November 1, 2002


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Tools of the 'secularist'

Rajeev Srinivasan

Fear of Engineering

I have been noticing an interesting phenomenon for some time, but it reached a crescendo with the ascent of Abdul Kalam to the post of President of India. The rise of the humble aeronautical engineer to the nation's highest post coincided with a flurry of articles and statements in the Indian media that demean and attack scientists and engineers. I conclude, following in Erica Jong's footsteps, that 'Fear of Engineering' is the root cause. You remember Jong and the zipless you-know-what, don't you?

Anyway, the first inkling I got about the fear of engineering was in something by a particularly puerile (but definitely cute: I saw her photograph somewhere) 'secular progressive' columnist: she named many right-wing Hindus with backgrounds in science. Since right-wing Hindus are scum, implied she, those who study science must ipso facto be scum. Her logic is wrong, of course: she ascribes to the whole an attribute of the part. The interesting allegation is the connection between right-wing-ness and science. Are right-wingers more prone to study science rather than humanities? Or is the causality the other way, that is, they studied science, therefore they became right wing? She didn't say.

More recently I saw a magazine interview with the celebrated author Amitav Ghosh, where he said something to the effect that a lot of fundamentalists are engineers with banal ideas about religion. Charitably, he didn't confine this to Hindu engineers alone, but gave the impression that engineers of all religious persuasions had banal ideas about religion. I wondered why he focused on engineers alone. Do doctors have non-banal ideas about religion? Do physicists? Do botanists? Or for that matter, what about economists? Lawyers? Ghosh did not elaborate.

Now it is surprisingly politically incorrect of these people to pick on a set of people and impute certain characteristics to them. We are all aware of the Bell Curve and the perils of broad-brush stereotyping. I mean, imagine if the first columnist were to say all Buddhists were scum, or if Ghosh said all Christians have banal ideas about religion. There would be an uproar. This is another example of how the 'secular progressive' cabal is able to compartmentalize its concerns: religious minorities get all their solicitous attention, but not, for instance, linguistic minorities.

Personally, I have never claimed to be politically correct, so I am entitled to generalize, and I shall do so quite happily below.

I have to make some disclaimers here in the interests of full disclosure. My parents are both retired professors of the humanities, and whatever I say about the humanities types applies mostly to the younger generation: for in my parents' young days, it was not the case that every bright student wanted a technical education in engineering or medicine to guarantee them a livelihood. In their day, the liberal arts had not yet become monotheistic cults regurgitating received wisdom from Beijing, the Vatican, Deoband or Chicago.

Furthermore, I have my degrees in engineering and management, so attacks on these technical subjects I do take a little personally. Some Canadian woman (waving her PhD) once suggested that, because of my background, I couldn't possibly understand the humanities. I asked her, based on the general (low) level of intelligence she exhibited, if she had bought her PhD on the web. She was most offended. I must confess though that one of the best insults I ever got in my hate mail pile was from some Malayalee fellow (therefore possibly a Marxist) who suggested that I should ask for my tuition fees back from IIT and Stanford, for I had obviously not learned anything there! Touche!

In any case, it is pretty clear that some people have a rather poor opinion of either pure or applied scientists. And in particular, a bone to pick with engineers. This of course is a gauntlet waiting to be picked up; and there have been some retorts. P V Indiresan, former director of IIT Madras, responded with an article. And of course, there is always the old Samuel C Florman classic, The Existential Pleasures of Engineering, to fall back upon.

Why this disdain for the T-square brigade? The Indiresan article suggests that it is pretty safe to abuse engineers, because they are generally inarticulate and tongue-tied, diffident, and poor communicators. They do not react, nor do they get much media airtime or column inches. Quite. But then a few upstart engineers are spoiling the whole thing by speaking up, rationally and logically. They are beginning to upset the cozy apple carts set up by humanities types, especially those from the Jawaharlal Nehru University cabal. Said JNU-bots are appalled. Naturally. I mean, how dare these engineers...?

These JNU people have, ever since the BJP came to power, been on the defensive. Their comfortable sinecures as court historians and hagiographers have come under a microscope. They had for fifty years labored mightily, and successfully, with a few simple agendas:

  • The glorification of the Nehru dynasty
  • The downplaying of Indian history, Sanskrit, and anything else native
  • The myth-making about some imaginary composite culture based largely on imported ideas

    A prime example, of course, is the Aryan Invasion Fairy Tale. It suits the humanities types (and their many sponsors and financiers overseas) to keep drilling into the minds of impressionable Indian children and youth the idea that there is nothing of value that is wholly Indian, and that India is entirely a second-rate, imitative, culture. Which I suppose creates a better market for Euro/American and Chinese goods and ideas. And keeps India forever servile and backward.

    It bothers the JNU types that many of those challenging both their cherished shibboleths and their neo-colonialist processes are engineers and computer scientists. For example, N S Rajaram, Subhash Kak, Rajiv Malhotra. That many are Non Resident Indians adds fuel to the fire. There have been quite a few articles from for example, the formidable Anita Pratap, simply bashing NRIs as though they were collectively some kind of troglodytes. Appalling, an NRI engineer, my god, how awful that these people dare challenge the obvious superior wisdom of us flat-earth, 'creationist' humanities types!

    I am again reminded of Galileo Galilei and his encounters with the Vatican. Some people just can't take new ideas lying down: like the Vatican which finally recognized that the earth revolves around the sun 300 years later (in 1980 or so), it will take JNU about 200 years to accept that the Aryan Invasion Twinkle-Toes Tale is bunkum.

    There is a particularly illuminating and entertaining discussion going on at as I write this. Rajiv Malhotra triggered it off with an essay on the representation of Hinduism in American academic circles. One might think this obscure stuff, but Malhotra showed how this has a significant impact on real life decisions: the negative images of India and Hinduism affect how India and Indians are treated in all sorts of ways, much as the positive images created by the Needham Project have helped the Chinese project themselves forcefully in the Western psyche.

    Warming up to his subject, Malhotra then launched a spirited but cogent attack on the self proclaimed guardians of religious studies, the Religion in South Asia group, a rather exclusive group of academicians who look down their noses at those outside their clique. In particular, he pointed out that the den-mother of Indology studies, Wendy Doniger (formerly O'Flaherty) of the University of Chicago and her band of acolytes have a strangle-hold on the academic representation of Hinduism. Alarmingly, they also have a supremely Orientalist and dismissive, unabashedly racist, attitude towards Hinduism. And they do not agree that those in the tradition, the believers, could possibly have a valid opinion on said representation. See RISA Lila 1: Wendy's Child Syndrome.

    Malhotra's point was that Wendy Doniger and her brood both misrepresent Hinduism and insult it, and that they essentially indulge in intellectual terrorism. The responses were quite interesting. One Patrick Hogan (apparently a Wendy's Child) came back with the rash, superficial, patronizing and inane Ten Reasons Why Anyone Who Cares About Hinduism Should Be Grateful To Wendy Doniger. When his arguments were soundly thrashed by lay readers - indeed thoroughly and systematically demolished - Hogan refused to respond.

    Then came Jeffrey Kripal, infamous for his distasteful and ultimately dishonest study of Ramakrishna, wherein he accuses the sage of being a repressed homosexual, based almost entirely on his misinterpretation (deliberate, says Swami Tyagananda of the Ramakrishna Mission in his thorough and scholarly critique) of Bengali texts, Bengali being a language Kripal does not speak or read. (Despite the Indian sounding name, Kripal is white.) It is also likely that Kripal is projecting his own psychological needs or fears on to the sage. He wrote The Tantric Truth of the Matter defending his work. S N Balagangadhara rebutted him in India and Her Traditions: A Reply to Jeffrey Kripal and plenty of lay readers also responded. Once again, the 'Indologist' was annihilated; once again, Rajiv Malhotra's basic point about insincere and malicious academics was proven amply.

    How extraordinarily like India's own JNU cult this Wendy Doniger cabal is! I am struck by the equivalence between Romila Thapar and her brood and Wendy Doniger and hers.

    Furthemore, Sankrant Sanu, in a brilliant deconstruction, Are Hinduism studies prejudiced? A look at Microsoft Encarta, showed how the chapter on Hinduism in the most popular encyclopedia in the US, used especially by impressionable children, is grossly unfair. Not surprisingly, the Encarta chapter was written by Wendy Doniger herself, an unsympathetic, unbelieving outsider obsessed with the presenting the most simplistic, indeed most base and often titillating interpretations of highly symbolic Hinduism. In comparison, the very sympathetic Encarta chapters on Islam and Christianity are written by believers, insiders who go out of their way to explain the symbolic meanings, for example in the rite of Christians consuming the 'flesh and blood' of Jesus: something that looks rather a lot like cannibalism to an uninitiated outsider. Imagine the field day Doniger would have had with this if it were part of Hinduism!

    Interestingly, it was (mostly) a set of NRI engineers who accomplished the feat of exposing these people, logically and (generally) dispassionately debating the points raised by Kripal and Hogan. Granted, there were experts, non engineer non NRIs, too; however, the bulk of the respondents were NRI engineers, as they are most comfortable with the Internet and e-discussions. Interestingly, the comments were surprisingly thoughtful and erudite: frankly, more knowledgeable than I would have given an Internet forum credit for. And that brings me to a hypothesis: technologists, who have to deal with the complexities of the real world, are intellectually equipped to debate humanities people even in their own specialties.

    Yes, an engineer can comment sensibly on politics, economics, even religious studies, but someone from those disciplines will be baffled by complex engineering concepts. This is not to say that technical tasks are more important - clearly not, for brainwashing people on a large scale is much easier for those who control history - but let the humanities types beware: and I believe they do. Thus the fear of engineering.

    Part 2: Rajeev Srinivasan on Fear of NRIs

    Rajeev Srinivasan

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