Tuesday, December 30, 2008

How dare a lawyer represent him?

Not long ago, some brave thugs of the Shiv Sena gheraoed the house of a lawyer and pelted it with stones for his crime of being willing to represent Ajmal Kasab, a Mumbai terrorist. Every criminal may be entitled to a lawyer, but the Sena boldly declared that no lawyer should take up his case.

According to today's TOI, the Chief Justice, K G Balakrishnan, has now declared that it would be difficult to convict Kasab if he is not provided with a lawyer by the lower courts: "He cannot go unrepresented during the trial. If he does, then under our justice delivery system it would be regarded as a vitiated trial."

So will the Sainiks demonstrate their thuggish bravery by gheraoing the Chief Justice or pelting stones at his house? I anxiously await the answer.

Monday, December 22, 2008

In praise of Y V Reddy

Joe Nocera of the New York Times says (with quotes from several top Indian bankers) that the man responsible for Indian banks still being afloat is our "anti-Greenspan", the "irascible" former Reserve Bank of India governor Y V Reddy.

“He basically believed that if bankers were given the opportunity to sin, they would sin,” said one banker who asked not to be named...

Unlike Alan Greenspan, who didn’t believe it was his job to even point out bubbles, much less try to deflate them, Mr. Reddy saw his job as making sure Indian banks did not get too caught up in the bubble mentality. About two years ago, he started sensing that real estate, in particular, had entered bubble territory. One of the first moves he made was to ban the use of bank loans for the purchase of raw land, which was skyrocketing. Only when the developer was about to commence building could the bank get involved — and then only to make construction loans. (Guess who wound up financing the land purchases? United States private equity and hedge funds, of course!)
Seeing inflation on the horizon, Mr. Reddy pushed interest rates up to more than 20 percent, which of course dampened the housing frenzy. He increased risk weightings on commercial buildings and shopping mall construction, doubling the amount of capital banks were required to hold in reserve in case things went awry. He made banks put aside extra capital for every loan they made. In effect, Mr. Reddy was creating liquidity even before there was a global liquidity crisis.

Did India’s bankers stand up to applaud Mr. Reddy as he was making these moves? Of course not. They were naturally furious, just as American bankers would have been if Mr. Greenspan had been more active. Their regulator was holding them back, constraining their growth!

Read the whole thing. I'm not an expert but if it is even partly true, Mr Reddy deserves our thanks and applause. Standing up to the lobbying powers and armtwisting of big businesses in India cannot be any easier than it is in the United States. But unlike Mr Greenspan, Mr Reddy had clearly not been a devotee of Ayn Rand in his youth.

(By the way, if anyone thinks today's Greenspan-bashers are benefiting from hindsight, take a look at this 2000 article by Ralph Nader. Also see this recent article by Arianna Huffington, taking apart the "Who could have known?" argument being thrown about by uncontrite regulators and politicians.)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Good to be wrong

A few days ago, I wrote about Rahul Dravid: "In the best scenario, he will answer all skeptics at Mohali with a match-winning innings (or two), but somehow I doubt that will happen."

I'm glad to have been proven wrong. (It is too early to call it a match-winning innings, but he and Gautam Gambhir have almost certainly made the match safe.)

Monday, December 15, 2008


Dilip looks for sincere answers as to why the Mumbai attacks were condemned across the political spectrum and have spurred our leaders to action, while much worse atrocities in the past (in terms of numbers of lives lost) did not get the same reaction. (The answers he gets, so far, are sadly predictable.)

The Washington Post notes that in the case of an Iranian court ordering a man blinded because he blinded a woman with acid, few are protesting the appropriateness of the punishment. I noted my own ambivalence in a blogpost a few days ago. More recently, police have shot dead three acid-attackers in an "encounter" in Andhra Pradesh, and while some activists object on principle to such encounters and police action, most of the public applauds. But why do other commonplace crimes against women -- even murder -- not get the same attention?

I think Sherlock Holmes had it right. When Watson, a veteran of Afghanistan who had seen his own comrades "hacked to pieces" there, wondered why an individual murder (in A Study in Scarlet) upset him more than that war, Holmes remarked: "I can understand. There is a mystery about this which stimulates the imagination; where there is no imagination there is no horror."

In the above cases, it is not the mystery, but the circumstances, that stimulate the imagination. A faceless riot victim, or 3000 of them, does not stimulate most of our imaginations. (The face of Qutubuddin Ansari, widely reproduced during the Gujarat riots, did however create a widespread impact.) But the Taj? A gunman photographed stalking CST? We could all imagine ourselves there. And if we can't, the news channels dinned it into us in real time, over 36 hours. Similarly, random brutalisation of women does not impact the imagination, but an acid victim's face does.

When we are forced to ask ourselves "How does it feel?", and try to answer that question, then we are moved to words and, hopefully, action. Otherwise we ignore it all and get on with life.

End of the Wall?

India's win today against England was impressive; India now has two of the four highest winning fourth-innings scores in history. Sachin, who some have claimed does not contribute adequately under the pressure of chasing (in fact, of his 41 centuries in Tests, this was the only one that occurred in the fourth innings of a game that India won), and Yuvraj, who many doubted was suited to Test cricket at all, saw India through, scoring an unbeaten 103 and 85 respectively.

But I wonder what Rahul Dravid is thinking at the moment. His form has entirely deserted him since late 2006: his few high scores have been gritty and quite unpretty. Before being out for 4 today, did he think he had the ability to play India into a winning position, if not actually see India through? (After Sehwag's innings yesterday, India was more or less obliged to try for a win today, though the ask was more than twice as large as the previous best 4th-innings chase in Chennai.) Having got out for 4 (to no great harm done), does he feel that he has it in him to contribute a good score in the next Test? If the answers to these questions are no, can he, in good conscience, allow himself to be selected and play? And if he plays and does not measure up, what do the selectors do next? His loss of form has lasted two years, and at his age, a temporary dropping until he recovers his form really does not make much sense.

Rahul Dravid has been one of our all-time greats and deserves a send-off on a high note. However, as many pointed out in Sourav Ganguly's case, a befitting send-off is possible only when the player recognises that the time is right and shows a willingness to go. Is the time right? In the best scenario, he will answer all skeptics at Mohali with a match-winning innings (or two), but somehow I doubt that will happen. If not, it is for him to make the call on continuing to play, and I hope others will not have to make it for him.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

On responding to criticism

First (via Space Bar): William Radice's review of "The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets", edited by Jeet Thayil.

Second (via Nilanjana Roy): Jeet Thayil's response.

I left my opinion of the response as a comment on Nilanjana's posting, so I won't repeat myself here. Short summary: it bothers me. Radice's review of the book is generally positive, but he wonders a bit at the subject matter and style of most of the poetry on display. Thayil's response seems, to me, quite intemperate in comparison: he ignores all the positive comments in the review, raises strawmen arguments ("orientalism") that have nothing to do with what Radice was actually saying, issues a non-clarification (prefixed, for good measure, by an "of course") to Radice's observation that Indian modernism predates independence, and accuses him of a "preoccupation" with Bengali writing and being a Bengali "apologist", and suggests that Radice's expertise in translation into English -- which surely requires an excellent command of poetic English -- makes him unsuited to reviewing English-language poetry.

What is it about Indians and criticism by non-Indians? Why are we so quick to accuse them of orientalism, quaint nostalgia, patronisingness, reductionism, and who knows what else? But perhaps I should be happy that there are no explicit accusations of racism or colonialism.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

On his triteness

I wrote the following about 8 years ago (the last line was written first, and the rest followed fairly naturally), and I sent it to a few friends who could see what I mean; now I feel the urge to put it out, with a bit of tinkering. Why now? Like its subject matter, it was an exaggeration, even at the time; and I have since changed fields and no longer feel quite as irrelevant. But it still contains some truth. There is enormous excitement in modern molecular biology but I sometimes wonder whether scientific standards are being upheld consistently in the process.

Nonetheless, please do not construe this as serious commentary. That may follow sometime, but not now.

With those disclaimers, here goes...

When I consider how my life is spent
Ere half my days in this bright world of science,
With assumptions, handwaving, and reliance
On toy models that aren't worth a cent,
In hopes that a paper will soon be sent
To PRL, to Nature or to Science,
Or if nowhere else, perhaps, in defiance,
To a conference or such event:
When funding agencies murmur, "What use
Is it?" I point to goals lofty and high,
It sounds better when I exaggerate.
When experts tell me, that does not excuse
My lack of rigour: to them I reply,
They also research who only speculate.
(2001, revised 2008)

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Two articles on Ajmal Amir Kasab, the Mumbai terrorist

The first is from The Observer (the Sunday edition of The Guardian, UK), which confirms that he is indeed from a village called Faridkot, in Pakistan, and even supplies the national identity card numbers of his parents. It's a remarkable piece of investigative journalism in the face of local denial and official hostility.

The second is from the Times of India, on Kasab's present lifestyle. As a content-free fluff piece it surpasses any I've seen recently. And I sincerely hope the TOI reporter got something garbled in writing: "A Special Branch officer gets to taste Kasav's fare -- because it's feared he might be poisoned." The implications if this is true -- that the Indian side can't find a trustworthy cook, or that they would rather see a Special Branch officer die than a terrorist -- are staggering.

Why is it that even on stories of national importance, like this one, we need to depend on the international press for our journalism?

Monday, December 01, 2008

Different attitudes

What is your reaction when you see the headline "Court orders Iranian man blinded"? I know mine was "typical medieval barbarism".

What is your reaction when you then click on the link and read that the man's crime was blinding a woman who spurned his advances, by throwing acid on her? Mine, to be honest, was: "Well, at least the Iranians care about crimes against women, then."

Here's an article by Nicholas Kristof on the "personal" terrorism of acid attacks. He focuses on Pakistan, and mentions Afghanistan and Bangladesh, but it's not unheard of in India either.

A daughter's story

As long as such people are around, there is hope for the country. A must-read. (Seen on dcubed).