Editorial 1/ Changing course
Editorial 2/ Brain dead
Proud of its calling
Fifth Column/ Kashmir is people, not a piece of s
Book Review/ Trade winds
Book Review/ Yet another reforms debate
Book Review/ Indignities of labour
Book Review/ Awards, accolades and dedication
Book Review/ Mediocrity par excellence
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1/ CHANGING COURSE 
 
 
 
 
The planning commission met recently to conduct the mid-term appraisal of the ninth plan. The meeting was held against the backdrop of perceptions and fears that the economy was slowing down. These fears are not baseless, recent estimates released by the Central Statistical Organization suggest that the rate of growth of the economy is below the targeted level. Surveys conducted by the Confederation of Indian Industry also show that business confidence about future prospects of the Indian economy is quite low. The Bombay sensitive index, although not always a very good barometer of the economy, has been hovering below the 4,000 mark. This is after it reached 4,600 roughly a month ago. Given these rather bleak signals, the prime minister’s exhortation to set a target of nine per cent growth rate for the 10th plan came as a big surprise. Of course, many may argue that there is nothing wrong in thinking big. After all, this may well spur everyone to greater efforts and make what looks like an unachievable target feasible after all.

However, the history of Indian plan documents does not inspire much hope in this regard. Almost all plan documents have exhibited remarkable internal consistency. Investment targets for each sector are carefully worked out on the basis of fairly detailed input tables, sectoral growth rates are specified to the second decimal place. Unfortunately, these calculations (and more important, the large number of person-hours spent in making them) have usually turned out to be completely irrelevant because the numbers have very little resemblance to reality. Successive planning commissions have simply not spelt out the policies which are required to achieve the targets. The net effect has been that planned rates of growth have more often than not been significantly higher than actual rates of growth.

Hopefully, the commission will have learnt from the past, and will do its homework before setting a target for the 10th plan. In particular, it must spend as much effort in specifying appropriate policies as it has done in the past on the simple arithmetics of plan making. Perhaps the most important fact which the commission must keep in mind is the significant change in roles of the government and private industry. The public sector does not hold on to the commanding heights of the economy any longer. In fact, it will certainly become smaller by the end of the 10th plan. The Indian economy can no longer grow at respectable rates if growth rates in the private sector are low. So, the government must now play more of an “enabling” role by investing in areas which can possibly constrain the growth of the economy. Cheap and reliable sources of power, adequate port facilities, better roads are obvious examples of areas which are crying out for increased attention. All this will require huge volumes of investment. Clearly, there is very little possibility of the government being able to generate the required level of investment from its own resources. In fact, it is unlikely that even the domestic private sector can raise enough resources required for infrastructure investment. Foreign capital inflow into the infrastructure sectors has to be encouraged at vastly bigger scales than in the past. The government must also devote considerably more attention to investment in agriculture where significant improvements in yields are possible. All this means a dramatically different composition of government investment from the past. This simply reflects the changed circumstances.    


 
 
EDITORIAL 2/ BRAIN DEAD 
 
 
 
 
For those who refuse to meet reality face to face, Indianization has become the panacea of all evils in India. If people are made to Indianize themselves, the argument runs, the economy will look up, the degeneration of moral values will be thwarted, politics will be cleansed and education will become more widespread and meaningful. Nobody, least of all the advocates, takes the trouble to explain what Indianization can mean in the various contexts. The latest is the proposal that the Indian Institutes of Technology should be Indianized. This indigenization is necessary, according to the ministry of human resources development, to stem the brain drain from the IITs. It is true that a large number of graduates from India’s premier technological institutes do leave the country to seek further education and jobs in foreign countries. This is more than a drain of talent since the IITs are state-funded bodies and the departure of the best and the brightest means that the society which financed the education get back nothing in return. This is not a new problem. It has been present from the time the IITs came into existence but over the last 10 or 15 years the problem has acquired a different dimension because of the sheer numbers.

There is a simple explanation for this. The brain drain takes place because more and more people are convinced that they have a better future in foreign countries. In India, there is the risk of remaining unemployed, or for those who do get jobs, the risk of being poorly paid. There is further the question of the quality of life available in India. The reason suggests the solution. Prosperity growing out of economic development will automatically stop brain drain. Economic development will create more and better jobs and improve the quality of life. This will encourage young men and women to stay and work in India. For economic development what is needed is less, not more, Indianization. Moreover, there is something absurd about the idea that the brain drain can be stopped if the syllabi in the IITs are Indianized. It is impossible to Indianize technology which is by definition a global phenomenon. Patriotism offers little to those who quite justifiably want to get on in life.    


 
 
PROUD OF ITS CALLING 
 
 
BY VICTOR BANERJEE
 
 
Seventy five years ago, to this Bijoya Dashami day, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was formed. Today, its relevance, in a society that is still caste-ridden and consumed by the subliminal brainwash of multinational commerce and globalization, is questioned by everyone that suffers under the hilarious delusion that Nehru and Gandhi were responsible for making Hindus “secular”.

Distinguished editors write caveats that are always full of insight and well researched. Although by definition a caveat is a caution or warning that the notifier be given a hearing, yet it usually helps stall rather than alter a situation. Laid back individuals like myself who love to read newspapers over scrambled eggs and percolated coffee at breakfast and review it during a paid-for lunch at work, seldom act beyond discussing it while stirring the soup to cool it. In the evening, lulled by the callousness of another day of sameness, we cast the issue upon a stack in a proscribed corner of our homes, for consignment to the kabariwalla at the end of the month.

Eminent columnists can justly claim to know more about and have greater insights into all the problems that our societies confront. But they are not the sole proprietors of commonness. The knock at K.S. Sudarshan of the RSS and the simplistic interpretation of what the man said makes you wonder if columnists address the same people as Sudarshan does everyday. In other words, those who, in the name of a ludicrous “democracy”, are conned to put a stamp on a cow or lantern or bicycle or rose to elect goons and hoodlums to Parliament, to the utter disgrace and disgust of the rest of the nation. As for the sop we continually offer missionaries, it would take no major journalistic scoop to unveil some of the detestable activities of modern-day Christian missionaries, in the name of Jesus who, given half a chance, would probably cast them out of his temple.

My cop out with such political incorrectness, like yours, is that some of my best friends are Christian or Muslim. Ask them sincerely, and they too will endorse the hypocrisies of today’s evangelism and mismanagement of church properties and funds. Our leaders and the press, paranoid about the foot-in-mouth disease, are forever on the defensive: shameful of our pantheistic heathenism and caught on the self-righteous backfoot. Bollywood, for the moment, desists from depicting all Christians as deeply religious alcoholics and all Muslims as secular saviours of the community.

There is no such pussyfooting in China, England or in the United States when it comes to defending the faith in their countries. It is not considered prejudice, nor bias. However, the West also has the proprietorship in a specific definition of “human rights” that the eastern bloc, Africa and Asia are fast learning to incorporate into their ethos if they want their bogies attached to the economic gravy train: our only priority. One never needs to condemn a faith but nor should one shy away from pointing a finger at an individual who uses it for the wrong ends or whose means of achieving an end are honestly questionable. I have publicly condemned our politicians’ rath yatras and their pathetic disacknowledgment of any responsibility for the destruction of the Babri Masjid, for the same reason. I also think Mulayam Singh’s shooting down of unarmed rowdies was a horrific example of how little we value life.

If one flips through the pages of Madhavrao Golwalkar’s (Guruji’s) Bunch of Thoughts, the RSS handbook so to speak, one might be pleasantly surprised to discover that most of the work is simple commonsense and morally upright. Something you can safely hand to your children. Golwalkar’s book is not, and the RSS ideologies are not, nearly as inflammable and fundamentalist as is popularly dished out by respectable intellectuals to an impressionable public which has also been taught to believe that Gandhi and Nehru and other imports and clones from the British educational system are the ones responsible for making us xenophobic Hindus “secular”.

Every Hindu, Christian, Muslim and Buddhist who lives below the poverty line and at the mercy of floods, droughts and cyclones will tell you that the RSS is more sinned against than sinning. I know from personal experience in Orissa and Uttarkashi that while governments were still sleeping, tucked under the warmth of ill-gotten wealth and sycophantic worship from acolytes, the RSS was out in a matter of hours, if not minutes, with organized rescue operations. Even when the fashion of “relief work” has moved on to newer calamities, the RSS continues its work silently. Every international agency, whose Christmas cards we charitably purchase and distribute, will vouch for the fact that the RSS does more work in devastated parts of India than any government agency, from Arunachal to Dwarka and Kashmir to Kanya Kumari.

Today the RSS is cursed. It is responsible for the Babri Masjid and Hindutva and every other item on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s “covert” agenda. Anyone, who has known the RSS, will tell you that it never needed the BJP to give it muscle. On the contrary, the members of the RSS are the ones who lent their muscle to the BJP, when the party came begging for it in pursuance of its “nationalistic” ideals and an akhand Bharat. Atal Behari Vajpayee was an RSS member first and a Jan Sangh man later. Just because he writes and speaks Urdu, as most of his generation do, a language quaintly associated with Muslims to the sad cultural detriment of the Hindu Hindi-speaking belt, Vajpayee is given the stamp of approval for being a liberal and not a fundamentalist Hindu. Claims he can justly endorse in spite of his longstanding allegiance to the RSS that we consider a plague.

Shyamaprasad Mookerjee and Vallabhbhai Patel are fondly referred to as “great nationalists” that Sudarshan has no business identifying with because they had nothing in common with what is preached now. Shyamaprasad was a close friend of the family and I know different. The fact is if Patel had toed the line then and not spouted much more than Sudarshan dares utter today, Nehru would not have become prime minister. Perhaps Sudarshan should have referred to Veer Savarkar who led the Hindu Mahasabha and was the first to define the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 as a “war of Independence” but was also manipulatively shunned by those aspiring to govern a partitioned India. He was later prosecuted by the Congress and tried for Gandhi’s murder, for his was a “cult of violence”, like Aurobindo Ghosh’s and Subhas Chandra Bose’s. To get Savarkar and the rest of the accused, the government extended the “Bombay Public Security Measures Act” (yesteryear’s TADA), with retrospective effect, to cover Delhi, before constituting the special court. That the partition of India killed more people and caused more bloodshed than the tragic holocaust in Europe is something seldom talked about or remembered, even though its ramifications shed innocent blood to this day.

So what about our favourite whipping boy, Nathuram Godse? A small quote is bound to leave you thinking. After his retirement, Justice Khosla, who presided over the appeals after the high court had passed its sentence, wrote the following: “The highlight of the appeal before us was the discourse delivered by Nathuram Godse in his defence. (He made no appeal against his conviction under Section 302 nor against the death sentence.) The audience was visibly and audibly moved. There was a deep silence when he ceased speaking. Many women were in tears and men coughing and searching for their handkerchiefs. I have no doubt that had the audience of that day been constituted into a jury and entrusted with the task of deciding Godse’s appeal, they would have brought in a verdict of “not guilty” by an overwhelming majority.”

The history of the 20th century will soon be researched and history books revised and it won’t need the BJP or the RSS to do it. A century later our great grandchildren shall have a better perspective on what is happening in India today. They shall judge us fairly and squarely. God knows we must try and develop a greater understanding amongst the peoples who constitute “the wonderful mosaic that is India”, if we expect to receive a pat on our dead backs for having moved the country forward and made the right choices.

Yes, we can all get hot under our collars and argue over this piece like the seculars we profess to be. We can call ourselves nothing else for fear of its colour sticking to us. Eventually, we shall collapse on our steaming sofas with a Rooh Afza on-the-rocks to nostalgically contemplate Balmoral’s reaction to Diana’s affairs and Charles’ greying temples or ruminate over a ubiquitous cigar and a night in the Lincoln Bedroom.

Let us stop throwing stones at the Missionaries of Charity one day and the RSS the next, when we don’t lift a finger ourselves to serve humanity. Donating money is easy, giving time a whole different ball game. Wheareas the RSS may stick in your throat every time you mention it, find an alternative for all the good work it does. Try and create an army of disciplined selfless social workers, like it has, in a world where the ladies of the “Time & Talents Club”, the “Spastics Society”, the “Friends of the Trees”, the “World Wildlife Fund” and the “Calcutta Foundation” flounder for support and membership even though they are embryonically connected to all the moneybags that buy and sell India’s future every day.

I know I am sticking my neck out by writing to remove some of the misgivings that we nurture about the RSS, but as Nathuram said to the jailer before he was hung, and I quote, “I must have a cup of coffee before I swing”. So it’s on to breakfast and today’s headlines. Death tolls? Mere statistics; our nation’s caveat? Ignore it.

And, by the way, for those who might be interested, I am not, nor was I ever, a member of the RSS.    


 
 
FIFTH COLUMN/ KASHMIR IS PEOPLE, NOT A PIECE OF S 
 
 
BY ARVIND KALA
 
 
Patriotism is an overrated virtue. Questioning India’s defence and foreign policies is considered unpatriotic. But how can a solution to India’s vital concerns emerge unless different viewpoints are considered? For instance, India’s implacable opposition to third-party mediation on the Kashmir issue makes no sense. The Norwegian government is mediating between Colombo and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The Americans are brokering peace between the Arabs and the Israelis. And the Americans and Vietnamese were themselves brought to the negotiating table by the French in the mid-Seventies. Where is the harm in third party intervention in Kashmir?

It is also not true that India has never accepted outside mediation in its dispute with Pakistan. The former Soviet Union mediated between India and Pakistan after the 1965 war when India’s prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, and Pakistan’s president, Ayub Khan, flew to Tashkent for peace talks. And a three-man international team in Geneva resolved the dispute over the Rann of Kutch.

India’s opposition to a plebiscite in Kashmir also goes against world trends. Referendums have become routine. Indonesia permitted a referendum supervised by the United Nations in East Timor to ascertain if the East Timorese wanted independence. When Nelson Mandela was president of South Africa, his government conducted a non-binding referendum which asked South African whites if they desired their homeland within South Africa.

Refer to their wishes

A plebiscite, or referendum, is hated in India because Pakistan has wanted one on Kashmir. However, a referendum is the best and most-developed expression of democracy. Who better to decide Kashmir’s fate but the Kashmiris themselves? Some years ago the Canadian government used a referendum to ask its French-speaking population of Quebec if they wanted to break away. It voted narrowly against secession. And the Japanese of Okinawa used a referendum to vote against allowing United States bases to remain on their soil.

There is reason to think that a plebiscite in Kashmir would be near-impossible in the vastly-changed circumstances since Jawaharlal Nehru agreed to one in 1948. Why should India accommodate the wishes of Pakistan, which conducts a proxy war in Kashmir by financing and arming guerrillas?

Conflicts between nations can be resolved by one time-tested method. First, get them to acknowledge that the status quo harms them both. And then get them to see how the status quo can be altered for mutual benefit. Unfortunately, India and Pakistan haven’t even reached the stage of acknowledging they have been impoverished by the Kashmir dispute.

Butter the right side

In 1947, undivided Kashmir, with 77 per cent Muslims, had a Hindu maharaja, Hari Singh, who didn’t want to join India or Pakistan. Then Pakistan made the mistake of backing a band of Pathan tribesmen who tried to overrun Kashmir. Hari Singh asked India to expel the invaders. The Indian government agreed to do so, provided Singh acceded to India.

Hari Singh obliged in October 1947 and Indian soldiers threw out the Pathans. Kashmir became India’s except for a chunk of captured territory that remained with Pakistan when a UN-declared ceasefire stopped hostilities. Legally, India’s claim on Kashmir was foolproof. Morally, it wasn’t. Because the Hindu maharaja who joined Kashmir to India was certainly not reflecting the wishes of his Muslim subjects.

This is exactly what India felt about Junagarh in Gujarat which had a Muslim ruler and a majority of Hindu subjects. When it acceded to Pakistan, Indian troops overran the kingdom, declaring that the Hindu subjects wanted to join India. But here, India employed a double standard. If a Muslim ruler of Junagarh didn’t reflect the wishes of his Hindu population, nor did the Hindu ruler of Kashmir reflect the wishes of his Muslim subjects.

India and Pakistan must wake up. They need to acknowledge that territory isn’t important, people are. The economist, Paul Samuelson, said that a poor nation could spend money either on guns or on butter because it wouldn’t have money for both. So India and Pakistan have a simple choice. Choose combat and buy guns. Or seek peace and eat more butter.    


 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ TRADE WINDS 
 
 
BY LAKSHMI SUBRAMANIAN
 
 
The Global World of the Indian Merchant 1750-1947: Traders of sind from bukhara to panama
By Claude Markovits,
Cambridge, Price not mentioned

This is a book many of us have been waiting for. Periodic pronouncements have been made about the resilience and prescience of the Asian trader operating within and against the writ of the colonial economy of the 19th and 20th centuries. Along with these, the long debate on the world economy has sustained a level of interest and enquiry about the dynamics of non-European commercial activity in widely dispersed areas of the globe. Serious gaps and doubts have, however, remained and we are often left wondering, “Whose world economy was it anyway?” Was Asian enterprise a tedious aggregate of small, but countless, transactions indulged in by the colonial state with its own calculations and compulsions.

On the other hand, the visibility and movement of Indian merchant groups in the emerging global economy since the 19th century have invested the Asian experience with a certain significance, which, in turn, warrants a closer examination of the process, its antecedents and its projections. Claude Markovits’s study attempts precisely to do all this and more, with the result that we have a narrative that is rich in detail, sensitive to the play of historical configurations and supported by a theoretical framework that is balanced and not overly ambitious. He focuses on two communities — the Shikarpuris and the Sindworkis, and through them proceeds to weave a story of dispersal and circulation, rather than that of a unitary diaspora with overarching Indian connotations.

Markovits argues that south Asian merchant movements were essentially temporary migrations and that the settlements, when these did occur, were largely involuntary. Nor did these correspond to any unitary category of caste, territory or religion and were in every sense the outgrowths of regional compulsions and local realities. The experience of the two communities chosen by Markovits, the Shikarpuris and Sindworkis, illustrates the juxtaposition of local processes with that of the global economy, where the activities of merchant groups took on a fuller meaning.

Obviously, such an approach is admissible when dealing with the operation of a colonial economy and not that of a national one, and it is no coincidence that the study should stop at 1947.

Within this framework of local and global history, Markovits teases out a fascinating story of the merchant networks of Sind region, that has suffered an overdose of orientalizing descriptions. He also traces their emergence in the context of 18th century transition politics and their expansion in the high noon of British imperialism and Russian centralization. There is also the story of their spatial advance from Bukhara to Panama.

The relocation of the south Asian merchant networks in the world economy in the 18th century is a well-established fact, even if its implications are not so well drawn out. The 18th century, in particular, is seen to have constituted a turning point in the positioning of the Asian merchants who suffered major reverses and in the process facilitated the marginalization of Asia in the newly emerging world economy centred firmly in Europe. The process of relocation was not coeval with that of decline and dislocation, and according to Markovits, it was marked by sharp regional and sub-regional variations.

Additionally, the establishment and workings of the colonial economy reared a sub-stratum of commercial functions and operations that were deftly handled and taken over by enterprising indigenous groups. It is within this context that Markovits positions his communities. He argues that far from operating in a residual space left open by the colonial dispensation, these merchant networks adapted successfully to a trading world dominated by European capital through a complex process of collaboration and conflict.

The Shikarpuri and Sindworki networks developed under very different circumstances. The surge in Indo-Central Asian trade from the 1840s enabled the Shikarpuris to rework an existing network of caravan commerce and credit transactions under the dispensation of the Uzbeg khanates of central Asia. Meanwhile, the Sindworkis regrouped under the British dispensation and took advantage of the extension of the colonial economy from Bombay into Sind to operate a trade of truly global proportions.

The Shikarpuri network was forced out of its base in Sind by changes that followed in the wake of colonial subjugation and changing configurations of commercial exchange. They exploited their old connections with central Asia, Iran and Afghanistan to emerge as principal moneylenders and traders, especially in the khanate of Bukhara. The details of the network have been deduced from a mass of legal material that the Russian authorities felt compelled to share with the British government in the eventuality of any death-related succession dispute involving a British Indian subject. One of the most striking features of the network to emerge from this legal discourse is the working of Shikarpuri panchayats in most localities of central Asia.

The Sindworkis, on the other hand, were very much part of the colonial economy and began as modest peddlers of native crafts to a European clientele. This venture expanded substantially to include, in subsequent years, a wide range of curios that found their way into the European markets. Their initiative and intrepidity were quite remarkable. Consider the trader who protested against Australian immigration restrictions and flashed his credentials as a trader of repute who bought and sold exotic goods besides carving the occasional tortoise shell or setting a piece in jade. Curios became doubly important as the tourist traffic caught the fancy of European visitors, enabling a massive expansion of Sindhi enterprise on both sides of the Suez that soon turned to trade in textiles and financial speculation.

In all, this is a fascinating story of commercial dynamism. What makes the story even more fascinating is the exploration of the proclivity to spatial and social mobility among the networks. Caste did not play a central role in forging solidarities. The affinity seemed very much to lie with the region and with the ability to travel extensively and, in the process, ensure a circulation of skills and entrepreneurial labour. Circulation however, remained confined to males, very rarely did wives accompany their partners. The absence of female company did not, however, deflect the passion for riches as merchants alternated between celibacy and permissiveness to balance the sexual economy of circulation.    


 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ YET ANOTHER REFORMS DEBATE 
 
 
BY AMITENDU PALIT
 
 
Economic Liberalisation in India
Edited by Biswajit Chatterjee,
Allied, Rs 600

Economic restructuring in India is still relatively young. There is a lack of sufficient data for analysing the impact of liberalization on the various sectors of the economy. Opinions, formed on the basis of short-term experience, are prone to oversimplification. Economic Liberalisation in India, edited by Biswajit Chatterjee, is a relevant example in this regard.

Despite covering almost all the major sectors, not even one of the papers in the book delves into the period after the mid-Nineties. In fact, most relate to the early Nineties. As a result most of the issues in the book are repetitions of arguments taken up earlier. It meticulously enumerates important but familiar and already widely discussed issues.

One finds in this volume comments by Indian economists of various hues assessing the different aspects of liberalization. But in trying to take a comprehensive outlook, it has lost focus. As a result, the reader finds C. Rangarajan’s positivism on new economic policies juxtaposed with Prabhat Patnaik’s sharp criticisms.

Academically, one does not mind an array of views on a debatable issue. But in this context, the comments appear dated. Economic reforms will certainly continue. There is no point in contesting their justification any longer. Rather, the debate should now be on making reforms more value-additive.

In a well-written, and perhaps, the most valuable piece in the book, Ramprasad Sengupta studies the institutional options for the transport sector in a reforming economy. Arjun Sengupta throws light on the relevant issue of sustainability of economic reforms. C. Rangarajan has evaluated the objectives behind the new economic policies in the correct perspective.

The rest of the contributions are somehow not convincing and do not meet one’s expectations. According to Pradipta Chowdhury, the “obvious” consequence of globalization on Indian agriculture is negative. The conclusion is based on data collected during 1990-1994 when the country was busy stabilizing, rather than globalizing, which, even today, it is doing at a measured pace. Ganti Subrahmanyam does not venture into the Nineties at all in her study of the household sector financial portfolios. This paper can hardly qualify as an analysis of financial sector reforms.

Subrata Gupta’s views on tax reforms and Gautam Gupta’s review of public sector policy are equally handicapped by data limitations. Dilip Nachane’s study of the Dunkel Draft and its implications reveal nothing new. Two quantitative papers by Marjit and Acharya and Chatterjee and Karmakar, on devaluation and trade balance respectively, are good in inputs. But there is very little theoretical extension of the data.

Economists are notorious for their refusal to take stands. Liberalization in India is still in the experimental stages, where the experiments pertain to course of reforms, not liberalization per se.

Economists are expected to contribute in this regard. In doing so, they have to resist the temptation of falling prey to futile academic debates on the necessity of liberalization, like the book under discussion does.

Academic theorization and practical policy-making are entirely different matters. The book had numerous possibilities. It could have discussed many more relevant issues than what it has. Instead of emerging as a sharply focussed and constructively critical document on liberalization, it has become a trite addition to an already large body of work.    


 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ INDIGNITIES OF LABOUR 
 
 
BY ARNAB BHATTACHARYA
 
 
Untouchable Freedom: A social history of a dalit community
By Vijay Prashad,
Oxford, Rs 395

Over the last two decades, subaltern studies have gradually gained currency in India. During this period, the Indian historicists like Ranajit Guha, Partha Chatterjee et al not only subscribed to the original Gramscian concept, but developed a distinctly Indian theory of the “subaltern”. This sort of theorization represents an agglomeration of disparate views, some of which are considerably radical and exclusionist. The subaltern historiography in India reveals two dominant trends — one exploring the capitalist exploitation of marginalized communities which takes on multifarious forms and operates through countless social as well as administrative institutions, and the other demonstrating the nature of cultural hegemony purveyed by the bourgeoisie and reflected in the value-orientation and the political dynamics of the oppressed masses.

Vijay Prashad’s Untouchable Freedom, in purporting to be “a social history of a Dalit Community”, strikes a perfect balance between these two approaches. The focus of the book lies with the Balmikis — a community of sweepers in Delhi comprising Mehtars, Chuhras and scavengers. Prashad has carried out extensive field-work, scoured archival sources, mixed freely with the Dalits and carefully traced their indigenous cultural and religious traditions in order to construct a comprehensive social history of the community. Prashad’s study, which is both in depth and resourceful, plausibly incorporates a four-point programme: first, it comes up with a down-to-earth account of the deplorable living condition of Dalits, more specifically the Balmikis; second, it describes the exploitative machinery implicit in the sanitation industry in Delhi; third, it offers a trenchant indictment of the militant Hindutvawadis who imposed a reform-formula upon the Dalits and sought to induct them into the fold of Hinduism through a manipulative appropriation of their cultural set-up while still denying them minimum social dignity; and finally, it critically revalidates the role of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and his Harijan Sevak Sangh in the upliftment of Dalits. Apart from these, there are other fringe issues such as the internal conflicts within the Dalits and their failure to organize themselves which Prashad touches on en passant. Towards the end of the book, he dwells at length on the inefficacy of the Union policy in independent India which is supposed to bring the Dalits back into the social mainstream.

One remarkable aspect of Prashad’s writing is his delineation of the process of politicization of this community of sweepers in Delhi.

The process evolves through changing power-relations and the concomitant shifts in stance on the part of the subjects of control (Dalits, in this context) — from servility and defeat to recalcitrance and disobedience and then on to remonstrance and armed insurgency. True, the process is neither uniformly progressive nor systematically organized, but a pattern is discernible all the same.

The “social history” recorded in this book covers a long period of time — from the 1860s till date.

The first three chapters deal with the colonial perception of menial labour and the distress of the community of sweepers under the British rule. Each of these chapters takes up Mehtars, Chuhras and sweepers separately and delineates the history of occupational caste and the role of the bourgeoisie and the bureaucracy in determining the social status of these castes.

But the fourth chapter which constitutes the pivotal part of the book describes the attempted Hinduization of the Balmikis by militant Hindu organisations which were run by upper caste Hindus. This was done by inculcating anti-Muslim sentiments among Dalits, by proposing demeaning reforms, and, above all, by tampering with the Dalit legends and folklores to reconstruct the Hindu icon, Valmiki, the author of the Ramayana, as someone linked with the Dalit ancestry. This last attempt replaced many revered Dalit icons and established the Hindu origin of the Balmikis.

Prashad is reasonably thorough-going in his analysis, though at times he tends to be a little biased. His almost unreserved endorsement of Ambedkar’s uncharitable views about the Gandhian principle of serving the Harijans by the “valorization” of their occupation may well spark off a hot debate.    


 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ AWARDS, ACCOLADES AND DEDICATION 
 
 
BY NOVY KAPADIA
 
 
Great Indian Olympians
By Gulu Ezekiel and K. Arumugam,
Thendral Thambi, Rs 200

Awards, accolades and dedication In Great Indian Olympians, two authors, Gulu Ezekiel and K. Arumugam have spent painstaking hours in research and recorded, for the benefit of prosperity, the achievements of India’s great Olympians of the 20th century. Indian sport, except to a certain extent cricket, suffers from a lack of documentation and a sense of history. This book helps to, at least partially, fill up this void.

The book is divided into three sections. The first section is written by Gulu Ezekiel, currently sports editor of indya.com and provides detailed background materials on the mystery man Norman Pritchard. This is a fascinating and well-researched chapter and takes the reader down an eventful memory lane. Ezekiel describes the controversy about Pritchard’s nationality. Some people dispute the fact that he was an Indian. There is also an ongoing debate within Olympic circles about whether Pritchard’s medals should be allocated to India or to Great Britain.

After intensive research, the author has discovered that Pritchard was born in Alipore, Calcutta, on June 23, 1875 and worked as an assistant in the British firm of Bird and Company and lived at No. 3 Landsdowne Road.

In Calcutta, Pritchard competed on behalf of the Bengal Presidency Athletic Club and took part in both football and athletics. In the 1900 Paris Olympics, Pritchard competed in five events: 60 metres, 100 metres, 200 metres, 110 metres and 200 metres hurdles. Including the heats, Pritchard took part in 12 races in a span of three days. He won silver medals in both the 200 metres and 200 metres hurdles events.

Ezekiel has shown that Pritchard even set a world record in the 200 metres hurdles semi-finals, thereby becoming the only Indian athlete till now to set a world record in athletics.

The next section of the book has been written by hockey historian K. Armugam and is a biographical sketch of six Olympic hockey gold medal winners. The choice of players is based on their historical role and importance. Dhyan Chand is the first mentioned because he gave the Indian nation a distinct identity with his skills in the three Olympic games of 1928, 1932 and 1936. Balbir Singh of Punjab is mentioned next. Singh gave independent India immense joy and pride by his prolific goal scoring feats in the 1948, 1952 and 1956 Olympics, in which the Indian team won the gold medals. Calcutta-based Leslie Claudius is chosen for taking part in four Olympic games and as an Anglo-Indian who contributed considerably to the development of Indian sport.

Shanker Laxman, the goalkeeper, whose heroic display helped India thwart Pakistan and win the gold medal in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics is chosen for this unforgettable feat. The brilliant dribbler, Mohammed Shahid, has been selected as well. He is credited for bringing back Indian hockey into the limelight. He is considered to be a giant in the era of hockey on artificial surface. The final selection is of the defender, Balkishen Singh, the only Olympian, who, after his playing career became a professional coach.

Interesting anecdotes enliven these chapters. It is narrated that Dhyan Chand was offered the rank of a field marshal by Adolf Hitler, under the condition that he migrated to Germany. It is also mentioned that Leslie Claudius’s first love was football and he took to hockey quite by chance, while playing a practice match when one of the teams found itself short by one player.

The third section of the book, again written by Gulu Ezekiel, deals with six Olympians who achieved glory for India. They are: the wrestler, Keshaba Jadhav, bronze medallist in Helsinki in 1952, Milkha Singh, who came fourth in the 400 metres in the 1960 Rome Olympics, Gurbachan Singh Randhawa, fifth in the 110 metres hurdles in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, P.T. Usha, fourth in the 400 metres hurdles in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and Leander Paes, bronze medallist in the 1996 Olympics.    


 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ MEDIOCRITY PAR EXCELLENCE 
 
 
BY RAVI VYAS
 
 
What does the Harry Potter series, Tom Clancy’s The Bear and the Dragon, Sidney Sheldon’s The Sky is Falling, Danielle Steele’s Irresistible Forces, Sue Crafton’s ‘O’ is for Outlaw and all those fiction check lists that appear in weekend papers have in common? They are bestseller fiction that have sales of 250,000 copies and upwards, whatever the price.

What is a bestseller and what are the ingredients that go into them? First, the classic definition provided by S.H. Steinberg in Five Hundred Years of Printing (1955). “The bestseller (this piece is confined to best-selling fiction) is a book which immediately on, or shortly after, its first publication far outruns the demand of what that time are considered good, or even large sales; which thereafter sometimes lapses into obscurity, making people wonder why it even came to the front; but which sometimes graduates into the rank of ‘steady sellers’”. You could object by saying that publishers’ hype have foisted on the public something that it positively never wanted; that its menace is the menace of the trivial and that it has been thrust down people’s throats until they have got accustomed to triviality and expect it.

At a time when the market has become the sole criterion of excellence the notion that publishers should seek to improve public taste has been tossed aside as too antiquated.

Mediocrity, then, is the key to success. By and large, the bestseller lists are dominated by hack writers who have figured out how to appeal to mass audiences; or at least the publishers’ marketing departments have done so and come out with a formula of what makes “it” tick. You could say that bestsellers are a recent phenomenon driven by the commercialization of literature, fuelled by advertisements and reviews or even pure luck.

Agreed, there is a multiplicity of outlets now than, say, two decades ago, because of television and an expanded print media. But even in the past there has been a search for bestsellers and the lure of quick money. It is therefore sentimental and incorrect to say that the marketing in the past was better than the crass form it has acquired today.

Publishers have always sought a device for quick success. The basic question has been to figure out the type of people the novelist wished to interest with the book. Who are the easy targets? The more intellectually-inclined or those want light literature which can be read as entertainment? It is the latter that publishers now want their authors to cater to because this is where the big money is.

But, there have also been authors who have succeeded in having the best of both worlds. Graham Greene, Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Saul Bellow spring immediately to mind. But they are exceptions and are increasingly becoming a marginalized tribe.

Specifically, the formula for a romantic pop novel that often hits the charts has love, power, tenderness and glory, alongside lots of mountains in the background, thrown in for good measure.

And if it isn’t the romantic novel, its close cousin is a description of a life. The main characters in such a novel usually feels the pressure of a vast public life which dwarfs them. There are variations on this theme like the horror or the divorce novel and so on.

Ultimately, it is mediocrity that the public really wants, not any great originality or brilliance.    


 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Yours respectfully

Sir — Ashok Mitra’s anger is justified to a certain extent (“The hoopla is over”, Oct 11). There is indeed a noticeable lack of self esteem among Indian politicians. This expresses itself in sycophancy, especially towards foreign dignitaries. There is a paradox in this. Indian information technology professionals have been so successful all over the world that developed countries like the United States and Germany have bent their laws to grant more visas to Indian IT professionals. Yet, when Bill Gates, owner of the IT giant, Microsoft, came to India recently, chief ministers of Indian states fell over each other to get an audience with him. This can only imply that there is something pathological about the Indians’ servile tendencies. However, Mitra takes the argument a little too far when he clubs Indian sportsmen with the country’s politicians. India’s lacklustre sports performance in the international arena has more to do with lack of exposure, training and facilities than with a want of self-esteem. In fact, the Gurcharan Singhs and Leander Paeses could give their politicians a lesson or two in self-esteem.
Yours faithfully,
M. Rajeswari, Bangalore

Cities in the hills

Sir — One can only sympathize with the plight of the prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee. His much publicized knee problem on the eve of his visit to the United States not only proved embarrassing, but also threw Indian diplomacy into a crisis. Had it been any other occasion, Vajpayee’s trip could have been cancelled. But this time the Bharatiya Janata Party led government obviously could not afford to miss the opportunity to cement the newly-established Indo-US ties.

On the part of the prime minister, he put the US visit ahead of his ill-health and tottering knee. It is a pity that the media only highlighted his knee problem and failed to understand the physical agony and the dilemma of an ageing man. Vajpayee deserves kudos for putting up a brave front.

Yours faithfully,
Reji Abraham, Pfutsero, Nagaland

Sir — Recently, the Reserve Bank of India advertised for candidates to fill vacant posts in various grades. The minimum educational qualification required by the RBI for the written test for officer’s grade is a first class in graduation. The RBI’s eligibility criteria show that it wishes to recruit candidates with a good academic record. But should a candidate with first division marks in both matriculation and the higher secondary examinations, and above 50 per cent marks in graduation, who has failed to secure a first class in graduation because of unavoidable circumstances, be debarred from sitting the examination?

The RBI’s examination is extremely tough and has a three-tier selection process. This is sufficient to judge the merit of a candidate. Even in Union public service commission examinations, the eligibility criteria for candidates is graduation. The RBI should provide equal opportunities to all candidates. The Guwahati high court should take suo motu cognizance of the issue.

Yours faithfully
Arunava Dey, Guwahati

Sir — We are rather surprised to note that the Assam chief minister, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, has gone on a pilgrimage to Vaishno Devi. Has he realized now that he needs to perform penance for the sins he has committed against the people of Assam? Even if god is kind enough to forgive him, the people of Assam would not. Mahanta should surrender to his fate.

Yours faithfully,
Rajib Barua, Guwahati

Sir — It is heartening that the Assam government has sought the services of the Don Bosco youth and educational services in its attempt to help rehabilitate former rebels (“Assam bid to ‘sanitise’ former rebels”, Oct 8). The policy followed so far in respect of surrendered militants is bribing them with money and wine shop licences. This, as is evident from the present decadent state of Assamese society, has proved disastrous.

What needs to be done is to give the young men the right direction in life as well as to impart vocational training to them so that they can earn their livelihood respectably. Easy money only breeds greed and evil. The policy would also help separate the genuine among those who surrender from those who come out only to “rob” the government of huge sums of money.

Yours faithfully,
Dilip Goswami, Shillong

Sir — Zia Haq is right in pointing out that the Nagas are not a single tribe, but comprise several cognate sub-tribes and clans (“Scattered tribes in search of an identity”, Sept 7). Even in the early part of the 20th century, the word “Naga” was not used by any of the clans among themselves. Distant neighbours and people of the plains referred to these people, who are distributed over numerous hill tops up to the Patkoi hills, by this word. The Ahom kings, Manipur rajas, Jayantia rajas and the Tippera rajas never tried to colonize these hills. Nagas traded at the marketplaces without major hindrances.

The “Nagas”, as of now, are a creation of the white rulers. The Angami, Ao, Sema and other clans were termed collectively as the Nagas by the British. Remember, the “land” of “Nagaland” is an English word. While the Raj extended its authority over the area, the proselytizers, despite inner line restrictions, spread their faith. It is the British imperial policy that kept the Nagas isolated from the rest of the country.

Yours faithfully,
Tapash Datta, Calcutta

Sir — Use of incinerators is mandatory for hospitals and nursing homes. Unfortunately, most hospitals and nursing homes in Guwahati, the “gateway of the Northeast”, are operating without them. Solid as well and liquid wastes from these hospitals and nursing homes flow into the largely-stagnant drains of the city, raising the levels of pollution further. It is time the pollution control board and the government took stringent measures to ensure that the hospitals begin using incinerators. Or else, 10 years hence, the city’s residents will have to be hospitalized — maybe in hospitals outside the city.

Yours faithfully,
Rekha Talukdar, Guwahati

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

The Telegraph
6 Prafulla Sarkar Street
Calcutta 700 001
Email: [email protected]
Readers in the Northeast can write to:
Third Floor, Godrej Building,
G.S. Road, Ulubari, Guwahati 781007
   
 

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