Monday, December 15, 2014

The angst of the Tamil brahmin: Live and let live

This article appeared a week back in The Times of India Chennai edition. I am adding it here only for the record. The comment section here will be closed. I intend to discuss this in my Tamil blog.


'The angst of the Tamil brahmin: Live and let live'

By Badri Seshadri

When Narendra Modi expanded his cabinet and made Manohar Parrikar and Suresh Prabhu cabinet ministers, journalist Rajdeep Sardesai tweeted thus: "Big day for my Goa. Two GSBs (Gowd Saraswat Brah min), both talented politicians become full cabinet ministers. Saraswat pride!!" The last bit "Saraswat pride" indicating brahmin caste affinity and pride caused considerable stir in the media.

Brahmins may be at the top of the archaic social hierarchy, but in reality they hold little or no power across the country. They are numerically insignificant in most states and are not found in the public sphere at all. This is more so in Tamil Nadu than any other state.

Share of Tamil and Telugu brahmins was disproportionately large in the government of pre-independent Madras province. But the quota system initiated by the Justice party and the Dravidian movement over the years has meant that brahmins are almost completely excluded from medical seats, and are mostly out of contention in government jobs and good engineering schools. Brahmins once formed a significant percentage in teaching jobs in schools and colleges.Now, their percentage is minuscule.

Politically, brahmins have been complete ly stripped of any possible power. With very few options available in TN, there was a brahmin exodus to Bombay and Delhi in search of jobs in the 1970s. Post the liberalised 1990s, and the proliferation of self-financed engineering colleges, brahmins chose engineering and then IT jobs. As the need for executive managers arose in companies, many took to MBA. Today IT, management and CA are the chosen professions of brahmins. Many have migrated to the US and have been instrumental in many Silicon Valley start-up successes. Many have taken to entrepreneurship in India too and helped to seed the IT revolution in India. In Tamil Nadu, the political narrative has been stridently anti-brahminical. Though brahmins have been away from politics, the Dravidian parties have always resorted to blaming everything on a purported "brahminical conspiracy". Modi is brahminical. Jayalalitha too is, but only for DMK and not for AIADMK. Centre's promotion of Sanskrit or Hindi is brahminical. Congress or BJP's anti-LTTE stand is brahminical. Market economy and globalisation are termed brahminical.

It is also routine for Tamil movies to depict brahmins in bad light. The theme of the recent movie, `Jeeva', is that a brahminical conspiracy is keeping talented non-brahmin cricket players from reaching the state team. A putative theory about brahmins suppressing nonbrahmins for the last 2,000 years and denying them education and other privileges has gained currency and is today taken for granted. No proof is required. No further research is required.

Even OBC violence on dalits across the state is explained in terms of brahminism, a term that implies that all evils of the caste system are because of brahmins and hence they and only they have to be held responsible for such violence.

Yet, the reality is very different. Though no statistical data is available, anecdotally I can say that brahmins have inter-married more than any other caste in Tamil Nadu.

There is no rancour or resorting to honour killing when inter-caste or inter-religious marriages happen. They have been at the forefront of pre serving performing arts, heritage monuments and culture in the state and have done much to promote Tamil language and literature. They have contributed immensely to science, engineering, medi to science, engineering, medicine and education in the state.

Politically excluded and socially reviled, what can the Tamil brahmins do to preserve their identity and yet feel secure within the social space in Tamil Nadu and India?

Brahmins are unlikely to demand any kind of reservation in education, job or political sphere. All they would look for is an amenable climate where they can, like other communities, contribute to the progress of the nation.In a liberal country , we would like communities such as Muslims, Christians, Parsis and Jains preserving their unique faith, tradition, customs, attire, language and practices. The same has to be extended to the brahmins of Tamil Nadu. They should be allowed to retain multiple identities -that of a brahmin, a Tamil and an Indian -with pride.

The political hate narrative in Tamil Nadu must change.

(A co-founder of, the author is managing director of New Horizon Media Private Limited)

Monday, September 29, 2014

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

On compulsory Tamil in TN Schools

Starting this year, schools coming under the Tamil Nadu Government Board must have to have Tamil as one of the subjects. This has made a few people upset. Most notably the private schools operating under the name "Matriculation" schools. There is a long history to this. I will try to keep it as brief as possible.

Between 2006-2011, DMK Government under M. Karunanidhi brought out three important pieces of legislation in the school education space.
  1. Tamil Nadu Learning Act, 2006
  2. Tamil Nadu Schools (Regulation of Collection of Fee) Act, 2009
  3. Tamil Nadu Uniform System of School Education Act, 2010
The first one enforced that over time, Tamil will have to be compulsorily taught to every student coming under the Tamil Nadu boards. The second one put the screws on the private Matriculation schools on what sort of fee they could collect from their students. The third abolished the State Board, Matriculation and Oriental and replaced them with a single "Equitable & Uniform Syllabus".

Naturally, the Matriculation schools opposed all of the above. They were also hit by the central legislation, "The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009."

Matriculation schools are private schools which had a considerable degree of autonomy until the 2010 act. They are all English medium schools, and to start with had Tamil as one of the subjects. Over time, they started introducing subjects such as Hindi, French, German etc. replacing Tamil. So it was possible for someone to study in Tamil Nadu under a Tamil Nadu Government Board without knowing a single letter of Tamil. Not anymore.

Oriental schools were religious minority schools set up by Islamic trusts and mostly Hindu Brahminical mutts offering Urdu and Sanskrit respectively instead of Tamil. They also offered a strong dose of religious education.

The 2006 Tamil Nadu Learning impacted both the Matriculation and the Oriental schools. The linguistic minorities such as Malayala Samajams offering Malayalam instead of Tamil were also affected.

This act was challenged in the courts by the Malayala Samajam and Nair Society, but failed. An 18th Feb 2008 ruling by the Supreme Court sided with the Tamil Nadu Government and said such an act is not infringing on the linguistic minorities. The Malayala Samajam was claiming that they were imparting education through mother tongue and should hence get legal protection. In reality these schools are/were imparting education via English and not mother tongue and merely teaching Malayalam as a subject. 

However the impact of the 2006 act was not immediate as enough time was given to slowly shift new incoming students to Tamil while the old students were allowed to continue in the language of their choice till the school leaving exam. It is only this academic year that they are all expected to teach Tamil in every class, and we have started seeing the opposition building up again.

The 2009 fee control act was brought in primarily because the private matriculation schools were charging too much in terms of fees. The motive was probably political too. Many private schools have to be blamed for their excessive fees, but it should be acknowledged that the fee control committee that was set up as a follow up to this act flexed its muscles too much. With the change of government, this committee is not to be seen anywhere now.

The 2009 Right to Education act with its 25% reservation clause in it has deeply hurt the finances of the private schools. These schools are owed fees by the Government for the last two years.

The 2010 Uniform syllabus act robbed the "Matriculation" special brand from the private schools (though the private schools still continue with that name).

Private schools fought all these measures and lost in each one of them. The 2011 regime change didn't help them much. Jayalalitha tried to delay the implementation of the Uniform syllabus act, but was stopped by the Supreme Court from doing that.

Now, the full scale implementation of the 2006 Compulsory Tamil Act is being resisted again by the Matriculation schools.

There are three sets of people who do not like the 2006 Act.
  1. Linguistic minorities who share the state border with Kerala, Karnataka & Andhra. Linguistic minorities who have come and settled down in places like Chennai.
  2. Religious minorities who want to learn Urdu or Sanskrit instead of Tamil, in religious schools. Muslim organizations have already complained about this act in the recent times. I think the Sanskrit folks have completely given up.
  3. Tamils who would rather learn some other language than Tamil, simply because it is easier to crack the said language in the exams than Tamil. They however  claim that their job prospects are better now because they have learnt Hindi, French etc. This is now the vocal majority who are questioning the 2006 Act; not the categories above.
The linguistic and religious minorities have made noise, fought court cases and have sort of given up. It is the third group with no special interest protection from the constitution who are now fighting this. The Matriculation schools claim they are going to court but have not yet done so. They have fired the first salvo - an NDTV special bulletin which claims that Tamils are eager to learn Hindi. This hit job grabs a few willing people giving sound bites on their objection to the 2006 Act as below:
  • It is boring to learn Tamil
  • In the globalised world, we need to learn other languages to survive
  • Local language is important but can be learnt at home and hence it is not necessary to teach the same in school. Thus it can be vacated and something else can be inserted there.
And thus their opposition to the 2006 Act which somehow stops them from achieving their objectives.

I will accept that the Tamil syllabus is mostly boring and has not been modernised for a long time. The new books are in all-colour while the older books were in black and white. Not much has changed otherwise. You have to learn many old poems, difficult grammar (much of which is useless for the modern prose), and bad prose written in an archaic style of the pure-Tamil movement politico-linguistic scholars. Outside of the bad text books, the comparative quality of Tamil is way over that of the other subjects, making it difficult for the students of Tamil over the others.

This is why the "globalization" Tamils want to drop this subject in favour of Hindi or French. So that they can spend little time studying that subject and allocate more time for studying Math, Science and Social Science.

Supreme Court has in the past endorsed the constitutional validity of this Act. So challenging it again may be difficult and will not be easily entertained. That is why the Matriculation lobby is doing a PR campaign and NDTV is more than willing to play its part in this campaign.

What should the linguistic minorities do? CBSE schools are available in Chennai which offer Hindi and a few other languages in place of Tamil. There are a few schools offering International Program such as Cambridge Syllabus etc. There is ISCE too. The rest should switch to studying Tamil as one of the subjects simply because they have to study under a Tamil Nadu Government board. I will demand the same for the Tamils living in other states. Those who are in a transferable job across the states may have to opt for Hindi in a CBSE school.

A few Matriculation schools have already switched over to the CBSE syllabus. A correspondent who runs four schools in the outskirts of Chennai told me that he had converted two of his schools from TN Board to CBSE from this year only because he wants to offer Hindi instead of Tamil to his students. But his clientele will struggle to deal with the tough CBSE syllabus as well as Hindi. (In fact those students struggle with English! They are all mostly lower middle class, mostly backward or most backward castes and speak Tamil at home!) More such changes will happen over the next year but very soon the schools will realise that CBSE will be too hot to handle for their teachers and their students.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

RTE non-payment by Tamil Nadu Government

I wrote on my Facebook status about the Tamil Nadu Government not paying the dues to the private schools which provided 25% reservation in admission to socially and economically deprived sections as envisaged under the Right to Education Act, resulting in the private schools threatening to stop admissions under this 25% category for the upcoming year.

The comments to my status, from socialists, communists and generally ill-informed people can broadly be summarised as follows:
  1. Private schools make massive profits. Hence Government need not pay the money due to them. Or at the least delay for as long as you can. Because they can afford it.
  2. If the Government doesn't pay on time, it is the job of the private schools to go to court. Why aren't they doing this? Obviously they should be motivated and want to scrap the 25% reservation.
  3. If the Government doesn't pay, the only option open to the private schools is to negotiate or go to court. They have no right to stop the 25% reservation, because they are bound by law. [Note that according to these people, law doesn't bind the Government in its obligation to pay the money on time. It only binds the private schools in offering the services forced on them.]
  4. If running private schools under such hard circumstances created by the Government is that bad, why not get the hell out of this area and hand over the schools to the Government. [As if, the Government is all ready to take over such schools and start running from tomorrow morning!]
What these people fail to notice is some basic Dharmic principles besides a host of legal issues.
  1. A Government is as bound by law as you and me. A law passed in the Parliament is stronger than a mere contract signed between two parties. A Government is duty bound to fulfill the financial obligations especially when it brought the obligations on itself. It was not forced on it by outsiders.
  2. There is a strong moral issue here. A Government that has completely abdicated its responsibility in providing basic primary education to its people has forced 25% reservations on the private schools on the explicit promise that it will compensate for the same. In fact, the compensation is inadequate - because the Government has only agreed to pay the lower of the fee or the money it claims it spends on its own schools per student. There is no auditing powers with the schools. If the Government says it spends only 10,000 Rs per student per year, that is all it will pay a school, which is normally collecting say 30,000 or more from its non-reservation students. Schools did not have a choice in opting out of this patently biased system, because the Parliamentary rights were invoked in passing this unjust law. Now, on top of this unjust law, the Government has not fulfilled its side of the bargain. This is so morally repugnant, we do not see the kind of outrage that should really be happening in any civilised country. But in socialist India, this does not cause any moral outrage but instead we see perfectly sane individuals coming and asking the private schools to buzz off. I am simply astonished by the moral bankruptcy of this class of people.
Issues that will have to be discussed and debated outside of this debate are:
  1. Is RTE enforcing 25% reservation with Government paying for those seats a fair law at all?
  2. Should the Government be building its own schools instead of paying even one penny to the private schools?
  3. Are the private schools basically cheats and hence should be closed down once and for all?
These debates in no way can mitigate the current immoral and illegal activities of our Government and any one supporting the Government action or defending it on dubious principles should really ask themselves whether this is the model in which they want themselves to be governed.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

MA History

After successfully completing an MA degree in Vaishnavism from Madras University, I have enrolled in a MA History program in Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU).

I chose IGNOU because they are the only ones who accept Engineering undergraduates for doing a masters in History. Looking at their curriculum and reading material, I am very happy to have made this choice. Their text books are extremely well written. Unfortunately, the printing and production standards are abysmal. For those interested, the subjects for the first year are:
  1. Ancient and Medieval Societies
  2. Modern World
  3. Political Structures in India
  4. History of Indian Economy
I have not checked out whether IGNOU is making these text books available as PDF or EPUB files. Will be useful to many people then.

I wish Madras University professors read these books and produce their reading material to this quality - or better yet, simply commission IGNOU to write their books. The rest of the Tamil Nadu universities are worse than Madras University anyway when it comes to the quality of books they produce for distance education.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

CII Conference on e-Learning and e-Publishing

I attended the above conference in Park Sheraton, Chennai yesterday. I spoke on the technology challenges one has to face in producing and delivering E-books for the Indian languages.

But more than my session, I enjoyed the last session on "Tablet Based Education".

Couple of years ago, I spoke at TEDxSSN about the need to introduce a complete Tablet based education at the school level. I was then disillusioned as I tested with many low cost Chinese Android devices. They were completely crap, the Android OS was not up to the mark, and I felt the entire Tablet revolution will be only for the rich and stopped thinking about it.

Subramanian Viswanathan of CEO of Edtech made some good points about why Tablet today may win where models such as OLPC failed in the past. I agree with him. I hope I paraphrase him correctly thus:-
  1. Tablets have a fantastic, natural interface through "touch", which even a child which has not learnt letters of a language can operate, while keyboards and mouse are a lot more difficult. Over time, we are going to get "gesture recognition" which will make it even better and easier.
  2. Tablets are getting thinner and faster and hence easy to hold and take around.
  3. Bandwidth is getting better and people are making provisions in schools for this.
  4. Unlike the Laptops software, apps have been unleashed for the tablets. The app store concept has made content and application creation and dissemination too easy. Social media has become stronger and the connectedness helps in innovative uses for the product.
  5. The users have become co-creators, and not just passive consumers.
He was suggesting that people invest in branded products rather than the cheap chinese tablets. (I should know better!)

But the really fascinating talk was the one that followed - by Shefali Jhaveri, a teacher at the Canadian International School at Bangalore. Her school has introduced iPads for all the students. No books, no notebooks. Everything is done in their iPads. To get the teachers familiar with this product, the teachers were given the iPads a good six months ahead.

The default apps that come with the iPad for the students include Pages, Numbers, Keynote, iMovie, Comic Life and she also talked later about Doceri. Students write their reports using Pages, presentations using Keynote, and also compile their projects using Doceri (a screen animator app - I have not used this). Comic Life is used by the students to create some of their projects.

Teachers trawl through iTunes Univ and identify course material rleated to the syllabus they have to teach. Text books are provided through iPad directly (I didn't figure out who the publisher was and whether iBooks was the book reader).

Subramanian, in his presentation, said most teachers are against the tablet because it does not enable handwriting that well, but that soon good writing may be possible with a pen like device. (I have found handwriting cumbersome as well currently with the current stylus models.)

Shefali talked about and demonstrated a human body app which mimics digestive system, respiratory system, circulatory system etc. which provides students with excellent understanding of these lessons far better than the boring printed book.


Of course, there are challenges in India for the neighbourhood low cost schools. There are even bigger challenges for the Indian language schools. It is up to us to take this exciting idea to the next level.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The incredible Arvind Kejriwal

I have been following Arvind Kejriwal, since Anna Hazare's movement against corruption gained prominence. I read through the various Jan Lokpal draft bills, and was not entirely impressed by them. I am not sure whether the institution of Lokpal will solve our corruption problem. However, I have felt strongly to support the activities of Hazare, and donate little bits of money wherever possible.

Popular support for Hazare's cause went up and then came down. That was inevitable. Many factors came together to defeat him. Hazare himself was one of the reasons.

But, when Hazare went on fast and the parliament had to be convened in a special session to debate corruption and Lokpal - that was the highest point of the anti-corruption movement. If you are cynical, you will laugh at this. The debaters in the parliament were all past masters of corruption and wheeling-dealing. It was clear that no good will come out of this special session other than to get Hazare to end his fast. You knew that the movement was going to fizzle out. Then why all this euphoria?

But the simmering discontent was there. Hazare didn't know how to make the best use of it. Kejriwal knew, and started his party - AAP. With just one year in hand, he seems to have done an outstanding job of galvanising the Delhi voters. This is simply incredible. Two days have passed since the Sunday results and I am yet to come to grips with this result. Defeating CM Sheila Dikshit in her own constituency, winning 28 seats, winning such a large percentage of votes, all with probably a small fraction of the funds at their disposal compared to that of BJP and Congress, are nothing short of amazing. From various accounts, it appears that even the AAP top folks are surprised by the results.

It is quite possible that AAP will wither away like Asom Gana Parishad. It is equally possible that AAP will go on to consolidate its position in a few states if not the entire country. Small states and Union Territories across India are ripe for such a new force. Pondicherry and Goa could be ideal pickings in future. States where there is no worthwhile opposition are other possibilities. For example, Maharashtra is drifting away with four large parties forming two fronts and none growing beyond their size. This state is ideal for AAP to firmly plant themselves in. Haryana which is ruled by a blatantly corrupt Congress, but where BJP has hardly played a serious role of opposition is another great opportunity. In fact, even Gujarat is a possibility where Congress is weakening steadily and those opposed to Modi want a strong rallying point.

This also opens up possibilities for other forces. Tamil Nadu is stuck between AIADMK and DMK, Both are incredibly corrupt, utterly inefficient, totally casteist and they hardly even talk about good governance. The challengers to these parties are breakaways from the same stock or are similar in content and form. AIADMK leader has not developed a second line of leadership. DMK leadership struggle may result in internecine family quarrels. AAP, or a similar group can establish itself in Tamil Nadu, if they do enough groundwork.

I am a little nervous about AAP's views on economics and other matters. But then, most parties in India have no views at all and they blithely go around destroying the country. Some of AAP's candidates seem to be dodgy characters, but by and large AAP seems to have given tickets to common folks who will never get a chance in any other party. That gladdens me a lot. If they maintain this character, I will support them wholeheartedly.

[Disclaimer: I have published the Tamil translation of Arvind Kejriwal's book 'Swaraj', தன்னாட்சி: வளமான இந்தியாவை உருவாக்க and my company is likely to gain if this book in Tamil sells more copies.]

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Quality of our graduates

For the last couple of days Satya and I have been interviewing rookie programmers - people with less than one year experience for a certain activity we are going to get into. We are not particular that they should be Engineering graduates, or MCA etc. But you find them everywhere and we have received resumes of people with either an Engineering degree or an MCA. They have completed their last degree just an year back.

After talking to them on other things, we ask them to solve a few simple Math problems. This is really revealing. I give below the questions.

One candidate with a B.Sc (Comp) and MCA couldn't solve a single problem above. His answer to the first question was "1". In fact three candidates all gave "1" as the answer to the first question. Then on further prompting and helpful hints, one came up with 1.4, another 1.414. One person came up with an amazing method, which resulted in sqrt(35) reaching close to No one could touch the quadratic equation. One candidate solved all but the last problem.

The degree we are giving out is worth shit.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

iPad vs Nexus Android Tablet

I went from this article (Unapologetically cheap) to this article (What happens when it's all glass?) via Shankar Ganesh in Facebook.

Ignoring other OS or device manufacturers, my basic problem with Android earlier was this. It was simply no good compared to iOS. The gap was just too wide. The devices running Android were pathetic too. Even as the hardware started getting better, the Android OS simply did not keep up. That is until now.

Even now, a Nexus 7 (2012) 16 GB is no match for an iPad mini. However, as pointed out by Jason Fried, the gap is coming down and the common man on the road is not going to care much about the brand.

Google now seems to have gotten the right idea. Build a solid device - a good, cheap phone that is robust, fast and functional and a similar tablet. Hope it is also profitable for them. Such products can make a big difference to people in countries such as India.