Aside

miss marple & an apology to india

while i have been sick, i have watched/listened to (a fairly absurd amount of) british murder mysteries, including tommy & tuppance and miss marple (including the episode in which miss marple and tuppance team up!).

on another track, there are always funny turns of phrase when working in english in india (and other places). one that always particularly tickled me was referring to “pressurizing” someone to do something, as opposed to “pressing” or “pressuring” someone into something, as i would say. it always seemed like an odd transformation of the word.

but now, thanks to miss marple,  i realize that ‘pressurizing’ was in fact a british construction, foisted at some point onto the colonies. i still think it sounds funny but at least i know where to place the blame for a goofy word.

order, power, and the importance of history – hitler in india

here’s a topic i‘ve discussed in passing for the past five years and now i suppose it is time to write on it. this article just came out, covering, roughly, hitler, gandhi, and bal thackarey in indian political discussion. i am not entirely certain of article’s claims on the extent to which admiration of hitler and dissatisfaction with gandhi are part of the same conversation. or, how much of either can be attributed to thackerey. but i have certainly witnessed both the admiration and the dissatisfaction bits. i defer to maximum city on thackerey. i leave the consideration of gandhi and the birth-rupture of the indian nation-state for others.

when i first moved to chennai, i was fairly surprised to see copies of mein kampf available for sale on the streets. this sight, in turn, heightened my surprise when speaking with even well-educated indians who had never heard of judiasm (by the way, trying to use ‘you know how buddha was a hindu…’ doesn’t quite work to explain the old testament and jesus).

this ‘what are jews?’ point is disturbing for two at least two reasons.

first, india is home to several important and old jewish communities, including in kerala and in bombay (the latter were not missed by the perpetrators of the 26 November attacks in bombay). in one of my favorite books, (indian) author amitav ghosh feels a connection with an indian slave of a jewish businessman in in an antique land, placing jews in this historical context of ancient trading between india and the mediterranean. judiasm is a part of indian history and people not knowing it points to a deeper problem in awareness about ‘others’ and even ‘self.’

second, further, this point suggests large omissions in the global history taught in schools and popularly known. actually, not just global history, but indian history as well, since subhas chandra bose reached out to, and was rebuffed by, hitler to help with independence from the british. for all of hitler’s mis/use of aryan mythology, he didn’t actually seem to think all that highly of the people of the subcontinent. one might think that sort of insult would stick.

(third, the experimentation under the nazis is a key driver of research ethics today, which is yet another avenue to learn about some of the horrors in the holocaust.)

overlooking a relatively small religious group isn’t the only aberration i’ve found – also, not having heard of poland or proclaiming that south indians are the darkest-skinned people on earth or proclaiming complete ignorance (and lack of curiousity) about the beliefs of one’s muslim next-door neighbors. again, among people with master’s degrees.

to be honest, i was surprised that the students mentioned by dilip d’souza knew hitler had committed mass, systematic murder. in my experience talking with (some! only some!)  folks in india, many admire hitler and stalin (even naming children after them) in a way completely devoid of context. as far as i can tell, they see power, authority, oratory, and the ability to impose order without knowing anything of the whole ‘invading poland’ and ‘final solution’ bits. which is precisely what makes it all alarming.

it seems to be part of a craving for order and power that makes people name children after stalin, admire hitler, and proclaim that things would be better if india were more like singapore. a problem with this is that these longings seem divorced from history and context as evidenced, in part, by never having heard of ‘jews.’ it’s kind of hard to imagine what sort of instruction could teach about hitler without mentioning jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and so on. (yes, i know that sexuality and homosexuality in india are whole other cans of worms.)

of course, trying to cross the street in india – and seeing the messiness and corruption of democracy everywhere – everyone has an occasional longing for someone to impose order. the impulse for a philosopher-king, or a benevolent dictator, or someone to nicely just make decisions and get things done have been popular in the past and even now. but, as churchill said, democracy is still the best thing going given the options. sen has certainly commented on the non-need of strong-arm values to bring about development in asia and elsewhere.

democracy relies on having informed citizens – a civil civil society (e.g. here and one of my favorite diatribes, toward the end, here). has done since rome. will always do. this suggests we all have a resposibility in being informed and helping to inform.

in india, in the US, in a lot of places, we need to do better with our history, current affairs, and civics lessons. incomplete histories are dangerous things. it is not just those who don’t learn their history that are condemned to repeat it but also those who half-learn their history.

history is full of imperfect people that can teach us both how we should do things and how not to do things. we should know about both sides of past leaders. in the US ,we may largely equate hitler with evil and the fight against him as the last war we so clearly had a moral obligation to fight. anne frank is more or less required reading and we’ve seen cabaret or life is beautiful (the latter i had to watch before heading off to undergrad). this can make it all the more alarming when we hear people praise hitler or the nazi movement more generally.

some of the horrors of nazi germany may not seem so singular to those in colonies more recently gaining their independence. with good reason, and as we all should, people in india and elswhere learn and feel that the brits and americans have been plenty destructive in their own ways. this is certainly true. but hitler is a long way past imperfect and destructive. anyone looking to praise his oratory and authority needs to be fully cognizant of that.

(small addendum, 19 july 2013: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/05/hitler-fried-chicken_n_3550351.html)

(19 feb 2014: from @urmy_shukla: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/opinion/edit-page/LEADER-ARTICLEBRHitler-as-Hero-Society-Without-a-Moral-Compass/articleshow/32382342.cms. as she notes, strangely written but gets at the odd trend, which was yet again a topic of conversation following someone pulling out a swastik-ed bandana this weekend at ragasthan.)

diwali and drugs – lessons from drug sales in india

as, you know, possibly from watching The Colbert Report, it’s dwali. as stephan and wikipedia note, diwali is the festival of lights or lamps. 

being in india – or at least chennai – however, one might be hard-pressed to think that it was not the festival of sound (also, sweet pongal).  firecrackers – or ‘crackers’ – play a large role. at all hours. regardless of any noise ordinances. regardless of whether my parents thought i was under assault when talking to me on the phone. seriously, if you know a war vet that still jumps at loud noises, please avoid indian cities during diwali. dr. dischord and the awful dynne would be so pleased.

so it was (ok, and because of a hard mattress) that i went out in search of sleeping pills. up till that point, i had not needed to actually purchase drugs in india. since part of my background is in private drug sellers, i was fairly confident i would be able to get something that would get me through the exploding nights of the rest of diwali. the private drug-retail market in india is fairly infamous for being unregulated – or, ‘the free-est market’ as (many) people thought was a funny joke. imagine my surprise, then, when at drug shop after drug shop, sellers heard my request, smiled sheepishly, asked for my presciption and, when i could not produce one, refused to sell the pills to me.

 i finally found one shop at which the vendor, after looking around furtively, cut off some pills for a blister pack, stuck them in a little paper bag, and sent me off. i didn’t actually know what i had been given, so worked to reconstruct the letters visible on the back of the blister pack with my dad over the phone (no internet in chennai apt – this was 2007). i had some sort of anti-anxiety meds.

i tried asking around after that as to why my mission had been much more difficult than expected. the few non-‘i don’t know’ answers i got had nothing to do with fear of state regulation of pharmaceuticals but, rather, social censure. socially, people seemed to link sleeping pills, anti-depressents, and similar drugs with attempting to commit suicide. it was the community backlash from potentially being implicated in abetting a suicide attempt to which drug vendors were responding.

besides trying a few other times to buy sleeping pills and having difficulity, i haven’t researched this issue with any particular diligence. but, if true, it may suggest ways to work on getting drug vendors to behave appropriately, even if the formal regulatory system isn’t likely to catch up any time soon.

you’re not helping: seriously, CIA, we have enough problems convincing people to get vaccines, polio and otherwise

“At the behest of CIA officials, Afridi reportedly launched a fake polio vaccination campaign in Abbottabad last year, using it as a front to gather DNA samples from people thought to be relatives of the elusive Osama Bin Laden. This elaborate scheme would later contribute to the frenetic manhunt for and subsequent assassination of the Al Qaeda leader.

“(Before this) happened, one could brush aside negative perceptions about the polio vaccine, terming them baseless and ‘agenda-driven’, but not this time,” Fazal Shah, a development sector professional based in the northern district of Mardan, told IPS.

Religious leaders and tribal elders who had hitherto been highly successful in generating public support for the polio vaccine – by breaking myths about the vaccine being life-threatening, made of haram (forbidden) ingredients or causing infertility among both male and female recipients – found their efforts seriously hampered by Afridi’s hoax vaccination drive.”

Rest of article. (h/t KFF)

Update 6 March 2012 (h/t KFF)

“The CIA’s use of the cover of humanitarian activity for this purpose casts doubt on the intentions and integrity of all humanitarian actors in Pakistan, thereby undermining the international humanitarian community’s efforts to eradicate polio, provide critical health services, and extend life-saving assistance during times of crisis like the floods seen in Pakistan over the last two years,” the InterAction coalition wrote to the CIA director, David Petraeus.

Update 18 Oct 2012 (h/t Humanosphere)

“News reports out of Pakistan on the polio efforts there vary wildly, saying two very different things. Some say the efforts to vaccinate against polio are moving forward despite opposition from the Islamists, and from locals still mistrustful of health workers thanks to an ill-conceived fake vaccine ploy by the CIA… This report seems to indicate things are actually getting worse.”

Update 24 December 2012

“Yesterday, a male polio worker was fatally shot, and today four women were killed within about 20 minutes of each other in three apparently coordinated attacks in poor Karachi neighborhoods, including Gadap, where the July shootings occurred. Another woman was killed in Peshawar. Taliban insurgents have repeatedly threatened campaign workers, but so far no one has claimed responsibility for the current or previous attacks.”

Nice editorial 3 Jan 2012

“Pakistan now has a three-fold responsibility: addressing systemic polio eradication impediments, getting vaccination back on track with appropriate security cover for more 90,000 vaccinators, and reaching out to the masses with the right information to ally mistrust. At a minimum this would demand the will to prioritize action, the intent and ability of political factions to work collaboratively, and the ongoing injection of resources. With parliamentary elections forthcoming, all these will be in short supply.”

Further comment on recent polio worker killings via the lancet 4 Jan and time.com 4 Jan.

Nice post from Amanda Glassman and Charles Kenny (19 Dec 2012).

This situation unfortunately follows allegations that US security agencies used a Hepatitis B vaccination campaign as a vehicle for intelligence gathering (see here).  And it is clear that such allegations have had a chilling effect on vaccination programs—for example in Nigeria (see here)–even when completely baseless.

Given that, it is in our own interest to make crystal clear that the US supports global public health programs to improve global health alone and that US-backed public health interventions will not be used to gather intelligence. While far from a panacea, it might help persuade a few more parents to get their kids vaccinated, or a few more local leaders to back down from a boycott.  In the battle against global communicable diseases like polio and measles, every little bit helps.

Wired update 11 January 2013 (h/t humanosphere)

Worldwide, the polio campaign depends on the efforts of volunteer and low-paid vaccinators who work solo or in small teams, and there are signs that the Taliban intimidation has kept those teams at home. In Pakistan, both The News and The Frontier Post are reporting that “lady health workers” are staying home out of fear or as a result of family pressure… The crisis in Pakistan is not just about the changeable fortunes of the polio campaign, which has waxed and waned in public opinion since its launch in 1988. It is specifically in response to the admitted-to ruse by the CIA