Editorial 1/House for Mr Kesri
Editorial 2/Nuclear blindness
Secularism, Indian style
Letters to the Editor

A political system that takes privileges for granted breeds it own absurdities. The race between Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee and Ms Sonia Gandhi to provide the former president of the all India Congress committee, Mr Sitaram Kesri, with a house is a case in point. Government housing for all politicians with official designations is a privilege granted in few countries. In the United States for example, only the very highest government functionaries, like the president, would get an official residence, and that too for just the period he is in office. In India, however, hordes of politicians are not only given bungalows and flats, but it is also taken for granted that they will misuse the privilege by treating these premises as their own. In many cases, they and their families stay on, long after the politicians have quit office and sometimes after they have died; they may occasionally offer their allotted residence to someone else in exchange of a favour or as reward for a service or just out of pure friendliness. In spite of being one of the largest owners of real estate, therefore, the government is always short of houses every time a new government comes in. Mr Jagmohan’s recent drive to correct the situation is the latest among sporadic clean up attempts. There are Supreme Court rulings on the issue, which, after the first flurry of apparent compliance, have been quietly forgotten by silent consensus.

So deeply ingrained is this culture of privileges that questions about the rationale behind government property for every politician with the hint of an official designation are never asked. Instead, the government’s real estate becomes another site for political oneupmanship, with the prime minister and the president of the main opposition party racing to find a house for Mr Kesri. If withdrawal of the privilege is considered too radical, the simplest of rules could be followed in order to rationalize the system. For example, no politician with a place to stay in the city should be granted the privilege. All politicians would have to give up government residence the moment their official term in government or government related work is over. There should be a fixed list of allottees, according to designation and not personal political clout. All the system needs for a real clean up is political will. Unfortunately, that is necessarily lacking, because politicians across the board are most careful in guarding their own interests. There is now a parliamentary committee proposal that a seven crore rupees project be put on board for the building of houses for former members of parliament in the centre of the capital. People might find it difficult to appreciate the need for ex-MPs to go on living in New Delhi on public money when subsidies are being cut and the government is piously talking austerity. No government will be able to stem corruption as long as the culture of privileges is in place.    

In theory, India is following international practice by removing its nuclear weapons programme from the purview of the atomic energy regulatory body, the agency responsible for nuclear safety. There will now be two such bodies. The AERB will keep an eye on the civilian nuclear industry and a new safety panel, set up by the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, will do the same for nuclear weapons facilities. On paper this looks reasonable. In reality it is likely to further undermine the credibility of nuclear safety in India. Regulatory bodies need a certain degree of institutional independence to serve as effective watchdogs. The AERB never had such autonomy because it was made subordinate to the department of atomic energy, the same body whose activities it was supposed to monitor. There is evidence, including statements by former AERB members, to believe India’s nuclear industry has been far more error prone than the government admits. And that the AERB is disallowed from going public with findings and told to stay away from certain facilities. The new move will mean replicating AERB in a military setting. Again, it will be a case of a custodian controlled by its ward. India’s nuclear programme is already shrouded in oppressive secrecy. It will now become even more opaque and less accountable.

Questions need to be asked as to why the nuclear establishment has felt the need to further retreat into its shell and seclude itself from any watchdog’s prying eyes. The former AERB chairman, Mr A. Gopalakrishnan, has provided a possible explanation. He believes New Delhi has ordered the regulatory split because India is determined to build up its fissile material stockpile. However, BARC’s ageing reactors and facilities would find it hard to pass AERB’s muster if New Delhi insisted they be put to round the clock use. Therefore, he argues, the government decided to strip the regulatory body of its oversight authority in the case of nuclear weapon facilities like BARC. This would fit other circumstantial evidence that India is aggressively pushing ahead with plans to build a minimum nuclear deterrent. Whatever the reason, there is no excuse for diluting India’s already weak nuclear safety regime. Nuclear accidents are not in the same league as other industrial mishaps. An out of control chain reaction can level cities, radioactive leaks can contaminate and poison regions for years. Run like public sector enterprises, accountable to almost nobody and equipped with dated and unsafe technology, India’s nuclear facilities are atomic powderkegs. The suspicion exists that New Delhi’s skewed definition of nuclear power status puts a premium on nuclear explosions and downgrades safety and security. If Pokhran II should be followed by an indigenous Chernobyl, New Delhi would have none to blame but itself.    

First they stormed Delhi riding the crest of Hindutva, closely followed by the spate of minority-bashing, and then came the announcement of the Constitution review panel. From here, many thought, it would be a short step for the Bharatiya Janata Party to launch a frontal assault on the secular foundation of our Constitution. Since then the prime minister’s assurances and statements of panel members seem to have assuaged the anxieties — to some extent.

It might be instructive here to ponder the issue the other way round, and recount how the constitutional arrangement pertaining to a secular state in India has contributed its bit towards the consolidation of the forces of Hindutva.

The word “secular” did not originally occur in the description of the Indian republic in the preamble to the Constitution, and this omission was deliberate. True, the Indian Constitution faithfully reflected two principal elements of the liberal democratic vision of secularism: Articles 25 and 26 guaranteed the right to freedom of religion and the right of religious denominations to manage their own affairs, while articles 14 and 15 affirmed the right to equality and non-discrimination by the state on religious grounds.

But a third cardinal principle — state indifference towards religion — was replaced by that of the state paying equal respect to all religions — sarvadharmasamabhava. This, it was felt, was more in keeping with the culture and tradition of India. Accordingly, the Constitution did not admit of any state religion, forbade the imposition of taxes for promotion of any particular religion (Article 27) and ruled out compulsory religious instruction in state aided educational institutions (Article 28).

The more radical break with archetypal secularism came through extension of constitutional sanction to state intervention in religious affairs. Article 25(2) empowered the state to regulate by law any secular activity associated with religious practice and to provide for social welfare and reform.

While defending this provision, B.R. Ambedkar asserted that the religious conceptions in this country were so vast that they covered every aspect of life from birth to death. Therefore, unless the state was granted this liberty, it would be impossible for our legislatures to enact any social measure whatsoever. In other words, to quote historian Partha Chatterjee, the violation of this principle of secular state was justified precisely by the desire to secularize — secularize the social order.

Ever since the inception of the Constitution, the powers deriving from this article were exercised with great gusto by the Indian state which appeared to carry forward the mission of the 19th century social reformers. A series of laws were enacted by various state legislatures: the Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act, Temple Entry Authorization Act, Animal and Birds Sacrifices Abolition Act, Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act, to name a few. This reformist activism reached its high water mark with the passage of the Hindu code bill, whereby Parliament went through the maze of local and sectarian variations of Hindu law and laid down a single code of personal law for all Hindu citizens.

All these progressive legislative measures, however, concerned Hindu religious institutions and practices. Indeed, many of the provisions of the Hindu code involved gross departures from traditional brahminical norms. The new code legalized intercaste marriage, sanctioned divorce and prohibited polygamy, and gave the daughter the same right of inheritance as the son.

But Muslim personal law, curiously enough, was left virtually untouched. Rather, a section of Muslim leaders claimed that Indian Muslims had a right to be governed by Muslim laws based on scriptures in matters such as marriage, divorce, maintenance, child custody, inheritance and the like, which followed directly from their religious faith and was therefore covered by the freedom of religion guaranteed by Article 25.

Contrary to popular perceptions that the Muslim community in India has remained steadfast in its resistance to modernization, during the early decades of the 20th century the Jamiyat ul Ulama i Hind of Deoband, known for its closeness to the Congress, took the lead in demanding reform of Muslim religious laws and institutions. It assailed certain local and customary practices prevalent among sections of Muslims as un-Islamic and inequitous, and called for replacing them with a uniform Muslim personal law.

This reform campaign culminated in the enactment of the Shariat Act in 1937. Yet on the eve of the Partition, the same Jamiyat leaders, largely to combat Muslim League propaganda, sought — and got — an assurance from Jawaharlal Nehru that Muslim law would remain beyond th scope of state intervention. It was against this backdrop that Nehru, keeping his modernizing zeal in suspended animation, persuaded the constituent assembly to put the subject of a uniform civil code in the list of directive principles.

This quid pro quo in the shape of a constitutional convention, which left its indelible mark on state action in India, ran counter to all the desiderata of secularism — including the modifications brought about by the founding fathers. It constituted a departure from the principle of sarvadharmasamabhava, and produced the bizarre scenario of the majority complaining about unfair treatment by the state.

An impression gained ground that freedom of religion could be invoked exclusively for the minorities, while in case of the majority it could be set aside by the state at its sweet will. After all, both Hindus and Muslims regarded their respective personal laws to be scripturally sanctioned. Yet Hindus alone were made to forgo their claim under the state’s dispensation.

But from the standpoint of the members of the Muslim community — particularly its women — this understanding could be construed as a negation of equality in that they had been denied the benefits of reform, and left to suffer the diktat of an obscurantist leadership.

So the “reformist” Indian state, paradoxically enough, virtually became an ally of social conservatism which not only came in handy for the Hindu rightist forces to set Hindu communal passions aflame but also enabled the majoritarian, assimilationist sangh parivar to pose as the champion of gender justice within the Muslim community.

The right of conversion implied in the freedom to propagate one’s religion (Article 25) has given a further propaganda handle to the Hindutva brigade. The original draft of this article contained no reference to the right to propagate; it was included later, to accommodate the demand of the small Christian community in the constituent assembly.

K.M. Munshi, member of the drafting committee, pointed out that the Indian Christians had given up their demand for separate reservations but laid great emphasis on this condition not because they wanted to convert people aggressively, but because the word “propagation” was a fundamental part of their religion. The Supreme Court however ruled in the 1977 Stanislaus case that the right to propagate did not include the right to convert.

A.N. Ray, the chief justice, asserted what Article 25 granted was the right to transmit or spread one’s own religion by an exposition of its tenets, and any claim to the right to convert was sure to impinge on the freedom of conscience guaranteed by Article 25(1). To be sure, the court delivered the verdict while dealing with the question of coercive conversion; nonetheless, the issue became grist to the Hindutva mill.

Constitutionally speaking then, the malady of secularism in India lay in the tension between the conception of the state as an agent of socio-religious reform and that of minority rights, supposedly immune from the long arm of an intrusive state. The political philosopher, Bhikhu Parekh, has pertinently observed that the framers of the Constitution, assuming that India had minorities but not a majority, sought to nurture the former’s cultural self-expression but not the latter’s, and allowed the minorities to act as collective agents while ignoring the real and fraught possibility of the majority becoming integrated and acting as a collective body.

The unanticipated, however, has happened, and those who appear to treat the secular credo embedded in our Constitution as a holy cow and are anxious to save it from the onslaught of the Hindu right would do well to remember that the atypical variant of secularism envisaged by the founding fathers together with the hiatus between the constitutional provisions and their implementation delineated above contributed in no small measure towards shaping the monster of majoritarianism.

These questions, need to be addressed rather than simply brushed aside, and a post-Nehruvian consensus has to be forged. This is no plea for embracing the sangh parivar’s version of “positive secularism” whatever that may mean. The point is that an attempt to foreclose the debate on secularism would certainly not augur well for its future in India.

The author is senior lecturer, department of political science, Kalyani University    


Playing with ire

Sir — Shabana Azmi would do well to remember the sardonic tone with which Samuel Beckett referred to “critics” in his play Waiting for Godot, and not get too bogged down by the not-so-rave reviews of her new play, The Waiting Room. Despite the lack of good reviews in the British media, there is the consolation that the play has drawn a large crowd. After all, one might still remain unfazed about the lack of proper “success” of English language theatre back in the country as long as the lure of lucre is strong enough elsewhere. Add to that a lot of hype, and you have the perfect ingredient for a play for which tickets can sell out even before the first show is staged. The critics’ leniency when reviewing British Asian productions and their stringency towards productions by Hollywood stars in West End that Amit Roy talks about in “Critics savage Shabana play” (June 4) is nothing new. That has never been a determinant in these plays’ success or failure. So why is Azmi peeved?

Yours faithfully,
Sweta Das Gupta, Calcutta

Blood on their hands

Sir — Intense rivalry between the main political parties has led to numerous bloodbaths in West Bengal’s villages and the city suburbs. The mayhem in Keshpur and Garbeta are recent examples of clashing parties trying to unsettle each other’s “bases” of popular support. In the ferocity of the violence what is forgotten is that poor farmers — often the sole breadwinners of families — are killed, crops worth crores of rupees are burnt, cattle destroyed and hundreds maimed.

What seems to be true of Tripura, where massacre has become the order of the day, seems true of West Bengal as well. The only distinction is that while members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) are killed in the former, in the latter, it is the opposition that gets the wrong end of the stick. In both, the leaders of the state administration remain unperturbed, issuing press statements that help secure their comrades from the long arm of the law.

However, the practice of mindless killing, which the CPI(M) initiated, has backfired with the opposition now taking law into its own hands. The leftist intelligentsia, which often raises a hue and cry over incidents across the globe, has maintained a studied silence about the carnage taking place next door. The blind allegiance to political parties, mutual hatred and fanaticism and the consequent killings could degenerate into a fascist culture the roots of which will be difficult to shake off.

Yours faithfully,
Santanu Basu, Malda

Sir — The repeated incidents of violence, killings and arson in the clashes between the CPI(M) and Trinamool Congress supporters in Keshpur should be condemned. They indicate a total breakdown of law and order in the state. What is alarming is that the scourge may spread to the peaceful parts of the state causing unrest in areas where the popular mandate is sought.

What is of crucial importance in this connection is that the police should not remain a mute spectator in the violence. Law and order must be enforced without fear or favour in all parts of the state. Under no circumstances should the culprits be let off without being given exemplary punishment.

Yours faithfully,
Dhaneswar Banerjee, Bolpur

Sir — The governor of West Bengal, Viren J. Shah, visited Midnapore on May 5 to size up the situation. He passed the day in the circuit house hobnobbing with bureaucrats and the police bosses. During his stay, communist goons reportedly became more uncontrollable in their assaults on supporters and workers of the rival parties.

It is evident that the governor’s visit to the region was a fiasco. As the constitutional head of the state, he could ask the superintendent of police to stop the violence within 24 hours at any cost. He could have further inquired into allegations of the SP being “partisan”. Next, he could meet our garrulous police minister, Buddhadev Bhattacharya, for more information.

First, why was Gaurav Datta made the SP of Midnapore despite accusations against his conduct by the human rights commission? Second, Shah could have asked Bhattacharya what steps were taken to deal with party workers associated with bombmaking. Why were bombs exploded on the premises of the CPI(M) party office in Midnapore?

The governor’s Midnapore visit was a spectacular roadshow at the taxpayers’ expense.

Yours faithfully,
A.K. Bhadra, Calcutta

God of human things

Sir — Khushwant Singh’s “Life after the death of god” (May 8) gives an insight into the myths and legends centring around the conception of god. The anthropomorphic conception of god is the origin of all misunderstandings about religion, which postulates a theory of god. George Galloway, comparing religious beliefs of mankind to “a dense and pathless jungle”, not “a field laid out and harmoniously ordered”, points out the inconsistencies between the different conceptions men have formed of god. These inconsistencies confront us and make us suspect the existence of god as we suspect the existence of ghosts.

God is only a nomenclature, the very being which constitutes us, and perfection an indication of godliness — a quality that belongs to man and has no existence outside of him. But man, being imperfect, has always to pass through a process of “becoming”; as soon as this process stops, he emerges as a being which we call “divine”.

Khushwant Singh is not wrong in saying “Why not leave god alone?” But in so far as we can conceive of a perfect being — that is ourselves — trying to achieve that perfection through the process of “becoming”, one knows oneself, and so god (a nomenclature for the perfect man) is comprehensible if we substitute man for god. Understood thus, the Upanishadic principle, “know thyself”, may become the ultimate way in which we can conceive of god. This can well be the key. It would imply that man and god are identical, and so we need no conceptualization of an entity called god, separate from man.

To quote Galloway again, “There emerges then, as the outcome of man’s age-long search for God, the vision of a Reality, ethical, spiritual and personal, in which the religious needs of humanity are fulfilled.”

Yours faithfully,
K.R. Venkatasubramanian, Calcutta

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