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Of satellites & gau rakshaks

Of satellites & gau rakshaks
India tends to live in two worlds – ancient and modern. There has never been a starker exhibition of this dichotomy than the famous picture of a satellite being carried on a bullock cart in 1981.

The explanation for this oddity was that the testing of the satellite's antennae could not be carried out by placing it on a truck since the motorised vehicle is metallic. Hence, the pragmatic recourse to an archaic mode of conveyance.

However, the latest instance of the coexistence of the old and new is the aggressive display of reverence for the cow on one hand and the chief executive officer of NITI Aayog Amitabh Kant's observation on the other that credit and debit cards will become obsolete in the near future, marking a transition to an era of digital transactions through biometric modes as India's technological innovations gather pace.

Side by side with this progress, it is entirely possible that as in the case of a satellite on a bullock cart, electronic devices will be used to transmit messages about the safety of cows – or the lack of it – to roaming groups of gau rakshaks so that they can quickly take corrective action.

Such juxtaposition of hidebound attitudes and avant-garde norms can be seen almost daily on the front pages of newspapers. They proudly depict the firing of a rocket capable putting a hundred mini-satellites in orbit along with reports about the antics of the gau rakshaks and their glorification as Bhagat Singhs, the assault on those involved in inter-faith affairs, the vandalisation of film sets and the conversion of science congresses into circuses, as Nobel prize winner Venkataraman Ramakrishnan recently said, because of the presentation of outlandish theses claiming that aeroplanes were known in ancient India.

It is possible that the gap will continue to widen in the coming days between the expression of such ideas in words and violent deeds and the advancement of science at an increasingly faster pace. An example of this progress is the rapidity with which artificial intelligence or AI, as it is known, can become a reality in the near future.

Examples of the AI becoming commonplace will soon be seen not only on the shop floor of industries as robots perform more and more of the routine tasks or in banks where they will print passbooks and dispense cash or in the navigation systems which will guide motorists in unfamiliar territories, but also in far more sophisticated forms, like the appearance of self-driven cars.

In the not too distant future, therefore, highly evolved computers will easily beat thebest chess players in the world and also understand human speech and be able to talk, walk, grip, and move various objects. The enormous benefits to scientific research by such powerful computers which can work at an incredible speed are evident as is the danger posed by their military application. But the point is that India cannot afford to be bogged down in dietary fetishes and the hooliganism of politically driven mobs when the world is changing at a dizzying speed in directions which could not be conceived of earlier and appeared to belong only to the realm of science fiction.
As it is, there is an insidious attempt to turn the clock back in the field of history by rewriting textbooks to paint an unreal picture of the past by presenting a majoritarian viewpoint and condemning the minorities for all of the country's ills.

The propagation of such bias is inimical to the spirit of free inquiry and impassioned study, which can adversely influence analyses and investigations in other fields as well by infiltrating into the groves of academe and vitiating the atmosphere of calm which is vital in educational institutions.

Fortunately, the rampages of the gau rakshaks and others of their kind are seemingly taking place at a distance, both physically and mentally, from the laboratories and testing grounds where the satellites are built and launched along with the development of powerful missiles to boost India's defence preparedness.
It should be the endeavour of the government as well as the academic and scientific community not only to maintain this distance but also to seal off the world of intellectual advancement from the rough and boorish adjuncts of the political establishment.

In an ideal environment, the government would have been engaged in ensuring that the sanctity and independence of the academic bodies are not disturbed by a political agenda, let alone by the foot soldiers of the proponents of an ideology which seeks to mould the country's ethos in accordance with its exclusivist vision.

Considering, however, that the storm troopers of a majoritarian dogma are running amok, it may not be long before they invade the leafy environs of cloistered institutions. Unless the seclusion of the latter is zealously preserved, India may fall back in the race for entering the brave new world of Artificial Intelligence. IPA
(The writer is a political analyst. Views expressed are strictly personal.)

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