Wednesday, July 27, 2016

‘First Boys’ of Proud Kashmir: Is that a reason enough to celebrate?

Sheikh Fayaz Ahmad
 Bibi Ishrat Hassan

Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

This small commentary is in reaction to an ongoing debate echoing loud through the columns of various local dallies in Kashmir related to the future of valley youth. While some “established” columnists have started touting the presence in foreign universities, of a handful of Kashmiri students hailing from few elite families and portraying it as something like ‘Kashmir at its zenith of achievement’. However, this drama of ‘Kashmir Shining’ is grossly overlooking and overshadowing the real prosaic picture of Kashmir. Is this spectacle of ‘elite success’ a deliberate design to ignore the dead present and dark future of millions of poor Kashmiri youngsters who are condemned to an unceasing struggle with the unfair institutional barriers erected and strengthened  by state and its elite masters ? Celebrating the success of few individuals hailing from certain elite families and applauding their “achievements” by overlooking the cobweb of deprivation and disempowerment the majority of Kashmiri youth finds itself enmeshed in, is certainly an intellectual blooper, a joke and a misleading discourse. Which generation are our columnists referring to in their articles as future change agents? As per our understanding, these are a handful of boys and girls whom the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has appropriately referred to as the “First boys” and “First girls” owing to their lineage with the privileged families, thereby having had an opportunity of studying in London, Germany and other expensive places around the Globe. Aptly, reflected in their book An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions by Sen and Dreze and reasonably relevant to this ongoing misleading discourse is that “the privileged by and large do very well to their credit, they typically don’t waste opportunities. Their success comes, first, in the educational establishments themselves, and then in the world at large. The Country then celebrates with abandon the ‘nation’s triumphs’…Meanwhile the last boys, and particularly the last girls, can’t even read or write, not having had the opportunity of any kind of decent education”.
We ask, though politely, what about the millions of children who had not the advantage of being born in ‘royal echelons’ and are liable to go off-track without a capability of utilizing their talent in the hostile environment of the society they are a part of? What about the small, subaltern and underprivileged families who live a stressed life and can’t afford Convent/Biscoe brand of education, let alone the traditional Delhi wali padhayi or Washington stamped education’? We argue that through various tantalizing techniques, the elite in nexus with the state have irresponsibly sapped all of the intellectual capacity and have wasted the creative energy the underprivileged and underdog posses. Rather than trying to strengthening these threads each one of which is essential to the weaving of the social fabric, they have been pushed to squalor where they can barely recognize their innate capability.
The public intellectuals who should have been reflecting upon the social reality of dismally falling standard of public education in Kashmir ironically have resorted to a rhetoric by which they are sweeping the misery of majority under the red-carpet of the high accomplishments of an elite minority. Shall this scenario make for an assumption that these intellectuals and known columnists have never bothered to know the truth of our society or they are intentionally avoiding to reveal the factual scenario?  But we must realize that we are avoiding, at our own peril, the discussion about our universities, colleges and schools that are churning out an army of useless graduates without any market and non-market value. Who shall give voice to those voiceless, unsung and unheard Edisons and Einsteins living in oblivion in the peripheries and suffering because of the inimical tactics of the rich politics?

Going to USA and Tokyo is not a bad thing, we, like Sen and Dreze want to make it clear here that we have nothing against these First boys and First girls of Kashmir. We welcome their “making Kashmir proud” but what should be avoided is judging the overall performance of a ‘generation’ by cherishing the performance of minor elite, and ignoring the rest. Education, as it appears in Kashmir is right of everyone; everyone seems to be going to school or college but going to USA and Biscoe has always been the privilege of the selected few. Inequality, injustice and inhumane treatment of the financially poor classes is presenting a horrendous picture of Kashmir; a yawning gulf between the rich and poor is clearly visible in Kashmir and that is what we all should mourn. Discrimination, corruption, nepotism and favoritism by some kleptocrats have pushed the masses into a cobweb of inhumanness, a trap of poverty. Politics, education and decent employment is increasingly becoming the right of the elite. The subaltern, poor are mere small vegetables overshadowed by the big ones in a garden called Kashmir. Buttressing the arguments further, one can even refer to the recent trend of our so called “young turks” joining Indian politics too. Who are these young turks, if one may again ask this question politely. The answer will  same- our globally exposed elite fellows, who have managed to study in the west and have now come to dominate and capture income generating institutions back in valley, which they know are inherently mired with corruption and are great green pastures. This trend of rich joining the politics of the poor (politically) for expropriating the resources of the society (as we have seen in the past) is again somewhere closing the doors for our local Abraham Lincolns. You necessarily have to be filthily rich to join even an established political forum. These coercive and ‘extractive institutions’, where unfair- rules of the game are  explicitly being decided by certain elite individuals thus leaving behind a nation in misery, poverty, inequality and trauma are well in place in Kashmir too. The need of the time thus is not to celebrate the success of few, not to show infatuation for glitz and glamour rather to encourage inclusive institutions, which in return will help create a level playing field for all of us. It is time to descend from the ivory towers to face the ground reality and should fight for a just and fair Kashmir devoid of opportunistic trends and hackneyed discussions. 

Make innovation, not science, Kashmir’s focus

Let me begin with a small quote of Albert Einstein, which expressively summarizes the quintessence of this article here, ‘The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift’. This quote of Einstein no doubt finds universal acceptance, it fits more to our settings however. Kashmir, as many would claim is seen as a place where ingenuity, creativity and ingenious thinking forms an important ingredient of daily life, is but, slowly and subtly converted into an addled valley; high on rhetoric, low on creativity. We are told that universities, fundamental science and hard-core research alone will unleash ‘another’ industrial- revolution after Europe here and every boost to our ‘cold, anonymous and uncaring technicians’ will in return solve all global ills. Wearing white aprons’, attending regular lectures, we are made to believe our ‘scientists’ are busy creating a society bereft of all diseases and hospitals. To put it differently, formal mode of knowledge production is seen as a panacea for all our difficulties, an elixir to our economic and socio-woes.  Seldom, are we encouraged to question the relevance and social-reliability of this rote-learning, hardly ever we doubt the effectiveness of this science-churning graduate- machine. Wholeheartedly, we have embraced the dangerous part of it by overlooking the informal, local and indigenous knowledge systems.

This exercise of wittingly recognizing and rewarding ‘wrong heads and hands’ will not only take Kashmir back to the stone-age, but will in the long run devour its complete ‘existence’. It will not only dehumanize us, but will convert us all prosaic too.  No doubt knowledge is the future, ‘science’ is the solution, but the way we produce and ‘use’ it, certainly is not the correct way, it raises more questions and answers none.  Having said that, I am no way undervaluing the power of knowledge here, but how this ‘power’ could be efficiently realized, channeled and used is my contention here. Before explicating on the topic further, let me clear some more haze about the term ‘knowledge’ and ‘science’ first. My reference to science does not imply attributing a special status to it, because many of us even today would agree with Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin's brilliant colleague, who spoke of science “as being nothing more than trained common sense”. For that matter, Nietzsche's claim that “science, with its reductionism and materialism, has deprived man of his special status” is still relevant in today’s context.  Science, no doubt is about ideas, is codified and in prescriptive form, is actually a small component of knowledge itself. Knowledge on the other hand includes both prescriptive and the propositional. To put it in a layman’s language, it includes both the science and everything else which is not included in the ambit of science. Without divulging much into this unsettled debate of what is science and what is not science?, I would rather like to couch my arguments on a famous Harvard University Professor’s research, Steven Shapin who in his seminal work ‘A Social History of Truth (1994)’ argued that “the gentlemanly constitution of scientific truth” in seventeenth –century England is explicitly grounded in an elite perspective.”  He contended that the birth of modern science occurred when gentlemen began to appropriate artisan’s knowledge and started to systematize it. Further, many historians, economists and sociologists have gathered strong and sufficient evidences, which prove that the much touted ‘industrial revolution’ in Europe owe little to basic science. Edmund Phelps, the 2006 Noble Prize economist would argue that the scientific advancements and headline innovations were not the real driving forces behind the explosion of economic knowledge in the 19th century. The economic paradigm shift was made possible through grassroots indigenous innovations with no or little scientific knowledge. Some notable examples in this regard include, James Watt, Richard Roberts and John Mercer. Without reading any science, they transformed whole Europe with their powerful innovations. Look for instance, this unlettered Richard Roberts who never studied science, went on inventing the self-acting mule in 1825, which automated the spinning machines invented in the 1770 and 1780s and became the backbone of the British cotton industry. Similarly, Lancashire’s most successful colorists and dye specialist John Mercer, was inducted into the Royal Society of England without cracking any science puzzle. To be precise, fundamental science alone cannot lead to any development.  

Now, let us come back to Kashmir. We have hundreds of local self-made inventors, unlettered and unsung who on daily basis with their creative ideas are trying subvert the formal rules, challenging the system and creating value out of trash. With no resources, no support, their innovations are creating diverse values ranging from social to environmental. At the same time, with huge resources our universities occupied in the paradigm of formal science seldom produce any substantial results. We have never come across any serious engagement between our universities and the surroundings in which they operate. Our apple, saffron, shawl, walnut, producing communities are rarely engaged by our universities. A big void is visible between our universities and the settings in which they operate. Regrettably, when we meet our ‘self-made inventors’ here, very few people are around to admire their ingenuity. They die, unheard and unsung. No doubt, of lately, some institutions, like EDC, GIAN, University of Kashmir has attempted to create a platform for our own Edison’s, but scaling up these innovators need a system support. Scaling up innovation is not one organization game; it needs actor-sector involvement. See, for example, Mushtaq Ahmad Dar, who is a serial innovator is struggling to commercialize his walnut cracking and pole climbing device. Rafiq Ahmad Ahanger, the genius innovator barely received any support from the state. So is the case with other hundreds of our Edison’s who hold the key for a new dawn are infrequently appreciated by the state. Instead of encouraging these innovators many of them ended up landing in various jails. In 1977, an innovator from Shalimar, Ghulam Mohammad Parry, was awarded patent for a period of 14 years vide patent no 146031 dated 26/03/1977 for an improved stove. Trying scale up his stove, he took a meagre amount of Rs.3000 as a seed money from the local Industries department. With no knowledge of the market and no support from the universities his innovation eventually failed to reach the market. With the result, he was unable to repay the ‘seed money’ and was sent to the Central Jail of Kashmir during the same time.  Much alike is the story of Ghulam Nabi Ahangar alias Naba Kamdi, who established a radio station at his home in Dialgam village Islamabad was harassed by state security agencies for creating out of the box solutions. 

If fighting poverty, diseases, inequality, unemployment forms the state agenda, ignoring informal sector innovators would be a great policy blunder. Local Science and Technology department whose role, mission and objectives we fail to understand thus needs a complete overhaul. In tandem with Kashmir University’s EDC and GIAN, they should take a lead role in exploring all the options to reach out to the local innovators. Banks, successful entrepreneurs, policy makers, lawyers and media be engaged for a long term collaboration. Innovations, let us be clear here, never happens in isolation. It needs an ecosystem of right institutions and a strong state patronage. 

Author is PhD researcher at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, JNU, New Delhi and co-editor of ‘Informal Sector Innovations: Insights from the Global South’ a book published by Rutledge, Taylor and Francis UK. For any kind of assistance with regards to any innovation please contact 9906485399.