Marginalia: Romila on textbooks, Rapido ad, Nobel nonsense

We may go on deleting sections of our history but in the world outside where there are multiple centres of research into the Indian past, and many scholars, there these expunged sections from books used in India will continue to be studied. They will be subjected to new methods of analyses, will be commented upon, will enrich the understanding of India with new knowledge, and all this will be incorporated into the history of India that will be taught everywhere except in India. We in India will not know anything about that section of Indian history which has been deleted from our books.

Outside India, the multiple cultures of India and their achievements will be studied as part of Indian history and Indian culture, irrespective of the religion of the dynasties that may have presided over the achievements. They will be studied in universities, libraries and museums dedicated to the study of India, as a continuation of not only the Indian past but also of the past pertaining to happenings current in various parts of the world. These will have pride of place not only in the history of India but in the history of human achievements. But we in India will be entirely ignorant of their significance since we shall not know them as a part of Indian history nor as a part of other histories of the world. These would have been cultures that we once recognised as those to which we once contributed, and with which we once had exchanges, when we created the Indian civilisation of past times.

‘If NCERT Has its Way, the Study of Indian History Will Move Entirely Outside of India’, Romila Thapar, The Wire

Well written by historian Romila Thapar, on the NCERT’s decision to excise some important parts of Indian history from school textbooks. First, it’s hard not to come away after reading this being struck by how reminiscent this ‘moving out’ of scholarship is of what colonialism inflicted on India, especially in terms of the natural resources that were transferred from India to the United Kingdom, never to be returned – resources that both the left and the right like to thump their chests over. Self-inflicted colonialism is worse than tragedy. I did think the “we in India will not know anything about that section of Indian history which has been deleted from our books” part was a bit of a reach because I know from experience that as long as you have access to uncensored information on the internet and a few people in your familial or social circles to nudge you to access it, it’s possible to start questioning ideologies, privileges, faith, assumptions, etc. This said, I don’t claim to understand the consequences of depriving relatively very young people of a wholesome history education, which only heightens the risk of ignorance if the people around them agree with their syllabus. Third, while alt-history edits to school textbooks have really brought the problem home, they have been preceded in time by, among others, the Vedas and Ayurvedic texts. They weren’t literary edited; however, the government changed what most people believed their contents to be. And I suspect it will be possible to see in the textbooks’ fate parallels to what befell the Vedas and Ayurveda: one fed Hindutva myths about the mythical achievements of ‘ancient India’ while the other helped pro-party businessmen commercialise these myths.

Rapido’s ads continue to be nonsensical, or appeal to sensibilities that on the face of it have nothing to do with public transport and commuting. Last time, the ad with Allu Arjun and Ranbir Kapoor (among others) took a cynical view of road traffic, asking commuters to opt for Rapido’s ‘bike taxis’ because they could cut through traffic and wouldn’t “mince” them up like public buses might, effectively discouraging encouraging unsafe driving on roads and discouraging, to quote myself, “civic disengagement from the task of improving public transport”. A new ad that’s been airing for a week or so has the tagline, “bike-wali taxi, sabse saxi“, to the accompaniment of visual narratives in which there is a long queue of people waiting to catch an auto and a bus packed to the rafters with people. So… I’m to take bike taxis because they’re “sexy?” I don’t get it. Maybe the purpose of the new ad is to be an ad for an ad’s sake, to let people know that such a thing exists, but I’m not sold. It’s still a lot like the first ad, and both of which are like Elon Musk’s comments in the context of his Hyperloop idea: that we should desist from using public transport because we might be travelling with a serial killer (and his hope that someone else will build a Hyperloop provided a high-speed rail line in California, and its higher carrying capacity, is cancelled). In all cases, we have people being asked to take the easy way out, in favour of corporate entities invested in people being concerned only with their own comfort, over forcing the government to do better. The latter is always only going to be hard, requiring public organisation and mobilisation, but never opting for this path just opens the door wider to self-serving companies and further undermine the centrality of public transport to a healthy democracy. If India’s status as a democracy is fading, as even The Lancet noted earlier today, we’re contributing, too.

Also how much are these bike-wali drivers paid?

“This is embarrassing,” [Charles Lieber] said at his trial. “Every scientist wants to win a Nobel Prize.”

‘Charles Lieber, Ex-Harvard Professor, Sentenced in China Ties Case’, Gina Kolata, The New York Times

An obligatory reminder that the Nobel Prizes influence how science is practiced – rather than being a completely isolated entity that just selects some arbitrarily defined “best scientific endeavour” and gives it a medal, a certificate, and lots of money. We’ve seen this before with Brian Keating, who made a big mistake before acknowledging it and coming clean. Now that Charles Lieber has committed his blunder, I hope he’ll stop pursuing a Nobel Prize as well and just pursue good science instead. But the ideal, but seemingly also very unlikely, thing to happen would be for scientists at large to understand a) why trying to win a Nobel Prize is not trying to do good science even though the former claims to exclusively reward the latter and b) that almost all ‘prestigious’ honours concerned with scientific work – including the universities to work at, the grants to win, and the journals in which to publish – will over time distort the desirability of different fields of study (and even scientists’ estimate of which questions are worth answering), the contents of the scientific literature, what constitutes ‘success’ (e.g. positive results v. negative results), and who can be considered to be successful. (Pseudo-prestigious awards might be even more dangerous.)