Sunday 28 February 2021

This ambitious history of the British Empire touches on everything from the Mahabharata to Marx

 In ‘Time’s Monster’, author Priya Satia tells many truths long unacknowledged.

Since Niall Ferguson first published Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World almost two decades ago, there has been a remarkable resurgence of jingoistic Empire nostalgia in Britain, a trend that has gained renewed impetus with Brexit and as part of the current so-called “culture-war”.

Take for instance the controversy over the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford, which has become an unlikely rallying point for those of a more conservative persuasion. Rhodes’ modern-day supporters insist that was a great man whose memory should be honoured, and that removing his statue would be tantamount to the erasure of history.

Rhodes was furthermore no racist, we are told. Yet such a claim is difficult to reconcile with his deep commitment to white supremacy and lifelong dream of Anglo-Saxon world domination.

“I contend that we are the finest race in the world”, he famously wrote in his “Confession of Faith” while at Oxford, “and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at the present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence…”

This was no youthful folly, as has been claimed, but a guiding principle in Rhodes’ racist creed and one that he reasserted time and again throughout his life. In an 1894-speech before the Cape House Parliament, he stated that “if the whites maintain their position as the supreme race, the day may come when we shall be thankful that we have the natives in their proper place”.

Having built a personal fortune in South Africa’s diamond mines, Rhodes set up a private company to extend British control into Matabeleland, which was annexed after a brief but brutal war. The Maxim machine gun was here deployed for the first time and proved so deadly that its inventor, Sir Hiram Maxim, used eyewitness accounts as advertisement: “We could see hundreds of niggers mowed down like wheat before a scythe.”

British cavalry charging against Russian forces at Balaclava in 1854. | The Relief of the Light Brigade / Public Domain

When the Ndebele and Shona people later rebelled against Rhodes’ company in 1896, he waged a merciless war against the entire population, using dynamite from his mines to blow up caves where local civilians had taken refuge. One of his men described an instance when “the women and children came out, and awful sights they were. The cave was evidently a small one and they had been thrown against the rocks and were all covered with blood and the dynamite had skinned them or burned the skin off their bodies”.

The indiscriminate violence unleashed by Rhodes’ forces was not so far from that which the Germans resorted to less than a decade later during the first genocide of the 20th century in present-day Namibia.

Even during his own lifetime, Rhodes was a highly controversial figure, and he was obsessed about securing his own legacy, which is precisely why he donated so generously to places like Oxford and established the Rhodes Scholarship. When people today rally to the defence of his statue, they are accordingly doing exactly what Rhodes intended: celebrating him for his philanthropic work, while ignoring his record of racism, brutality and exploitation.

The inevitable argument is, of course, that we should not judge the past according to our modern standards and that despite any shortcomings, Rhodes did much good.

Mahabharata to Marx

Yet the very notion of judging the past, as Priya Satia reminds us in her brilliant new book Time’s Monster, was always part and parcel of how the imperial project legitimised itself. Rather than being a critical endeavour, Satia shows how history as a discipline has, in the past as much as the present, been complicit in the imperial project by “making it ethically thinkable” and, ultimately, by providing a powerfully exculpatory narrative.

Time’s Monster is not only a sweeping account of the British Empire over the past three centuries, but also an ambitious intellectual history, touching on everything from the Mahabharata to Marx, and from Shakespeare to Said.

It begins with the gun-manufacturing Quaker Samuel Galton in the 18th century and ends with anti-Brexit protests in 2019. One of Satia’s key aims is to expose and dissect the hypocrisy that lies at the heart of liberal imperialism and the conceit of British exceptionalism: namely, that the Empire had as its primary function to uplift colonial subjects and spread the blessings of western civilisation to the far-flung corners of the world.

Dichotomies between ‘civilised’ and ‘uncivilised’

The racial hierarchies that underpinned the notion of “The White Man’s Burden”, as Kipling described it, made it a moral obligation for the British to civilize those they considered as “savages” – yet at the same time made it inconceivable that those “savages” could ever really “catch up” and be considered as equals, culturally or biologically.

At no point were the British actually going to declare “civilising mission accomplished” and simply hand back control to their colonial subjects. Which is why, when decolonisation eventually did take place, it was the result of anti-colonial resistance, economic concerns and changing global politics.

Cecil Rhodes, the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in 1890s. Photo credit: Unattributed, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, the brutal and drawn-out conflicts in Kenya, Malaya or Ireland gives the lie to the prevalent myth of Britain’s “peaceful retreat” from Empire. The British ruled through coercion rather than consent, and the truth is that the benign rhetoric of paternalism and reform only ever served to provide a veneer of respectability on what was otherwise outright oppression and exploitation. So how is it that the British Empire can still be considered “overwhelmingly a force for good in the world?” How can someone like Cecil Rhodes still be celebrated as a great man in the 21st century?

The answer, Satia argues, may be found in the particular understanding of history and notion of progress that underpinned Empire. This ethical outlook was rooted in both classical and Enlightenment ideas of time as linear and history as an inherently moral force “moving irresistibly forward”.

Civilisations that failed to evolve were doomed to decay, while people deemed to be without any civilisation at all were simply left behind. This goes some way to explain the 19th-century British obsession with the fall of the Roman Empire, as reflected in Gibbon’s work, which was read as a cautionary tale but in the firm belief that they would succeed where others before them had failed.

This was essentially the idea of the survival of the fittest applied to the realm of human civilisation, and once race science gained prominence, hierarchies of biological difference were indeed easily mapped onto pre-existing dichotomies between “civilised” and “uncivilised”.

For great white men like Rhodes to rule over darker-skinned races was seen as a natural right and the way things were supposed to be. The unfolding of history was, in other words, considered a judgement in itself. At the high-point of Empire, historians in the Whig tradition could thus in teleological fashion argue that Britain was the culmination of civilisation and the measure by which progress was to be defined.

The more insidious implication of this logic was that wars, famines and massacres could be justified simply as “collateral damage”. Tragic yet unavoidable, and in some ways even necessary to ensure the onward march of civilisation. When the pretence of benign imperialism became increasingly unsustainable, the history of Empire was simply rewritten to account for any diversion from the path of progress.

A narrative of redemption thus became central to this history, as abolition was presented as making up for slavery, or the suppression of widow-burning in India cancelling out previous decades of greed and corruption by East India Company officials.

Thus the idea of the civilising mission was born, yet what mattered was the avowal of altruism and good intentions, rather than the actual outcome or practical implications of reformist policies (freed slaves were not simply set free, and widow-burning was a relatively rare occurrence, but one that made headlines etc).

If great men acting as agents of progress had made the Empire, their corollary – the not-so-great men – turned out to be equally important when corruption and massacres were undeniable and scandals unavoidable. Whether it was the impeachment of Warren Hastings in the late 18th century, the trial of Governor Eyre in the 19th, or the condemnation of General Dyer after the Amritsar massacre in 1919, public examples were thus made of individuals who were deemed to have “let the side down” and failed to live up to the moral standards expected of an Englishman.

This was quite explicit when Winston Churchill denounced Dyer in 1920, describing the massacre of hundreds of Indian civilians as “a monstruous event which stands in singular and sinister isolation” and as “foreign to the British way of doing things”. Dyer was singled out as a “rotten apple” and the violence explained away as an exception that proved the rule of liberal imperialism.

This focus on the individual has also meant that racism has all too often been presented merely as a personal characteristic, or regretful lapse of character. The real issue, however, is not whether General Dyer, for instance, personally hated Indians, but the indisputable fact that he was not unique in either outlook or action.

The figure of the “rogue officer” nevertheless allowed for the disavowal of violence and racism as incidental and episodic rather than intrinsic to imperialism itself. The ubiquity of racialised violence, from everyday beatings of servants to large-scale massacres, is thus deliberately downplayed or simply erased from the history of the Empire.

If British imperialism was a vehicle for progress, and progress is both inevitable and objectively good, then it follows that the Empire – though it might suffer setbacks or momentarily lose its moral bearings – always remained essentially a force for good. The idea of progress and historical providence sustained the imperial project, providing a powerful moral alibi that has never really lost its grip on the British imagination.

Satia’s engaging exploration of the historical thinking of Empire brings into focus something very important – something all too often lost in the deliberate obfuscation of the confected “culture wars” of today. Current debates about the Empire and its legacies are not actually debates about historical facts or different interpretations of the past, which is after all the bread and butter of the historian’s craft.

Instead, they are the result of radically different, and largely incompatible, historical imaginaries. If you subscribe to the conventional narrative of history as progress, then any critique of the British Empire, or calls for decolonisation, reparations etc, are prima facie invalid. Demands for the return of looted artefacts to former colonies likewise makes no sense if Western museums is where you think they rightfully belong, simply by virtue of having ended up there.

This has, in fact, become a normative historical outlook, which means that critical scholarship exploring, for example, racialised violence, or revealing links to slavery, is all too often dismissed simply as “biased” or “woke” – not because it is factually incorrect, but because it challenges the very worldview that so many take for granted.

Balance-sheet approach

Realising this also helps make sense of the oft-repeated line about railways and the Raj, which is patently nonsensical since the British did not conquer the Indian subcontinent in order to build railways, and the ones they did build were primarily for their own benefit.

The railway-network first established in the aftermath of the 1857 Uprising was first and foremost intended for the speedy transportation of troops, that is, for defensive purposes, which is why many train-stations were built as veritable fortifications.

Secondly, the railways were used to extract resources and increase British profits, while also enabling foodstuffs being shipped back to Britain at critical moments while Indians starved. The refrain, “but what about the railways…”, however, does not actually refer to steam-powered locomotion but serves simply as a shorthand for progress and is thus considered self-evidently good.

This line of reasoning, it may be noted, merely regurgitates century-old talking points and with no questioning of who gets to decide what “good” means, or for whom these blessing of western civilisation were supposed to be an unalloyed “good”. The Empire is long gone, but Britain never underwent a process of decolonisation and now all that is left are the phantom-pains of former greatness and an outdated worldview.

The so-called balance-sheet approach is not, and never was, a genuine tool for historical analysis. Instead, it was always intended as a way to deflect critique and redeem the Empire. The flip-side to this narrative, namely the insistence that the Empire was simply “bad” rather than “good”, or that the British today should feel “shame” rather than “pride”, is by the same token not conducive to a deeper historical understanding either.

This critique simply tallies the balance-sheet differently, with imperialism coming up short, but does not ultimately challenge the basic premise of historical judgement. In order to move beyond this conceptual impasse, Satia argues, new ways of looking at history is required.

It is not only that the conventional narrative of great men and historical progress is ill-suited to adequately reflect the nuances and complexities of the past in a meaningful way. It actively hinders the consideration of other potential historical approaches and thus excludes different historical vantage points.

There has always been, as Satia reminds us, religious and philosophical traditions in which time is not considered linear but cyclical, and where man’s own actions, rather than some abstract notion of providence, determines his fate. And as long as there have been apologists of Empire, there have been dissenting voices challenging the moral grounds on which conquest was justified, including radical visionary William Blake and founding member of the Arts and Craft movement, William Morris.

The British anti-imperialist tradition, recently explored in Priyamvada Gopal’s excellent book Insurgent Empire, in fact, remains a powerful antidote to the chest-thumping jingoism we have come to expect from the likes of Kipling & Co.

A counter-narrative

The counter-narratives that emerged as part of the anti-colonial struggle of the 20th century, formulated by Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, Frantz Fanon and others, offer yet more historical visions that directly reject western notions of progress and modernity.

The past indeed looks very different once we change our perspective, as global historians have long argued, and take into consideration a wider range of different experiences. Ultimately, Satia makes an impassioned case not to let the very definition of history be written by the victors.

This does not mean dispensing with academic rigour or indulging in some sort of historical relativism. Rather, it entails moving beyond an essentially moral framework embedded within an explicitly Eurocentric perspective.

Time’s Monster will prove uncomfortable reading for those who remain deeply invested in the myth of British exceptionalism embodied in historical figures such as Cecil Rhodes. And their inevitable response will be that he was simply “a man of his time”. Everyone is, of course, a product of their time, including Rhodes’ contemporaries who vociferously denounced him.

“What he called his ideals were the dregs of Darwinism”, the writer GK Chesterton stated, adding that “it was exactly because he had no ideas to spread that he invoked slaughter, violated justice, and ruined republics to spread them”. The people at the receiving end of colonialism, no less a product of their time but usually excluded from this argument, might also be expected to have held radically different views from that of their coloniser.

In 1902, the year of Rhodes’s death, Joseph Conrad’s classic exposé of the brutality of European imperialism in Africa, Heart of Darkness, was first published in book-form. While Rhodes still fantasised about Anglo-Saxon world-domination on his deathbed, Conrad’s narrator, Marlow, argued that “the conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much”. In the end, however, Marlow’s courage fails him and instead he lies to Kurtz’s Beloved, thereby preserving her faith in the nobility of the civilising mission.

In Time’s Monster, Satia does what Conrad’s narrator could not – she tells the truth about the Empire and reveal the “redeeming idea” for what it really is. A cruel conceit, that Kurtz himself had to face with his dying words. Skillfully dissecting the narrative of progress that undergirds the case for Empire, Satia nevertheless offers her own path to redemption.

This urgent and compelling book encourages us to listen to different voices, to tell different stories, and ultimately to rethink what it means to be a historian and to engage critically and imaginatively with the past.

The author is a Professor of Global and Imperial History, Queen Mary University of London.

This article first appeared on Kim A Wagner’s blog.

(Source: Scroll)

Saturday 27 February 2021

Marcus, cinematographer who gave special effects experts a run for money

 In spite of his high-sounding Roman name, a pallid complexion and blue eyes, Marcus Bartley was from an Anglo-Indian family of doctors based out of Yercaud. While his father, a military dentist, processed dental x-rays himself, young Marcus had to aid him.

As a logical extension, he negotiated a brownie camera from his father and got hooked to photography and printing. His father was stringent with film rolls — just one a month and demanded a return of at least eight good photos from them. While more than eight photos were coming out good, Marcus was failing more and more subjects in school.

He used the camera to shoot the countryside. With his next camera, he was published in The Illustrated Weekly and even abroad. Quitting school, he joined a magazine for a monthly salary of 70 rupees, thus becoming one of the earliest photojournalists in India. Soon, for British Movietone, as a newsreel cameraman, he covered the farewell of Lord Willingdon, travelling with him across north India. Covering a riot, he filmed a rioter being shot dead by an Asst. Commissioner of Police. While the police rushed to his office to confiscate the film, it was hastily put on a plane to the United Kingdom.

Marcus Bartley

When a German boss asked him to shoot the Bombay harbour, he did it with great gusto and when the photos were not printed, Marcus had a horrible suspicion that he had been used for espionage and the photos had gone to the enemy. He quit the job and rushed to Madras.

Transition to talkies was happening in Madras cinema. It was director K Subramanyam who used him to shoot Emarndha Sonagiri, a hilarious short film for a fee of 50 rupees, but when he viewed the film Marcus found his own work atrocious.

Bartley did not have any formal training in photography and all his experience came from observation. He would be on the sets for days before the actual shoot, working on angles and lighting to make it a perfect shot.

Marcus had great regard for the script and the storytelling aspect. Right from the start, he decided the cinematography should be an integral part of the storytelling but should not be conspicuous enough to draw notice to itself. He would often say: “The minute someone in the audience whispers, ‘Oh, what a gorgeous frame’, the cameraman is a disappointment”.

One of the movie moguls of Madras, Nagi Reddy was building Vauhini Studios. He gave him the job of setting up the film laboratory and head the photography department. Having grown under the black and white era, he became a master in turning reality into black and white abstract images. As a youngster, Marcus would accompany his father on the jungle hunts and be forced to keep awake for the entire night. The moonlight and its effect on the elements of jungle imprinted itself on the young boy’s mind. When he was a cameraman, he became famous for moonlight effects and any film under the Vauhini banner had a mandatory romantic song in moonlight (it was called Vauhini moon scene by the industry).

In an era when trick shots depended on the photographer rather than the special effects department, Marcus found his forte. His trick shots in Pathala Bhairavi and Mayabazar are popular even today. The methods he used are still not decipherable by today’s experts. Deception shots in Mayabazar and the song Kalyana samayal saadham... are still famous, mainly amongst children.

Marcus was an expert using the most influential camera ever made — the Mitchell, which not only dominated movie production then but would influence cinema production for the rest of the century with technologies derived from it. (George Mitchell got an honorary Oscar for it.)

But Marcus was a disciplinarian. He demanded and got total silence to concentrate on his shots and once even asked a movie mogul to shut up on the sets. Vauhini soon dubbed him a troublemaker and fired him. He joined Gemini, where he shot odds and ends. Fortunately, at that time, Ramu Kariat, a leftist director, asked him on loan to shoot a Malayalam film Chemmeen (a novel by Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai).

Shooting a fisherman theme, Marcus had a tremendous opportunity to show the varying moods of the ocean. The one thing that would have made the film an all-time winner was when he wanted to wait for the south-west monsoon to shoot the sea at the height of the monsoon (when waves touched 60 feet). Producers felt it was not a documentary and were actually afraid such shots would take the mind of the audience off the story. It was always Marcus’s greatest regret. Marcus left the project incomplete but still got the gold medal at the International film festival held at the Cannes. Many years later, Bartley finally received the National Film Award for Best Cinematography in 1970 for Shanti Nilayam, a loose remake of The Sound of Music.

In his retirement, he took to servicing camera lenses, and it was quite often that camera persons got a lashing from his sharp tongue for not maintaining the lenses as they should have done. The Tamil Nadu government gave him the lifetime achievement Raja Sandow award when he was deep into retirement.

(Source: DT Next)

Friday 26 February 2021

PhD entry in IITs tougher for students from marginalised communities

 Despite official policy, OBC, SC and ST applicants less likely to gain admission as compared to those from General Categories

Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe applicants are half as likely to get selected for a Ph.D. programme at leading IITs in the country as aspirants from the General Category (GC) are.

Data collated from a series of RTI applications, including from The Hindu, on the number of applicants versus the number of those admitted to Ph.D. programmes in the five older IITs has indicated that the acceptance rate is skewed against students from the SC, ST, and Other Backward Classes (OBC) communities.

The acceptance rate, which refers to the number of students selected for every 100 students who applied, stood at 4% for students from historically privileged castes (General Category). It falls to 2.7% for OBC students and further down to just 2.16% for SCs and 2.2% for STs.

Policy ignored

This finding comes against the backdrop of the Education Ministry’s data submitted to Parliament last year showing the failure of the IITs to fill Ph.D. seats as per reservation.

It showed that of the total admissions made by all IITs from 2015 to 2019, only 2.1% went to STs and 9.1% to SCs. The government’s reservation policy mandates allocation of 7.5% seats for students from the STs and 15% from SCs.

Similarly, 23.2% seats went to applicants from the OBCs against the 27% mandated by reservation. Remaining 65.6%, or roughly two-thirds of all the seats, went to GC applicants.

The IITs have often cited the lack of applicants from the marginalised communities for the situation. However, the RTI data reveals quite the opposite.

Five-year period

The RTI query data covered 3,279 Ph.D. admissions made from among 95,445 applicants in the five-year period from 2015 to 2019 in the four popular departments of civil (CE), electrical (EE), computer science (CSE), and mechanical (ME) engineering departments in the IITs of Madras, Bombay, Delhi, Kanpur, and Kharagpur.

These five IITs accounted for nearly 60% of all Ph.D. admissions made by all 23 IITs. Within these five IITs, the four departments included in the analysis accounted for roughly 25% of all the admissions made in around 80 different departments offering Ph.D.s.

The trend of acceptance rate being significantly higher for GC students is more pronounced in the Delhi, Madras, Bombay and Kanpur IITs. Though the skewed acceptance rate was observed in IIT Kharagpur also, it did marginally better.

In absolute numbers, only 238 of the 11,019 SC applicants and 40 of the 1,809 ST applicants got selected, according to the RTI data.

The disparity is more visible when the proportion of each category of applicants was compared with their proportion among those who gained admission.

The percentage of GC students among those admitted was always higher than their percentage among those applied. However, the converse was true for OBC, SC and ST candidates. Their percentages among those admitted was always lower than their respective percentages among applicants.

For instance, in IIT Delhi, while 63.3% of all applicants were from GC, they accounted for 76.3% among those admitted. In contrast, the percentage of OBC, SC and ST candidates dropped from 22.9%, 11.9% and 1.9% in the application stage to 17%, 6% and 0.7%, respectively, in the admission stage.

Few of the specific instances where the skewed admission rate was striking included the January 2019 admission cycle in EEE in IIT Delhi. Of the 195 SC applicants, only three were selected (acceptance rate of 1.5%) while none were selected from the 30 ST applicants. In contrast, 50 students were selected from the 1,071 GC applicants (4.7%).

In the July 2016 admission cycle in EEE in IIT Kanpur, 29 candidates were selected from 396 GC applicants (7.3%) while not a single one of the 46 SC applicants made it.

Bucking the trend

Interestingly, data from IIT Guwahati painted a different picture, countering the explanations for the disparity in other IITs.

According to data on 456 admissions and 13,033 applicants provided by IIT Guwahati, the acceptance rates for students from marginalised communities were roughly similar or even higher than GC students.

While the acceptance rate for GC candidates was 3.3%, it was 4% for OBCs, 3.4% for SCs, and 4.9% for STs.

While IIT Guwahati also failed to fulfil the reservation-mandated allocation of seats, it was the only major IIT that came closest to the desired numbers. The percentage of OBC, SC and ST candidates among those admitted were respectively 21%, 12.3% and 5.5%.

‘Selection bias’

Responding to the data, Professor and Chair in the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University Ajantha Subramanian said it was far more likely that the failure to fill the reserved seats was due to selection bias.

Professor Subramanian, who has written on the workings of upper caste privileges in the IITs in her book The Caste of Merit, told The Hindu, “There has been long-standing opposition among IIT administrators and faculty to reservations, which they see as a form of unjust government intervention in their meritocratic institutions.”

Arguing that the data showed the pyramidal structure of Indian education in which exclusion increased as one moved through advancing degrees, Professor Subramanian said the argument of “merit” was often used as an alibi for continuing social exclusion.

“A truly just admissions policy must directly address the vastly different circumstances from which students come so that so-called ‘merit’ is recognised as the by-product of unfair structural advantages and not simply as innate talent,” she said.

The recent report of an Education Ministry-constituted committee, which included administrators from a few IITs, has faced criticism for recommending the abolition of reservation in faculty recruitment.

Sukhdeo Thorat, Professor Emeritus, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and former Chairman of University Grants Commission, who previously headed a committee to look into caste-based discrimination at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, said the data highlighted the need for a further detailed study on the issue.

He stressed the need for increased transparency in the admission process and the presence of OBC, SC and ST members on the selection panels.

ChintaBar, a student collective in IIT Madras, has said the acceptance rate must ideally be higher for students from reserved categories with different cut-off marks for them.

Pointing out that the number of applicants from reserved categories was many times higher than the reserved seats, it urged the IITs to follow reservation in letter and spirit.

The Hindu reached out to the six IITs for their comment. IIT Delhi and IIT Kharagpur did not respond to repeated queries.

The other IITs ruled out the possibility of any bias in the selection process, and said the admissions were conducted in a fair manner. Confirming that the reservation policies were followed in all seats funded by the Education Minstry and different cut-off marks were followed for reserved category students, they said efforts were being made to fill seats as per reservation.

IIT Guwahati did not directly answer a question on reasons for the acceptance rate being uniform. The institute, however, said it was working towards admission policies to ensure all seats under reserved categories were filled.

Students from the Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) communities have significantly poor representation and acceptance rate in Ph.D programmes at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras, analysis of data obtained through the Right to Information (RTI) Act revealed.

The analysis was based on data provided by IIT Madras regarding 2,195 admissions made from 54,462 applicants in the five-year period from 2015 to 2019.

The data showed that SC students numbered only 7.6% and STs were just 1.2%. The reservation policy requires that 15% of seats be allocated to SCs and 7.5% to STs.

Moreover, the data showed a significant difference in the acceptance rate, which refers to the number of students admitted for every 100 applicants. While General Category (GC) students, which in the case of the IITs predominantly refers to those from historically privileged communities, had an acceptance rate of 4.4%, it was 2.9% for SCs and 2.7% for STs.

Only 167 of the 5,855 SC applicants and 27 of the 991 ST applicants were selected.

Interestingly, the institution had filled the reservation-mandated seats for Other Backward Classes (OBCs), thanks to nine of the 16 departments that managed to fill the seats. . 29.8% of the seats went to OBC candidates against the 27% of minimum allocation to be done as per reservation norms. The remaining 61.6% seats went to the GC category.

Though IIT Madras had admitted 3,874 Ph.D. scholars from 2015 to 2019 according to the data submitted by the Ministry of Education in the Parliament last year, it provided community-wise data on applications and admissions for only 2,195 admissions (57% of the total).

Despite appeals through RTI, a few of the 16 research departments in IIT Madras did not give data for some semesters. For the Mathematics Department, the administration said it had data for only one semester.

It can be noted, however, that the RTI data followed a fairly similar pattern to that of the data submitted to the Parliament in terms of seat allocation. Of the 3,874 admissions, 64.4% went to the GCs, 27.9% to OBCs, and only 6.4% to SCs and 1.3% to STs.

The RTI data threw light on how the difference in acceptance rate was more pronounced in some departments.

For instance, in Aerospace Engineering (AE), the acceptance rate was 6.6% for GCs and only 1.7% for SCs. In absolute numbers, only five of the 292 SC applicants were selected. In contrast, 100 applicants were selected from the 1,520 GC candidates.

A stark difference in acceptance rate was also observed in Applied Mechanics, Electrical Engineering, Humanities and Social Sciences, and Management Studies, between GC and SC applicants.

The Department of Computer Science and Engineering had one of the highest number of applicants from SC and ST categories. From the 755 SC applicants, only four were selected and from 136 ST applicants, none were selected. 

While the overall acceptance rate was lower in the department, it was lower still for SC and ST applicants.

Engineering Design and Mechanical Engineering were among the exceptions, with similar acceptance rates for all categories. While most departments had poor acceptance rates for STs, departments like Physics, Metallurgical and Materials Engineering, and Ocean Engineering, had better acceptance rates for SCs. Consequently, they came closer to filling seats as per the reservation rules.

Ruling out the possibility that the difference in acceptance rate was due to selection bias, Bhaskar Ramamurthi, Director, IIT Madras, said that the institution in fact adopted a strategy of calling a high percentage of SC and ST applicants for interview.

He said that an internal analysis of the past three years of data showed that SC and ST candidates were roughly 10% and 1.7% of the total applicants to the institution. He said that while 32% of applicants were called for an interview overall, the rate was 65% for SC and ST candidates.

“Only 25 to 30% of those from SC/ST categories who are called attended the interview,” he said. While the percentage selected among those interviewed was 24% overall, it was 16% for the reserved categories. “The acceptance rate for SC/ST is therefore not lower given that the calling rate is double,” he said.

On how the institution filled the seats reserved for OBC with the acceptance rate being better, he said, “We do not know why, but are happy that this is so.”

RTI data for 2015-2019 reveals poor acceptance rate for students from marginalised communities, with 25 of 26 departments not filling OBC, SC quotas either.

None of the 26 departments in IIT Bombay managed to fill seats reserved for Scheduled Tribe students in Ph.D. programmes between 2015 to 2019, according to data obtained through Right to Information queries.

The data obtained by the Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle, a student collective in IIT Bombay, showed that 25 of the 26 departments failed to fill Other Backward Classes (OBC) and Scheduled Castes (SC) quota as well. Eleven of the 26 departments did not admit a single student under ST category in the period under question.

Of the 2,874 admissions for which data was provided by the institution, 71.6 % went to General Category (GC) students, which in terms of IITs predominantly constituted students from historically privileged communities; 19.2 % went to OBCs, 7.5 % to SCs and 1.6 % to STs. Reservation policy demands a minimum allocation of 27% to OBCs, 15% to SCs and 7.5% to STs.

Skewed entry

In 13 of the 26 departments, more than 75% of the seats went to students under GC.

The data showed the acceptance rate, which refers to the number of students selected for every 100 applicants, to be lower for students from reserved categories than those from GC. While the acceptance rate was 3.8% for GC, it was 3.1% for OBCs and STs and 2.5% for SCs.

In 16 of the 26 departments, this skew in acceptance rate was more pronounced with SC and ST students having acceptance rates at half or lower those for GC applicants.

For instance, Electrical Engineering (EE) and Mechanical Engineering (ME) departments had the highest number of ST applicants. While two of the 148 ST applicants got selected in EE with an acceptance rate of 1.4%, the acceptance rate was 3.8% for GC. In ME, not a single ST candidate from 110 applicants got selected whereas 168 students were selected from 4,590 applicants under GC with an acceptance rate of 3.7%.

In the Energy Sciences and Engineering department, only 5 of the 610 SC applicants got selected with an acceptance rate of 0.8%. In contrast 82 from 3,902 GC applicants got selected with an acceptance rate of 2.1%.

Computer Science was one of the few departments that recorded dismal acceptance rates across OBC, SC and ST categories. Only five from 797 OBC applicants, four from 495 SC applicants and one from 78 ST applicants were selected with an acceptance rate of 0.6%, 0.8% and 1.3% respectively. In contrast 69 applicants from 2,997 GC applicants were selected with an acceptance rate of 2.3%.

The Centre for Studies in Resource Engineering (CSRE) and SJM School of Management (SJMSM) were the two departments that did not admit a single student from among SC and ST applicants. The two departments together selected 74 students from among 1,780 applicants under GC. However, none were selected from 313 SC and ST applicants.

Environment Science and Engineering (ESE) and Centre for Policy Studies were the only departments to fill seats reserved for OBC and SC students. ESE and Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) came closer to filling seats reserved for STs. HSS also had marginally better acceptance rate for OBC, SC and ST applicants.


The data also indicated that more students from marginalised communities were rejected at the interview stage.

A comparison of the proportion of students from different categories showed that their proportion remained fairly the same at the application stage and the interview stage. Overall, around 12% of applicants got rejected; the remaining 88% made it to the interview stage.

However, among those selected post the interviews, while the percentage of GC increased to 71.6%, the proportion of students from all other categories went down.

GC candidates accounted for 64.8%, OBCs 22.2%, SCs 11.1% and STs 1.9% in both application and interview stages. However, among those selected post the interviews, while the percentage of GC increased to 71.6%, the proportion of students from all other categories went down.

‘Fair selection’

In response to queries on the data, the IIT Bombay administration said that the selection process was fair and transparent.

“Lower cut-offs and extra efforts are made to take candidates as per reservation categories to fill the seats,” a spokesperson for the Institute said.

On the acceptance rate being different, the spokesperson said, “IITs have very high expectations of our student input, which is needed to carry out research towards a Ph.D.”

“While we do get sufficient candidates in certain departments, in some other departments, students of the required calibre tend to take up industry jobs rather than join for a Ph.D which has extra uncertainties and lower income levels during Ph.D and in some areas even post Ph.D. It is possible that the family background and economic level may have an impact on such candidates applying for a Ph.D. This requires a proper socio-economic study,” the spokesperson added.

(Source: The Hindu)

Thursday 25 February 2021

The adopted patriot of Pondicherry

 What makes Pondicherry special? The quaint French quarter? The nice beach? The well stocked bars? Yes, it has all of these. But it also has a special place in Indian history. Did you know that it was a refuge for Indian freedom fighters in the early 20th century? Pondicherry was French territory at that time, and patriots fighting for independence evaded the British police by quietly slipping into Pondicherry. The French and the British were never the greatest of friends. So, Pondicherry welcomed them in the spirit of “my enemy’s enemy is definitely  my friend”!

These patriots were mavericks, each one more amazing than the other. Perhaps the most interesting of those was a poet named Subramania Bharati. He was popularly known as ‘Mahakavi’ or ‘The Great Poet’. He was ‘Great’ alright, but much more than just a poet.


India map showing Puducherry

Born in a village in Tamilnadu in1882, language, poetry and music excited him from a young age. He soon mastered English, Hindi, Sanskrit, Bengali, Telugu and Malayalam.  Some say he knew 14 languages; but it was in his mother tongue of  Tamil, that poetry flowed! He was briefly the court poet of a princely state, but a palace was no place for a free spirit. A chance meeting got him a job as sub-editor of the popular journal ‘Swadesamitran’ at Madras (Chennai). Journalism became his true calling ever after.


Around this same time, he almost single-handedly ran another weekly called the ‘India’. Its publisher trusted Bharati and gave him complete literary  freedom. Bharati wrote about reformist ideas close to his heart: gender equality, democracy, individual liberties, inter-religious harmony, halting caste oppression and a whole lot more. These were avante-garde ideas in the conservative India of that time, and Bharati’s pen became an instrument of change. But one idea got him into serious trouble.


India was then a British colony, and Indians were second class citizens in their own land. Bharati wrote powerful articles inciting Indians to overthrow the British. The British were naturally furious.  British Intelligence watched him closely, waiting for an opportunity to imprison him. Bharti outwitted them by escaping to Pondicherry, which was out-of-limits for the British police. Even today, it is a mystery how he evaded them – some say he escaped by boat.


The year was 1908, and Bharti was barely 27. Ever the optimist, Bharti soon made himself at home in French Pondicherry. He learnt to speak French, could sing  the French national anthem as well as a Frenchman, and studied the works of French intellectuals like Voltaire, Proudhon and Rousseau. He found wonderful friends – fellow revolutionaries-in-hiding like Aurobindo, VVS Iyer and others. Together they were constantly making plans for a new India. His 10 years in Pondicherry were the most productive in terms of his writing. Bharti wrote on diverse topics like nature and environment, love and romance, philosophy and spiritualism.


It was no  holiday, though. His revolutionary work continued. He secretly wrote revolutionary articles and printed his magazine,  ‘India’, from Pondicherry. He knew he was still being tailed by British spies. So he arranged to smuggle copies of the magazine to Madras, hidden under haystacks in  bullock carts.


Subramanya Bharathi

The spies continued to shadow him. One account says that there was one inspector, 9 sub-inspectors, 45 constables, and dozens of paid informants, all keeping a close eye on Bharati and his friends. Bharati lived in and around Easwaran Dharmaraja Koil Street. For various reasons, including security, Bharati kept shifting houses in that area. 

There are many lighter stories around this. On November 22, 1916 a violent storm hit Pondicherry. Bharati had just shifted his family from one house to another. The next morning, he found that his old house had collapsed in the storm. The ever-positive Bharati took it as God’s blessing for leading a principled life. One evening Mrs. Bharati was disturbed because she thought she saw a prowler in the vicinity. Bharati easily allayed her fears: which thief would dare burgle a house watched by so many policemen?


But patriotism alone cannot feed empty stomachs. The British identified Bharati’s secret sponsors in Madras, one by one, and threatened them. Funding for the magazine dried up. Bharati tried to make ends meet by selling articles and poems, but that fetched very little in small Pondicherry. Sometimes, when the landlord demanded rent, Bharati paid up  by composing and delivering a beautiful impromptu poem. Once, when he had no money to pay the doctor who made a house call to treat his daughter, he sang one of his melodious songs as payment! But debts kept mounting. Mrs. Bharati woke up every morning to the abuses of the unpaid milkman. Soon, even Bharati’s charisma was no answer for sheer lack of money.


Bharati resolved to return to Madras. His loving wife and two daughters had always stoically supported him; they did not deserve this suffering!  He would quit politics and direct his journalism to happier themes. An unwritten deal was reached with the British bosses. They would leave him in peace if he quit politics. So, in 1918, he crossed into British Indian territory.  He was arrested by the British immediately. But now, prominent members of the society pressured the government into releasing him.


Bharati’s old employer, the Swadesamitran, welcomed him back. He returned to the life of a normal householder. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long. In 1921, the temple elephant that he loved, attacked him unexpectedly, when he was trying to feed it. Weakened by years of struggle – financial, emotional and physical,  Bharati died soon after. It was a tragic irony that 10 years of poverty in Pondicherry charged him, but 3 years of peace in Madras killed him.


At Pondicherry you can visit Bharati’s last house, lovingly restored by a grateful nation. What was Bharati’s greatest contribution? He had evolved a simple style of prose and poetry that was aesthetically pleasing but rich in meaning. It aroused a liberal outlook and patriotic fervour in an entire generation of Indians and galvanised them into positive action!

Even 200 years after his death, Bharati continues to capture Indian minds. Streets, colonies, Universities and educational institutions all over India are named after him. Tamil movie songs keep borrowing phrases from his poetry. The Govt of India annually awards the Subramania Bharti Award to authors of outstanding works of Hindi literature. To the millions of youngsters today, he is a kind of a poster boy representing freedom. His signature moustache and turban lend themselves easily to poster art.

Detour: Pondicherry’s rich history 

Pondicherry’s heritage dates back to prehistoric times. According to tradition, this place was called Vedapuri and was the centre of Siva worship. That is why even today the deity in the main temple of Pondicherry is called Vedapureeswarar.


There is evidence of Greek and Roman trade in this port during the 1st and 2nd  Cent. CE.


Between the 4th and 13th Cent. CE it was consecutively under the Pallava, Chola and Pandyan empires. In the 15th century it was part of the Vijayanagara empire. In the 17th century it was part of Gingee province. The Gingee province was under Bijapur, Mahratta, and Mughal kings at different points during this time.


The first modern Europeans to come here were the Portuguese, in 1554. It was briefly an unsuccessful Danish colony between 1624 and 1654 (Read the story of the Dutch fort of Sadras here ) . The French colonised it in 1664 and took it to great commercial heights in the next 100 years. Pondicherry was a vibrant port rivalling the nearby British colony of Madras. But successive wars with the British reduced it to a weak state by the late 18th century and early 19th century.

Yet it retained its independence and was an attractive place for Indian patriots fleeing British India. It became a part of India in 1954.]


When in Pondicherry 

If you’re visiting Pondicherry, here are a few recommendations: Walk through the French Quarter of Pondicherry and explore the quaint boulevards on the ‘French Connections trail’. You’ll find incredible stories behind every charming façade.

Enjoy a ‘Fishy’ meal at the Rendezvous restaurant


Go tipsy at the Storytellers’ bar.  

And when it comes to the stay, if you’re one who wants nothing but the best, look no further than Palais De Mahe

(Source: Storytrails)