Editorial 1
Spot the foreigner
Letters to the editor


Rupee Riposte

The foreign exchange market is in turmoil all over again. The rupee has been under pressure for much of the last month. The external value of the rupee fell steadily during the latter half of the month. Finally, the Reserve Bank of India stepped in and announced measures to shore up the value of the rupee. It levied a 50 per cent surcharge on import finance and a penal 25 per cent rate of interest on overdue export bills. The sudden fall in the value of the rupee as well as the central bank’s response raises several questions.

The first issue is whether there is any fundamental weakening in the rupee. Or is the recent fall in the rupee’s value due to speculative activities of currency speculators. There is every reason to believe there have been no adverse developments in the external sector in recent times. Export figures that have just been released show quite the reverse picture. India’s exports in April have actually increased by 30 per cent over the corresponding period last year. While the growth rate in imports has been significantly higher, this difference was factored into official calculations. Of course, the huge surge in foreign portfolio investment in Indian stocks means that one cannot simply use trade figures to judge the health of the rupee. But even foreign portfolio movements have not recorded any sharp or alarming changes in recent times. The volatility in the New York stock exchange resulted in some withdrawal of foreign institutional investors’ money from Indian stocks, but the volume has not been of a magnitude that could create panic. So the most likely explanation for the fall in the external value of the rupee is a temporary and relatively small mismatch in demand and supply of foreign exchange. Speculators then took over and aggravated the situation.

This leads to the second issue. How should the central bank react to such crises? There are many who will feel the central bank should not react at all in such situations. They will argue that if market forces are to be allowed to guide the economy, then it is extremely unwise for the central bank to intervene whenever the rupee falters. After all, the foreign exchange rate is an important “price” and it makes no sense to exert too much governmental control over it when other prices are allowed to fluctuate. Although this argument has some superficial appeal, it can lead to dangerous consequences. There is a significant difference between the exchange rate and other prices — the difference being that the exchange rate is much more likely to be manipulated by speculators. Moreover, sudden changes in the exchange rate can create ripples which spread throughout the economy. However, while there is a valid reason for central bank intervention in a market driven economy, it is debatable whether the RBI has opted for the right instruments. It has chosen to use what are essentially administrative measures by raising interest rates. Instead, it could have chosen a more “market-friendly” approach by entering the foreign exchange market as an active player. It is sitting on huge foreign exchange reserves and could have comfortably augmented the supply of foreign exchange by releasing a fraction of these reserves. Since there is no fundamental weakness in the rupee, this action of the RBI would have kept the currency speculators at bay.    


Ring in the New

Indian politicians thrive on populist measures. The spiralling number of quotas for various segments of society is one of the biggest examples of populist methods. But populism also has its heroes. Mr Ram Vilas Paswan, the Union minister for communications, is exactly that. His recent decision to give every employee of the telecommunications department a free telephone with a 70 day bonus is the best way to put the department into serious financial straits. But then, shortsightedness is characteristic of populism. N.T. Rama Rao’s two rupees a kilogram rice programme emptied out his state’s treasury and gave Mr N. Chandrababu Naidu a tough time when he took over the reins of Andhra Pradesh. Mr Paswan is a specialist, and he believes in dramatic measures. Earlier, as minister for railways in 1997-98, he had given free railway passes to all registered railway porters and had turned a large number of contract employees into permanent workers.

It is unfortunate that the evil that men do lives after them. What Paswan has achieved, apart from financially embarrassing his department and luxuriating in the cheap thrills of instant popularity, is an unreal rise in expectations of the employees. This is an insidious evil in a political culture which already thrives on patronage. Neither professionalism nor merit is rewarded, but only the right connections and employment in the right government departments and posts. This always leads to an unhealthy jockeying for positions of favour and the job at hand gets the lowest priority. All populist measures breed this mentality. Caste-based reservations, for example, have led to increased social fragmentation through the competition to acquire special privileges. Mr Paswan’s move exposes two things, symptomatic of today’s political culture. One, that no politician expects to remain in power for long. So there is no need to worry about the long term problems of the department. And two, that there is no ideology to back any move. Pleasing employees is a certain way to silence criticism of one’s own actions. The other dangerous thing that makes moves such as Mr Paswan’s possible is the politicians’ lack of accountability. If Mr Paswan’s measure is allowed to pass without comment, it will not speak well of the National Democratic Alliance’s discipline.    


The first anniversary of the death of Graham Stewart Staines and his two little boys has been fittingly celebrated — never mind that it was on a different date. The village in Orissa, Manoharpur, once hallowed by the execution of a Christian missionary who looked after the tribals of the area and tended lepers, was twice hallowed by the conversion of 72 Christian tribals to Hinduism in the presence of the sankaracharya of Puri. Emphasis was laid on the fact that this was the first case in recent times when tribals were converted — or “reconverted” — into Hinduism in the presence of the sankaracharya of Puri. Undoubtedly, this was a special event. The hallowed ground has now been consecrated.

There is nothing in this narrative to disturb, let alone shock. Surely it must be articulating the feelings of a vast section of the majority community living in the country or outside it. Or the events could not have taken place, not the murders nor the conversion ceremony at the same site one and a half years later. Nothing but compliance can explain the unabated violence against Christians which began in the early Nineties and has become a regular and frankly gleeful phenomenon since 1997.

A quick look at only some of the events since 1997 might give an idea of the scale of the phenomenon. An analysis of a recent report reveals that there have been, between 1997 and October 1999, at least six murders of Christian priests, some of them teachers and missionaries. This is excluding Staines and his children. The number of victims in recorded assaults on priests and missionaries with sticks, rods and chains, as well as rapes and incidents of molestation of nuns during the same period exceeds 30. Being beaten up, paralysed, spat on, paraded naked and made to drink urine are all part of what the victim is meant to go through.

There are, predictably, a far larger number of incidents of attacks on Christian communities in different places, violent disruptions of religious meetings, burning of houses and copies of the Bible, detaining of victims in police lock-ups. It’s a highly satisfying performance. Damage to property owned by Christians is perhaps not so easily measurable. But it is difficult to resist counting the churches and prayer halls demolished, burnt or damaged in those two years. Approximately 50, and the majority of these has been totally destroyed. This count excludes the attacks on convent and missionary schools throughout northern and western India, which have been stepped up since last year.

This is an impressive record, and one which will implicitly reassure the law-abiding citizen that it is not a law and order problem or it would have been dealt with. In spite of a few arrests and investigations here and there, the general impression is that the police is totally absent from the scene. The law enforcing machinery sometimes does do its duty, when it can’t be helped. The Central Bureau of Investigation has brought charges against Dara Singh in relation to the Staines murders. The conversions on the murder site — one is free to read celebrations — have taken place nonetheless, blessed by the presence of the local Bharatiya Janata Party member of the legislative assembly and senior police officials. The latter were looking after security.

The issue against Christians has been reiterated to the point of exhaustion in quasi-official pronouncements and the plentiful hate literature in circulation: conversion, to which the word “forcible” is now almost an automatic addition. (There is no force implied in “reconversion” of course.) So successful has been the organized campaign that the obvious question about the freedom to choose one’s religion in a secular republic now seems anachronistic. Anything goes. The sankaracharya of Puri reportedly pronounced at Manoharpur that all conversions that took place after Partition were illegal.

No doubt he is empowered by unconstitutional forces to decide what is “legal”. But why after Partition? Are we at all aware of the abysmal ignorance and irrationality we are submitting to? Are logic, knowledge, rationality, all to be given up because there seems no point in trying to argue with this kind of reckless blindness? After all, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad president, Ashok Singhal, did say that the Nobel prize to Amartya Sen was part of a Christian conspiracy to propagate their religion.

What is most interesting, and crucial in all this, is the role of the BJP. The Central leadership has, at regular and decent intervals, made noises of concern and politely met church heads and leaders of Christian organizations with reassuring promises. But it has done nothing to stop its sangh parivar brethren like the Bajrang Dal, the VHP or the Swadeshi Jagran Manch from attacking the Christian community. Instead, the prime minister called for a national debate on conversions, thus deliberately and officially validating the prejudice against it.

Yet the BJP is not solely to blame. If a targeted move against anti-Christian activities is needed, surely its partners in the coalition and the opposition parties have an equally important role to play in seeing that it is planned and executed. Apart from occasional and politically convenient expressions of anger in Parliament, as once against the sustained attacks against convent schools for example, no such effort has been in evidence.

It might be remembered that the most horrific incident of rape of nuns in recent times took place in Jhabua in Madhya Pradesh, which is not a BJP-ruled state. The criminals were never identified. And sangh parivar leaders got away with saying that this was an expression of anger by patriotic Hindu youth against anti-national forces. What kind of civilization or faith is it in the name of which “patriotic” young men rape nuns to express their anger? Nobody asked.

There is another obvious question. Why Christians? In the India of today they have a very special position. Any fundamentalist force, whether it be in Iran or India, needs to tackle two problems in order to consolidate its grip on power. One is a threat from outside, the homogenizing force of global finance. The other is within, the heterogenizing forces of diversity. The only way to deal with both is to create strict discernible boundaries, by collapsing ethnic, religious, cultural differences. So Hindu is Indian, and Christian is “foreign”. So it is mandatory that the sankaracharaya say conversions are part of a foreign plot to turn India into a Christian country.

For the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh there are no two ways about this. But things are not so easy for the BJP, now in power and driven by different economic compulsions. The BJP-led government must nod smilingly at Iran and shake hands with Bill Clinton. The continued attacks on Christians can actually threaten to scuttle the BJP’s boat and may at one level be an indication of tensions within the parivar. Perhaps the BJP feels licensed containment, that is, not really penalizing the criminals, might act as a palliative to its parivar brothers. For that, it is willing to sacrifice credibility, justice and responsibility for the people it governs.

Apart from nurturing its more extreme comrades-in-arms in their routine pleasure jaunts, the BJP has kept up a steady stream of bills and proposals directed against the community. The plan by the BJP government in Delhi to remove churches from the list of recognized places of worship on the pretext that wine is served there, the formulation of a bill by BJP politicians asking all schools to conform to the concept that India is a Hindu nation and demanding the closure of non-Hindu religious schools, the order to the police in Gujarat and Delhi to send all relevant details about Christians and their “criminal activities” are some examples.

At the same time, it is difficult to believe that BJP leaders seriously subscribe to the kind of ignorance and irrationality exhibited by the leaders of the extreme branches of the sangh parivar. The higher echelons of the BJP comprise the elite, many of whom have themselves had or have given their children an acquaintance with convent or missionary modes of education. Many of their friends and supporters also comprise the elite.

The ideology emanating from the darker recesses of the sangh is a useful political tool. It can be used to tap deep prejudices and awaken hatreds, to give immediate frustrations a direction. The agenda of the Hindu rashtra is an important dream offered to businessmen here and born again patriots residing abroad. Those little bills against Christians will always fall through. But they, together with the constant stream of violence against Christians, make up a telling spectacle. The Hindu rashtra is the best possible way to draw support — and big money. The richer the BJP gets the surer will be its hold on political power. What happens after that will be another story.    


Little women


Sir — Amit Basu’s parents wanted a stay at home daughter-in-law while A. Dutta is thankful his “housewife” shoulders the responsibilities of the household and kids and leaves him free to concentrate on his job (“Home alone”, June 3). Amazingly, none of these highly educated men have thought that the women, equally qualified no doubt, they have married might not want to live life as their adjuncts. The issue here is not merely the hackneyed one of women’s rights but that of the colossal waste of time, energy, and most important, money. And given that higher education is heavily subsidized, it is government money that mostly runs down the drain. Also, is women’s education important only as far as it ensures the spread of literacy? What about the aspirations, the ambitions and the skills education engenders in women? Are both, individual talents and national wealth, to be sacrificed at the altar of a sham conjugal bliss merely because some selfish men insist that that is the only way they can be made happy?

Yours faithfully,
Rana Banerjee,

Milk of unhealthiness


Sir — Every two minutes, an American male is diagnosed with prostate cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, the incidence of prostate cancer rose an average of 3.3 per cent from 1970 through 1990. Recently, the Harvard School of Public Health announced a study linking milk, ice cream and cheese consumption to prostate cancer. Researcher June Chan tracked nearly 21,000 men for 11 years and found a high consumption of dairy products generated a 30 per cent increase in chances of prostate cancer over non-dairy users. This news is not so remarkable to those who have been tracking “real science”.

The most powerful growth hormone in the human body was discovered only 20 years ago. It resembles insulin and was named insulin like growth factor I. There are 43,000 different species of mammals in the animal kingdom and hundreds of millions of different proteins in nature, but there is just one hormone that is identical between two species. That hormone is IGF-I and the two species are bovines and humans.

On January 23, 1998, Science published a study calling IGF-I a key factor in prostate cancer. Four months later, Lancet called IGF-I a key factor in breast cancer. In January 1999, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute called it a key factor in the growth of lung cancer. In October 1999, a study published in the Journal of the American Diabetic Association revealed that serum blood levels of IGF-I increased significantly in a group of people drinking milk.

Milk hormones survive digestion. General science has thus ignored a general principle and universal wisdom applied to all mammals. Milk is a hormonal delivery system. Mechanisms in milk like fat molecules and casein ensure that lactoferins, immunoglobulins and hormones survive digestive processes and exert biological effects. Mankind is learning that the brilliantly marketed “got milk” crusade may result in a new “got cancer” campaign.

Yours faithfully,
Robert Cohen,
Englewood Cliff, US n

Sir — The Union minister for welfare, Maneka Gandhi, recently said that ayurveda considers milk a white poison, whereafter she argued that drinking milk was an unhealthy practice. United States medical experts are reported to have claimed that the intake of milk was a key factor in the growth of lung, breast and prostate cancer.

In different places in India, cattle owners make liberal use of the drug oxytocin to enhance milk production in cattle. Oxytocin gets dissolved in the milk of the animals and makes it unfit for human consumption, as it causes a number of diseases like renal disorder, irritable bowel syndrome and so on.

The ayurvedic text, Charak Samhita, says cow’s milk is endowed with many benign properties and is the best among all organic fluids available. Among Hindus, cow’s milk has not only been part of a healthy diet, but has also been linked with religious practices and rituals. The present controversy will put many in a quandary. The government should investigate and let people know whether milk indeed has any malignant properties. It should also try and stop the pernicious practice of injecting oxytocin in milch animals.

Yours faithfully,
B.C. Dutta,
Calcutta n

Sir — Why are educated citizens shooting their mouths off in the anti-milk crusade? Milk is universally recognized as the ultimate source of nutrition. The animal protectionists probably think that they are doing great service to animalkind by raking up a new issue. All they are succeeding in doing is causing popular confusion regarding the nutritional value of milk.

True, cattle are injected with drugs to produce more milk. However, packaged milk is scientifically treated, purified and processed. Why don’t people concentrate on the ill effects of carbonated soft drinks and cut fruits rather than say drinking milk is like drinking blood? One wonders what gives an animal protectionist the physical strength to shout above permitted decibel levels. A childhood full of milk, in all probability.

Yours faithfully,
Dibyendu Ghosal,

Problem notes


Sir — It is high time the government introduced Rs 200 currency notes to ease money transactions. Money value has eroded and transactions involving tens of thousands of rupees are very frequent. At least some effort in counting may be saved by introducing Rs 200 notes. It will also mitigate the suffering of the common man who has to count endless number of smaller notes in bundles worth Rs 1,000 or more. The quality of paper on which Indian currency notes are printed is very poor. Notes are often stapled in bundles in a crude manner. Many a time, notes are torn while opening the staple, which makes it difficult to carry out transactions with them. The government also needs to take appropriate measures to prevent these by suitably changing the paper used for printing currency notes, banning stapling and using tamper proof sealed envelopes instead.

Yours faithfully,
B.M. Agarwal,
Sonarpur n

Sir — Some changes need to be made in the currency notes of Rs 500 and of some coins. Since Rs 500 notes resemble Rs 100 notes in length, breadth and colour, the former should be enlarged two centimetres lengthwise and one and a half cm breadthwise. Two rupee coins should be made bigger with deeper corners while those of five rupees may be made square with blunt corners. It must be kept in mind that blind people also use these currency notes and coins, and anything that might create confusion for them should be avoided for their sake.

Yours faithfully,
Chaman Lal David,

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