Monday, June 29, 2020

P. V. Narasimha Rao And The Elusive ‘Bharat Ratna’!

Excerpted from ‘Twisting Facts To Suit Theories’ And Other Selections From Voxindica. (2016). Authors Press. New Delhi. pp. 429–434

One may not agree with Lord Birkenhead’s view that ‘India is a land of mobs’ (1930, Turning Points in History), but it is a land of inconsistencies. However, he might not have been far off the mark when he said that ‘more than any [other] country in the world, single individuals of outstanding personality have been able temporarily to impose their will upon its destiny’. A Prime Minister might be ranked third in India’s official order of precedence but a Sonia Gandhi took precedence over the Prime Minister for ten years of its recent history. Her son-in-law did not need any official order of precedence to be treated as a ‘more equal’ citizen at airports and for Chief Ministers to kowtow before him.

In the official order of precedence, No. 5A was inserted to accommodate the Deputy Prime Minister (probably after Vallabhbhai Patel became the first Deputy Prime Minister in 1950) and No. 7A after the institution of the Bharat Ratna in 1954. Article 18 (1) of the Indian Constitution prohibits the use of Bharat Ratna as a title and therefore, it cannot be used to prefix names, despite its general misuse. Its recipients are known as laureates.

As an aside it might be mentioned that Article 18 (2) prohibits Indian citizens from receiving ‘any title from any foreign state’. This precluded Sunil Gavaskar from accepting a British Knighthood but it did not prevent Sonia Gandhi from accepting the Belgian title, Order of Leopold.

Thus Bharat Ratna, which officially, cannot be flaunted as a title, accords its recipients precedence over Ambassadors, Chief Ministers and Governors of states who are, in that order ranked at No. 8.

Indians generally rue the omission of Mahatma Gandhi from the Nobel roster but there have been several notable omissions from the list of Bharat Ratna laureates. One of them was Sathya Sai Baba who was passed over, presumably because he was a Hindu god-man. One can say without any exaggeration, that Sathya Sai Baba’s service to humanity was (and is) unparalleled anywhere in the world. He established world-class schools, colleges, universities and hospitals all of which provide free services to the poor. Thousands of devotees who flock to his ashram daily are provided free food.

Under the ‘Sri Sathya Sai Drinking Water Supply Projects’ he constructed a drinking water project at a cost of US$ 63 million to supply drinking water to 1.2 million people in 750 villages of the arid Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh. Similar projects supply drinking water to drought-prone villages in Mahabubanagar and Medak districts in Telangana, and Chennai. His super-specialty hospitals in Puttaparthi and Bengaluru conducted 24,473 open-heart surgeries between November 1991 and October 2014, without charging a dime. They were all free. They continue to do so.

The other notable exception is that of former Prime Minister, P. V. Narasimha Rao. In order to understand the magnitude of his contribution to national revival, the circumstances that prevailed when he became Prime Minister should be viewed in perspective. In point of fact, the year 1991 marks the beginning of a new epoch in independent India’s history. Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination brought to the nation’s helm a man who was preparing to quietly walking away into the sunset. Narasimha Rao had been in politics since independence and served as Chief Minister, Union Home Minister, Foreign Minister and Defence Minister.

The economic crisis that came to a head that year was looming large on the horizon for years, fuelled by bureaucratic sloth, economic profligacy and political myopia. The economy was floundering on account of a depreciating rupee, billowing external debt and the resultant balance of payments crisis. The last straw on the proverbial camel’s back was the dramatically rising oil prices caused by the 1990-91 Gulf War. In order to cope with the crisis, the Chandra Sekhar government had to first sell twenty tons of gold (on which India had a repurchase option for six months) to raise $400 million in May that year and the successor government had to pledge a further forty-seven tons in July to raise a further $200 million loan. It was a national shame for a culture that treats gold as goddess Lakshmi, to part with family gold for daily necessities. Dr. Manmohan Singh who became the finance minister in the successor government did not have the heart to use words like ‘sell’ or ‘pledge’ when he informed the parliament about the transactions in November 1991. Instead he said ‘sent abroad’ and ‘export’!

Following the crisis, the Narasimha Rao government initiated a series of steps to redeem the economy. The steps were a radical departure from the pernicious ‘Nehruvian socialism’ and set the nation on a track of progress. Those who do not want to credit the progress to Narasimha Rao, ascribe the economic policy to Manmohan Singh’s genius. Yes, the policy framework could be designed only by an economist with vision but it required Narasimha Rao’s sagacity to give political cover for its implementation. Second, he needed the boldness first to sell the reforms to his own party which considered any departure from Nehru’s policies a sacrilege and then to the nation. The validity of the argument could be seen when we notice Manmohan Singh could not continue with his reform policy when he himself was the Prime Minister for ten years.

While Narasimha Rao’s economic policies are willy-nilly acknowledged there are two other areas of governance in which he left an indelible stamp on the history of the nation.

The first was defeating the Khalistani movement, which ‘had consumed 21,469 lives before it was comprehensively defeated in 1993’. The principal protagonists of the operation were K. P. S. Gill who as Counter-terrorism Chief of Punjab mercilessly and relentlessly executed it and, Beant Singh, who as Chief Minister of Punjab and Narasimha Rao as Prime Minister gave him political cover. Citing Julio Rebeiro, former Director General of Police, Punjab, Gill has this to say of the genesis of the problem:

“I regard Operation Bluestar and the November 1984 massacres as the two most important victories for the cause of ‘Khalistan’ […] not won by the militants, but inflicted […] upon the nation by its own government […] These two events, in combination, gave a new lease of life to a movement which could easily have been contained in 1984 itself.” (Gill, K.P.S. “Endgame in Punjab 1988-1993”. South Asia Terrorism Portal. Accessible from http://goo.gl/83qUhW

By the by, the political authors of Operation Bluestar and the 1984 Sikh genocide had both received the Bharat Ratna! Gill elaborates why stern counter-terrorism measures were needed to eradicate the scourge:

“The defeat of terrorism in Punjab, and I have said this before, was unambiguously the result of the counter-terrorist measures implemented in the state by the security forces. Moreover, the use of this coercive force was (and is) not just a necessary expedient, but a fundamental obligation and duty of constitutional government, and its neglect inflicts great and avoidable suffering on the innocent and law abiding.” (Ibid.)

Lest anyone had any doubt about the political processes (pursued by the aforesaid political authors of Operation Bluestar and the 1984 Sikh genocide) having achieved the objective of annihilating terrorism in Punjab, Gill clarifies:

“One of the dominant myths that these propagandists have tirelessly, and in some measure successfully, circulated is the idea that terrorism in Punjab was defeated not because, but in spite of the use of armed force against the militants. No evidence is ascribed to shore up this claim, but a variety of nebulous theories—essentially populist and politically correct slogans—are propounded regarding a ‘people’s victory’ or a ‘political solution’ that brought peace to the strife-torn province.” (Ibid.)

Had the political master not had the vision to support the stern measures to put down terrorism with an iron hand we would have had another festering wound in the west in addition to the ones in the north and the east, the existence of which is undoubtedly owing to another Bharat Ratna! Who knows, had Narasimha Rao had another shot at power, he would have had some out of the box ideas to contain them!

Another bold step Narasimha Rao took was in the area of foreign affairs by establishing full diplomatic relations with Israel. Although India recognized Israel in September 1950 (a little over two years after its formation), it was not until February 1992 that full diplomatic relations were established. Considering the benefits a bilateral relationship with Israel could provide in the areas of agriculture, defence and counterterrorism, this was inexplicable. The overt reason for India not establishing full diplomatic relations with Israel was that it would displease her Arab neighbours, but the unstated reason was to placate the Muslim vote bank in India. As by the time India established full diplomatic relations with Israel, the Narasimha Rao government was in office for just over eight months, the decision must be said to have been taken very quickly.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Re–learning Itihāsas of the Sanātana Dharma

Book Review

 

Who Is Who In Hindu Mythology (Vols. 1 & 2). Author: Surya N. Maruvada. Publishers: Notion Press. Available for ordering from Amazon: https://amzn.to/2Z48Ukz (India) https://amzn.to/3dr9GNS (Outside India)

 

The days when children learnt stories from Indian Itihāsas at the knees of their grandpas are sadly long gone. The potent, venomous mix of the three Ms—Macaulay, missionaries and Marx had sufficiently vitiated the learning of the intermediate generations to such an extent that they are confused and ambivalent in their approach to matters concerning the Sanātana Dharma. The missionaries wanted to uproot the Sanātana Dharma and supplant it with their own religion. If Macaulay’s supremacist approach to Indian thought dictated the course of educational curricula during the British rule, the domination of the educational system by the left–illiberal mobs post–independence finished the job. As Koenraad Elst observed in DecolonizingThe Hindu Mind, all Western knowledge and scientific thought (including those borne out of pre–Christian Graeco–Roman achievements) were attributed to Christianity while the Sanātana Dharma was depicted as no more than a cult order, backward and regressive.

 

India had had its own period of “Dark Ages” from the first Mohammedan invasions in the tenth century to the end of the British rule in the middle of the twentieth century. The advent of independence, instead of heralding cultural renaissance, did the opposite. Indian achievements in arts, culture, philosophy and spirituality, and science and technology were deliberately expunged from school text books. Instead schools and colleges were taught a fictitious construct called syncretic culture. For example, Elst pointed out

 

To describe Moghul painting (a Hindu contribution to Islamicate culture) as a “contribution of Islam to India’s composite culture”, as secularist discourse has it, indicates a muddled understanding of Islamic religion and Islamicate culture.

 

Marxists are adept at co–opting pop cultural modes like song, drama, cinema and etc. as vehicles for insidious indoctrination. After Macaulayesque education sucked out all traditional forms of Sanātana Dharmic knowledge from curricula, mass media like newspapers, magazines and cinema did the rest. As it happened, for nearly a century Madras was the centre of arts and culture of the southern Indian states. Exponents of Indian arts and culture who gravitated to the city were willy–nilly sucked into the black hole fertilised by the three Ms—of Macaulay, missionaries and Marx. It was they who did the insidious job of indoctrinating several generations of Indian school and college children into loathing their own cultural ancestry. The glitz and glamour of the silver screen has an undoubted charm for the youth and its appeal has a deeper and longer–lasting impact on impressionable minds. Therefore if movies distorted characters of Rāmāyaṇa or Māhābhārata Indian youth were inevitably led to believe that the Sanātana Dharma was an iniquitous religion, forgetting Svāmi Vivekānada’s aphorism about Sanātana Dharma being a religion that is “spiritual in content, scientific in approach and universal in appeal”.  


Macaulayesque education killed the spirit of contemplation, inquiry and introspection that were the bedrock of Sanātana Dharmic education and instead bred implicit and unquestioning obedience to what was taught. Left–illiberal thought inbred negativity. Thankfully the trend is reversing at last.   

How do we rekindle interest in India’s ancient lore, especially after several generations of Indians gave up on learning Saṁskṛtaṁ (another left–illiberal conspiracy), the language in which the wealth of our knowledge is encoded? India has such a rich repertoire of sacred texts that a lifetime may not suffice to read the entire corpus. And then there are perversions of the texts. A beginning could be made by reading the Itihāsas and understanding them without stripping their component stories out of context. As C. Rajagopalachari observed

“A little knowledge of the laws of nature and the wonders of science, specially when that knowledge is acquired second–hand, without the chastening influence of effort and investigation, acts as a wine on some natures. Their sense of proportion is upset. The unknown is not only unknown but ceases to exist for them.” (1935. The Bhagavad–Gita. Delhi. Hindustan Times Ltd. p.6)

It is in this context the present Encyclopaedia assumes importance. It includes sketches of all characters from our Itihāsas providing them context. The Itihāsas were stories of Gods but they were contextualised in their human incarnations. What societal values changed between the times of Rāmāyaṇa and Māhābhārata? How does Māhābhārata treat Kuñti as a virgin even though she begot a son before marriage? Why did Srī Kṛṣna who knew the outcome of the war, and could, did not prevent it? There may be hardly anyone who wants to know the names of the ninety–eight Kauravās but who were Srī Kṛṣna’s five consorts apart from the well–known three? The voluminous book (in two volumes) introduces the reader to topics ranging from the trivia to the sublime and from the mundane to the scientific. For example while introducing the book the author observes

On the world where Brahma, the creator in the Hindu Trinity resides, the length of a day is equivalent to many years on earth. While the huge difference may be a stretch, the concept of a different time scale on different worlds was not known until a few hundred years ago.

Modern science recognises this as the ‘theory of time dilation’ which is an off–shoot of the theory of relativity. The author expended enormous amounts of time in collecting and collating information from a variety of texts. One hopes that the Encyclopaedia will be useful not only for the world–wide Indian diaspora to obtain gleanings from their spiritual heritage but other scholars desirous of understanding the rich spiritual and philosophical underpinnings of the Sanātana Dharma.     

Saturday, June 20, 2020

COVID–19 and the endless search for ‘scientific serendipity’!

Many scientific discoveries were indeed serendipitous and medical science is no stranger to serendipity. The word serendipity is derived from Senrendip (an ancient name for Sri Lanka) and is applied for discoveries that were accidentally stumbled upon. The word is sometimes translated as ‘happy accident’. A number of products from nitroglycerine (in its medical use, not in blasting powder); the first antibiotic penicillin; the local anaesthetic lidocaine; several analgesic drugs, anti–psychotic drugs, anti–cancer drugs, tranquilisers; the use of an antihistamine as an appetite stimulant; several pesticides like malathion and the sticky Post–it have been serendipitously found.

We all know that Alfred Bernhard Nobel made his millions with the discovery of nitroglycerine a component of dynamite, and other explosive substances. In 1895 he developed a condition called angina pectoris and died of cerebral haemorrhage in 1896. When blood vessels which supply blood to the chest muscle are constricted, depleted blood supply and the resultant depletion of oxygen supply cause chest pain known medically as angina pectoris.

The reason for Alfred bequeathing the bulk of his estate for the endowment of the famous Nobel Prizes is not clear. According to a theory, when in 1888 his brother Ludvig died in France, a French newspaper mistaking him to be Alfred reported, “The merchant of death is dead.” (The expression used in the Indian context was not original, after all!) It was possible Alfred wanted to make reparation for his probable posthumous notoriety.

In 1944 Antoine Balard working at the Sorbonne observed that inhalation of isoamyl nitrate gave him headache. Other researchers like Frederick Guthrie in Owen’s College, Manchester experimented with nitrates. Thomas Lauder Brunton, a researcher who worked at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary put nitroglycerine to use. It was William Murrell’s work at the Westminster Hospital (his findings were published in The Lancet) that confirmed nitroglycerine dilates blood vessels, reduces blood pressure and relieves pain caused by angina pectoris. In the initial days British doctors took care to see that patients were not unduly scared if they found out that the tablets they were prescribed were the same compound that was used in dynamite. The longer acting form of nitroglycerine (pentaerythritol tetranitrate) was introduced in 1896 on an experimental scale and its applicability was finally announced in 1901. Had it been in use in 1896, it would probably have saved Alfred Nobel’s life! The active form of the drug known as isosorbide is prescribed (for sublingual use for faster absorption) even today.

While on the subject of angina pectoris, the multinational pharmaceutical company Pfizer, which experimented with sildenafil citrate, was unable to obtain desired results. It did not reduce cardiac pain as the researchers hoped. However the researchers were pleasantly surprised by an unintended effect the drug caused. In some patients it caused penile erections. Enthused by a study conducted in the Johns Hopkins University, Pfizer continued work on sildenafil. An enzyme called nitric oxide synthase (NOS) localised in the penis produces the neurotransmitter nitric oxide, which is responsible for penile erection. Sildenafil was found to reverse the action of NOS inhibitors. Thus was borne the blue pill known the world over as Viagra! What is less known is that Viagra is equally effective in women, in inducing clitoral erection. It is particularly useful for women with sexual dysfunction caused by a class of antidepressant drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

Another drug minoxidil which was originally intended to lower blood pressure turned out to have an unintended consequence. In initial trials it caused body hair growth in some female patients. Continued trials with the drug proved that it is useful for hair regrowth in what is known as ‘male pattern baldness’. There are other drugs with a similar ‘side effect’ but are limited in their use because of other concomitant adverse effects. The advantage with minoxidil is that it is available as a lotion and can be locally applied.     

What is strange in the current scenario is for researchers trying to look for anti–viral properties in every conceivable drug. In the absence of a preventive vaccine for the COVID–19 virus, researchers have experimented with hydroxychloroquine an anti–malarial drug, also found to be useful in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, azithromycin an anti–biotic and remdesivir an anti–viral drug—with varying results. As the pandemic grips the whole world, there is prestige involved in being the first to find a remedy for it.

 

The latest candidate drug under experimentation is dexamethasone. A group of researchers at the University of Oxford said “trial results show the drug [dexamethasone] reduced death rates of the most severely-ill Covid-19 patients by around a third.” The British Prime Minister hailed it as the “biggest breakthrough yet” in the fight against the disease. However, as per a report published in the Independent, US experts led by Dr. Kathryn Hibbert, director of the intensive care unit at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital expressed scepticism about the findings of the trial. They cited the recent publication and withdrawal of a study in The Lancet, the results of a trial with hydroxychloroquine as a cautionary tale. (“Dexamethasone: US doctors cast doubton UK’s coronavirus ‘breakthrough’”, June 17, 2020.)

 

Dexamethasone belongs to a group of drugs called glucocorticoids. As the name suggests the primary function of glucocorticoids is to conserve glucose for use in times of stress. The glucocorticoids convert carbohydrate into glycogen and store it in the liver. But corticosteroids are also known immunosuppressants. It is for this reason they are prescribed along with other immunosuppressive drugs like cyclosporine and azathioprine to prevent donor organ rejection in organ transplant cases. An earlier commentary article published in The Lancet (“Steroids could do more harm than good in treating coronavirus”, February 6, 2020) highlighted the immunosuppressant property of the drug and advised caution in including it in treatment regimens for COVID–19.

 

As experts and researchers grapple with finding a remedy for the corona virus infection that has changed the world forever, the last word on the subject is yet to be said!


This is a slightly modified version of the article originally published in The Time Of India Blogs

Labels: Analgesics, Azithromycin, Anti–cancer drugs, Antihistamines, Anti–psychotic drugs, Corticosteroids, Dexamethasone, Glucocorticoids, Hydroxychloroquine, Isosorbide, Lidocaine, Minoxidil, Nitroglycerine, Nobel, Penicillin, Post–it, Remdesivir, Tranquilisers, Serendipity, Sildenafil, Viagra

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

It’s not the USA I’ve seen

It was three weeks into my first visit to the USA when I first heard the honking of a car horn. My hosts informed me that honking was considered an insult to other road users and was rarely resorted to if it was a must. On roads, lane discipline and speed limits were strictly adhered to. Pedestrians have the first right of way at intersections. I was struck by the civic discipline on roads, malls and other public places.

The other aspects of life that strikes first–time visitors are civility and cultural sensitivity of people. Passing strangers greeted each other with a cheery ‘Hi’ or a smile or a nod. However, if in England “an Englishman’s home is his castle”, in the USA, one can live in splendid isolation if one chose to, within a civilised society.

The axiom “customer is king” is neither an empty slogan nor a cliché. Sellers, store owners and service providers—all take it seriously as if their life depended on it. Reputations to adhere to timelines are arduously protected. Just to give an example, a made–to–order shirt was not delivered on schedule. It was not the fault of the store but of the courier service. When complained, the store sent a replacement. A day later the original dispatch reached me. I called the store to inform that I would pay for it. The store said it was not necessary; I could keep it. It was in a way a reparation the store paid for the delay. Supermarkets like Costco accept return of goods purchased even if they are used a few times.

Fastidious vegetarians like me need have no apprehensions about meat contamination in made–to–order snacks in wayside Subway or Dunkin’ Donut franchises. The suppliers wear fresh gloves for making each order. I was informed that all American food outlets and ice-cream parlours throw away any leftovers when they close for the night.

An important aspect of American civic life is how people of diverse cultural backgrounds and ethnicities live in perfect harmony. The weekly house cleaner who visited my bro–in–law’s place and the plumber were Mexican immigrants; both were over seventy. A taxi driver whom we engaged to go from Philadelphia airport to our home in Bear (Delaware) forty miles away was a Bangladeshi. A convenience store attached to a gasoline station was run by a Sardarji who was more at ease in Hindi than English. A pest control company engaged to cleanse bed bugs sent in an African–American technician. The fumigation had to be done at 1500 F (500C). He did his job without a whimper; accepted the $50 tip with a grin and left.

Our travels took us to several places in the Bay area in California; from Dallas through Austin and Houston to Corpus Christi in Texas; and in the East Coast to places like Virginia, New Jersey, New York, Washington DC and up to Niagara on the Canadian border. We have seen everywhere White Americans, Hispanics, African–Americans and Indians—all working in tandem; cordially interacting with each other and going about their jobs. If there was any racism we didn’t sense it.

There is a quaint American way for begging too. The beggars don’t waylay public but silently sit on the sidewalks with a placard stuck out reading “Am homeless. Please help”.

It is not to say there is no crime. We were told New York subways were not safe at night when they are taken over by derelicts and drug addicts.

From what we saw and heard the law enforcement officers were even–handed and did not discriminate between one ethnicity and another. If there were any exceptions, it was because the police knew in advance the person sought to be detained had or suspected to have had a history of crime.

We did have brushes with the law enforcement officers twice and on both occasions the officers were polite and sought to resolve issues with palpable empathy. The first time we had a problem was with the immigration authorities in San Francisco. I could not fill in the “Address of Local Residence” column in the immigration form as I did not know it. I explained to the officer that my daughter was coming to the airport to pick me up. He said that that was not enough. They could not allow an immigrant who “did not have a place of stay”, to enter the United States. We did not know what to do. Finally he relented and said as it was our first visit he was allowing us; stamped our passports and warmly welcomed us.

The second incident took place in Bear, Delaware. Wanting to call India I dialed +91 without prefixing it with the ISD code 011. Even though it was not exactly a correct dial, the system “automatically corrected” it—to discomfit me as it turned out—and dialed the US emergency code 911. There was an answer from the other side before I could disconnect the call. No matter. The system took over. In a few minutes two carloads of hefty policemen with wireless sets and guns hanging from their belts descended on the house. When I answered the bell the lead officer politely asked me whether I dialed 911. I said I did. With an apology I explained that I was trying to call India and instead of the code +91 must have dialed 911 by mistake. He asked me if I was sure everything was okay. I assured him that there was no problem. He accepted the apology and explanation; said it was okay and went away.

I visited the USA twice, in 2017 and 2019. In the time I was there I hadn’t seen a hint of racism—unless the whole nation was pretending. What happened then in the last couple of weeks? Why is the whole nation on the boil?

This article was originally published in TheTime Of India Blogs.