The Bunker and The Bridge

I was watching a film at Fort Canning Hill when I first came to know of The Battlebox. Currently a museum tucked away in Central Singapore, the Battlebox was originally a top-secret bunker that sheltered British troops during the Battle of Singapore (1942). It was here that the British decided to surrender Singapore to the Japanese, the largest surrender of British-led military personnel in history.

My curiosity after taking the Battlebox tour led to me numerous personal accounts of British POWs who provided labour for building the Thai-Burma Railway under the Japanese Imperial Army. Both ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ (1957) and ‘The Railway Man’ (2013) were findings from that quest. These highly recommended anti-war films delve into the lives of the POWs in Japanese camps with the futility of war as the core theme.

While the Thai-Burma Railway is a character common to both films, they deal with two different periods in the life of the POWs. ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ is a work of fiction based on French author Pierre Boulle’s 1954 novel of the same name and depicts the torture the prisoners were subjected to by the Japanese. The film is a commentary of the clash of two imperialistic powers personified by the protagonists – Colonel Nicholson and Colonel Saito, who make for a great study on military tradition, heroism and pride in war. ’The Railway Man’ makes for an appropriate subsequent watch (binge if you can). Based on the life of Eric Lomax, the film is a cinematic masterpiece about the torment of WWII soldiers with themes of guilt, isolation, revenge, confrontation and friendship are skilfully woven together.

Much has been written about the historical accuracy of these films. Claims that the Japanese have, in a way, been demonised by the West have been countered by others which argue that conditions in the camps were much worse than depicted. These are important conversations to be had about the representation of historical events. However, despite these criticisms, the two films have much to offer to cinema buffs and history geeks alike.


P.S. The Battlebox having remained unused since the War was opened for the public in 1997. The museum tour takes visitors through the history of the fall of Malaya and Singapore in WWII and explains how an underground command centre functioned during the War. Romen Bose’s ‘Secrets of the Battlebox’ is an excellent read on the role of command headquarters in the Second World War.

The Omnipotence of Advertising

Warning: Mild spoilers for the second season of Westworld to follow.

Westworld is a TV series that is synonymous with heavy conversations around artificial intelligence and what it means to be human in a world where the distinction between man and machine is blurry. It captures the zeitgeist well, tapping into the elemental fear of robots taking over and juxtaposing it with the ethical dilemma of treating the same robots as equals if they were to attain consciousness. But in the second episode of the ongoing season, a conversation between two characters, one old and one young, shows something else at the core of the fictional theme park: advertising.

The older character is deliberating on whether to invest in Westworld. According to him, the technology is great and it is all very well to create an immersive world that is fantastical, but these are not sufficient reasons to spend his money. The younger man interjects and says that what the theme park offers to the people who run it is far more valuable than what it offers to its guests. And this, he says, is the ability to peek into the lives of people, see what they desire, and use it for advertising and marketing. His argument is accepted.

This is a clever nod to the real world that already exists today, a world in which advertising is all pervasive and is made possible by the proliferation of data and the ways in which it can be processed. It is sobering to reflect on the impact this might have on the development of new technologies.

I’m looking forward now to see if the upcoming instalment of Jurassic World, set in another theme park, also manages to throw in a reference to advertising!

How effective is China’s media management abroad?

Over the past year, there has been increasing reportage on China’s efforts at influencing public discourse in other countries. The so-called sharp power debate has been most acute in countries like Australia, New Zealand, the US and parts of western Europe.

A key component of discourse management for Beijing is influencing media coverage in different countries in order to shape favourable attitudes towards China. Two recent reports offer fresh insight into this.

The first is a study led by the Prague-based Association for International Affairs, which outlines media coverage concerning China in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary from mid-2010 to 2017.

The study finds that the coverage in each country differs based on interests and domestic political and economic landscape. For instance, while media in the Czech Republic is “often openly critical” of China, this is not the case in Hungary and Slovakia.

Moreover, the sustainability of critical coverage is doubtful, given that cultivation of political elite, expanding economic linkages and Chinese investment in local media coincide with positive coverage. The study also finds that primarily it is economics that dominates the coverage of China, with issues of security, domestic politics in China, social issues and human rights taking a backseat.

Another interesting point to note is that generally the public in Hungary and Slovakia “is relegated to information mostly imported from foreign news agencies or English-speaking media sources.” This is deeply problematic in that it tends to lead to half-baked and potentially prejudiced coverage, which is unlikely to resonate with local concerns or facilitate informed debate.

The other study along similar lines assesses the media discourse around China in Canada over a 16-year period, starting from 2000. The authors find that over the years, print media coverage of China has turned slightly positive.

However, what’s fascinating about this paper is that it reveals the divergence between the Canadian public’s perception of China and media coverage. For instance, it cites polls, which indicate that the Canadian public remains deeply skeptical of the economic and political relationship with China.

Canadians apparently view the political rights situation in China as having deteriorated over the years and have grown more pessimistic about the benefits of deepening economic cooperation. And this, while the media coverage has focussed on economic relations with rights issues being marginalised.

Pashtun Protection Movement: A Radically Networked Society in Action

If you have been trawling the internet in search of reliable news and opinion about the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), there’s some good news. Beena Sarwar has an excellent backgrounder in 

What caught my attention was the social media’s role in mobilising widespread support given that there is a blanket censure  of PTM by all major media houses in Pakistan. Sarwar describes this role as follows:

Their (PTM’s) demand for constitutional rights directly challenging Pakistan’s powerful security establishment was blatantly censored from the mainstream media. The pattern has continued with subsequent rallies.

But in this digital age, news of the Swat demonstration could not be suppressed. The social media activists or citizen journalists who trended the hashtag #PashtunLongMarch2Swat included gender studies lecturer Tooba Syed from Islamabad. Making the four-hour journey to Swat by road, she movingly documented her experiences on Twitter.

Without social media, “the movement would not be possible”, said one of its leaders, 34-year-old lawyer Mohsin Dawar, a former student activist associated with Left politics.

The rapid rise of social media in Pakistan (17% internet penetration, growing fast) and mobile phone subscribers (over 70%) makes television coverage (73%) less crucial than before. But censorship still violates the people’s right to know, as a statement endorsed by over 100 journalists in April emphasises. [, 6 May 2018]

So, the PTM is a textbook example of what we call a Radically Networked Society (RNS) — a web of hyper connected individuals, possessing an identity (imagined or real), and motivated by a common immediate cause.

In PTM’s case, the Pashtun ethnicity provided the common identity, Naqeebullah Mehsud’s cold blooded murder by the Karachi Police became the immediate cause, and Twitter, WhatsApp, Signal, and Facebook enabled the movement to scale. 

The oppressive and all-powerful Pakistani State has ensured that media houses have no reportage of the protests. And yet, it has been unsuccessful in stopping the spread of information via the RNS route. This typifies the nature of information flows — information propagates rapidly in networked societies, at a pace too fast for hierarchical states to arrest.

From past instances of RNS mobilisations, we know that governments tend to use excessive force in desperation if extended internet shutdowns do not work. And Pakistan Army has a long history of using force on its non-Pakistani citizens. Unfortunately, looks like this is likely to be the next step. Watch out for the Karachi rally that the PTM has called for on May 13th.


Blogging Is Not Dead Yet

In the first episode of this weekly podcast, Amit Varma and Hamsini Hariharan discuss the launch of Pragati Express, and their favourite pieces for the week. Here are some of the pieces that were spoken about in this podcast:

  1. The Freedom Fighters of Pakistan by Chintan Girish Modi
  2. Breaking New Ground by Manoj Kewalramani
  3. A Strong Law is Not Enough by Rishi Majumdar
  4. We Will Not Protect You by Alok Prasanna Kumar
  5. I Want My Free Sub by Gaurav Sabnis
  6. The Future of The Internet on the Seen and the Unseen


Three Dollars a Mind

Turns out that armchair activists like yours truly, who sit and analyse issues and write op-eds, are not completely useless!

A new study by David Kirby, Emily Ekins and Alexander Coppock finds that op-eds (opinion pieces in newspapers) actually do end up persuading their readers. General readers are apparently persuaded in a larger number compared to ‘elites’, from a sample of US readers with different political leanings. While the observed effect of persuasion drops by half after 10 days of reading an op-ed, that effect lingered and lasted for much longer.

Analysing the costs of persuading a single reader, Kirby et al find that:

Based on the cost of producing an op-ed, the number of people likely to read it, and its ability to sway a reader’s opinion, the researchers estimated that an op-ed costs from about 50 cents to $3 per mind changed.

[Science Daily, April 24, 2018]

The key to this is to figure out how many people even read op-eds. Even in the United States, a New York Times op-ed can only hope to get 500,000 readers, and a Newsweek op-ed can get only about 50,000 readers. The numbers in India would be drastically smaller.

Ping me on twitter if you want to take a look at the full text of the paper.

Hat-tip to Raju Narisetti for sharing the paper on Twitter.

Welcome to Pragati Express

This is the most exciting day for me at Pragati since we relaunched the site over a year ago. Today we launch this group blog that you are now reading, called Pragati Express. It has an awesome team of writers, even if I say so myself. (Even if I wasn’t writing on it, and had nothing to do with it, I would want to read it every day.)

There are old-school bloggers like Nitin Pai, Yazad Jal and me. Pragati staff writers will also blog here, as will various policy experts from the Takshashila Institution. The list of writers that you see on the panel alongside will grow with time.

But first, let me address these question: Why a blog? Who reads blogs these days?

I was a prolific blogger with India Uncut back in the day, and wrote more than 8000 posts between 2004 and 2009, averaging five posts a day for quite a while. I slacked off after that, and now use it mainly to archive pieces of mine published elsewhere. I rationalised my laziness by arguing that the Age of Blogging was over: Social Media changed the way people navigate the web and consume content. Twitter and Facebook took over the filtering aspect. The personal posts went on FB and Instagram. Bloggers moved on; and so did blog readers.

So why Pragati Express?

Firstly, all the advantages that blogging held as a medium still hold true: I described some of them in this old essay. Blogging remains an easy and flexible way for anyone to get their thoughts down, unhindered by considerations of length or news cycles. They can go as broad or deep as they want, writing always in their own style, not the house style of someone else.

Secondly — and this is a reader’s point-of-view, not a writer’s — blogs don’t require writers to take hard positions on anything. When you write an opinion piece, for example, you usually plant a flag in the soil: this is my opinion, and I will stand by it. In a blog, on the other hand, you can express thoughts as they happen, and ask questions to others in public that you would usually ask yourself in private. I find that a fascinating process.

If journalism is the first draft of history, as the cliche goes, then a blog is the perfect place to take notes for that draft. And everyone can see those notes, and everyone can think aloud with you.

What kind of posts will you see here? Quick perspectives and insights on events as they happen. Questions that pop up in a writer’s head when they read something interesting in a book. An overheard soundbyte that sparks off a thought. And so on — there are few limits to this medium.

One aim we have for Pragati is that readers should feel smarter after they read an article there. Our aim for Pragati Express is that readers should feel stimulated by it.

It feels too meta to write any more about it right now. All I’ll say is, watch this space. We should have around four or five posts a day, starting today, from different writers with different interests and different voices. Do follow us on Twitter here, and like our Facebook page for updates. Happy reading!