Editorial/Taking a constitutional
Sons against the system
Letters to the Editor

It is a pity that thinking, meant to be the distinguishing marker of the human being, is becoming such an elusive exercise. As the dust rises thicker in the controversy over the projected review of the Constitution, the basic point has been completely drowned by shouting voices. The point is simple: there is a real need for a fresh look at the Constitution. Not a reexamination mired in accusations of political interest, but a disinterested review of certain key concepts to see if the practices in place answer India’s needs. The simmering debates regarding various provisions of the Constitution are a sure sign that there are questions which need to be answered or, at least, tackled. The Indian Constitution did not spring fully armed from the makers’ minds like Pallas Athene from the head of Zeus, it was derived chiefly from the British parliamentary system, with bits from the constitutions of certain other countries. Each of the countries had its own history and therefore its own needs. Their constitutions reflected their preferred mode of governance within this context. The Indian Constitution, willynilly, has retained ossified bits of the history of other countries. A look at a few key concepts in it would not only illustrate this, but would also tap the roots of confusion it often evokes.

For example, the place and function of the president of India has always been an area of muted puzzlement. The idea of the president derives directly from the British structure of constitutional monarchy. This is something that nation evolved in order to accommodate its kings and sceptres when the parliamentary system creaked into place. India must decide whether the democratic structure appropriate for itself can give a meaningful place to the president. This purely intellectual exertion will clear up a lot of vagueness, and clarify the structure as well as the function of various provisions of the Constitution.

Obviously, if the Bharatiya Janata Party led National Democratic Alliance undertakes such an inquiry, the investigation will be put down to the BJP’s attempt to implement its hidden agenda. Political suspicion softens the grey cells and makes intellectual activity impossible. That is a pity, because there are other concepts that can be discussed. For example, the three arms of a democracy — the judiciary, the legislature and the executive — should ideally be independent of one another. Yet in India, the executive is drawn from the legislature. Given the size of the country and the number of representatives it throws up, this may be a practical system. But it has to be asked whether the principle of checks and balances is best served by such a structure, and whether an alternative is possible and, perhaps, desirable.

The bicameral system, derived from the upper house for landed gentry in British parliament, is another example. Since India is lacking in maharajas now, what should be the principle behind the Rajya Sabha? That house was conceived as another form of balance, because it offers a particular type of apolitical representation. But the nominating system in place has gradually allowed the same political equations as those in the lower house to permeate it. Surely it is necessary to see that the Rajya Sabha does not become an emasculated extension of the Lok Sabha. Even the system of privileges and whips can be reassessed. These were developed in Britain as a protection against possible encroachments on the part of the crown. Are they irrelevant or anachronistic here? There may be times, for example, when a member finds that his loyalty towards the party which nominated him and the constituency which elected him are in conflict. A party whip would simply hijack the functioning of his conscience and make him act against his best intention. Noticeably, the BJP does not seem to have any such queries on its agenda. It is bound to be suspected of political motives, just as the president is being suspected of bias. The casualty in all this is the simple human exercise of thinking.    

Abolish parents. Otherwise, all those brats who made such a nuisance of themselves in my corner of the shamiana at New Delhi’s Republic Day parade, and again at the Beating Retreat ceremony three days later, under the uncaring eye of doting fathers and mothers will grow into yet another self-indulgent and wayward generation that makes mockery of civilized standards and institutional norms. Seeing how indisciplined the best placed people can be, and how erratically security was enforced, I am not at all surprised that armed hijackers are so easily able to board our aircraft.

It may be unfair to extrapolate from a single experience. But the incipient unruliness of children is not unrelated to the collapse of, say, Bihar.

January 26 and 29 were among the most important dates in the national calendar. They also coincided with an intense debate on how India should be governed, with K.R. Narayanan and Atal Behari Vajpayee clashing on the best prescription. At the same time, smug lawyers were complimenting themselves on the Supreme Court’s success in upholding India’s integrity during 50 years of ceaseless judicial vigilance with no thought for the corruption and injustice that stalk the land and the criminality that pervades the highest echelons of governance.

When not downright ignorant — the Duke of Connaught was passed off as a former governor-general — the strong Hindu orientation of the floats and commentary was a pointer to the shape of things to come under a new constitution. At one level, the review committee creates jobs for the boys, which is of the essence of Indian nepotism. But the boys must repay the debt and will no doubt do so by giving the government what its heart desires, to wit, the power to deliver a smack of firm government, to use Michael Foot’s approving description of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. As we know, such authoritarianism needs a bogey, and this is where I found the ceremonial so chilling.

It should have been a sublime occasion on which to reflect on the state of the Union, exhilarated by the spectacle of India’s achievements in diverse fields. Instead, it was a vulgar and hysterical call to arms. The commentary had no uplifting words about what India was, is and will be. It merely ranted and raved about the enemy and the proxy war, today’s version of the foreign hand. This is not the way to encourage sober national pride, sound sense, orderliness and civic obedience. But, then, these qualities may be viewed as handicaps. A disorderly mob can be roused more easily with macabre tales of enmity and hatred.

So, the muted chaos around me may even have been desirable from the point of view of a longer-term agenda. For me, it also betokened yet another clash between the Indian instinct and norms that have been imposed from outside, and another small victory for the former. Those magnificent soldiers marching to precision in resplendent uniforms represented the alien imposition; the gurgling children and their grunting parents all in their Sunday best the disorderly indigenous elite. Hysteria is not preparedness. Harassment is not security.

At the first barrier they took away one — only one, mind you, the one that was English and looked it – of my two ballpoint pens, saying pens were not allowed. The guard promised that I would find it on the soggy ground of the security hut at the end of the ceremony. He also deprived the man just behind me in the queue of his pocket comb but left mine untouched. At the next barrier, I volunteered my remaining pen but was told that pens were allowed. I said nothing about combs and neither did the guard. Instead, he asked to see my passport but changed his mind before it was even out of my pocket — a glimpse of the cover was enough.

Cameras, pagers and cellphones were forbidden, he reminded me. But whenever a spectacular piece of weaponry hove into sight, the man sitting just in front of me would turn round and bawl “Camera!” making the clicking gesture at the same time to his son three rows behind, and the boy “did the needful” as they say in government circles. Clearly, the little camera had escaped official scrutiny.

Bungling is, of course, inherently Indian — the Indian Airlines van that drove us straight to the domestic lounge when I flew in from Singapore, the immigration official who misspelt my name in the computer and thought it of no account, or the customs scanner that failed to detect my laptop were careless, not malicious. But beyond slovenliness looms a bigger problem.

First, does anyone in authority know the rules? Second, do they apply them with equal strictness to all? There is confusion on both counts because rules are foreign, to be waved aside by the power and influence of the bigwigs. Waiting in the security line at Bagdogra airport once, I saw a Darjeeling notability sail past all the checks, officials obligingly stamping his boarding pass. The supposedly mandatory subjection to metal detector and search would have been an affront to his dignity.

Pride lies in being the exception. And because anyone who is anyone seeks and obtains exception, the rest of us are victims of harassment. In London I have waited in a taxi queue with a cabinet minister. Here, small men with delusions of grandeur go to extraordinary lengths to avoid being bracketed with those whom they consider less important.

The pattern is common wherever people must queue, traffic must be diverted or authority has to demand some inconvenient compliance from the public. Such requirements constitute an international norm to which we pay lip service while exceptions signify our natural deference to rank and the underlying conviction that rules are meant only for the underprivileged.

If security personnel can collect a little loot in the process, why, that was part of the legitimate perquisites of state functionaries even in Mughal times. No wonder my ballpoint pen was nowhere to be found afterwards, though the ground was littered with dirty combs and cheaper local pens that nobody wanted. What matters a pen when the country is up for grabs, its avowed protectors the most rapacious looters?

What is astounding is that social anarchy is taken so much for granted that no one even noticed the little boys and girls in fancy outfits scampering among the rows, treading on and tripping over adult toes, as they kept up a loud barrage of irrelevant comments in Hindi and Tamil, giggled, wailed, tried to commandeer already occupied chairs and pestered their parents (and others) with questions.

My son would have been thrashed for less; but, then, the situation would not have arisen for even the most recalcitrant child’s tantrums only reflect parental values. Some of those on January 26 and 29 munched biscuits all through though the flyer with the invitation card said clearly that no eatables would be allowed — another case of neglect or deliberate oversight. The security personnel looked on indifferently, though with their guns at the ready.

Do we say then that the security arrangements have failed and must be replaced by some other system? If so, what guarantee is there that those in charge will discharge it more satisfactorily? It might be improper of Narayanan to set himself up in opposition to the elected prime minister. Moreover, as official and politician, he has always been integral to the system whose decline he deplores. But he is right to argue that change will achieve nothing. Unless parents are disciplined, today’s unruly children will grow up to breed yet another callous generation to play havoc with the next constitution, no matter how idealistically it is framed.

As this column has stressed before, it is the singer, not the song.    


Bonded Labour

Sir — People from the Indian subcontinent have often been victims of racial discrimination in the United Kingdom, in spite of royal visits and NRI bashes being attended by the British prime minister. The recent new Labour pilot scheme, granted royal assent last November, to extract bonds upto Ł 10,000 from subcontinental visa applicants hardly comes as a surprise (“British bond bias against India”, Jan 31). What is more objectionable is the way this blatant show of racial bias is being passed off as a measure to control illegal immigrants. Can the British authorities then explain why the measure is not applicable to those from eastern Europe, from where the largest number of illegal immigrants happen to come?

Yours faithfully,
Sunanda Majumdar, Calcutta

Lesson on the field

Sir — The humiliating defeat of the Indian cricket team in Australia has infuriated all back home. But it would be worth examining the causes behind its disgraceful performance.

People must have forgotten how unjust umpiring was responsible for India’s “failure”on several occasions. The public is being rather harsh on the team. After all, the boys must have had a tough time in an alien land. Playing in the absence of a home crowd can be difficult. In fact, nothing has worked in their favour in the recently concluded tour. The bouncy pitch, a hectic schedule and dubious umpiring are only some of the causes.

Of course, the team too made only feeble attempts to brave the storm. However, unjust umpiring should be uppermost in the minds of the people when they analyse the reasons behind India’s poor performance. Most of Sachin Tendulkar’s dismissals were dubious. Although the umpire, Darrel Hair, was criticized by the media and experts for being unfair to the Indian side, the Australian Cricket Board did not take any action against him. It is time Indians raised their voice against unfair umpiring.

Yours faithfully,
G. Anwar, Jamshedpur

Sir — The Indian cricket team has tolerated poor umpiring throughout the series against Australia. Crucial umpiring decisions against the Indians decided the fate of many of these matches. To prevent bias, it would be advisable for the International Cricket Council to hand over the job of umpiring entirely to computers. A Darrel Hair is certainly not the best option available, least of all for Indians.

Yours faithfully,
Rubi Si, Durgapur

Sir — The Austalian team has proved beyond doubt that professionalism, grit and integrity can be the most important factors when it comes to winning matches for the country. The Indians must consider this the most important lesson from their Australian tour. Indian cricketers should also undergo thorough training before they are made to plunge into the difficult task of facing a team like Australia. But what the Indians need most is the attitude essential for winning matches.

Yours faithfully,
Mariadas Menezes, Calcutta

Sir — The Indian cricket team’s poor performance in Australia has shamed the entire nation. Ego clashes between the Board of Control for Cricket in India secretary, Jaywant Lele, and the coach, Kapil Dev, regarding the composition of the team put Mohammed Azharuddin, Nayan Mongia and Ajay Jadeja out in the cold. It would be wise to bring these experienced players back into the team as soon as possible.

Yours faithfully,
Md. Quasim and others, Calcutta

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