Editorial/ Dark habits
Delicate art of taking sides
The Telegraph/ Diary
Letters to the editor

Cruelty, as William Blake understood, has a bafflingly human heart. Sister Francesca, belonging to Calcutta’s Missionaries of Charity, was fairly systematic about it. She held a knife over a heater, and waited for it to be red hot before using it to scald the hands of four little girls in her charge at the Mahatma Gandhi Welfare Centre, a school and day-care centre. The psychological dimensions of such an act should, perhaps, remain a mystery. But the incident and its aftermath gesture beyond individual psychopathology towards larger issues and contexts.

Sister Francesca’s cruelty was not entirely motiveless. She believed that the girls had stolen some money and needed to be “corrected”. It is also significant that the children were pavement dwellers, a ragpicker’s daughters. Torture becomes inextricable, in this instance, from notions and practices of moral education and, more perversely, of charity. It also gets taken up into the structures of power within the institution dispensing such charity and education. Social inequality, of an extreme kind, is one axis along which this form of power is wielded. Sister Francesca’s senior colleague points out how the poor and sick children and their families continue to be “grateful” to her. Would this notion of moral correction — and, indeed, of gratitude — be extended to, say, middle and upper class children and their families? In India, such inequalities become part of what could be called systemic torture or abuse, integral to the running of certain benevolent institutions. Recently, students of the Government Higher Secondary School for the Disabled in Lucknow locked themselves inside their classrooms for several days to protest against the worm-infested food they are normally given to eat, and also against a whole range of other abuses.

Sister Francesca’s case is not simply that of an individual’s aberration. This is borne out by her mission’s handling of the aftermath to the incident. Suggesting that she has retreated into some sort of a dark night of the soul, the Missionaries of Charity has issued a truly bizarre statement asking for the public’s “prayers for her and for all of us”. The four children — nursing their stigmata — are obviously meant to be forgotten in these prayers. Then, grazing the edges of black comedy, comes the official admission that Sister Francesca has “definitely overstepped her limit”. In all this, there is the assumption that certain institutions are beyond the reaches of the law, and that normal assumptions of transparency and accountability cannot be applied to their activities. The internal inquiry conducted by the mission remains shrouded in mystery, and the police has not yet been able to get to Sister Francesca directly.

The peculiar delays and hesitations of the police are also symptomatic of the environment within which such incidents are experienced today. A heightened communal awareness has been the unfortunate consequence of a certain kind of politics practised with varying degrees of enthusiasm over the last few years in India. Within such an unpredictable atmosphere of potentially disruptive — and distortive — sensitivities, incidents become more, or less, than what they ought to be. Isolated events seem to suggest sinister patterns. Or sinister patterns dissolve elusively into “stray cases”. A number of recent cases of sexual abuse in schools got taken up into this ambivalence, complicating investigation and interpretation. This uncertain and volatile atmosphere infects law-enforcing institutions, usually in two ways. With the police, for instance, it either provokes punitive zeal, or gives rise to a paralysing cautiousness. The tardiness of the Bowbazar police — with whom the girls’ father had registered a first information report — in finding out the whereabouts of the prime accused suggests such a nervousness. Bodily and mental harm inflicted deliberately and purposively on the utterly powerless comes close to pure evil. Its investigation and punishment should be unhindered by extraneous apprehensions and irrelevant notions of charity.    

I’ll watch anything that’s listed as sport. Well, nearly anything. I draw the line at beach volleyball or motorcycle racing. Apart from those, anything, even the Olympics on Doordarshan. I once watched a chess match on television, for nights running, between Kasparov and Anand, where nothing happened for hours, not even commentary. It was like Beckett’s mature work: two characters, no conversation, the action limited to each leaving the stage in turn. Anand had two suits, one dark, the other light which he wore in alternate games, depending on whether he was playing white or black. Kasparov relieved the austere, minimalist idiom of the contest by peacocking his way through a whole Armani wardrobe. They played eight draws running (or nine), but I never once fell asleep though the games (being played to America’s Eastern time) ticked deep into my Indian nights. I knew, you see, whose side I was on.

Experienced spectators know that you have to take sides and the one practical use of nationalism is that it makes partisanship easy as it did for me in that Kasparov-Anand match. Cricket’s gate receipts depend on nationalism; nobody, apart from diehards like Ramachandra Guha, watches cricket at any level other than test matches or one day internationals, where nation squares off against nation. The day a Delhi-Tamil Nadu Ranji final is played to a packed stadium, you’ll know that Dravida separatism has made a comeback: current attendance levels indicate that the triumph of the unitary state is complete.

The vigour and health of Australian federalism can be seen in the crowds that turn out to watch Western Australia play New South Wales in what used to be called the Sheffield Shield. What they feel subnationalist about is less clear unless it is the fact that NSW was settled by felons while Western Australia has some claim to have started life as a free colony.

Cricket’s easy to watch when India’s playing; given the nationalist nature of spectatorship, any contest with an Indian interest becomes gripping. From Miss World pageants to Olympic weightlifting contests, all competitions that Indians get marks or points for, supply the necessary conditions for satisfactory spectatorship. Couch potatoes like myself watch sport like cows chew the cud, mindlessly, and the most narcotic grazing lands are nationalist pastures. We’re an essentially undiscriminating lot though we pretend to be knowledgeable; we want India to win and though we know that Lara Dutta and Malleswari have very little in common, the fact that they won something for us makes them Indian heroines.

But the main difficulty we face is that, cricket and hockey apart, there never is an Indian contender in any major sport. Once every half a hundred years a Prakash Padukone wins a major championship in some other sport and we rejoice. Padukone’s been retired many years now but I still remember the name of his arch-rival, Liem Swie King, because it was so rare for an Indian sportsman to do well in individual competition. Ramanathan Krishnan, Vijay Amritraj, Ramesh Krishnan, worthy players all, who in the collective consciousness of a more successful sporting nation would have faded to footnotes, are still headlined in Indian sporting lore. Fourth place finishes in long dead Olympics (Milkha Singh, P.T. Usha) become the stuff of legend.

This wasn’t a problem before cable television. There was so little sport on view that we weren’t called upon to decide which side we were on (in the absence of an Indian) very often. But even in those days, listening to Wimbledon on the radio or reading Olympic medal tallies in the sports pages of newspapers, the instinct to root for someone was strong. So in the Olympic games of my childhood, I was a supporter of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. I was thrilled when little Olga Korbut won gold in women’s gymnastics and depressed when she and the Russians were eclipsed by the Romanians led by Nadia Comaneci. I had nothing against the Romanians: it was just that the Americans were so delighted by Comaneci’s perfect tens that I bristled. It made me happy that the USSR generally won more medals than the United States did.

There was a time when the now-extinct German Democratic Republic pushed the US to third place and this pleased me even more. I think this had something to do with the frigidity in India-US relations in the late Sixties and early Seventies and our relative closeness to the Soviets. So this was simply nationalism by other means. Looking back, it’s lowering to think that I was, even as a schoolboy, so completely a creature of the politics of that time.

Jimmy Connors versus Arthur Ashe in the Wimbledon finals was, I remember, harder to take sides on. To start with, they were both American. Ashe was conspicuously patriotic: his commitment to Davis Cup play was wellknown. Eventually, I came down on Ashe’s side because Connors was a loudmouth and as a well-bred desi prig I disapproved; but also because Ashe was black. This was the first time that political correctness came to my aid in the vexed business of taking sides and it has been a great crutch ever since.

Today, with three channels telecasting sport round the clock, I’m forced to take sides more often than ever before. In cricket, when India isn’t a part of the equation, I back the West Indies, Sri Lanka and Pakistan in that order. Once I used to back anyone playing England because they had ruled us for so long. That has changed because England loses anyway. Now the team I most want to lose is either South Africa. South Africa! How much I loathe thee, let me count the ways. One, South African players are clean cut and disciplined and zealous, sort of monster boy scouts. Two, the team’s full of born-again Christians who keep invoking the Lord. Three, they’re so white. Four, they keep beating us, so I want others to beat them.

The Sydney Olympics has raised the business of taking sides to new levels of complexity. It’s one thing to back Felix Saxon of Cuba against some US boxer. That’s simple. Cuba’s so little and the US is so big. There’s the embargo and the history of the Cold War and the fact that I worshipped the legendary Teofilo Stevenson. So it’s easy to cheer the Cubans against the Yanks. But who do you back when a Kazakh fights a Kenyan in the welterweight class? Who is the underdog? By what reckoning? Colour of skin (darker to win)? And what about Kyrghyzstan versus Azerbaijan?

In the swimming pool, the main contenders are either Americans or Australians. I didn’t want to back either. Both countries have a long history of racism and both are champions at killing off aboriginal populations. So I cheered the Dutch (Inge de Bruijn and Pieter van den Hoogenband) when they won gold and I mourned when Popov didn’t place in the 50 metre freestyle. (Wasn’t apartheid invented by Dutch settlers, a little voice whispered in my ear. I ignored it.)

I cheered reluctantly when the American Misty Hyman beat the favoured Australians for gold because I had just read somewhere that through a large part of the 20th century the Australian government had officially kidnapped aborigine children from their parents and placed them in homes or with white couples. Serve them right, I thought self-righteously, watching two blameless young girls settle for silver and bronze.

I’m exhausted with the effort of finding reasons for willing people I don’t know to win. Why do sedentary middle-aged men watch sport on television? There’s an answer to that but I don’t want to know it. I wish we were American. That way, we could watch the Olympics and cheer winners for the simple reason that they were ours.    


Lesson learnt

Prime mover in New Delhi politics, Alimuddin Street shaker Mamata Banerjee knows how to get what she wants and how not to let others get what she doesn’t want. Long before her political adversaries in West Bengal, the press found itself face to face with this newly acquired trait in the lady. This was at the press meet that followed Mamata’s rendezvous with N Chandrababu Naidu in the capital. Eager to persuade the Andhra Pradesh CEO to join her clamour for Article 356 on West Bengal, didi made a dash for New Delhi when Naidu was there to meet Bill Gates. Unfortunately, Naidu proved a tougher nut to crack than expected. Tête-à-tête over, a hungry brood of journalists immediately fell on the cyberman for his views on “356”. Mamata positioned herself right next to Naidu and ensured, with amazing dexterity, that not a word was uttered on it. Unable to corner Naidu, the scribes then gunned for Mamata. When a reporter asked Banerjee, “What had transpired between you and Mr Naidu?”, didi roared, “What transparency? There is enough transparency. Total transparency”. And you thought Mamata’s English wasn’t good enough to turn a phrase?

On a Front runner

Here we have another story of developing skills. West Bengal minister of state for transport, Susanta Ghosh, is honing his political arithmetics and, from the attention he is getting, seems to be doing it pretty well. Ghosh, a CPI(M) legislator from Midnapore, which is currently the eye of the Trinamool storm, has been targeted by both the BJP and the Trinamool for allegedly masterminding the carnage in the district. Union home minister, LK Advani, has also mentioned him in his recent letter to Jyoti Basu enquiring about Ghosh’s involvement in the violence. Alimuddin Street is quite naturally thrilled with this man of promise. The CPI(M) leadership reportedly has plans of projecting Ghosh as its chief campaigner in the run up to the forthcoming assembly elections to counter Mamata Banerjee. With Basu unwilling to contest the 2001 elections, some are even toying with the idea of putting up Ghosh as the Left Front’s nominee for the much sought after Satgachia assembly seat from where Basu was returned for the fifth time consecutively. However, Basu has the ultimate say in matters concerning his hot seat. On the other side of the border, didi has apparently decided to put up an “apolitical” person who enjoys considerable clout in order to wrest Satgachia. An epic war between the civil and the uncivil?

The great succession battle

Big trouble in the Jama Masjid. The grand old imam is apparently not in the pink of health and this has sparked off a bitter succession war. Abdullah Bukhari’s second son, Yahya, is unwilling to let his elder brother, Ahmad, walk away with the title of shahi imam and the perks that go with it. In contemplation of things to come, Yahya, known for his proximity with the Congress, is said to have dyed his beard in the same manner as the naib imam. So the confusion has reached its peak. The contender is also alleged to have begun residing inside the masjid to be in control of things. And there are things to control. Besides the religious leadership, there are a lot of business stakes involved ranging from rice exports to real estate. The joke doing the rounds in the Urdu bazaar is that the days of Aurangzeb are back with brothers fighting among themselves and an ailing father standing mute witness to the goings on. Incidentally, it was Shahjahan who had given the Bukharis the shahi imam status. An uncanny coincidence.

Trick in the bag

Some people have odd knacks. It is the hobby of the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Digvijay Singh, to stifle dissenting voices with the unlikeliest of mufflers. He recently appointed Arjun Singh’s son-in-law as the chief of the state mining corporation, giving the thumbs down to several deserving candidates. The idea is that the next time Arjun Singh raises an “oust Digjivay” cry, the-son-in law will act as the carrot.

Who will bell the cat?

Zee TV is thinking of two femme fatales to take on the Big B in their version of KBC.The Rs 10 crore bonanza might either have AB Baby’s ex-flame Rekha, or the dhak dhak girl, Madhuri Dixit. While Madhuri is playing coy to take on Bachchan, Rekha, quite typically, is raring to go. Zee might yet prove the winner. For when it comes to dare-bare, there is no beating Rekha. And when it comes to beating a Bachchan, things might get even saucier.

Footnote/ Finding faults

Tested and found to be a lesser nagarik. We are talking about the deputy mayor of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation, Meena Devi Purohit, and the BJP leadership’s dissatisfaction with her. Party leaders, including the Union minister of state for telecommunications, Tapan Sikdar, resent the way Purohit has been distancing herself from organizational matters these days. Purohit apparently neither visits the party office on a regular basis, nor attends any party meeting. Purohit has been found wanting particularly in comparison with the unflinching dedication of the mahanagarik and mayor, Subrata Mukherjee, to his party. Mukherjee never skips a Trinamool meet and always accompanies didi wherever she wanders in the city. One major complaint against Purohit is that she has stopped interacting with Santilal Jain, whom the leadership has deputed to oversee municipal affairs on behalf of the party. Incidentally, it was also Jain who, as a former party councillor, had helped Purohit get a ticket for the corporation. Jain has complained to the BJP state president, Asim Ghosh. Politics is a thankless job after all.    


Small change

Sir — “Inhumanity by tacit consensus” (Sept 18) by Vandana Sinha brings us face to face with the harsh reality concerning child labour in India. It is shocking that in New Delhi 60,000 children work in dhabas, tea stalls and restaurants for a daily wage of Rs 8 to 10. Standing on the threshold of the 21st century, a nuclear power (of sorts, at least), desperate to become a permanent member of the security council, our nation repeatedly fails to ensure even a minimal quality of life for its citizens. Simply boasting about being the largest democracy in the world is hardly enough. We collectively need to replace this de jure democracy by an effective one.
Yours faithfully,
Kaushik Mitra, New Delhi

Road hog

Sir — The editorial, “Mayor’s misrule” (Sept 11), rightly holds that the way in which the mayor of Calcutta, Subrata Mukherjee, is proudly building a monstrous pandal on Ekdalia Road to see if he wins the award for the best pandal, is childish. He seems oblivious to the inconvenience this is causing ordinary citizens. As the civic head of the city, he ought to have taken a more responsible stand to ensure public convenience. He has not lived up to people’s expectations.

The Trinamool Congress chief, Mamata Banerjee, had appealed to the people to contribute funds during the pujas to rehabilitate those made homeless in some West Bengal districts. The mayor, also of the Trinamool Congress, should have set an example by constructing a smaller pandal. This shows that Mukherjee is not only spending extravagantly, but has also ignored Banerjee’s appeal.

Yours faithfully,
B.C. Datta, Calcutta

Sir — The people in Calcutta are used to a life of inconvenience on the roads on account of traffic congestions and road blockades. No one expects clean or clear roads in the city any more. So one would be expecting a miracle in thinking that the newly elected mayor would help change the situation. Instead, his Ekdalia Road pandal has aggravated traffic problems. However, one should not really blame him, for no one expects political leaders to perform miracles.

Yours faithfully,
Ratan Gupta, Calcutta

Sir — Ekdalia Road, during the pre-puja days, is a driver’s nightmare. This has been so for a long time. Subrata Mukherjee could have cashed in on the situation and made himself more popular by putting an end to this problem once and for all, and also set an example before all puja committees in the city. Instead, he has chosen this year for even greater celebration possibly because this is the first time he will be the head of the puja committee as the mayor. This is unfair.

Yours faithfully,
Pankaj Gupta, Calcutta

To feed and cloth

Sir — The question raised by the eight year old child in Anchita Ghatak’s letter (“Selling a shine”, Sept 10), on why little shoeshine boys should polish the shoes of adults, is justified. But this reflects only one side of the problem. All children should be aware that poverty forces some children to work. While it is shameful for adults to make children shine their shoes, it is also true that there is no way in which these boys can escape menial work in a country where the government is insensitive. Who will feed these boys if adults stop getting their shoes polished by them?
Yours faithfully,
Olivia Das, Midnapore

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