One of the reasons why Pakistan has always had a bad press in the West (& the Rest)

The University of Cam has organised a fantastic Indo-Pak online exhibition for 70 years of ambition. I came across this chap called Ian Stephens, who was a Kings College Cambridge, who stayed on in Pakistan after Partition. In fact he wrote a fascinating book called Pakistan in 1963. I’m ordering the book but it’s perhaps one of the most incisive readings I’ve ever read on the “ideology of Pakistan”. He speculates on why Pakistan has never had “good press” from the beginning of it’s inception:

“But over one big matter there is divergence. For something distinct from religious and cultural spirit infuses Zionism; it is inspired, too, by a sense of race, by beliefs about a chosen people; and in this, with grim irony, it bears some resemblance to its appalling former foe in Europe, German Nazism. Islam, on the other hand — the creed from which the Pakistan-concept takes origin — agrees wholeheartedly with Communism in being without qualification and emphatically raceless, a brotherhood open for all mankind; which means that, unlike Judaism, it remains, potentially at least, a proselytising force, bent upon enlarging itself — as it so formidably did in past centuries. Here we have a fresh fact of major importance, and one which does much to explain the peculiar obstacles and prejudices which the idea of Pakistan, from the time of its first becoming active` in the 1930’s, has met not only from Hindus, but also, though less consciously — so this writer at any rate reckons — from Christian people in the West.”

Will the last Parsi to die please blow out the sacred fire?

Our ancestors, Persia’s first-born, preserved their ancient faith in the underground warrens of Yazd. Zarthushti houses had to be on a lower level to Muslim homes so that if it rained the water of infidels couldn’t contaminate that of the believers. It is only fair that for the sake of those ancestors who have sacrificed so much that at least some of their descendants should go on to light the sacred fire for the generations to come. 

Twitter is in a huff about Jiyo Parsis’s last-gasp campaign to raise the anemic Parsi birthrate through blunt ads. The liberal opposition are featuring an angsty article denouncing JP as racists:

Imagine a khap panchayat in rural Haryana – a kangaroo court of village elders – launching a slick ad campaign encouraging members of their caste to marry (each other) and rapidly multiply to increase their dwindling numbers.

(Disclaimer: I had my Navjot when I was nine, despite having a Hindu father.) 

Anahita Mukherji is a US-based journalist who has a quarter-Parsi son with a full-Parsi name.

The author’s father is a Bengali Brahmin and she herself married out of the Parsi caste. Anahita’s only sop to her mother’s identity is to give her son a Parsi name.

Now she’s the designated American voice of the (liberal) pushback against those Indian Parsis who understandably want to preserve Zoroaster’s bloodline for posterity. If the Parsi community were to follow Anahita’s personal example; they’d be extinct in a generation.

She has every right to lead her life as she sees fit but it is unacceptable to hector others to follow her PC non-solutions. When it comes to the Parsi community there are simply no lemmings left to fall of the cliff.

Good luck Jiyo Parsi!

Indian History Wars..

Razib has an excellent post about the genetic history of China up on gnxp.nofe. Worth a read.

Of course, unlike India, China is dominated by one ethnic group with clear genetic and cultural identity and has a long history of political unity (even though interspersed with recurrent civil wars and invasions), so there is relatively little fear of population genetics and its findings.. let the chips fall where they may, we know who is boss.. (I admit that I may not be aware of lower level Chinese debates about ancestry, where some people may indeed get hot and bothered about genetic results, but the point is that it is still not a hot-potato in the way population genetics is in India).

For background on the Indian debates, see Razib’s article here and my own (less genetics, more politics) article here.

By the way, the comments and answers on Razib’s article are very sane and add value. Please do read.

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Partition stories; a pair of beds in Jehlum

I happened to see a tweet about a museum of objects related to partition

and it reminded me of a story I heard about a particular pair of objects, two old-style massive beds (palang) in a house in Jehlum. Since I doubt that this story has been published anywhere, I thought of putting it down here for posterity:

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The Man on Mao’s Right..

The Man on Mao’s Right” is the memoir of Ji Chaozhu, a Chinese diplomat who worked as an interpreter for several decades before being promoted to more substantive positions, ending his career as China’s ambassador to Great Britain and a stint as undersecretary general of the UN. His personal story in intertwined with many important events in modern Chinese history, from the Japanese invasion and a peripheral role in the communist’s rise to power (his older brother was a confidant of Zhu Enlai and more or less a Chinese communist agent in the United States), to the Korean war, the early decades of Chinese communism, the Great Leap Forward, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the fall of the Gang of Four and the rise of post-Maoist China under Deng Xiaoping.

Ji went to school in Manhattan and was a scholarship student at Harvard before most of the family moved back to China to help Chairman Mao build the new China. He is a Chinese patriot and a thoroughgoing Confucian Mandarin at heart, who managed to retain these ideals through decades of purges and ideological twists and turns in China, so he is not inclined to kick up controversy and cross the party’s red lines even in his old age. The memoir seems honest and frank enough when it comes to his personal life, but the politics and political commentary are filtered through a lifetime of extreme care and awareness of what words can mean and what limits are to be kept in mind. He may have exactly these beliefs and attitudes, or he may think these are the beliefs and attitudes he considers safe to share. Either way, opinions that the CCP now considers safe are freely shared, those that could upset the CCP apparently never entered Ji’s head. That’s just how it is in this book.

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What’s the fuss about dog meat?

Fellow blogger Omar Ali’s recent post on the perils of Orientalism uses the example of an Orientalist’s apologia for the rather uncharitable views on dogs (as filthy animals etc) prevalent in Muslim societies. The Yale professor in question concludes thus:

Knowing this past not only gives us a fuller picture of the most ubiquitous nonhuman animal we welcome in our midst, but it also helps us to understand how our histories with other animals have shaped our current world.

which got me thinking about how parochial the world-view of some Westerners can be.

The lychee and dog-meat festival in the Southern Chinese city of Yulin went ahead as planned last month, in spite of all the brouhaha and rumours of a ban on social and news media both within and especially outside China. The sheer lack of compunction that characterises the Chinese regime is rather well known, so I am not surprised in the least. However, the unease of Western commentators at this Chinese practice is quite obvious and surprising coming from a culture that considers anything from sheep to horses rather kosher. Consider this piece in the latest Economist issue that I read just yesterday on my commute home, which ascribes the popularity of the event to criminality and treats trade in dog-meat at par with drug trafficking!

The “animal love” that is rather partial to the members of the Canis family is a deep-seated Western fad, rather akin to the cow-craze in India. I recall a conversation with a potential (elderly English) landlady many years ago in London, who asked me if I hated dogs. I said I didn’t and added that I’m indifferent to them. That was enough to visibly rile her up! She could fathom people disliking dogs (or liking them, as she obviously did) but an expression of indifference to such “ubiquitous nonhuman animal” was absolutely beyond her tolerance. I can only imagine how she’d have responded if a Chinese tenant in my place had innocently let slip that he found dogs tasty 🙂

I am not quite sure why the dog is such a holy cow for Western (or Westernized) animal lovers. Is it more of a mammal than a cow, or a goat, or a pig? I can understand Indian (including Hindu) aversion to the idea of eating dogs, which takes after the unclean status of dogs in the Islamic world. The same holds for Hindu aversion to pigs too – again an internalised Islamic fad – with a clear religious pathology behind it. But it is hard for me to comprehend how a Brit or an Italian could gobble up finely minced offal cuts of a pig (raised and slaughtered for its meat) packed in the entrails of that very animal for breakfast and yet find the idea of dog steak on a plate emetic.

A dog isn’t anymore angelic than a pig and, who knows, probably dogs taste better. I don’t think the Chinese (or indeed anyone else) should limit their gastronomic repertoire just because some Westerners find it off-putting. If the animal-lovers are doing it out of a genuine moral duty, isn’t saving the poor cows of this world from the abattoir an equally noble endeavour? If so, they ought to be supporting Indian beef-bans too (akin to the ban on commercial sale and consumption of dog meat in the US and various European countries), i.e. unless they do not mind being called specieists. Knee-jerk reactions on dog-meat are reminiscent of the loony Hindutva fringe, who are wont to get their knickers in a twist every time someone mentions the b-word. To their credit though, caninophiles haven’t lynched a Chinese person, at least not yet.

My advice to all the caninophiles of the world: like any other domesticated animal, your pet’s species is edible too .. get over it! Now how about some Dalmatian kebab with lychees?

Brexit: the oxymoronic democratic referendum

Being a foreign-born Londoner and one who has sold his soul to the big bad world of finance, the momentous decision of the British electorate to leave the EU has personal resonance. Therefore, I have been meaning to pen my thoughts on Brexit for some time.

The run-up to the Brexit process rent the country into two politically (and sometimes personally) antagonistic camps – the Leavers (buccaneering “Brexiteers” to the latter) who wanted UK to leave the EU and Remainers (“Remoaners” to the former) who wanted to stay. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the referendum pitted brother against brother, friend against friend and neighbour against neighbour. Leave and Remain campaigns saw a lot of familiar dog-whistling about immigrants, fanciful promises of redirecting EU transfer payments to the UK National Health Service painted on buses, lofty talks of Independence from the Eurocratic elite, facetious (and patronizing) arguments about EU being a civilizing force etc. Where one fell on the Leave-Remain axis was, rather unsurprisingly, correlated to family income distribution, age and rural-urban background. Typically, older people hard of means hailing from small towns were the implacable Brexiteers, as opposed to Remoaning younger city crowd in well-paying jobs. However, out of these three main explanatory factors, age was by far the strongest determinant: even the city-dwelling, indubitably middle-class, older folk tend to be Brexiteers. As the adage goes, Brexit was a gigantic fuck-you! from the grand-dads and grannies.

The Brexit referendum itself was a political gamble by the ruling Tories, led by David Cameron. The decision to hold the In-Out referendum was primarily Cameron’s, widely advertised as a Tory election promise. Cameron’s intention was to use the Remain result (famous last words!) as a giant UK-sized stick to beat the traditional Eurosceptics in his party with. However, the Brexit referendum decision was also endorsed by other political parties, notably UKIP (UK Independence Party), a party of right-wing fruitcakes in Cameron’s own words. The decision to hold the public referendum was arrived at in a rather slapdash fashion, with very little understanding of the public mood, no recourse to a stronger two-thirds majority (as any Constitutional change normally requires, esp. one of this magnitude) and no forethought or planning about the political cataclysm an Out (Brexit) vote would unleash.

The nominal objective of the Brexit referendum was to leave the EU, which essentially meant moving out of the European Council-Commission-Parliament triumvirate and removing the European Court of Justice as the supreme law-making body for the UK. For the uninitiated, the EU law originates from the European Commission, essentially a cabal of bureaucrats drawn from the upper echelons of the civil services – one from each of the 28 member states – that is paid to think European. Any draft directive initiated by the Commission is then debated by the rather emasculated European Parliament, consisting of MEPs elected on a proportional representation basis in constituencies throughout the EU. The number of constituencies (and therefore the number of MEPs) per country is notoriously not proportional to the population of the country. The degressive proportional system leads to perverse outcomes such as the vote of one Luxembourgish or Maltese worth those of over 10 Brits or Germans. It is essentially the same recipe that led to Trump becoming President in spite of a smaller vote share and the last we saw such perversity in our own neck of the woods was Pakistan’s so-called Parity Scheme in the long build up to Bangladesh Liberation. Finally, the Council comprises the heads of member states and the bureaucrat-in-chief a.k.a. President of the Commission. It is meant to provide guidance to the bureaucrats of the Commission and make strategic executive decisions in times of crisis, and throw lavish dinner parties in the meanwhile. The obvious democratic deficit, seriously bloated bureaucracy and other systemic flaws of the EU model are not unknown to European leadership either.

Over the years the European Union has created a financial and economic ecosystem too. This includes, primarily, the European Economic Area (EEA) within which any individual can have visa-free access, seek employment and do business without restrictions or tariffs, a Eurozone i.e. the region where Euro is legal tender (largely isomorphic with the EEA, with UK as the notable exception) and a Eurosystem of banking and finance under the aegis of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt – the lender of last resort for the Eurozone. The complex network of these institutions (other than the Eurozone which the UK is anyway out of) is what the Brexit referendum sought to sever the UK from permanently.

Before coming to the nub of this blog post – i.e. whether the Brexit decision was the right choice – I would like to briefly discuss the nature of democracy, which I think is critical in informing the debate around Brexit. [I was initially planning to cover this question in some detail here, but I realized that it’s important enough to need a blog post of its own. So I will be brief and ask you watch this space for a soon upcoming blog post on Democracy.]

Democracy is in its essence an error-correction mechanism. In political terms, it’s a system to remove bad leaders without violence, not a system to elect good ones per se. This may initially seem like a trivial statement, but I urge readers to take a moment to mull it over. This definition of democracy was first mooted by Karl Popper in his seminal work on The Open Society and its Enemies coincidentally published in the same year the Third Reich fell, yet still remains rather poorly understood. What the true will of the people is, or whether such a thing even exists, is of little importance or consequence in a democratic setup. What’s more important is how the system is designed to use that will expressed via the ballot box to ensure terrible leaders (autocrats, revanchists, communists, religious-fascists and other forms of political-utopia seekers generally) can be removed non-violently before it’s too late. The better any electoral system translates the swing in public sentiment into gain/loss of power, the better it is for hedging against downside political risk. It can be argued that First Past the Post tends to do this better than all such systems currently in existence.

Another corollary of this definition of democracy is the nature and function of whom we elect to power. The primary function of chosen representatives (not delegates) isn’t carrying out what some vaguely-defined popular will delegates to them, anymore than it is an airline pilot’s job to fly the plane on passengers’ instructions. Nonetheless a certain class of politicians, the populists (e.g. Messrs Kejriwal, Farage and Trump), take the silly idea of the will-of-the-people too seriously and are perfectly happy to crowd-source solutions to intricate questions of constitutional law and political organization. Such exercises of popular “decision-making”, the kind that animates a populist’s wet dreams, are called referendums. Referendums are therefore (rather paradoxically) antidemocratic, because they confound the whole point of the exercise of seeking votes from people.

The political brinksmanship behind the In-Out referendum decision, dog-whistling of the Brexiteer populists, oligarchical nature of the EU Commission (fancy continental version of a village panchayat or tribal jirga), democratic deficit of the EU Parliamentary system and the sheer pointlessness of putting Constitutional changes to popular vote makes the Brexit story look like a farcical plot from The Thick of It rather than real life. But it is very real and it happened, even after several prognostications by leading opinion-makers of British society that the actual Brexit decision was too radical to come to pass. Brexit and the political drama in its aftermath has also inspired creative fiction, which has essentially been critical of the decision.

My personal take on Brexit is that it’s a terrible means to a good end. Referendums like Brexit and Indyref (the one before on Scottish Independence) have created a terrible precedent in UK’s political culture to settle debates by popular voting. It encourages rank populism, incentivises escaping responsibility/blame in politicians by outsourcing important decisions to the prevailing whims and fancies of the public and diminishes the historically constructive role of the Parliament. Nonetheless, Brexit did save the UK from an undemocratic (and frankly dangerous) Eurocracy. Europe’s democratic politics is still in its infancy. E.g. most countries of Continental Europe have not had a long experience of democracy – half of Germany became a proper democracy in the 50s and the second half in the 90s, Spain and Portugal in 70s and 80s, Italy in the 50s, France in roughly 1890s and the less said of Eastern Europe the better – compared to UK’s Bill of Rights of 1689 that made the Parliament sovereign. As many Europeans themselves will grudgingly admit (perhaps after a pint or two), the British invented the modern concept of Parliamentary Democracy. Therefore, the British ought to be justifiably protective of their superior political culture against its slow dilution by the ever paternalistic EU. In conclusion, the normative last word on Brexit is a function of how consequentialist one is prepared to be – to follow Gandhi’s example or Kautilya’s. I chickened out and chose the former when voting Remain.

Right Hand Path Orientalism vs Left Hand Path Orientalism

A few days ago, Razib posted a piece about “Castes of Mind” that discussed Historian Nicholas Dirk’s book that argued that the Indian caste system as it exists may be (mostly) a colonial creation. I have not read Dirk’s book, but it is my impression (from hearing about it) that it is not superficial and has useful information and perspectives in it. Still, what less informed readers take from it, or what residue remains in the Zeitgeist from that book, is a tendency to blame evil British colonialism for whatever is worst about the caste situation in India. In that sense, it has joined the long (and growing) list of “Right Hand Path Orientalism” pieces, written by Western scholars eager to exculpate orientals when it comes to practices that are not in line with current fashions and opinions (as opposed to old fashioned “left hand path Orientalism”, which was much better informed (and far more useful), but frequently racist). Currently the most favored (and sometimes unwilling) recipients of this largess are Muslims, some of whose cultural and religious practices are now considered passe, but since the RightHandPath orientalists do not wish to “blame” Muslims for these views and practices, they prefer to find some way to blame colonialism, capitalism or some other aspect of modernity.  A trivial but truly outstanding example is this astoundingly ignorant and illogical (but extremely well-meaning) piece  about dogs and Islam. 

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Headwinds Ahead : The Growing Divergence Between Truth and Productivity?

Throughout Human history, Productivity has required an understanding of nature, whether it meant predicting the seasons for agriculture or navigating the seas for trade through astronomy or curing diseases through medicine. European societies gained a huge advantage over other societies by creating incentives for exploration of ideas by institutionalizing patent & copy right laws in the late medieval period and eventually by enshrining the notion of free speech.

Productivity leaped ahead in these societies, which promoted a culture of intellectual exploration of ideas. And never has there been a society where a scientist like Einstein gained a degree of popularity transcending his own time to become the visual cognate to the word “genius”. All this gave a great boost to the social status of many scientists in these societies. And in the 20th century people across the world are now familiar with the name ‘Einstein’. Meanwhile, the establishment of awards to scientists has been an annual affair for over a century by the prestigious Nobel committee. However, the nature of progress itself thus far should not reassure us with regards to the future.

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