Tuesday, April 13, 2010


In all likelihood it is Mr. Kapil Sibal, our Union Human Resource Development Minister, who, for the first time, brought Nobel Prize into a discourse, at least public, on IITs. When the IIT faculty went on a day’s protest against certain recommendations of the Pay Committee (constituted for the IITs, IIMs, etc.), the minister said (among other things, of course) that it was improper for the prospective Nobel laureates to resort to such methods to voice their protest. We do not know whether a prospective Nobel Prize winner refrains or should refrain from acts of protest, but we do know that there are indeed Nobel laureates who participated in various acts of protest. Bertrand Russell’s is a shining example of it. That apart, it is difficult to agree with the proposition that there is something unacceptable, if not downright demeaning, about registering a protest in a peaceful manner, or participating in a non-violent agitation.

There is almost nothing in the public domain about how the IIT faculty responded to the Minister’s statement. We heard that some sought to inform the minister that IITs were institutes of technology, and there are no Nobel Prizes for work in technology. If there is any truth in it, it is disappointing, because at one stroke, they almost disowned disciplines such as Physics, Chemistry and Economics at their Institutes. In any case, the Minister’s remark did evoke some media discussion. It had to! At least one television channel organized a short discussion on IIT faculty’s failure to win a Nobel, and among the experts was a former member of the faculty of an IIT. They blamed the lack of infrastructure, proper research environment, etc. at these Institutes. Anyway, as for us, we are unconcerned about why IIT faculty has not yet won a Nobel or who all have missed it, and how narrowly, and for what reasons, what conspiracies!

We view the Minister’s remarks as an instance of the language of power. The language that power uses has many forms. Albert Camus’s play Caligula provides an excellent example of one: foul, abusive, rude, cynical, and violent. Power has not ceased to use such language, but the contexts and the targets are different. The civil society in many parts of the world has almost ensured that distinctly unpleasant language is not used in a public platform.

Power now tends to use a different language; call it “indirect language”, that makes use of irony, satire, sarcasm, and metaphor, among other rhetorical devices. Indirect language is essentially about saying one thing in terms of another, and also about both concealing and revealing the meaning of one’s say. The obvious advantage it has over direct language is that whereas one commits oneself by using direct language, one escapes commitment and possible criticism by using indirect language. When the purpose is to hurt, it is served with the advantages of a smile. Such an expressive device can be very useful for power.

The Minister, the intelligent and efficient person that he is, surely knew that the achievements and contributions of an educational institution such as an IIT could not be meaningfully measured in terms of whether it had a Nobel on its faculty, and that a member of the faculty who is not a Nobel laureate could not be seriously thought of as mediocre for that reason. Mr. Al Gore, the US Vice-President during Mr. Clinton’s presidency, took just eight years to get the Nobel Peace Prize after staying away from active politics. Now does it constitute a serious argument that the politicians who have not got a Nobel after their retirement from public office are just no good? It took President Obama just a few months to win the Nobel Prize, after assuming Presidency; is it really a comment on those Heads of State who have not won a Nobel months or years after assuming office?

But when does power care for logic. It knows it can get away with whatever it says. Logic is for the powerless, if it wishes to engage with power. The Minister wanted the IIT faculty to know that he didn’t think much of them, and the country to note that the members of the IIT faculty think too much of themselves. He just did not say these in so many words. As for the Nobel Prize, it was just rhetoric.

Friday, April 9, 2010


In the recently concluded World Cup Hockey Tournament, India finished eighth among the twelve elite national hockey teams in the world. It won one match, against Pakistan, drew one with South Africa, lost three matches at the league stage, to Australia, the eventual champions, England, the semi-finalists, Spain, the fifth place team, and later, to Argentina, who, by defeating India, occupied the seventh place. India conceded more goals than any other team in the edition of the World Cup, and did not score a reassuring number of goals.

Having said this, I thought India did not do badly at all; in fact, one could say it did rather well. India is not playing in the coming Olympics. It is not one of the best two teams in Asia, and one must not forget that it did not participate in the 2010 World Cup tournament on merit, but only as the host team. The first six in this World Cup, Australia, Germany, Holland, England, Spain, and South Korea, were clearly better teams. Argentina was not decisively better than India, but was not decisively worse either. Since one match decides things, the eighth position for India is not disappointing.

But if the country felt disappointed, the reason is India’s awesome past record: eight Olympic gold medals, one World Cup gold, undisputed supremacy for thirty two years continuously from 1928, because of which it was accorded the status of the national game of the country, and then one of the top two or three teams for another twenty years or so. One tends to forget that it has not been among the very best teams in the world for about two decades now. On the global stage, the eighth position in the World Cup is perhaps our best achievement during the last sixteen years. This must be taken as encouraging, and we should compliment the team and its coach.

There need not be a podium finish each time a country plays an international tournament at the highest level; the Indian hockey team in 1984 Olympics was better than its fifth place finish. The Brazilian football team in 1982 World Cup was arguably the best in the competition, but it did not even reach the quarterfinal stage. I consider it sufficient achievement for a team at the global level if it is taken seriously and seen as a potential podium finisher by the other teams of the tournament. Like Brazil in Football World Cup – “the eternal favourites” from 1930 till date. This does not hold for India in hockey any more.

As far as I am concerned, the real downslide started with the introduction of the synthetic turf. India finished seventh in 1976 Olympics when for the first time the game was played on such turf. For almost more than a decade Indian hockey players hardly had adequate practice on synthetic turf before they went to participate in international tournaments. And equally importantly, our hockey experts completely failed to study the change that this, and the changes in the rules of the game were likely to bring about in the game. We satisfied ourselves saying that all this was Western conspiracy to end the supremacy of the subcontinent in the game. The basically uninformed debate, whenever it took place (and not often, I’m afraid), was about whether India should play its traditional style or change, and related to this, whether or not India should have foreign coaches, and the decision was almost always against change, and foreign coaches. India continued to play the game in the same old style, continued to forget that it is a team game, and continued to lose, and reach new lows. We did see some (only some) encouraging change in the style in 2010 World Cup, most players not hanging on to the ball too long, for example. But we are way behind the best in this, and one surely did not fail to notice that the team did depend on individual brilliance (not that much “brilliance” was in view, to be realistic), and other traditional habits. Hopefully things will change for the better.