Editorial/ Clueless in vital statistics
Whither dissent?
The Telegraph/ Diary
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EDITORIAL/ CLUELESS IN VITAL STATISTICS 
 
 
 
 
It is never pleasant to have vague suspicions confirmed. The general impression for some time has been that the claims of the West Bengal government regarding improvement in literacy rates cannot be taken at face value. Occasional reports and surveys have not helped to dispel suspicion. Studies have suggested that in certain areas in the state the ability to sign has been taken to be the defining mark of literacy, while certain other districts have done rather better. The arsenal of statistics and arguments the state government is ever ready with has always successfully rebuffed the question of total achievement. Therefore, the revelations made on this year’s World Literacy Day are disheartening, but not altogether surprising.

Statistics, taken from selected spheres of mass education in exclusion of other spheres, can look very good. For example, the minister of state for mass education, Ms Anju Kar, is convinced her department has done well. According to the records available with the state government till 1999, over 8.7 million persons have been taught to read and write in West Bengal since the literacy drive began, and of these 4.8 million are women. This little fact is good enough for a series of optimistic — and distracting — conclusions. Apart from the fact that women have obviously been the more enthusiastic and more sincere participants in the drive, the bright spot to focus on, as ministerspeak goes, is the rise in the percentage of literate women between 1991 and 1998. The statement was tricked out with anecdotal references to women with newborn babies determined not to “fall back” in class.

All this may be true, but it is hardly to the point as far as improvement in total literacy is concerned. The minister’s claim that West Bengal is now at par with the top seven states like Kerala, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra with regard to state sponsored literacy drives sounds like so much hot air when ground realities are looked at. It might be mentioned here that the comparison itself is a little strange, given the fact that UP is one of the worst performing states as far as literacy and primary education are concerned. However, the chief scare in West Bengal is deliteracization, the lapse into illiteracy by neo-literates. Experts involved with the total literacy campaign from its beginning 10 years ago feel this is a real danger facing a considerable percentage of neo-literates. This decline can be simply put down to slackness. The delay in following up the literacy campaign with the post-literacy and continuing education programmes has meant that the neo-literate is likely to have lost 60 per cent of his skills. Research on literacy has shown that newly acquired letters can be most easily forgotten without constant application. This is something the movers of the literacy campaign in the government could not have not known. Laxity in following up the total literacy campaign shows unforgiveable callousness.

In terms of claims, however, most states go for the tall variety. Else the all India record for literacy would not be cause for despair. India is going into the 21st century with the largest number of illiterate people in the world. The new century is letters-dependent: not only jobs, but basic needs such as health and crucial information about survival would be available only to the literate. The Central government’s aim of creating a totally literate country by 2010 is laudable, but its plans to achieve this goal are yet to sound convincing. There have been half-baked experimenting and uncoordinated implementation for too long for miracles to happen. The illiterate population keeps growing as fast as the literate one. To reduce one while increasing the other will need extra planning, extra rigour in implementation, intricate dovetailing of allied programmes and many times more the normal dose of political will. The goal is not an impossible one, but given the history of literacy drives in the country, of doubtful possibility.    


 
 
WHITHER DISSENT? 
 
 
BY AVEEK SEN
 
 
Hegemony is an ugly word. But I saw it in action the other day at that monument to state-sponsored radicalism, Nandan II. The occasion was the Calcutta première of a film on the Kannada bhakti poet, Mahadeviyakka, a woman whose wayward life in the 12th century was characterized by radical creativity and social defiance. The screening of the documentary, and the panel discussion that followed, were organized by an eminent muti-disciplinary body of academics, attached to one of Calcutta’s premier universities. The film’s director used to be a student there, and her activist agenda is intimately linked to her academic origins.

Class, caste, gender and radicalism were the key issues in the panel discussion; “postmodernity”, “fearlessness” and “freedom” the keywords. Yet, in the course of the discussion, the director and some of the eminent panelists managed to create an ambience which made the “free” expression of critical dissent terrifying to contemplate. A senior academic started the discussion — in tones normally reserved for the numinous — by exhorting anybody who hadn’t liked the film to raise his hand. He also declared that the discussion would be conducted in a mixture of English and Bengali, “the way we talk”. Who are “we”, and what about those who do not understand Bengali? (This was, after all, an English film on a Kannada poet.) As it turned out later, there were many who didn’t have Bengali, but felt too intimidated to make their presence known.

Intimidation, through a discourse closing its ranks against those who could not — or chose not to — speak it, established itself within minutes. This was achieved not just through the invariable quelling of the slightest criticism of the film, but through sheer loud-mouthed rudeness. A lady in the audience began to speak, somewhat fearfully in a “lay” language, was interrupted and battered into silence in the middle of her question. But the coup de grâce was kept for two young persons, one of them studying film, who had shown unexpected courage and tenacity in presenting a rather detailed critique of the film that certainly deserved serious attention. They were told by the director that they had been inadequately educated in the vocabulary of film criticism and would do better for themselves, as aspiring filmmakers, if they revised their understanding of film theory in terms of this director’s working principles. It really was, after all, “their problem”. The derisive and imperious brusqueness with which they were silenced and dismissed, by the director and a couple of panelists (both university teachers), took my breath away. A shockingly ungracious display of authoritarianism was given here a public and institutionalized sanction.

I left the auditorium feeling indignant and vaguely cowed, somewhat relieved at finding later a few others who felt the same way. These were all “outsiders” to the academic and activist discourses aired in the discussion, who felt uncertain about their critical response and diffident about their ability — or right — to express it. It felt oddly like a combination of two things: being talked at by awesome family elders, and emerging from a classroom after a lecture. A far cry from feeling fearless, free or postmodern.

Perhaps this dovetailing of auditorium, classroom and home in that evening’s lingering aftertaste is significant. Otherwise why should a minor event like this, barely grazing the lives of a fraction of Calcutta’s literate population, be worth pondering at all? It might be worth thinking about the ways in which institutions of education and culture, the family and the state come together in putting habits of critical dissent in their place. Or are we becoming increasingly incapable of precisely these modes of independent, critical and articulate thinking? What is the irony of such imperialisms emerging from institutions politically aligned to the radical left? What effect do these hierarchies have on prevailing habits of self-expression, private and public? How do they affect such practices as research, teaching and writing in the humanities and the social sciences, or something as specific as arts journalism in communist West Bengal and in its culture capital, Calcutta? Is this simply a matter of individual personalities and of the ethos of particular institutions and formations? Or is this a larger collective phenomenon with its own intellectual, social and political histories?

It is, first and foremost, a matter of the traditions of teaching. From school to university, the paradigms of education remain firmly hierarchical, essentially gurumukhi. The lecture format dominates, where a sea of silent faces is addressed by a teacher who is physically set apart and elevated. Debate or questions are seldom encouraged. Students acquire the astonishing skill of taking down verbatim notes while listening to the lectures. The art of thinking and critical response is difficult to accommodate within this stenographic habit. What is normally transmitted to the students is an august tradition of analysis in a certain subject, whose unquestioned authority must be the basis of his own dealings with the matter.

In the humanities, the supplementary role of the tutorial essay could also easily reinforce this derivative approach. What the student might often end up learning is the art of citation, rather than argumentation. Conformity to a tradition of criticism or to the tyranny of jargon, and the numbing comfort of the anodyne, become preferable to the risky business of originality, of hazarding a leap into terrains uncharted by class notes, casebooks or reading lists. This can only breed intellectual lethargy and servility. I remember feeling rather thrown, during one of my university papers, when suddenly confronted with a question which said, simply, “Justify the end of Volpone.”

It is particularly disconcerting to realize that the sea change in the liberal arts in the last few decades has made little difference to the distribution of power within this structure. The advents of post-structuralism, feminism, post-colonialism, interdisciplinarity, media studies, film studies, subaltern studies, queer studies — each of these self-consciously subversive, eager to demystify and deconstruct, committed to civil liberties and to the freedom of expression — are inevitably assimilated into the existing hierarchies. In fact, far from being “counter-hegemonic”, these discourses have brought with them new pressures to conform and compete, new imperatives to think, speak, write and project oneself in certain ways, new forms of exclusion and exclusiveness. The institutions they have generated have their own investments in power, and this is where the traditional hierarchies could turn out to be wonderfully convenient. Hence radical wines keep being poured into essentially conservative bottles.

Yet Calcutta has always had, and continues to have, some of the most brilliant lecturers in the humanities. Generations of students have been transported, guided and inspired by their profound learning and bravura performances, and — importantly — by the principles by which they have lived their academic, personal and political lives. But the structures within which such brilliance and humanity are encountered, the modes in which they are remembered and honoured, and the nexus of gratitude, influence and obligations (intellectual, emotional and sentimental) which shapes these relationships could easily foster another, more subtle and civilized, form of authoritarianism. Our tendency to transform exceptional human beings into saints and colossi, placing them beyond the audacity of critical engagement, continues to inhibit our intellectual adventurousness.What will it be like to be taught King Lear by King Lear, or for that matter, The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir? Quite terminally crushing, I should think.

I’m brought back here to the idea of hegemony and to its elaboration, paradoxically, by the Marxist critic, Raymond Williams. He extended the idea beyond direct political control into “active forms of experience and consciousness”. This is a “lived” hegemony, a process that saturates the “whole substance of lived identities and relationships” as well as “specific distributions of power and influence”. Its changing “pressures and limits”, its “system of meanings and values” control “our senses and assignments of energy, our shaping perceptions of ourselves and our world”. Although encompassing our entire existence, Williams’s notion of hegemonic control remains resolutely political, for modes of perception are “not just intellectual but political facts, expressed over a range from institutions to relationships and consciousness”.

But Williams leaves room, within the process itself, for the necessary thrust of resistance. “It has to be renewed, recreated, defended and modified. It is also continually resisted, limited, altered, challenged by pressures not all its own.” It is perhaps deeply ironic that the academic tradition which introduced me to Raymond Williams, as a student, could occasionally make me feel the way I did that unpleasant evening at Nandan.    


 
 
THE TELEGRAPH/ DIARY 
 
 
 
 

We are now a grandmother

Birth of a newsmaker. Congresswallahs knew that the moment Priyanka Gandhi delivered her tiny bundle late last month. They didn’t make the Delhi mithaiwallahs richer for nothing. But grandmom and the grand lady of 10 Janpath seems to be taken in more by the responses from abroad than earnest celebrations here. Those congratulating her on turning granny were Yasser Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the prime minister of Nepal, Girija Prasad Koirala, the president of Maldives, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and the president of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Kumaratunga. Old faithful, Natwar Singh, was quick to point out that this was in recognition of the “special status” of the Nehru-Gandhi family. “Can the Vajpayees, Advanis and Sharad Pawar claim to get such worldwide response on a personal occasion?”, Singh quipped. Why don’t the Vajpayees, Advanis and Pawar actually find out an answer to that question? At least that would keep their minds off politicking for a while

Rekindling old fires

More good tidings. Recently, business tycoon, Rahul Bajaj, called on our grandma, reportedly to lobby for a share in the Maruti Udyog Limited. This was a meeting after long time no see. Bajaj is an old friend of the Nehru-Gandhi family but had fallen out with the head of the family and head of Congress a few years ago. This was, however, after donating hefty amounts to the Rajiv Gandhi foundation which madam heads. 10, Janpath disliked his subsequent proximity with the saffronites, the Bharatiya Janata Party to be precise, and challengers like Sharad Pawar. Pawar has since then bitten dust and the BJP is quite obviously on weak knees. The new meeting with the old friend was allegedly arranged by the rising Congress star, Jairam Ramesh, and cleared a lot of misunderstandings. After half an hour of conversation, Rahul, eavesdroppers say, was his usual self, cracking jokes. Sonia Gandhi too was pleased and apparently broke into a smile saying, “Let us stay in touch”. Happy beginning. Business hawks, however feel, Bajaj’s was a shrewd move to mend fences with 10, Janpath in the hope of fighting the stranglehold of MNCs since the ruling coalition is doing precious little to loosen it. Isn’t that counting too much on a friendship?

Ways to spoil the party

Bad tidings for Kalyan Singh who has just floated the Rashtriya Krantikari Party. The fledgling organization is already facing a split, what with Singh, former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, giving marching orders to two of his trusted lieutenants, Ganga Charan Rajput and Arun Shukla. Their crime is what Singh terms indulgence in “anti-party activities”. Rajput and Shukla however have a different story to tell. They were only putting in a word of caution against Kusum Rai, the now infamous but influential corporator who is primarily responsible for Singh being shunted out of the BJP. The other advice, and here both seem to have got the goat, was telling him not to repeat the mistake Indian rulers have made since the time of Dhritarashtra — that is, promote son Rajbhir sidelining other able leaders. True to his Indian roots, Kalyan however doesn’t mind doing that. That is why his opponents now describe the Rashtriya Krantikari Party as the “Rajbhir-Kusum Party”. The fine art of back-biting?

Construct your own business

If you can’t join them, beat them. That is what the real players in Madhya Pradesh politics are trying to do. It is quite obvious all can’t make it to the chief ministership or the cabinet of the newly created state of Chhattisgarh. So while the Shuklas, Jogis, Voras and Netams fight it out between themselves over the hotseat, the pros are busy floating construction companies. This is because the new state has been figured out to have construction worth Rs 3,000 crores. Much more than the scraps ministers can hope to get. Supporters have been asked to get serious about setting up front companies. Let’s see who “steals” the show.

To meet both ends

Why did ABA Ghani Khan Chowdhury give up his job so quietly? Party insiders say it was because Sonia Gandhi promised to look after him and had the message conveyed through Ghulam Nabi Azad that his daily expenses would be borne by the party. If luxuries are paid for, what else could a politician want?

Footnote/ The lesser children

There will be more headaches for the CPI(M) than just mulling over the date of Jyoti Basu’s retirement or deciding on the heir to the throne. Saifuddin Chowdhury, thorn in the CPI(M)’s side, is back in the news. He is presently in the city working out plans for launching a new political outfit. He forecasts that a split within the party is inevitable during the runup to the assembly polls next year. But the million dollar question doing its rounds in political circles is will he ally with Mamata Banerjee. Sources close to Chowdhury argue that a tie-up cannot be ruled out. That an alliance is a possibility is evident from the fact a number of erstwhile Marxists from across the state have already joined forces with didi to fight Alimuddin Street. Worried by the goings on and the implications they have for the future, CPI(M) leaders, including state unit secretary, Anil Biswas, have sent feelers to Chowdhury and his close associates, including Samir Patutunda and the dissident transport minister, Subhas Chakraborty. The game is to sit back and watch. Will the lost children of the cause find a home?    

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Neighbour trouble

Sir — The ghastly incident reported in “Molestation bid on mission staff children in Pak” (Sept 6) speaks of the irredeemable embitterment of Indo-Pakistani relations. Several diplomatic officials and their families have been harassed in Pakistan in recent times. The various means that have been used for this have ranged from burglary to undue questioning sessions by Pakistani officials. But the attempt to molest two children, aged six and eight, is simply preposterous. The house in which this happened is also reported to have been under the surveillance of Pakistani intelligence officials. If this is indeed true, how could such an atrocity have taken place?
Yours faithfully,
Barun Adhikary, via email

Mare folly

Sir — The desire of Calcutta’s mayor, Subrata Mukherjee, to turn the Calcutta race course into a football stadium merely demonstrates his insensitivity to aesthetics (“Mayor wants stadium in city”, Aug 22). Replacing an ecological landmark of the city with a concrete stadium plastered with advertisements is quite sacrilegous.

A football stadium would also play havoc with traffic on Red Road. That this is not an unfounded fear is borne out by the mad rush and traffic jams in the vicinity of the Salt Lake stadium on match days. Could the mayor ever think of converting a cricket stadium into one for football or vice versa? The answer lies in the big money these sports involve, especially cricket.

If Mukherjee is really committed to the cause of Calcutta as he loudly claims, then he should leave the remaining few of Calcutta’s heritage sites untouched.

Yours faithfully,
B.S. Sharma, Calcutta

Sir — Having the racecourse shifted from its present site would certainly please many people. In the pre-Salt Lake stadium days, homebound office goers and women in the New Market area were harassed, vehicles and tramcars brickbatted and damaged whenever supporters of East Bengal or Mohun Bagan were displeased with the result of a match. But if gambling is the sole reason for sidelining horseracing, then, by the same logic, shouldn’t cricket too share the same fate, following the matchfixing scandals? Also, a day’s transactions in the stock market are way above a day’s speculation at the race course. The Eden Gardens can be used for football as well as cricket as it used to be earlier.

The tradition of horseracing in Calcutta is not a few years old. It has witnessed performances of several professionals from all over the world. The visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 1961 is still recalled with fondness by Calcuttans who had witnessed it. Earlier still, viceroys and the like used to frequent these grounds. The Calcutta race course is not merely a site for horseracing and betting, but a reminder of the city’s glorious, though colonial, past. There is no reason why this should be done away with while some others have been renovated and retained as heritage sites.

Yours faithfully,
F.A. Rodrigues, Calcutta

Sir — Subrata Mukherjee is not new to populist gimmicks. At a gathering organized by the Indian Football Association, he announced his wish to shift the race course of Calcutta out of the city precincts and have a football stadium instead. One wonders what he would have done had the same gathering been organized by the racing fraternity. Calcutta deserves more than populism from its mayor.

Yours faithfully,
Sumita Lahiri, Calcutta

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