Friday, 15 June 2018

Case of Bidyut Chakravarty

Over two years ago, I posted a fairly long piece in Facebook to protest the vicious character assassination of Prof. Bidyut Chakravarty, the eminent professor of political science in Delhi University. I had to engage in considerable research including perusal of legal documents to prepare the piece. In response, some of the Delhi left-liberal academic mafia, whose deeds were thoroughly exposed in the piece, abused me in the filthiest language, accusing me of defending a sexual harasser to remain close to power. Needless to say, a range of these people blocked/unfriended me in Facebook.

It was a pleasant surprise to see that the piece I had forgotten about was in fact fully cited in a blog at that time. I am reproducing the piece below for posterity.

Left mafia at work Again
Nirmalangshu Mukherji
A familiar array of left-liberal intellectuals of Delhi has ganged-up against Professor Bidyut Chakravarty of Delhi University. Professor Chakravarty is a very senior political scientist with an outstanding academic record. Very very few academicians in the country, especially in the discipline of political science, can match his amazing publication record and vast international recognition. To date he has over two dozen books to his credit, all published by very prestigious publications (OUP, Routledge, Sage, etc.) mostly from abroad. I leave it to the reader to judge how his colleagues might have reacted to his eminence in the narrow-minded academia of Delhi.
To cut a long story short, a case of sexual harassment was initiated against Prof. Chakravarty and the matter was placed before the Apex Committee formed under Visakha guidelines vide Act XV-D of Delhi University. I will not comment on the constitution and the proceedings of the said committee on this case except to note that it is quite possible that the members of the committee—mostly fellow women academicians themselves—might have been politically connected to the opponents of Prof. Chakravarty in his faculty.
The said committee placed its findings before Delhi University and the report was deliberated in the Executive Council on 8.10.2007. The Apex committee itself recommended fairly mild strictures against Prof. Chakravarty: 1. A letter of warning should be issued to him. 2. He should be asked to step down from the Directorship of Gandhi Bhawan. 3. He should be debarred from all administrative posts and supervisory duties in the University for a period of three years. EC accepted these recommendations and acted accordingly. There was no recommendation for suspension, removal, demotion, and the like. Note that the operative period of these strictures ended on 7.10.2010.
Despite the mild nature of the strictures, Prof. Chakravarty challenged every aspect of the EC order. In the High Court, he (a) questioned ACT XV-D suggesting it violates various articles of constitution, (b) sought quashing of the strictures, (c) challenged the procedure of the Apex committee in not allowing him to cross-question the accuser, (d) sought quashing of appointment of another HOD in his place.
The accuser had also filed an FIR charging Prof. Chakravarty with abusive verbal behaviour and molestation, same as the charges before the Apex Committee. Prof. Chakravarty also appealed to High Court for quashing the FIR. [This aspect of the case is consistently suppressed by the mafia]
Apparently, FOUR things happened.
(1) In its judgment of 29 May 2009, the division bench of Sikri and Jain ordered as follows: (i) They upheld the validity of XV-D (naturally); (ii) Refused to interfere with the appointment of new HOD; (iii) They found very serious infirmities in the procedure of the Apex Committee in denying justice and fair trial to Prof. Chakravarty including item (c) above. AS SUCH THE HIGH COURT SET ASIDE THE EC RESOLUTION OF 2007 AND ABSOLVED PROF. CHAKRAVARTY OF ALL CHARGES.
(2) The bench of Justice Dhingra at High Court on 5 October 2010 considered the police report following the FIR and observed: “In view of the fact that there was no evidence that the alleged incident had taken place or the petitioner had threatened the complainant or molested her as alleged, rather the sequence of events shows that the scolding had taken place on the employees on their no being present during working hours, I consider that no proceedings could be initiated against the petitioner keeping in view the charge-sheet filed by the police which was more in the nature of a closure report. I, therefore, allow this petition.’’ THUS, TWO JUDGMENTS OF THE HIGH COURT SEPARATELY ABSOLBED PROF. CHAKRAVARTY OF ALL CHARGES, BOTH ON GROUNDS OF PROCEDURE AND EVIDENCE.
(3) However, since Delhi University failed to take remedial measure following court judgments, Prof. Chakravarty appealed to High Court seeking contempt of Court. On May 7, 2010, The Hindu, reported on the court order as follows: 
“The Delhi High Court has let off Delhi University Vice-Chancellor Deepak Pental lightly in a contempt of court case after the University informed the Court that it had inadvertently informed Professor Bidyut Chakrabarty of the Political Department that it was still keeping alive two memorandums whereby he was held guilty of sexual harassment and barred from holding any administrative post for three years on that basis. A Division Bench of the High Court had in May last year quashed the two memorandums on a petition filed by Prof. Chakrabarty challenging them. Prof. Chakrabarty had received information about the University still putting reliance on the two memorandums despite their being quashed by the Court in reply to an application filed by him under the Right to Information Act. Following the receipt of the information, Prof. Chakrabarty filed a contempt petition against Prof. Pental. The University had earlier informed the petitioner in reply to the contempt petition that once the two memorandums had been quashed no further action against him would be taken. Counsel for the University further informed the Court that the person who replied to the RTI query had not seen the judgment. Following the admission of the faux pas by the University, the Court disposed of the petition saying no further order was required to be passed. While disposing of the petition, Justice G. S. Sistani said the University, as promised to the Court, shall within a week take steps to inform the Department concerned about the two memorandums being set aside.
(4) Since the issue of cross-examination of accuser in sexual harrassment cases under Visakha was a knotty issue, it reached the Supreme Court following direction sought by Prof. Chakravarty. The Supreme Court deliberated ONLY on the matter, in complete ignorance of the judgments of the High Court. In its order of 7 May, 2010, SC gave relief to Prof. Chakravarty by appointing a court commissioner to cross-examine the accuser on behalf of Prof. Chakravarty. Having passed merely the procedural order, the Supreme Court closed the matter at its end.
To emphasize, SC was not seized with HC judgments and had not set the HC judgments aside. Nor had the HC re-initiated the procedure to start a fresh inquiry on the case. As noted, the HC had in fact closed the case after obtaining assurance from Delhi University that no further action will be taken against Prof. Chakravarty.
Nonetheless, on receiving procedural clarification from SC, the University proceeded with the inquiry once again in clear violation of THREE HC orders since it never sought directions from the Supreme Court in view of the orders of the High Court. As it so happened (probably due to internal pressure from influential opponents of Prof. Chakravarty in the university), the Apex Committee went through the process again without any sanction from High Court and once again placed its findings before EC in 2012. Notice that the operative period of the EC resolution 114 of 2007 had already expired way back in 2010. Even then the EC proceeded to adopt resolution 235 of 21.3.2012 reaffirming resolution 114 in complete violation of High Court orders and without any fresh sanction from Supreme Court.
Prof. Chakravarty reportedly was outside the country during the period 2010-12 on a prestigious academic appointment. His response to the new inquiry was never sought, nor was he given a copy of the resolution to proceed against it if he so desired. Also, except for adopting a vitiated, mala fide resolution after the fact, the university did nothing since the operative period had long lapsed. Obviously, unless otherwise explained, the entire operation was conducted viciously in the absence Prof. Chakravarty to create a piece of paper against him despite assurances before the court not to take any action against him.
Now, an influential group of left-liberal academicians, who masquerade as defenders of tolerance and plural voices, are flaunting this filthy piece of paper to defame Prof. Chakravarty in the name of citizens of India just because Prof. Chakravarty’s name has appeared as one of the possible candidates for Vice-Chancellorship of Delhi University.

Nirmalangshu Mukherji Kavita KrishnanNaveen GaurAyesha KidwaiAbha Dev HabibVijay SinghAli JavedMohan RaoPoonam KaushikSundeep DougalShuddhabrata Sengupta, Kamal Chenoy, Purushottam Agrawal

Saturday, 28 October 2017

A Revolutionary scholar inches towards death in custody

[Dr. G. N. Sai Baba, a teacher of English literature in a college in Delhi University, is currently in prison after he was sentenced to life-imprisonment by a lower court on charges of waging war against the country by helping maoist rebels. Sai Baba is a paraplegic with 90% physical disability. Recently he wrote a letter to his wife stating that he doesn't hope to survive till the end of winter; the state has refused his medical care. In this grim context, I am posting below an article on Sai Baba published earlier in 2015 soon after Sai Baba was arrested. The article may be useful for people who are not familiar with the contours of the case.]

The Arrest of G. N. Sai Baba: Insane, inhuman

Nirmalangshu Mukherji
Former Professor of Philosophy, Delhi University

G. N. Sai Baba, an Assistant Professor of English in Ramlal Anand College of Delhi University was arrested by Maharashtra Police in opaque circumstances in May 2014. For the past year, there has been a small but sustained protest against Sai Baba’s arrest. Most recently, a day-long fast was held by some activists and university teachers in front of the Art’s Faculty in Delhi University. Despite impressive campaign in the social media by a group of dedicated individuals, just a few dozen well-known protestors showed up for the fast. The event was barely reported in the mainstream. In staying away from the event, the wider left-liberal fraternity in Delhi, and the rest of the country, has once again failed a vital democratic cause.

Sai Baba is one of those rare individuals in the current Indian academia—otherwise marked by its unconcealed opportunism and abject surrender to the establishment—who is at once a serious scholar, a dedicated and widely-popular teacher, and a death-defying political activist.

Sai Baba believes that Indian society must undergo an armed proletarian revolution along Maoist lines to usher in a new democratic republic as a step toward a classless egalitarian society. He has strengthened his beliefs with a deep study of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism and has advocated them in a variety of public forums.

From his student days, Sai had been an active member of revolutionary student politics in his home state of Andhra. While most of those students have since deserted revolutionary politics, Sai Baba not only continued with it, he actually expanded his zone of activities several folds to cover the rest of the country in terms of writings, lectures, tours, meetings and organization of a range of revolutionary mass forums such as the earlier All India People’s Revolutionary Front (AIPRF) and, in recent years, Revolutionary Democratic Front (RDF). He is one of the well-known faces in revolutionary politics in the country; in fact, by now he is internationally known by his writings, organizations and lectures abroad.

Incidentally, I largely disagree with the Maoist politics, especially the horrendous ways in which it has been implemented by the CPI (Maoist) in Chattisgarh and elsewhere. I have written about it extensively (Maoists in India: Tribals under siege, Amaryllis, 2013. So, my great admiration and sense of solidarity with Sai has little to do with his political views, except that I have deep respect for the moral courage, personal sacrifice, and compassion that underlie such otherwise mistaken beliefs.

There is one more fact about Sai Baba. He is totally paralytic from his waist downwards due to childhood polio. According to medical estimate, his paraplegia affects 90% of his body. Before he could procure a wheel-chair for himself—to be followed later on by a motorized auto—he basically moved around crawling on his hands, dragging the rest of his massive torso along. If he is required in a room upstairs without a lift, he needs to be physically carried in arms by his friends (I had the friendly privilege of doing so on some occasions). Years of dragging his body around even for basic daily functions has left a severe toll on his heart and lungs and continues to damage his spinal system. No wonder, he survives with heavy specialised medication that takes its own toll.

With this level of disability, Sai Baba had been able to maintain the scholarly and revolutionary life sketched above with sheer determination bolstered by his belief that one day it’s going to be a better world for all people.

I recall an incident over a decade ago during a demonstration in Jantar Mantar against the US attack on Iraq. Some of us were appalled by the sight that two radical forums—AIPRF and CPI (ML-Liberation)—were holding separate demonstrations on the same issue on two sides of the same street. I located Sai Baba in a wheelchair engrossed in some pamphlets and memorandums. I went over to him and protested about the glaring sectarianism. I knew that I was stepping into historical hostilities between different naxalite groups. To my surprise, he listened carefully with a very friendly smile on his face. At first, he tried to raise some hackneyed ideological issues. When we briskly brushed them aside, he wheeled around and away to meet Dipankar Bhattacharya, the leader of the other group. That is Sai. Soon, the two groups joined forces and we had a very meaningful joint rally. This mixture of steely political determination with a disarming demeanour makes Sai one of the most effective organizers in mass politics.

Just to remind, he is in constant physical pain, very much like another brave person constantly in pain, Irom Sharmila Chanu.

What does it mean for the Indian state to arrest this person under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and incarcerate him in the solitary anda-cell of the Nagpur jail meant for hardened criminals? According to the notorious anti-terrorism cell of the Maharashtra police, Sai has been found to be in touch with some leaders of CPI (Maoist); it is totally unclear what the alleged connections are. I return to the absurdity of this charge in a moment.

For now, even assuming some contact between Sai and some Maoists, according to the Supreme Court of India, it is no crime at all if (a) a person is merely acquainted with some persons of a banned organisation, and (b) a person is sympathetic in mind to the cause espoused by a banned organisation. These injunctions directly follow from the principles of free speech and association.

The Supreme Court has also held that (c) it is no crime if someone is found to be a member of a banned organisation if the person cannot be linked to the unlawful activities of the organisation. The police has not provided even a glimpse of an evidence that Sai was involved in any unlawful activity of the Maoists. In any case, the apparently baseless charges need to be examined by a court of law.

Pending legal examination, not only principles of natural justice but also various sections of the Indian Penal Code require that an invalid, physically challenged accused must be granted bail immediately when other things are equal. The police has no evidence that other things are not equal in Sai Baba’s case. Thus, Sai Baba’s severe physical restrictions fully qualify him for the relief granted in law.

Sai Baba has always cooperated with the police in their investigations conducted in detail before his arrest in dubious circumstances; he has continued his cooperation since his arrest including furnishing passwords for his computer and moblie phones. Therefore, there is absolutely no basis for the police to keep him in jail under the excuse of investigations.

His physical handicap is such that it is impossible for him to flee or to affect the course of justice in any manner. In fact, his medical condition has deteriorated rapidly in prison during the past year due to lack of proper medical care and facilities. By any measure, his continued imprisonment is an inhuman act and is in violation of law.

Most importantly, there is absolutely no reason to believe that Sai Baba, despite his life-long attachment to Maoist politics, will ever get in touch with maoist activists on the ground. This is because both Sai Baba and the maoists are rational people. I took some pain to detail Sai Baba’s politics and life to highlight his extreme public visibility. When this fact is combined with his acute physical disability affecting his movement, he is probably the last person the Maoists would want to be in touch with. And, as a veteran activist himself, Sai Baba would know that as well. Let me explain.

Anyone with little a greymatter understands that the maoist armed struggle in the hills and forests of east-central India is a serious life and death affair. For reasons of security and survival, the entire complex operation has to maintain utmost secrecy to prevent the police from penetrating the organization. These include the identity of the personnel, the complex network of hideouts, source of money and arms, network of maoist intelligence, their courier system, operational codes, and the like. An armed struggle, in which hundreds of cadres die each year from police bullets, cholera, or snake bites, is no picnic. As such, no active maoist will reveal her political identity except before the most trusted.

G. N. Saibaba, as noted, happens to a very visible political activist with ‘Maoist’ written on his words and actions in bold letters. He is perhaps the most well-known maoist face in the country. Naturally, branches of Indian police will be after him wherever he goes to keep track of whom he meets, corresponds with, etc. This is done not so much to gather evidence for an allegedly criminal case, but to maintain a surveillance of possible recruits in the future. The actions of the police are mostly either political or criminal; they are seldom meant to serve the cause of justice in these ‘anti-terrorist’ cases. There must be a substantial file by now in police quarters detailing Sai Baba’s rather colourful political life.

Maoists know this, so does Sai Baba. So, the two will avoid any possible physical contact. It is impossible to believe that Sai Baba, so sympathetic to the cause of revolution, will actually maintain contact information with the maoists on his mobile and computer to endanger the very movement. It is even more improbable that the veteran activist will actually meet someone and send the person on some errand with the maoists. It is said that Swami Agnivesh, not exactly a veteran activist in the style of Sai Baba, once made this fatal mistake that led to the killing of the maoist leader Azad. Sai Baba of course knows dozens of less prominent cases of the same variety.

Sai Baba is the last person to initiate action that has any chance to expose a link in the maoist network even if we assume that Sai Baba is politically connected with the maoists. The so-called charges against Sai Baba must, therefore, be viewed as entirely political in character without any legal basis.

Sai Baba must be released on bail at once.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Reflections on Human Inquiry-5

Introduction (Concluded)

The third chapter (Theories and Shifting Domains) inquires into the sense in which scientific theories in the formal mode identify a stretch of the world. The contemporary discipline of linguistic theory is an interesting example to study in this context because of its recentness; we are able to study its entire history in a stretch to see whether the reality of human language has come into sharper focus as the theory progressed. After a brief exposition of the basic joints of the theory, it turns out that even within its short history the object of the theory has become increasingly theory-laden for Chomsky (1991) to remark that perhaps there is no such thing as language.
    The fourth chapter (The Skeptic and the Cognitivist) adds another dimension to the skepticism just raised. This chapter joins issue with recent claims from the cognitive sciences that the ancient discipline of philosophy is beginning to lose its relevance for understanding human cognition. We focus again on the new discipline of linguistic theory, which is perhaps the most promising program in the cognitive sciences. As the work of philosophers of language mentioned earlier highlighted, the basic classical interest in the study of language has been that humans have the astonishing ability to talk about the world: the semantic ability. As hinted earlier, the theoretical resources of linguistic theory seem to fall far short of the philosophical interest.
  Having secured something like a zone of autonomy for the philosophical form of inquiry in the fourth essay, the fifth chapter (From Things to Needs) attempts to develop the idea of autonomy by focusing on the general form of classical Indian philosophy. It may be justly complained that, unlike Western philosophy, this philosophy has lost its relevance because it never interacted with the vast edifice of European science. This conclusion will follow only under the assumption that scientific knowledge over-rules or replaces philosophical inquiry. A quick look at the origin and form of Indian philosophy suggests that its goals might not have been to discover properties of the world at all. A salient goal for philosophical inquiry, distinct from the sciences, could be to formulate conditions of human reflective needs for cognitive agents to lead rational lives. The study of needs seems to be fundamental to philosophical inquiry since its presence can be located even in classical Western philosophy when it is shorn off its ‘scientific’ goals. Interestingly, the study of the mind—the contentious domain under consideration—offers some promising evidence on this issue. In this light, each of the concepts of consciousness, knowledge and belief may be understood very differently from their alleged ‘mentalistic’ features discussed in the received literature.
    The next three chapters (Yearning for Consciousness, Ascription of Knowledge, Beliefs and Believers) cover the alternative perspective. The chapters exploit the general distinction between description and ascription. While the goal of descriptions is to examine properties of objects, ascriptions suggest devices of personal evaluation. Each chapter thus consists of two distinct parts. In the first part, we show that the current state of philosophical inquiry on these concepts is at best uncertain; there appear to be fundamental conceptual darkness around them. However, each concept turns out to be salient when we think of them as recommending different evaluative attitudes towards persons and communities to enable us to get a grip on our inter-personal lives.
   The idea of placing much of philosophical inquiry into the cultural mode raises the issue of whether the notion of the cultural, as distinct from the scientific, is a coherent unified category. One way of examining the issue is to locate some invariant notion of interpretation governing each of the putative cultural objects. A somewhat detailed ‘anthropological’ study pursued in the ninth chapter (Varieties of Interpretation) across rituals, poetry, painting, and music suggests that even the notion of interpretation radically varies as the objects vary. So, for example, we cannot say without equivocation that cultural objects have a distinctive aspect in that they admit of both singular and plural interpretations.
     The perspectives that govern interpretations come in a variety of forms: plurality of traditions, bounds of space and time, eras and epochs, textuality and interpretations, multiplicity of languages, gestalt properties, and simply differences of irreconcilable opinion, often assuming the form of class-war. None of these are seen in science, say, in theoretical physics. No doubt, there are scientific disputes, but that is a different matter altogether. Beyond this general observation of open-ended plurality, human inquiry is too diffused an undertaking to lend itself to definite categories.
  Yet, we can locate on examination that there are tangible distinctions between forms of inquiry, even if they blend into one another to mask their identity. For example, we could make some sense of the distinction between the scientific and the philosophical modes as above even if philosophical inquiry sometimes takes a scientific form up to a point. Similarly, there is a perceived sense of affinity between philosophy and literature as an impressive body of ‘converging’ literature testifies. Focusing on the non-converging literature, the tenth chapter (Literature and Common Life) takes up one of the leading issues for this collection of chapters: where does common life get its enrichment from in the general absence of scientific reflection? The answer projected in the chapter appeals to the notion of a text. An author’s view from somewhere enshrined in a text—Platonic or Shakespearean—enables the cognitive agent to expand her horizons and transcend her locality.
   The phenomenon of locality and its appeal to textuality is perhaps most directly illustrated in the case of religions. The eleventh chapter (Religion and Mass Culture) raises the problem that, if textuality of religions is understood narrowly in terms of their master-texts, then it will follow that textuality, instead of enhancing the rationality of the cognitive agent, in fact impedes it. And there is no doubt, as documented in the chapter with a particular political scenario in contemporary India, religions can play massively regressive roles. To resolve the dilemma, it is suggested that we need to broaden the notion of textuality to include the complex variety of religious practices that accompany the master-texts; in fact, sometimes there is considerable cognitive separation between the two. So, it is possible for regressive forces to propagate hate by securing allegiance of people in terms of meaningful religious practices.

   Given the variety, richness, and autonomy of forms of human inquiry, it is difficult—perhaps even morally questionable—to prioritize a specific form of knowledge. In any case, as we saw, even what is taken to be the pinnacle of human inquiry, namely, formal science, has only limited role in human life. In this essentially pluralistic conception of human knowledge, the final chapter (Education for the Species) raises the issue of the value of this edifice of human knowledge. Sketching the grim scenario for the survival of the human species, it is argued that much of the damage can be traced to the adoption of highly prioritized knowledge-systems ensuing from elite high-cultures. In contrast, the marginalized knowledge-systems of the indigenous people across the world offer a salient perspective for saving the planet. The salience of indigenous knowledge entails a large-scale rejection of elite knowledge-systems. If skepticism is viewed as a state of mind that rejects dominating knowledge-systems, humans need to adopt probably the most extreme form of skepticism, if the species is to survive.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Reflections on Human Inquiry-4

Introduction (Continued)

The chapters
Each chapter in this volume is accompanied by a substantial abstract that lays out the theme of the chapter. What I plan to do now is to give some idea of the family of concerns that link these chapters in a variety of ways. As noted, the starting point of this exercise is the idea of science. When we face the entirety of human inquiry in its kaleidoscopic state, we need some categories to describe the spectacle. The idea of science seems to offer that handle. Modern science represented a very classical conception of human knowledge as an objective quest for the real properties of the world. With its grand mathematical architectonic, physics was able to develop tools of investigation that unearthed deeply hidden features of the universe. But its highly esoteric form of discourse and extremely theory-internal conception of the world makes physics unavailable to the general cognitive agent, including the physicist outside his specialist forum. With the advent of modern science then it looks as if humans engage in two basic forms of inquiry: let us call them scientific and cultural, respectively. As we will see in the chapters that follow, the labels themselves are of less value than details about the underlying forms.
  In the scientific mode, human inquiry claims knowledge of reality: the knowledge constitutes the truth-claims of science, and the reality constitutes the joints of nature so postulated. The discourse is assumed to be absolute and objective. The truth-claim no doubt is a human action, but the truth—such as, the earth is round—is independent of any agent, community, tradition, textual and social context; in other words, truth lays bare the world as it is. It is commonly believed that the scientific conception of the world is objective in the sense that it does not have a (preferred) point of view; Thomas Nagel (1986) called it the view from nowhere.
    In contrast, much of our lives includes a subjective point of view, the point of view of the human agent; these may be thought of as views from somewhere. As Nagel (1986) and Davidson (1991) pointed out, the two views need to be reconciled in order for us to lead a meaningful life including social and political lives. Nagel then goes on to show how the reconciliation is to be achieved to address a range of classical philosophical problems, such as the mind-body problem. Speaking roughly, the distinction between view from nowhere and view from somewhere is one way of formulating the distinction between the scientific and the cultural.
  My interests are markedly different from the suggested distinction. I think there is another distinction between the scientific and the cultural which is related to, but not sufficiently captured by the subjective-objective distinction. As noted, both the subjective and the objective perspectives are needed to reach human thought and action (Davidson explicitly adds the inter-subjective perspective to the other two); human thought is the result of a reconciliation of these things in any case. I think a scientific-cultural distinction arises even after such reconciliation is reached. The first two chapters in this volume discuss the issue.
   The starting point is the conception of knowledge. In the first chapter (Human Reality), it is shown how the concepts of knowledge, truth and reality are intimately related; if a conception of mind-independent reality is unavailable, so are the concepts of knowledge and truth. The problem is that human knowledge and, therefore, the conception of reality are necessarily products of how humans are designed; if humans were designed, say, as bats, the conception of the world would have been very different. So if the notion of objectivity is understood in terms of a mind-independent reality, then that notion appears to be problematic, if not downright incoherent. There is much room for skepticism then regarding realist claims. Within the design though, it is striking that the human mind can sometimes detect formal/mathematical regularity in the external world. The phenomenon is poorly understood but its shining existence cannot be denied. Perhaps it is possible to recover some version of the notions of knowledge, truth and reality around this phenomenon. I discuss the possibility with more constructive details in the second chapter.
   However, the formal mode of inquiry is rarely available in the vast stretch of human cognitive life. This suggests a broad distinction between forms of inquiry regarding the presence and absence of the formal mode, which amounts roughly to the distinction between the scientific and the cultural. It could be that the world and the knowledge of it are reached in very different reflective terms between the two forms of inquiry. In that sense the world lost in our analytic pursuit may be regained in our poetic form of inquiry in which the world is grasped by immersing ourselves in it. The elusive world, that we are unable to discover except in rare cases by looking at it from the outside, is cheerfully embraced as a lived world from the inside.

  The second chapter (Science and the Mind) focuses on the historical fact that the scientific mode is a great human achievement, but it works in very restricted domains of simple systems. That’s the price we pay for our penchant for objectivity. Genuine scientific understanding is reached primarily through the formal mode—the Galilean style—which is available only for very simple systems. The chapter points out that the arts also sometimes search for formal/minimalist conception of aspects of the world, but the method of search is distinct, resulting in a vastly different form of inquiry. It is reasonable to expect then that a genuine science of the mind is also likely to be restricted only to those aspects of the mind where the formal mode is available. Human language is perhaps the most promising example of such an aspect of the mind. There are serious limits to the inquiry even there, as the next two chapters suggest. 

(To be continued)

Friday, 21 July 2017

Reflections on Human Inquiry-3

Introduction (Contd.)

Where does the rest of the meaning come from to enrich human cognition? Needless to say, ever more sophisticated investigations on the nature of human language are under way to expand the scope of linguistic theory and to address the doubts just raised (Hinzen and Sheehan 2013). Yet, as argued in The Primacy of Grammar, it is not evident if any significant notion of theory applies beyond grammatical investigations. As far as genuinely scientific studies on language go, there is grammatical theory stuck at LF, and there is philately.
  Given the predominance of language in human cognitive architecture, the restriction just sketched seems to be the case for much cognitive investigation as well where language is intimately involved: in the study of concepts and reasoning for example. For the rest of the cognitive studies detached from language, the scene seems to be worse since there is no sign of ‘physics’ at all; it is mostly just fancy organization of behavioral data. Thus there is much room for wide-ranging skepticism about the scope of the cognitive sciences. The Homeric struggle seemed to extend far beyond language; it threatened to cover the architecture of human cognition itself. It seemed that not only that the botanist plays a crucial role in human inquiry, there are areas of deep human concern to which even the botanist does not have access. Yet humans tread those areas with impressive cognitive confidence as they lead their common lives.
    There seems to be three options in hand with respect to how we respond to the skeptic. First, one could keep digging at the vast phenomenon of human cognition with whatever scientific tool is in hand; this is what cognitive scientists and philosophers are doing in any case. Some of my own continuing work falls under this option, as noted; we may ask, for instance, if language and music share the same grammatical structure. Second, one could embrace wholesale skepticism about science, refuse to make any formal-theoretical move, and turn philosophical problems into ‘literary’ activities: call it post-structuralism. Third, one uses skepticism as a strategy to progressively expand the notion of human inquiry; in other words, by showing the limitations of one form of inquiry one draws attention to the significance of some other forms. In effect, we may view alternative forms of inquiry as reinforcing—rather than negating—each other: call it, if you like, reflective pluralism.
   I don’t think that the chapters that follow mark any definite choice between these broad options, for reasons—including moral and political ones—that emerge as we proceed. Basically, the inclination is to leave things as they are. However, it will not be implausible to detect a sympathy for the first and the third options, and an attempt to come to terms with their ‘incommensurability.’ There is also a tendency to ignore the second option largely because holding it along with the other two options precipitates flat inconsistency; hence, I have ignored the vast literature—Roland Barthes, Michael Foucault, Richard Rorty, Jacques Derrida, and others—that propagates the second option. Moreover, the second option grants salience to just one form of inquiry, namely, the literary one; after spending a life in analytic philosophy and in admiration of physics, one develops a visceral discomfort with any proclamation that fails to uphold their value. But the association with the formal does not prevent me to shift to the literary mode whenever needed.
   In any case, I lack the enthusiasm to argue these choices here because I have very little interest in metatheory. I rather prefer Wittgenstein’s idea of simply describing the modes of human inquiry—‘forms of life,’ as he would say—as they shore up when we look for them within the vicinity of our own agency. In any case, notwithstanding the option one recommends, there is the need to furnish something of a perspective for the phenomenon that humans have reflective resources to lead cognitively meaningful lives. What are those resources? Is there an account of human cognitive agency as a whole?
     These chapters started emerging one after another as a variety of very specific questions about the form and limits of human inquiry began to form in mind. For example, at one point in human history it was thought that modern science, especially theoretical physics, is the paradigm of human inquiry. Where does this form of inquiry significantly apply? Are there limits on its claims of truth and objectivity? How much of the vast canvas of human experience does it cover? Where do other forms of inquiry, such as philosophy, literature, religion, and the arts, attain their salience?
     With the emergence of scientific study of the human mind itself, these critical questions have taken a more intriguing form, as noted. Can human inquiry investigate its own nature? Can the scientific theory of language explain the richness of human expression? Can a science of the mind account for human experience? These probing questions on the scientific enterprise are usually addressed from the outside, as it were, by humanists, philosophers of science, sociologists of knowledge, and critical theorists. In these chapters, they are examined from the inside by a philosopher whose primary academic work concerns the study of the human linguistic mind. In that sense, the skeptical inquiry turns on itself.

(To be continued)

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Reflections on Human Inquiry-2

Introduction (continued)

 From a skeptical point of view
So, what explains the diffused character of these chapters? I think the answer lies in the way in which my own intellectual interests unfolded. Having made a decision to shift, early in my career, from the beautiful abstractions of mathematical physics to the more existential concerns of philosophy, I settled down to a range of exciting new developments in analytic philosophy in the post-Wittgensteinian era. The work of fine philosophers like John Austin, Peter Strawson, Willard Quine, Hilary Putnam, Donald Davidson, Michael Dummett, and other stalwarts of late 20th century analytic philosophy, promised a healthy mix of rigorous, often formal, inquiry with what Hilary Putnam called ‘the whole hurly-burly of human actions’ (cited in Nussbaum 2016). Philosophers such as Peter Strawson (1992) and others have often suggested that philosophy attempts to produce a systematic account of the general conceptual apparatus of which our daily practices display a tacit and unconscious mastery.
    But the subtle, abstract, and yet unifying framework of physics lingered in the mind. This led to a variety of dissatisfaction with analytic philosophy, especially in the study of language. We need to step back a little to see why. In the first half of the 20th century, great philosophers like Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rudolf Carnap, Alfred Ayer and others took what Richard Rorty (1967) called the linguistic turn. Tracing it to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, Alberto Coffa (1991) called this mode of doing philosophy the semantic tradition. Within this broad tradition, each of the authors cited in the preceding paragraph—Austin, Quine, etc.—belonged primarily to the broad discipline of philosophy of language. The study of language thus formed a central part of the analytic effort. As with most students of analytic philosophy in those days, I was attracted to the study of language both for the intricate formal character of human language, and its ubiquitous role in human life.
    Linguistic philosophy promised a rigorous, scientific approach of its own on classical philosophical topics such as realism, knowledge, belief, even consciousness. For example, Willard Quine (1953) argued that for something to exist it has to be the value of a bound variable in a true theory; Ludwig Wittgenstein (1953) suggested that to understand consciousness is to understand the meaning of the first-person sentence I am in pain; Bertrand Russell (1919) held that beliefs such as <Ramanuj is wise> are propositional attitudes. I will have much more to say on these things in the chapters that follow.
    Since linguistic philosophy proposed to examine classical issues by viewing them as ‘semantic’ problems—that is, in terms of the structure and function of language—it is reasonable to expect that this philosophy will also furnish a formally satisfying account of language itself from which the solution to philosophical problems maybe rigorously derived. However, linguistic philosophy lacked a genuinely theoretical understanding of the immense richness of human language. This is what a mind initially trained in physics sorely missed. This philosophy did make formal proposals occasionally, such as Russell’s famous theory of descriptions (Russell 1905), to address philosophical problems. But the formal tools were borrowed from the discipline of symbolic logic which is not only a poor substitute for human language; its character is parasitic on human language.   
     In any case, even with the tools of formal logic, human language resisted any grand formal theory for addressing philosophical problems, as Peter Strawson (1950) pointed out in his stringent criticism of Russell’s theory of descriptions: ordinary language, Strawson declared, has no logic. ‘Ordinary language’ philosophers thus focused on detailed, taxonomic properties of language in the style of a botanist, as John Austin (1962) suggested, rather than that of a physicist. The study of language fostered what Strawson (1971) called a Homeric struggle between ‘formal-semantic’ and ‘communication-intention’ theorists of language. My impression is that the scene in analytic philosophy hasn’t improved since even if no one openly makes claims for either ‘ideal language’ or ‘ordinary language.’ At that stage, it was too early for me to admire the value of this uncertainty in philosophical inquiry.
  While analytic philosophy was going through this apparent absence of direction, interesting developments took place elsewhere. I expressed my disenchantment with the state of linguistic philosophy in my doctoral thesis, and turned to linguistics and cognitive science to see if there was a ‘physics’ of human language and mind. Two related developments promised what I was looking for: exciting proposals in theoretical linguistics by Noam Chomsky, and the formulation of a computational theory of mind by Alan Turing. Both strands of research, and much else besides, had become established academic pursuits by the time I completed my doctoral thesis. As I continued with my exploration of the new science of the mind, certain interesting ideas and results did appear on the table in due course which I put together in some papers and monographs culminating in the Primacy of Grammar (2010). That form of work continues elsewhere.

    However, throughout my engagement with the new science of the mind, I was beginning to realize that the ideas that interested me there covered very restricted and abstract domains of human cognition such that the intellectual salience of much of the rest of the new science could be questioned. For example, the formal resources of linguistic theory no doubt explained some intriguing facts about how sound is connected to what may be called the internal significance of a structure, called Logical Form (LF) in the technical literature. However, it is also clear that the theory does not have either the resources or the desire to explain what may ordinarily be viewed as the meaning of a sentence. 

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Reflections on Human Inquiry_I

Human beings are endowed with cognitive agency. Our grasp of the world, and of ourselves, is not merely a reflexive response to external stimuli, it is a reflective product of human inquiry, often structured in imagination. What are the forms of inquiry available to humans to lead a significant life? How are these forms related to each other? The twelve exploratory chapters of varying length collected in this volume examine forms and limits of human inquiry from a variety of directions.

Most of these directions emanate from classical philosophical investigations on human knowledge. Since the nature of human inquiry is the general theme, it is not surprising that the chapters cover a wide range of familiar philosophical topics: the nature of reality, scientific realism; concepts of truth, knowledge, belief, consciousness; character of mind, language, grammar, meaning; literature and philosophy; nature of music, religious discourse; knowledge and human destiny, and others. Although I have called them ‘Chapters’, it is not unreasonable to view the volume as a collection of essays. 

These pieces were written in a discontinuous fashion over a number of years for very different occasions and audiences, and at varying, often conflicting, reflective moments. Strictly speaking, their spatial assembly here does not really amount to a sustained fully articulated monograph; significant silences insulate the individual write-ups from each other. Given the range and complexity of the listed topics, I do not think there could be a single substantive monograph that covers them all. In any case, I am not concerned here either with history of philosophy or with philosophical anthropology, even though I end up doing these things on occasion to set the scene. My intention is not to report on the current state of these topics. They are discussed because they necessarily infiltrate the mind when you think about the idea of being human.

Yet, this is not just a compilation of assorted papers to mark the end of a career. If a metaphor is needed to cover the collation, one could say, in celebrated terms, that they form a ‘family’ as their resemblances ‘criss-cross and overlap’. I think it is better to view the pieces as forming a group of proximate islands in the same stretch of the sea; the image of an island seems appropriate because each chapter stands on its own without directly depending on the others. However, I have used the method of cross-reference frequently to aid the memory, sharpen a point, or to construct a bridge. I will try to describe the composite picture shortly.

Individually too, the pieces are more like free-flowing essays than formally structured papers meant for disciplinary journals. I am aware that centuries of the most extensive reflection and scholarship across many fields of inquiry have nourished each of the topics listed above. Especially in the last century almost all of these topics have attained formidable technical character. Apart from developing theoretical vocabulary of their own, philosophers have explored these issues with insights from mathematical logic, theoretical linguistics, computer science, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and theoretical physics. As a result, it is now expected that these otherwise large and elusive issues are discussed in terms of the latest technical proposal; fair enough, that is how academic papers are written.

The pieces assembled here generally do not follow that trajectory. Although they do cover familiar philosophical topics like knowledge, truth, realism, belief, meaning, interpretation, and the like, that are often discussed in professional platforms, these topics carry much value beyond the closely guarded canons of the academia. After all, as the legend goes, many of these topics started their career on ancient streets or under banyan trees; arguably, unlike other branches of inquiry, they retain the memory of those plebeian assemblies. These chapters attempt to convey a sense of relaxed conversation in a disarming voice to reach audiences outside professional meetings of philosophers. As a result they sometimes ignore, even disobey, the formal tone and attire of academic discourse.

However, these are not ‘popular’ pieces by any means. After a life in professional philosophy, often guided by inputs from the adjacent sciences, it is by now intellectually impossible to entirely avoid the formal tone and at least some of the demanding literature that informs it. In that slightly uncertain sense, these are reflective efforts that are seeking a zone of comfort somewhere between technical journals and literary supplements, but never aiming for a talk-show. As a result, in many cases, they start out with the usual preparations of the professional philosopher, but they seldom stay on course to the end; in a variety of ways, the discussion moves away from familiar abstract channels to more direct arenas of common life. It is not for me to judge whether the effort had been successful, but I hope they do convey some sense of honesty of purpose because, in most cases, the discourse was not deliberately designed.

(To be continued)

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Ancient Streets, Banyan Trees

Reflections on Human Inquiry: Science, Philosophy, and Common Life

Human beings are endowed with cognitive agency. Our grasp of the world, and of ourselves, are not merely responses to external stimuli, they are reflective products of human inquiry. The twelve exploratory essays collected in this volume examine forms and limits of human inquiry from a largely sceptical point of view.

At one point in human history it was thought that modern science, especially theoretical physics, is the paradigm of human inquiry. Where does this form of inquiry significantly apply? Are there limits on its claims of truth and objectivity? How much of the vast canvas of human experience does it cover? Where do other forms of inquiry, such as philosophy, religion, and the arts, attain their salience?

With the emergence of scientific study of the human mind itself, these critical questions have taken a more intriguing form in recent decades. Can human inquiry investigate its own nature? Can the scientific theory of language explain the richness of human expression? Can a science of the mind account for human experience?

These probing questions on the scientific enterprise are usually addressed from the outside, as it were, by humanists and critical theorists. In these essays, they are examined from the inside by a philosopher whose primary academic work concerns the study of the human linguistic mind. In that sense, the sceptical inquiry turns on itself.

The twelve essays carve the route from the scientific mode to the literary and artistic modes through a survey of the forms of human inquiry. The book will engage the attention of philosophers, including philosophers of science, literary theorists, cultural studies, and history and sociology of human knowledge.


With remarkable range and depth, these tantalizing essays explore scientific and cultural forms of inquiry, leading concerns of Indian and western philosophy (and indigenous thought as well), the role of the cognitive agent in description and ascription – concepts that are examined in depth -- and other topics that have inspired reflection on the world and ourselves for ages.  At each point, there are instructive and challenging new perspectives and insights.  A notable achievement, and a welcome gift to the inquiring mind.
Noam Chomsky, Emeritus Institute Professor of Linguistics and Philosophy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Nirmalangshu Mukherji's selection of essays in this book are reflections of a fine scholar made over a very worthy career of research and teaching in Philosophy and Linguistics in India for the last many decades. Their range is wide —science, philosophy, literature, linguistics, music, religion, and everyday experience—and they are at once rigorous and accessible. They reflect a deep commitment to scientific objectivity, even as they are wise in their understanding of the limits of science’s reach into the domain of what he calls ‘common life’. They will be a source of much pleasure and instruction and insight to the serious reader.
Akeel Bilgrami, Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy, Columbia University

A collection of essays on classical topics -- knowledge, truth, realism, belief, meaning, interpretation – by a critical and innovative mind with an atypical intellectual profile. Mukherji is nourished by analytic philosophy and theoretical linguistics, but his interests go well beyond narrow academic concerns. His writings reflect the breadth of his aspirations and should appeal to the general public as well as to the experts.
Francois Recanati, Director, Institut Jean Nicod and Senior Fellow, CNRS, Paris.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Education for the Species--Part V

[We conclude by suggesting that incorporation of indigenous knowledge-systems in the mainstream is one urgent measure to save the species and the planet]

It seems plausible to hold, then, that the most progressive, enlightened forms of thinking on education fail to offer a sustainable perspective on the survival of the species. In some grim historical sense, the prospects seem irreversible because the so-called enlightened conception of knowledge, which is primarily responsible for bringing the species to the brink of extinction, is uncritically assumed to be the only one we have. In fact, liberal education, with its species-terminating edifice of knowledge, is often ascribed absolute value, since any alternative form of education is viewed as either inconceivable or politically incorrect.
What is missed in these universalist proclamations in favour of liberal education is that an entire range of indigenous knowledge systems have existed simultaneously, but in almost total isolation from the modernist liberal knowledge systems. These are not ‘primitive’ or ‘infantile’ systems of knowledge requiring further stages of development. These systems are current ‘adult’ systems of knowledge with their own high culture that have been sustained in favourable environmental niches for thousands of years. If liberal education can claim its historical validity by referring back to the Vedas, Sutras, Euclid and Plato, so do the indigenous systems, except that their classical heritage has remained unnamed in the absence of global propaganda. These systems define the alternative forms of what it is to be human as a species. The only problem is that these systems, with their construction of God of Niyamgiri and reverence for rivers, are viewed as inconsistent with the modernist outlook. But, that certainly is a problem for the modernist, not the Dongria Kondhs.
In other words, a real solution to the issue of survival requires that humans learn to progressively forget—or, at least, engage in severe criticism of—the knowledge systems currently advanced in the most dominating centres of learning. If indigenous knowledge systems, currently resisting extraction of hydrocarbons and bauxite from forests, are our primary route for survival, every bit of knowledge beyond indigenous knowledge must be subjected to serious critique for their relevance.
I am aware of the possible inconsistency in what I am proposing. While the subliminal suggestion is to defray action on all forms of so-called modernist high-culture, are we not led into this forlorn conclusion precisely by dint of the wonderful scientific work conducted by Mayr and his colleagues at Harvard, which has an annual budget of several billion dollars? So, is it not imperative that solutions to the dangers posed by the culture of enlightenment are to be found within enlightenment itself? Obviously, there cannot be an immediately satisfying answer to this question either way. So, let me ask a series of rhetorical questions to conclude the discussion.
Can we not view the otherwise wonderful results from Harvard as a reductio to the effect that this knowledge need not be pursued anymore? Elizabeth Kolbert has remarked with some irony that let us not ask the scientific question of when the human species might become extinct, because we might be extinct before we reach a definite scientific answer (Drake 2015). Sensible people have started advocating the disarming of the planet. Does that not amount to the demand that the knowledge systems that go into the construction of weaponry—from pistols to hydrogen bombs—be deliberately set aside? I am told that the Japanese monarchs refused to introduce guns in their army for centuries even though the Europeans have been trying hard to sell the lucrative technology. The reason was, in a battle with swords, you have to face another human being from close quarters; so you are compelled to confront the moral issue of killing a human being. In a gun-battle from a distance, you do not face that moral choice.
  Why should that argument not extend to the knowledge of making cars and aeroplanes, since these technologies require extraction of bauxite from revered mountains? Once we get the feel of the mess into which modern living has pushed the planet, why should we stop at cars and aeroplanes? Why not computers, mobile phones, skyscrapers, libraries, orchestras, art museums, cities and asphalt roads? The children of the gods of Niyamgiri lived without them happily for thousands of years. Exactly what argument do we have for not emulating their lives in full?

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Education for the Species--Part IV

[In this section, we discuss the radical views on education of two non-Western thinkers Rabindranath Tagore and Paulo Freire to see if their projects meets the demand for incorporating indigenous knowledge]

Education for fullness
Tagore was deeply troubled by the extreme elitism of the British-enforced education system that catered only to the children of the privileged. As is well known, he was also deeply critical of the kind of education that was imparted, the rote learning that Freire later identified as the ‘banking’ method. Instead, Tagore advocated an enlightened and elaborate version of education for fullness: sarbangin shiksha. This included not just the education of the intellect, combining the most universal aspects of Western and Eastern high culture, but also the education of feeling for the other that extended to feeling for nature and cosmos. In this sense, he criticised the one-sidedness of an education that only imparted bookish knowledge in a narrow pragmatic sense. His conception of education did not reject the ideals of Western enlightenment, but sought to embed it in a wider conception of learning that, he thought, embraced the whole human (Mukherjee 2013).
   There is no convincing evidence that the knowledge systems for ‘fullness’ that constituted Tagore’s conception of sarbangin shiksha included the knowledge systems of the unlettered even in its margins. So, his lament about the absence of the poor from the field of education may be viewed as a ‘humanitarian’ lament, not really a ‘humanistic’ one, to use a distinction suggested by Freire and to which I return.
In fact, there is evidence that Tagore viewed the poor and the marginalised as ignorant, dull and voiceless, to whom language needs to be imparted, and hope needs to be aroused in those broken hearts. And, the knowledge that is supposed to enlighten the poor is the highculture knowledge already imparted to the elite. Needless to say, this task of pulling the poor out of their misery through sarbangin shiksha required novel educational practices such as teaching in the mother tongue, using local flora and fauna as examples, active agency of the learner, the tapovana model of shunning bounded classrooms and holding learning sessions in the open air, etc. Yet, the knowledge that was so imparted consisted of the products of the elite high-culture, from the upanishads to modern science, via literature, art and sophisticated musical forms.
I think the point about the ultimately elitist character of Tagore’s otherwise enlightened conception of education can be strengthened with an example of the novel educational practice followed in Tagore’s school. I could not locate any official document for this, but I can recount this curious practice from my own experience as a student in Tagore’s school at Santiniketan. Every afternoon, children from Patha Bhavana were transported in the university bus in batches to Silpa Sadana at the rural setting of Sriniketan, the location for rural education and reconstruction. There, we sat down on the floor to learn about woodcraft, papier mâché, basket weaving, lac work, etc, from the ill-clad and impoverished, but highly skilled village artisans. During that period of active hands-on learning, some of the rural folk were our teachers. Our education, thus, included some of the knowledge systems of the unlettered, and a reversal of class roles. No wonder this novel education practice was soon abandoned due to logistical reasons.
Yet, the point remains that the appreciation and adoption of rural culture was restricted to the ‘crafts’ of a folk nature. Elite, high culture still formed the central ingredient for the development of sensitive intellect. Similarly, farmers are sometimes consulted about various agricultural practices such as variety of seeds, condition of soil, multiple cropping, organic fertilisers, etc. This is the traditional domain of the unlettered where knowledge is accumulated through sheer practice over centuries. Beyond this, rural culture (not to mention tribal culture)—except ‘folk art’—is not ascribed any enlightenment value. The tribals, the indigenous people, are not even in view. They are curiosities hiding in hills and forests.
Humanistic education
Several decades later, Paulo Freire, in his classic work, Pedagogy of theOppressed (1970/2005), addressed the issue of resistance to the ideologies and institutions of the elite more directly. The task for education, he felt, was to reverse the process of dehumanisation in which the oppressed found themselves:
The struggle for humanisation, for the emancipation of labor, for the overcoming of alienation, for the affirmation of men and women as persons ... is possible only because dehumanisation although a concrete historical fact, is not a given destiny but the result of an unjust order that engenders violence in the oppressors, which in turn dehumanizes the oppressed (Freire 2005, 44).
Following George Lukacs, Freire elaborates that a revolutionary educational practice aims to ‘explain to the masses their own action,’ to clarify and illuminate that action, both regarding its relationship to the objective facts by which it was prompted, and regarding its purposes (53). The more the people unveil this challenging reality, which is to be the object of their transforming action, the more critically they enter that reality. In this way they are ‘consciously activating the subsequent development of their experiences’ (53). Freire insists this form of education to be essentially pre-revolutionary, such that the oppressed can proceed to a revolutionary overthrow of the unjust order. Freire, thus, goes beyond Tagore to view education not only as a humanitarian mode to include the oppressed, but as one which triggers humanisation of the oppressed by enabling them to erect the other side of the barricade. Let us call this mode of education the proletarian mode.
It is unclear if the envisaged overthrow of the unjust order will in fact enhance the prospects for the species as a whole. The humanised education achieved through the struggle of the working masses will no doubt usher in an era of proletarian freedom. But, will it ensure survival for all? The answer will depend on the content of the proletarian mode, the knowledge systems so advocated. Here, the prospects do not appear to be as revolutionary as the emancipation of a section of people.
There is little evidence that pre-revolutionary education practices among the masses, undertaken by revolutionary forces, address the issue raised here. In his writings, Freire makes frequent references to politico-educational work of Mao during the pre-revolutionary phase. Following these examples and their implementation during, say, the struggles in Yan’an and Vietnam, certain forms of educational practices have emerged. For example, following lessons from Vietnam, Maoists in India have organised Young Communist Mobile Schools (or, Basic Communist Training Schools), which host select groups of 25–30 tribal children in the age group of 12–15 years.
These children receive intensive training for six months in a curriculum consisting of basic concepts of Marxism–Leninism–Maoism, Hindi and English, mathematics, social science, different types of weapons, computers, etc (recall their age group). Needless to say, lessons are conducted in Gondi, and local song and dance forms are used to motivate the children. Beyond this, there is no evidence that the ancient knowledge systems of the tribals form any significant part of the curriculum, even though the pupils concerned consist entirely of tribal children. In fact, much of the curriculum, including lessons in modern science go directly against the foundations of tribal culture; especially, weapons training involving not bows and arrows, but automatic rifles, light machine guns, high-powered explosive devices, and the like (Mukherji 2012). While the children in mainstream India sit through modernist curriculum under the aegis of not-so-subtle capitalist propaganda, tribal children sit through roughly the same curriculum, even if they have been asked to wear Maoist lenses. Education is imparted in the proletarian mode, not in the indigenous mode. It is difficult to dispel the impression that modernist educational thinking has deeply penetrated even the most revolutionary minds.

(To be concluded)

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Education for the Species--Part III

[In this section we report on indigenous resistance to plunder of the planet. The resistance includes natives in Canada resisting extraction of shale gas, and adivasis in Niyamgiri opposing mining of aluminium. It appears to be a conflict between two systems of knowledge]

Indigenous resistance
Most importantly, for our purposes, Chomsky also sketched an alternative to these entrenched ideologies by applauding the resistance against these policies raised by the indigenous people congregating at the margins of Canada’s much-flaunted multicultural society. ‘It is pretty ironic,’ Chomsky remarked, ‘that the so-called “least advanced” people are the ones taking the lead in trying to protect all of us, while the richest and most powerful among us are the ones who are trying to drive the society to destruction’ (Cited in Lukacs 2013).
The general lesson is hard to miss. Notice the expression ‘all of us.’ The resistance by the indigenous people to the extraction of hydrocarbons not only saves the environmental niche of these people in New Brunswick and Alberta, it is protecting all of us, the species. In contrast, the rational choices enforced by the ideologies and the institutions controlled by the rich and the powerful are driving the human race towards extinction. It is, thus, an issue about the salient authorship of knowledge.
The issue of knowledge emerged vividly nearer home in the jungles surrounding the Niyamgiri hills in the state of Odisha. These hills contain about 1.8 billion tonnes of high-grade bauxite, the source for aluminium, which a mining giant—euphemistically called Vedanta—wants to extract to feed into giant factories built on this land. As they were pushed out of the plains by the thrust of mainstream civilisation, the local poor, mostly tribals, had lived on this hilly land for thousands of years. After years of resistance by them—and much manipulation and show of muscle by the state, financed by the mining oligarchy—the government was compelled to organise a referendum for 12 carefully-selected villages when the fate of hundreds of villages was involved (Kothari 2015; Vanaja 2014).
As one of many moving studies reports (Bera 2013), using the democratic and peaceful resource of their own panchayats—units of local self-government—village after village gathered en masse amid heavy security cover of central paramilitary and state forces. Ignoring the guns and bayonets, ‘unlettered’ forest dwellers—Dongria Kondh and Kutia Kondh tribals, and Gouda and Harijan non-tribals—spoke of a religion embedded in the hill’s pristine ecology. They told the district judge, appointed observer to the meetings by the apex court, that mining will destroy their god and their source of sustenance:
Over 100 perennial streams, fruit trees such as jackfruit and mangoes, spices like turmeric and ginger, wild roots, tubers and mushroom; apart from the land for shift and burn cultivation—dongar—where they grow an enviable mix of native millets, pulses and oil seeds (Bera 2013).
Having said this, each village unanimously rejected the Vedanta project. Niyamgiri hills survived. For now. Mark the word unlettered, as was used by the reporter. The people themselves ratified this perspective of illiteracy. Tunguru Majhi, a Kutia Kondh tribal, declared at the Kunakadu palli village council meeting,
We will die like Birsa Munda and Rindo Majhi [both Munda and Majhi led tribal uprisings against the British] if you don’t give up now. We are a murkhya jati [illiterate people] who will never listen to you (Bera 2013).
This illiteracy, the absence of letters, the stupidity of the ancient belief in a caring and protecting god of the hills, might just provide the answer to the question of whether the species will survive after all.

Questioning liberal pedagogy

Recall that when he mentioned the resistance by the indigenous people of Canada, Chomsky used the expression ‘so-called “least advanced” people’ (Lukacs 2013). He is not only referring to their action of resistance, but pointing at their intellectual achievement, without which the action of resistance would not have followed. In contrast, the ‘rational decisions’ reached by formidable intellectuals serving the rich and the powerful lead the species to the verge of extinction. The contest is, therefore, between two opposing systems of knowledge in two different intellectual traditions.
Moreover, Chomsky’s contrast between the two traditions implies that, in a crucial historical sense, elite intellectual traditions have failed the species, while the indigenous traditions, in almost total isolation from the elites, opens the opportunity for the continued survival of the species. In the same historical sense then, survival of the species now depends on incorporating marginalised indigenous systems of knowledge into the mainstream. At the same time, there is a need to severely critique and progressively replace entrenched aspects of elite intellectual traditions, which have ruled the world for at least the last few hundred years in the garb of liberal pedagogy.
What does this scenario mean for education policy? What does it mean exactly to prioritise and adopt the knowledge systems of the murkhya to save the species and the planet? In the limited space available to me here, I will focus on the prospect of incorporating indigenous knowledge in the mainstream education policy. In the process, I will be able to touch barely upon the related, but wider issue of dispensing with much of the current liberal curriculum that generates the mindset for plundering the planet.

Ever since liberal education became the agenda at the turn of the last century, education of the poor and the marginalised has concerned a range of progressive thinkers. I will briefly touch upon two of them—Rabindranath Tagore and Paulo Freire—to suggest why these responses to the issue of the survival of the species are inadequate. There are two reasons why I wish to focus on these authors. First, given the historical problems of modernity, there is already growing awareness that Western liberal education has not lived up to its promise of enlightenment, as noted above. In that context, it is of much interest that both Tagore and Freire are non-Western critics of Western elitism and are well-known for their views on education policy. Second, both direct their attention to the education of the marginalised as a form of universal welfare. How do their apparently egalitarian liberal views fare with respect to the issue of indigenous knowledge?

(To be continued)