Editorial 1\More than gas
Editorial 2\Original sin
Bihar and beyond
Letters to the Editor

There is a bilateral south Asian issue over which India should welcome the mediation of the United States president, Mr Bill Clinton. This is the plan to build a pipeline that would allow Bangladesh’s natural gas reserves to be sold to energy deficient India. Bangladesh is sitting on top of gas reserves of between 30 to 50 trillion cubic feet — some estimates put it at 80 trillion. This is roughly double the United Kingdom’s North Sea holdings. However, the same economic philosophy of isolation and paranoia about foreign investment that has hobbled India’s progress is also obstructing forward movement in Dhaka. The idea of becoming economically dependent on India galls Bangladesh’s leftists, its Islamic right and its opposition parties. Though the government of Ms Sheikh Hasina Wajed is open minded about the matter, the Bangladeshi prime minister is wary of being accused of “selling out” to India. Yet such a deal would be wildly beneficial to both countries. Bangladesh could earn an estimated $ 600 million in sales in the first year of operations alone. India, the only foreign country that could serve as a customer, is deficient in energy and would be less dependent on the vagaries of global oil prices. US interests are largely economic. Its companies are expected to provide the billions of dollars of investment that would be needed to build the infrastructure in Bangladesh.

Little noticed about the south Asian visit of the US president, Mr Bill Clinton, is that Bangladesh is the second country on his itinerary. Washington in recent months has come to rate Bangladesh as a subcontinental country with great potential. This is not only because of the country’s natural gas reserves. It also reflects Bangladesh’s accomplishments in the political, social and economic spheres. Though somewhat volatile, Bangladesh’s democratic credentials are not in question. It has pioneered a worldwide revolution in microfinance. It has also notched up impressive rates of economic growth in the past few years. Combined with a family planning programme that is more successful than India’s, Bangladesh’s economy is growing faster than Pakistan’s. US investment has jumped from $ 25 million to $ 750 million in three years. If it becomes a major gas exporter, it is estimated Bangladesh could become a middle income country in 20 years. Unencumbered by any desires to be a military power, Bangladesh has become the first south Asian nation to sign and ratify the comprehensive test ban treaty. Two years ago it even considered signing a status of forces agreement with Washington that would have allowed US troops to carry out humanitarian operations on Bangladesh soil. It backed out in part because of Indian objections.

In stark contrast to the dismal state of relations with its western neighbour, India has a chance to develop a strong and completely different sort of relationship with Bangladesh. Given latent popular Bangladeshi suspicions regarding India, New Delhi should not shirk from urging Washington to use its good offices with Dhaka. Ms Wajed is known to be a friend. India should have no problems in making politically sensitive decisions easier for her to make. It is time to take the bull by the horns. New Delhi should consider a comprehensive and daring economic package with Bangladesh, one that would provide for a zero duty regime, a transport corridor to the Northeast, and an energy agreement under which Bangladesh exports gas and India ensures payments.    

March 12 may go down as the most significant day in the history of the Roman Catholic Church since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of Wittenburg church on All Saints Day in 1517. Luther’s action created the most lasting schism in the Christian world. The speech made by Pope John Paul II on the Day of Pardon may have taken the church of Rome a step closer to truth and god. John Paul II asked forgiveness for the sins of Catholics through the ages; he singled out the persecution of the Jews and the innumerable violations of the rights of ethnic groups. This quest for forgiveness is somewhat unique in the history of a church which has been proud of its infallibility and has therefore been very tardy in admitting mistakes. Violence, despite Christ’s advocacy of non-violence, has been almost synonymous with the history of Christianity ever since the people of Europe set out to conquer the rest of the world. In the colonies, Christianity lost the humanity contained in the original message of Christ as paladins of empire marched with sword in one hand and the Bible in the other. The persecution of the Jews goes back even further and there is a growing body of evidence that the Roman Church did not effectively dissociate itself from the Holocaust. Similarly, the Roman Catholic Church’s attitude towards gypsies and other marginal groups has been vitiated by extreme prejudice and intolerance.

By seeking forgiveness John Paul II is trying to redeem the Christian past. His words might act as a salve on wounds that go back centuries but still fester. But the pope’s words, welcome as they indeed are, address only the tip of an iceberg. Embedded in the very doctrine of the Roman Church is the idea of superiority. It sees itself as the only valid path to god and to salvation. All other religions are deviations from the truth and some of them are paths laid down by satan. Such a sense of superiority invariably breeds intolerance. This has made the Roman Catholics treat all other faiths with contempt. This is a long term problem which if it is not addressed will always contain potentialities of conflict. To claim equality with other faiths, the pope will have to surrender his infallibility. That will be an act of ultimate deliverance.    

The lady from Torino had obviously lost her bearings. Her husband, if not her mother-in-law, was still — she assumed — around, and it was therefore for her to dictate terms to the inferior beings who had called upon her. She took her time, the negotiators on her behalf could only curse their fate, as the morning and early afternoon wore on and Laloo Yadav’s emissaries were kept waiting at the door. It was an altogether bizarre circumstance. She must be promised by Laloo the deputy chief minister’s slot for one of her party cronies and certain other guarantees as well. According to market gossip, there was the hint of a proposed two-way deal whereby the alleged fiscal misdoing on the part of Laloo and his gang was to be written off, even as Laloo gave an undertaking to save the 10 Janpath family from further embarrassments in the matter of the Bofors transactions.

She was outsmarted, because her ambience, she forgot, is no longer determined by the household she belongs to. It is now an interesting triangular arrangement struck by the minions of the Bharatiya Janata Party, elements of the army and a select group of serving and former civil servants. This crowd has been bewitched by the ethos of globalization preached by the world’s only superpower. The budget has demonstrated the extent of admiration the decisionmakers are nurturing for the visionaries of the global system.

No necessity at all for the government to have a department of public undertakings, for haven’t you heard, the finance minister has actually proposed a department of disinvestment no less; nothing could gladden American hearts more. The concept is breathtaking, evoking memories of feudal-like families in distress, disposing of their pots and pans. The good Americans, rest assured, will help you locate international parties who will buy from you run-down public units at throwaway prices and then make a killing by selling them in the open market.

The practice will be extended also to new directions. The weak, government-controlled banks will not be formally sold, but their shares will be transferred, on the sly, to private parties. Foreigners will be encouraged to pick these shares in the market. There is a strong rumour making the rounds that the major part of the equity of the State Bank of India has already slipped back into foreign hands; it is therefore only a matter of weeks before the bank is renamed the Imperial Bank of India.

Meanwhile, implementation of the rest of the agenda of the BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-Vishwa Hindu Parishad trinity is proceeding according to plan. Kargil has provided a wonderful pretext and the government can now flaunt an increase in annual defence outlay by as much as Rs 14,000 crores at one go over the year. This amounts to more than one per cent of the gross domestic product. For years on end, talk has taken place on and off, around the pledge to raise the government’s outlay on education to six per cent of the GDP. That commitment has been duly pushed under the carpet. Education, in particular seasons, can be a dangerous proposition: it can raise the level of social consciousness and lead to massive mobilization of the deprived sections, instigating them to intensify their demand for food, clothing, shelter and education.

Such nuisances can create problems for the rulers. Now, of course, the question of higher allocation for frivolities like education does not arise; defence —— saving the country from aggressive manipulations by the enemy from across the border — must have absolute priority. Those who question the legitimacy of this assertion are enemies of the country: traitors deserve to be shot summarily.

Perhaps no excessive blame needs to be laid at the door of the imperiousness flaunted by the lady from Torino. The BJP is miles ahead of the other parties in chalking out its stratagems. Research investigators with the right frame of mind for analyzing society and politics could come up with some breathtaking data on what is happening at the base. Retired military personnel, beginning with brigadiers all the way up to generals and from corresponding ranks in the navy and the air force as well have been joining the BJP in hordes over the past decade.

They know which direction to take the country. They have had some confidential discussions with the top order of the American defence establishment.

It is a major fallacy to hold the view that the great American nation — already transported to the sophisticated and enlightened milieu of the 21st century, dominated by information technology — would be horrorstruck at the prospect of the RSS brigands on the rampage in India and seeking their patronage.

History is apt to be forgotten; there can, however, be no forgiveness for forgetting such recent history. Instigating Muslim fundamentalist forces against the Tudeh party in Iraq and Syria, and subsequently against the Tossadeq progressives in Iran and the social reformists in Afghanistan, were crowning accomplishments of the Central Intelligence Agency and Foggy Bottom.

The latter will have no inhibition in embracing the trishul-wielding savages from the swayamsevak sangh. And the country’s military top brass will have nary a thought before they took the initiative to build bridges of understanding between the Pentagon and the hidden agenda promoters from Hardwar and Ujjain.

Whether it was an incident of sheer coincidence or not, Bill Clinton’s visit to the subcontinent so close to the budget day was without question very much in the minds of the Indian prime minister and finance minister; the setting up of the department of disinvestment, the suspension of non-tariff barriers to imports, and the emphasis on the general philosophy of downsized governments will please the visiting Americans no end.

Now that a beginning has been made, the Americans are bound to be hopeful that New Delhi will also get rid of the abominable subsidies, such as on agricultural products and fertilizers, which hurt American multinational corporations. Whatever hurts the Americans cannot be of any good to humanity.

Developments in Bihar will have to be analyzed against this background though. Let the picture be summed up. In case foreigners continue to stay away from long term investment commitments, economic activities will continue to shrink , there will be little growth in either agriculture or industry and little expansion in employment opportunities either.

With subsidies disappearing, prices will begin to climb to higher and higher levels. Public discontent will be widespread in the wake of events of this nature. Already the links of Assam and the Northeast with the nation’s mainstream have become wobbly because of the total indifference of the Centre to accelerate growth in this corner of the country.

The decision to implant the RSS inside the government in Bihar can, for all one knows, have grave implications from the point of view of the maintenance of law and order. And, since the crucial electoral season is advancing, should New Delhi feel tempted to organize a Bihar-type coup in West Bengal, the entire stretch of eastern India could be transformed into a cauldron.

The BJP is supposed to be a great believer of national unity and integrity: the activities it has been encouraging, such as pulling down masjids and reconverting Christians, constitute a negation of this stated objective. Should somebody, a hundred years later, feel the urge to write a history of 21st century India, he might conclude that it was the fanatics of Ram who were responsible for the final break-up of Bharat, that is India.

That thought can wait. It is this other nightmare that tears apart the coordinates of the mind: what if president Clinton indulges in some extra arm-twisting during his visit and orders us to sign the comprehensive test ban treaty? He will of course do the same with the Pakistanis. Even so, it will involve some loss of face both inside the country and outside. We have nonetheless to put up with it.

The bright side must not be overlooked: once our leaders sign the CTBT, the higher defence outlay will not perturb Foggy Bottom. A higher level of defence expenditure implies a larger pool of buksheesh money for all and sundry. So why not be philosophical about it?    


Purely coincidental

Sir — It appears that the “Jamshedpur jinx” has been overcome by Sourav Ganguly’s brilliant century (“India breaks Jamshedpur jinx with skipper’s century”, March 13). The Calcutta boy seems to have delivered India from the cul de sac that Sachin Tendulkar’s captaincy had led it into. But India’s prompt win has done more harm than good to the Indian captain. Jinxes, after all, are formed and broken through myths that evolve with time. The myth that he is a failed captain took its toll on Tendulkar, so much so that he chose to take it to heart. That it merely took two straight wins in the ongoing one day internationals against South Africa to make a world of difference to Indian cricket is more a matter of coincidence than Tendulkar’s failure or Ganguly’s success as captain. Seen in this light, cricket fanatics ought to temper their expectation of wonders from the present captain with some level-headed realism.

Yours faithfully,
Aishik Sen, Calcutta

Damsels in denim

Sir — All self-respecting young Indians should feel proud of the courage shown by the two young girls, Rachna Bhatia and Heena Koisar, in Kanpur who decided against taking the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad’s culture-policing lying down (“Jeans Janes in Kanpur revolt”, March 3). Under these repressive circumstances, they had no option but to take the law in their own hands. A group of half-witted male chauvinists posing as cultural and moral guardians have no business enforcing a “dress code” in schools and colleges.

This is nothing but another instance of gender discrimination where women have to uphold Indian culture in salwar kameez while the men go scotfree in shirt and trousers. What is more astonishing, however, is the college authorities’ unquestioning acceptance of ABVP’s directives when they should have been the first ones to object. The least the citizens of Kanpur can do is express their full-fledged support for the two girls.

Yours faithfully,
Satarupa Joardar, Calcutta

Sir — The ABVP must be congratulated for taking a bold step in Kanpur. It is true that the BJP has opened the doors to foreigners for doing business, but that does not imply that they have opened the doors to foreign culture as well. Though the steps taken by the ABVP to stop college girls from wearing jeans is late, yet it is better than never. Jeans and Western clothes have caused a sharp rise in sexual offences against women. If Indian culture is to be saved from the onslaught of Western invasion, then steps like the ABVP’s, strict as they may be, must be taken. One cannot transgress all limits in the name of modernity.

A dress code must be introduced immediately so that debates over such issues do not keep vitiating the academic milieu. Or else, the day is not far when issues of real importance will get smothered by these trivial ones.

Yours faithfully,
Arif Jamal Khan, Rourkela

Sir — Apart from the ugly consequences of their action, the courage and honesty of Bhatia and Koisar are admirable. I do not think the Bharatiya Janata Party or any political party has the right to be our moral mentors in any form. If they care to acknowledge, they have more diplomatic and economic matters on their plates than they can handle. They ought to concentrate on these. They should, if they can, prevent incidents like murders of missionaries and rapes, which, unfortunately, are becoming common in India.

On the one hand, they are going global but on the other they want to force the new generation to be medieval in what it wears. The two attitudes do not go hand in hand. It is a case of cultural regression because jeans have been worn by women in campus for at least the last two decades. India has generally had a tolerant attitude towards change. Refusing to change is an invitation to disorder.

Yours faithfully,
Ranjika Ghosh, via e-mail

Sir — The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad has claimed that salwar kameez is the authentic Indian dress for women. But history tells us that this dress has evolved out of the centuries-old interaction between different cultures. So, by the same logic that the BJP and its student wing advocate the wearing of salwar kameez, they should also allow the wearing of jeans. Imbibing of external ideas has always been part of Indian culture and in this it is no different from other cultures, whatever the sangh parivar guardians might feel. This dichotomy in preaching and practice cannot continue.

Yours faithfully,
Shyamali Sen, Calcutta

Getting there

Sir — The recent imposition of traffic restrictions on Howrah bridge has caused inconvenience to thousands of people in Calcutta and Howrah. Commuters travelling by private vehicles and taxis are the biggest losers on three counts. One, they have to travel an extra six to 12 kilometres, thereby paying higher petrol bills or taxi fares. Two, passengers also have to fork out seven rupees as toll tax; and third, they have been daily losing out about 30 to 45 minutes of their valuable time. Thus, before imposing the restrictions, the West Bengal government should have at least made efforts to repair the bridge by closing two lanes without curbing traffic. Alternatively, it should have imposed the ban only during rush hour. If these approaches hampered repairwork, the complete ban of traffic flow would have then been justified.

As of now, I request the concerned department to review the situation and at least waive the toll tax to partially compensate for the difficulties citizens have been enduring.

Yours faithfully,
Rakesh Bajoria, Calcutta

Sir — I strongly support the suggestions of extending metro rail services upto 11 pm between Monday and Saturday — especially with the city’s traffic conditions being so chaotic. The metro has indeed taken a substantial load off the city’s public transport system. However, its services are also essential during late evenings — primarily to decrease the harassment of passengers using the crowded buses and trams.

Infrequent bus services often prevent residents of Behala and Garia from getting to their nearest metro stations in the evenings. Unless the state government makes suitable arrangements in this area, the metro could run at a loss after office hours. Hence, to overcome travel difficulties of the commuters concerned, metro rail cum bus services from the Tollygunge station to the destinations mentioned above should be provided at night. This could also reduce the cost factor of operating the metro during the late evenings.

Yours faithfully,
Keka Bhattacharjee, Calcutta

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