Manners maketh a comrade
Strait is the gate to peace
Letters to the Editor

Mr Buddhadev Bhattacharya, West Bengal’s minister for culture and heir apparent to the chief minister, Mr Jyoti Basu, can always be expected to behave like a communist in a bad play. It is ironic that a man so devoid of culture should be in charge of culture. Mr Bhattacharya’s decision to stay away from the birth centenary celebrations of Shyama Prosad Mookerjee can only be described as a show of atrocious manners. Mr Bhattacharya knew that the prime minister, Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee, would be present on the occasion and he also knew the kind of respect Mookerjee enjoys among educated Bengalis. Despite all this, Mr Bhattacharya decided to take an ideological position and announced that he would be absent because “we [the Communist Party of India (Marxist)] have fundamental political differences with his [Mookerjee’s] ideas and political philosophy”. No doubt Mr Bhattacharya is feeling smug — as is his wont — about the great political statement he has made. In reality, what he did was to provide Mr Vajpayee with an opportunity to tell everybody that the Bharatiya Janata Party is more magnanimous and open-minded about ideological differences. The prime minister seized the occasion to tell the audience that the BJP had not hesitated to send Mr L.K.Advani to the funeral of the veteran CPI(M) leader, Mr E.M.S. Namboodiripad. Mr Bhattacharya can congratulate himself for allowing Mr Vajpayee not only to score a point, but also to show that the BJP is a tolerant political force.

The incident has more to it than the scoring of points. Mr Bhattacharya is not a mere party functionary, he is the holder of an important public office. This puts on him the responsibility of putting aside, on public occasions, his personal dislikes and his ideological preferences. Mr Bhattacharya has failed to meet this responsibility. If Mr Bhattacharya were to strictly adhere to his sectarian views, he would have to stay away from celebrations associated with many leaders, including Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Vivekananda and Jawaharlal Nehru, since with all these figures the CPI(M) has — or should have — “fundamental political differences”. Mr Bhattacharya cannot afford to hold public office and hold the view that he will only attend ceremonies that honour figures with whose views he is in agreement. This is not a tenable position in a democracy and neither is it a position that a cultured person can live by. Mr Bhattacharya’s ex officio presence at the birth centenary of Mookerjee would not be construed by anybody to be an endorsement of Mookerjee’s ideology and politics.

Leaders with better communist credentials than Mr Bhattacharya have not blanched at the thought of being present at functions honouring ideological opponents. Today, when ideological differences are blurred, Mr Bhattach-arya’s decision makes no sense. What is worse, it makes no point. It only reveals his party’s inability to slough off attitudes that hark back to the Cold War. There is a hoary tradition in communist circles that puts ideology before good manners. Whatever the virtues of such an attitude among comrades, it does not become a senior minister and a pretender to the chief ministership to be unnecessarily abrasive and intolerant. The worst thing is that Mr Bhattacharya chose to be boorish over an occasion in which the prime minister was present. His behaviour, representative as it was of the Left Front, could not have improved Mr Vajpayee’s impression of the government in West Bengal. In political terms and in terms of personal decency, Mr Bhattacharya and the CPI(M) have cut rather sorry figures. His behaviour could not have pleased anybody except a narrow claque of applauders to whom good manners are of no consequence or are relics of a “bourgeois life-style”. Mr Bhattacharya, if he has to make the move from juvenile rebellion to mature statesmanship, has to decide what he values more: the applause of comrades or the appreciation of a wider section of the people who see in him a leader capable of rising above pettiness. As a minister, Mr Bhattacharya represents West Bengal. When he behaves badly, he lets West Bengal down.    

It might be necessary from a tactical point of view to reject Farooq Abdullah’s proposal for state autonomy. It might be politically feasible to consider the same demand if it is presented as a plea for greater devolution of powers rather than a reversion to the status that prevailed before 1953. But in the absence of an alternative prescription for Kashmir, the Central government needs something as a talking point, some peg on which to hang a formula that might one day win the approval of all the warring parties, and the National Conference resolution might still provide just that.

If the Centre will not talk about autonomy for Kashmir, what will it talk about? If it will not talk to the National Conference, who will it talk to? The Pakistanis? Or will it not talk at all, still relying on the fatal, if unavoidable, combination of guns and troops to bring a blood-drenched state to heel? If such recalcitrance continues, New Delhi might find one day that there is nobody left to talk to and nothing to talk about.

It is characteristic of our politics that parties in opposition always talk of electoral reform and decentralization of power. They renege on both causes as soon as they assume office. The Bharatiya Janata Party is no exception to that general rule.

This is not to say that autonomy is the answer. It may not go far enough for people who are in a position to hold life in the state to ransom; indeed, to extinguish life itself in various gruesome ways as is happening all the time. It may go too far for constitutionalists who are concerned about the impact on other restive areas, as well as the interaction between Indians and the proponents of Tamil eelam in Sri Lanka.

It was also clear enough that far from being part of a sustained and well-thought out campaign to restore what Kashmiris may believe to be their lost rights, the assembly resolution was a hasty move designed partly to remind the Centre that there is such a thing as a state government and partly to inform the electorate that the Hurriyat leaders are not their only champions. That the National Conference will also speak up for them.

All this can be cited to disregard and denigrate Farooq Abdullah. He is after all a politician who will seize his chance when he sees it. But India is bigger than he is. Even Kashmir is. By ignoring the opportunity he threw to them to reconsider a viable shape of things to come, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani have only exposed the Central government’s inability to rise above barren party polemics.

It is immaterial whether Kashmir’s titular head of state is styled governor or sadar-i-riyasat. What matters is whether the nature of the relationship between Srinagar and New Delhi meets with the approval of the Kashmiri people. The need is for flexibility blended with firmness, imagination and innovation. However sacred Shyama Prosad Mookerjee’s memory might be to the BJP, let the party not find an excuse for its own bankruptcy, or its subservience to sangh parivar rigidity, in someone who has been dead these 50 years.

Historical nit-picking serves little purpose. But to those who would say with Mookerjee that India is one and indivisible, and that no part of it can labour under a special dispensation, one can retort that they should have thought of that when accepting Hari Singh’s instrument of accession. The maharaja joined India in respect of only three subjects — defence, foreign affairs and currency. If that was so repugnant, then India should have told him then that it had to be all or nothing. In 1947, Vallabhbhai Patel might even have got away with it.

Perhaps New Delhi accepted the limited accession only as a temporizing tactic, which does not say much for the moral calibre of the leadership of the time. But perhaps the leadership was able to rise above the constraints of manmade constitutions to conceive of a national framework in which nobody felt badly treated. After all, Jawaharlal Nehru did use the word “confederation” as an answer to India’s problems in Kashmir and Pakistan’s in erstwhile East Bengal. Even his mention of such a possibility should open more doors than any invocation of Shyama Prosad closes.

We hear much nowadays about the watershed of 1953, the 1974-75 talks between Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Abdullah and the 42 presidential orders that have been issued by virtue of Article 370. The little men who trot out these excuses for inaction can be confronted with two factors.

First, the open secret that many of the measures to integrate Kashmir with the rest of the country were brought in through the back door — surreptitiously implemented with the connivance of chief ministers who had a stronger constituency in New Delhi than in their own state. One can wonder how many of these measures would be upheld by an impartial court of law. Second, a number of events, from uprisings to assembly resolutions, have reiterated that India’s demographic variety cries out for some kind of constitutional and administrative expression.

This is a matter that can take us back to B.R. Ambedkar and the constituent assembly. To the old Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham’s secessionist demand even before the honeymoon with Sheikh Abdullah ended, and the military insurgency by Nagas, Mizos, Meteis, Boros and then the Khalistanis. The Akali Dal sponsored the Anandpur Sahib resolution in 1973.

The following year M. Karunanidhi saw to it that the Tamil Nadu assembly endorsed the Rajamannar committee recommendation that “the federal government should have only powers relating to defence, foreign affairs, interstate communication and currency” and that “all other powers along with the residuary powers should only vest with the states”. Like Kashmir, Tamil Nadu, too, wanted the authority of the Supreme Court and Election Commission restricted.

So, even if the National Conference move was born in expediency, it enjoys a respectable provenance. It also reflects the wishes of significant numbers of people outside Kashmir. That combination should have been enough for the Centre to pause and consider the implications of what Farooq Abdullah had proposed, not just for Kashmir but for other parts of the country as well. Wise men would have used the initiative to promote their own vision of federal unity and created a system that can bend without breaking. Instead, our rulers rushed to denounce it with bell, book and candle.

It is possible that the BJP acted with such uncharacteristic haste and resolution because it fears being hoist with its own petard. Abdullah and Karunanidhi are both members of the ruling National Democratic Alliance. The BJP itself argued for decentralization to the Sarkaria commission whose report has not been made public, leave alone being implemented, in these 12 years. It supported financial autonomy and asked for a formal consultative structure for the selection and appointment of governors.

It cannot be allowed to evade its own past commitments. It must find some means of returning to those proposals. Tamil Nadu, the Northeast and Punjab may not present a serious challenge any longer, but Kashmir is different because of the historical background, the external dimension and the nature of the militancy. India needs to demonstrate to the world that it is in command of the Kashmir situation, that Kargil was not only a military victory (with a little help from Bill Clinton) in a political graveyard.

The only way of doing so is to get the dialogue going on. Even an unconditional dialogue calls for a partner. With all his failings, Farooq Abdullah is the best we have. He can be the starting point for the peace process that Kashmir and India need so desperately.    


To catch a falling star

Sir — Celebrities are chosen to endorse everything from aerated drinks to jeans to fountain pens because of their star appeal. But now we have a new phenomenon, where stars with waning popularity in the box office turn to endorsements. Amitabh Bachchan did not endorse any product in his heyday, because he was already a superstar. But now that that is no longer the case, he is seen frequently on television screens, promoting some product or the other. Also worth noting is the fact that when professional models have started making inroads into the small screen, the “falling” stars have taken to modelling. This is a game where there are no gainers or losers, only consumers who pay for everything.

Yours faithfully,
Arta Mishra, Cuttack

Not cowed down

Sir — In his article, “Cow to the slaughter” (July 2), Mukul Kesavan rightly reasons against drinking and smoking. But it is surprising he finds no reasons against the eating of beef. Medical research proves that red meat causes many heart diseases, also cancer. In tropical countries like India, it leads to other complications.

The Hindu opposition to cow slaughter can also be taken as a way of preserving the cattle population. Further, cow slaughter hurts the sentiments of India’s majority community. It can’t be compared to the Muslim’s distaste for liquor or that of the Sikh for smoking, for these are considered offences in Islam and Sikhism respectively. It does not hurt their sentiments if the same offence is committed by people belonging to other communities. Given the religious sentiments of Hindus, who form 75-80 per cent of India’s population, it makes sense to retain the ban on cow slaughter in most of the states.

Yours faithfully,
Kaustav Sinha Ray, Calcutta

Sir — I think it was the overall utility of the cow which prompted the sages of yore to give it religious protection. The cow is the only animal whose dung and urine can be used as manure and pesticide. The census of 1990 stated that India’s 72 million oxen do the work of eight million tractors, saving the country Rs 14,000 crore, the cost of the 26 million tonnes of diesel these tractors would have used. People should never be swayed by convenient arguments, be it for liquor consumption, smoking, cow slaughter, poppy cultivation or deforestation.

Yours faithfully,
Debasis Chakrabarti, Calcutta

Sir — Mukul Kesavan’s article is blatantly pro-slaughter with cunning arguments to justify that two wrongs make a right. Confusing issues is an old trick. Only beef eaters and those interested in the leather industry will be taken in.

Aborting foetuses has become a necessary evil because people are still not used to contraceptives. Just as the prohibition on smoking in public places is opposed by few other than addicts and the tobacco companies, similarly prohibition of liquor, which has saved many women and children from starvation and thrashings by drunkards, can be revoked only to please compulsive drinkers and liquor barons.

The cow, religious considerations aside, deserves kind treatment and licence to life simply because it is the only species which is useful till it dies. Advanced nations have woken up to the value of pesticide free, organically grown food. Promoting this, rather than cow slaughter, would be of greater benefit to national health and economy.

Yours faithfully,
Purnima Toolsidass, Calcutta

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