Extraordinary opus

Music of the Spinning Wheel by Sudheendra Kulkarni; Amaryllis Publishers; Price: Rs.795; 725 pp

A journalist-columnist and occasional spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janata Party, and currently chairman of the Ambani-funded Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai, Sudheendra Kulkarni was a prominent figure in the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, which ruled in Delhi between 1998-2004. As special aide to Atal Behari Vajpayee, he played an active role in conceptualising and driving the prime minister’s Task Force on Information Technology, New Telecom Policy and the National Highway Development Project, among other enterprises of great pith and moment. Your editor is acquainted with Kulkarni but the relationship remained casual, because the chasm which separated BJP’s divisive hindutva ideology and this liberal and secular reviewer seemed too wide to be bridged.

However after reading this book which deeply investigates the Mahatma and concludes that had he still been alive, Gandhiji would have been an ardent champion of the internet, your editor/reviewer quite obviously under-estimated the scholarship, research capability and argumentative capacity of the author of this extraordinary magnum opus.

Mahatma Gandhi’s numerous warnings against adoption of the Western model of industrialisation, and his advocacy of the humble spinning wheel and village industries which was “at the very core of his economic, political and social agenda” aroused widespread skepticism, even scorn within post-independence India’s intelligentsia, intent upon modernising the country. It’s plainly evident that for Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first prime minister, the assassination of Gandhiji in early 1948 (and death of the pro private enterprise Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in 1950) while personally distressing, came as a relief because he could freely implement his national development agenda, inspired by  Soviet-style public sector-led industrialisation.

Sixty-five years on, it’s equally evident that the Nehruvian economic development model has failed. While the population has tripled since independence — itself a failure of the world’s first family planning programme — the nation’s debt-laden, low productivity public sector enterprises are monumental failures which have transformed high-potential  India into a nation of chronic shortages, persistent inflation, unemployment (120 million) and vast inequalities in income, education, health and social justice. On almost every development measurement index of UNDP, Unesco, the World Bank etc, contemporary India is among the world’s bottom ranked nations.

Although Kulkarni doesn’t explicitly say so, the pathetic condition of the nation is probably the causative factor which prompted him to re-examine Gandhi’s life and message, especially the popular belief that he “was opposed to science, technology, machinery and modernity”. The outcome of the author’s rediscovery of the Mahatma is this brilliant work of scholarship, and advocacy of the intensified usage of the internet, which Kulkarni — an IIT-Bombay alum who understands technology — regards as a god-sent tech breakthrough with the potential to prompt a new science, technology and knowledge revolution to solve the most pressing problems of humankind in general, and India in particular.

This opus which together with its narrative, notes and bibliography spans 725 pages is divided into five parts. In the first part (47 pages), starting with his own “journey from Mahatma to Marx and back,” Kulkarni traces the evolution of M.K. Gandhi, barrister-at-law in South Africa into the Mahatma and “servant of truth”. The principal theme is Gandhi’s  philosophy — its cornerstone and growth — and the praxis of satyagraha which according to Kulkarni “synthesized the concept of Truth in three disparate areas of human life: science, religion and social change”.

In the second part of the book ‘Romance with Science’, Kulkarni fleshes out his argument that far from being opposed to science and technology, the Mahatma was an enthusiastic scientist and experimenter, and his ashrams in Ahmedabad and Wardha were in fact busy centres of research and development in dietetics, nature cure and healthcare, sanitation, and education, subjects that were — and remain — survival matters for India’s peasantry. Likewise, the spinning wheel which transforms cotton into yarn was a basic, indigenously-designed, low-cost machine used and propagated by Gandhiji because it supplemented the incomes of millions of rain-dependent rural households forced to suffer prolonged periods of unemployment, in the absence of irrigation networks.

The author argues a strong case that Gandhiji was not opposed to industry and industrialisation per se, but was a proponent and favoured appropriate, labour-intensive rural industry rather than the Western model of labour-displacing  industrialisation which was imported into independent India and grafted on to the economy with disastrous results. Moreover as Kulkarni recounts in an enlightening chapter titled ‘Decoding the meaning of music of the spinning wheel’, this simple machine which requires solitary and focused attention, also serves the very useful purpose of inducing reflection and meditation. “The music of the spinning wheel will be as balm for your soul. I  believe that the yarn we spin is capable of mending the broken warp and woof of life. The charkha is the symbol of non-violence,” explained Gandhi.

The other dominant theme of this book is Kulkarni’s whole-hearted embrace of the revolutionary knowledge transmission and communication medium that is the worldwide web aka the internet, the “greatest technological invention of mankind”. In part five of the book, Kulkarni makes a convincing case that as an avid user of the newly invented telegraph (“the Victorian internet”) and the telephone, Gandhi would have enthusiastically adopted the internet to galvanise mass movements and communicate his message of satyagraha and non-violence to Indian, and global audiences.

A widely unappreciated but highly recommended work in which the elements of history, biography, and technology are so mixed as to qualify it as a masterpiece of scholarship and knowledge.

Dilip Thakore

One-sided critique

Chomsky on MisEducation by Noam Chomsky; Rowman and Littlefield; Price: Rs.1,040; 199 pp

It’s de rigueur these days to hear people bemoan the crisis in education, berating schools and universities for doing little more than minimally qualifying youth for entry level jobs in industry and business. Something is terribly wrong with modern education systems which tend to ignore vital, moral, ethical and citizenship issues while preparing students to become cogs in gigantic economic machines. However, there’s much more to the crisis than that. As Noam Chomsky, renowned social scientist and professor of linguistics and philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Boston, argues in his book, we are victims of “miseducation”.

In his assessment of contemporary education, Chomsky asserts that syllabuses and curriculums are designed to sustain, legitimise and reinforce structures of elite domination and oppression in liberal democratic nations, though his analysis is equally applicable to authoritarian and communist societies. According to Chomsky, modern education systems are hardly as objective and class neutral as they are made out to be. In an interview (reported in the book) related to a 12-year-old student named David Spritzler who refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance which he precociously described as a “hypocritical exhortation to patriotism,’’ Chomsky remarks: “Far from creating independent thinkers, schools have always, throughout history, played an institutional role in a system of control and coercion. And once you are well-educated, you have already been socialized in ways that support the power structure, which, in turn, rewards you immensely.’’

Throughout this treatise competently edited and compiled by Donaldo Macedo, professor of English, liberal arts and education at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, Chomsky argues that schools tend to anaesthetise students by stifling their critical abilities, and drilling ‘official truths’ dished out by the establishment into their receptive heads. By doing so, they play a leading role in preventing the development of critical faculties and comprehension of socio-political realities.

Central to Chomsky’s opinion is that school curriculums are not inclusive and make little or no reference to marginalised groups, thus contributing towards their “invisiblisation”. According to him, even in well-established, mature democracies proud of their democratic traditions, schools are centres of political indoctrination which stress blind obedience and clamp down on critical and independent thinking. This serves the establishment well, because students unable to think for themselves are likely to become silent subjects and passive victims of elite domination and manipulation. In other words, such schools domesticate — rather than liberate — young minds, argues Chomsky. Instead, they reward students for memorising and repeating what their teachers and textbooks tell them. Carefully socialised and indoctrinated in this way, students are well on their way to becoming unquestioning adults.

Much of the book is devoted to the foreign policies of the United States, which despite its deafening rhetoric of championing democracy, is majorly engaged in the craft of “historical engineering’’ around the world to suit its ruling elite. Chomsky suggests it’s because of  miseducation and/or the reduction of education to propaganda, that the US government has been able to convince many of its citizens to approve its numerous international misdemeanours.

While Chomsky delivers a thought-provoking critique on modern education which is welcome, critics have been given an opportunity to accuse him of being entirely one-sided, and habitually unable to appreciate the good which inevitably accompanies the bad. If contemporary education is indeed so deplorable, they might ask, how and why is Chomsky himself an integral part of it, for which no doubt he is richly rewarded, being a professor in the top-ranked MIT for many years. Surely, they will point out, there are warts in the system but the system does not consist of warts and nothing else.

In essence, Chomsky advocates education that empowers people to question — if not resist — the domination of self-perpetuating elites. However, an alternative education system is not suggested in the essays and interviews included in Chomsky on MisEducation. Nor does the author/ professor explain why despite its motivated miseducation system, the US hosts the largest cohort of foreign students of any country worldwide. Could it be because their own education systems are worse?

Yoginder Sikand