Small is seldom beautiful


Test Match in 24 points

There is nothing India’s nuclear weapons boffins like to do more than debate policy in high sounding moral terms. There is some abstract use in complaining about the injustice of the United States having so much and India so little. But, as three recent incidents show, the nuclear weapons debate in this country has one constant beat — the atomic cauldron being boiled by the next door neighbours. And there is no doubt Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions continue apace. First, there was the announcement Pakistan had bought rare earth magnets from China. The magnets can be used in nuclear weapons development. Second, there was a report from the US that Pakistan was cleaning out an underground shaft preparatory to a nuclear bomb test. Third has been the US confirmation that Pakistan has built a second uranium enrichment plant. Pakistan has not denied any of these reports. If anything, it has publicly admitted it is wholly prepared to conduct its first nuclear bomb test. The cauldron, which has long been simmering, seems in danger of overboiling. Hopefully, this activity across the border will pop India’s delusory bubble that it can blackmail the US and other atomic powers into scrapping their arsenals. India has two nuclear weapons policies. One is regional. Its aim is to ensure Pakistan does not pose a threat to India and never achieves a position of nuclear superiority. The other is international. Its aim is to use whatever leverage it can to end India’s strategic inferiority with the rest of the world — at present by pushing for universal disarmament. There should be no doubt the first goal is the more important. Pakistan is a clear and present danger. The rest of the world is in the grey realm of potential threat. When the tactics of the two policies are in conflict, regional policy must have priority. Pakistan’s threatening nuclear bomb test is at the crux of just such a conflict. And it underlines the need for India to get its nuclear policies straight and clarify which is more important. In the past few months India and the US have shadowboxed over the comprehensive test ban treaty. India has used diplomacy and, it seems, gone through the motions of holding a nuclear test at Pokhran to pressure Washington to merge the CTBT with a plan for universal disarmament. The effect on the US has been minimal. The effect on Pakistan has been to make it dig a hole in the ground and bring things to a critical mass. It has to be understood that since Pokhran, India has an edge over Pakistan on the nuclear front. India has tested its weapon. Pakistan has not — and will not so long as India does not deploy nuclear missiles. This “threshold deterrence” is the source of India’s regional nuclear superiority. In the past few months India has been playing nuclear hardball with the US. But in pursuit of this dream India is destabilising the basis of its regional domination. If Pakistan detonates the bomb the two countries will be nuclear equals and India’s strategic policy will be in a shambles. New Delhi should concentrate on maintaining its present lead over Pakistan. The irony is that the best way to do so would be to get Pakistan to sign the CTBT. Pakistan would not be able to test its bomb — conceding India indefinite superiority. Dalit Christians are among the first to benefit from the government’s pre-election burst of generosity. Their demand to secure reservations for themselves has received the nod from the government. Supporters of the Dalit Christian demand and of the government’s decision will point to a certain consistency in the government’s attitude. They will point to the fact that Dalits among Buddhists and Sikhs already enjoy reservation benefits. Therefore, it is proper that Dalit Christians should also enjoy similar protection. Three wrongs, however, do not make a right. Dalit Christian — like Dalit Sikh and Dalit Buddhist — is a contradiction in terms. These religions do not believe in the caste system. In the past, lower .    

If you had grown up and were living in a small town or village, never having gone away from it, what would constitute your world? Inevitably, the local grocery store, the homeopath, the shabby, ill-lit cinema hall, the local tea stall and, of course, local gossip — who said what to whom, who was coming to the town, who was not, the rain or the lack of it, and so on. These would constitute the world in which you lived, moved and had your being; what would matter would be what happened in that world.

And so it is for millions of people, the vast majority of those who stay outside our cities. They live circumscribed by their immediate environment, and that environment is what is real, not much else. Why should it be otherwise? The existence of a larger world would not be of much consequence, as it would impinge on their immediate reality only faintly. The trains passing by, and the electronic media: radio and television.

But have the electronic media really made a difference? While All India Radio has done admirable work in making classical music accessible to a very large audience, its sanitized presentations of other programmes, with their unctuous commentaries, have done little to bring the larger world to these little environments. Not in a real, immediate sense; not in a manner that provoked curiosity, leave alone a sense of relating to the larger world.

The TV has, admittedly, had a much more forceful impact, but for one thing TV sets continue to be relatively expensive, and for another reception is still a problem. But these apart, with the advent of crassly commercial programmes, any stimulation of an awareness of a larger world has been swallowed up by the fantasy worlds of serials and films. The programmes are watched, to be sure; but very definitely as fantasy. Reality is something quite different; it still is the grocer, the rain, the water in the streets, and the endless gossip.

The gossip is in part myth creation. Stories of big cities, of life in Mumbai, or Calcutta, of lifestyles and events there take on the attributes of myth and legend, much ornamented and gilded, and eventually become quite unlike anything that conforms to any reality anywhere. To the majority of dwellers in these small towns, whose journeys would take them at best to some nearby market town, bigger, more active but in essence not much different from the small hamlets they spend their lives in, these become a mythical world that is not just different from, but alien to, the sedate, quiet life in these sleepy hamlets and towns.

And in these sleepy towns, where there is little to do, and work is hard to find, resentment grows from the alienation; inwardness begets a strong assertion of local identity, of the rejection of everything outside it, and all too often of the determination that their local identity must be protected from the outside world, whatever the cost. It is from these and similar origins that violent campaigns, which are officially called “separatist”, have come in the past, and will come in the future.

Nowhere has this manifested itself more intensely than in Kashmir and the Northeast. One instance will suffice. When insurgency was at its height in Kashmir in the late Eighties and early Nineties, I accompanied the then minister for Kashmir affairs, George Fernandes, to Doda, a small town which had been quiet up to that time, but where the cry for “azadi” was raised most strongly.

The town looked deserted, and we were told that the young men had gathered in the mosque, from where we could hear the fierce slogans demanding that the minister go back. “Hum kya chahtey?” the leader shouted, and there was the full throated response; “Azadi”.

After some persuasion, the youths agreed to meet the minister and we went up to the mosque. As we arrived we were surrounded by angry, shouting young men, fists were waved in our faces, waves of them surged forward menacingly. But when they saw that we stood our ground, the shouting abated, and the minister asked them what was it that they were really angry about.

And it all came tumbling out: the corruption of the local authorities, who managed to give their relatives and cronies contracts for repairing the local roads and small bridges, and who even manipulated who would be recruited by the recruiting parties from the border security force and central reserve police which visited the town. “Are we not tall enough?” they shouted, “Do we look like weaklings?” The minister promised that he would have recruiting parties sent again. Separatists, and they want to join the BSF? I asked myself again and again.

I agree this is a simplistic example, even if it absolutely true. The demand for separatism goes far deeper. But an essential part is alienation, the alienation caused by the spread of rumours and gossip. Perhaps the local tahsildar in Doda was a corrupt man, but that is not really the point. It is that he was perceived as one, and his identification with the “other” side, if you like, bred a resentment which took the form of alienation, and a demand for an identity separate from one that included the powerful and corrupt.

But more than all this is the conviction that the universe is where they are, and what happens in it. This is, in a sense, a yardstick of our failure to make the immediate sense of identity something that related to the country rather than to one’s little community space.

We have the tools, have had them for some time, but have spent much time in endless arguments and in pursuing cheap little political advantages. The local politicians wish to appear local heroes, so they project the local as far more important than anything else. So they do get some adulation, and votes, and can strut about glorying in the local limelight. But the danger lies in every other local politician doing the same thing, because then, in time, the fabric of nationhood wears thin and comes apart.

Where there already are other elements which bring about, or deepen, a sense of isolation, of concern with one’s immediate surroundings and events, this can be far more perilous. We share no common language, we have numerous religions in a state of uneasy coexistence, we dress differently, eat different kinds of food and look different from one another. For such a commonwealth of various identities, falling apart would be much easier than holding together.

This is surely where the test of true leadership lies, in providing that sort of leadership which can counter the innate forces of insularity rather than seek strength from them. One can only live in hope that the democratic process, which has so far thrown up smaller and smaller men, will eventually bring forth some leaders of substance, with an awareness of something more than their own backyard.

Such men and women need to formulate, continually, a sense of identity which is accepted by people across the country, and they need to do it now. Because outside the little towns and hamlets is the great beast, who may be dressed in a uniform, or in an immaculate white dhoti and kurta, but who needs only the right amount of dissension and alienation to advance towards his prey.

The author is former secretary, ministry of information and broadcasting    


Dial M for malpractice

Sir — For thousands of Calcuttans unable to afford their own telephones, the public call offices mushrooming at every street corner were lifesavers. But not for very long, since the proprietors of these booths were cheating the callers for every call made. The authorities seem to have finally woken up to the criminal practice (“PCOs face over-charging rap”, Jan 25). Yet their promises of being “tough” ring hollow. Where was this “toughness” when the unscrupulous booth owners — who now threaten to take drastic action — carried on their malpractices in broad daylight? Isn’t it ironic that the minister of state for telecommunications happens to be someone the Calcuttans elected, by the name of Tapan Sikdar?

Yours faithfully,
Sipra Saha, Calcutta

Nor any drop to drink

Sir — The menace of illegal cattlesheds and shanties around canals in Calcutta is increasing each day. Carcasses of animals floating along water bodies in the city has made life unbearable for the people around because of the stench and pollution.

The main canals which drain the city water are almost 75 per cent choked. The Calcutta Municipal Corporation has taken almost no initiative to tackle this problem. Civic authorities continue to make fake promises. Years of neglect and callousness have brought Calcutta and its adjoining localities to such a shameful state.

Unless the government takes proper steps to remove illegal shelters for cattle, the living conditions in the city will worsen further.

Anyone who has not secured a licence for a cattleshed may be prosecuted under the law. But some make roaring business out of keeping illegal cattlesheds, using their political connections to go scot free.

Yours faithfully,
Jyoti Baksi,

Sir — It is a matter of great anxiety and regret to find criminal wastage of ground water in Calcutta and the southern districts of West Bengal, particularly Hoogly and Howrah, when poisoned arsenic contaminated water is claiming the lives of villagers in 24 Parganas(South).

In areas under the CMC, most water taps have no nozzle to stop the flow of water. Drinking water keeps pouring out for hours on end. There is an abundance of water in some places while in some others people thirst for water even for their daily needs.

The poor drainage system has made matters worse. When water accumulates in the streets of Calcutta during heavy rain, water taps are submerged in this polluted liquid. Water from the taps during this time is wasted for days. The CMC should therefore raise the levels of these water taps before the next monsoons arrive.

There is simply no coordination between the CMC, the West Bengal state pollution control board and similar other bodies — the combined efforts of which can lead to a situation where precious ground water may be saved and toxicity of water contained.

Yours faithfully,
Abul Fateh Kamruddin, Hoogly

Sir — The B.B.D.Bag area, which is full of office buildings, suffers from an acute dearth of water for the public. The CMC has taken plenty of trouble to decorate the place with flowers and potted plants. But it would be more useful for the passers by if they could have fresh and safe water to drink. Because water is scarce, people drink the unhygienic lime water sold here.

It would be helpful for all if the corporation makes arrangements for safe drinking water in this area.

Yours faithfully,
Dalim Kumar Dutta, Calcutta
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