still isn’t that communal like author feared it would be 20 years back. What Khlnani calls as Rushdie’s lament for the old nationalist dream of Bombay-”.. what was beautiful in Bombay was that it belonged to nobody and to all”, still holds true despite everything, and that, to this reader, is a silver lining.

Who is an Indian

India has been weakly united as well as weakly divided, and though alien conquest and imperial exploitation promoted self-invention and unity, early nationalist movements asserted an Indianness based on commonality of religion, even with Gandhi. I found it difficult to digest author’s fascination towards Mill’s History of British India as a potential ‘tabula rasa’ for single historical narrative. Mill wrote it without visiting India nor having any knowledge on vernaculars, in his comfort closet in England, with a magisterial reading in mind, that would reassert ‘white man’s burden’ in young colonial administration. Nationalists found themselves in conflict with India’s sheer diversity to write a common history, and often found solace in ethnic nationalism and religious communalism, and rejection of everything West. Tagore on the other hand was against the rising nationalism in West and opened up fallacies in oriental reading of Indian history to public.

“She was like some ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and, yet, no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously. All of these had existed in our conscious or subconscious selves, though we may not have been aware of them. And they have gone to build up the complex mysterious personality of India.” Jawaharlal Nehru, Discovery of India

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The ideas collective of first NAM- Jawaharlal Nehru, Kwame Nkrumah, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Sukarno and Josip

In Khilnani’s argument, it was Nehru, who produced an unifying narrative of India’s past along logical accommodation and acceptance, against glorified hindu nationalism and hegemonic orientalists (hear, hear). He turned the gandhian language of colonial victimhood, over time and repair, into a language of confidence in world diplomacy. The existence of India as a single political entity in a neighbourhood where democracy makes cameo appearances, is the result of the responsibility enjoyed by common man to choose between its pluralisms.

Active or passive gerrymandering of the boundaries of Individual and collective selves are dealt with stark criticisms now than ever before. People are more content with the sense of India being a land of belonging, they being a part of accommodating ancient civilization than homogenizing modernity of nationalism. Here collective identities are affirmed through democracy in a political field of coalition between multiple ideologies. And unlike the West that had time to come in terms with equality and economics, India embraced democracy before capitalism and economic freedom, in a society based on inequality of caste and religion, and is still battling towards an egalitarian society.

In this extremely difficult job of consolidating an Idea of India, this reader, like author, also finds solace in tourism board poster caption that paraphrase Tagore, “India is a state of mind”.

One way of defining diversity for India, is to say what the Irishman is said to have said about trousers. When asked whether trousers were singular or plural, he said, “Singular at the top and plural at the bottom”.’

Khilnani hyphenates this diversity and federalism argument by A.K. Ramanujan into idea of India’s nationalism, which is plural even at the top, like a ‘dothi’ with endless folds (hear, hear).

Memories of a Father by T V Eachara Varier (Orachante Ormakurippukal)

The very first Habeas Corpus writ filed in India, after Emergency period was, Prof. Eacharavaryar vs Govt of Kerala. Verdict of the suit toppled then State Government, resulted in resignation of CM, and is still the exemplar of Police brutality and Human Rights violation. This book is an autobiographical account by T.V. Echaravaryar (Eswara Warrier) himself, of his relentless and lonely legal struggle for justice and truth behind the unaccounted disappearance of his son P. Rajan in Police custody.

1975 June 25 midnight to 1977 March 21 was one of the darkest period in modern Indian history when democracy was eclipsed by Prime Minister’s authority to rule by decree. Popularly known as Emergency period or just Emergency, this brief cameo of dictatorship was notorious for curbing of civil liberties, police brutality, imprisonment of political opponents and press censorship. Something present generation of mine cannot​ really think of, or have a reference on. Invocation of Emergency was Mrs. Gandhi‘s antibody against then prevailing political and civic unrest; which in turn was the byproduct of increasing government intervention in judiciary and dissolution of State legislatures. A lot of benevolent reasons have been brought up over time to justify the Emergency from 1973 oil crisis to split in Congress to fallacy of Raj Narain case. But every single one of them falls short when weighed against the violation of civil rights by police activism; a gritty dystopian scenario where fundamental rights of citizens were no longer justiciable nor defendable by Supreme Court.

Naxalism was one of the major target for police crackdown during Emergency. Originating from a small village in WB, Naxalbari, after the Communist split of 1967, the radical movement for tribal autonomy(obvious over simplification of the complex reasons here) gained momentum along the scheduled belt through their reactionary ideas and violent methods. Naxalite movement is still a controversial topic in internal geopolitics which puts sympathizers in a moral tug of war. In rural Kerala, the peak of this activism, during Emergency, involved direct attacks on police stations, which in return witnessed violent retaliations and often vengeance under the misnomer of ‘naxalism’. Police by State backing took full advantage of suspension of civil liberties and MISA (infamously expanded as Maintenance of Indira and Sanjay Act) act, a then civic version of current AFSPA, and went around raiding suspects for interrogation. P. Rajan, a student of Regional Engineering College, Calicut (Now known as NIT Calicut) was arrested by Kerala Police in one of those raids, citing alleged Naxal association and was brutally tortured in custody, and was killed. The interrogation happened in Kakkayam camp, under DIG Jayaram Padikkal, and was said to have employed the extreme torture practice of ‘uruttal’ (rolling); Rajan’s body was disposed off and was never recovered, and by the classic book excuse of no body-no conviction, DIG later managed considerable legal escape.

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Rajan Memorial : P. Rajan, martyred during Emergency in 1976 March 2

Prof. Warrier was living his retirement in Cochin when Rajan got arrested; he immediately filed petition asking for his son’s whereabouts and objectives behind the arrest. He made enquiries after enquiries to police officers and to authorities, with all references he could garner, for details behind his son’s disappearance. Later, on learning that the arrest was directed by DIG, Crime Branch, he personally met K.Karunakaran, then Home Minister of State and escalated his petitions to Home Secretary, but none of these efforts were acknowledged. It is extremely difficult to read through his words, filled with sorrow, helplessness and uncertainty. Above all there was the ‘naxal’ tag. Authorities were shamelessly condescending towards Prof. Warrier, for his son was branded as a Naxalite, an anti-national of the highest kind. Media during that time, modulated and biased, and a sorry censored excuse for Press, was mostly antagonistic towards his struggle, and it was extremely difficult to gain a mass movement or even exposure for the excesses happening. He continued his indefatigable struggle by raising representations to President of India, Prime Minister and Home Minister of the time and to Members of Parliament, all with no result. He even appealed to general public by distributing pamphlets of his grievance, and Home Ministry retorted with a brand new excuse of  murder accusation for Rajan being detained. Thanks to convoluted coalition politics, C. Achutha Menon’s communist cabinet in Kerala had K. Karunakaran, a staunch Congress leader as Home Minister; during Emergency. Prof. Warrier was a Communist sympathizer and had friendly connections with many ministers on a personal note. They avoided him for information that could easily have been obtained from subordinate officers, and finally deplored him when pleads became unavoidable. And the communist connection was used as another ploy by Police under Karunakaran to assert Rajan’s Naxalite involvement.

Rajan is said to have been a bright student, with active interest in music and drama. During the time of accused Police Station attack, he had an easily verifiable alibi at neighboring Ferok College, where inter collegiate arts fest was going on. Police never cared for any verification, and is said to have arrested him mistaking for another student by the same name. They were more interested in torturing conviction out of the ones they have in custody than capturing the actual suspects. Over the course of events, a lot of contradicting claims have been made by Police, from denying the arrest altogether to accusing Rajan of murder. Anyway accused was never brought in front of Magistrate. Speculated accounts of torture procedure and body disposal are mentioned in the book, it is blood boiling and heart breaking to read even if you don’t consider, about whom and by whom they were written.

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Kakkayam Dam, backyard of which hosted the infamous Naxal camp where Rajan was tortured

By the later stages of his struggle, Prof. Warrier had accepted his Son’s death. Till then he had been vigorously searching central jails and police camps and all other sources he could obtain, physically, to see if Rajan had been kept in any of them. He was careful in keeping the truth off his ill wife, feeding her with lies about their son’s disappearance. Over the course of events, she broke down mentally, got hospitalized and eventually died of the pain, expecting Rajan’s return till her last breath. Eswara Warrier was a retired Hindi Professor, and the long search drained him heavily off money and health, but he kept pushing forward, learning the ways of court in his old age. He writes about the secret eleventh hour struggle to file habeas corpus, when news of Democracy restoration reached him, to escape possible political thread pulling. Unchained mass media was eager to carry the details of writ to public and the very first habeas corpus in history of Kerala gained huge crowd during court hearings. Police finally confirmed Rajan’s death in custody, K Karunakaran was forced to resign from the post of CM which he had pledged only two months before and DIG Jayaram Padickal was convicted and arrested. He later managed to overturn the conviction via appeal. Prof. Warrier continued his legal battle to expose the state sponsored atrocities during the Emergency period, and has been a significant figure in human rights till his death.

A striking feature of the book is Prof. Warrier‘s catholicity in reporting incidents of such personal trauma. He writes about it all, and pleads with readers, not to judge the people involved based on his remote experiences, for he has to write the truth. During his fight, he made serious effort to find out Rajan’s sentiment towards Naxal movement. Though he was never involved in, Rajan sympathized with the cause, and Warrier doesn’t hide this fact from readers. It takes real integrity and bravery to look for and admit even the smallest detail that could point towards the alleged accusation he fought so fervently against. He also mentions previous mental incidents his wife had. Though Rajan’s disappearance escalated her condition to death, Warrier doesn’t try to use it to strengthen his narrative. The compensation amount from case was directed to sponsor a critical care ward in Ernakulam General Hospital, in Rajan’s memory. Rest of the money was donated to University as youth festival endowments, to commemorate Rajan’s interest in arts.

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Piravi movie poster from Cannes (left) , Rajan file picture (right)

I am reminded of a quote by Nehru here – “democracy and freedom are in grave peril today, and the peril is all the greatest because their so called friends stab them in the back“. And, we ourselves are more invested in the question of identifying the culprits – Indira Gandhi? Supreme Court of world’s largest democracy that conveniently complied for removal of habeas corpus with a majority of 4 against 1? Communal schism and violent naxalites? MISA? Press? Police? State Government? other et cetras? In this heated debate, often disregarded is the answer to an important question that goes unasked- the victims and their struggle. And the unasked question here is, who are and on what basis are they considered expendable in the mega narrative of democracy that we are so proud of.

Rajan case has been the subject of many books and movies (Nation Award winner Piravi by Shaji N Karun for example) and passing references can be found in various popular mediums. This is because of the perseverance of his Father and his infallible belief in judiciary and constitutional methods as a citizen. Majority, if not all, of the excesses happened during National Emergency got drowned into oblivion over time, because of the censorship Press was subjected to. And then general notion was to overlook them as collateral damages. Sadly, this dangerous tendency is visible in modern democracy as well, where public opinion is often reduced into verbal squabbles over leaders and their ideology. Be it Emergency or Tribal evictions or recent Demonetization, general thought is either to gloriously condemn their political enemies or to find every probable reason, even if it defies ones conscience, to stand by their heroes. The expendable people who get disposed under the pretext of ‘for greater good’, like Arundhati Roy puts it, are rarely at the receiving end of our representation or even sympathy. Even when they are, they soon die once another fresh mishap, something our society aren’t short of, takes its place. And further from our safe vantage, we prioritize our sympathy in the ascending order of first world demographics. Where illogical blame games and subsidized morale cloud us from obtaining a sensible solution, this book is a reminder on how south things can go, when democracy and accountability fails. And that nobody is exclusive of it.

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 A poster art commemorating P. Rajan from RAGAM 2017. The famous ToI advert during Emergency is featured.

This book might not reach many people, for its written language- Malayalam(an English translation is available now, DRM free I believe), but nevertheless it is a struggle for democracy and fundamental rights against the autocracy and plutocracy it tend to get reduced to. Second part of the book gives details of Habeas Corpus with court case files and result, is a bit difficult to read with all the legal lingua-franca.

NIT Calicut‘s Art Festival – Ragam, one of the biggest of its kind in South India, is named and celebrated after the memory of P. Rajan. I have personally observed in great admiration, the ardent enthusiasm​ students share in upholding their erstwhile colleagues memory, which is preserved and remembered in due respect over academic generations.

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Emergency is a unique feature of Indian Constitution which covert federal structure into a unitary one where Central Government becomes all powerful, without a formal amendment of constitution. Three types of Emergencies are stipulated by Constitution

(1) National Emergency – war, external aggression, armed rebellion [Article 352]

(2) President’s Rule – failure of constitutional machinery in state [Article 356]

(3) Financial Emergency [Article 360]

Fundamental Rights will become suspended during the period (except those guaranteed by article 20 and 21), and State is free to take any legislative action abridging them. After the misuse of this provision during 1975, 44th amendment by Janata Government limited the power and nullified the distortions introduced previously. Emergency has been proclaimed three times so far- in 1962, 1971 and 1975.

Countdown by Amitav Gosh

During 1974 India conducted its first Nuclear explosions under the Prime Ministership of Indira Gandhi – Pokhran blasts, code name: Laughing Buddha. The country that pioneered the philosophy of Non-violence, found itself in the dilemma of justifying this destructive muse, with reasons and asseverations such as ‘for peaceful purposes’. In 1998, political coalition led by Hindu right wing under the leadership of BJP, tested five nuclear bombs within the third month of their coming into power- Pokhran II, codename : Operation Shakti. The nuclear tests were popular among middle class, who accepted the weapons of mass destruction into their mass popular culture, with respect; though there were people who refused to celebrate and raised their displeasure over time. The exaltations were rather short lived, for the very following month, Pakistan blasted six nuclear weapons at Chagai Hills, turning ‘the whole mountain white’. Within a year of these developments, India and Pakistan went to war over Kargil, leaving the whole subcontinent and the world under the fear of a possible nuclear holocaust.countdown

Amitav Gosh’s Countdown is more of a long essay than a short book, on the various reactions of nuclear tests at both India and Pakistan, among politicians, soldiers and activists. The book was published before Kargil War and therefore doesn’t account for the confrontations happened.

India’s nuclear programme had really little to do with defending the country, though already nuclear and occasionally hostile China was the cabinet’s excuse for Pokharan II. Paraphrasing one of the interview transcripts of the book, India had this inferiority complex, of being patronized by the colonial imperialism, and to prove herself internationally, she had to shout louder than anyone else. In simpler terms, Nuclear programme was more of a ‘global currency of self esteem’.

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After Pokhran II, AB Vajpayee, George Fernandez, APJ Abdul Kalam, K Subrahmanyam (from left to right)

Gosh had the opportunity to closely follow George Fernandez, who was the Defence Minister during Nuclear Tests on 1998 and Kargil war of 1999. Before going into the political view points, Gosh provides a small account of the farmers and nearby occupants of Pokhran after the 1974 tests. The grievances, ecological and biological impacts might seem minimum in comparison with the population, still the under address-ment and under coverage of same, is seriously disturbing. The strategic mastermind of Nuclear policies was K. Subrahmanyam, a civilian defence expert, and the advocate of nuclear power as the currency of global power logic. His logic was clear, global nuclear order is dictated by a hegemonic council of five nuclear nations(The recent Iran nuclear deal and North Korea confrontations are on similar lines), and India had to be a player than an object in that. Though regional threats from Pakistan and Chinese missile programs were immediate excuses, he visioned the Pokhran tests as a card for permanent seat in UN security councils and universal recognition. Looking back to it now from 2017, India has well achieved universal recognition, but not via the means Mr.Subrahmanyan envisioned(I must admit my personal views lining with his reluctant nuclear-ism and super power, though they are rendered useless in terms of war), and UN Security council is still an obsessive dream.

The reactions to the tests, though venerated outside, sparked antagonistic arguments in Parliament, even within the ruling coalition. Indian villages were being washed away in floods, one-third of population didn’t have proper access to drinking water, fifty percent lived under poverty, and Pakistan has been offering friendship in recent years under Nawaz Sherif; arguments went on.

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AB Vajpayee  and Nawaz Sherif during Lahore bilateral declaration

George Fernandez who himself belong to the right wing majority party by coalition, later admitted the lack of a political party of India, every party is either explicitly or in-explicitly propelled politically by the burning vote bank of sectarianism. Gosh speaks of him in reverence, as journeyman in the political wilderness, with no regional or caste based support. Neither bunker or fall out shelters were planned along side the nuclear tests, nor a long term policy. This existing adhoc-ism in Indian politics, where the leaders work around agendas for upcoming elections than long term objectives was visible in then economic policies as well; both of them failed later in elections. Gosh then takes readers to Siachin dispute between India and Pakistan and use it along with Nuclear policy to substantiates the lack of vision he been accusing above.

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Siachen : Worlds highest and most inhospitable battleground

Though a formal cease fire was established in 2003, Indian military still stations soldiers on Siachen Glacier, a no mans land where temperatures dip up to -50 or -50 degree centigrade. It is the highest and without any doubt the most hostile battleground on earth, as the territory is demarcated beyond the Line of Control(product of first Indo-Pak war,1948) at NJ9842, both India and Pakistan maintains military presence there. And to both parties, the biggest enemy is the weather, it is the biggest causality claimer as well. One of the motive behind Pakistan’s occupation of vacated Indian posts which triggering Kargil War, was a presumed Indian withdrawal of Siachen. It would be good for readers to remember the time of authors visit- after the nuclear test, well before Kargil. It was really heartfelt to read about those soldiers who were then stationed there, who Gosh claims to have never found to be using a denigratory epithet of any kind on their Pakistani counterparts. Coming from the age of youtube/facebook/quora comment section wars, where everyone is too eager to establish on their arrogance of nationalism, this gave me a refreshing perspective. I will list down the words of a soldier, from the book below, which does a better explanation.

‘Most of us here are from north India’, a bluntly spoken major said to me. ‘We have more in common with the Pakistanis, if you don’t mind my saying so, than we do with South Indians or Bengalis.’

The point of mentioning Siachen are on two fronts, one a nuclear explosion there would melt everything and resulting flood would carry Pakistan away, the other is the immense amount of money that is being spend on Siachen stations. Like the nuclear programs, these too are solely matters of national prestige. The administrative structure that British left India with, is a structure that is designed to oppress, exploit and suppress people, Fernandez says. Nobody is interested in a disciplined growth, but adhoc-ism and temporary appeasements for their immediate future.

about one-tenth of the country’s entire defence budget. Pakistan’s costs are much lower but still substantial. The total cost of the Siachen conflict is probably of the same order of magnitude as that of the nuclear programmes of India and Pakistan combined. If the money spent on the glacier were to be divided up and handed out to the people of India and Pakistan, every household in both countries would be able to go out and buy a new cooking stove or a bicycle.

I have never been to Pakistan, but everyone who been to, were offered colouful cordial welcomes, except the personals at disputed territories and vice versa. Outside these conflicts, both sides got more in common than difference. We eat the same food, sing the same songs, watch the same movies, share the same history and the chance of an Indian and Pakistan being friends abroad is more likely than them with any other nationals. There are of course anomalies to this claim, mainly from the right extremists. Gosh’s experiences were more or less on the similar side, and the responses after Nuclear tensions weren’t any different, though it would be safe to keep in mind that this was the pre Kargil War times. His writing captures the economic anxiety at Pakistan, and the threat of Sharia law by a possible fifteenth amendment. And in general, Gosh argues and illustrates through his interviews that there was a greater realism in nuclear discussion there than in India. Being affected by the Cold War and Taliban, even ordinary Pakistani’s seemed well aware of the differences between weapons and icons. They saw nuclear weapons as instruments of mass destruction that pose a whole range of new threats, from political intimidation and blackmail to total annihilation.

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Kargil War 1999

“If you ask me, anything is a possibility between India and Pakistan. Because our policies are irrational. Our decision-making is ad hoc. We have been surrounded by disinformation about each other. We have a historical enmity. We have this whole emotionalism of jihad against each other — on our part it is jihad; on your part there is a lobby that will never accept the existence of Pakistan. We are fa tali s-tic nations who believe that whatever has happened — famine, accidents, drought — it is the will of God. We learn to accept every catastrophe. Our decision-making is done by a few opinion makers on both sides. It’s not the ordinary woman living in a village in Bihar whose voice is going to be heard, who is going to say, for God’s sake I don’t want this nuclear bomb, 1 want my cow and milk for my children. She is nowhere, she doesn’t figure anywhere. It worries me. It really worries me.” Asma Jahangir, Pakistani human rights lawyer and social activist.

Gosh ends his book with a what-if nuclear holocaust scenario with scientific simulation. The geography of subcontinent will ensure the effects to entire region, in Nepal it would result in radioactive snow, the Tibetan plateau and Himalayan snow will become a radioactive reservoir, which will in turn affect all our Holy rivers, being the inception point of almost all of them. The immediate results would be far more catastrophic, which would wipe out almost everything that is required for even the reconstruction of a destroyed society. And neither side never answered the question of how to contain such a catastrophe. To give matters a perspective Gosh gives the example of Rangoon bombings, they never expected war at their doorstep and Calcutta located farther and safer from warzone, never any expected refugees at their doorstep.

I know, it is an overkill to write about a seemingly redundant old book, in the present era. But the strangest part is that, even after 18 years of publication, it is still somehow very relevant. Existing tensions between India and Pakistan, and the territorial and verbal annoyances from China shows the fallacies in the diplomacy of our subcontinent in general. And from election results and social media intellectuals, I would safely say that the ad hoc policies Gosh accuse in this book are working well, while real issues are easily sidelined without any coverage

 

India Unbound by Gurcharan Das

india unboundThough India achieved political independence in 1947, it missed the liberalization bus of Asian Tigers and had to wait till 1991 to obtain some comparable economic independence. Gurcharan Das captures this economic journey in this autobiographical narrative, through his life and that of people around him. But in that ambitious effort, I found him to be doing more of a personal unbounding than that of India as a whole.

According to Das, the economic timeline of India went through a series of crests and troughs. And after the episode of disasters by ‘British Raj’, Independent India adopted a more inward looking import substituting anti foreign(mostly west) economic strategy. Gandhi distrusted technology, though not businessmen and wanted smaller companies over bigger corporations; Nehru on the other hand distrusted businessmen, not technology, and preferred public firms over private establishments. And they both were in full favour of local make over foreign. But in these efforts for embracing an egalitarian socialist slanted mixed economy, Indian was actually chaining her Industrial revolution to neo-colonialisation by its ill managed bureaucracy- ‘License Raj’. Das is both critical and optimistic in his political scrutiny, he respects our forefather’s wisdom of age, in regards with the events happening around the world. In fact, he compares it with the responses of neighbouring Asian Tigers(Taiwan, Korea, Singapore etc.) after global nationalism tide, and tries to defend the then unique Indian stand, which unlike the rest of East, had Democracy before Capitalism.

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Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru

Book works both as a memoir and a critical social investigation through variegated business narratives. A greater chunk of the first part is dedicated for exposure of India’s monopolistic public sector which seriously lacked autonomy of working. Industries Act of 1951 made it punishable by law to produce beyond granted capacity, and this over regulation of private enterprises further went into debarring of expansion via Indira’s MRTP of 1969. There was even an entry restriction up to 60 lakhs in Rupees, for certain selected small scale sectors, which did the ill effect of reducing incentives for technology and competition. These legislations pampered organized labour and discouraged foreign investment, there by effectively shutting down the ancient Indian prosperity tradition of export supplementation. Though unapologetic and critical, Das does acknowledges(with numbers) Second five year plan, Green revolution, White revolution and improvement in Indian savings and investments. And remote efforts for liberalization by Desai, Rajaji and Rajiv-Pitroda are also accounted with romantic reverence. But the ‘wage model’ economic slant, according to Das, was always overshadowed by political appeasements, which never followed the rule of demand and supply.

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Manmohan Singh and PVN Rao, architects of 1991

Balance of Payment crisis of 1991 by short term commercial borrowings of 1985 government, oil crisis, and many other complimenting reasons forced Narasimha Rao’s stop gap government to approach Bretton Woods for financial aid. This is where Das starts to actually breathe in the book, like he was personally strangulated by Fabian socialism and license raj till then. What follows is a celebration of Foreign Investment through statistics in dollars and numbers – reduced bank reserve ratios, reduced inflation, reduced duties, de-materialization of stocks, increased foreign deposit and borrowings and stuff. But these Rao-Manmohan-Verma reforms remained ‘soft’, for ‘ Inspection Raj’ still thrived and public sector bleeding, and lay offs followed the same old pattern. Das connects this Cabinet cripple-ment to ‘Elite to masses’ roots of Indian democracy, which will always has its vested interests in old legacies (Nehruvian-Gandhian socialism here).

The narrative is more gleeful towards the end, where he discusses the recent events through Sen’s take on ‘Identity’ and argumentative traditions. ‘Profit’ is no more a dirty word and ‘poverty’ isn’t divine either. The rise of consuming middle class is changing the mainland and diaspora, yet rising concerns are there in clashes of ‘modernity’ and ‘nationalism’. Though Author tries well not to be explicit, his right slant dominates his political scrutiny. And a general anxiety is visible on the the Hindutva movement gaining moment, which could bring back ‘License Raj’ under the pretense of so called ‘Nationalism’. At the start of the book, he argues that Brahmins of India love to chant in Sanskrit and rant in English, showing the class bias and theoretical preference over practical studies. Funny enough, it goes well with the later narrative of IT success, which could be and somehow is the flagship product of country. Anyway, he argues that the important change by this liberalization, privatization and globalisation(LPG) was people relying more on individualism than the hope on government to solve their problem.

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an average IT/ BPO section in Bangalore

I was expecting this book to go dense into economy, with real statistics and comparisons. But the read felt a bit blunt in that realm, though it had its appeasing traits. Also, by later portions of the book, in his looking over a whole generation narrative, author was unknowingly painting himself as an Omnipotent outside panel ‘Watcher’ like figure. I found this nonchalant stance, off putting and suggestive of fictitious embellishments, as opposed to the more sincere personal takes I adored at the start. Another uncomforting detail, or absence of detail, was the lack of demographic analysis, for India is very different in parts and any homogeneous analysis without considering the heterogeneity poses threats of absurd results.

This is a soft book on Indian economy that you can sit back and enjoy. And the best part about the conviction of his numbers are the treatment of reality through dreams and lives of people from partition to 21st century. Though Das has done his best to sound catholic, underlying narrative is still an ode to Capitalism.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

White Tiger is what Taxi Driver would have been, If Scorcesse had made that in India. Or is it the Nightcrawler?

India is two countries in one: an India in light, and an India in darkness. The Ocean brings light to my country. Every place on the map of India near Ocean is well-off. But the river brings darkness to India – the black river.

I find the overuse of Flowers of Algernon Charlie style narrative, in general, a cheap pretext to escape the nuances of language, and a cheat code to obtain unlimited writers license. The letter format, though justiciable with character’s pesrsona, didn’t work with me either. But it would be huge injustice If I don’t acknowledge how well the two(or many) sides of India was(were) captured, subsiding to the arguement of the country being in multiple timelines at the same time or being the land of contradictions. 

The brilliance of Adiga, in my opinion was protagonist’s Ishmael(the concsious gorilla) outsider look on upper middle class from the lowest strata. Munna, comes from a caste of Halwai(sweetmaker), one of the working class laborers, in a village reminiscent of old movies. The inadequacies of wealth, entitlements, gender equality, educational system are well captured in the narrative and could be used to analyze the conditions of rural India. One illustration would be this scene where, for school records part, Munna’s (boy in hindi) name gets changed to ‘Balram’ by the registering official, and how it immediately becomes his official name at home n village, with virtually zero fuss. Or, the plight of school where the teacher is on a gandhian strike withhelding his lectures against non payment of wages, while occasionally compensating his plight by selling off the subcidiced school supplies. 

There are three main diseases in the country : typhoid, cholera and election fever. The last one is the worst; it makes people talk and talk about things they have no say in.

The most obvious metaphor for reader would be the Genesis old light and darkness, in the ying yang treatment of characters. It also offers a critique to the democracy, with his letters adressing to the Supreme Leader of China, ocassional mentions of the great socialist and spectre of gandhi through out. Balram climbs up the ladder, slowly, using debatable morale and becomes a self sufficient entrepreneur in the city of Bangalore, from his humble beginnings in his village near Dhanbad. The uneducated Balram seems to have understood the idea of globalization, better than his foreign learned Mr. Ashok and Pinky Madam. Another possible metaphor that I noticed was the usage of animal names for characters, like in Animal Farm, quite serving its purpose too, if read carefully.

In the old days there were one thousand castes and destinies in India. These days there are just two castes : Men with big bellies, and men with small bellies.

And only two destinies : eat or get eaten up.

Adiga’s narrative does a valid take on complexities of class and caste in Indian society, and how narrow an escape from same would be in a village and how easy the escape is in a big city that can offer anonymity.  Only western equilent, though highly innacurate, would be Industrial capitalists and labouring poor of 19th centuries from Dickens novels. The darkness and light analogy prevails again in the suburbs of Delhi, Gurgaon which are designed to look and feel more like first world countries, so that the rich will feel home, despite the slum and dirt nearby. Even though my first sentiment was to tag this book as the work of India bashing elite, written for the kind of elite, whose idea and inclined outlook on India is Slumdog Millionaire; the complex analysis this novel can offer on multiple subject baffles me, with the temptation of extending the same at the expense of more words.

Even with all these analysis, the ones that are still in scope and afterthoughts, my feelings about the book remains the same. I didn’t enjoy it.

India after Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha

indiaaftergandhiText book history of India often and for most people including me, reaches a clincher by the midnight of 15th August 1947, the day of Independence. What followed then after, for more than a half a century is, usually, the privilege of intellectuals who read editorial articles and of quasi historians who are eager to pick a fight on social media under the slightest provocation. It is like those Marvel movie after credit scenes that we all pretend to understand, and then silently google afterwards.

Though my reasons for reading were, availability of a fresh copy in library and unavailability of the books I wanted to rent, this seemingly boring political book, for me, was an emotional and intellectual roller coaster ride, through the gripping history that shaped worlds largest democracy into what it is today. Guha’s approach, though a bit verbose and fat for scholarly, prep purposes; felt more like a follow up to Nehru’s Discovery of India, and in a way, to be imitating the latter’s elegant prose in process. It was an absolute delight to read with the insightful research filled with verbatims, references and conflicting viewpoints, news excerpts from inside and outside the sub-contintent, foreign correspondent views, and notes from International relations. And for the contents, the course of events start from political assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and after effects of partition, India’s very first and World’s largest general election with universal adult franchise to the events till the year 2008. He keeps the linear narrative in check with its socio-cultural-economic impacts inside and outside the country. From Nehru’s decentralized and austere cabinet, who considered Indian Independence as part of a wider Asian insurgence to Indira and centralized nepotism that followed, From patriotic opposition movements of JP to vote and religion based modern nationalism, From the various secessionist movements and foreign prediction of balkanization to the force of unity in diversity, From the displaced disposed underprivileged to the growing ‘body shopped’ upper middle class; Guha takes readers through the mights, ignominies and challenges that rocked World’s largest multi-ethnic democracy.

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With India’s sheer monstrosity in size, population and prevailing political ideologies, Its extremely difficult to consolidate the information in a presentable manner, not to mention the much needed escape from the moral bias towards the winning side. And there is always some information that have to be omitted, either by ruling it out as futile to the general course or to slice down the pages. For every event he has tried to get the multi-facets of the issue, from seemingly protagonist to the seemingly antagonist and finally a third person with neutral sentiment, in and outside the country. Guha uses foreign correspondents, political scientists, national and international press who covered the incidents to give the most non biased account possible.

2013_Little_India_Riots,_SingaporeGuha shifts from history to historically informed journalism towards the recent years of Indian history, which is still unfolding; yet, his search to find the first domino that set the contraption of events into motion, prevails the narrative. My feelings while reading, If recorded would give a sine wave with crest and troughs of intersecting pride and shame. India has the worlds most progressive democracy and constitution, and though mostly on paper, it protects and keep the nation in check more or less(more more I must say) within the founding principles. I cannot imagine how our nation would have been built or on what principles, If it was in remote antiquity than the progressive past it actually been framed. Things and leaders seem to be going more backward and internally disturbed as time advances, giving a temporal anomaly in terms of the direction of growth- a term reduced into infrastructures and currency these days. As much as it made me happy and proud while reading through the birth of nation, war victories, scientific progresses, goodwill will with neighbors and world ; It pained me to read through history of Kashmir, Babri Masjid demolition, Gujarat riots and the likes. I had to occasionally put the book down and take time off, and even have some casual talks with friends for obaining a sense of present, and to process the things I used ignore casually. And that is something this reader least expected from a history book.

bollywood-boom_759Author talks about an unsung capacity of Nehru, the very quality I admired every way through my read of Discovery of India – viewing both sides of question, seeing the imperfection of process even while being committed to it. I can undoubtedly verify the same sentiments in Guha’s research, which not only compliments reader’s knowledge but also questions it. And it badly needs to be challenged considering the sources where we obtain the infos from, from photoshoped fb wall posts to comments in youtube, reddit, quora and various news posts.

In a world of demagogues and blind followers too eager to hagiography their leaders in approbation, it is essential to have some predisposition towards actual history. And in this work of majestic proportion, Ramachandra Guha has found the perfect balance between Said’s in famous ‘Orientalism’ and ‘nationalistic bias’   that readers would suspect from authors identity.