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New Social Compact

A Liberal Society: An Absolute Anomaly

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The murder of a senior Indian journalist and activist, Gauri Lankesh, brought to the fore the fragility of a liberal society. Although the motive behind the murder and the identity of the assailants haven’t been confirmed, it should be borne in mind that Ms. Lankesh’s activism wasn’t tepid or cordial. Her political ensemble consisted of excoriating censure of Hindu nationalism; support for civil rights for minorities, including the ‘scheduled castes’; and a deep concern for free speech and expression.

As would be expected, she received a steady supply of hate mail and death threats over her political positions and activism.

What wasn’t expected was private citizens on social media celebrating and rationalizing the death of Ms. Lankesh.

Prior inroads in to the liberal conscience of Indian society metamorphosed in the form of a controversial and highly indefensible legislation against cattle slaughter, reeking of ulterior motives to bring dietary practices in line with religious sentiments, supposedly ascribed to a resurgent Hindu nationalist movement. This was followed by the installation of de-facto cow-vigilantes, whose sole purpose has been to crack down on the trade, transport, and storage of beef and cattle by absolutely ‘any means necessary’ in juxtaposition with the prime minister’s bromides in response to the atrocities committed by self-professed ‘cow protectors.’

Even more worrisome is the cheerleading for a nationwide beef ban as is illustrated here. The article’s author, Sunil Rajguru, employs the Hindu makeup of Indian demographic as the first argument, among an untenable and light-weight salvo of ten, in favor of banning beef. The Huffington Post went irretrievably off the deep end as it hustled to rally gullible, virtue-signaling liberals in supporting the beef ban by drawing false equivalencies between civil rights for humans and painful slaughter practices, under the auspices of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (The HuffPo article is a must-read for its ability to leave the reader in sheer amazement.)

It is staggering to see the devolution of what has been touted as a liberal society, the world’s largest secular democracy, serving as the homestead for a myriad of ethno-linguistic groups.

Turkey, the secular poster child of the Middle-East, experienced a ‘cultural cleanup’ and curtailment of Internet freedom when President Erdogan banned Wikipedia and TV dating shows. This is an about-face from the Ataturk’s objective of establishing a secular and liberal Turkey.

Despite his intolerance of dissent and criticism and his tenuous resolve to maintain separation of religion and state, President Erdogan remains popular with his followers, who make at least a half of the Turkish demographic. This was reflected in the 2017 constitutional referendum, where a majority of the Turkish citizenry voted in favor of an administrative switch – from parliamentary to presidential governance. This would not only concentrate disproportionate power in the hands of the President, but with a poor system of checks and balances, the head of state will virtually have a free pass to unlimited authority and control.

European nations have also been steadily washed in to an illiberal tide of placing burden on freedom of expression. Their peers across the Atlantic haven’t been faring well either, with the Canadian parliament welcoming a motion to use government power to curb religious discrimination – a protection afforded only to Islam. Critics fear that some of the text of the motion, cleverly hidden behind a veil of ambiguity, can be metamorphosed into limitations on freedom of expression.

US college campuses, the last battleground in the fight to preserve classical liberal values, have seen rescindment of speaking invitations, bullying of persons echoing unsavory views, and appropriation of administrative apparatus to shut down unpopular opinions.

Certainly, western societies are scoring better grades at preserving liberal values than are eastern societies.

Regardless, it raises doubts about the proposition that human beings have a natural preponderance for liberal values; that if left to their own devices and not interfered by nefarious elements, most societies will gravitate towards classical liberalism.

Contemporary events put the lie to this myth.

I would submit that classical liberalism is a contrived framework that attempts to stymie human excesses, not a system that facilitates the natural yearnings of human beings. It understands the fallibility of the human condition and acknowledges that even the noblest of the species are capable of imposing unprecedented burden upon their brethren, if it were to serve the interests of the former.

Interestingly, democracy doesn’t make the list of imperatives for classical liberals, but a constitutional republic does. Democracy is but a rule of the majority, which can readily descend into tyranny, if the majority collude to subjugate the minority.

Constitutional republics, on the other hand, are designed with the express purpose of protecting the rights of minorities – the most vulnerable of the demographic. This runs counter to the human trait of acquiring power, which makes constitutional republic an unlikeable premise.

In the minds of classical liberals, the state is a suspect agent, and cannot be trusted to carry out its duties scrupulously. Hence, their deeply-felt need to limit its size and scope and to remain watchful of its malignant growth. This reflects in a strong support for free markets, minimum government regulation, and maximum individual liberty.

Liberals also believe in a strong system of checks and balances and separation of powers to prevent the different branches of government to go out of bounds. While this may lead to gridlocks, it seems that is the very intention of such a system, in which rigorous and protracted debate occurs over every piece of legislation and policy-making.

A vigorous protection of freedom of expression and free press is paramount for a liberal society, but they clash with the machinations of power-hogs and protectors of the status quo.

A rigid separation of religion and state, to create a secular government, is galling to scores of people, for whom religion is the crux around which life and society is arranged and whose principles might clash with those of some other religion.

Secular policy-making and regulations upset religious folks who believe that their private, often impractical, principles should be worked into a legislation.

A liberal society, thus, is by no means a comfortable place to dwell. Views will be challenged, request for favors will be turned down, highly revered values will be discarded, and success will follow merit, not traditional hegemony. All in all, the residents will be irked from time to time.

No wonder, liberal societies are relatively easy to establish, but hard to sustain, as people grapple with the bleak reality that they will have to work with a system that is rational, moves through dialogue and persuasion, and favors no single group.

To keep this unnatural, loathsome, yet efficient, system viable through the means of a flawed human psyche requires an aware citizenry, vigorous debate, law-abidance, a deep understanding of history, and a persistent fight to limit government.

UPDATE

As a testimony to the above thesis, I would like to present the following statistic from Pew Global Trends & Attitudes Survey, 2017. Over half of those polled in India expressed strong support for autocracy and military rule. On the polling for support for autocratic rule, the Indian sample recorded the most ‘yes’ of any other sample, surpassing Russia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. This comes from a country that was birthed out of an overthrow of colonial rule and has been democratic since its inception.

An ex-dentist and a business graduate who is greatly influenced by American conservatism and western values. Having born and brought up in a non-western, third world country, he provides an ‘outside-in’ view on western values. As a budding writer and analyst, he is very much stoked about western culture and looks forward to expound and learn more. Mr. Malkar receives correspondence at saurabh.malkar[at]gmail.com. To read his 140-character commentary on Twitter, follow him at @saurabh_malkar

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New Social Compact

Remote Learning during the pandemic: Lessons from today, principles for tomorrow 

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Education systems around the world reacted to COVID-19 by closing schools and rolling out remote learning options for their students as an emergency response.  New World Bank analysis of early evidence reveals that while remote learning has not been equally effective everywhere, hybrid learning is here to stay.

Going forward, for remote learning to deliver on its potential, the analysis shows the need to ensure strong alignment between three complementary components: effective teaching, suitable technology, and engaged learners.

“Hybrid learning – which combines in-person and remote learning – is here to stay. The challenge will be the art of combining technology and the human factor to make hybrid learning a tool to expand access to quality education for all,” emphasized Jaime Saavedra, World Bank Global Director for Education.  “Information technology is only a complement, not a substitute, for the conventional teaching process – particularly among preschool and elementary school students. The importance of teachers, and the recognition of education as essentially a human interaction endeavor, is now even clearer.”

The twin reports, Remote Learning During the Global School Lockdown: Multi-Country Lessons and Remote Learning During COVID-19: Lessons from Today, Principles for Tomorrow, stress that three components are critical for remote learning to be effective:

  • Prioritizing effective teachers: a teacher with high subject content knowledge, skills to use technology, and appropriate pedagogical tools and support is more likely to be effective at remote instruction.
  • Adopting suitable technology: availability of technology is a necessary but not sufficient condition for effective remote learning.
  • Ensuring learners are engaged: for students to be engaged, contextual factors such as the home environment, family support, and motivation for learning must be well aligned.

The reports found that many countries struggled to ensure take-up and some even found themselves in a remote learning paradox: choosing a distance learning approach unsuited to the access and capabilities of a majority of their teachers and students.

“Emerging evidence on the effectiveness of remote learning during COVID-19 is mixed at best,” said Cristóbal Cobo, World Bank Senior Education and Technology Specialist, and co-author of the two reports. “Some countries provided online digital learning solutions, although a majority of students lacked digital devices or connectivity, thus resulting in uneven participation, which further exacerbated existing inequalities. Other factors leading to low student take-up are unconducive home environments; challenges in maintaining children’s engagement, especially that of younger children; and low digital literacy of students, teachers, and/or parents.”

“While pre-pandemic access to technology and capabilities to use it differed widely within and across countries, limited parental engagement and support for children from poor families has generally hindered their ability to benefit from remote learning,” stressed Saavedra.

Despite these challenges with remote learning, this can be an unprecedented opportunity to leverage its potential to reimagine learning and to build back more effective and equitable education systems. Hybrid learning is part of the solution for the future to make the education process more effective and resilient. 

The reports offer the following five principles to guide country efforts going forward:

Ensure remote learning is fit-for-purpose. Countries should choose modes of remote learning that are suitable to the access and utilization of technology among both teachers and students, including digital skills, and that teachers have opportunities to develop the technical and pedagogical competencies needed for effective remote teaching. 

Use technology to enhance the effectiveness of teachers. Teacher professional development should develop the skills and support needed to be an effective teacher in a remote setting.

Establish meaningful two-way interactions. Using the most appropriate technology for the local context, it is imperative to enable opportunities for students and teachers to interact with each other with suitable adaptations to the delivery of the curriculum.

Engage and support parents as partners in the teaching and learning process. It is imperative that parents (families) are engaged and supported to help students access remote learning and to ensure both continuity of learning and protect children’s socioemotional well-being.

Rally all actors to cooperate around learning. Cooperation across all levels of government; as well as partnerships between the public and private sector, and between groups of teachers and school principals; is vital to the effectiveness of remote learning and to ensure that the system continues to adapt, learn, and improve in an ever-changing remote learning landscape.

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Youth embody ‘spirit’ of 21st century more than parents

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Even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and other global challenges, children and youth are nearly 50 per cent more likely than older people to believe that the world is becoming a better place, according to the results of a landmark intergenerational poll published on Thursday. 

The international survey was conducted by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and Gallup, the global analytics and advice firm, and has been released ahead of World Children’s Day on 20 November. 

The Changing Childhood Project is the first poll of its kind to ask multiple generations for their views on the world and what it is like to be a child today.  

Part of the solution 

Henrietta Fore, the UNICEF Executive Director, said that despite numerous reasons to be pessimistic, children and young people refuse to see the world through the bleak lens of adults. 

“Compared to older generations, the world’s young people remain hopeful, much more globally minded, and determined to make the world a better place,” she added.  

“Today’s young people have concerns for the future but see themselves as part of the solution”. 

More than 21,000 people in 21 countries participated in the survey, which was conducted across two age cohorts – 15-24 years old, and age 40 and up – and during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Hopeful, not naïve 

Nationally representative surveys were undertaken in countries across all regions – Africa, Asia, Europe, and North and South America – and income levels.  

 The findings revealed young people are also more likely to believe childhood has improved, and that healthcare, education and physical safety are better today when compared with their parents’ generation. 

However, despite their optimism, youth are far from naïve.  The poll showed they want to see action to address the climate emergency.  At the same time, they are skeptical about the information they consume on social media, and struggle with feelings of depression and anxiety.  

This generation is also more likely to see themselves as global citizens, and they are more willing to embrace international cooperation to combat threats such as the pandemic. 

Aware of risks 

The survey also found children and young people are generally more trusting of national governments, scientists and international news media as sources of accurate information.  

They are also aware of the problems the world is facing, with nearly 80 per cent seeing serious risks for children online, such as exposure to violent or sexually explicit content, or being bullied. 

Young people want faster progress in the fight against discrimination, more cooperation among countries, and for decision-makers to listen to them. 

Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed who are aware of climate change believe Governments should take significant action to address it.  The share rises to 83 per cent in low- and lower-middle countries, where climate impacts are set to be greatest. 

21st century citizens 

In practically every country, large majorities of youth said their countries would be safer from COVID-19 and other threats if Governments would work together, rather than on their own. 

They have also demonstrated stronger support for LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) rights, with young women at the forefront for equality. 

The survey also revealed a strong alignment between the two generations, including on the issues of climate, education, global collaboration, though some of the deepest divides occurred around optimism, global mindedness and recognition of historical progress.   

“While this research paints a nuanced view of the generational divide, a clear picture emerges: Children and young people embody the spirit of the 21st century far more readily than their parents,” said Ms. Fore.  

“As UNICEF prepares to mark its 75th anniversary next month, and ahead of World Children’s Day, it is critical we listen to young people directly about their well-being and how their lives are changing”.

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New Social Compact

Seva, a book that is here to heal the world

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It was early in February this year that I visited the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Walking outside the beautiful golden studded Gurudwara, I couldn’t help but feel awe at the langar that was being served. Prepared for lakhs of devotees everyday. Imagine a kitchen that is equipped to feed around one lakh people everyday, what goes on in the minds of people working at the Golden Temple tirelessly to feed one lakh devotees? There is really only one value behind their actions – Seva. Seva literally translates to helping others and seems simple at the outset. But to understand it deeply, you need to read Jasreen Mayal Khanna’s Seva published earlier this year.

Seva – Sikh secrets on how to be good in the real world by Jasreen Mayal Khanna is a book that is here to heal the world. It is a much needed book during the current times and promotes the values of helping others while outlining basic things that we often forget to do – say thank you daily, embrace joy, work harder than you pray, practice equality at home, help someone everyday, be brave, learn to laugh at yourself and live in Chardi Kala. While other points might seem easy and direct, the last one, Chardi Kala might not be obviously understandable to many outside the Sikh Community. What is Chardi Kala? It is the mental state of eternal optimism and joy. The Sikh Community is popularly known across the world for helping others and Jasreen Mayal Khanna explains more about the Sikh practice of Seva, serving others.

For a few, doing Seva comes naturally because it has been taught to them since childhood. This is especially valid for people from the Sikh Community who, as Khanna tells us in her book, are taught to contribute towards community service from a very young age. For some, they need to ingrain Seva in their life to lead a more balanced and happy life. We often forget that the individual and the community are woven into a beautifully intricate fabric that relies on each other. We are only reminded of how interconnected we are to each other during times of crisis. The COVID 19 pandemic has been a great reminder about how we need each other to survive. Friends, family and complete strangers helping out each other during times of the pandemic has been revolutionarily eye opening. The truth is that we should not need a pandemic to make us realise how interconnected we are. Books like Seva are an ode to that fabric of interconnectedness that is often forgotten in the world today. With ancient Sikh secrets and promoted values of happiness, the book heals readers in ways more than one. You quite literally need to read this book to lead a more balanced life.

While many Indians have been reading books like Ikigai talking about Japanese secrets to life, books like Seva hit far closer to home for Indians. Reading the book is also a testament to secularism since you can understand more about a community that you possibly interact with daily. Moreover, the book also gives you the opportunity to understand more about the values of the community that you can easily pick things from. Seva is not just a read for Indians, but deserves to be popularised across the world. The book will hit the UK market in May 2022.

“I had my first baby in the first wave of Covid. Through the pandemic, I kept seeing examples of Sikhs who were risking their own lives to help absolute strangers. And while I was very proud, I was not overly surprised because doing seva is second nature to Sikhs. I knew that this is a story that the world needs to hear, that my son Azad needs to hear. I wrote Seva because it is, in a way, the solution to the problems of modern life. Read it to believe it. “, Khanna says rightly. She is quite right about this, you need to read it to believe it.

I hope you can enjoy the book with some traditional Sikh Panjiri, the most delicious sweet made from wheat flour and dried nuts.

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