Editorial 1/ Flagged off
Theatrics of indecision
The Telegraph/ Diary
Footnote/ How good is my didi
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1/ FLAGGED OFF 
 
 
 
 
Mutual recriminations are fun, but they are more stimulating when backed by reason. Especially in the Lok Sabha, when the issue is patriotism. The rapid fire exchange between parliamentarians telling tales on political parties which did not hoist the national flag atop their respective party offices on Independence Day was less stimulating than ridiculous. It is possible to suspect that the whole notion of patriotism is a confused one, even among the elected representatives of the state. For example, there is an official concept of of patriotism, one which is solely manifestated in the hoisting of the national flag. But strict adherence to the logic of this concept has its pitfalls with regard to the argument that livened up Lok Sabha proceedings. As an official expression of patriotism, the national flag should have a specifically official function. In such a case, a chief minister of one of the states of India refusing to hoist the flag atop a government building such as the state secretariat could be questioned. But a local or regional party office is little different from a private residence or institution. Whether or not the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or the Communist Party of India (Marxist) hoist flags atop their party offices on Independence Day should surely not function as a measure of their “patriotism”.

The confusion regarding patriotism can be better understood with reference to the flag code. There is no law against flying the tricolour on private buildings. Yet there is a mysterious school of thought, often labelled “the authorities”, which claims that flying the tricolour on private buildings on any day except a national day is liable to penal action as that shows “disrespect”. There is apparently no problem about flying some other country’s flag; questions of disrespect to other national identities obviously do not arise. The issue is not as absurd as it sounds. There is an Indian by the name of Mr Naveen Jindal who is fighting a suit of contempt for demanding his right to fly the national flag every day of the year. A Supreme Court ruling is expected on the matter, since the question touches on the fundamental rights of speech and expression. Whatever the legalities, it is obvious that the layman is likely to be rather befuddled by the ideas of patriotism current in the country.

The flag is a symbol of nationhood. There are just two ways to look at it. On the one hand, it can be seen as a purely official symbol, in which case restrictions on its use would be meaningful. This would imply a full appropriation of the sentiments associated with the flag, such as patriotism or a proud assertion of identity, by the state. Nationalism would officially become the state’s domain. That is one way to look at things, only such that would sit oddly on a democratic framework. On the other hand, there could be free use of the national flag, to be hoisted or not by private individuals or organizations at will, which would give the symbol a completely different sort of meaning. It could become a vehicle of familiarity, hatred, belonging or pride, expressing freely the complex feelings and moods citizens bear towards their states. National flags could be burnt as a mark of serious protest or their design used in underwear without inviting penal action as happens in many other democracies. This is the logic that a still immature democracy such as India’s needs to run away from, immersing the official discourse in confused arguments about “patriotism” in the process.

The notion of patriotism itself needs to be reviewed. The nation-state is in flux and a state unsure of its place in the changing world clutches at symbols to gloss over unsettling realities. The fuss about the national flag, the contradictory demands regarding its hoisting stem from this insecurity. A country confident of its identity and its place in the world should be proud when its citizens freely use the national flag to express themselves, never mind whether those feelings are positive or negative.    


 
 
THEATRICS OF INDECISION 
 
 
BY SUNANDA K. DATTA-RAY
 
 
How foreign diplomats respond to Calcutta was vividly described many years ago in a BBC programme on the British foreign service. A second secretary in the British deputy high commission, who had served in Osaka, Darwin, Freetown, Accra and Lahore, found the city a trying place.

“Living in Calcutta is full of frustration, and for the wife it is also full of boredom,” he said. “It’s not possible for the wife to work here, and there is very little she can do except voluntary work, which in Calcutta isn’t of a very congenial nature. So her main problem is filling in her time.

“During the winter months when it’s cool, she can do some of her housework, and she can do a little in the kitchen, but since you employ servants, it isn’t straightforward. They are always hovering around. They arrange things differently and they don’t like her interfering. In the summer months it is so hot and sticky it is simply impossible to do anything.

“We have a car, but because of the traffic conditions in Calcutta, and the fact that if there is an accident the driver is quite often attacked, we have a driver who brings me into the office in the morning, then he goes back and he takes my wife shopping. There are no big department stores in Calcutta. There’s an open-air market, where you can buy vegetables in season and some basic foodstuffs, but there are a lot of European foodstuffs that you can’t get here at all.

“Some of the shopping, like the buying of the meat, she leaves to the servants, because the conditions in the meat market are so horrible that she can’t stand them. They have these large wooden benches and the animals are just cut up there, and all the bits of the animals are left lying about. The vultures are up on the beams, waiting to pounce on anything that’s not wanted. You need a strong stomach to go there.”

I have quoted extensively from the script partly because it is useful to know how others see us, and partly because of the stark contrast with Calcutta’s once-vibrant cosmopolitanism. Chinese, Jews and Armenians flocked here because of handsome business opportunities and flourished. Greeks in eastern India were prosperous enough to raise something like 50,000 pounds for their war of independence against Turkey. The shopping – Harrison Hathaway, Hall and Anderson, Army and Navy, the stately Whiteaway Laidlaw that was yet so unfashionable that the Cooch Behar set deliberately miscalled it “Whitelaw and Laidaway”, Hamilton, Cooke and Kelvey, Phelps and Ranken – was the best east of Port Said’s glittering Simon Artz.

Huseyn Suhrawardy fought tooth and nail for Calcutta in 1947 not because of some cultural mystique but because the combination of port, manufacturing base and rich hinterland made it one of the world’s most thriving entrepôts. Even recently, it was important enough for resident diplomats from Australia, Iran, Egypt, Vietnam, Myanmar, the old Czechoslovakia and several other countries. Grim confirmation of economic decline, the Americans have been considering withdrawal for several years; the French have done so.

Ruling amidst the ruins, the Left Front has long faced an uncomfortable choice. It can cling to ideological purity and take pride in setting an austere example that makes even those last citadels of communism, the Cuban and North Korean regimes, look like capitalist-roaders. Or it can follow the path of — I will not cite China’s robust example — states like Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra and forge ahead within the national consensus on liberalization. What it is doing is to dither between the two.

It places commendable emphasis on job creation. Wealth generation would satisfy the permanent longer term need. That can be achieved only through increased production which in turn demands improved infrastructure. As N. Chandrababu Naidu pointed out recently in rather graceless terms, neither is possible without substantial investment.

But the state government proclaims its confusion by adopting though not implementing an enlightened industrial policy. It signs hundreds of memorandums of understanding that are not followed up, hosts glittering events like the Raichak conference that lead nowhere, and speaks in several voices at the same time to blow hot and cold on growth and globalization. Which is its real face, that presented at Maidan rallies or to the chambers of commerce?

Given this demonstration of indecisiveness, I think the controversy over the American consul-general snowballed accidentally. Once charges had been levelled, the leadership probably hoped that the attack would serve as an act of public expiation. Let the rank and file not imagine that the Left Front has abandoned the struggle just because the chief minister and sundry high functionaries go on jaunts to the United States and shopping sprees to Singapore, and play footsie with Marwaris.

Such games are not uncommon in politics. But if so, I hope Jyoti Basu whispered a word of comfort in the consul-general’s ear when the latter called on him. “Take no notice,” he should have hissed under his breath, “the theatrics are only to keep Anil Biswas happy.” Otherwise, the consul-general would be entitled to report back that while Vietnam’s Marxists have turned to the market, the Bengali variety still yearns for revolution. That would, in turn, ensure that American money and personnel shun the state. Is this what the government wants? If so, it might as well drop the appearance of welcoming investment and retreat to ideological orthodoxy.

True, America’s worldwide record, details of which are too well known to need reiteration, does not rule out the kind of activity of which the two consulate analysts are accused. But the facts of this case, as reported, do. The two were on a day trip to Nanoor, not an extended visit as has been made out. There was no attempt at concealment: they announced themselves on arrival to the block development officer. The American official cited was spending a weekend privately with his family in Santiniketan and was not involved in the Nanoor inquiry.

The Vienna Convention forbids “interference” but also guarantees freedom of movement for diplomats whose job it is to collect information. On a technical point, Daniel Patrick Moynihan did not admit to US interference in Indian politics. He admitted to the Americans giving the Congress — and Indira Gandhi in particular — money to fight the communists. If the CPI(M) has evidence of similar action this time round, it should share it with the public. We have the right to know.

What was distressing at another level was that West Bengal was so far out on a limb that even Ajit Panja could snub Basu. Of course, Panja speaks not just for South Block but as a member of the Trinamool Congress. He is, therefore, an interested party. Nevertheless, it is galling for a state that still relishes Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s compliment not to be taken seriously when it levels a grave charge to the sombre roll of drums. If the allegations are not allowed to mar Atal Behari Vajpayee’s talks with Bill Clinton next month, would it mean that the Centre is indifferent to national security? Or does the Bharatiya Janata Party want to give away West Bengal? A third explanation that would probably be most acceptable to Writers’ Buildings and Alimuddin Street is that the Centre will even sup with the Yankee devil to replace the CPI(M) with the Trinamool Congress.

In the absence of any proof, I am reminded of Manmohan Singh complaining in 1991 that ultra-nationalist MPs were accusing him of selling the country. “Who would want to buy this country anyway?” P.V. Narasimha Rao retorted dryly. The same could be said of this state, though a political party with vision can still revive its rich mercantile heritage. For once, West Bengal would profit from looking forward to the past.    


 
 
THE TELEGRAPH/ DIARY 
 
 
 
 

Turn around

Return of the prodigal who hasn’t yet got himself a return ticket? Unfortunately. And this one might be waitlisted for quite a while. Italian baiter, Congress party pooper, Sharad Pawar, is tired of central hall gossips, coffee and vadas and worse, seemingly his own Nationalist Congress Party — Meghalaya, Maharashtra Congress to the envious. He is homesick and making no bones about it. The Congress grapevine has it that Sharad and his one time associate, Ambika Soni, have been exploring ways to see how he can get chummy once again with the Congress leadership. Soni, a saheli of Sonia Gandhi, is optimistic about the peace mission though there is bound to be stiff opposition from the Arjun Singh camp. Sonia might be in a “forgive and forget” mode. Others are obviously not. You have one example to gauge feelings. One senior Sharad hater recalls that during the hawala scandal the then Union home minister, SB Chavan, was asked why Pawar hadn’t figured in the list. Chavan is said to have quipped, “Don’t you know all hawala transactions are based on trust?” Seems like Pawar has already used his one way ticket.

Free to choose

Some beggars can be choosers. Villain on the silver screen turned neta offscreen, Shatrughan Sinha had campaigned real hard for BJP candidates in the last couple of elections. Quite justly, he wanted a share of the booty. In trueblue BJP tradition, he has been kept wanting despite assurances from no less than the Union home minister that “justice would be done”. Justice bypassed him in the last cabinet expansion as well. As balm, our current minister for disinvestment, Arun Jaitley, who is getting acquainted with these techniques, suggested Shotgun accept the chairmanship of the Pune based Film and Television Institute of India. Jaitley incidentally is a well known alumnus of the FTII, and, as old boys would, felt this was a fitting honour for Sinha. Shotgun, hoping for better things, demurred. He was however persuaded to believe that when and if AB Vajpayee wished to grant him the boon of ministership, the chair of FTII would serve as no hindrance. There matters stood, till the entry of spoilsport Sushma Swaraj in the scene. Sulking over the party’s betrayal of her own high hopes, Sushma prevailed on Shatrughan to turn down the offer. Why have another sulky Sam leave the tent? So Sinha has refused to be fobbed off with chairmanships of decrepit institutions. One might be on all fours for ministerships but that doesn’t mean one can’t choose.

Image and reality

Another victim. But the circumstances are different. Following the massacre of Amarnath yatris and others on the eve of the ultimately abortive Kashmir talks, there was a flurry of reports in the media which said LK Advani had sent in his resignation owning moral responsibility for the killings. People took the news with pinches of uniodized salt. They actually needn’t have. For Advani at no point had been in a mood for sacrifice. The news nevertheless embarrassed the minister since it further suggested that another reason to call it quits was his exclusion from the inner circle on Kashmir in the PMO which had initiated the talks. Advani suspected his enemies of spreading the canard. To pin down the source of the misinformation, he even deputed one of his confidantes in the top echelons of the BJP. Inquiries revealed a startling fact — to Advani that is. One of his own aides had planted the story in the hope the episode would reflect well on Advani. The aide should have known that if the image is bad, reflections can do no good.

Mock the killing

An attempt to make a killing in the name of a killing. Congress chief whip Priya Ranjan Das Munshi has suggested to the Trinamool Congress an exchange offer. If it supports the Congress demand for a judicial probe into the massacre of Amarnath yatris and backs the resolution under rule 184 in the Lok Sabha, the Congress will support the Trinamool’s demand for the imposition of president’s rule in West Bengal. Trinamool can’t do without Congress backing if it is serious about pressing for the application of Article 356 in the state. But it can’t do without the BJP either. Ditching the big brother in the Lok Sabha could translate into the defeat of the saffron government, in which case didi would also have to say goodbye to her Central connections. True, Writers’ might no longer seem distant, but that is no reason she should forget the way to Parliament.    

 
 
FOOTNOTE/ HOW GOOD IS MY DIDI 
 
 
 
 
Incorruptible. Didi hasn’t seen Ram Teri Ganga Maili. The CPI(M) really seems to have wasted its efforts in humiliating Mamata over the Chamkaitala episode. Anyway, shortly after the Democratic Youth Federation of India leaders compared her to the drenched heroine in the film, didi expressed her wishes to be acquainted with the Bollywood hit. Loyalists were asked to arrange for a show of a video cassette recording. They disobeyed her to avoid embarrassment. “We could have organized a show for didi, but did not do so under instructions from seniors,” a youth activist explained. Mamata then turned to close aide Sudip Bandopadhyay with a bizarre appeal — if his wife, Nayana, a film star, would brief her about the film. Nayana obeyed. She came to didi’s Kalighat residence to tell the story. A hush fell. Didi kept silent after hearing about the film. Was she contemplating the resemblance? Party workers would explain that differently. Mamata’s eagerness about the film apparently was to work out a strategy against DYFI’s brashness. Really nothing to do with a more natural apolitical inquisitiveness?    

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

One test too many

Sir — Murli Manohar Joshi has finally rejuvenated the debate on scrapping the system of separate admission tests for professional courses (“CAT map for technology schools”, August 13). The fact that the same recommendation in the 1986 new education policy document had been ignored is interesting. This time too, the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi has favoured the move but the other five IITs do not seem to have taken any stance in this regard. Do the institutions have vested interests in the perpetuation of the status quo or are they too lackadaisical to implement a change? What about the students, who have to pay a lot more to sit the different entrance tests for the same course?
Yours faithfully,
Jagmohan Gupta, Calcutta

Faithless blast

Sir — Investigations into the serial church bomb blasts in Bangalore has ruled out the involvement of the sangh parivar (“Blast-suspect sect leaders arrested”, July 18). This has, once again, made the media and the pseudo-secularists of this country eat their own words. Till now, the secular brigade has blindly concentrated its attacks on the parivar for any disruption of a religious nature.

False allegations work to the advantage of the real troublemakers like the Inter-services Intelligence. Are secularists not aware of the activities of several Muslim fundamentalist organizations which play accomplice to the ISI? The secular brigade will do well to stop shielding minority fundamentalism.

Yours faithfully,
Kaustav Sinha Ray, Calcutta

Sir — Allegations by the National Democratic Alliance government that an ISI backed organization is behind the recent blasts on churches is difficult to believe. It seems the sangh parivar is trying to kill two birds with one stone. There will be an increased sense of insecurity among Christians while Muslims will once again be portrayed as anti-national.

It is the parivar which has shown the ISI the way. Hindutva elements went on a rampage first. These attacks were being passed off as the outrage of Hindus at conversion. Yet as recent elections have shown, the popularity of the sangh ideology is waning. And the parivar can keep afloat its agenda only by retaining the hold on the Centre. Any mistake, however minor, by Christians or Muslims, and the sangh parivar’s work is half done.

Yours faithfully,
M. Arif Faridi, via email

Monkey business

Sir — The news report, “Monkey march against Maneka” (August 14) is a clear case of glamorizing illegal activities. Keeping wild animals is banned by the Wildlife Protection Act. Similarly, inflicting unnecessary pain on animals is illegal according to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. Maneka Gandhi is only ensuring that the laws are enforced.

Keeping Indian monkeys and bears is definitely an offence under the said act. Also, qalandars do not look after animals properly. If the Wildlife (Protection) Act can be violated with impunity, even thiefs will find nothing wrong with stealing. Is our society moving in that direction?

Yours faithfully,
S. R. Banerjee, state director, World Wide Fund for Nature, India, West Bengal state office, Calcutta

Sailendra Kumar Sen was mistakenly referred to as Sailendra Nath Sen in Rudrangshu Mukherjee’s “Question of teaching” (Aug 17). The error is regretted. — The editor

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