Aman Ki Asha: an Indo-pak peace initiative

Whenever something as grand and as controversial as Indo-Pak peace initiative and reconciliation is being talked of, there are bound to be sparks in the air (some would say of the hopeless romantic kind, while some would say fireworks that are a bad omen of things to come) . While some may dismiss the Aman Ki Asha advertisements, initiative and programs as romantic eye-gloss/eye-wash , I believe these are steps in the right direction and that more, rather than less, such initiatives are required in today’s time .

Left Brain thinking : a checkered history since nation state formation

Everyone knows the checkered history of Indo-pak relations since the nation states were formed in 1947, so no need to repeat that here. Suffice it to say, that there is sufficient grounds for both countries to be suspicious of each other (If India helped Bangladesh liberation to some extent, India has more current grievances like Kargil/Mumbai 26/11). But a new factor that has emerged recently in geo-politics is Pakistan struggling (some would say apparently) against its former allies, the Taliban.  With the US pressure, alongside the Talibani backlash, it seems an opportune ground to make the Pakistan state realize that supporting terrorism is not a viable alternative in today’s realpolitik and there is no recourse better than to have healthy and peaceful relations with the Indian state.

Right Brain doodling: A romantic sufiana view of assimilation before the divide-and-rule

And yet, before the Britishers sowed the seeds of divide and rule and communal disharmony things were more or less hunky-dory in India and Mughals were accepted to a large extent as native kings (following the efforts of Akbar, the great) and a new language and culture of Urdu assimilated in the Indian stronghold. If one is to believe the sufiana poetry or poetry of poets like Kabir,  one comes to the realization that there was a lot of assimilation and mutual respect and admiration between the communities/ the different states.  Even the 1857 revolution was fought by all communities alongside each other, perhaps shaking the Britishers from their slumber and forcing them to sow seeds of divide and rule.

Whole brain fusings: War between nations versus Love between people

And yet, even when one focuses on post-independence history of Indians and Pakistanis, one has to contend that there are two histories- one that between the two nation-states which have always been at loggerheads and suspisious of each other and one between the people who despite reservations, suspicions and occasional overt ill-will, also paradoxically are so  much embedded and enthralled by each others culture as to be indistinguishable. Be it ‘bakra kishton par’ and other pak dramas that enthralled India even as babari-masjid episode was at its peak, or the firm grip of Bollywood under which the Pakistanis live; be it  Nusrut Fateh Ali khan saying that my beloved has returned home:-) to Hasan Jahangir enticing the winds to spread fragrance between the two nations (Hawa-Hawa) – the cultural ties have always been there and have fascinated us and kept us tethered to the fact that the person sitting cross-border is very much an Indian -sans nationality. Perhaps it is more politically correct to say that we are all pan-Indians/pan-Pakistanis.

Out-of-the-brain musings: Kashmir/Terrorism and Truth and Reconciliation

And yet, we  will continue to live under the legacy of hatred, suspicion and ill-will till we finally sort out the underlying issues of Kashmir and Terrorism. I propose to go the way of Truth and Reconciliation of South Africa- Truth regarding Terrorism -its stark origins, effects and repercussions and reconciliation and re assimilation of  those who might have been way laid by financial, religious or ideological factors; also Truth about accepting Kashmir’s present situation and reconciliation between India and Pakistan over the issue. Of course this is easier said than done. But when the people of both nations would show solidarity, would show that the states of India and Pakistan cannot play against what the people of India and Pakistan yearn deep in their heart- then their would be no looking back. Peace would no longer be a hope- it would be a real possibility.

Parting thoughts: Partition and Raksha Bandhan

While partition of 1947 was tragic on account of the lives lost,  another partition springs to mind- the partition of Bengal in 1905. That had led people to celebrate Raksha Bandhan on a wide scale , by encouragements from Tagore and to this day has led to a tradition of celebration of Rakhi in Bengal. Perhaps we need another Raksha bandhan celebration- this time across the Indo-pak border- with citizens pledging to defend each other cross border, the nations states would soon follow suit. There is a strong need of the hour to incorporate raksha bandhan in the Aman ki Asha and similar cross-border campaigns. When we view each others as friends who can be counted on for security, all the historic ill-will and malice will vaporize and the aman ki asha will not just remain asha or mere hope , it will become a vishwas or faith grounded in reality. Lets all pledge to Aman Ka Vishwas and with our faith it will soon become a reality!  Insha-allah!

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Voting Reforms: the future beckons

Electronic voting machine used in Brazilian el...
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I recently attended a bar camp Pune and had the good fortune to attend a session by Anuapam Saraph, the CIO of Pune city and an activist trying to come up with innovative ways to reform the voting system. The below post is heavily inspired by his ideas, but tries to go beyond and build upon what he  presented there. The reforms and the technology that enables democratic voting as well as the technology that presents challenges and opportunities to it are relevant to all people and nations who are interested in and experimenting with democracy.

Left brain thinking : voting anywhere

Envisage a future in which the voters card is a smart card just like a credit card and can be used at general purpose ATM machines, online authorized websites, IVRs hooked to voting phone lines, Electronic Voting Machines or used as a proof of identity if someone wants to physically visit an  EVM/traditional ballot station. The voters card will have magnetic data that would authorize and authenticate the cardholder and along with a password/PIN that is only known to the user, allow him to  vote in a given running election in a constituency of which he is a part,irrespective of the pshyscila location of the ATM. He may be traveling and may be in a different constituency, but he could still vote as the vote is recorded online   and just like we can use and transact from any banks ATM our accounts of any other bank, there are no theoretical challenges in how this can be administered.  Further, the card has a Unversal ID (UID) akin to credit card number,a CVV number and a 3D secure password/PIN  and this data can be used to authenticate user when he votes using an IVR (through his land-line/ mobile phone) or an online web portal via the Internet. Thus, even when the voter is outside the country, he can vote for his constituency candidates. and in case one does want to indure the pain of visiting a physical voting booth and standing in line , then that same smart voter card serves as a offline identity and authentication proof and can be swiped in a machine like credit card readers to register the fact that vote has been cast and there is no need to apply the outdated ink on the finger to denote the fact.

Right brain doodling: voting anytime

However, also envisage a future where you don’t have to vote once on one particular day, but there is a window of voting duration, during which the person can cast his vote as many times as he wishes. Of course only his last vote is counted and it nullifies all his other earlier votes. the advantages of this are ease of voting. change in mind of voter than he can register the change, if someone hacks his account and proxy votes for him, he can revert the vote to his candidate.  Voting in a time window, possibly multiple times may seem counter-intuitive, but it is a very important concept. Each time one votes , a notification is sent to ones registered phone no. (via SMS)/email account of the fact that the person has voted.  Think of it like the notification banks can send to you if a particularly heavy transaction (deposit/withdrawals over a limit) happens in your account. It alerts you to the fact that some important transaction has happened and you can cross-verify and alert bank if it is suspected to be fraudulent.  Similarly getting the notification that you have voted, when in fact your account was hacked and someone else voted, alerts you to the fact that some fraud is happening and you can either re-vote or alert concerned authorities about the fraudulent transaction.   Also, the notifications, serves as a sort of receipt that you voted, which can be used for independent audit purposes (finding out how many actually voted and how many the EC reports as having voted). also one can extend the window indefinitely so that there is perpetual voting- you can vote in and vote out the candidate anytime. Of course on e would need a quorum to initiate a no-confidence referendum, and this has its own challenges, but at least this will keep the elected candidates accountable and on tenterhooks. With easy and cheap anytime,anyplace voting technologies,all these voting reforms are not only conceivable and desirable, but also inevitable.

Whole brain fusing: voting anyone

Why vote for one candidate, why not split your one vote into fractions for multiple candidates , ensuirng that the total is still one. I may like Manmohan more , but my second choice may be Vajpayee and I may want to vote for both in 60:40 proportion. Or I may want to vote for 5 candidates in proportion to their deservability. With most voting happening electronically (either using ATMs, online or IVRs)  or using EVMs , there is no reason to suppose that fractional voting cannot be built in. One could have very visual ways to set the proportions that even a layman/ illiterate can easily use. Also, with counting and voting costs going down, perhaps the pool of people who one can choose form can increase drastically. Perhaps, one could vote for any independent candidate belonging to that constituency (or himself) from a separate drop-down aside form listed candidates from national/regional parties.  this sounds a little hard to digest, but by ensuring that one could vote for anyone, what one will at least ensure  is more participation, perhaps close to100% with many people voting at least favor themselves or their relatives. With anytime, any place convenience if we add anyone option, the participatory democracy will start speeding on rocket fuel with everyone feeling that not only their vote counts, but that they themselves count.

Out-of-the-brain-musing: voting anything

However, one considerable challenge with this voter smart card scheme is the ease of selling ones vote. In India, at least many of the people from lower classes readily sell their vote in exchange of liquor/money. For now they have to vist the booth and it is not clear if they will indeed vote for the candidate; with this new password and online voting scheme, it becomes easy and foolproof to sell your vote. Just give your password and online credentials and someone else can use the web/IVR to vote for you. That someone else will ensure that the vote is cast for the party who paid money. A perfect arrangement for both parties.  For seller there is lot less inertia, one doesn’t even need to go to the voting booth, and for buyer the vote is guaranteed. One way to introduce ambiguity is to allow multiple voting, with multiple voes the buyer is never sure that the seller will not change his mind and vote for some other candidate on a later date, nullifying the earlier vote. another option is to make the password/PIN sharing difficult and economically unviable. For example, one could ensure that the same voters card (UID) is used at ration shops  (Public distribution system (PDS)) for giving rationed food/kerosene /other materials  to people below poverty line. Its usually the case that people below the poverty line (BPL) are most susceptible to selling their votes and with the risk of loosing their rations etc, they may be reluctant to share that sensitive password information. For the upper classes,one can link the usage of the Voter card info and password with income tax returns/refunds etc -all sensitive financial information- that one would not like to disclose to irresponsible and unethical politicians or political parties who indulge in buying of votes.  Thus with the voting password information linked to physical tangible goods/things in the physical world, one can ensure that less exchange of material goods will happen in lieu of selling ones vote.

Parting thoughts: voting anyhow

All said and done, no matter of voting reforms can induce someone to vote and overcome the apathy one feels when witnessing the unethical behavior of politicians and the candidates one has to choose from.  to overcome this a draconian voting anyhow or compulsory voting may be added.  One could have a default vote saying that they have no faith in any candidate and if there are more than 50 5 of such votes than the poll stands nullified. (a provision to vote for no one and yet register a vote is there in constitution of India at least) . Of course this default vote should be cats , say a day before the window of voting expires, so that an alert notification is sent to the voter and if doesn’t want to register his vote of confidence in all candidates, he can go and change his vote to desired candidate. The alert serves as both a wake-up call and a reminder to vote before the deadline. Also if notifications/receipts are issued when you vote, then they can also be later used for claiming refunds/ increasing tax bracket in income tax returns. Just like donations to charity are eligible for tax exemption, one can have a provisin whereby voting receipts can make you eligible to some tax incentives like lowered brackets , more exemptions etc. . That itself, may convince many t0 vote anyhow. Until and unless we vote anyhow, the participatory democracy is more in name than in spirit.

Of course all this is just my 2 brains on what Anupam had initially proposed. Let me know yours!

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Published in: on November 15, 2009 at 4:18 pm  Comments (5)  
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The whys and wherefores of regionalism

Seal of Maharashtra
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Regionalism as depicted by the rise of parties like MNS, is becoming a strong factor in Indian or at least Maharashtrian politics. As witnessed by the recent ruckus in Maharashtra state assembly, this has reached a sorry state and it is high time one understands and appreciates the complex political, economical and psychological factors on which parties like MNS play and leverage them to harbor and nurture xenophobic tendencies.

Left Brain thinking: the politics of migration
It is a given fact in any state that there would be some immigrants from neighboring states and nations – the so-called non-natives or ‘foreigners’, who are there by ancestry or recent immigration. Whenever the residents are classified in two or more groups like natives and non-natives, and whenever there is a tendency to bolster regional identities by emphasizing the nativeness and distinctiveness of a group (by emphasizing the language, culture, festivals etc associated with a particular regional group at the cost of the universal shared human identity or even national identity- take the example of marathi manoos over an Indian or a human identify by emphasizing to a pathological extent the marathi culture- be it festivals like Ganesh Visarjan or literature like marathi theater, or as another example the identification with chhath of the bihari population) , then the juxtaposition of two or more groups living together with strong regional identities is a fermenting ground for political parties to play the ‘Us’ vs ‘them ‘ card based on well-known psychological phenomenon of in-group loyalty versus out-group hostility. I am not saying that regional identities are bad- they become a liability when politicians use them to fracture the people based on those regional identities and nurture xenophobia by playing the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ card. This of course they do because of the well known vote-bank factor. by associating with one group on the cost of another they can claim a vote bank and s long as group sin Indian politics keep mass-voting as a herd as per regional, religious or castiest identities, things are not going to change for the better. In the particular context of immigrant population vis a vis native people, associating with the native people gives rise to the ‘son of the soil’ image and owing to its obvious political advantages not many politicians are able to shy away from playing this ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ card.

Right Brian doodling: the economics of migration
Of course, one also has to see migration and xenophobic tendencies in the larger economic context. It is a given that there are push factors like extreme poverty that push people to seek employment and residence elsewhere. There are also pull factors like better job/educational facilities that pull immigrants to a particular state. Also the lack of jobs and meaningful employment in the native state of immigrant plays a crucial role in the sense that it lowers the opportunity cost that one is foregoing my migrating to a new land. All these factors which basically reflect the unequal economic macro conditions in the two states lead to net flux of reasons from one state to the other. To take an example of bihar and maharashtra, if there was not extreme poverty in some pockets of bihar, if there were job opportunities in bihar itself and if there were not better job opportunities in maharashtra, then the immigrant ‘problem’ of biharis in mahartshtra would not be there. It also makes sense to pause here and grasp the fact , that the economics involved clearly indicates which group will be economically disadvantaged (the biharis in mahrasthra) and thus more prone to abuse by the system and the politicians. Being economically disadvantaged, the immigrant group stands good chance of being bullied and manhandled with the better-off politicians aligning with the native group getting away because of their relative well-off-ness and ability to manipulate the truth. While the fact is that the immigrant group is poor and disadvantaged, it is all too easy to portray them as aggressors who are taking away employments from the son of the soils. And the supporters who validate this thesis, are the ones who would unlikely be doing the low-wage chores that these migrant laborers are doing, but who are actually exploiting thee workers by paying them lower wages as compared to the native laborers based on their regional identities and thus actually gaining in economic terms from this immigration. Yet, the crafty politicians are able to psin a version of the truth that is largely couched in economic terms , but is actually playing on the ‘us’ vs ‘them’ xenophobic tendencies built in all of us.

Whole brain fusings: the psychology of migration
Let us also look at whether the migrants enjoy being a migrant and have the conqueror mentality plundering the wealth of the state that is hosting them or whether they have a parasitic tendency of living as a leech on the labors of the natives and not giving back or contributing to the state’s development, but only benefiting from it. Some statistics does indicate that the migrants remit a large portion of their earnings to their families living back in their native land, but it should not be doubted that they do add to the development and enrichment of the state in which they live. Also, one has to be sensitive to the costs that they have to pay when they migrate- culture shock when trying to gel in a culture that may be a tad different from theirs. And one has hard figures to back these claims; for eg. the incidence of schizophrenia in migrant population is much higher- this may be because of the fact that most migration happens from villages to cities, but there are other immigration factors like culture shock , xenophobia etc that account for the large increase in incidence in immigrant population that cannot be explained by increasing urbanization only. Thus, if anything, the migrant population deserves our sympathies, social support and nurturance so that they do not become deranged or unproductive, yet all that the politicians offer to the migrant population is a faster road to hell/psychosis. Consider also the fact that many of the migrants learn a new language when they are adults – and when it is very difficult to pick a language-it should surprise no one if the new migrants are not able to pick the new language fast enough- it would be an atrocity to assume that within 1-2 months they be able to use the new language and shun their earlier languages. Also given the fact of the sapir-whorf linguistic determinism, and how the language we use is not simply a linguistic tool, but also shapes our perceptions of space , time etc, it is not surprising if learning a new language and culture and worldview should take some time and effort. La this would take a toll on the immigrant population and it is best not to submit them to unnecessary xenophobia, hatred or manhandling. They already pay a heavy psychological price when they decide to immigrate and we should not make it any worse for them.

Out-of-the-brain musings: the philosophy of migration
Is migration justified? or not just justified, but even desirable? Consider the fact that many US universities actively seek diversity in the profile of students admitted to their courses. Why would they do so if diversity in the students did not lead to a better academic environment and more overall productivity? Given the sapir -whorf hypothesis, it is a given that most of us are steeped in one way of viewing things as determined by our language and culture; and time and again it has been shown that viewing a problem from different angles and perspectives is better for coming up with creative solutions. Of course if we are content with run-of-the-mill traditional status quo solutions, we can live with one language, one culture, one perspective- but if we value creativity and dynamism, if we value insight and flow, we have no option but to take recourse of diversity that enables multiple perspectives to be present and complimenting each other. After all, the rainbow is beautiful precisely because it is made up of so many hues. Also some latest research has indicated that being an immigrant/ short term visitor in a new land, also leads to some advantages -namely the ability to be more creative, , more observant and more insightful. Expatriates have been shown to have these traits precisely because they are being exposed to new forms of culture and this culture shock, sort of ‘opens’ them up to many other possibilities.

Parting thoughts: the art of migration
The art of migration is in living like sugar dissolving in the milk- without the sugar the milk is not sweet and once mixed, though milk is milk and sugar is sugar, together they give rise to something better-sweet milk. It is surprising that this art of migration needs to be retaught in a country like India which has historically assimilated all attackers, conquerors, guests, foreigners,migrants under its fold and internalized their religion, language etc to give rise to new and hybrid Indian identities. The uniqueness of the individual identities are still there, but they get merged and subsumed under something greater – the pan-Indian identity. It is indeed saddening that in India itself, regionalism should raise its ugly head- in the end analysis, perhaps both the migrant and the native states and people are at fault- perhaps it is as important to live in a foreign state as if it is their own native homeland, as it is important for the natives to welcome with open hearts the immigrants. If immigrants lived by the dictum ‘vasudhaiv kutumbakam’ – this land is also my family- and the natives lived with the dictum ‘athithi devo bhav’- the guests are like gods -and perhaps if one started to play down the distinguishing factors between the natives and the guests and considers all as as one,only then can we proudly claim that if there is heaven on earth it is here, it is here, it is here. Till then one can only hope that we will keep fighting regionalism and the political parties that support it! Amen!

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Published in: on November 11, 2009 at 6:41 pm  Comments (4)  
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