Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Knee-Jerk Response

The Knee Jerk Response:
... From the tendency of the knee to jerk involuntarily when hit sharply, properly called the patellar reflex. That was recorded by Sir Michael Foster in his Text-book of physiology, 1877:

"Striking the tendon below the patella gives rise to a sudden extension of the leg, known as the knee-jerk." ...
I received a text message the other day:
An Olympic shooter wins Gold (only a game) & Govt gives him 3Cr + awards. Another shooter dies, fighting with terrorists (saving our country and our lives) & Govt pays his family 5 Lacs. Truly Great India?? (Plz forward to all Indians, that it somehow reaches the President, P'M (sic), C'Ms (sic), IAS, IPS and all (sic).
It is easy to rationally respond to this. The award to Abhinav Bindra was for his singular achievement of having won an individual Olympic gold medal. He was driven by his inner motivation and perseverance. It was not a contractual obligation for him to train hard and win. That he did had the expected effect of making Indians proud, and he was showered with praise and awards for this national moment of pride.

On the other hand, the commandos and soldiers who die in the line of duty have chosen a profession which is risky, which carries the danger of being killed or maimed. For most of their lives, they live in preparation. Once in a while, they have to engage and intervene in extremely violent situations. The risk is not something they take on out of choice. They have no option but to do it. Desertion of a soldier during battle is a crime punishable by death in almost all countries, to this day. What needs to be discussed is whether their wages and the social security provided to their families in case of their injury or death is reasonable for country like India.

...

The second instance (amongst many) of knee-jerk reactions to the recent tragedy in Bombay is the following blog entry: Most Loathsome People in India: 2008.

I would have ignored it as another ignorant rant on the blogosphere, but the blog post is sympathetically covered in one of the most popular blogs from India, the award-winning Atanu Dey on India's Development.

The content of the above blog entry is congruent with its title-word "loathsome". The words seethe with malice and hatred. Disagreement is one thing, asking people to (even euphemistically) "insert burning charcoals down Barkha Dutt's throat" is another. It is symptomatic of a violent intolerance, the very reason why incidents like the Bombay riots happen in the first place. Terrorists carry out the bombings in real life, whereas these bloggers "sentence" journalists to death or to "solitary confinement" or to have "loose all the stray dogs in Bangalore inside his house."

...

The third instance is an online petition. It is almost natural in calamitous times to put restrictions on media freedom. I am no fan of Indian media, and I disagree with their methods and their sensationalism to the extent that I do not have a television connection at home. But to ask for a law overseeing news coverage in a free country is again symptomatic of pre-modern viewpoints which don't value freedom but value control. Safety in the long run cannot exist without freedom of expression. The live coverage of a police operation is obviously counterproductive to its success (if it is available to the criminals), and media needs to be kept away from the scene of a violent operation, just as it is wise for police to use scrambled radio communication to restrict eavesdropping.

But to ask for a law prohibiting media to cover an event to which they have rightful access, and to restrict them from the coverage of what somebody considers "inflammatory propaganda" is asking for state censorship. If Indian media is muzzled as suggested by the petition, BBC or CNN can always relay the footage. The only option in that case is to restrict foreign TV channels as well.

During the Blue Star operation in 1984, TV and radio were cut off in the state of Punjab, but international news agencies covered the operation via satellite.

What is more sensible is to restrict media entry into a sensitive zone, and that too on grounds which are constitutionally valid, and not restrict what is broadcast to the public at large. Another technical solution is to jam satellite and cellular reception in a sensitive region, subject to constitutional validity, where criminals are using communication tools.

...

We decry the ineptitude of our leaders and the lack of planning and foresight. But our responses too betray the fact that we are a society of knee-jerk responders, who cannot see the effects of our ideas, suggestions, mindset and actions. Even the enactment of laws and social programmes in India is done in a cavalier manner, without much public debate and planning.

One is tempted to say that India is not yet evolved enough to be committed to the principles of democracy, it is democratic only in name.

15 comments:

Umang said...

Along similar lines: http://www.livemint.com/2008/12/04231559/Let8217s-recall-the-lessons.html

DesiInTokyo said...

Excellent article. I was thinking on similar lines.
http://indiashiningnot.blogspot.com/2008/12/was-hemant-karkare-brave.html

harmanjit said...

Umang and DesiInTokyo: Thanks for the links.

pankaj said...

nice observations. I disagreed with the comparison of Bindra and Sandeep though. Of course "fairness" is hardly a criterion by which economic benefits are distributed.

is it justified? most probably not, but then justice is never a criterion in the working of economics. and if the logic of the sms is taken further, almost everything happening around us would not be justified (maids and rickshaw walas making a pittance after toiling all day).

also, the soldier who died, surely didnt really reckon on dying when he went into the hotel, even though he might have trained for it his entire life. one cant but help admire his act of dying for what he perceived to be a "higher cause" (nationalism) and the fact it was laid down for protecting and defending (as opposed to the attackers who died for a perceived "higher cause" too, but it was as an agressor and taker of lives).

the sms, of course, betrays a certain militant nationalism, which one senses even when one receives smses about "bhagat singh vs christmas or valentines day"

harmanjit said...

If courage is to be considered, then the ill-intentioned (and obviously silly) courage of the bombers is much more significant, since they were doing it out of choice or livelihood, and not out of compulsion.

"his act of dying for what he perceived to be a "higher cause" (nationalism) "

I doubt anyone joins the military (at least the lower ranks) for reasons of patriotism. It is strictly economic.

And I greatly doubt if the soldiers die thinking of the nation and of protecting it. That seems to me to be a romantic notion. Their last thoughts must be of their families and maybe prayers.

It is much more likely that their training, conditioning (your gun is your best friend etc.) and brainwashing (follow orders!! bharat mata ki jai!!) makes them numb to their fears, just as the terrorists must have numbed their fears due to /their/ brainwashing.

harmanjit said...

in the last comment, i mean the terrorists were NOT doing it because of livelihood, but chose to do it for howsoever silly a "cause".

Free-Fallin' said...

i read this post the day u published it, harmanjit, but could not comment on it due to a very strong wave of frustration...i can see in the mean time, people with similar placid philosophies have logged their sorry aproval to your post. i don't care whether u publish this comment or not ( u won't most probably), but i have to share my views here.
so, because abhinav bindra was not under contractual obligation to train hard and win, while our soldiers are, it makes his acheivments more applaudable than those who bravely fight and die for our country everyday at siachen and kargil? i see. abhinav bindra was driven by inner motivation and perseverance....hmm. was sandeep unnikrishnan not? what is the compensation for a lost life, sir?
"The risk is not something they take on out of choice. They have no option but to do it." my dear harmanjit, they take that risk the day they join the national defence forces and pledge their loyalties and blood for their nation. they choose and valiantly serve their duty. for your information, desertation of a soldier during battle is not punishable by death.
the feelings of extreme nationalism and sheer courage are obviously beyong your sphere of comprehension.
i wonder what motivates a man to become a soldier today? give his blood for a country full of people who don't give a damn who is dying for them on the borders, so that you can sleep peacefully at night? you are an outsider who sits in his comfortable bed and types away at his laptop, and has the gall to comment on a soldier's motivation and his salary. what do u know about motivation?
" And I greatly doubt if the soldiers die thinking of the nation and of protecting it. That seems to me to be a romantic notion. Their last thoughts must be of their families and maybe prayers."
so, what are u saying? how dare u belittle the greatness of dying in the line of duty? the greatest honour a soldier can experiance is dying while serving the country. no true soldier in the forces wants to die an insignificant death in his bed. they'd rather die facing the enemy's bullet. the armed forces are not an option for the sissies of the world, sir. u can call it brainwashing. i call it patriotism.
lastly, there are knee-jerk reactions....and then there are no reactions.or worse, disdainful reactions...trust u to call terrorism a "silly" cause.

pankaj said...

hmmm.....

for me the courage of the policewalah is more significant, because he undertook the possibility of losing his life, for a defensive cause, and was directed at saving lives.

the courage of the attackers was that of agressors, moreover agressors towards uninvolved individuals, rather than the state (towards which their ire might be more justified).

this somewhat brings the the term "courage" under a cloud. because if A hits B, and since A is overwhelmingly strong (as States are), and B cannot hit back at A, is it "right" to hit at C, because that could hurt A?

i agree, the act of the terrorist had more free choice, while the policewalah did it more out of compulsion (since it was his job). i guess the final answer would lie in the policewalah's head, i think it must have contained a muddle of thoughts - feeling forced into the situation, a sense of patriotism and a feeling of doing what is "right", considering the possibility of dying, etc etc.

I doubt anyone joins the military (at least the lower ranks) for reasons of patriotism. It is strictly economic.

i agree there (the lower ranks). i dont think you can completely numb anyone of their fears, and the act has to have an element of the beleif of being on the "right side", or doing the "right thing". or else, inspite of the compulsion, theres always the possibility of desertation.

the choice is - the possibility of being tried for desertation vs. the possibility of losing your life to uphold a defensive position. what do you value more? as sartre would say, only the act determines what you value more.

harmanjit said...

Hi free-fallin,

US Code of Military Justice, article 85:

http://www.constitution.org/mil/ucmj19970615.htm

"(c) Any person found guilty of desertion or attempt to desert shall be punished, if the offense is committed in time of war, by death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct, but if the desertion or attempt to desert occurs at any other time, by such punishment, other than death, as a court-martial may direct."

As for Sandeep Unnikrishnan, all I said was that the risk of injury or death is known to a soldier when he enlists in the army. As such, a compensation to his family cannot be an "award" but is more of social security.

So many policemen and soldiers die in the line of duty, esp. in time of war. We don't propose to give an award of bravery to everyone. Yes, some of them, such as Major Unnikrishnan are able to put away their fears more easily in the face of danger, and for that there is a well-established notion of bravery awards and the benefits that come with it. But in the initial SMS, the very death of a commando was considered as an indication of their bravery and worthy of a similar or better award than to Mr Bindra.

I know it is non-intuitive. How can a "life" (of a soldier) be less valuable than a mere medal (of a sportsman)? I have provided the answer, howsoever revolting it may sound.

"you are an outsider who sits in his comfortable bed and types away at his laptop, and has the gall to comment on a soldier's motivation and his salary. what do u know about motivation?"

Whether I type on a laptop or write on a piece of paper has no bearing on the validity (or the lack of it) of my knowledge. As for the "gall", your comment is also on a soldier's motivation. Might I take it to mean that you can comment on a soldier's motivation, but I can't? Why?

"how dare u belittle the greatness of dying in the line of duty?"

I don't belittle it at all. I only say that it is in the line of duty, and not a matter of choice. As for daring, are you suggesting I should not even try to criticize hallowed ideas?

"or worse, disdainful reactions...trust u to call terrorism a "silly" cause."

Does calling it "horrible", "barbaric" "sinful" "immoral" provide a better understanding?

I call an act "silly" if it foolishly fails to achieve its objectives, and causes unnecessary suffering in oneself and others. It is not a word with moral connotations however, and that's what might have upset you.

harmanjit said...

Hi pankaj,

the costs of desertion are not just legal, but also social. And sometimes, they can be far more powerful.

See for example:

http://www.esikhs.com/articles/the_battle_of_khidrana.htm

Excerpt:

"According to tradition in Sikh books, when these Sikhs who had left Anandpur after signing a bedaawa (a disclaimer), went home, they were chided by their wives; asked to 'wear bangles' and stay at home, while they would go and fight on behalf of their Guru. Regretting their conduct they had come back, and were met by Mai Bhago, who brought them along in search of Guru Gobind Singh. But, one wonders how could all of them received similar response from their wives; returning from their homes in different places come together at one place, and meet Mai Bhago at the same time. They had probably not yet gone home, when Mai Bhago met them, chided them all, and brought them back in search of Guru Gobind Singh."

Hence, if a soldier (or a suicide bomber) has the choice between dying or facing punishment (even death) and dishonor, the resulting choice might be to do the expected and the peer-group-approved thing rather than to individually rebel and face the consequences.

pankaj said...

i dont think the answers are so clear cut and clinical. well, i guess sometimes a peer approved death might be an easier path, than going against the current, and possibly being cast out.

i think the answers lie in what you take as axoims or starting points. if the axoim is "life is valuable", or "agression is bad", or "non violence is worth valuing" you will reach my conclusion.

if the axoim is "personal choice is valuable", "independent thought is valuable", then we reach your conclusion. these are unprovable axoims, because they lie in human subjectivity. also they are not always in conflict, though in the present case they are.

regarding bindra vs. policewalah, i dont think the answer lies in the "justifications", or "who deserved how much". its a mix of economics, public perceptions, what contributes more to "national pride", etc etc etc.

Free-Fallin' said...

the lines from article 85 of US military code that u've quoted unfortunately do not specify the nature of desertation in question. refusal to fight in a war by a military man is not punishable by death either in indian military system, or in the united states.

fact is, u have said nothing about sandeep unnikrishnan. it seems that's so because u cannot speak of his valiance with the same indifference which is the general tone of your post. so, better to leave him out, huh?

the compensation for his family would be some genuine respect and gratitude by the society, yes. my point is that the hero-worship showered to sportstars and bollywood stars is ridiculous, while the worth of the real-heroes is zilch, simply because its their "job". its just observed and forgotten in a desultory fashion.

harmanjit, its not just a "mere death of a commando". this is the exact sentiment which riles me about your post.very death of a commando was considered as an indication of "their bravery and worth" deserves a far better award than the acheivements of an athelete. the govt owes it to their families.

"Might I take it to mean that you can comment on a soldier's motivation, but I can't? Why?"
because u don't seem to even vaguely have a clue of what drives a soldier. your views on the subject are those of an outsider, and are rather affronting....yes i have a right simply because i'm an insider.

the very fact that u call beliefs and code of the army "hallowed ideas" makes my case stronger.

harmanjit said...

Hi Free-Fallin'

"the lines from article 85 of US military code that u've quoted unfortunately do not specify the nature of desertation in question. refusal to fight in a war by a military man is not punishable by death either in indian military system, or in the united states."

My point that desertion carries a potential death sentence (but usually a jail sentence) remains valid. The quantum of punishment may vary, and as I say in my response to Pankaj, there are other costs (social, for example) for exhibiting one's reluctance to fight.

"fact is, u have said nothing about sandeep unnikrishnan. it seems that's so because u cannot speak of his valiance with the same indifference which is the general tone of your post. so, better to leave him out, huh?"

I have spoken of his being able to conquer his fears more easily, and hence deserving of a bravery award.

"the compensation for his family would be some genuine respect and gratitude by the society, yes."

And that respect and gratitude, by all indications, is all around us. But when we compare the monetary award to Mr Bindra and rue that a smaller award was paid to the family of a slain commando, then I criticize the comparison and provide reasons.

"my point is that the hero-worship showered to sportstars and bollywood stars is ridiculous,"

I am neither indulging in, nor justifying hero-worship (least of all to Bollywood stars). I am only explaining why Mr Bindra got adulation and award, whereas a dead soldier's family gets a compensation, unless he shows exemplary bravery, in which case he is given a bravery award as well.

"its not just a "mere death of a commando". this is the exact sentiment which riles me about your post."

Please tell me where I have used the above words "mere death of a commando".

"very death of a commando was considered as an indication of "their bravery and worth" deserves a far better award than the acheivements of an athelete. the govt owes it to their families."

The very death of a commando is not an indication of his bravery and worth, period.

See, for example:

http://indiashiningnot.blogspot.com/2008/12/was-hemant-karkare-brave.html

"because u don't seem to even vaguely have a clue of what drives a soldier."

Assuming you are correct, and that I do not have a clue of what drives a soldier, why do I need "gall" and "daring" to express my unclued ideas?

"your views on the subject are those of an outsider, and are rather affronting....yes i have a right simply because i'm an insider."

So might I take it to mean that, according to you, a non-soldier cannot write about a soldier's motivations, a non-Hindu cannot write about Hinduism, a non-Prime Minister cannot write about the Prime Minister's personality?

Free-Fallin' said...

well, u can write about anything u feel like, because its a free country. but don't be surprised if souls like me with more raical thinking don't agree.

manubhardwaj said...

Umang (above) linked me your blog post, and I think your opinion on the utility of the online petition was very well expressed.

I've dissected smallchange.in a little further, and have quoted you on my blog.