Editorial 1/Cracked mirror
Editorial 2\Two China vote
The dogs of prejudice
Letters to the Editor

The visit of the president of the United States, Mr Bill Clinton, to India has suddenly transported some people back to times when anti-Americanism was the political buzzword. The left parties have decided to boycott Mr Clinton’s address to the joint session of Parliament. This decision can only be described as silly and childish. It is understandable that the left, to preserve its own political identity, cannot welcome an US president. It is also comprehensible that to keep alive anti-US feelings among its cadres, the left parties will hold demonstrations in New Delhi and Hyderabad during the president’s stay in these two places. But the boycott of his speech to Parliament is a different matter altogether. Mr Clinton is on a state visit on an official invitation of an elected government. The address to members of parliament can be interpreted as his attempt to reach out to the Indian people through their elected representatives. It is also his tribute to India’s principal democratic institution, the Parliament. Under the circumstances, political approval or disapproval of the policies advocated by Mr Clinton’s government has no place. Mr Clinton is the country’s guest. He deserves to be treated with some grace. The boycott of his address to Parliament breaches elementary aspects of graciousness. Bad form would be the most polite way to describe the left’s disgraceful behaviour. It has a right to protest and is doing so on the streets, but Parliament has a certain sanctity and the left’s boycott taints this halo. More than shaming Mr Clinton, the left has shamed itself.

By proclaiming its anti-Americanism from the ramparts, the left parties have unwittingly flocked with birds whose feathers might prove to be embarrassing. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other extreme Hindu fundamentalist organizations have declared the US and Islam to be the two greatest enemies of Hinduism. The attitudes of political extremists obviously have similar determinants. This is because fanatics of whatever variety have a propensity to be divorced from reality. The left and the saffron brigade refuse to accept that the configuration of international relations has undergone a radical transformation after the collapse of socialism. One can be critical of the US, but only a quixotic imagination can conceive of international politics by boycotting the US. Mr Clinton’s visit has at least done this one service to Indian politics. It has shown that there are no differences in attitude between the left and the VHP. Both are characterized by a mental closure. This similarity is important since it is common to see the VHP as crude and the left as sophisticated: to see one as backward-looking and the other as progressive. Both groups stand exposed as irrelevant. The VHP and the left can now meet to decide who is Quixote and who is Sancho Panza.    

The ambiguous status of Taiwan remains a leftover of the Cold War. Though Beijing and Taipei officially maintain the fiction it is still a province of mainland China, by almost all tangible indices the island is as sovereign an entity as exists anywhere. Over the past six years political developments in Taiwan have rubbed the fabric of the “one China, two systems’’ claim threadbare. A decisive step was taken this past week with the election of Mr Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive party. Though Mr Chen diluted his party’s stance while campaigning, his party stands for de jure Taiwanese independence. Mr Chen’s election also brought to an end the Nationalist regime that has ruled Taiwan since 1945. The two are interlinked as the Nationalists are as fervent believers in the one China delusion as Beijing’s communists. Mr Chen was lucky. The Nationalist vote was divided, thanks to a rebel candidate from within their own ranks, Mr James Soong. This allowed Mr Chen to win with 4.9 million of the 12.4 million votes that were cast. But this only accelerated what was an otherwise inevitable Nationalist overthrow. Ever since the last Taiwanese president, Mr Lee Teng-hui, carried out constitutional reforms in the mid-Nineties and introduced real democracy to the island, the sentiments of the native Taiwanese were expected to push aside those 10 per cent of the population who come from the mainland. This was manifest not only in voting, but also in the rising use of Taiwanese as opposed to Mandarin Chinese and an increased interest in indigenous culture.

The biggest loser in the elections was Beijing. China has reacted with fury to each and every step taken by the Taiwanese towards independence. Their reaction has included not only bloodcurdling threats of invasion and bombardment but also aggressive military manoeuvres and actions. Beijing issued threats of invasion during the present elections in an attempt to scare voters away from Mr Chen. However, such heavyhandedness only strengthened Taiwanese determination to distance themselves from the mainland. Beijing can take some solace in the fact Mr Chen is unlikely to formally declare independence. He does not take the threats lightly. And the Nationalists still control the legislature. But Mr Chen has already said “Taiwan’s sovereignty should be eternally guaranteed.” The president elect has already declared he will go to Beijing and parley. It is almost certain China would attack Taiwan if it declared independence. It is almost equally certain Beijing would fail to conquer the island. Taiwan’s defences are too strong. But such an attack would also force intervention by the United States. Taiwan’s ultimate security guarantor, and do considerable damage to Taiwan’s booming economy. Beijing’s ever harsher rhetoric about Taiwan cannot conceal the fact it is being forced to accept ever more gossamer versions of the one China illusion.    

Disagreement is the basis, or at least one of the fundamentals, of a democratic society. Disagreement is what gives rise to different political parties, to public debate and argument, and to the sharpening and defining of policies and attitudes. The structures of democracy are, in fact, built around the fundamental principle of disagreement; Parliament and its procedures bear witness to this. So do the existence of numerous interest groups such as trade unions, regional and community groups, youth organizations, and others. And while these structures ensure that voices and viewpoints can be heard, they also ensure that differing voices and viewpoints are also heard. “I disagree with everything you say,” someone said, perhaps William Gladstone, “but I shall defend to the death your right to say it.”

But the evolution of democracy in our country has not been easy, or painless. One of the reasons has been the fact that the democratic way of life is alien to us, one to which we as a people have not fully taken. The key element in public life is not the democratic principle, but the principle of power. The sight of a “democratic” leader in Bihar surrounded by a pack of thugs armed with machine pistols and AK-47s causes fear, but no surprise. And explaining the principles of democracy to the thugs, or the “democratic” leader, would evoke only derisive laughter and obscene comments.

And, lest anyone feel patronizing about the political mafia in Bihar, let us look at the state next to it, West Bengal, which once prided itself on being progressive. Away from the glitter and gaiety of metropolitan Calcutta, the Calcutta of Park Street, the profusion of shops selling the latest shirts, cosmetics, shoes, luggage, kitchenware, the Calcutta of art exhibitions, seminars and elegant clubs, there is a city — and, indeed a state — ruled by armed musclemen.

They are described variously as “cadres” or “boys” but are essentially vicious criminals, who use violence in a coldblooded manner to ensure compliance. They, like their brothers in Bihar, recognize only power, and see words like democracy and debate as words to be used in the general process of keeping the masses under control.

Another factor adding to the difficult birth of democracy has been, ironically, the freedom struggle itself. Not being a historian one can’t say if those who fought for freedom were fighting for a democratic society or just to get the British out. High sounding resolutions by the Congress in its various sessions cannot be translated to represent what the people who actually took part in the movements organized by the Congress and other groups actually wanted.

But what we do know is that the language created by the freedom movement — the language of resistance to order, of demonstrations which often turned violent, of terrorism and murder — were enshrined in the minds of thousands of young men and women as acts of honour done to secure the freedom of the motherland. And yet this is the language of subversion; that is how it is seen in the Northeast, and in Kashmir. To persuade the youth of today that what was honourable once is not honourable now cannot be easy.

But even more dangerous has been the learning of the language by those who do not really believe in it except as a means to get power. These are the manipulators, the professional practitioners of politics, whose employees and lackeys are the armed thugs in Bihar and the cadres in West Bengal. These practitioners have perfected the art of using terms and phrases like non-cooperation and dharna, and the mass agitations and protests sanctified by the freedom movement to win them political control.

The processions shouting high sounding slogans which suddenly and apparently inexplicably turn into violent mobs burning, looting and destroying property; the fasts-unto-death which lead to carefully staged unrest and end with a capitulation by the authorities and the ritual solicitous feeding of orange juice to the shrewd chief manipulator of the event; and, of course, the hartal, the total stoppage of work, which is achieved by a skillful deployment of storm troopers and thugs to make it a “spontaneous expression of the peoples’ anger”; all these are instruments used judiciously, for the maximum results.

Nevertheless, democracy has continued to develop in its own shaky way. Parliament has continued to function with vigour, and there is debate and disagreement, however acrimonious. The ballot box has not eliminated the armed gangs, but made them change allegiance. One can see that right now, as numbers of Communist Party of India (Marxist) cadres are moving over to the Trinamool Congress, with expected violence and chaos ensuing as a result. We are evolving our own kind of democracy, as we have evolved our own kind of films, and our own version of English.

But the onslaughts continue. The gangs battle each other, and murder selected citizens, organized violence in the name of peoples’ agitations rock parts of the country, even as the violent activities of terrorists jeopardize ordinary life. As one watches this over the years, and notes that the institutions have so far held on, at some cost, one begins to see a newer and more terrible threat; the turning of the murderous gangs employed by those in power to achieve a specific social purpose.

Water, you will all cry, the film Deepa Mehta was trying to shoot in Varanasi. Yes, but only in part. There were also the attacks on the crew making The City Of Joy. Goons were at work then, in Calcutta, except that they professed a different faith. There was the attack on the Miss World event in Bangalore; and the coarse, violent attacks on youngsters celebrating Valentine’s Day.

This is a new, and rabid side to the continual attack on democratic institutions. The vulgar impatience with another’s point of view is no longer confined to strident statements and denunciations. It has begun to assume ugly physical forms; destruction of sites and sets, savage attacks on individuals and at times arson. Disagreement will now no longer be tolerated. It is being seen as an attack on the nation’s precious culture and religion, of which the hired gangs of thugs have been appointed custodians.

The government may allow a film to be made, but they, the custodians of the nation’s morals, will physically prevent it. A set of scholarly books on the history of the freedom movement may be written, edited, and cleared for publication by those authorized to do so, but the protectors of our scholarship and knowledge will shamelessly stop their publication. The government may allow an Australian priest to practise his calling, but they, the guardians of the nation’s religion will kill him and his children so that our precious religion may stay unsullied.

This must be considered seriously by those in power whether at the Centre or in the states. Today they have loosed the dogs enforcing their prejudices and bigotries and they flatter themselves that the beasts can be leashed. But perhaps tomorrow they will not be so easily brought to heel, and will turn on their masters. And then, truly, the long dark night will set in.

The author is former secretary, ministry of information and broadcasting    


Playing the saint

Sir — The Union minister of state for external affairs, Ajit Panja, is on to a good thing with his role of Ramakrishna in the play, Nati Binodini. Both political friends and enemies as well as the media have been going gaga over Panja’s uncanny resemblance to the saint of Dakshineshwar. Even a dour Marxist like the West Bengal chief minister, Jyoti Basu, sat through eight out of the 13 scenes of the play. Of course, Panja does not allow his spiritual connections to get in the way of his worldly duties — from playing Ramakrishna in the morning he went straight on to greet one of the biggest temporal powers, Bill Clinton, in the evening. Neither does Panja allow his pious act to extend to anything beyond the arclights. What with the central vigilance commissioner directing the Central Bureau of Investigation to look into the income tax irregularities of those implicated in the hawala scandal, Panja’s act might soon be exposed for exactly what it is — a sham. Panja will certainly need divine providence to get him out of that mess.

Yours faithfully,
Mihir Sanyal, Calcutta

Beefy question

Sir — Mani Shankar Aiyar has lost whatever standing he had within the Congress and now his articles have become merely ways of wish fulfilment (“Making sense of Tamil intrigue”, Feb 1). The Jain and the Verma committees never found the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam guilty in Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. When the Congress leaders demanded the resignation of nine DMK ministers after the release of the Jain commission report, the I.K. Gujral government rightly refused to interfere.

He has now started claiming that the Tamil Maanila Congress-All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam alliance will get 200 seats out of 234 in the 2001 assembly elections in Tamil Nadu. Aiyar left Tamil Nadu long ago to find his fortune in the capital. He does not represent the feelings of the Tamils politically or otherwise. Therefore the obvious bias in his article only mars the reputation of a daily like The Telegraph.

Yours faithfully,
N. Kailasam, Cheyyaru

Sir — Chapter 16, sloka nine of the Bhagwad Gita says, “Following such conclusions, the demoniac, who are lost to themselves and who have intelligence, engage in unbeneficial horrible works meant to destroy the world.” Mani Shankar Aiyar has a habit of taking up any matter that pertains to India’s Hinduism, or sanatan dharma. When Rajiv Gandhi came to power with a foreigner as wife, Aiyar drew parallels with the Grecian grandmother of the emperor, Ashoka. He does not, however, protest against the prevailing service rule in the Indian foreign service which says that incumbents will lose their jobs if they marry a foreigner.

Now he has taken up the habit of eating beef, which Hindus abhor just as Muslims abhor eating pork. He has found a history for the Aryan food habit. Possibly he himself is fond of entrecôte steak.

Be that as it may, why arouse hatred in those who do not eat beef? Why desecrate the Hindu faith in the Viswanath temple? If Aurangzeb was ethically right to punish the pandas for a crime, why did he need to carry off tons of gold and silver with him? Aurangzeb was not alone in this. That zealots under the pretext of avenging their faith looted and ravaged hundreds of temples and viharas throughout is a historical fact. How else can one explain the near absence of medieval temples in the Gangetic plains when the South is full of them?

Aiyar has tried to belittle Arun Shourie and ended up belittling India’s heritage. Why drag history into a clash of egos?

Yours faithfully,
A.K. Bhattacharya, Calcutta

Sir — I fail to understand why Mani Shankar Aiyar wonders so much about Arun Shourie’s reasons not to eat beef. Has the writer ever wondered why his friends never include pork in their diet? Further, the writer, in order to prove his “extra”-secular credentials, has even supported some of Aurangzeb’s actions. Is it a fashion nowadays to appear secular or is all this just to hold on to a minority vote bank?

Yours sincerely,
Kaustav Sinha Ray, Calcutta

Unpopular measures

Sir — I share Rahul Singh’s concern regarding the implementation of the new population policy announced by the government (“Go forth, but think before you multiply”, March 9). India possesses 2.4 per cent of the total land area of the world, but has to feed about 16 per cent of the world population. The planning commission in its eighth plan had estimated India’s population would reach 170 crore by 2024 AD at the present rate of growth. Which means it would be virtually impossible to provide even the basic necessities to the majority of people.

More than half the population lives below the poverty line. The birth rate is the highest in this category since a greater number of heads act as an economic incentive to families. Any population policy has to keep this in mind. A frontal attack has to be made in controlling the birth rate in rural areas. It is good the government is now attaching importance to providing basic primary education to all. This will have a salutary effect on fertility since ignorance is a major factor behind the birth rate.

More emphasis needs to be laid on female education. Sterilization is an important mode of birth control although the high infant mortality rate stands in the way of implementing it. So serious measures to reduce the rate of infant deaths are needed. China-like stringent disincentives will not work in India. Population control can only be achieved through the people’s cooperation.

Yours faithfully,
Ranjit Kumar GuhaRoy, Durgapur

Sir — The Bharatiya Janata Party government’s special action plan target to double food production in the next decade to make the country hunger free is heartening but totally illusory. Foodgrain production has flattened out during the last three years. It was 193 million tonnes in 1996-97, 199 million tonnes in 1997-98 and 200 million tonnes in 1998-99. Doubling the production in a decade, considering uncertain rainfall, devastating floods, about 30 per cent wastage of food for lack of storage and processing facilities, are likely to make the dream go sour. Even if the dream is fulfilled, we must not forget that the population is growing at a much faster rate than the rate of growth of food production.

Our planners have analyzed ways of ensuring food security, but have not given a thought to why food shortages occur. The growing population is eating away into the increasing food production, and, at the same time, creating all sorts of impediments to the improvement of the general economy. Precious time has been wasted in checking the growth rate through the spread of literacy. A time frame must be set and worked on to achieve the target. Plans should be followed in equal earnest by both Central and state governments.

Yours faithfully,
Samir Bose, Calcutta

Sir — Although a grandiose national population policy has been announced to contain the alarming growth of population, a pragmatic approach needs to be taken in monitoring its successful implementation. The population programme has so far failed to yield results due to the lack of political will in our political masters. It is distressing to see that our population, which stood at 34 crores at the time of independence, will touch a staggering three digit figure in May this year.

Each year forest and agricultural lands are reduced to accommodate the population. In rural India illiteracy, poverty and superstition make a mockery of the concept of a small family. Most of our leaders are themselves opposed to the two child norm proposed by the Centre. Laws must be enforced more stringently irrespective of political or religious considerations.

Yours faithfully,
Sasanka Sekhar Adhikary, Hooghly

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