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On the island in the sun
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EDITORIAL 
 
 
 
 

Standstill State

Obviously, politicians have very little to do except get excited about non-events. All the political parties remotely connected with the 12 hour Bangla bandh on Thursday had grave comments to make about its success or failure. The Congress, predictably, called it a success, and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), as predictably and with more relish, called it a flop. The Trinamool Congress remained, unpredictably, strictly on its dignity and its partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party, chose the original Trinamool Congress line and pronounced that the success of the bandh was the “covert handiwork of the CPI(M)”. The echo of its redoubtable regional partner is to be discerned in the implication that the Congress is the B-team of the CPI(M).

However thrilling and meaningful these comments may be to the parties themselves, they mean nothing to the people for whom a message was intended. For them, it would be most likely to seem one more episode in the endogamous games that politicians play. Keshpur and its dead were surely not the main concerns of the state Congress and the Trinamool Congress in the game of oneupmanship that developed over the bandh call. The politics of this has evolved knottily from the original proposal for a mahajot of anti-CPI(M) parties in West Bengal. Neither the Congress nor the BJP in the state can do without Ms Mamata Banerjee’s party. Unfortunately, it is difficult for the old partner and the aspiring one to countenance one another. By calling for a bandh for the killing of Trinamool Congress activists, the state Congress, led by Mr A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury, felt sure it had seized on a trump card. Only the Trinamool Congress refused to fall into the trap; Ms Banerjee, it was said, does not believe in bandh politics. It is very clear, however, that she believes in clear perceptions. Chumminess with the West Bengal Congress is hardly likely to take her very far. At most, it will get her into slightly tense situations in New Delhi with the BJP. But with her railways minister’s portfolio she can truly impress the people of West Bengal. That might in the end turn out to be the shortest route to the chief minister’s chair.

It is the puniness of this kind of politics and the myopia of politicians who find it exciting that are perhaps the most revolting. Because, at the end of the day, all this must be measured against what happened in Keshpur. And Keshpur is just a symbol of all that is wrong. Violence in politics and in everyday life, a growing intolerance of other races and languages, a deadening provincialism of approach towards social expansion, a furtive cowardice which gangs up against excellence — West Bengal today has created its own unique techniques of self-destruction. True, the Partition and the Bangladesh war put an enormous strain on its resources. But committed and far-thinking policies, hard decisions at the right times and a serious desire to keep in step with the rest of the country in industrialization and development would have made all the difference. Joblessness, the flight of capital to other states, the departure of industry and the refusal of investors to set foot in the state have all contributed to a gradual erosion of confidence among the people of West Bengal. The playing up of the politics of the bandh by its political leaders points to the deep alienation of the state’s people from the parties which seek to win their hearts.

Without this alienation the last bandh would not have taken place. West Bengal’s culture of bandhs has long been under fire. It is a measure of the dogged idiocy of the CPI(M) that it repeatedly brings the state to a standstill in spite of heading its government. So it is quite incredible that the Congress too should try to play the same card and then be trumped by a virtuous Trinamool Congress. As for the people, criticism of the bandh culture cannot mean not enjoying a holiday. It was this apathy that prevented them from catching the buses the state government released on the roads.    


 
 
ON THE ISLAND IN THE SUN 
 
 
BY SUNANDA K. DATTA-RAY
 
 
Two objects that are witness to Mahendra Chaudhry’s agony in Suva’s parliament have an ironic bearing on the current tragedy. One is a weapon of war translated into a symbol of democracy — the last king of Fiji’s battle club used as the speaker’s mace. The other is India’s gift of the speaker’s carved chair.

“It’s cracked many skulls in its day,” the speaker of the day had said, allowing me to handle the block of heavy wood. At the time, it seemed like poignant proof of the transition from cannibalism and bloodshed to Westminster decorum. Now, one wonders whether the transition was ever made. As for the chair, that forlorn token of New Delhi’s hope of multiracial majoritarianism is likely to remain unused for a while yet.

How does India respond to this confrontation between culture and democracy? Atal Behari Vajpayee says the coup is “unacceptable”. Who cares if he refuses to accept it? I had always thought that “unacceptable” was a word used only by foolish commentators with an inflated sense of ego; now, I find one of our wisest prime ministers falling into a verbal trap laid by some South Block mandarin with no feeling for the resonance of words.

I much prefer Indira Gandhi’s wisdom when laying the foundation stone of Suva’s Girmit Centre in 1981. “Towards those who are of Indian origin,” she said, “I feel somewhat like a mother about the welfare of a married daughter who has set up home far away.” A difficult situation delicately described. What can her successors do to help that distant married daughter who, after several beatings, faces possible bride-burning, but whose in-laws, wicked as they might be, feel threatened in their own ancestral home?

Given the sangh parivar’s views on minority cultures, the Bharatiya Janata Party cannot afford to pontificate about Fiji. We have M.S. Golwalkar’s testimony on the vital importance of race and culture. He commended the example of Germany which had “shown how well nigh impossible it is for races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole.” It was “a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by.”

No differences could go deeper than those between Melanesians and the girmitya — children of the girmit or indentured agreement — from northern India. Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara — Ratu Mara to his countrymen, Fiji’s man for all seasons — put it mildly when he warned many years ago that “it will be a long time before we achieve a multiracial Fiji”. He and his kin do not want to anyway. Food, physique, language and religion, every index of identity and ethnicity, separate the races. The political division was manifest in 1987 when Timoci Bavadra’s shortlived Indian-dominated Labour party government proclaimed nonalignment and promised to help New Caledonia, West Papua and various specks of French territory to throw off the colonial yoke.

Apprehensive about ethnic Indian politics, the United States, Australia and New Zealand lent tacit support to Sitiveni Rabuka, the lieutenant-colonel (now a general) who stormed parliament with 10 masked soldiers and seized power. Nonalignment and anti-colonialism were anathema to conservative Fijians for whom Queen Elizabeth was Tui Viti, the paramount chief. Ratu Mara, six foot and more of bone and muscle then, flaunted his Melanesian orthodoxy by going down on his haunches and clapping his hands tribal fashion in homage to Prince Charles.

Clearly, the great council of chiefs, now headed by Rabuka himself, does not disapprove of George Speight’s objectives. He may be a sacked businessman who took drastic steps to avoid trial, but they appealed to instinctive Melanesian chauvinism. No one stopped Rabuka from profiting by his lawlessness to reinvent the constitution and make himself prime minister. When the electorate kicked out Ratu Mara through the front door after 17 years of power, he saw no wrong in creeping back through the back door, courtesy Rabuka’s coup. Democracy was the tyranny of the (Indian) majority: the verdict of the hustings did not enjoy the imprimatur of national approval.

In 1987, Indians constituted about 50 per cent of the population; now they are estimated at 44 per cent. How to account for the shortfall? Flight or death? A spurt in Melanesian births? Rigged statistics? Anything is possible, but, obviously, many have fled, among them the poet, Satendra Nandan, a minister under Bavadra, who wrote movingly of his people’s plight — “yet homeless, nameless between earth-sky/ a race without a place must forever die;/ uprooted transplanted lives grow in pain,/ to live, must their generations die again?

Britain’s was the original sin. Having taken Indians to work in Fiji’s cane plantations, they left behind a gerrymandered political system in 1970 to prevent the majority from wielding political power. Indians paid dearly when Bavadra’s coalition partner and deputy prime minister, Harish Sharma, beat the ban. Rabuka twisted the constitution even further, aided by the chiefs and abetted by Ratu Mara and the West. Again, an Indian, Chaudhry, foiled their machinations, and once again a heavy price is being exacted for Indian resilience. The sequence must cause intense despair to all those “who profess to swear by ethnic integration and secular democracy”. That Indians are at the receiving end can only add to the anguish.

But it is not difficult to see that the Fijian feels that his birthright is under threat, and that the root of all evil is the imported concept of elections. A more sophisticated people might have operated a traditional system through vote banks, pacts and money and muscle power behind the Westminster façade, but Fijians are simple to the point of being blunt. They will give short shrift to an alien polity that endangers their lifestyle. It is cruel to Chaudhry and his colleagues; but in the ultimate analysis, it is surely for indigenous people to choose which they value more — identity or democracy.

Like all Pacific islanders, Fijians have little taste for commercial effort. That means the prosperity that Fiji enjoys today is almost entirely the handiwork of hardworking and enterprising Indians. Obviously, the community must not exist on sufferance. But since there was not much intervention — certainly nothing like communal riots in India and elsewhere — until 1987, it seems a safe bet that no one would question the Indian settler’s right to peaceful economic fulfilment.

That is the minimum that the world community must demand. No pogroms, no persecution, no emulation in places like Mauritius. But New Delhi must tread with care. Within a year of Indira Gandhi’s visit, Fiji erupted in a hysterical campaign dominated by racism, ugly smear tactics and wild accusations against the Indian high commission. Then came the arson, looting, bomb explosions and rough displacement that accompanied Rabuka’s coup, with high-ranking ultra-nationalist Fijians warning grimly of deportation and bloodshed.

If Vajpayee really wants to help, he should recall Jawaharlal Nehru’s reminder to overseas Indians that the key to their problems lies in India. “They rise or fall with the rise and fall of India,” Nehru warned. That does not mean they belong to India. As Nandan also wrote, “The Fiji-Indian is as much part of this seascape as anyone else: that is inalienable and non-negotiable.” But the example of Britain and white Zimbabweans confirms that a little persuasive force can reinforce the confidence of a small and vulnerable community marooned in a hostile sea provided the force is backed by negotiable power.

The atom bomb does not enjoy that advantage. It will not impress Fiji’s Western sponsors and the international forums through which India must operate. But nuclear power supported by a politically courageous strategy based on economic strength might. Only then would the world accept that it is not just empty bombast when India rejects something as unacceptable.    


 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

New Labour’s difficult delivery

Sir — It is unfortunate that the birth of Tony and Cherie Blair’s baby boy did not generate half as much debate about the questionable example it sets as it did about the issue of paternity leave (“Spin doctors craft Blair baby’s day out”, May 22). Agreed, working men and women make some of the most wonderful parents, but it may be safely argued that a Tony Blair and his lawyer wife are in no position to meet adequately the varying demands of a newborn son and three other children of ages 16, 14 and 12. The inevitable result: a childhood largely spent in the company of one or more nannies. Blair may have seen the relevance of paternity leave, but would it really have made that much of a difference?

Yours faithfully,
Mousumi Ganguly,
Calcutta

Right choice

.

Sir — The editorial, “The still small voice” (May 13), strongly advocates conscience voting to uphold democratic ideals. But is this a practical proposition given the circumstances in India? Ideologically, a democratically elected government is supposed to serve the interests of the majority of the people. Functionally, the opposite is true. It is the minority pressure groups which determine and dictate the policy of the government. This is the age of unions, cartels and corporates. Individual endeavour to foster social or economic change is bound to end in a fiasco unless one can muster the collective support of various groups. The advocacy of conscience voting is thus more Fabian than practical. .

The British parliamentary system of government, which we faithfully follow, rests on the role of the parties in power and in opposition. Hence dispensing with the party whip, which is the key principle in party discipline, can lead to anarchy rather than the promotion of good governance. Moreover, conscience today is one commodity which most people’s representatives lack. If a party is divested of its power and authority to discipline its recalcitrant members, the legislature will become a madhouse, thereby creating another constitutional crisis.

Yours faithfully,
H. Banerjee,
Calcutta .

Sir — “Conscience” today is a word out of fashion. Party politics has become unscrupulous and Parliament has been reduced to a noisy forum where legislators produce sound and fury and little else. .

The conscience vote in the case of the women’s reservation bill and similar others is the only way out of the stalemate. As the editorial has noted, the party whip hardly reflects the people’s voice. Once in power, politicians go by their own interests. They belong to a party as long as it satisfies their desire for power, position and pelf. When this fails, they defect to another party.

Yours faithfully,
K. Venkatasubramanian,
Calcutta

Tongue twisted

Sir — Indians are ignorant of the large corpus of secular Sanskrit literature because Sanskrit is known mainly as the language of religion and philosophy (“A tongue tied to gods” (May 14). It is called deva vani. Thus knowledge of the language is very poor in India today. Sanskrit was given short shrift with the advent of Western education in the 19th century. The subsequent cultural degeneration has further isolated the language from Indian life.

Ways could be devised to revive Sanskrit. It could be made compulsory at the primary level. Organizations to teach the language can be set up. Regular seminars can be organized to cultivate an interest in the language.

Yours faithfully,
M.R. Shivrajan
Jamshedpur
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