Tuesday, February 14, 2006


Rang De Basanti and the likes of it made me think about the kind of messages that we are getting from these spirited youth oriented films. I notice that most of these films are promoting direct participation of the youth in government and democracy. While that is necessary and commendable, the folks at the sidelines who make indirect contributions are also key to the upliftment of a country and its masses. Many times, help for social or/and political problems comes from unlikely quarters and it is important to realise the continuation of these efforts.

War provides the most vivid paradigm. In the first world war, when nations, blood and guts were pitted against each other, two key inventions helped to broker "peace" (as short lived as it was). One was the machine gun. On the surface, it may seem like 'just another weapon' would have little effects on one of the bloodiest wars in history. But the machine gun (and later, the tank) obviated trench warfare- that gory man to man struggle, where guts were spilled out and eyes were gouged- and in one of the perpetual and pathological paradoxes of war, made war cleaner and more 'humane'. So did the tank, with its capacity for instant long-range obliteration. So did chemical weapons, on which worked some of the more esteemed 'pure' scientists, including Nobel laureate Fritz Haber. Of course, the illusion of 'just another weapon' not helping to win the war was forever put to rest by the atomic bomb.
The point is that in war, conflict, and the constant struggles in society and politics, 'help' can come very unexpectedly from behind the stage curtain.

Who were the people who worked on the machine gun, the tank, chemical weapons, and the atomic bomb? -Scientists, who in Haber's words, "belonged to the world in times of peace but to their country in times of war". What would have happened if all these men and women had been urged to participate in the war in a direct manner? Or worse, what if they had been forcibly conscripted and possibly lost their lives? And indeed, they were, and they did. The brilliant physicist Harry Moseley, protege of Ernest Rutherford, lost his life in the ill-famed and bloody Gallipoli campaign. Nobel laureate Robert Millikan said that "his loss alone made the war one of the most hideous and irreparable crimes in human history". What if Harry Moseley had been kept ensconced peacefully in his laboratory, contributing to our knowledge of the atom? What if he had chosen to be that way? Would he have been labeled a coward?...As they say, better a coward than a dead man. But quite aside from that, Moseley emphatically would ironically have served his country better, and catapulted it into the front ranks of progress, freedom, and knowledge with his contributions. It is fallacious to have a narrow definition of a patriot, especially in these times, as one who gives up his 'karma' and races to the front. I believe that each one of us finds his karma sooner or later in life. Once we find it, it is through that karma that we can do the greatest good for ourselves and humanity, no matter that the total contribution be small.

The same goes for serving your country in peacetime. No matter how riddled our politics is with corruption and vile human beings, I think that it's not everybody's job to try to change it by direct action (and of course certainly not of the kind depicted in movies). Progress is always slow; quick progress is always akin to a revolution, and that brings its own problems. Better be a quiet worker, doing your job, fomenting the silent revolution that happens in many infinitesimal steps. As a scientist, I can speak from that perspective, and I know there will be many more of others. Radar, for example, was nothing more than an interesting experiment in electromagnetics in world war two. The scientists initially working on it had no idea it would be so vital later on. In fact, many people still believe that it was Radar and not the bomb, that ultimately saved more lives. Even in peacetime, there are so many people who are going about their work and essentially are unknown. To equate their quiet work with disinterest in the country's affairs is extremely unfair to them. After all, in its sum totality, a country is judged not only by its polity, important as it may be. Compulsory conscription and an insistence on any kind of direct participation is to enforce a blind law that ignores worthy cases that may better serve the nation otherwise. Compuslory conscription especially, except in case of an emergency shortage, does not make sense to me. Leave alone the people who are doing their job in peace. Don't exhort them for direct participation. It is through indirect contributions that they can do the most; let the artists create art, writers create novels, and scientists make discoveries. These people are as interested, and as critical for, the development of the nation as are the young men that march into government buildings and demand explanations. Their value is more subtle, but no less crucial. In war as well as peacetime, don't detach them from their duty under the guise of obvious, more important, or critically necessary diversions, for diversions they will be for them...you want to know 'what's their use'?...ask Newton; when he was asked what was the use of his calculus, he responded, "What's the use of a newborn baby?...Let it thrive. Wait and see.


Blogger Vivek Gupta said...

I absolutely loved Newton's retort. Pure gem!

11:51 AM  
Blogger SN said...

A great point. But don't you think that everyone should pitch to the overall pictures beyond their specializations too? What I mean is that the scientist should not be asked to serve in the army, but I would expect him to go vote. Similarly, the youth who marches into government buildings and demands an explanation has the responsibility of not doing something stupid like destroying public property. What do you say?

5:49 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Absolutely true! Minimum responsibilities cannot be shirked; my objection only is about tearing away people from something with which they can serve their country better. And as you know, precisely in reference to your point, the ending of RDB was irrational. I can understand the frustration of many people, but still the supposed quick fix may not be a quick fix...progress is slow. It's sad but true.

5:04 AM  

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