Last week I completed 17 years in the United States, and three weeks back was 14 years since I last entered the country. I have been extremely fortunate at the opportunities I have had here, while the byzantine and illogical immigration rules have at times made it impossible or risky to travel abroad, and also stressing me out about the uncertainty of my future legal status. Yet the immigration debate on both sides bother me, where the binary choices come down to either slashing immigration numbers or supporting all undocumented immigration. Here are my thoughts on a few immigration topics –
First, here are some basic statistics about immigration in the United States –
- There were over 617,000 green cards issued last year, including over 230,000 in the family category and over 370,000 in the employment category.
- There are over 4.3 million people waiting on line for their green cards.
- As of October 2017, the waiting line for some family-based categories goes back 20-22 years for Mexico and Philippines, while for India and China it goes back 6-13 years.
- For employment-based green cards, the waiting line for India goes back 9 to 11 years, and for China it goes back 3 to 4 years.
- There were nearly 10.4 million visas issued last year, while an additional 3.7 million visa applications were denied.
- Over 40% of those living in the country without proper documentation have overstayed their visas, and every year since 2007 more people have overstayed their visas than crossed the border illegally.
As someone still jumping through visa hoops, I wonder what will I do if I go back to a country I have visited once in 17 years, especially when my own parents and sibling are citizens here. From a rational perspective, we need young people who go to school, college, and contribute to society and the economy. We need these young workers and innovators whose contributions can create even more jobs. From a moral perspective, we shouldn’t punish those who came here as children and for whom this is the only country they know or remember. Neither the latest DREAM Act proposal nor DACA should discriminate against legal immigrants who came to this country as children, which both currently do, but who have fallen through the cracks of the system because of long waiting periods. Immigration, when done right, is important for economic growth. Immigrants are consumers, employees, and employers. Their participation in the economy causes growths of jobs and new industries. They help businesses that cannot find enough qualified native workers. Immigrants tend to move to different locations more than native-born. This helps the growth of sparsely population and rural regions. When immigrants are younger they slow the aging of the population, and their contribution to the economy and taxes lessen the burden on the social safety net.
Immigration laws must also be fair, to protect both immigrants and native workers. Legal immigration must be made easier for those truly in need, like refugees and asylum-seekers from across the world, as well as those who can contribute to a country’s growth. We must fight restriction on intake of refugees, as well as fight the discriminatory ban on Muslim-majority countries. As an immigrant, myself and others have looked upon the ideals of America as a land of fresh start, a land where old tribal identities and battles can no longer hold us back, and a land of laws and a sense of justice and fairness. Helping refugees portrays the good side of America. And if we help those truly in need, we also benefit to reap the rewards of their gratitude. The ban on Muslim-majority countries does not distinguish between individuals, and painting them with a broad brush just because they share some man-made tribal identities is inherently unfair and immoral.
Whether it is high-skilled jobs or blue-collar workers, as long as employers aren’t allowed to abuse the minimum wage laws, hiring of immigrants must be made easier for employers when they cannot find native workers. But once people are allowed to immigrate as workers, like on H1B, they must be allowed to change jobs or look for other jobs without losing their immigration status by tying them to a particular employer. This gives the employee more rights to negotiate salary and benefits, and prevents employers from driving down their own cost and employee wages by hiring immigrants over native workers. As an immigrant going through the byzantine immigration process, as well as part of a company’s management, I have experienced the frustrations of the immigration system from both sides. There have been a few times I have thought it is better to go back than deal with the amount of paperwork required for filing an application, or feeling overwhelmed by the waiting line. And I have also seen that one of the biggest disruption for a small business is employee turnover. If someone has received a high-skilled work visa and has been working at the same company for half a dozen years, getting an employment-based green card should be automatic or at least made easier. Yet the employment-based green card process is ridiculously complicated for employers trying to keep their senior or high-qualified employees.
Similarly, H1B visas or employment-based green cards shouldn’t punish employers who spend time, money, resources on their immigrant employees who promptly quit when they find something better. It is not fair to tie employees to an employer, but it is also not fair to an employer to make them go through the months-long process of doing immigration paper-work and then lose the employee in a short period of time. Immigration categories like H1B must also be fixed so that a few multi-national companies, like those from India, do not abuse the process by placing tens of thousands of applications and overwhelming the visa lottery process. Smaller businesses should not suffer because larger companies get most of the H1B visas because they afford tens of thousands of applications. And highly-skilled workers of other countries should not be left behind because the vast majority of H1B visas go to Indian multinational companies who have overwhelmed the visa lottery process.
If the employment-based immigration process is complicated and long for those from India or China, I think the family-based green card process is even worse. Limits on immigrations from individual nations has resulted for some countries’ citizens getting a green card in a few months to a couple of years, while for people from countries such as India, China, Mexico, and Philippines it can take a dozen years to a few decades. And the visa categories have ensured that if someone turns 21 while waiting, or for a few other reasons, they can get kicked off the line and start the process all over again. For those who fall under these cracks, like myself, getting a green card through the legal process can possibly take half a lifetime, even if they have been here since they were children. Yet someone coming from overseas through marriage can get a green card in a matter of months.
From my experience, illegal immigration, even among the immigrant population, is an issue that varies by age and geographical ancestry of immigrants. Liberal second-generation immigrants, or those who came at a very young age, or those from countries without a long waiting line, tend to have a different view towards undocumented immigrants than those from other places of the world who have experienced the excruciating slowness or cruelty of legal immigration laws. Those who have had to wait years or decades or gone through tremendous hassles have a more negative view towards undocumented immigrants. We cannot have people living in the shadows and in fear. Without legal rights, they are at risk from being taken advantage of by employers and other unscrupulous people. Immigration must be made easier and practical, but stronger borders are necessary to thwart human traffickers or those taking advantage of their geographical proximity to the United States. It also ensures that those trying to immigrate legally do not lose out by following the rules.
If we are going to have immigration laws, we must have enforcement of those laws. If we choose to have open borders where anyone who can afford a flight ticket or rent a pickup truck can stay here, that is okay. But having immigration laws for those who follow them, and not enforcing the laws on those who don’t is inherently unfair on the former. I support stronger border because of the fairness for legal immigrants and protection for illegal immigrants. Imagine if half of those 10+ million getting visas annually decide to stay behind after their status expires. Or the millions whose applications are rejected each year decide to cross the border illegally. Most adults who are currently here without documentation must get a pathway to citizenship. But they must get behind those who have been waiting for green cards through the legal pathway. Sometimes I keep reading that sending people to the back of the line isn’t desirable because of how long and slow the legal line is. But it would be inherently unfair if those following the rules are treated worse than those who did not.
I hope for a world of open borders and unhindered travel. But for such a world to exist, we must have economic equality between nations so that the free movement of people isn’t only in one direction. We shouldn’t build walls, but prosperous nations must do more to help people in the poorer nations. With opportunities and economic security, there would be less brain-drain from the developing world. Over-population can put a strain on resources, and too much increase in supply of workers can depress wages. We cannot ‘save’ everyone in the world with the wave of a wand. But we can help others to the best of our abilities as a people and a nation.
Not everyone who supports immigration control is a bigot or xenophobe, nor does anyone who supports law and order in immigration matter should be criticized as a racist. We have to understand immigration through human nature. At our innate level, we have a basic fear of others – it is more in some and less in others. Protecting our territory is a trait that goes back deep into evolutionary history. In India, there has been deadly violence when people cross state lines to pursue better job opportunities. Yesterday’s immigrants might oppose today’s immigrants, and today’s immigrants might oppose tomorrow’s. For us to convince others about the positive aspects of immigration and free movements of people, we have to understand their viewpoints as well as ensure that economic security of native workers is taken care of. Ad hominem attacks on anyone who disagrees with us won’t change their mindsets. No matter the positive aspects of immigration, if native workers are struggling economically many will vote against immigration, even if it is self-defeating for the country. And in a democracy, the optics of not trying to ensure the economic security for native workers will do more harm than good to the concept of immigration. Emotional decisions, be it of the bleeding-heart variety or xenophobia, do not tend to work in the long term.
According to the UN, Yemen is currently the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Countless have died, become homeless, on the verge of starving to death, and besieged by diseases. Yet it has barely created a ripple in American social media. I am starting to realize social media outrage has the potential to produce real-life changes. The conflict in Yemen has been covered by the major American news organizations for years. So why hasn’t the war gone viral or seeped into our collective consciousness in the United States? I think it is because the war in Yemen doesn’t fall under any ready-made narrative. There are no preconceived heroes or villains for liberals or conservatives to pick on. A civil war in a Muslim nation where numerous Muslim nations are fighting a proxy battle doesn’t animate conservatives. Since Israel or some Western nation aren’t involved, liberals aren’t motivated to condemn the atrocities in Yemen either. Add the fact that the Obama administration’s continuous support and arming of Saudi Arabia made it complicit in the war crimes in Yemen, liberal outrage has been mostly muted.
I think in our polarized times what goes viral depends on what tribal narrative it can fall in to. I noticed it earlier this decade and tested the hypothesis in my head during the Sochi Olympics. Just before Sochi started, protesting against the anti-LGBT laws in Russia became a big thing on social media. I was surprised and also happy. But I wanted to know if this attitude will extend to all other countries with anti-LGBT laws or will the topic fade away after Sochi ends. From prior experiences, I guessed it would be the later because it is easy to hate on Russia. But criticizing “minority” countries, where most of these anti-LGBT laws exist, has become very hard for progressives in the West.
It is harder to find ready-made villains in the Yemen conflict, unlike the Syrian refugee crisis. That war had been raging since 2011 and well covered in mainstream media, but it only jumped to social media few years later when the bad guys were white Europeans who were uncaring for asylum-seeking peoples of color. Around that time, I started feeling frustrated about the lazy criticism of mainstream media. The idea that the media did not cover the Syrian war was not true, just like it is not true that the media isn’t covering the Yemeni crisis. Not all news organizations have resources to be everywhere. With consumers moving towards free media, which is also prone to click-bait journalism by appealing to our emotions and personal ideologies, the serious media with high journalistic standards is suffering from declining readership and revenue. Layoffs make it harder to cover every inch of the planet. Safety of journalists also come into consideration in covering every conflict. Therefore, is it not the fault of the citizenry for sometimes being lazy in not getting their news from diverse sources nor paying for good journalism. When the Syrian conflict reached European shores because of refugees, more media outlets could cover it. And only then did the outrage machine about the Syrian crisis go into overdrive. There was no outrage or sympathy at the plight of Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan, each of whom host over a million Syrian refugees. 30% of Lebanon’s population are Syrian refugees. These information could be found in mainstream media, if not in the social media echo chamber or highly partisan websites.
Similarly, there is a thinking among many that the American media is the world media. If something is not covered in the American media, it is assumed it is not covered anywhere else. Or that the American media has a responsibility to cover every story from every corner of the planet. And if it doesn’t it is proof that American/world media doesn’t care for these other places. For example, over the past week coverage of Hurricane Harvey has dominated American news media. Couple of days back The New York Times reported about the monsoon floods killing over 1000 people across South Asia. I have seen two ways in which a story like this is shared across social media. Some share it for informational purposes. And some share it with a self-righteousness shaming of others. The later goes along these lines – “while the world media/mainstream media is focused on Texas, 1000 people have died in South Asia and little or no attention is being paid to it.” This led me thinking about two things – these monsoon floods have been going on for a while. The people who post with the second attitude did not read about the issue till The New York Times and then the NPR reported on it this week. So they weren’t too far ahead of those whom they were shaming. Secondly, when I look at Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, German, French, or Spain’s English language newspapers’ websites, there are none to maybe one small article on their websites about Hurricane Harvey. Are THEY ignoring the disaster happening in America, or is the more likely explanation that media companies have limited resources, and they invest those resources in places where their readership is more interested in? Indian newspapers report on things happening in and around India. American newspapers report on topics happening in and near America or its allies.
We pick on outrageous comments or actions of individuals on the “other” side and paint them as a monolith. Yet when someone does the same on “our” side, we say these individuals don’t represent all of us. Instead of waiting for full facts or the understanding of nuance, we jump to instant outrage. If liberals support a cause, conservatives have to be against it, even if it goes against conservative ideals. Even if it turns over the conservative movement towards racists and nationalists who would have never been included in the original conservative movement. If conservatives are against something, liberals become for it, even if it means abandoning the ideals of liberalism. Embrace of racists and anti-Muslim bigots on the conservative side has made Muslims an oppressed minority in the eyes of Western liberals. But that has led to the muting of any criticism of LGBT or women’s rights in Islamic nations. There is no outrage at the state persecution or mob lynching of liberals, secularists, or atheists in many of these nations and other “minority” nations. But many of these “minorities” in the US are conservative majorities elsewhere. Many of these “minorities” had vast empires, were conquerers and subjugators, and also engaged in slave trade for centuries. Many of them are apologists about issues within themselves, but quick to point fingers elsewhere. I know this because as a liberal Indian, one of the biggest criticism I get is talking about problems in Indian society. I am met with the familiar – “problems happen everywhere, so are you picking on problems on our side.” One of the biggest causes of bigotry and prejudice is seeing people as “us” vs “them”. Us is the good side. Them is the bad side. And if liberalism also becomes “us” vs “them” where we see people as monoliths of good or bad, victim or oppressor, we lose the individual stories and their nuance. We only speak out when someone of the “victim” tribes of America is affected. And that makes us go silent when atrocities do not fall under such black-and-white American definitions of victim vs oppressor. Taking this attitude to the extreme isn’t only intellectual laziness, it might even be a savior complex that requires certain groups to be the victim groups so we feel good about ourselves when we jump into the outrage bandwagon. In this tribal mentality, who speaks for the liberals when they are killed in the “minority/oppressed group” countries of the world? Who speaks for the women, LGBT, or the atheists in these places? Is it a wonder then that Yemen or numerous other conflicts never reach our consciousness? Liberals must stand for the ideals of liberalism everywhere. Social liberalism must stand for the weak and the oppressed no matter who they are or where they are. It must call out those who oppress individuals or groups, no matter who they are or where they are. If we turn to tribal identities in our fight for social justice, we risk becoming silently complicit in a lot of atrocities and injustice. We risk seeing Rwanda or Sudan or Yemen repeat again and again. We risk abandoning liberals where being a social liberal might mean a death sentence.
Many of those on the Left mock conservatives’ anti-science beliefs regarding climate change and evolution, but is liberalism immune to pseudoscience and science denial? How much of the anti-GMO, anti-vaccine, naturopathy sentiments on the Left is related to liberals’ anti-corporatist feelings or influence of New Age beliefs? Standing up for science means standing up for the scientific method and being alert to our own biases. It means studying all issues with a dispassionate, rational, and analytical mind. For scientists to be trusted as credible sources of information and rationality, we have a higher moral obligation to be rationalists in all aspects of our lives. Passion and emotions are not necessary for empathy, but they can blind our judgment in any topic. A rational mind can also be empathetic, but without losing our equanimity or being influenced by the daily ebbs and flows of life.
“It worked for me” isn’t a scientific statement. We must understand how our nature to remember exceptions, and not the norm, can make us fall prey to low-probability events and treat them as more common than they actually are. This trait also makes us believe in miracles, follow our intuitions, or believe in anecdotes. Our intuitions might tell us nature might be better than biotechnology, but history of our species has shown that it is nature that kills us, and science and technology has improved our health and quality of life. We must understand why randomly selected, placebo-controlled, double-blinded studies are important in weeding out outliers or entire populations with genetic or other variations. In the age of alternate facts, we must be aware of quackery posing in the name of alternative or traditional medicine. Just because it might not harm us (and many do harm us) doesn’t mean it is effective – one of the gold standards in pharmaceutical clinical trials. If we dismissed placebo-controlled trials and fell for anecdotes, the market would be awash with pharmaceutical drugs that “works” in many people.
Searching for ‘meaning’ is human nature. If some in the West find it in Abrahamic religions, many find it in spirituality, nature, or turning towards Eastern religions and traditions which look exotic to westerners. But not everyone of these exotic eastern people believe in their holistic treatments. For many it is an option out of poverty. Growing up in the East, I have experienced and have been subjected to many kinds of pseudoscience, and I have seen poor people turning to quacks while rich people going to cities for medical treatment. It is a privilege of not seeing these hardships and complaining about vaccines or glorifying eastern traditions which came out of necessity, and not necessarily some exotic scientific knowledge that only exists in the East. This doesn’t mean we must support pharmaceutical industry blindly. We can criticize its business practices and ask for improvement in clinical trials. We can support traditional cures that have been proven to be effective. Skepticism is the hallmark of science, but re-litigating debunked ideas regarding climate science, evolution, biotechnology or molecular biology is a waste of time and resources, while causing real harm to people’s health and lives. Similarly, celebrities waste people’s time, money, and health by becoming modern-day snake soil salespeople of unproven naturopathy/holistic/fad treatments. Finally, it is important to know that it is the dose that makes a poison. Working in a testing lab, I know very few products are devoid of harmful ‘chemicals’ like mercury or lead. They might exist in the range of parts per trillion, but exist they do.
In conclusion, if we subject facts to our own biases, we lose all credibility in calling out others who might deny facts. There is no eastern, western, or Islamic science. Science is the study of nature to the best of our technological abilities. As our technology and knowledge keeps improving, so will our scientific hypothesis and theories. Standing up for science means standing up for rationality and the scientific method, without subjecting it to our ideological beliefs. It means standing up for funding, resources, independent research, support for students, engineers, healthcare professionals, and everyone working in the scientific field. Turning science into an ideological battle is the very antithesis of the scientific method.
The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, the first book of Dr. Oliver Sacks that I read, had a profound effect on me. The book has 24 chapters, with each chapter being a standalone clinical tale from his career as a neurologist. Divided into four parts, the book delves into ‘Losses’, ‘Excesses’, ‘Transports’, and ‘The World of the Simple’. The first part, ‘Losses’, describes numerous clinical cases of people who have lost some aspects of neurological function. The protagonist in the title chapter has trouble identifying things around him, and once mistook his wife’s head for a hat which he tried to wear! There were also a few poignant tales of those who had lost their sense of self or identity. The second part, ‘Excesses’, has many stories of neurological ‘excessive’ disorders such as Tourette’s syndrome. These stories describe people whose lives have become either energetic or impulsive because of their disorders. Although the ‘Losses’ part showed how neurological defects can have a detrimental effect on quality of life, the ‘Excesses’ part showed how some neurological disorders can bring more color and ‘life’ to someone’s daily existence. And sometimes treating these symptoms can make the patients feel as if they have lost an important part of themselves.
The last two parts were quite special to me. ‘Transports’ has clinical tales about patients who have ‘transported’ to a different conscious state – imaginations, spiritualism/religiosity, dreaminess, and reminiscence. There were two touching clinical tales about ladies whose illnesses made them dream or hear sounds from forgotten parts of their childhood. This section also delves into epilepsies of the temporal lobe, which has been implicated in deep spiritualism, religiosity, seizures, and having ‘visions’. Finally, the fourth and last part of the books presents clinical tales about mentally handicapped people – a group that used to be shunned and misunderstood by society, yet whose unique gifts and talents were presented with empathy in this book. This section showed Dr. Sacks’ empathy and talents in presenting mentally handicapped people as normal human beings. He gave a sense of normality to those with autism and various other traits that might be considered oddities or mental disorders. This book also led me to question what exactly is normality? What neurological or physiological disorder is ‘abnormal’, or just a different kind of normal?
One of the thoughts that occurred to me after reading this book was whether we should accept what nature has given us, or whether we should try to overcome nature’s limitations with biotechnology. It also got me thinking about many people’s fears about new technologies that tinker with nature’s status quo. Many people use the phrases “everything happens for a reason”, or “there is a meaning behind everything”. Even though it is said with good intentions, I want to give a differing perspective on why it isn’t necessarily empathetic or helpful. Many of us say it from our experiences, privilege, and by rationalizing outcomes after they have occurred. Yet many people might not appreciate these statements when it relates to tragedies like war crimes, suffering of the innocent, or a parent burying a child. How can we tell a mother that there is a meaning or reason behind the death of her child? I have personally found these statements to be unhelpful, and in contrast have appreciated the honesty that something bad happened because I made a mistake or because I didn’t have the foresight to make a wise decision. That honest appraisal has led me to make changes, rather than rationalizing or normalizing a mistake as if the outcome was part of a divine plan. If we say everything happens for a reason, it might not motivate us to try and change the status quo for a better outcome.
When I see people with mental and physical disability, what is the reason or meaning behind their situation? Many of them have made the most of their disabilities. But wouldn’t it be better if they had their full neurological and physiological capabilities? Why should we accept or rationalize pain or physiological handicaps, instead of trying to create a world without such suffering? I have read articles written by parents that they wouldn’t use gene therapy to treat their children’s physical disabilities before they were born, because those handicaps made their kids who they are today. I find such thinking selfish because the child doesn’t get to decide if it wants to be born with neurological or physical disabilities if potential preventive treatments are available. I find it incomprehensible that those of us healthy would rather choose and rationalize nature’s random mutations causing severe disabilities in others over biotechnology that can prevent or treat disabilities.
There are those who have lost their sense of self and identity, or are physically disabled to the point where their quality of life has diminished. We can empathize with their pain without telling them that there is a reason for their disability. It doesn’t mean that we should despair at finding no ‘meaning’ to our circumstances. We can accept that life isn’t always fair, or that bad things happen to good people without any supernatural machinations. And that unpleasant truth should be the impetus that drives us towards eliminating unfair situations in life, towards fighting for a better and just world, and towards eliminating pain and suffering. This should prompt us to invest more in biomedical research where disabilities and illnesses can not only be treated, but also prevented through gene therapy. Such therapy, whether for embryos or adults, requires society to reach a consensus as to what treatment is acceptable or not, especially when someone is incapable of giving consent. How should we treat those who have lost their sense of self and are incapable of informed consent? And should it be mandatory to use gene therapy on an embryo that has all the markers for severe disorders? And how should we distinguish between the ‘excesses’ and ‘losses’ disorders. If the ‘excesses’, as shown in the book, can enhance someone’s life, should they be treated in unborn fetuses? These are questions with no objective answers, but questions society must ponder with the increasing advances of biotechnology.
The other topic from this book that piqued my interest had to be with the section ‘Transports’. As a scientist and supporter of rationalism, I strive for knowledge and understanding of our natural world. Religion has affected me in numerous ways, both good and bad. Understanding religiosity also increases my understanding of human behavior. Our advanced brain has made us ponder existential questions, and spiritual and theological doctrines have helped answering many of those questions. But what makes some people more spiritual or religious than others? What is behind the visions, voices, and other types of religious experiences? For many years, I had read of temporal lobe epilepsy being implicated in extreme religiosity. Therefore, it was a pleasant surprise to read the neurological reasons behind such ‘visions’, hallucinations, or seizures. Specific doctrines and beliefs will always evolve or go extinct, but if we have unanswerable questions then some sort of supernatural beliefs will remain a part of our species. But the changes I would like to see relates to understanding doctrines and personal interpretations of doctrines as immutable facts. Too often such ‘facts’ have been used for violence, prejudice, and discrimination. We can be spiritual and/or religious, yet be humble enough to accept that no one has the right answers to our existential questions. Our brains might revolt against uncertainty and grey answers, yet uncertainty should be the preferred outcome over false truths.
Finally, if religious doctrines are considered as subjective understandings of our world rather than as objective truths, it might give people courage to go against doctrines when they wish and explore more personal freedom. Too many of us, myself included in the distant past, have wanted to eat something, wear something, and explore other personal freedoms but felt guilty that we are committing a sin or going against immutable truths. I have seen people cry because they mistakenly didn’t follow some doctrine or rule. I have had people ask me wistfully “when will doctrines change”, or “why are doctrines the way they are”. No one should feel guilty if they go against doctrines for their freedom or happiness. I don’t want to see people cry or commit suicide if they cannot follow some of these doctrines. I don’t want to see judgment and nonacceptance on parts of those who take doctrines as literal truths. I think a world where religion isn’t absolute, but where religiosity can be explained as products of our brains’ quest for meaning, a world where people can be spiritual or religious for personal peace and happiness, will be a better and happier world. I want people to see the beauty that comes from our own brains, be it spiritualism or the ability to overcome nature’s deficiencies with scientific breakthroughs. I want people to be confident about themselves, their strengths, and their abilities to change the world.
Women dealing with toxic family – a topic that comes back to me every week, even at work after others become familiar with my writing. And these stories are overwhelming shared to me by women from the eastern part of the planet (doesn’t mean it only happens there). In popular culture, many times we easily call women “crazy”. Ignoring psychiatric illnesses, how often is it that someone who might seem “crazy” has been dealing with a ton of shit in life. Stress can easily break down any human being.
One of the most common effects of dealing with toxic family is that women have to live a double life if they ever want to create any sense of self. Families, especially who immigrated to the West in the 80s or 90s, still have the same social attitude as they had back home because they never immigrated. They try to control and mold every aspect of their daughter’s lives – for sake of control, sake of “honor”, and for her “marriageability”. In more conservative families, they have to give a “pure”, quiet, and obedient girl for marriage with the understanding that “you can do anything you want after marriage”. Which usually depends on future husband and in-laws and how liberal-minded they are.
All this control leads many women to start living double lives outside their home. It is like a person divided against themselves. How they want their lives to be vs how their parents or relatives want their lives to be. From clothing to activities to relationships, it is a life either hidden from everyone or from more conservatives friends/family members. But how long can a person live a double life? Some give up and accept their fate. Some know what their parents will never accept and never stray from the path decided for them. But some rebel and their everyday existence becomes a hell. Yet nearly all of them accept it as “love”.
For those living a double life, every moment is spent in fear of being caught. For those rebeling, every day is spent fighting. And when someone isn’t obedient, even if they are in their 30s, the constant criticism is what breaks them down. And that is the story I hear often – every cruel thing their parents or sibling tell them just because they didn’t follow the line. This happens even if they are married. And that makes me sad because I see the shit women deal from toxic relatives slowly trickling down in their behavior to their own children. It is said that abuse exists as a circle. Seeing that circle of abuse breaks my heart and boils my blood because another generation starts suffering. All because for too many people on this planet women are still objects and properties to be controlled. Somehow women represent their family’s honor. And finally, women are seen as an extension of their family/parents – not as an individual with her own agency and personhood.
This is a very charged topic, especially in India, but I’ve been wanting to write about it for a long time because Kashmiri Pandits are one group of refugees that everyone seems to have forgotten about. Having Kashmiri Hindu friends in New York City who themselves or whose parents had to leave Kashmir, gave this topic an added importance to me. Finally, I want to make clear that talking about tragedies isn’t a zero sum game. Just because I am talking about Kashmiri Pandits doesn’t mean there aren’t numerous other refugee tragedies in the world. And just because I am focusing on Kashmiri Pandits in this essay doesn’t mean that other communities in Kashmir or elsewhere in India haven’t also suffered terrible tragedies. Discussing one tragedy shouldn’t minimize or take away the importance of other tragedies. It isn’t a competition. And it is impossible to give equal weight to every single tragedy in the world in any one essay.
Kashmiri Pandits are Hindus belonging to the Brahmin caste. The Indo-Iranian peoples who would go on to practice Hinduism came to the Indian subcontinent 4000-5000 years back. As such, Kashmiri Pandits have been dwelling in the Kashmir Valley since the Bronze Age. Although Arabs, Turks, and Persian armies started invading India from the 8th century onward, Kashmir didn’t completely fall into Muslim hands till around the 14th century. Inevitably, subjects in any land start following the beliefs of their rulers. As such, through force, necessity and choice, Hindus of the Valley had started converting to Islam, or had started leaving the Valley. Incidentally, it was Akbar – one of the most tolerant rulers of medieval India, who gave the Kashmiri Brahmins the title of “Pandit” – a learned scholar. And when Akbar’s son Jahangir saw the Valley for the first time, he was mesmerized by the beauty of the land to utter his famous words – “If there is ever a heaven on Earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.”
After nearly 500 years of Muslim rule, and as the Mughal Empire was on its downward spiral, the Sikh Empire conquered Kashmir. But only a few decades later in the Anglo-Sikh war, Kashmir was annexed by the East India Company and then sold to a Hindu dynasty. By the 19th century the demographics of the Valley had changed, where Muslims now comprised over 90% of the population. Between 1948 and 1950, in inter-religious violence after independence and other land reforms, led to a huge exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley. Alleged vote-rigging in local elections in 1987 in favor of the ruling party disillusioned Kashmiri youths and was a primary motivator for the rise in militancy against the Indian government. As the Soviet retreated from Afghanistan in 1989, militants and resources used to fight the Soviets were in turn directed towards Indian-held Kashmir, and also for the creation of the Taliban. Deadly attacks against Pandits increased in 1989, and in early January 1990 Urdu newspapers in the Valley asked the Pandits to leave. On the night of 19th January 1990, messages from the mosques blared out across the Valley – convert, be killed, or leave but leave your women behind. Within a few weeks, somewhere from 100,000 to over 160,000 Kashmiri Pandits had left Kashmir and become refugees in their own country and around the world. By many accounts, from 1947 to 1990 nearly half a million Hindus had migrated from Kashmir. Today there are only a few thousand Pandits left in the Kashmir Valley. The tragedy is the Indian State’s inability to protect its own citizens in its own country. Nearly a quarter million Pandits are living in Jammu in refugee camps. Many have moved to Delhi, elsewhere in India, or abroad. Even after 26 years, successive Indian governments have failed the Kashmiri refugees. And worst, having over half a million people and their descendants living as refugees in India seems to have been forgotten from the national conscience.
This story isn’t unique. This has been happening throughout our history, and will keep happening in the foreseeable future. The well known example is the plight of Arabs who became refugees in the partition of Mandatory Palestine. One problem with the creation of countries based on identity politics or beliefs is that it makes indigenous people refugees or second-class citizens in their own land. 700,000 Arabs became refugees in their own land. Similar number of Jews were made to leave Muslim lands. 7.5 million each Hindus and Muslims became refugees in the Partition of India. People had to leave lands their ancestors had been living for centuries or since the beginning of civilization. Yet this is human history. Every group has been conquerors, and unfortunately it has led to a loss of the indigenous culture and beliefs. Today Christianity is nearly gone from the Middle-East. Jewish kingdoms no longer exist there. Indigenous Arab and North African religions are extinct. One of the great ancient religions – Zoroastrianism, that has influenced Abrahamic and Dharmic religions, is nearly gone from Iran. European colonialism has led to the decimation of indigenous religions in the Americas and Africa. Even the propagation of Hinduism in South Asia came on behalf of conquerors from present-day Iran. Outsiders come, start calling the land their own, and it slowly erodes away the beliefs and cultures of the conquered peoples. As someone who loves pluralism, I find that to be a great loss of history. But no one is to be blamed except human nature. Everyone has been a conqueror, and everyone has been conquered.
We cannot change the past. But we can learn from it, and we can definitely be more aware so we don’t forget tragedies. And such awareness can prevent us from having a false sense of reality where the only story we read is that of victors and conquerors, who glorify themselves and dehumanize or erase the conquered people. I don’t see a realistic pathway for over half a million or more Kashmiri Pandits to return to Kashmir. It becomes harder with the passage of time. But we can at least remember their tragedy and not forget it in the dustbin of history.
How do I find meaning, beauty, and purpose in life? This question has been asked of me many times over the last few years. Considering the fact that I come from a conservative culture, many people still wonder how one can not label himself after a theological doctrine. Being a ‘non’ is still scandalous for many people, who cannot imagine how someone can get morals or the desire to be good without a punishing (and rewarding) deity, even for someone like me who is a deist without following any organized beliefs. This week’s detection of gravitational waves is a good time to explain how I find meaning, beauty, and purpose in life.
All of us, and everything we know, come from the stars and supernova. The nuclear core of a star can only create elements up to iron, and any higher elements (including basic elements in our body like zinc, copper, or iodine) come from the extreme energy created when a star explodes as a supernova. To paraphrase Carl Sagan – we are all stardust, born in the cosmos from some of the most violent events in the Universe. When compared to the history of the universe, we are a very young species. Heck, we are extremely young when it comes to life on Earth. Our civilization is only about 10-12 thousand years old. Not too long back we used to sacrifice virgins to seek favors from the gods. Today we can detect gravitational waves. We can fly into space; we can create organs in the laboratories; we can detect viruses; we can predict hurricanes. Science now has explanations for which women were once burned and killed. It is amazing to know how far we have come as a species, but it is even more humbling to think about how far we have to go – how much we have to change, improve, and learn about reality and our universe.
We come up with beliefs when we have no other way of explaining nature. We came up with rituals and incantations when meteorology or medicines weren’t available to us. The universe has had 14 billion years to evolve. Our planet and life itself has had nearly 4 billion years to evolve. In a quantum universe with infinite probabilities, any outcome is possible (steering clear of parallel universes in this essay!). We are just one of those outcomes, selected by nature through trial and error. Natural selection keeps improving us, but we still aren’t perfect. I find that to be beautiful and humbling. Through billions of years of trial and error, we have developed concept of love and empathy. Not just us, even other species have evolved to have emotions. We aren’t even the only hominid species to have evolved. Others have come before us who have gone extinct – others with their own rudimentary beliefs about themselves and the afterlife. The fact that they have gone extinct makes me appreciate our existence even more. It makes me want to work hard to make sure our species survives any natural or self-inflicted calamities.
Yesterday we would call people ‘crazy’. Today we have a greater understanding of mental illnesses. We are trying to treat depression by balancing chemicals in the brain. We are learning about microbiota and how it affects our health and body. Despite all the advances we have made in science, we have barely scratched the surface. If we look back and see how far we have come from superstitions, we should be able to appreciate how far we will go in the future. We are not limited to our present. One of the debates I have had with friends over last 5-10 years is about social progress. Many think the beliefs/practices/understanding we have today is how it will be forever. Yet the same people have progressed a lot in the last few years. Doctrinal beliefs had made them homophobic and they had strict ideas about gender roles. Yet today most of them have changed. Unfortunately, the idea still persists that how the world is today will always be in the future. That is something I am trying to change. If we can only see how far we have come as a species, we should not limit ourselves to the past or the present. The future will not be what it is today. And that idea is humbling to me.
When we consider our place in the universe, our parochial attitudes and differences feel too small. Many of our beliefs feel too small. We are more than our regional allegiances. We are more than our beliefs, race, ethnicity, or nationality. In the vast arc of time and history, we are all one and the same. We all came from the stars, and we are all going to the stars. Isn’t that information humbling? We belong to the human race. We share the same building blocks of life with every living being on planet Earth. Life has survived through extinction events. Life from this planet has the potential to spread in the galaxy. Considering we are designing artificial chromosomes, would it be shocking if we in the future become ‘gods’ and create different building blocks of life itself?
I have a Hindu Brahmin background, and I was quite religious most of my life. I believed I was quite special, that my Best Friend Upstairs was listening to me and doing everything for me. Childhood was good times, living in a happy and protected bubble. Religion, prayers, meanings, and purpose was a lot about me, me, and me. In a way similar to Buddha, growing up and seeing reality started changing things. I remember telling someone 10-11 years back while I was still very religious, that “I am not interested in heaven until hell is empty and everyone is in heaven”. The notion of eternal damnation was unacceptable to me. Finally, seeing all the suffering in the world, especially of children, knocked me off the notion that everything in the world was just, fair and that everything had a divine purpose. I got to realize how lucky I have been where I was in life and how much I have in life. There are adults and children who have known nothing but misery and abuse. Parents bury their kids. Children are born with painful deformities. Old people die in pain and neglect. With so much suffering in the world, I felt very guilty and selfish in my beliefs. Just because things were great for me doesn’t mean it must be great and fair everywhere. Whenever I hear “there is a reason behind everything”, I ask – what is the reason a child is sexually abused for years? If a leaf cannot move without the will of a deity, what is the reason a child would suffer that torment? Around this point in my life, religion was no longer about me. It was about what was good for everyone throughout space and time. And with countless dead and living religions, and every person having their own interpretations of the same doctrine, there were no singular meanings or purpose to existence.
Yet we as a species have evolved to ask questions about our place in the universe. Every indigenous group in every corner of the planet came up with their own beliefs. Despite what science can answer, and we have unimaginable years of scientific discovery ahead of us, there are questions about the natural world that we can never answer. For some people the universe has always been, without any creator or reason. For many others, god is the reason for everything. But neither can answer – why is there something rather than nothing? Even if we invoke a deity, ‘why is there a god?’ cannot be answered. For me personally, god is the end-answer to why is there something. I know that doesn’t answer who made god. But all of us will reach a point where we cannot answer why is there something rather than nothing. I have seen and learned enough about the natural world and life around me that belief in a personal god has become impossible. Such ideas seem childish to me, like it did to Albert Einstein. And I don’t even know how to explain a god. Maybe the universe or multiverses itself are god. These spiritual questions can never be answered. And even if we have figured out the function of every pathway in the cell and every neurotransmitter, even if we can design a human being on a computer and build it in a lab, we will always have these spiritual questions about the meaning of our existence.
The difference between science and organized religion is that science cannot provide black and white answers. Our technology and knowledge of the universe is still too rudimentary. And in a quantum universe with infinite possibilities, it is impossible to come up with “reasons” for something. Yet our brains haven’t evolved to accept probabilistic answers. We desire Truth. We want Yes or No. We want to know what works and what doesn’t. In a universe governed by random errors and mutations, by probabilities and chances, giving absolute answers about the natural world is impossible. Such answers might feel hollow when we crave certainty. Yet, isn’t it humbling and beautiful to see how small we are in the vastness of the cosmos, how small we are to come up with absolute answers? I certainly consider myself lucky that I exist, even if I don’t know why. I consider myself lucky to be able to experience reality, friendships, love, kindness, compassion, and laughter. Considering my uncertainties about any afterlives, I feel a great obligation to fight for justice, equality, and human rights. Knowing how lucky I am to be alive, I have tremendous motivation to treat everyone right. Any and all negative emotions aren’t worth it anymore. Hatred, bitterness, and jealousy is a waste of emotions and time when we only have this one life. I cherish every moment that I am with someone, knowing I might not see them again. When justice is uncertain in an uncertain afterlife, it is paramount to fight for justice today. It has become extremely important to understand the human body so we can have a world without mental illness and pain and suffering in this life, not a hypothetical afterlife. Reducing human beings, their emotions, and ‘sense of self’ to neurotransmitters, epigenetics, genes, and environment might take away the sense of ‘specialness’ we have about ourselves. And I accept that scientific reductionism isn’t for everyone. But my emotional pain and intellectual pursuits over past 10 years has led me on a path where it is less important to feel special about my personal existence and more important to understand ourselves at the molecular level. This can lead us in providing better quality of life for generations to come – for humanity and any other species.
I hope I have shown that those without any organized beliefs can still find a lot of meanings and beauty in life. We aren’t dead inside nor living a life without purpose. Our morals come from having a sense of empathy. I care about the happiness and suffering in this life. The scientific method has brought a lot of understanding to our lives and our place in the universe. If we look at the exponential growth of discoveries over the last few decades, just imagine where we are going to be a few hundred or thousand years from now. I hope we can come to an acceptance that whether we are theists or atheists, agnostics or deists, or whatever else we want to define ourselves – that all of us are capable of finding meanings, purpose, and beauty in life. I hope it will lead to all of us accepting each other for who we are because we are all on the same path to the same place. We are all evolving in our beliefs and values. So let us accept each other and support each other – our friends and parents, children and spouses, and everyone else. Let us celebrate and accept our differences, knowing no one has the right answer, yet everyone has something to teach us.
Recently the CDC posted guidelines telling women that drinking too much alcohol can result in violence/injuries, getting STDs, or getting unintentionally pregnant. Although intentions might have been in the right place, a lot of it came across as patronizing and somehow taking away the sense of agency – that women need to be warned to watch out for the unintended consequences for their actions. And it falls under benevolent sexism, something I have written about before. Under the pretext of protecting/saving women, we continue to chain them and/or hinder them. I understand the sentiment of the guidelines, it could have been done in a better way by removing a few points that perpetuates assumptions or gender stereotypes regarding women.
Over the last few weeks, society’s habit about blaming women, and pseudoscience, have been bothering me quite a bit. And I am going to point out how both can be inter-related. Throughout history, women have been burnt and killed as witches, or for bad omen, among many other things – for issues which can today be explained by meteorology or microbiology (paraphrasing from Carl Sagan). Human beings used to be sacrificed to please gods or nature. Women have been blamed, even killed, for having daughters and not sons – when it is the sperm that carries the X or the Y chromosome. Women still get killed for ‘dishonoring’ their families. Women’s bodies, independence, and voices are still controlled – many of it under the ‘good intention’ of benevolent sexism. Heck, women are still seen “unclean” when menstruating. And we as a species have still not grown up about breast-feeding in public. As a 200,000 year old species, I think it is about time we became adults about human sexuality and biology.
Society decides what constitutes a woman’s ‘modesty’ – which is invariably covering up as much skin as possible. Isn’t that objectification of women too? When someone says ‘covering up is modesty’, what does that say about women who do not cover up? Aren’t the societies with that kind of attitude suffering from misogyny and violence against women? Someone can show just their face and still be dressed ‘immodestly’, while someone walking naked might not get a second look. Modesty is subjective, and a woman’s character should not be decided by how much skin she shows, but by her empathy, compassion, and kindness (and intellectual curiosity…for me).
As much as we have lived in a patriarchal society, what I still struggle to understand at the age of 30 is how so many women enforce so many sexist rules and chains on other women. Be it sisters or mothers, aunts or friends, it has been enraging to me to see so many women hold back other women – especially from the culture/world I am from. I have seen mothers threaten to kill their daughters she brings ‘dishonor’ to her father’s name. I have seen brothers prevent their sisters from going outside in jeans because it shows the shape of legs. I have seen fathers call their daughters naked for wearing a skirt and leggings. And in all of this, I have seen women – sisters, mothers, friends – defend the sexism, I have seen them defend the brothers and the fathers. I just don’t understand why. Women getting raped get killed by their own mothers. Little girls getting sexually abused are not protected by their own parents if the abusers are family members – lest it brings dishonor to the name of the family. When we complain about our society, what are we teaching our sons when we always blame or try to control women. If we keep women inside the home because she will get harassed outside (or because women don’t belong outside), how are we teaching the men not to harass? If we allow brothers, fathers, and husbands to have veto power over a woman’s life, what message are we sending our sons and daughters. And it is even more frustrating when I see how many women are the enforcers of these rules.
So what about quackery? I will be writing a different article where I bring the hammer down on pseudoscience, something that has bothered me for last few years. But the level of pseudoscience is becoming too extreme for me to stay quiet. I am going to be writing something like I did with religion and spirituality. The problem with tolerating quacks and quackery is that the same concept of quackery has been used to punish women throughout history. We tolerate a lot of quackery and pseudoscience because we term it harmless. But I absolutely believe that tolerating one kind of pseudoscience allows the propagation of other kinds of pseudosciences. Take the example of anti-vaccination movement. It exists in a society where anyone ‘knows’ science without even understanding the scientific method. Be it the anti-vaccination mothers, or not understanding the placebo effect nor anecdotal evidence, I don’t deny the sincerity of the people. I do agree that the tears of a mother on TV complaining about vaccines are real. But that doesn’t mean she is right scientifically. Over the long-run, these feelings and pseudosciences hurt us as individuals and as a society (take climate change denial as an example). Even societies who have killed women as witches think they are doing something good. As Mark Twain once said – “It is easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled” (because of feelings, confirmation bias, and other psychological reasons I won’t go into here). So it is important to teach people how the scientific method works and how to ask questions so we don’t get conned by quacks. It is easier to prevent quackery when it is trying to take hold than to eradicate quackery. At least in many developing parts of the world, quackery and women’s rights is still a very inter-related issue.
As a perfectionist, I am extremely tough on myself for making any kind of mistakes. No matter how big or small, no matter how new or old. Not being able to forgive myself holds me back in a lot of things, but it also stays in the back of my mind as a hopeful deterrent against repeating the same mistake. One thing I hardly ever agreed with was an ‘eye-for-an-eye’ behavior. “He/she started first” doesn’t mean a lot to me, because if we repeat what the first person started then how are we any different from them? Yet, I have left myself do the exact same thing.
I have faced situations over the last 5 (or 10) years that I had no idea how to deal with. I doubt anyone in my situation/age would have. Many decisions I have made are regrettable, out of inexperience. Most of those mistakes were meant to fix things or make things better, but without experience or knowledge there is no way to know if the decision is right or not. Yet with the level of expectations I have of myself, I do expect myself to know how to handle every situation. It is physically impossible, but in hindsight not being able to handle something perfectly eats away at me.
When I hear a problem, my goal is to fix/solve the problem. Complaining about a problem without trying to solve it makes no sense to me. But sometimes one must listen to the complain without offering solutions right away. Sometimes people just want to be heard. I wasn’t (not sure if still am) good at that. But one thing I also learned in counseling – how long do you listen to same complaints where no meaningful action is being taken? At what point do you become an enabler for others who want to feel better by talking it out, without taking the tough choices of changing their situation? I still don’t know the answer to that. Because I still see myself as a problem solver.
If another thing I would change, it would be to learn about mental illnesses at a younger age. I wish for a world where we would all learn about it in college. Because mental illness is too stigmatized, because those suffering from it are blamed for it or judged for it, and too many are criticized for being ‘crazy’ and not being able to get the marbles together. We never make those comments about any other organ. Yet for inexplicable reasons we don’t even remotely give the same respect to the most complicated object in the known universe – the human brain. I have never been prejudiced against anyone with a mental illness, but I certainly wish I knew better to handle it around those who might be suffering from some kind of mental illness. Sometimes good intentions don’t always produce good results, because of our ignorance of the steps that would produce good results. That is definitely one of my biggest regrets, yet I don’t know how I could have ever prevented it. Some situations come out of the blue and there is no way to be prepared for it. And by the time you are, too much damage might be done and there would be nothing left to fix.
And that brings me to the last point. Because of other people’s actions/behavior, we sometimes lose respect for some people. I think respect is earned, and no one is entitled to it. But even if we lose respect for someone, we should be ultra careful that we never even inadvertently disrespect them. First of all, disrespecting someone knowingly is extremely wrong and mean-spirited. When we have respect for someone, it shows in our actions. But when we lose it, we might not know how our actions might not always be respectful. Let’s say we have been mistreated a lot. That doesn’t mean we can do whatever we want and tell ourselves that “it is all going to end the same way, so why should I make any extra effort to be nice.” Maybe the other person who was disrespectful or mean wasn’t doing it on purpose. Maybe they can’t help or control their behavior without professional help. But if we can control our behavior, it is our moral duty to never disrespect anyone knowingly, and do our best not to disrespect them unknowingly. If our actions become a little careless because we aren’t watching our behavior closely, it is better to build a distance so we don’t disrespect or hurt someone, than to stay at the same place and inadvertently disrespect them. As this point, saying “but they have done it a billion times worse” is not an excuse.
These are some of my mistakes I wish I can take back. Sure, we learn from experiences, but sometimes getting that experience might be too late. But we can never learn about every single issue in the planet? So what do we do when we experience something we have never seen before? What do we do that by the time we figure it out, it is already too late? Life doesn’t give easy answers, does it….