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Saturday, 18 November 2017

IITs Have Not Failed India. India Has Failed the IITs.

IITs Have Not Failed India. India Has Failed the IITs.


IITs Have Not Failed India. India Has Failed the IITs.

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 17 November, 2017


Abstract

It has long been the fashion in India to take pot shots at the elite educational technical institutes founded by Pandit Nehru, the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), and refer to them as “White Elephants”. The complaint often raised against the IITs is that, despite the huge investment by the government in educating the students of IITs, IITians either go abroad for greener pastures or leave engineering altogether to take up careers in business administration, software, or finance.

But the reality is that successive governments since Independence never provided the economic growth needed to create the opportunities that would tempt graduates from such institutes to remain in India and/or continue in engineering and contribute their skills to manufacturing projects that would benefit the nation.


I was impelled to write this post after reading an article titled “How IITs Turned from Nehru’s Vision of Technology to Catering Engineers for MNCs.” This article is yet another screed against the IITs and their perceived failures, written, incidentally, by two humanities professors at an IIT.

This article is wrong on so many counts that I don’t even know where to begin. But I am going to try. But before I get into details, a general comment. It appears the authors are leftist thinkers, who believe that a person should happily engage in a low-paying job “for the benefit of the country” even if they can get higher-paying jobs. Leftist thinking is fine in theory, but does not work in practice, because everyone wants a better life.

A disclosure before I begin listing the problems with this article and, more generally, with criticisms of the IITs: I studied for my B.Tech. in IIT Bombay, almost 30 years ago. I continue to work in engineering, and returned to India after many years in the USA.

List of Logical Flaws in This Article

    What was the mandate of the IITs? To produce high-quality B.Tech. engineers. Did they fulfil that mandate? Absolutely. The fact that they are so highly sought after in India and abroad is testimony to the fact that IIT produces the best B.Tech. graduates in the world.

  1. The title itself is flawed: “How IITs Turned from Nehru’s Vision of Technology to Catering Engineers for MNCs.”

    I see nothing wrong in an engineering institute providing engineers for MNCs. The MNCs are located in India; they provide employment to Indians; they pay taxes and help the economy. What’s the problem here? Also, many MNCs work in technology. Does Nehru’s vision of technology not include technology for MNCs? Do we know? Did anyone ask him?

  2. Saying that the IITs have failed in their mandate.

    This is just plain wrong. The IITs have not failed in their mandate. What was the mandate of the IITs? To produce high-quality B.Tech. engineers. (Building dams, power plants, and industrial production units is what B.Tech. graduates, by and large, do. There is some role for MS and PhD graduates too, at the higher levels — innovating new products and processes — but the bulk of the basic work is done by B.Techs.) Did they fulfil that mandate? Absolutely. The fact that they are so highly sought after in India and abroad is testimony to the fact that IIT produces the best B.Tech. graduates in the world. Graduate study departments in the US don’t think twice before offering an admission and a scholarship to a student from IIT (unless there is a higher-ranked IITian competing with him/her). In India as well, companies love to hire IITs, whether in manufacturing or software. IIMs love to admit IITians into their management programs. So in practically every post-graduate opportunity you look at, IIT graduates are in high demand. This proves conclusively that IITs have not failed the country in their mandate of producing high-quality engineering graduates.

    It is another matter that most of them are not engaged in the production of dams, power plants, and industrial production units. But the reasons for that are not the failures of the IIT system, but the failures of the government.

    It is another matter that most of them are not engaged in the production of dams, power plants, and industrial production units. But the reasons for that are not the failures of the IIT system, but the failures of the government, as we shall see.

  3. “IITs have not developed the scientific temper of the masses.”

    Where did that come from? IITs have only one job: processing highly-qualified students into well-trained engineers. Where does the question of the “masses” come here? This is nonsense. It is absolutely not the job of the IITs to educate the masses on anything.

  4. IITs do not impart adequate humanities training.

    I can see where this is coming from. The authors are humanities professors in IIT. It is reasonable for them to want more humanities training — it shows that they love their subjects. I am all for humanities education and a more rounded education. But consider the humanities training that most Indian engineering colleges provide: zero. Relative to most of them, IITs impart a lot of humanities training. I studied at an IIT, and I remember at least 4 or 5 humanities classes. Very good ones. But it is not easy to increase the humanities offerings. IITs have a lot of subject material in engineering to teach, and I think this is all that is possible in 4 years. I would like to know how much they teach in Universities abroad for an engineering major.

  5. Caste attitudes of students are not shaped solely by studying a few classes in a University. They are nurtured through 16 years at home listening to your parents telling you who you should socialize with and who you should not, and why we are superior to those other people.

  6. “Failed to bring in structural changes to overcome the hurdles of a hierarchical society because of the marginalised position they have accorded their humanities and social science (HSS) departments”

    Wow, can we load some more on the plate of the IITs??? Now the job of the Indian Institutes of Technology is also to fix the caste system in India? Really? 4000 graduates every year, by studying more humanities in IIT, are going to end up as highly enlightened human beings and will not be casteist?? I’m really sorry to say this, but what are we smoking here?

    Caste attitudes of students are not shaped solely by studying a few classes in a University. They are nurtured through 16 years at home listening to your parents telling you who you should socialize with and who you should not, and why we are superior to those other people.

    I am all for teaching more humanities in IIT to improve the character of students, but let us have realistic expectations.

  7. I graduated in 1990. My chemical engineering class was 55 strong. Of that, 38 decided to go abroad to do their MS. This was pre-liberalization. Some others went for management. The number that actually worked in India in chemical engineering was abysmally low. Maybe 10 or less. And you think 1990s liberalization was the problem.

  8. “Economic policymaking since the 1990s became less methodological and more opportunistic. The policies were framed to facilitate the growing number of opportunities in the service sector, particularly IT and finance. As a result, the economy jumped from agriculture to services without strengthening commodity-producing sectors, including agriculture and manufacturing.”

    The howlers don’t seem to end. So, the problem started only in the 1990s? Until then, we had plenty of manufacturing jobs for IIT graduates? They could make a fantastic living in India?

    Let me tell you something. I graduated in 1990. My chemical engineering class was 55 strong. Of that, 38 decided to go abroad to do their MS. This was pre-liberalization. Some others went for management. The number that actually worked in India in chemical engineering was abysmally low. Maybe 10 or less. And you think 1990s liberalization was the problem.

  9. “Economic policymaking chose to fall in line with the neoclassical framework based on utilitarian thought, which helped strengthen a dream of high-paying jobs and luxurious life in this sector.”

    And what exactly is wrong with dreaming about high-paying jobs and a luxurious life — in any sector?

  10. The media just reports. If an IIT graduate gets a one crore rupee job offer, is that not news? It is a news-worthy story, and so the media is reporting it.

  11. “While it is true that the service sector contributes a large part of the GDP, it is also detrimental to the growth of agriculture and manufacturing.”

    This is just plain wrong. The three sectors are independent of each other.

  12. “Because of a long-term stagnation in agriculture and manufacturing, these students are unable to find any decent jobs there.”

    Finally! One correct point. You know what you do in that case? You fix that stagnation. Do not, instead, tell students not to take up a well-paying service sector job because a stagnant manufacturing sector needs engineers.

  13. Everyone in India wants one and only one thing: jobs with good money. Nobody studies engineering because they have a passion for science and engineering. They don’t even know what engineering is when they take that entrance examination. Not just IITs, but at any engineering college. Why do they apply for engineering colleges? Because in this miserable country, it is so hard to get a job, and so parents tell their kids, “if you don’t want to starve, get an engineering or a medicine degree.”

  14. “Media outlets further the craze by reporting on the highest packages offered to graduating students on the front-page, putting the pressure back on students to pursue education according to what jobs they think they should hold.”

    The howlers just keep adding. Now it is the media’s fault? The media just reports. If an IIT graduate gets a one crore rupee job offer, is that not news? It is a news-worthy story, and so the media is reporting it. Why are you shooting the messenger?

  15. “This resulted in the IITs emerging as the ultimate destination for employment-seekers than for those who had a passion for science or engineering.”

    My head is beginning to ache here at the lack of insight being displayed again and again. Okay, let’s get something clear. Everyone in India wants one and only one thing: jobs with good money. Nobody studies engineering because they have a passion for science and engineering. They don’t even know what engineering is when they take that entrance examination. Not just IITs, but at any engineering college. Why do they apply for engineering colleges? Because, in this miserable country, it is so hard to get a job, and so parents tell their kids, “if you don’t want to starve, get an engineering or a medicine degree.”

    There is zero role for passion in choosing your major in IIT. And this has nothing to do with the neoliberal policies of India since 1992. It has always been that way.

    And let me tell you one more thing about IITs, since “passion” is being mentioned. Do you know how students choose their fields of specialization in IIT? They look at what field they can get based on their rank in the entrance examination. They hear through the grapevine, through career magazines, etc., that some professions are more in demand in the job market than others, and so they go for that. They give their top three branch preferences based on how employable they will be in four years' time, and how much money they will make. Then they accept what they can get with their rank. There is zero role for passion in choosing your major in IIT. And this has nothing to do with the neoliberal policies of India since 1992. It has always been that way. It was that way when I entered IIT in 1986.

    At this point, I really feel compelled to add something. I am amazed that these things are not obvious to professors who live and work in an IIT — that they still do not know what students are thinking, despite all that experience. It is reflective of the ivory-tower approach of these professors.

  16. An IIT degree provides a good job. People want to go to a coaching class to improve their chances of getting in. There is a need, and someone steps in to supply that need. This is the market working. What’s the problem here?

  17. “The menace of coaching classes.”

    Oh. My. God. Here is another ignorant attempt at shooting the messenger. An IIT degree provides a good job. People want to go to a coaching class to improve their chances of getting in. There is a need, and someone steps in to supply that need. This is the market working. What’s the problem here? Of course, they will charge for their services. Let me guess what your problem is: poor people and marginalized people cannot afford to go to coaching classes. And therefore, nobody should go to coaching classes. Classic leftist thinking.

  18. “The decision to hike the fee from Rs 90,000/year to Rs 2 lakh/year smacks of a design to further divide the society on the lines of caste, class and gender.”

    My understanding of a white elephant is a useless, expensive thing. Well, if it is expensive, does it not stand to reason that its costs should be recovered?

    Really? I thought that somewhere early in this article, it was mentioned that the IITs were “white elephants.” Well, my understanding of a white elephant is a useless, expensive thing. Well, if it is expensive, does it not stand to reason that its costs should be recovered?

    For decades, the complaint I have heard from most people is that IITians are getting a free ride, that they pay such low tuition for a world-class education, and then leave India to work in the USA, or join management schools, where they do not use their engineering training, etc. Now, finally, the IITs respond to these complaints and raise the tuition rates so that IITians do not get a free ride — and you are still not happy!

  19. Industry is notoriously tight-fisted with their money for long-term R&D at Universities, whether in the US or in India.

  20. “Indian business houses — unlike their counterparts from around the world — rarely funded research and development at the IITs or, for that matter, at any institutes of higher learning.”

    Not just Indian business houses. Industry anywhere in the world. I have worked in US academia and US MNCs, and I can tell you, this conclusion is wrong. Industry is notoriously tight-fisted with their money for long-term R&D at Universities, whether in the US or in India — though Indian industry is indeed worse. I would never gamble a PhD student’s thesis on an industry-driven project if I were a professor in the US. Too risky. The main reason is that industry has extremely short-term vision; they will generally not fund long-term projects (and I know this from personal experience working at one of the top R&D companies in the world, with an annual R&D budget of $1.7 billion). They are also paranoid about retaining intellectual property, and would not want the student or the professor to publish the results (exceptions do exist, but this is the rule) — which makes it problematic for a student's thesis work, which must be public. The biggest source of research funding in the US for Universities is the government – NSF (National Science Foundation), DOE (Department of Energy), NIH (National Institutes of Health), DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), DOD (Department of Defense), etc. Not industry.

  21. Is it the authors’ contention that IIT graduates should only work for PSUs?

  22. “The appointment of business tycoons into the governing council of the institutes further indicates the wider influence of the neoliberal corporate influence on research and academics at the IITs.”

    Uhh...I thought the idea was for IIT graduates to help in “building huge dams, power plants and industrial production units – and so spearhead the technological force of the nation.” So why is it wrong to have people who are engaged in these activities on the board of the IITs? Or is it the authors’ contention that IIT graduates should only work for PSUs? Or that huge dams, power plants, and industry should only be operated by the government?

  23. You cannot force IIT graduates to build roads in Somalia.

  24. “Thus, it is evident that the institutes were primarily meant to produce quality engineers who would have a greater role to play in building not just a new India but also developing nations in Asia and Africa – as they were direly needed technical personnel to lead their societies.”

    This is a clear case of the authors freely extrapolating from what Nehru actually said to suit their political philosophies. From what they have quoted of Nehru, the late PM never said that the purpose of the IITs was to serve other countries in Asia or Africa. But maybe these professors think of India being a Cuba — just as Cuba used to send its doctors to other countries to help out, maybe they have visions of India sending its engineers to other countries to help out. One difference: the doctors in Cuba have no choice. It is a totalitarian country. India is a free country, and you cannot force IIT graduates to build roads in Somalia. In any case, this is just plain distortion of Nehru's thoughts.

    If IT is the rage of the day, it makes no sense to offer incentives to manufacture steel. A good economic policy needs to be opportunistic and driven by global trends.

    From their own article, all that Nehru is supposed to have said is this: “We take all the trouble to put up this expensive Institute and train up people here, and then, if we do not utilise the services of those people, then there is something wrong about the governmental apparatus or Planning Commission or whoever is supposed to deal with this matter.” So Nehru wanted India to utilize the engineers properly. He never said we should export them.

    Forget about sending Indian engineers to under-developed countries. Let us figure out how to use them properly in India.

  25. “Economic policymaking since the 1990s became less methodological and more opportunistic.”

    And this is a bad thing because …?? An alternative word for “opportunism” is “dynamism.” If IT is the rage of the day, it makes no sense to offer incentives to manufacture steel. A good economic policy needs to be opportunistic and driven by global trends.

  26. Until 1992, a factory owner could not aspire to increase his output even by 5% without the approval of the government. He could not create a new product without approvals that would need 20 different signatures.

  27. “These institutes were established with an express concern to advance the bubbling aspirations of post-Independence India’s historic tryst with the project of modernity.”

    Wonderful words, I must say. But what aspirations? Until 1992, a factory owner could not aspire to increase his output even by 5% without the approval of the government. He could not create a new product without approvals that would need 20 different signatures. It has taken decades to undo these harmful rules, and they still have not been all undone. What’s a person to aspire for?

  28. Under any circumstances, expecting IIT students (or students of any college or institute or University) to work without commensurate reward for the betterment of society, naively or otherwise, is insensitive and cruel.

  29. And, finally, the authors end with this gem: “Under such market-driven education policies and adverse circumstances, naively expecting IIT students to work for the betterment of society would not just be insensitive but also cruel.”

    Not just under market-driven policies. Under any circumstances, expecting IIT students (or students of any college or institute or University) to work without commensurate reward for the betterment of society, naively or otherwise, is insensitive and cruel.

    Working for the betterment of society, like patriotism, love for the country, or standing up for the national anthem, should come from within and not be forced. These things should not be expected. As Shakespeare says in The Merchant of Venice, “the quality of mercy is not strained.” Not just mercy. Loyalty, patriotism, love for country, etc. — none of these can be forced, and no government should attempt to coerce them out of its people, because such an attempt is futile.

The Real Diagnosis and Real Solutions

Now that I have said what’s wrong with this diagnosis of the IIT professors in their article, let me fill in the rest of the puzzle – what is the real diagnosis? What, if anything, is wrong with the IIT system? If something is wrong, what is the solution?

    Seeking a better life is not a crime.

    The real crime is that successive governments in India did not create better opportunities in India.

  1. Why have IITians being going abroad for ever? Simple. Because they could. Because they were so well-trained, they were in demand everywhere in the world. And you can get a better quality of life abroad than you can here. Seeking a better life is not a crime.

    The real crime is that successive governments in India did not create better opportunities in India.

    Everyone wants a better life. It’s not just IITians, by the way. People from NITs. People from private colleges. People from no-name colleges. People without engineering degrees. People with arts degrees. People with medicine degrees. Hawkers on the street. Everyone wants a better life. You get a better life in the USA. Almost everyone in India would love to leave India and go to the USA.

    What’s the solution? Fix India. Fix the Indian economy.

    Pandit Nehru had a great vision for creating institutes of higher learning – IITs, IIMs, etc., and institutions to serve the country – DRDO labs, HAL, etc. He also understood the need for Indians to cultivate a scientific temper, and did much to advance science in the new republic. But he failed to see the crucial missing piece. A good standard of living. It is folly to expect that people should want to live in misery for the good of the country. But Nehru suffered from this folly. After all, he was the man who told JRD Tata that he thought profit was a dirty word.

    It is not only IITians who rush abroad given a chance. When I was doing my MS and PhD in the US, there were plenty of students from colleges other than IITs there. None of them had any intention of going back to India. They are all happily working in the US today. This is not a problem with IITs. It is a problem with India.

    Pandit Nehru had a great vision for creating institutes of higher learning – IITs, IIMs, etc., and institutions to serve the country – DRDO labs, HAL, etc. He also understood the need for Indians to cultivate a scientific temper, and did much to advance science in the new republic. But he failed to see the crucial missing piece. A good standard of living. It is folly to expect that people should want to live in misery for the good of the country.

    But Nehru suffered from this folly. After all, he was the man who told JRD Tata that he thought profit was a dirty word.

    It started because of the command economy that started with Nehru but went out of control under Indira Gandhi. If you are producing 2000 top-class engineers each year, but they have to work in mind-numbing jobs in India because the government has chained all the companies to only produce those things that are covered in the five-year plan, do you really expect them to stay in India and just sign the muster every day with nothing to do?

    Do you know what the effect of those policies has been? No Indian company today knows anything about R&D. I’ve seen it in Indian manufacturing, so I know. Even today, 25 years since liberalization, Indian companies are finding it hard to compete against MNCs, because those companies come with established R&D operations, whereas Indian companies are finding R&D a huge challenge. For most of them, R&D only means a tax write-off. Even when they hire young engineers in their brand-new product design and analysis teams, the managers of those teams are paper-pushers with no experience in handling an R&D team. I have met young engineers who quit those jobs out of boredom and happily took up jobs in MNC R&D departments when they could get them. How do you expect to get IITians to work in Indian manufacturing when this is the state of things?

  2. What would the authors rather have the government do? Discourage the jobs in IT and finance? Disincentivize the only sectors in India that provide a decent wage and encourage people to live and work in India?

  3. It is interesting that one of the authors teaches economics, but fails to understand simple economics when he blames government policies facilitating the growing number of jobs in the service sector, particularly in IT and finance. What would the authors rather have the government do? Discourage the jobs in IT and finance? Disincentivize the only sectors in India that provide a decent wage and encourage people to live and work in India? If governments have encouraged the service sector since 1992, it is because they have understood (in a welcome break from the past) that, with the advent of computerization and economic liberalization, jobs were going to rapidly expand in IT and finance. I would congratulate the governments that were responsible in bringing in policies to benefit these sunshine sectors.

  4. If you want more IIT graduates to work in manufacturing, make it more profitable.

  5. If you want more IIT graduates to work in manufacturing, make it more profitable. Make companies pay better salaries to IIT graduates so that they will be tempted to drop those IT and finance jobs and work in engineering. How do you do that? By providing incentives to manufacturing, both local and global. By creating more high paying jobs in engineering by making India a destination for high-tech manufacturing. Not, as the authors seem to suggest, by discouraging the sectors that are booming.

  6. 70 years since independence, we should not have a shortage of educational institutions at all, from the primary level to a doctoral degree. Anyone wanting to study anything should be able to. Central governments have expanded the number of IITs, but they need to man them with quality faculty. Teaching standards should be greatly improved and constantly modified. Faculty improvement programs should be continuous. And communication training must be provided to faculty members to teach better.

  7. Increasing numbers of jobs in the service sector are only detrimental to the manufacturing sector if your manufacturing sector is stagnant. Make it more robust. The solution is not to fight over the size of your slice in the pie, but to make the pie bigger.

  8. The solution to coaching classes is that you should not have a shortage of good engineering institutions in the first place. 70 years since independence, we should not have a shortage of educational institutions at all, from the primary level to a doctoral degree. Anyone wanting to study anything should be able to. Once the shortage goes away, coaching classes will not be such a lucrative business and will not cost so much money. In any case, there will always be some engineering college one can get admitted to, even if not an IIT. Even when I graduated from IIT in 1990, IIT was not the only institute producing quality engineering graduates — I have been very impressed by many friends who never studied at an IIT.

    The number of IITs has also gone up significantly in recent years. But the government need to man them with quality faculty. Teaching standards should be greatly improved. Faculty improvement programs should be continuous. And communication training must be provided to faculty members to teach better. A lot of them are terrible teachers and terrible communicators. And by that I do mean English. The medium of education in an IIT, after all, is still English. So everyone teaching there should speak perfect and flawless English, so that language does not become an impediment in teaching and in communicating ideas. And they should teach the students to speak and write flawless English. We need to understand that the language of technology is English. Poor English comprehension among students from a vernacular or disadvantaged background unnecessarily sets them back because often they cannot follow what the professor is saying in class. Now that’s a job for the humanities faculty in IIT to do, if they really want to play a positive role and not carp from ivory towers.

  9. IITs are now focusing a lot on increasing research output. I personally believe this is misguided. We do not need more output in research. Our industry in India is timid and will not use any research ideas even if they are invented in IITs.

  10. Poor rankings in international lists of Universities. This is an absolutely worthless statistic. Our rankings among world Universities are low because our research output is low. As a consequence, IITs are now focusing a lot on increasing research output. I personally believe this is misguided. We do not need more output in research. Our industry in India is timid and will not use any research ideas even if they are invented in IITs. Research innovations will only benefit forward-thinking foreign companies, not Indian companies which have not even figured out how to spell R&D.

    I am not saying IIT professors should not spend time on R&D. By all means let the faculty do R&D if they can think of good ideas. All I am saying is that we should not obsess over them and should not obsess over these meaningless rankings, especially if it might mean a dilution of teaching standards or a loss of focus on our star products - the B.Tech. graduates.

  11. If we are talking about what India needs urgently, it is well-qualified graduates. IITs do a great job of it. They should create even more good B.Tech. students. The expansion of the IITs that has been happening for the last 10+ years in India is a good thing. And not just IITs. NITs and other colleges should also be expanded.

    But it is not about quantity alone. Most of our graduates, especially from the lower-level institutes in India, are unemployable. The real crisis in our educational system is not that we are not producing enough research papers each year, but that so many of our Bachelors degree holders are simply unemployable. We need to fix this.

  12. Create more quality engineering schools. Supply and demand will work, and fees will go down. That will also solve the problem for girl students and students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Currently there are too many restrictions on creating engineering schools.

  13. The problem of high fees acting as a barrier for poor students and girls. Create more quality engineering schools. Supply and demand will work, and fees will go down. That will also solve the problem for girl students and students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Currently there are too many restrictions on creating engineering schools. The system to create new Universities should be left completely free of permissions, etc., except for stringent quality checks and certification, so that demand and supply can fully equilibrate.

  14. But none of these will have any impact until there is a boom in manufacturing jobs; until governments start giving incentives to high-tech manufacturing in India so that there will be a market for the skills of all these well-trained graduates. The marketplace needs to be completely open to the world, forcing Indian manufacturing to adopt world-class standards in engineering. A combination of international and domestic engineering companies in stiff competition to produce world-class products, with business-friendly economic policies, will create the right atmosphere to retain the talent, not only of the IITs, but of all engineering colleges in India.

Concluding Thoughts

The “White Elephants” debate has been going on as long as I have been alive. It is a completely misguided debate, because it focuses on the wrong piece of the puzzle. The IITs have consistently delivered on the mandate of Pandit Nehru in their 66-year history by producing world-class Bachelors degree holders in different specializations of engineering and science. The reason these graduates have not ended up building the India of Nehru's dreams is encapsulated perfectly in Panditji's own speech at the first convocation of IIT Kharagpur, as quoted by the authors of this article. I have already quoted this, but it is worth re-reading:

“We take all the trouble to put up this expensive Institute and train up people here, and then, if we do not utilise the services of those people, then there is something wrong about the governmental apparatus or Planning Commission or whoever is supposed to deal with this matter. Such state of affairs can only be described as fantastically stupid because one trains people for certain ends and then wastes them, not even for a moment thinking in terms of the individual’s employment and his living, etc.”

— Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru

“We take all the trouble to put up this expensive Institute and train up people here, and then, if we do not utilise the services of those people, then there is something wrong about the governmental apparatus or Planning Commission or whoever is supposed to deal with this matter. Such state of affairs can only be described as fantastically stupid because one trains people for certain ends and then wastes them, not even for a moment thinking in terms of the individual’s employment and his living, etc.”

For 70 years, Indian governments, including Pandijti's own governments, have failed to fully create the circumstances needed to utilize the services of the graduates that the IITs have produced. They have failed to think “in terms of the individual's employment and his living, etc.,” to use Pandit Nehru's own words. The solution has been staring us in the face in the form of Panditji's own words, but we have not listened to them: “if we do not utilise the services of those people, then there is something wrong with the governmental apparatus…” Instead of focusing on better utilization, everyone has been focusing on whether the training of the graduates has been correct, and whether something is wrong with the IITs. Things have definitely improved since the liberalization of the economy in 1991-92, but much remains to be done. Until we become a prosperous country, we cannot reverse the brain drain.

For 70 years, Indian governments, including Pandijti's own governments, have failed to fully create the circumstances needed to utilize the services of the graduates that the IITs have produced. They have failed to think “in terms of the individual's employment and his living, etc.,” to use Pandit Nehru's own words. The solution has been staring us in the face in the form of Panditji's own words, but we have not listened to them: “if we do not utilise the services of those people, then there is something wrong with the governmental apparatus…” Instead of focusing on better utilization, everyone has been focusing on whether the training of the graduates has been correct, and whether something is wrong with the IITs.

India is a free country. If you are a graduate from an IIT, nobody can stop you from choosing to do management as your next step in your career; or to go abroad to the US to do a MS or a PhD if you can get admission to a University there; or to write the IAS exam and become a government collector, join the IAS, IPS, or IFS; join a software company; become an author or a musician; or even start a sweet shop. We in India cannot force people to do things against their will, as is possible in totalitarian states like Cuba. So, if the current situation bothers you, there are only three paths:

  1. Improve economic and business conditions in India to tempt those students to work in engineering in India.
  2. Raise the fees so that, even if they leave India or do not continue in engineering, you have not subsidized their education. This has already been done.
  3. Close down the IITs.

Most people would agree that option 3 is not very good. It is equivalent to throwing out the baby with the bathwater. And option 2 has already been implemented. As I have already argued elsewhere, the level of Rs. 90,000 per annum is already at par with what excellent private colleges like SASTRA provide at that rate. That only leaves us with one viable option to address the situation: option 1, improving the economic and business conditions in India. Until that happens, people should stop constantly moaning about the state of the IITs. The state of the IITs is good. In fact, if we had utilized the services of the IIT graduates for the last 66 years, nobody would have even minded the subsidized education.

For 66 years, we have been barking up the wrong tree.

As a final aside, if the kind of illogical thinking that characterizes the article written by these two IIT humanities professors creates educational and economic policy in this country, this is a cause for serious concern. It only highlights the need for common working people from all walks of life to enter the political and policy-making process, rather than vacate that space so that it can be occupied by career politicians and academics (as it is now), neither of whom knows what it is like to hold a real job or face real challenges of ordinary people.



Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

On the Ash Heap of History

On The Ash Heap of History


On The Ash Heap of History

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 07 November, 2017


Abstract

November 7, 2017, the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, should be a day of celebration — because the communist movement has not lasted 100 years. Every country that has experimented with communism has today effectively abandoned it.

Communism failed as a movement because it was accompanied by totalitarianism, oppression, large-scale murder, and suppression of all freedoms. The promise of a workers’ paradise was betrayed and replaced by a totalitarian dictatorship. This result is not the result of a faulty implementation of communism, but the inevitable result of a system where there are no corrective forces such as a democratic government, rule of law, freedom of speech, transparency, and accountability. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Capitalism has its faults, too, but these can be remedied as long as capitalism is accompanied by democracy, rule of law, and freedom of speech and expression. The nature of human beings cannot be changed, but if there is sufficient oversight and control over free-market capitalism, we can prevent abuse. Such mechanisms are absent in communism, and so it failed.

Even though communism failed as a form of government, the debate on the ideals on which it was founded and the threat it posed to capitalism have led to improvements in working conditions, safety in the workplace, and living wages for workers.

Indian communists need to start understanding that the dream they believe in is a failed ideology and has miserably flopped wherever it has been tried in the last 100 years. They need to realize that the very things they do in a free country like India would be impossible in the “utopia” they are recommending for others — a communist state. The people of India have realized the hollowness of communism and have steadily been rejecting communist parties at the polls.

Communism, truly, has been left on the ash heap of history.


A Historic Anniversary

Today, November 7, 2017, is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution — the movement that brought the first communist government into power as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

It should come as a tremendous relief to all of us that today, 100 years after that historic day, practically no country in the world actually follows communism in its original avatar.

The USSR was followed by several other countries. At its height, communism or some variant of it infected more than 27 countries for many years, including Afghanistan (14 years), Albania (47), Angola (17), Belarus (as part of the USSR) (71), Benin (14), Bulgaria (44), Cambodia (14), Congo-Brazzaville (22), Czechoslovakia (42), Ethiopia (17), East Germany (41), Hungary (41), Mongolia (67), Mozambique (15), Poland (44), Romania (42), Somalia (21), Russia (as part of the USSR) (74), Ukraine (as part of the USSR) (72), North Vietnam (31), South Yemen (22), and Yugoslavia (48 years). Today, the only countries that call themselves communist are China, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam, and North Korea – but these are all communist in name alone, with varying levels of market economics having penetrated into them. (Note that I do not discuss “socialist” countries like India in this discussion - that would require a separate article. They fall in a different category, because they are not totalitarian, as pure communist countries invariably are, and usually have features alien to communism, such as democratic elections, freedom of speech and expression, and a rule of law.)

It should come as a tremendous relief to all of us that today, 100 years after that historic day, practically no country in the world actually follows communism in its original avatar.

“It does not matter whether the cat is black or white. So long as it catches the mouse, it is a good cat.”

— Deng Xiaoping

Today, Russia is an emerging market economy. China stopped being true to the ideals of communism in 1979 itself, when Deng Xiaoping took over the country and put into practice what would be known as his “cat theory”: “It does not matter whether the cat is black or white. So long as it catches the mouse, it is a good cat.” This was a philosophy of economic pragmatism that placed progress at the centre and pushed ideology to the side. China's prosperity today is not because of communism, but the economic liberalization started by Deng and continued by his successors.

Admirers of communism love to say that Cuba has the best healthcare system in the world. It does, but two things need to be kept in mind. First, for 50 years the USSR bankrolled Cuba; so Cuba’s achievements are not an example of what a Communist country can do on its own. Second, while health care is great in Cuba, the average standard of living in Cuba is not one most people would like. Cubans cannot afford luxuries such as eating out. Restaurants exist only to feed tourists. (Source: Personal account from a friend who has visited Cuba.)

This hollow, unsustainable, and morally-repugnant philosophy has justly been consigned to the ash heap of history …

Communism could not even last a century — and just as well. This hollow, unsustainable, and morally-repugnant system has justly been consigned to the ash heap of history, to use the memorable turn of phrase that was created by the late US President Ronald Reagan in 1982. And this fact is particularly worthy of celebration when you consider that this outcome was certainly not obvious 50 years ago.

Why Communism Failed

In every country that ever called itself a communist country, inequality and enslavement were the norms.

Communism was founded with the promise of an egalitarian society. “Workers of the world, unite!” said Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto. “You have nothing to lose but your chains,” they proclaimed triumphantly. But in every country that ever called itself a communist country, inequality and enslavement were the norm. As George Orwell so aptly put it in “Animal Farm,” “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” Communist governments called themselves the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” In practice, they only retained the first part of that description: dictatorship. The proletariat was conveniently forgotten. Every communist government ended up, in practice, as a totalitarian dictatorship headed either by a single person (e.g., Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Deng, Castro, etc.) or a committee of a few powerful people (e.g., the USSR during the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras).

Communist governments called themselves the dictatorship of the proletariat. In practice, they only retained the first part of that description: dictatorship. The proletariat was conveniently forgotten.

Why do all communist regimes deteriorate into totalitarian regimes? Because greed is part of the fundamental nature of human beings and, therefore, in a system that does not have checks and balances, as a democracy does, might becomes right.

Due to this, one of the most abhorrent aspects of any communist government is that there is no personal freedom. Just look at Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Ai Weiwei, Andrei Sakharov, Liu Xiaobo, and many more to know what the consequences of free speech in communist countries are. When Lenin and Stalin decided to collectivize Soviet agriculture, they did not bother to ask the “proletariat,” whose “dictatorship” a communist government ostensibly was, whether they were agreeable to collectivization. Instead, the move was brutally enforced on the proletariat from above — with death as the penalty for disobedience.

Communism revealed its darkest face during the reigns of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. Stalin is said to have been responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of Soviet citizens by forced rigorous labour in the death camps (gulags) of Siberia, aka the “Gulag Archipelago.” The “Great Leap Forward” of 1958-1962, initiated by Mao, caused the death of between 23 and 55 million people. The subsequent “Cultural Revolution” of 1962-1976 is said to have caused the deaths of about 5 million people — for no fault except of suspected disloyalty to Mao. Thousands of Cubans were executed for opposing Castro. Pol Pot killed 25% of the entire Cambodian population — about 2 million people. These are the attendant evils of a communist system.

The Berlin Wall was unique in history as a wall built by a regime to keep its own citizens from leaving it. It was, in effect, a prison wall for its citizens. That a state felt the need to create such a wall is clearly an admission of its failure and intellectual bankruptcy.

The Soviet Union and its network of satellite states came crumbling down in 1991, but their death warrant was written much earlier — in 1961, to be precise, when the Berlin Wall was built. Until this time, countries had always built walls to keep foreign enemies out — such as the Great Wall of China, which was built to keep the Mongols out. But the Berlin Wall was unique in history as a wall built by a regime to keep its own citizens from leaving it. It was, in effect, a prison wall for its citizens. That a state felt the need to create such a wall is clearly an admission of its failure and intellectual bankruptcy.

What About Capitalism’s Faults?

The solution to these defects of capitalism is not to replace it by a discredited system such as communism, but to have controls above it to prevent the otherwise inevitable abuse of the system to benefit a wealthy few.

Some of those reading this will instinctively think in binary terms: “But what about the evils of capitalism?” they will ask. The answer is that it is not a binary choice. Saying communism was a terrible system does not imply that capitalism is a great system.

Capitalism has its faults. Evil can happen when monopolies and cartels operate. Just as there is a difference between theoretical communism (a lovely ideal) and practical communism (a miserable failure), there is a big difference between theoretical capitalism (a completely free market) and practical capitalism (all kinds of distortions of the market, such as monopolies and political interference).

The solution to these defects of capitalism is not to replace it by a discredited system such as communism, but to have controls above it to prevent the otherwise inevitable abuse of the system to benefit a wealthy few. But the controls cannot be so stifling that they effectively kill enterprise. There is a balance to be aimed at.

But communist regimes do not allow for internal change at all, because communism is inevitably accompanied by curbs on freedom of speech and expression – there is no freedom to protest or criticize the government or the ruler in power. Having no internal corrective mechanisms, they are doomed to failure.

Capitalism is not synonymous with freedom and democracy. Some of history’s worst tyrants have been free-market capitalists. So it is not enough to have a free market and freedom of economic enterprise. It is also important to have a democratic system of government, freedom of speech and expression, the freedom to criticize those in power, and the rule of law.

The problem is that communist regimes offered none of the above. Capitalism can be corrected by imposing a few controls on it; by ensuring that democratic freedoms are maintained; and by agitating for greater personal freedoms (as was done in the United States with regard to civil rights.)

But communist regimes do not allow for internal change at all, because communism is inevitably accompanied by curbs on freedom of speech and expression – there is no freedom to protest or criticize the government or the ruler in power. Having no internal corrective mechanisms, they are doomed to failure.

We should recognize that communism has had its benefits – in improving capitalism.

But even as we should celebrate the decline and death of communism as a form of government, we should recognize that communism has had its benefits – in improving capitalism. The threat of communism forced capitalism to have a more humane face, in order to avoid losing adherents to its rival. Before the advent of communism, American factories (as parodied in the timeless Charlie Chaplin classic, “Modern Times”) were soulless, exploitative operations where workers, often immigrants from places like Ireland, were made to work like slaves for very little wages in horrendous working conditions. The labour movement forced capitalists to create more tolerable working conditions and focus on things like minimum wage and the safety of workers, which was completely ignored in the several initial decades of the industrial revolution, both in Europe and the USA. One should also credit communism for the rise of socialist democracies and welfare states in Europe, such as in the Scandinavian countries, and France and Germany to a lesser extent.

There is no excuse today for believing in communism because of its ideals, because we now have 100 years of practical experience that inform us in no uncertain terms that those ideals are unrealistic and impractical.

Communism is very seductive for a young, impressionable student in an academy because of its idealism. But the days of being seduced by communism because of its rosy ideals, such as an egalitarian society, are long over – or, rather, they should be long over. There is no excuse today for believing in communism because of its ideals, because we now have 100 years of practical experience that inform us in no uncertain terms that those ideals are unrealistic and impractical; that, in practice, communism will suck the life force out of a people, stunt their creativity, kill their natural curiosity, and replace all these wonderful natural reactions with fear – fear of the government and the system.

Communist Sympathizers in India

In spite of these powerful practical examples of the failure and unsustainability of communism, there are misguided souls in many countries who still believe in this failed ideology, including in our own India, especially in the states of West Bengal and Kerala, and in some elite Universities in India, such as JNU. India has had two major communist parties in mainstream politics for a long time – the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Communist Party of India – Marxist (CPI-M). The CPI has been one of the main political parties that has won elections repeatedly in the state of Kerala, and the CPI-M held power for three decades in the state of West Bengal, before its power was broken by the Trinamool Congress led by Mamata Banerjee in 2011. The CPI-M is now on the fast track to oblivion, with a steady decrease in the number of seats held, both at the state and national levels.

Politicians from India’s communist parties love to participate in India’s electoral politics and publicly criticize the government of the day in newspaper articles and television interviews, without realizing the irony that they would never have these privileges in the regimes of the men they claim to revere and in the system they would like to institute in India.

A look inside any of the offices of communist parties reveals walls covered by huge portraits of the heroes of these parties – Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and others. While Marx and Engels are understandable because these theoreticians were the founders of the communist philosophy, inclusion of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, is abhorrent. These people have been responsible for the deaths of so many; to glorify them by displaying their portraits in your office is to insult the memory of the millions who were murdered for no fault of theirs.

But the incongruity does not end there. Politicians from India’s communist parties love to participate in India’s electoral politics and publicly criticize the government of the day in newspaper articles and television interviews, without realizing the irony that they would never have these privileges in the regimes of the men they claim to revere and in the system they would like to institute in India. If a Sitaram Yechury (CPI-M Member of Parliament) or a Kanhaiya Kumar (communist student leader) had been living in Stalin’s USSR and had made a public speech critical of “Comrade Stalin,” he would have found himself inside the Lubyanka before the end of the day and in a train bound for a Siberian gulag by the end of the week, where he would have spent the remainder of his short, miserable life working 18 hours a day in hard labour, with extremely limited rations, until he died of exhaustion.

It is probably a recognition of the hypocrisy of these Indian communist parties and the worthlessness of their philosophy that is responsible for their decimation in Indian politics. On this historic day, this fact, too, needs to be celebrated.



Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Racism and Colour Prejudice in India, and the case of Sonia Gandhi

Racism and Colour Prejudice in India, and the case of Sonia Gandhi


Racism and Colour Prejudice in India, and the case of Sonia Gandhi

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 16 October, 2017


Abstract

Indians are among the most prejudiced people on the planet, and nothing illustrates this more than the treatment meted out to Sonia Gandhi, one of our most prominent and illustrious citizens. Despite having lived in India for 49 years and having married an Indian citizen, having raised her family in India, and having contributed to the growth of this nation by having led the ruling party of this country for ten years, she is constantly maligned - only because of her foreign race and origin.


Yesterday I came across a comment by yet another Indian who referred to Sonia Gandhi as a white Italian, and said that Congress has a tendency to worship white skin - asking whether they would have made her Party President had she been a black-skinned Nigerian by birth. This same comment had been made by a Union Minister in the Modi government, Mr. Giriraj Singh, in April 2015.

Indians, in general, are arguably the most racist and prejudiced people in the world, even though we like to scream "racism" at the drop of a hat when we go and live in much more liberal places like the USA. We discriminate on the basis of colour, caste, religion, language, diet, gender, profession, physical disability, mental disability, and pretty much any difference among humans you can think of.

I will answer the second point first. Yes, I also doubt whether she would have been as respected had she been a black-skinned Nigerian by birth rather than a white-skinned Italian. But this is not just a weakness of Congress party workers.

Indians, in general, are arguably the most racist and prejudiced people in the world, even though we like to scream "racism" at the drop of a hat when we go and live in much more liberal places like the USA. We discriminate on the basis of colour, caste, religion, language, diet, gender, profession, physical disability, mental disability, and pretty much any difference among humans you can think of. Empathy is not our strong point by a long shot - it does not even rank within the top 50 points of our character. When Shah Rukh Khan is detained at an airport because his name is Khan, we scream religious discrimination and racism at the US, but when Hindus deny housing to a Dalit or a Muslim because of their caste or religion, respectively, no one bats an eyelid. Even when we live in progressive societies like the US, our first consideration when thinking of the marriage of our children is the caste of their future life partner. This is not a Hindu problem alone - casteism is rife in Muslim and Christian society as well. Even though these people left Hinduism to convert to other religions, they have not been able to shake off caste, which has its origins in Hinduism. And colour prejudice affects Indians of all religions.

In this respect, our reactions are not very different from the "taqiya" concept in Islam, whereby Muslims are allowed to lie about their backward beliefs when they live in countries where open espousal of their beliefs is not accepted. Similarly, many Indians living in the west pretend to be outwardly liberal, while keeping their deeply-held prejudices on the basis of race, colour, caste, religion, gender, and other differences alive and flourishing in private.

In this respect, our reactions are not very different from the "taqiya" concept in Islam, whereby Muslims are allowed to lie about their backward beliefs when they live in countries where open espousal of their beliefs is not accepted. Similarly, many Indians living in the west pretend to be outwardly liberal, while keeping their deeply-held prejudices on the basis of race, colour, caste, religion, gender, and other differences alive and flourishing in private.

Nigerians, and Africans in general, have been at the receiving end of hate attacks from Indians many times in recent years. So much so that Nigeria felt it necessary to lodge an official protest with the Indian government (and this happened only after Modi came to power.) And many of the people committing the violence are folks aligned with the ruling "nationalist" party.

Colour prejudice and racism is not just a Congress problem. It is not just a Hindu problem. It is an all-India problem. We consider fair-skinned people superior and dark-skinned people inferior. Our matrimonial ads are full of attempts to project oneself as "fair" or "very fair." Often euphemisms such as "wheat-complexioned" are used to describe brown skin. We are so obsessed with fair skin that "Fair and Lovely" recently crossed Rs. 2000 crores in sales in India. And I am sure that it is not just Congress party supporters who are buying that cream.

We are so obsessed with fair skin that "Fair and Lovely" recently crossed Rs. 2000 crores in sales in India. And I am sure that it is not just Congress party supporters who are buying that cream.

And even though Hindu epics refer to Rama and Krishna and Draupadi (her given name was Krishnaa; Draupadi only means daughter of Drupada), and the literal translation of the word "Krishna" in Sanskrit is "dark" or "black" - we find the fairest-skinned people we can to play the roles of these characters who have been explicitly described in Hindu epics as being dark-skinned, in TV serials and movies. Sometimes we paint them blue in movies or in comics so that it doesn't look like black and offend our sensibilities. After all, only inferior people have dark skin, so Rama and Krishna could not have been dark, even though the epics explicitly state that - they must have been blue - even though the only blue creatures I have known of in the animal kingdom are the dogs in Vapi which got coloured blue by the effluents from dye companies there, who throw waste dyes on the street.

We find the fairest-skinned people we can to play the roles of these characters who have been explicitly described in Hindu epics as being dark-skinned - Rama, Krishna, and Draupadi - in TV serials and movies. Sometimes we paint them blue in movies or in comics so that it doesn't look like black and offend our sensibilities.

In Tamil movies, most of the female stars are imports from north India, because they have fairer skin than Tamil heroines. The heroes are local, dark-skinned, and average-looking, however, because the movies cater to male audiences - with the fantasy that an average, dark-skinned Tamil male can win the heart of a pretty and fair-skinned woman. Most of these north Indian heroines cannot even speak Tamil, and so their voices have to be dubbed. They are in the movie only because of their fair skin.

What is interesting about Sonia Gandhi's case is that she is the victim of two independent prejudices that affect her in opposite ways. One is due to her white skin and the other is due to her foreign race. The white skin helps her be seen in a positive light in a country that worships fairness, and the foreign race casts her in a negative light in a racist country like India. So she gets elevated to the post of party President because she is the widow of a Gandhi and because she is white - but she gets reviled constantly because Indians cannot accept that a foreign-born white person can ever be patriotic and truly loyal to India. Both these perceptions are shameful and bring no credit to Indians. Sonia Gandhi deserves our respect not because she is the widow of Rajiv Gandhi or because she is white - she deserves our respect because she has proved her chops in politics and managed to lead the Congress to two terms in power at a time when it appeared that they were finished. Her white skin may have been an advantage in the party's initial perception of her, but she has since earned her respect among politicians by her achievements.

What is interesting about Sonia Gandhi's case is that she is the victim of two independent prejudices that affect her in opposite ways. One is due to her white skin and the other is due to her foreign race. The white skin helps her be seen in a positive light in a country that worships fairness, and the foreign race casts her in a negative light in a racist country like India. So she gets elevated to the post of party President because she is the widow of a Gandhi and because she is white - but she gets reviled constantly because Indians cannot accept that a foreign-born white person can ever be patriotic and truly loyal to India. Both these perceptions are shameful and bring no credit to Indians.

And she does not deserve our distrust and condemnation because she is foreign-born. Try to have a heart and think about her. She married Rajiv Gandhi in 1968 - that is 49 years ago - and immediately left her home country, Italy, and moved to Delhi to live with him. Her husband was assassinated in 1991, but she did not run back to Italy after that. She continued to live and raise her children in India. She has lived in India for 49 years now, and been a naturalized citizen for such a long time (I don't know the date when she became a citizen, but it is not important), and people are talking trash about her and questioning her patriotism.

Now think about that a little. Many of those who are raging about her being an "Italian" are themselves Indians who have settled in the US (or other foreign countries) and become US citizens after having lived 10 years there. How would they like it if, after having become US citizens and having lived for 50 years in the US, Americans were to refer to them as unpatriotic brown foreign Indians? (already, they are getting a taste of what that would be like, thanks to Donald Trump.)

Yep, you're right. They'd be screaming racism from the rooftops.

There are those who will try to cover up their racial prejudice by claiming that they are not opposed to Sonia Gandhi because of her white skin but because of her party's alleged corruption, whether that be Bofors or the 2G scandal. But this lie is easily exposed because of two pieces of evidence. One, there are many Indian politicians who are known to be corrupt. No one other than Mrs. Gandhi gets this kind of hatred. Second, the language used by her detractors is clear evidence of their racism - they do not start by attacking her as corrupt - the word "Italian" always is among the first adjectives used to describe her.

Sorry, but Indians are hypocritical and racist, and a lot more.



Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Endgame in the North Korean Crisis?

Endgame in the North Korean Crisis?


Endgame in the North Korean Crisis?

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 06 September, 2017


Abstract

Is there a strategic advantage to the US in provoking North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to attack the US or its allies by using inflammatory rhetoric? Is there a method to US President Donald Trump's seeming madness in his sharp statements on North Korea? I argue that there is, and that there is a possibility that this is part of a larger geopolitical game.


Introduction

The Korean Peninsula has been at the forefront of international news for a few months now. There have been heated words exchanged between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, and there has been a rapid escalation of tensions. North Korea has been launching missile tests, with one of them flying over Japan; has announced that they have been successful in testing a hydrogen bomb (a claim that has been verified by seismic data) that can be fitted on to a warhead; and has explicitly said that the US territory of Guam is a potential target.

However, it is my view that Mr. Trump’s strong statements are not merely those of an individual out of control. This could well be part of a carefully thought-out strategy with the Pentagon at the centre.

Donald Trump, for his part, has been threatening North Korea with words such as “fire and fury”; such as “the time for talk is over”; by conducting joint military exercises with its allies South Korea and Japan; and by publicly excoriating the South Koreans for being too soft on the North.

Many people are interpreting Mr. Trump’s utterances as typical of his tendency to fly off the handle – something that Americans and the whole world had plenty of opportunity to witness during the entire election campaign for the 2016 elections, as well as in the months after he took charge of the Presidency.

However, it is my view that Mr. Trump’s strong statements are not merely those of an individual out of control. This could well be part of a carefully thought-out strategy with the Pentagon at the centre. Let me explain.

The Korean War

Korea was partitioned in the closing stages of WWII. The Russians invaded Japanese-held Korea from the north, and the Americans invaded it from the south, and they drew the line partitioning Korea into a North and a South at the 38th parallel.

The Korean War was the first proxy war between the US and the USSR in the Cold War. Both China and the Soviet Union supported North Korea in the war, with the Chinese sending vast numbers of soldiers to fight the Americans, and the Soviets providing fighters to counter American air power.

General Douglas MacArthur was in command of the American forces in Korea (and Japan), which were initially caught by surprise when the North Koreans invaded the South in 1950, and completely overran the country, restricting the American force in Korea to the Pusan perimeter. MacArthur improvised a brilliant amphibious operation, through which American forces landed on the other side of South Korea, on Inchon, and encircled the North Koreans, whose supply lines were stretched. The North Korean army collapsed under the US assault, and was driven beyond the 38th parallel.

Since American forces had actively fought in this war (as opposed to many other Cold War engagements in which they had mainly supported others fighting), North Korea has seen the Americans as a mortal enemy ever since the Korean War.

But MacArthur was not satisfied with this. He wanted to take the fight deep into the North, and finally pursued the North Koreans all the way to the Chinese border at the Yalu river. Mao Zedong was watching these developments very warily. Even though Communist China had just been formed, Mao had visions of his country being a great power. There was also enmity between the Chinese and the Americans because the Americans had supported Mao’s enemy, the Kuomintang (Guomindang) and its leader, Chiang Kai-Shek (Jiang Jieshi), in the 1949 revolution.

Mao was thus allergic to the idea of American forces next to his country, and had decided in advance with the Chinese Politburo that if the Americans were to reach the Yalu, the Chinese would attack. And that is what they did on October 25, 1950, when 300,000 soldiers poured over the Yalu to attack the Americans, which resulted in the bloody retreat of American forces from the north, a slide that only stopped when Lieutenant-General Matthew Ridgeway took charge of American forces in Korea.

Ridgeway improved the morale and discipline of the American troops, and counterattacked in a series of bitterly-fought engagements, and finally the North was back at the 38th parallel. This time the Americans did not make the mistake they had in 1950, and did not pursue the enemy into North Korean territory. Fighting continued for two more years in a bitter stalemate, until an armistice was reached under UN auspices on 27th July, 1953, with India playing a key role in the formation of the Neutral National Repatriation Commission, under the Chairmanship of General KS Thimayya.

Both the North and the South suffered terribly as a result of the war. Seoul was destroyed four times in battles over control of it. Much of the North was completely destroyed in US bombing raids. Since American forces had actively fought in this war (as opposed to many other Cold War engagements in which they had mainly supported others fighting), North Korea has seen the Americans as a mortal enemy ever since the Korean War.

Sixty-Four Years of Hostility

The end of the Korean War was inconclusive, with the formation of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). With no peace settlement signed, this is the longest continuing formal war in the world.

Now, for the first time, the US sees an enemy that can pose a threat not only to its ally, South Korea, but to itself as well.

The regime that ruled North Korea then continues to rule it today. Kim il-Sung was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-il, and his grandson, the current leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un. The country is completely closed off to the world, with the exception of China and Russia. According to many accounts, China provides most of the oil and food that the North needs to survive. For decades, the Chinese have also helped the North militarily, as a check on American ambitions in the Far East. It is also very likely that China itself provided the North with the technology to produce nuclear weapons.

For decades, the problem of the Koreas was only a mild annoyance. The Kims would regularly make aggressive statements about America and the South, but nobody seriously expected another war to break out in the Korean peninsula.

All that changed with the development of nuclear weapons under Kim Jong-il, which accelerated under Kim Jong-un. Now, for the first time, the US sees an enemy that can pose a threat not only to its ally, South Korea, but to itself as well. Kim Jong-un’s utterances have not made things any easier for the US – when he says he is developing ICBMs that can reach Guam, Hawaii, and potentially the US west coast; and when he talks about weaponizing those missiles with miniature hydrogen bombs with yields of 50 kilotons.

A Possible Response of the US to the New Threat

Thinking purely from an American strategic perspective, the most efficient thing for the US would be to launch a sudden, surprise, pre-emptive nuclear attack on the North, which would prevent them from being able to launch their own attack on Seoul, Guam, or any other place.

The US has been very concerned about the development of nuclear weapons by the north for a long time. Repeatedly, treaties have been signed and sanctions imposed to ensure the stoppage of the North Korean nuclear program in exchange for economic incentives. It is clear that those have failed; the North has only used those treaties and sanctions to buy time to further develop their weapons program.

Given all this, purely from a military strategy perspective, what is the best option for the USA?

It seems to me that things have become very serious for America. One of the cardinal tenets of American foreign policy is that ethics are subservient to the American national interest. Thinking purely from an American strategic perspective, the most efficient thing for the US would be to launch a sudden, surprise, pre-emptive nuclear attack on the North, which would prevent them from being able to launch their own attack on Seoul, Guam, or any other place. From purely an American strategic and military perspective (without considering the human tragedy involved), this would solve the Korean problem once and for all for the Americans.

The strategic benefits would be immense. The US would break the Chinese vise grip on South-east Asia, and would have a dominating presence right next to China and Russia.

But of course, it would have a horrible cost in human life. The tragedy would far exceed that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, because the American objective would be to obliterate the North so that there is no chance of a counterattack – and this might mean a massive nuclear attack. This would also be very easy for them do in a very short span of time. Indeed, I would be very surprised if a detailed contingency plan was not already in place. The US Seventh Fleet is already in Japan and South Korea and could complete such an attack within an hour if given the signal. It would be over so quickly that the Russians and Chinese would not have time to react.

But such an attack would be widely condemned by the rest of the world, and the US would be seen as an aggressor.

But...what if North Korea did something stupid? What if they actually fired a missile at Guam? What if it missed its target, went down in the sea, but caused a huge nuclear explosion?

Then the US would be well within its rights to retaliate, and retaliate massively. It would not have to ask the UN for sanction, and would not need to inform Russia or China, because every country has the right to defend its sovereignty.

Politically, too, this move would be very beneficial to Donald Trump … If Trump can show that the threat from North Korea to the US is genuine and credible, he will be greatly praised for his leadership as a Commander-in-Chief willing to take tough decisions to benefit Americans.

Such a move would also take the focus off the investigations into Trump’s links with Russia, and the fact that his first year so far has been a dismal failure.

Beleaguered leaders love nothing more than a war.

The strategic benefits would be immense. The US would break the Chinese vise grip on South-east Asia, and would have a dominating presence right next to China and Russia.

The trick is to do it without being painted as the aggressor. What better way than to goad and provoke a mentally unstable and unpredictable leader, like Kim Jong-un, by using inflammatory rhetoric such as “Fire and fury will rain down on North Korea like they have never imagined?”

It should be noted that, given the standards of provocation for US aggression in the past, even this may not be necessary. George W. Bush invaded Iraq merely on the assumption (based on flimsy evidence that was shown to be false) that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction; in North Korea’s case, you have a country that verifiably has weapons of mass destruction and, to boot, has sworn to use them against the United States. That itself could be excuse enough for the US to launch a pre-emptive strike, and not many in the world would blame them.

Politically, too, this move would be very beneficial to Donald Trump. Americans always unite in the face of a national threat. If Trump can show that the threat from North Korea to the US is genuine and credible, he will be greatly praised for his leadership as a Commander-in-Chief willing to take tough decisions to benefit Americans. Few Americans would fault him for using nuclear weapons against an adversary who has threatened to use them against the US, and has come close to hitting an important ally, Japan. Most Americans I have spoken to have told me that they have no regrets about the fact that the US dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, because it saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans that would have been lost in a land invasion of Japan. Such a move would also take the focus off the investigations into Trump’s links with Russia, and the fact that his first year so far has been a dismal failure. Beleaguered leaders love nothing more than a war.

China's Role

China and Russia fully realize this possibility, which is why they are making statements daily asking for the US to “negotiate” with North Korea. For both countries, North Korea is the perfect foil to the world’s biggest superpower – a small country threatening to nuke the world’s biggest military power, and effectively putting a leash on US ambitions in South-East Asia. There is little doubt that if North Korea has advanced this far in its nuclear program, it has only been possible because of the active encouragement of and direct help from China. North Korea is essentially a proxy for the Chinese in their bid to contain America. That is why the North has been able to continue its military program despite sanctions for decades.

The Chinese strategy has worked very well for 20 years now; but if things blow up into a nuclear war, then the entire strategy will backfire on the Chinese and the Russians.

Unless China uses its considerable clout with North Korea in scaling down this situation, it will end up in the unspeakable horror of nuclear war.

Nuclear fallout clouds do not respect national borders, and the Chinese will be very vulnerable if a nuclear bomb explodes on the Korean peninsula.

The Chinese strategy has worked very well for 20 years now; but if things blow up into a nuclear war, then the entire strategy will backfire on the Chinese and the Russians.

The only country with sufficient leverage on North Korea since the Korean War has been China, and it continues to be the only country that can influence North Korea. They have deliberately encouraged North Korea in a bid to undermine the US’ global power. The American military has grown wise to their strategy and, I believe, in combination with a highly unstable and unpredictable leader in North Korea, has used Trump’s own unpredictability to push this situation closer to a war.

Unless China uses its considerable clout with North Korea in scaling down this situation, it will end up in the unspeakable horror of nuclear war. China’s immediate intervention – by choking off the supply line - may involve causing regime change in North Korea and subsequently, chaos, but there really is little alternative. Alternatively, it could send its army across the Yalu, depose Kim Jong-un, and replace him with a puppet of their choice, in a fast coup to defuse the situation. This way, they could continue to retain their hold on North Korea. This is important for them as they have always viewed the Korean peninsula as being within their sphere of influence.

The ball is not in America’s court. It is in China’s. They need to act quickly to prevent tragedy on a global scale. Nuclear fallout clouds do not respect national borders, and the Chinese will be very vulnerable if a nuclear bomb explodes on the Korean peninsula. The Americans might well call Kim’s bluff, and that would be a disaster for the world.



Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.