Monday, July 31, 2006

Air power

Tom Engelhardt, whose site has been an island of sanity in the cacophony that is commentary on the web, has a superbly crafted essay on the brutality of Air wars. He expresses what I have felt for a long time. Qana provides yet more evidence of the horrific consequences of the ultimate in asymmetrical warfare. I urge you to read this essay and visit the site often.

Next time you are enjoying a quiet suburban evening and an aircraft flies by, imagine what it would be like for it to rain 500 pound bombs down on where you are. Imagine what happens to the kids you see around you. And then think about 'shock and awe' and ponder the varieties of barbarism.

Friday, July 28, 2006

D. D. Kosambi

I have just finished reading a book I have been planning to read for a long time: An introduction to the study of Indian History by D. D. Kosambi. It is one of the most unusual books I have ever read. The innocuous title is a bit misleading - the book is a how-to manual for anthropological field work and numismatics in addition to being a radical approach to Indian History. It is not easy reading for the casual reader, and I also suspect that a scientist or an engineer would appreciate the rigor of the methods more than a traditional historian. After all, not very many books on Indian history will have a note telling you that the distribution of weights in a hoard of coins (deposited in the Prince of Wales museum in Bombay) is skew-negative and platykurtic, with a weight standard of 3.51 g and variance 0.0307 ! (If you have to know, this is from note 37 of the commentary to the illustrations, 1956 edition, Popular Book Depot, Bombay).

Damodar Dharmanad Kosambi (1907-1966) was perhaps exposed to rigorous scholarship early on, being the son of a renowned Buddhist scholar who had to move his family to Cambridge, MA after accepting a teaching position at Harvard. Kosambi studied Mathematics, History and languages at Harvard and returned to India in the late 1920s. He taught for short periods at Banaras Hindu University, Aligarh Muslim University and for over a decade at Fergusson College in Pune. From 1946 onwards, he held a chair for mathematics at the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research in Bombay. He lived in Pune and commuted to Bombay every day on the train called the 'Deccan Queen'. The preface to the book is datelined 'Deccan Queen, December 7, 1956'.

A list of Kosambi's works spanning different fields is given at the end of this brief biography, from where I obtained the details for the short sketch above. His father seems to have been a polymath and a remarkable personality in his own respect, according to this online account.

Kosambi is a master of all he surveys in this book - his dexterity, scholarship and decisive judgments reminded me of Eric Hobsbawm. The book is fascinating in many respects - the choice of photographs, the detailed endnotes, the insistence on deducing historical information from observing ritual and practice among the various castes and tribes in India, the obvious comfort with the ancient history of Iran and the near east, the deep knowledge of Sanskrit and Sanskrit literature, Kosambi's scientific studies of coin hoards etc. His contempt for poor scholarship is expressed without reservation and with caustic precision. His writing is terse and elegant. It often rises to the eminently quotable:
  • Chapter 1, Note 11, on sources of information about castes and tribes:
The Indian decennial Census reports are useful before 1951, when the whole idea of classification by caste was officially abandoned as a Canutian method of abolishing caste distinctions.
  • Chapter 3, Section 3.1, p.51, describing the blocks of 12' x 20' two-room tenements discovered during excavations at Mohenjodaro and Harappa:
These were called 'coolie lines' by the excavators, whose ingenuity had found modern names for the streets, but rarely any explanation beyond the mental reach of an Imperial Briton.

Unfortunately, this does not mean the book is well-written. The organization of the material is unintuitive and the flow from one section to another is not obvious. My guess is that the book arose from a set of notes which were later woven together. In many places, I got the feeling that either too much was being made of thin evidence (something which Kosambi accuses others of doing) or that I was being rail-roaded into some conclusion based on current anthropological observations.

Kosambi's offers his definition of history early on: it is "the presentation, in chronological order, of the successive developments in the means and relations of production". He goes on to show that given the conspicuous absence of any chronologies or historical narratives for the ancient period, this is the best that a historian can do. He also implies that in any case, this is exactly what a historian ought to be doing. I am not convinced that this is all one ought to do, especially for later periods in Indian history.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Standard talking points

The Israel Hezbollah clash continues to claim more civilians. As of yesterday, about 350 Lebanese and 20 Israeli civilians were dead. Israel's ground invasion is not going as smoothly as , say, the 1967 war, which lasted all of 6 days. Fighting is reportedly heavy. Hezbollah seems to have anticipated the ground invasion much as Israel did.

I got sucked into a water cooler discussion with a few colleagues yet again. The most striking thing is the consistency of the talking points used in defense of Israeli actions. The faithful parroting of these talking points by the ever compliant American media has had the desired effect - people who are otherwise perfectly reasonable have internalized them.

The first rhetorical question that gets asked is: who started it ? The schoolyard logic is that if we are able to establish that Israel did not start the conflict, that would absolve it of blame for all subsequent actions. While it is clear that Hezbollah triggered this round of fighting, both sides seem to have planned for it for a while. My problem though, is not with the fact that Israel responded, but with the exact nature of that response. I can't see how Hezbollah's having started the whole thing this time around justifies large scale bombing of civilian areas and infrastructure, such as a dairy farm.

In any case, Gideon Levy tackles the rhetorical question far better than I can. The man restores my faith in humanity.

When I make this point about civilian casualties and suffering, I find that people refuse to acknowledge it. The most I can get is the canned response: "it is unfortunate, but hey, what are you gonna do ?". One of my interlocutors exclaimed, "it happens in every single conflict!", somehow implying that it was nothing to get worked up about.

The second question is almost always "So what do you think is the solution ?". The burden is now upon me to suggest solutions to an intricate set of knotty problems which have persisted for decades. In a futile gesture, I suggest that the root of the problems is ultimately political. That doesn't wash. I then say that in the short term, it is better to tackle militancy with police action such as arrests and trials than by firing missiles into apartment buildings. I am then told that I am naive and that such action is not possible, despite the fact that precisely such action has resulted in about 9000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody.

The clincher I find most puzzling is "We can't talk about what is happening while sitting here in America" or a variant thereof. Somehow, we forfeit the right to discuss or criticize anything that Israel is involved in because we are not in Israel. By the same token, we can't discuss any problems anywhere in the world, whether they be the horror that is Iraq, the inevitable disaster that is Afghanistan or the plight of the Darfuri people. The injunction is perhaps a way of saying that unless one has been at the receiving end of terrorism, one is forbidden from discussing responses to it. I don't buy that argument either, because other countries have had problems with persistent terrorism as well.

One major ethical escape hatch is to refuse to contemplate the numbers of civilian deaths. Casualty counts are not considered admissible evidence. No reason is ever given, of course, but "you can't think like that !" is thrown at me. My guess is that word has gone out that the moral high ground is impossible to achieve in the face of large casualty counts, so they should not be allowed in to the debate. This tactic is of course not new. It has been repeatedly used by the "we don't do body counts" hyperpower as well.

The use of these talking points by professional purveyors of propaganda (journalists, op-ed writers, think tank experts) is not surprising. Their livelihood depends on their ethical blindness. What is astonishing is that a lot of ordinary people have been completely bought the sophistry. I guess this is what willful blindness looks like.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Israel Hezbollah conflict

The Israel-Hezbollah war is into its sixth day. More than 200 people are dead in Lebanon and about 15 in Israel. The magnitude of Israel's reaction was a bit of a surprise, since skirmishes with Hezbollah are presumably not unusual and hostage/prisoner swaps have taken place in the past. The reasons may have to do with Ehud Olmert wanting to appear tough domestically. While that may be so, the military or strategic aim of the attacks remains a bit unclear. However, support for the Israeli reaction is widespread, with dissenting voices being in the minority.

This won't last long, for several reasons. First, there are not that many targets in Lebanon. Secondly and perhaps more importantly, citizens of western countries are beginning to suffer. Some have been killed. Now, we can't have that happening for too long, can we ? Indeed, there seem to be some noises from Israel which indicate that a search for a quick way out is on. The indispensable hyperpower itself is reportedly setting a deadline .

The comments sections of online news sites are teeming with people supporting Israel's right to "defend" itself. The suggestion that perhaps the Lebanese people have little control of Hezbollah and thus do not deserve to die is not entertained. The debate is in terms of entities ("state of Israel", "Lebanon", "Hezbollah") and notions of crime, punishment, fault and retaliation applied to them. Human casualties rarely enter the picture, if ever.

In any case, for the inside angle on Hezbollah, check out what Mark Perry and Alastair Crooke learned first hand. Robin Wright of the Washington Post has done something similar, though she feels compelled to strive for the obligatory neutrality so dear to American journalism. If you are looking for a quick primer, this serves quite well.

Sunday, July 16, 2006


The train blasts in Mumbai on July 7th have left 200 dead and scores injured in their wake. As Prem Shankar Jha points out, this is but one more attack in a series that seems deliberately designed to unleash communal killing in India. I was immensely surprised when the Varanasi attacks did not lead to riots and killing. Varanasi is a deeply religious town and is not exactly renowned for liberal cosmopolitanism. It has a sizeable Muslim population living cheek-by-jowl with Hindus in a very densely populated city. That there were no riots is close to a modern miracle. Riots in India occur with far less provocation.

What worries me is that this may not last. The fact that these attacks are carried out by Muslims (albeit jihadi psychopaths) is not lost on anyone. At some point soon, the tendency to lash out against Muslims in general will be impossible to control.

Some of my recent conversations with expatriate Indian acquaintances about these happenings have been a bit distressing. Along with the justifiable denunciations of Pakistan and the ISI, I heard the regulation stereotyping of Indian Muslims as well: they never support India in cricket matches, they have too many wives and too many children, they never condemn terrorist acts in India, they are anti-national etc. The alarming new development is the admiration my acquaintances had for Israeli tactics in the middle east. When I argued that Israeli collective punishment is usually disproportionate and morally wrong, I found that I was making no headway. Basically, people are fairly comfortable with the killing of innocent civilians in retaliation for terrorist attacks.

When I responded to the rhetorical question: "So, what is the solution ?" by saying that there is no easy solution, the dissatisfaction was evident. People seem to prefer the simplicity of violent retaliation. The bombing of Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir and some major Pakistani cities was thought to be a good idea.

I was bothered by the fact that people I was talking to were utterly oblivious to the death and suffering their suggested retaliation would cause. These are people who are living in comfortable circumstances in the US and most likely do not know anyone who would be harmed in the least bit by the purported bombing.

I have often wondered what aspect of the personality allows otherwise reasonable people to endorse large-scale violence - is it the inability to imagine and empathize with other people's agony, the remoteness of the ultimate victim or just plain, raw hatred ?