Behavior / 05.06.2010

In a number of preceding posts we have discussed how best to characterize the repressive actions of the Indian state in its dealings with the tribal population. The ensuing discussion has fanned out to include the violent actions of Naxalites and Islamic groups. What motivates these state and non-state actors and how do they themselves understand and rationalize their actions? In one of the posts we had presented a hypothesis about the Indian state: that it saw itself as a ‘modernizing’ state that felt it necessary to propel the ‘backward’ elements of society into the ‘modern’ age, against their will if necessary, if such action would advance ‘national’ progress. It was a ‘utilitarian’ state that viewed human lives in the calculus of gains and losses and was not averse to imposing costs if, in its view, the net benefits would be positive.And, it was ‘colonial’ state...

Behavior / 24.05.2010

What are the determinants of our choices? Vijay Vikram’s post on Arundhati Roy evolved into a discussion on whether the natural resources in tribal lands ought to be mined in the existing conditions. After over a hundred comments, we are better aware of the issues involved but still left with many unanswered questions. In this post I propose a thought experiment that would explore in more detail the factors that can influence our choices in such matters. The difficulty in using real life cases (like that of mining in tribal lands) is that they are characterized by ambiguities and uncertainties that influence our thinking about them. For example, in the case under discussion we do not know the extent to which the tribals are willing partners, the extent to which they are being coerced by external agents, the extent to which the state and the mining companies can be trusted, and the extent to which the resources extracted would actually be used for the welfare of the tribals.
Behavior / 11.03.2010

By Anjum Altaf I attended a talk by Professor Vali Nasr where he presented the central argument of his new book Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What it Will Mean for Our World. Professor Nasr is an influential voice as senior advisor to Richard Holbrooke, the special Representative of the US for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which makes it relevant to summarize his views and to identify some areas of agreement and disagreement. Professor Nasr’s underlying hypothesis was quite straightforward: the middle class transformed the modern West and it can transform the Muslim world as well. The rise of trade, capitalism and merchant life is the most important trend at work and one that shapes the contours of culture and delimits the uses of religious belief. From this vantage point the prescription follows logically: if Islamic countries are integrated into the...

Behavior / 23.10.2009

Gender discrimination (which includes harassment, abuse and violence) was at the top of our list of the most unacceptable things in South Asia. How bad is the situation? Some time back we had mentioned the introduction of the ‘Ladies Special’ trains in major Indian cities to counteract the harassment of women using public transport. Recently there was an update to that story titled ‘Joy of India’s women-only trains’ mentioning that the service has been a big success. In reading this update I was particularly struck by the remark of one user of the service: "We can laugh, we can sit where we want, we can do whatever we want, we feel free. We can sing a song, as loud as we want." The sense of freedom that this conveys is almost beyond belief – women feel they cannot even laugh or sing a song in the presence...

Behavior / 12.10.2009

Ibn-e Eusuf’s reference to the fable of Boris and Ivan to characterize one dimension of the relations between Pakistan and India (Pakistan’s Favorite Indians) has elicited comments trying to identify the sentiment implied by the characterization. Let me repeat the fable before attempting to address the comments. The Russian fable is about two poor peasants, Ivan and Boris. The only difference between them is that Boris has a goat and Ivan doesn’t. One day, Ivan comes upon a strange-looking lamp and, when he rubs it, a genie appears. She tells him she could grant him just one wish, and it could be anything in the world. Ivan says, “I want Boris’ goat to die.”  In Ibn-e Eusuf’s telling Ivan is Pakistan and Boris is India. The question posed is whether Ivan’s attitude could be characterized as jealousy and how does individual jealousy translate into collective jealousy? There is an entire spectrum of sentiments that...

Behavior / 21.06.2009

We concluded the previous post in this series with the question: Are we what we eat? This is not a facetious question. Rather, it is an attempt to explain significant variations in human behavior. We approach this explanation by exploring the extent to which our physical conditions and the imperatives of survival might have shaped our social and psychological responses. We speculated that existence as small and constantly warring bands during the hunting and gathering era must have engrained the importance of the distinction between friend and foe. Survival in these conditions must have depended upon the socialization of altruism within groups and hostility across groups. We still see this in the Us/Them syndrome that is often quite mindless in the present environment – a visit to some blogs would be proof enough. We then asked whether growing crops based on very different labor needs could give...