Irom Sharmila Chanu

Aung San Suu Kyi

Even as the world observed International Women’s Day on March 8 and India rose to the occasion by initiating the passing of a landmark piece of legislation that is expected to bring about dramatic changes in the role of women in politics, all of this seems little more than lip service when we turn our attention to the plight of two women in particular– Irom Sharmila Chanu and Aung San Suu Kyi – and their protracted struggle against injustice. What ought to make us more uneasy is the fact that one of them is an Indian citizen whose struggle is against the elected Indian government.

Irom Sharmila has been on hunger strike for more than a decade in protest against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) which is in place in large portions of the north-east, including her own state of Manipur. She is alive only because the authorities have been force-feeding her under arrest, to prevent her from committing suicide. On March 8, she was released from captivity as a token to mark Women’s Day, only to be rearrested on the charge of trying to commit suicide. The AFSPA is an act that vests the army with arbitrary powers on the pretext of maintaining peace in a ‘disturbed area’. However, it has been misused over the years by army personnel and basic rights and freedoms of the people of the north-east have been repeatedly violated. Countless lives have been lost to indiscriminate firings and extrajudicial encounters, and the perpetrators have never been brought to task because the Act gives them immunity from prosecution. Irom Sharmila’s fight, therefore, is not one for the rights of women, but rather for the right of any human being to live in dignity and freedom and his right to the protection of his life and personal liberty. These are guaranteed by the Constitution to every citizen of the country, and the people belonging to disturbed areas can not be treated as exceptions. Fundamental rights are not favours to be dispensed or withheld by a government at will. They are the aspirations of a free people born in a free society, and the constitution is but a document that recognizes these aspirations. Denying a group of people their fundamental rights, therefore, is not just a subversion of the Constitution, but an outrage on their dignity and a criminal act per se.

The Indian government has been reluctant to do away with the draconian AFSPA, citing the secessionist atmosphere in the region. What it fails to realize is that secessionist or anti-state actors everywhere are always in minority, while the majority is always law-abiding. In imposing what amounts to military rule in the region and thereby withholding from the people the rights and freedoms that their brethren in other parts of the country enjoy, the government is further alienating them and aggravating the separatist feelings. This kind of a strategy to contain separatism can only be counter-productive in the long run. The government must wake up to this reality and undo the wrongs that have been allowed to happen. Repealing the AFSPA, as recommended by the Jeevan Reddy Commission and various international human rights organizations, can and ought to be the first corrective step in this direction.

Not very far from Imphal, Aung San Suu Kyi continues to languish in captivity in Rangoon for the fourteenth consecutive year. Though her fight against the oppressive military junta has received wide international attention and earned the Burmese government severe censure and sanctions, very little has come of it. The military continues to hold her in house arrest on flimsy and unsubstantiated charges, and has recently debarred her from contesting the upcoming elections. It is but obvious that the elections, if and when held, are going to be an orchestrated event, very much like those in Pakistan under General Musharraf’s rule, intended more as a PR exercise than a genuine social and political reform. Sooner or later, however, the military is bound to collapse from within if not from without. History tells us that such totalitarian regimes generally meet one of the two fates: they are either overthrown by popular revolution or they succumb to external pressure and economic sanctions. The present regime in Rangoon has been resisting both, little realizing that the longer you stretch the string, the harder it snaps and hits you back. Be that as it may, Suu Kyi’s relentless fight against the military regime should stir the conscience of the neighbouring nations, particularly India, and also of powerful nations like the US, who should step up pressure on the Than Shwe administration to step aside and let the Burmese people determine their own destiny.

The current situation of women in the world presents us with a glaring paradox. On the one hand, there are the genuinely empowered women who are represented by the Hillary Clintons, Angela Merkels and the Nancy Pelosis in the western world. Even back home, we have women in key positions in every walk of life. Meira Kumar presides over the world’s largest elected assembly, Pratibha Patil is the supreme commander of the armed forces (against which Irom Sharmila is fighting), and Sonia Gandhi is arguably the most powerful person in the country. On the other hand there are women like Rebiya Kadeer, Suu Kyi and Irom Sharmila who are leading the struggle against wanton oppression and human rights abuse from the forefront in different parts of the world. What then prevents the former from coming to the aid of the latter? What prevents Ms Clinton from paying a visit to General Than Shwe in Rangoon and impressing upon him in no uncertain terms the indignation of the freedom-loving people of America at Suu Kyi’s detention and demanding her immediate and unconditional release? Why for that matter does President Obama not live up to his Nobel Peace Prize by coming to the aid of Suu Kyi who happens to be another peace laureate? What prevented Ms Gandhi from insisting that on March 8, the House engage in a constructive debate over alternatives to the AFSPA in the north-east, instead of pushing through a controversial and largely symbolic legislation whose long term impact, if any, is yet to be understood? What stops the young and promising Agatha Sangma, member of Parliament and a minister moreover, from raising her voice in her own government against the rights violations in the north-east, a part of the country from which she herself hails and whose troubles she can not be ignorant of? Why, after all, is there more tokenism and lip service in these matters than concrete action?

It frustrates me every time I am reminded that women like Irom and Suu Kyi are being held captive against their wishes, more so because their fight is a righteous one by all standards. They are fighting for the very same things that Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela have fought for in their generation and age, and as it was with these men whom we today look upon as heroes, so it shall be with these women, the heroines of tomorrow. The confines of the prison cell shall prove to be very weak indeed for them, for their spirits are free and always soaring.  As the author of Shantaram puts it, they will always be “free to hate those who torture them or to forgive them. Though it doesn’t sound like much, but in the flinch and bite of the chain, when it’s all you’ve got, that freedom is a universe of possibility…”


Ever since Sachin Tendulkar scored his phenomenal double century against South Africa in the Gwalior ODI, there has been a steady increase in the number of voices (mostly political), demanding that he be awarded India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna. No political party wants to be seen opposing this noble sentiment, and it may well be that given the rare consensus on this issue, Sachin may indeed be awarded the honour sometime soon. Even the Shiv Sena, which had launched an acerbic attack on Sachin recently for his ‘Mumbai for all’ comment, is now hailing him as a modern-day Shivaji and projecting him as the ideal Marathi Manoos. Politicians will be politicians, but one must try and look beyond their posturing and identify the issues involved in awarding this prize to Tendulkar.

Firstly, we must look at the nature and scope of the Bharat Ratna. Since it is undoubtedly the greatest honour that the country can bestow upon a citizen, it can not, per se, have a restricted scope, as any person from any walk of life can do the country proud beyond measure, and therefore, must be eligible for the award. Be that as it may, the Indian government makes it clear that the highest civilian honour may be awarded for “exceptional service towards advancement of Art, Literature and Science, and in recognition of Public Service of the highest order.” However liberally one may interpret this statement, cricket (or any sport for that matter) can not be classified as art, literature, science or even public service. It may be argued that written provisions should not come in the way of a deserving person receiving the award, which is a justified argument by all means. However, the above definition does not restrict the scope of awardees, as much as it defines the essence of the award. A look at the list of past recipients clearly reveals that most of them can be categorized under the heads of ‘public affairs’, ‘social work’, ‘literature’, ‘science’ or ‘art’, and not a single sportsperson has been conferred this honour in the 56-year history of the Bharat Ratna.

A possible reason for this may be that achievement in sports is considered a personal triumph, and not so much a contribution to nation and society (though this is not wholly true, for sports have great inspirational value). If this be the logic employed by the awarding committees over the years, i.e., service to society and not personal triumphs, then writers, scientists, politicians, educationists and civil servants qualify without question. However, artists, and in particular musicians who have been awarded under the ‘art’ category in recent years (Bhimsen Joshi, Lata Mangeshkar, Bismillah Khan etc) fall into the grey area where it remains to be debated whether singing or playing a musical instrument is a personal achievement or a service to society. Coming back to the issue of Tendulkar, the question that arises is that if he is considered for a Bharat Ratna today, then have all great sportspersons before him also been considered for the honour ever since its inception in 1954? An affirmative answer seems difficult to believe, given the absence of a single sportsperson in the long list.

My assumption that sports has conventionally not been considered within the ambit of Bharat Ratna is reinforced by the fact that in 1991, the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award was instituted to serve as the highest honour for outstanding sporting achievement, and something that would fill a long-standing gap. The Arjuna Awards that were given for sports served each sport individually, but a greater and all-encompassing honour for sports seemed to be missing, and hence the Khel Ratna. Till date, it is the only other ‘Ratna’ award, which makes it distinct and separate, and not necessarily inferior, to the Bharat Ratna. Sachin has already been awarded the Khel Ratna, and another question that arises now is what can have possibly transpired in the course of a single event (the Gwalior ODI) that broadens his talents and achievements to qualify him as a Bharat Ratna. Surely he has a lot of cricket left in him, and if breaking of records be a criterion to give him an additional award, then we will soon have to invent new awards for him every time he wields the ‘whomping’ willow and outperforms himself!

Finally, there is the issue of the method of awarding. Currently, the government of the day has the final word on the award, and the government is not a body representative of the people of the country. It would be more fitting if the highest civilian honour of the nation is voted by the Parliament as a whole, very much along the lines of the Congressional Gold Medal in the US. This would not only open the selection process to a debate, but would also increase the prestige and significance of the honour manifold. A recipient will have the satisfaction of knowing that his life’s work has been recognized by a 550-strong jury representing all sections of Indian society, and not an arbitrary 10-member panel nominated by the government. A person thus selected would in real measure and beyond all debate be a Bharat Ratna.

I think I have said enough about awards and prizes. At the end of the day, we must not attach too much importance to them, for the worth of a life must be measured, if at all, in terms of the efforts and not the accolades. Regardless of whether he gets the highest civilian honour of this country, I am sure Sachin will concur with the idea expressed in the concluding lines of Irving Wallace’s novel, The Prize:

All man’s honours to man are small beside the greatest prize to which he may and must aspire – the finding of his soul, his spirit, his divine strength and worth – the knowledge that he can and must live in freedom and dignity – the final realization that life is not a daily dying, not a pointless end, not an ashes-to-ashes and dust-to-dust, but a soaring and blinding gift snatched from eternity. The ultimate prize is to know that each new day’s challenge is meaningful and offered for use, that it must be taken to the bosom and it must be used – and to know this, to understand this is the one prize worthy as man’s goal and all mankind’s summit.

Reaction Time

Another terrorist attack, and it’s time for the well-rehearsed Typical Indian Reaction Drama to play itself all over again. There will be outraged home ministers describing the incident using the most fancy adjectives (horrific, barbarous, dastardly, reprehensible, audacious, ‘insidious’ and the like), foreign ministers assuring the press that at least this time around talks with Pakistan will be halted and ‘stern action will be contemplated against the perpetrators’, conscientious news channel editors ‘cutting through rhetoric’ and delivering ‘verdict’ on every politician and agency caught sleeping on the job right on our TV sets 24 by 7, not forgetting at intervals to remind us that we, the empowered citizens, can make a difference by sending an SMS or two to a five-digit number, and finally, there will also be the occasional jester or clown to lighten the mood of the Reaction Drama with his ingenious comments and sound bites. The jesters of 26/11, if we remember, were Messrs R.R. Patil and V.S. Achuthanandan, and this time, it is Uddhav Thackeray who seems to have made up his mind to hog the limelight for the whole of 2010, Khans and IPLs notwithstanding. How else does one justify his latest gag about the Pune blasts having occurred because of the police being diverted by the government to guard Shah Rukh Khan’s house? Assuming for an instant that there is an iota of logic in this statement of his, the obvious question that arises is why Shah Rukh Khan had to be given extra protection in the first place, but we do not ask this of Mr Thackeray, for by now we have come to accept his role as a political jester and react to his utterances likewise.

And what will we, the audience-participant of this Drama, do? We will ‘follow’ the developments on the TV as informed citizens, send that occasional SMS or two, or in keeping with the latest fad, ‘tweet’ our opinions into cyberspace (wherever that is) which will largely revolve around wondering what our Agni missiles are doing in their silos when there is work to be done on the other side of the border. Last time around, candle-light vigils were in vogue, but this time perhaps the incident is not big enough to warrant one. After all, 9 deaths are not the same as 190, and our reaction must be commensurate with the death toll. Once the appropriate period of anger and restlessness at being unable to change things is over, we retire from the show and get back to the grind, while our conscientious news editor resumes his discussion of oil prices, fiscal deficit and Padma awards. A country of 1.1 billion moves on, minus 9.

We, as a nation, people and government alike, have learnt to tame our shock and grief and outrage in proportion to the death toll. This is something that I find profoundly disturbing, for it betrays our impatience with the problems of our country, and our ignorance of their nature. Every time something sensational like a bomb blast takes place, we hanker for more drama and more action, and when we see that anything along the lines of a war is not in the offing, we throw down the TV remote, curse the decision-makers, and move on to seek excitement elsewhere. What we look for in the TV sets and newspapers is sensation and not solution. It is but obvious to the meanest intelligence that most terrorist attacks happening in our country are coordinated and carefully planned, and the ultimate masterminds of each are the same individuals with the same convictions, loyalties and patronage. Be that as it may, it is not easy for India to put an end to all this at one go. To begin with, our internal security was never of the same level as those countries which have been able to curb terrorism effectively. We are only just beginning to tighten up the security system, and in a country like ours, it takes time. Like a five-day crash course in slimming which only looks good in ads but never really works out, India’s security and intelligence can not come to par with that of America’s overnight. We will have to pay for the intervening period with many more attacks and many more lives. Instead of knee-jerk reactions, we should learn to accept our limitations and get on with the hard task of setting things right and learning from mistakes.

One such knee-jerk reaction is Mr Chidambaram’s ruling out intelligence failure as a cause of the Pune attack. This is not expected of a minister of his caliber and I can not help but wonder if he is trying to imply that he knew the precise time and location of the attack beforehand, and that the intelligence did not fail, but rather something else did, which prevented him from accosting the plotters of the attack in spite of having identified them, or defusing the bomb in spite of being aware that it had been planted at the cafeteria! One does not doubt the minister’s intentions or integrity, but he should own up to the fact that despite his efforts, his intelligence agencies could not prevent the incident and that would be a perfectly acceptable statement. We on our part and particularly our ‘voices of conscience’ in the media must realize that as home minister of India, his is one of the most difficult jobs in the continent, and that he can not be expected to work miracles.

Over the grand entrance archway in the North Block of Lutyens’ Delhi which houses Mr Chidambaram’s home ministry and other important ministries, there is inscribed a famous aphorism attributed to the 19th century English writer C.C. Colton. The Raj-era architects of the building, in keeping with the aspirations of their race, built the portal so high that the writing above can hardly be noticed by the busy bureaucrats and ministers crossing underneath with too much to occupy their minds. The building was designed as a hall of power, as it is till date, but what the inscription reads is very humbling and worth pondering:

“Liberty will not descend to a people; a people must raise themselves to liberty; it is a blessing that must be earned before it can be enjoyed.”

It is imperative not only for the powerful few who pass beneath this inscription, but also for the countless others who bring them to power to understand its meaning and realize that a lot of work needs to be done, many sleepless nights to be endured, many fights to be fought, and sadly, many lives to be lost before we can earn our liberty from those who hold it hostage. Our greatness as a people will lie in accomplishing this task silently, with least tears shed and fewer fingers pointed.

One in 1,250,000

Very recently, around 30 new species were discovered in the rainforests of Ecuador, amongst them being a see-through frog and a tiny eraser-sized gecko. At the same time, an incredible species of crab, with shell resembling the surface of a strawberry, was discovered off the coast of Taiwan. (Click here, and also here to see the images.) New species are being discovered every day, and it goes to show how ignorant we are of their existence, just as the geckos and crabs are of our. The world never fails to astound us with the range of its inventory, and every new form of life discovered offers us cause to reflect on our own place in this chaotic hodge-podge of wigglers, walkers, fliers, jumpers, creepers and crawlers.

We are one out of a known 1,250,000 species of animals on this planet. We are by no means the strongest among these, nor are we the fastest, largest or the tallest. We can’t jump high enough and we can not fly. If we were to be randomly placed on the earth, we would in all likeliness die, for three-quarters of the surface is hostile towards us. Even aesthetically, I believe we fail to impress. We have a dull skin colour, and we don’t have stripes or spots or streaks to show off. Even the fur that we have is an apology of sorts. In almost every sense therefore, we are a mediocre species. It is true that we too have a distinguishing characteristic, which is our brain, and which sets us apart from the others as the most intelligent species, capable of science and technology and civilization, but I suspect that this assumed unique status of ours is a delusion born out of provincialism. When our now-incomplete inventory of life in the universe shall be updated, we may just find ourselves mediocre on this count as well.

But mediocrity is not an uplifting feeling. Surely there must be something that makes us significant, and gives us a sense of destiny and a grand purpose? Perhaps there is, if we choose it to be. Our intelligence makes us the most powerful species on the planet, and power is deadly in the hands of the mediocre. Our significance lies in being able to tame this power and use it for good things. Ensuring that our planet continues to trudge along with all its passengers intact is one such good thing that is within our power.  Our destiny is to speak for the planet and all its inmates, and whenever there is troubleshooting to be done, it is upon us to do it on behalf of the planet. We are thus a ‘spokes-species’ and not a ‘master-species’. The latter does not exist, and it is better that we do not view ourselves as one.

Great men have said greater things on the ‘destiny’ or ‘role’ of homo sapiens as a species on Earth and in the universe. Some of them have been carried away to the extent of conceit. However, a humble, yet prescient role has been described by H G Wells in his Outline of History. He calls man the ‘student-teacher of the universe’. No epithet could be truer than this, for we are an enquiring species after all, and we pass on our understanding and knowledge of the universe to our fellows, for them to pursue it further. Gathered under man’s leadership, says Wells, “Life, for ever dying to be born afresh, for ever young and eager, will presently stand upon earth as upon a footstool, and stretch out its realm amidst the stars.

These are, admittedly, lofty and poetic words meant for a species, and may fail to resonate with the individual member of that species who nevertheless finds himself an insignificant character lost in a grand drama. What, after all, is his worth in the here and now of space and time? Homo sapiens may go on to fulfill its destiny without his participation also. For him, the words of another such lost but curious individual called Albert Einstein may offer some solace. Though spoken for ‘each of us’, we may find a greater meaning in them if meant for our species as a whole:

Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that we are here for the sake of others; above all, for those on whose smile and well-being our own happiness depends; and also for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy. Many times a day I realize how much my own outer and inner life is built upon the labors of others, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received and am still receiving.”

These words undoubtedly give a measure of the man who spoke them, and hopefully also of the mediocre species that he represented.

“No question now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” George Orwell, Animal Farm

Not very long ago, a stray and helpless penguin wandered into my farm (not that I have much of a farm, whatever I once possessed now overgrown due to neglect), and I was encouraged to adopt it. Assuming for a moment that somebody might actually consider adopting such a bird, I found myself wondering what one is expected to do with an adopted and clueless penguin on the premises. Since I am not a regular on FV (Farmville, in case you were thinking of Face Value), I do not know the answer, but I am intrigued by the colossal popularity of this game. Day in and day out, my now-decadent farm is being paid courtesy visits by lost penguins, disoriented calves, lonely brown cows and the lot, and I am being increasingly urged upon to adopt all of them in a gesture of solidarity with the animal kingdom. I am thoroughly fascinated by this game, and FV-ers will bear with me as I put forward the following comprehensive 5-point theory to explain its popularity.

Farmville is so popular because:

  1. It allows you to psychologically repent for some of the carbon that you have been belching by indulging in an agrarian utopia and turning to your roots.
  2. It allows you to play havoc with geography and geology and scale to your mind’s content. (My friend tells me that he has rivers and mountains within his “farm”, and if you are diligent enough, you can eventually turn your farm into the gardens of Versailles, and still have cows and chicken.)
  3. It allows you to rear flavour-specific cows. Depending on your preference of milk, you can have Brown Cows (choco-milk), Pink Cows (Strawberry Milk) and I guess the regular white Vanilla cows. What can be more desirable than this? Perhaps the prospect that a brown cow will mate with a pink bull to give you offspring that will in turn generate readymade two-in-one ice cream.
  4. It is a very intellectually stimulating game that appeals to the grey cells in the brain.
  5. It is an excessively stupid game that appeals to the void spaces therein.

Whatever be the reasons, my hats are off (or rather hat is off) to the creator, if at least for his sheer ingenuity. (I mean, you’ve got to have something in your head to come up with the idea of brown cows delivering choco-milk in situ !)

Cast off the Veil

I have, before this, spoken of the eventual irrelevance of ‘religion’ in the affairs of the human species. It may not seem to be near at hand and neither is it, but I believe its gradual marginalization is a historical trend, and it must die out ultimately when men will have no use for it.  Surprisingly, its staunchest proponents are the ones who perceive this clearly, and never cease to find out absurd ways and means to stem this inexorable tide. The plea before the Indian Supreme Court by a section of the Muslim community to allow veiled women to be photographed (with veils on) for voter’s ID cards is one such example of absurdity and desperation. (Click here for the story.) The Supreme Court has rightly dismissed such pleas with the comment that those Muslim women who do not wish to be seen by men need not come out and vote. No matter what its origins may be, the burqa system is a blot on the seemingly liberal character of our society, and far from being a symbol of faith, it is today a glaring symbol of oppression of women. What can be worse, those who support this depravity do so on the grounds of religion, something which is above and beyond any debate.

While it can not be ignored that in some ‘liberated’ Muslim societies where burqas have been banned, women have themselves come forward protesting this ban and asserting their right to sport that particular piece of clothing as a symbol of their faith, I still believe this has been more out blind belief in religious diktat rather than prudence or reason. (The Nobel Prize-winning writer Orhan Pamuk’s novels portray the pro-burqa movement by women in Ataturk’s secular Turkey.) Whatever these women may be fighting for, they are doing little to further the cause of the millions of women who are being subjected to emotional as well as physical torture behind the shadows of the burqa.

Coming back to India, we have a society which has ‘given to itself’ a constitution, which in turn guarantees it the right to freely profess, practise or propagate any religion, subject to public order, morality and health. By this token, an instrument of religion like the burqa which is blatantly immoral in as much as it encourages oppression of women and denies them another fundamental right, that of free expression, ought to be declared as an infringement upon the constitution and comprehensively banned along the lines of other social evils like Sati and untouchability.

There was a time not too long ago in our nation’s history when Indians across religious lines came together to cast off and burn pieces of clothing that had become a symbol of oppression. These were the foreign-manufactured clothes, and their mass burning became a rallying point for the Swadeshi movement and the fight against British rule in India. We may have won that fight, but we are yet to win another one in which once again a piece of clothing has come to symbolize institutionalized oppression against women in our society. Once again, we must cast it off and burn it, not just symbolically, but for good measure. The initiative rests with our brothers and sisters in the Muslim community. They have the option of perpetuating this social evil under the guise of religion, or casting it off once and for all and revealing the truly liberal face of India to the world. Theirs indeed is the historic moment, either to seize or to let pass idly.

Pope Benedict XVI is all too eager to set his predecessor Pius XII on the fast track to sainthood. The latter is one of the most controversial of popes, particularly because of his alleged relations with the Nazi and Fascist regimes during the Second World War. The Vatican, under his papacy, is also suspected to have facilitated safe passages and refuges for Nazi war criminals. Many historians have written about Pius’s Nazi leanings, and many have also refuted these allegations. Amongst all this confusion, it is indeed difficult to get the true picture, more so because much of it is shrouded in wartime history. We can only believe one camp or the other, but the better thing to do would be to reserve our judgement. Pius’s complicity in the wartime excesses of Nazi Germany is not the real issue here. The point to be considered is that he is perceived as a very controversial figure, and by literary definition alone, not someone on whom the epithet of saint should apply. A saint, after all, is someone who is supposed to be above all controversies. Benedict’s undue eagerness to sanctify him is therefore showing him and the church he represents in a very bad light.

I would however like to question the very institution of sainthood and its relevance in the current times. The award of sainthood is based not on any achievements (though achievements might be a factor in considering the candidate for the award), but rather on the attestation of so-called ‘miracles’ performed by the candidate, either in life or in death. In my opinion, this is one of the greatest hoaxes to be perpetrated on thinking and reasoning minds. In an age in which science is helping us discover the most fantastic secrets about our world and to find solutions to the many problems which plague humanity, the Roman Catholic Church is openly propagating a pseudoscience which traces its origins to the age when rain was considered to be the tears of the rain-god, and the stars the angels’ daisy chain! What is more, one miracle gets you a ‘blessed’ status, while two make you a full-fledged ‘saint’. What can be more ridiculous than this? I wonder if three miracles can make you a demi-god, four a full-time practising god, and five a super-duper-god to beat all other gods! Even assuming for the sake of argument that these miracles are ‘divine’ interventions beyond our grasp, how can the testimony of mere mortals be sufficient to attest their veracity? For these reasons, I also do not see any reason to be upbeat about the prospective sainthood of Mother Teresa, howsoever genuine a social-worker she might have been. Before considering her, the Pope might as well consider P C Sorcar, and I’m sure there are thousands of people in Calcutta itself willing to testify in his favour, myself included!

The story of the human species has been one of a continuous conflict between ignorance and knowledge, the former manifested as religion and the latter as science. Ignorance is necessary in as much as it spurs the quest for knowledge. Thereafter, it must be discarded in favour of the revelations of that quest. With every step that we have taken forward in the scientific direction, religion has been progressively marginalized. With minor local fluctuations, this trend has been consistent so far. The obvious extrapolation of this in the foreseeable future leads us to pose a fundamental question to ourselves – that of the relevance or necessity of religion in human affairs. There are those who perceive this eventual showdown as a threat, and they are the ones who make an institution out of ignorance and champion the cause of religion like naïve candle-makers hoping to make a living in a land of eternal sunshine. Phenomena like ‘miracles’, ‘beatification’ and ‘canonization’ are products of this stupidity, and those who practice or profess them are stupid people.

The conflict between the miraculous and the natural, or between religion and science, is a futile one. “Science is only a Latin word for knowledge”, said the British mathematician Jacob Bronowski, “and knowledge is our destiny.” We, as an intelligent species, are destined to know more and more, and believe less and less. As far as miracles go, my thoughts are best expressed by Joseph Conrad in The Shadow Line:

“All my moral and intellectual being is penetrated by an invincible conviction that whatever falls under the dominion of our senses must be in nature and, however exceptional, cannot differ in its essence from all the other effects of the visible and tangible world of which we are a self-conscious part. The world of the living contains enough marvels and mysteries as it is—marvels and mysteries acting upon our emotions and intelligence in ways so inexplicable that it would almost justify the conception of life as an enchanted state. No, I am too firm in my consciousness of the marvelous to be ever fascinated by the mere supernatural which (take it any way you like) is but a manufactured article, the fabrication of minds insensitive to the intimate delicacies of our relation to the dead and to the living, in their countless multitudes; a desecration of our tenderest memories; an outrage on our dignity.”

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