Editorial 1
Editorial 2
Re-enter the first colonizers
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1 
 
 
 
 

Popular Islam

The future path of Iran’s Islamic revolution has become markedly more discernible after this week’s parliamentary elections. Supporters of the moderate policies advocated by the Iranian president, Mr Muhammad Khatami, swept nearly 80 per cent of the seats. Though a second round of voting will take place for a few seats, Mr Khatami is already assured of a solid majority in the majlis. As remarkable is that Mr Khatami’s party has done well not only in both upper class and middle class urban areas, but even in the more conservative rural and small town constituencies. The parliamentary vote shows that Mr Khatami’s own election in 1997, where he won 69 per cent of the popular vote, was no flash in the pan. They also consolidate reformists’ landslide victories in municipal elections in February last year. There can be no question any more. Iranians show overwhelming support for the moderate, more tolerant “Islamic civil society” that Mr Khatami talks about.

Mr Khatami, himself a cleric, is far from being secular. But he has argued for an end to the harsher aspects of theocratic rule and advocates what could pass for the kernel of a modern Islamic society. He calls for the “rule of law”, normally interpreted to mean an end to governance dominated by arbitrary diktats of ageing ayatollahs. His supporters condemn the petty restrictions on dress, dancing, theatre, even short sleeved shirts, enforced by brutish, self-styled Islamic vigilantes. Many of the battles in Iran between hardliners and reformists have revolved around the freedom of expression for the press, academia, artists and political dissidents. Last year saw violent street clashes between police and students following the shutting down of a newspaper. Though Mr Khatami himself had to denounce the students, the protests marked the first time since 1979 that the Islamic state and the spiritual leader, Mr Ali Khamenei, were publicly denounced. Within the constrains of a theocracy, Mr Khatami has quietly positioned himself as the upholder of liberal values. He has avoided confrontation, preferring to depend on repeated evidence of the overwhelming popular support for his policies. This has helped moderate the opposition of Mr Khamenei in particular. He urges against the use of violence, especially among his supporters. This is partly tactics, partly necessity. Even with the majlis in his pocket, the president will have to tread carefully. Conservative mullahs still control many of the powerful non-elected bodies like the council of guardians and assembly of experts that are part of Iran’s confusing power structure.

Mr Khatami’s own support is fractured. Concentrating on calling for an end to culture policing allowed him to rally a variety of supporters. It ensured enormous support by women and the young — 60 per cent of the population is under 30 years of age. There are strong differences among his supporters on how to handle Iran’s ailing, inflation troubled economy. His left oriented supporters prefer redistributive policies and a strong public sector. More conservative backers prefer to look to the market. Mr Khatami seems to recognize one thing: the economy cannot recover without an end to international sanctions and that means a rapprochement of some sort with the United States. Getting Iran out of its economic rut, let alone shaking hands with the “great Satan”, are likely to generate far more problems for Mr Khatami in the long run. But his present nemesis, the Islamic ideologues, seem to be in permanent retreat.    


 
 
EDITORIAL 2 
 
 
 
 

Guarding Icons

Intolerance has no political colour. A few weeks ago activists of the sangh parivar vandalized the sets of Deepa Mehta’s film, Water. Some years ago, militants belonging to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) had done the same thing to the sets of City of Joy. On Monday, in Calcutta, supporters of Chhatra Parishad, the students’ wing of the Congress, tore up posters of the film Hey Ram and disrupted its screening in a city cinema hall. The protesters threatened the hall owner with “dire consequences” if the authorities did not withdraw the film in 48 hours. The protesters alleged that the film showed Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in a derogatory light and that they would not allow the film to be screened anywhere in West Bengal. There is a common thread running through the three episodes: one records a protest against showing Indian tradition in a bad light; another against commercialization of the poverty in Calcutta; and the third for comments against the father of the nation. It would appear that in India, film directors before they make films, have to take into account the sentiments of political parties which pamper intolerant cadres. This is not a culture that does credit to India’s democracy. Cadres of the Congress, the sangh parivar and the CPI(M) are free to worship at the feet of any icon they choose — Ram, Gandhi or V.I. Lenin — but they cannot expect that others will share their veneration.

Related to this is the peculiar prickliness that is often displayed when aspects of Indian culture or famous Indian leaders are brought under scrutiny. Such sensitivity to criticism can only be read as a symptom of extreme insecurity. There is no reason to get hot under the collar every time Gandhi is criticized because he or any other historical figure is not above comment and even hostility. Remaining cool under attack is one of the signs of maturity. This is not a virtue that informs the behaviour of India’s political parties. Protest is a part of a democratic culture, but protest cannot be allowed to spill over into destruction and violence. The right to swing one’s hand in a democracy ends where another person’s nose begins.    


 
 
RE-ENTER THE FIRST COLONIZERS 
 
 
BY K.P. NAYAR
 
 
Amidst all the hype about the imminent trip to India by the United States president, Bill Clinton, and the attention showered on visiting leaders of two emerging democracies — Indonesia and Nigeria — a curious, but potentially historic diplomatic initiative has been largely lost sight of.

All roads from Raisina Hill are leading to Lisbon. One and a half years ago, the president, K.R. Narayanan, launched this initiative when he visited Portugal, the very first Indian head of state to set foot on Portuguese soil. Only four months had then elapsed since the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government openly declared that India was no longer a closet nuclear weapons power.

But the major effort to build bridges with Lisbon had to be interrupted because of the fall of the Atal Behari Vajpayee government, Kargil and the Lok Sabha elections.

Indian diplomacy is replete with instances of well-meaning initiatives which have fallen by the wayside even before these could unfold. It is to the credit of South Block under Jaswant Singh’s stewardship that the effort to create a new partnership with Portugal was once again picked up after political stability in New Delhi was restored through fresh elections last year.

In a few weeks, Singh will travel to Lisbon in what promises to be the first in a series of high level exchanges culminating in a trip at the end of June by the Indian prime minister himself. Between visits by Singh and Vajpayee, the prime minister’s national security advisor, Brajesh Mishra, will visit Lisbon and senior officials of India and the European Union, now under the Portuguese presidency, will meet in New Delhi.

The last of the above events will set the stage for the first India-EU summit, which is what Vajpayee’s visit to Lisbon will be all about. The idea behind the summit is that it will place India on par with two other Asian powers, Japan and China. But will it?

The EU has annual summits with both Japan and China and in the run-up to its presidency of the EU, Portugal proposed that a similar exercise should be undertaken with India as well. This suggestion by Lisbon met with stiff opposition, not unexpectedly, from nuclear evangelists within the west European bloc.

It is an irony that while some European governments which have a duplicitous record of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament fiercely opposed the proposal for a EU summit with India, the idea itself came from Portugal, which is totally non-nuclear.

Portugal does not allow nuclear weapons to be stationed on its territory and does not allow North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s nuclear weaponry-related acts on Portuguese soil. Portugal has no nuclear programme of any kind: it does not even have a nuclear power station.

If anyone, therefore, deserves credit for the first India-EU summit which has already raised high expectations, it is the foreign ministry of Portugal. But having arranged Vajpayee’s potentially landmark summit with the most dynamic economies of Europe, Portugal’s fight on behalf of India is only half won.

Those European governments which are opposed to the idea of deepening ties with India have given in to Portugal, but only temporarily. They have agreed to the proposal to have Vajpayee over in Lisbon to meet EU leaders, but only as an exception. They insist that this should be a one-time event and that it should not be institutionalized like the annual EU summits with Japan and China.

The impression is unavoidable that European nuclear evangelists have merely indulged Portugal and those in the EU who have been supporting Lisbon’s proposal for an India-EU summit. At the first opportunity, they will scuttle the initiative.

Actually, if India is keen on consolidating its links with the EU, South Block has a year to follow up on the initiative by Lisbon. Portugal will be followed into the EU presidency by France, which can be counted on by New Delhi for support.

The test of EU’s institutional commitment to India will come under the Swedish presidency, which will begin in January next year. Sweden is one of the countries which have taken a hard line on the Indian nuclear tests, notwithstanding its own record in arms proliferation through its huge defence conglomerates.

However, to look at India-EU ties merely through the prism of nuclear non-proliferation is self-defeating. Already, Europe is India’s biggest trade partner. India and Europe also share common interests in areas such as anti-terrorism, environment and the drive to check drug-trafficking, to mention a few areas of common interest. In a sense, it is fortuitous that the initiative to further institutionalize India’s relations with Europe has come under the Portuguese presidency of the EU. Portugal knows not just India: it knows Asia for well over five centuries.

To fully grasp Portuguese sensitivity towards Asia, one only has to compare Macau’s transition from Portuguese sovereignty to that of China with the way Britain handled — or mishandled — the return of Hong Kong to Beijing. China and Portugal agreed to end the latter’s rule in Macau in 1987 and subsequently completed the process of transition without acrimony over a 12-year period.

Unlike the British, the Portuguese never interfered, throughout history, in the internal affairs of China. Nor did they mount expeditions to the mainland. A more recent example of Portuguese maturity in dealing with Asian problems was its role in East Timor.

Thanks to Lisbon’s perseverance and its deft diplomacy, the United Nations recognized Portugal as the administrative power in East Timor till the end of the long dispute over the territory’s future.

No doubt, this helped, but the ease with which the peacekeepers were put in place in East Timor after the referendum had a lot to do with the way the Portuguese, with their intimate and deep knowledge of Asia, handled their role in the crisis. It took only 15 days for a peacekeeping force to be created for East Timor. It took a year for some sort of force — albeit not UN — to be deployed in Kosovo and even longer in Bosnia.

The Portuguese successes in Asia actually have a lot to do with their study and understanding of Asian history. Unlike in the rest of Europe, the work of Portuguese historians on Asia has not been Eurocentric. Many of them have lived a lifetime in Asia to gain a deep understanding of what makes Asians tick.

Based on such understanding, Portugal — and the EU under Portuguese presidency — is now addressing the key question of why Europe’s relations with Asia are not assertive enough. Indeed, that has been the logic of Lisbon’s unremitting campaign to host the India-EU summit.

No doubt, India has excellent bilateral relations with a number of European countries. But at a time when Europe is well on the way to total integration, it is important for New Delhi to have the EU view this country as a global partner.

Vajpayee’s proposed summit in Lisbon with the EU offers an unprecedented opportunity to achieve just this. The way towards such an objective is smoother with Portugal in Europe’s driving seat than it would have been under the EU presidency of any other country. It is for the top-level Indian visitors who will be travelling to Lisbon in the coming months to seize this opportunity.    


 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Pin up team

Sir — Members of the Australian women’s football team have created a furore by posing nude for a promotional calendar (the photograph, “Waltzing Matildas”, Dec 1). Haven’t they displayed their extraordinary loyalty to the game by trying to promote the game of women’s soccer? This bevy of beauties may not win the gold medal at the Sydney Olympic games, but their fans and admirers will have little to complain about. They have been gifted with glimpses of these heavenly bodies. The trend that was started by the Australian swimming team seems to be catching up in the country. If it continues, the players may be reluctant to dress up even inside the arena, providing a fillip to the fight against all things artificial. The Matildas have done it today, the Amazons from Brazil might do it tomorrow. Whatever the millennium-mongers may feel, these ladies certainly give reasons to believe that we are faced with regression to the stone age — when men and women moved around in their birthday suits.

Yours faithfully,
Hrishikesh Chakrabarti,
Agartala

Heights of conflict

Sir — Murari Mohan Mukherjee has omitted two aspects of terrorism as far as the phenomenon is applicable in the Indian context (“Broader focus for fighting terrorism”, Feb 10). First, Indians have proved they are no novices in the game of terrorism themselves. Proof of this is the import of terrorism in Punjab via J.S. Bhindranwale and the export of it to Sri Lanka via the covert training of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Leading political parties in Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast are hand in glove with terrorist outfits. It has been proved in the Indian context that no terrorist organization can thrive without support from politicians. It is time to stop harping on being an “innocent victim of terrorism” since it fools no one.

Second, India holds the dubious distinction of being one of the softest states in the world. There are no proper laws against terrorists, especially foreign mercenaries. They are simply lodged in jail till they manage to get themselves released. After 52 years of pussyfooting, India must get its act together and combat terrorism. Asking other countries to fight the Indian battle is demeaning. The habit of blaming others for one’s own lapses must be shed too. The real enemy is within, not without.

Yours faithfully,
Jayanta Dutt,
Calcutta

Sir — If media reports are to be believed, then the Indian army’s intelligence failures are to some extent responsible for the Kargil crisis. But it is the army which paid the price for the failures and managed to regain control over what was lost to Pakistan.

The Chinese attack in 1962 and the consequent loss of Indian territory cannot be attributed to the army’s failures. Neither can the occupation of Kashmiri territory to Pakistan. Both in 1948 and 1965, the army had assured the then prime ministers that Lahore was well within reach, but the prime ministers would not permit the use of force even for capturing Pakistani occupied area. Even in Kargil, when the army had got the better of the militants, the prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, capitulated to external pressure and allowed the militants safe passage as if under a treaty of peace.

During the hijack drama of December, 1999, the media revealed that the army chief’s views were ignored. Could India not refuse to negotiate as the taliban rulers of Afghanistan did when the Afghan plane was hijacked to the United Kingdom?

Let us recall the Indian army’s achievements and sacrifices too if we must expose their faults by placing in Parliament the Subrahmanian report. It is the well protected research and analysis wing and the bureaucrats in the ministry of defence, like those in the crisis management group, whose shortcomings have to be exposed.

Yours faithfully,
H.C. Johari,
Calcutta

The serially published “Hijack: the untold stories” give a hopelessly dismal picture of professional incompetence and callousness of the top order of Indian bureaucracy. It is inconceivable that a bureaucrat could display such impertinence as to withhold news of vital importance from the prime minister. In spite of the lapse which had disastrous consequences, the concerned bureaucrat continues in office.

Atal Behari Vajpayee should have been ruthless and taken the officers to task for letting down national prestige and credibility. The pathetic indifference and lack of sincerity manifest in the activities of the civil servants during the hijacking of IC 814 deserve severe condemnation. The entire system needs overhauling. There is no place in it for shirking of responsibilities and sabotaging the security of the state.

Yours faithfully,
Hrishikesh Banerjee,
Calcutta

Sir — The government has apparently taken swift action in suspending and arresting the four Indian Airlines personnel who are alleged to have permitted the hijackers to enter flight IC 814. But even this action is fraught with questions. Over the years, Indian politicians have banished values and ethics from politics. There is gross political interference in government functioning. Any decision taken is given the taint of caste and religion. The minorities are always, mostly needlessly, pitted against the majority.

It is only because of these corrupt politicians that the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence personnel have been able to infiltrate the country, even into the remote districts. Every patriotic Indian must rise above divisive considerations and fight for the country’s security and integrity.

Yours faithfully,
Harischandra Parasuram,
Calcutta

Sir — The report, “China builds bunkers in Kargil replay” (Feb 1), was disturbing. With the combat against Pakistan in Kargil not very old, this is another cause for concern. It calls for alertness on the part of the defence minister and the prime minister.

Yours faithfully,
T.R. Anand,
Sarangbad
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