I’m reading Ramachandra Guha’s great book on the history of India since independence. I’m only about a third into it, but I can say it is mostly a fascinating read. Ram Guha seems to see the big picture and writes with balance: that is, he isn’t patently for or against any view and describes history as it happened, not as he wishes people to perceive it. Unlike most writers and (even more so) our print media, he isn’t “against” any party.
This post isn’t a review of the book. It’s hard to review such a complex book and there’s really a LOT to say about it — maybe later. This is just a comment about one meta-level feature of the book.
In Ram Guha’s descriptions and writings, I get the distinct impression that for the first decade and a half after independence, the debates in Parliament were erudite, deep, considered and logical. The wisdom in the statements men and women made in parliament is apparent. Whether the arguments were right or wrong, they were products of logical deliberation. Decisions and arguments for or against them were based on a careful consideration of their long-term effects.
Today the situation seems more mixed. Even today some decisions are thrown up for debate by ministers who do present detailed arguments about them. This leads to a civilized debate. But other bills are promoted simply on noise: the minister shouts long and hard and loud, and the volume of his/her voice seems to be the sole argument for the legislation. Some legislations are brazen vote-gathering devices, others are blatantly self-serving.
So the quality of debate and legislation in parliament seems to have declined sharply over the decades. Does it seem this way because Ram Guha, as a historian, chose to focus on the debates of the earlier period and ignore the noise? Or has there really been a shift in the attitudes of legislators? I might know by the time I finish the book.
If it is the latter, it is ironic. At a time when India had low levels of education, we had careful, civilized legislation. Now that education levels are much improved, we have vote-grabbers and rabble-rousers in parliament.
The issue of the legality of polygyny has some political overtones in India, with parties like the BJP calling for a uniform civil code and other parties like the Congress saying that Muslims should be allowed to marry multiple women. I had a pretty interesting discussion recently with a friend.
The idealized question was: what’s fundamentally wrong with polygyny? Can we give a rational (not religious) reason why it should be outlawed? If both the men and the women are willing, why should the government (or indeed any religion) impose a ban on it? Here’s the answer I came up with.
To try to give a reason, we fixed on some assumptions. We have to clarify what we are trying to achieve and also what kind of society we are referring to. We assume that:
- men and women have complete freedom to accept or refuse polygynous or any other marriage arrangements (though this is patently untrue in many societies)
- polyandry is not permitted
- in the population, the number of women is not greater than the number of men
- we measure individual satisfaction solely by the ability to find at least one partner (a person is satisfied if (s)he has a partner and unsatisfied if (s)he doesn’t have a partner)
- You could say that this is unrealistic because a man will be more satisfied if he has more wives. I think the outcome of my arguments isn’t affected if, instead of a zero-one satisfaction based on having a single partner, we have a law of diminishing returns based on the number of partners. That is, each additional wife adds less satisfaction than the previous one. But for simplicity, I will argue based on the zero-one satisfaction function
- This is also unrealistic because satisfaction might be based on religious reasons rather than the ability to find a partner. Simply declaring polygyny legal might give satisfaction to the entire population (or a large section of it) for religious reasons. We assume that this type of satisfaction can be ignored, though it may be important in reality.
- the wealth of a man is the most important factor in determining how many wives he has
- the goal of any legislation is to increase the average satisfaction for the people
Under these assumptions, if polygyny is allowed, what will happen is that the wealthiest men will have a larger number of wives and the poorest men will be unable to find wives. At a macro level, we might guess that the wealthiest 10% of the men might marry 40-50% of the women. The poorest 10% of the men might only be able to marry maybe 1% of the women. Since there are fewer women than men, all women will find a husband.
Since there are many more poor men than rich men, this means that there are many men without partners. This leads to a low level of satisfaction in the population.
On the other hand, if polygyny is banned, there is a much larger pool of women available to the poorest 10% of the men, and a correspondingly larger number of men with wives. So the level of satisfaction is much higher.
This was a common question we asked ourselves during high school, when history seemed to have no uses and entailed an interminable sequence of facts that had to memorized. (History’s cause wasn’t helped by the boring way in which it was taught.)
Once you grow up, it’s kind of obvious that history is important. It gives you a perspective on current events, helps assess the effects of policies and actions, and observing successful people builds character and keeps the nation honest. I just wonder why no one told us this in high school!
There has recently been a spate of racially motivated attacks against Indians in Australia. This is an example of Indian reporting on the subject. Google news India has more than 1000 articles on the subject, with every major English language newspaper reporting various details of the attacks, the subsequent protests, interviews with Indian students in Australia, and statements from various students and Australian politicians.
Out of curiosity, I went to google news Australia, to see what the Aussies think about all this. Not too surprisingly, I found: nothing. I found something about a party, some birds dying, and a whole bunch of other things. I went down the list of articles to see whether there was anything India related. Finally, I saw ONE article on India and clicked on it. False alarm: it was about an Aussie tourist who had died a natural death in India (but the Aussie press sounded like they wanted it to be a murder).
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that there are racially motivated attacks in Australia.