Editorial / Half in love with death
Concern and grievances
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

The choice to be born is not man’s to make. But, in the rational world to which men aspire, an individual could earn the right to die with dignity. It is this right that the Netherlands has asserted by legalizing voluntary euthanasia. It is the first country to do so. The rights of the terminally ill act had been passed in the Northern Territory in Australia in 1995, but was repealed by the federal Australian parliament in 1997. The Oregon death with dignity act came into effect from October 1997. That Oregon introduced this law after a similar one had been repealed in Australia shows two things: that the desire to choose a dignified death remains constant, yet the odds that hem in the procedure on the ground are apparently insurmountable. Some places have tried to find a middle way. Certain forms of assisted death, such as the withdrawal of treatment seen to be futilely prolonging the life of a terminally ill patient, are not illegal in some countries.

Voluntary euthanasia is defined as a deliberate intervention undertaken with the express intention of ending a life so as to relieve intractable suffering, performed at the dying person’s request or with that person’s consent. To legalize this is to celebrate man’s free choice to live and die a human being. It is a confident country that can legalize it — confident of its advanced medical care, of free information and the level of public receptivity to technical knowledge, of the firmness of its law abiding culture, of its economic stability and a general equality in financial standards. Even then, the Netherlands has introduced stringent safeguards to prevent the law’s abuse.

The worldwide debate over euthanasia, in which India is a low key participant, has expanded from religious bars to the taking of life to questions of ethics on the one hand and the abuse of practice on the other. What it tends to leave out, or consider unimportant, are the cultural differences in the attitudes to death and pain. Many Eastern cultures see life and death as a continuous process, and pain as an incident in this unceasing cycle. In such a philosophy, endurance levels are meant to be high and human dignity is seen as a passing illusion. Opposed to this is the attitude which sees happiness and ease as the “natural” condition of life, or dignity as the “natural” ornament of the human soul. This is not to suggest that these approaches are mutually exclusive. Extensive cultural interaction, together with the levelling that modern urban life has achieved, have led to a mishmash of attitudes. But vestiges of cultural beliefs colour every individual’s decision, and asking to die is ultimately an intimately personal act. The philosophical implications of euthanasia are inesca- pable, even at a micro level.

What bothers the pro-lifers, however, are the ground realities. There is, on the one hand, the enormous power given to doctors by a pro-euthanasia law. The judgment of the patient’s state, the information given to the patient and his family, the options for pain palliation offered, the act of intervention and the reporting of the case all depend on the doctor. On the other hand, who will judge if the patient can ask for his own death with true freedom — even if he does so repeatedly —when experiencing extreme pain, possible depression and fear of being a physical and economic burden to others? These are not easy questions and they are not the only ones. The desire to die with dignity is intensely private. At its purest, it is entirely dependent on a person’s self-understanding. Autonomy at this level cannot be easily accommodated by society. To bring it under the domain of legislation is a challenge worth taking in the interest of freedom of choice, and the Netherlands should be lauded for having done so. But it will be a long time before all the countries in the world follow suit, if they do so at all.    

In a previous column, I had tried to show that the chauvinism of the majority in countries like Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka is directed against minority populations that are (or can be shown to be) more powerful or privileged than the majority communities that claim to be their “hosts”. India, I pointed out, didn’t fit this pattern because the members of the country’s largest minority, the Muslims, are patently more backward (by any measure) than Hindus were. Since any sense of injury or grievance needs plausible arguments to sustain itself, what is the nature of “Hindu” grievance?

The “Hindu” sense of being hard done by is based on a set of inter-connected grievances: Muslim vandalism in the past; the gall of Muslims in first partitioning the country to form a Muslim state in Pakistan and then expecting to have their sensibilities respected in India, the related idea that Muslims are untrustworthy fifth columnists, the bogey of Muslim fertility and the fantasy of Hindu extinction and, finally, the contentious matter of Muslim personal law which allows Muslim men to practice polygamy decades after Hindu men lost this perk in the mid-Fifties.

Each one of these grievances merits an essay, but I want to concentrate today on the rhetorical use of Muslim personal law by sectarian Hindus. K.R. Malkani, a senior leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party and veteran Hindu ideologue, recently wrote an article in The Hindu (November 28) on the status of Muslim women. I want to use this article as an exemplary text because the route of Malkani’s argument shows us how a social issue is turned into a sectarian grievance.

The occasion for Malkani’s article was the publication of the report by the national commission for women on the status of Muslim women. Malkani’s tone right through the article is moderate and for the most part his persona is that of a man looking for a way of emancipating the Muslim community. “Muslim society,” he writes, “is poorer than Hindu society — having a yearly income of Rs 22,807 per household as against the national average of Rs. 25,653. But it has a higher birth rate – 39 per 1,000 as against the Hindu rate of 32.”

Then, in an interesting move, he attributes the several problems Muslims face to their attachment to a reactionary personal law. “There is a vicious circle of large families, poverty, little education and less employment. According to the 1991 census, Muslims are 12.12 per cent of the population. But only four per cent of Indians who finish school are Muslim. Only 4 per cent Indians in government jobs are Muslim. And nobody seems to know how to break this vicious circle. To an objective observer the solution is clear enough; there must be a ban on polygamy and triple talaq.” (italics mine)

To press for the abolition of polygamy or arbitrary and one-sided divorce procedures is unexceptionable. But to see their abolition as an antidote to illiteracy, unemployment, high birthrates and poverty is plainly wrong. If polygamy was the root cause of Muslim fertility, Hindus would be growing at a greater rate than Muslims because despite the legislation outlawing it, the incidence of polygamy amongst Hindus is higher than it is amongst Muslims. Nor does polygamy necessarily lead to poverty — Saudi princes maintain whole harems with no noticeable effect on their standard of living.

So why does Malkani make this argument? He makes it because it is important for him to show that the backwardness of the Muslim community lies in its Muslim-ness, in its unreasonable attachment to Muslim personal law. More important, it allows him to suggest that Muslim personal laws don’t just hurt Muslims, they also threaten Hindus because a larger Muslim population means more political clout for Muslims in an electoral democracy. An attachment to Muslim personal law then becomes part of a political design.

The fear of demographic extinction has haunted Hindu leaders ever since U.N. Mukherji’s Hindus — A Dying Race was published in 1909. As the historian, P.K. Datta, has shown in an essay, Lala Lajpat Rai, Bhai Parmanand, the leaders of the Hindu Mahasabha were all agitated by the prospect of Hindus being swamped by a burgeoning Muslim population. Malkani addresses this anxiety directly when he writes that “there are Muslim leaders who urge their flock to have more children since ‘even the lame and the blind have the same one vote’ and population is power.”

An article that starts out as a prescription for the welfare of Muslim women quickly turns into a demonstration of how Muslim personal law damages the nation. Malkani’s justification for the uniform civil code makes this explicit. Such a code needs to be implemented, otherwise “the resulting Muslim backwardness in education, employment and women’s rights is a serious drag on Indian society”. So now the surgeon-general has determined that an attachment to Muslim personal law is not just anti-woman, it’s anti-national and bad for everyone’s health.

It is legitimate to be committed to a common civil code and you don’t have to be a sectarian Hindu to oppose polygamy and the triple talaq. But the arbitrary conflation of polygamy and Muslim fertility, the unsourced smear about anonymous Muslim leaders urging Muslims to breed in their drive to power, the bizarre and slightly sinister argument that an economically backward community is a “drag” on the nation (by which logic Hindus are a drag on the nation when they’re compared to more advanced and “progressive” communities such as Christians and Parsis) makes it evident that despite Malkani’s solicitude for Muslim women, his article is an unpleasant, but typical, example of the instrumental use of social concern for political ends. Demonizing minorities by exciting the envy of the majority is bad enough; stigmatizing Muslims by using their backwardness as a weapon is much worse.

Towards the end of his article, Malkani refers to the problems Muslims face in Gujarat according to the NCW report. One is that Muslims find it difficult to rent apartments in Gujarat. He finds a non-sectarian reason for this in the Gujarati aversion to non-vegetarian food. I’m not opposed to Malkani giving Gujarati Hindu landlords the benefit of doubt; I just wish he could find it in his heart to extend the same generosity to others.    


Mighty sisters

Sisters can’t be strangers. They might be at the opposite ends of the political spectrum in Parliament, but outside the war zone, the camaraderie among women parliamentarians is cosy enough to force men to take on a deep green hue. You have this instance to check out the facts. Last week, the Samajwadi Party MP and former bandit queen, Phoolan Devi, raged into the office of the Union railways minister, Mamata Banerjee, in the Parliament house and thrust some papers under her nose for her to sign. “Didi, I will not leave till you sign these papers”, said Phoolan as she produced three separate sheets of paper on which something had been scribbled by three different petitioners. Banerjee obliged the lady by duly putting her signature on two, but handed over the third to her aide asking him to file it. An adamant Phoolan snatched the paper from the aide saying, “Didi, sign this one too. Filing it means that it would end up in the wastepaper basket”. Correctly observed. Mamata signed the sheet without any question. The petitions pertained to the payment of a compensation, long overdue, to the victim of a railway accident and the third was about a job in the railways for the next of kin of a deceased railway employee. All three petitioners were from Phoolan Devi’s constituency. Siblings understand each other’s needs, you see.

For whose eyes only?

Thank the former BJP MP and owner of the Jain TV channel, JK Jain, for adding colour to the dreary winter dealings in Parliament. Last week, Jain sauntered into the central hall of the house wearing a placard which said, “I am an ISI agent”and “Is Jain TV an ISI organ?” Self-advertisement taken to its illogical limits? No, this was Jain’s unique way of mocking the RAW report in which he is alleged to have links with the ISI. Jain is convinced this is somehow the handiwork of the principal secretary to the prime minister, Brajesh Mishra. Jain TV, in fact, has been threatening to expose the alleged misdeeds of Mishra ever since Jain came to know of the report. But how did he get to know the contents of the top secret RAW report? The secret was divulged by Jain himself in an interview to a Hindi daily in which he alleged that a very well placed minister had spilled the beans about the report to him. Whatever happened to the oath of secrecy ministers are supposed to take when they are sworn in? Incidentally, the intelligence memo was marked “for your eyes only”. Quite obviously, there have been more eyes and ears than expected.

Bring down the house

More Parliament news. Politicians in the house are thinking big, but not so much for development of this poor country. They are engrossed with another issue more crucial — how the seats in the Lok Sabha can be increased given the fact that the population is growing in leaps and bounds. If the seats go up to 900 — a minuscule number for a billion people — where will the members sit and eat? Our thoughtful politicians have a ready solution. Why, the central hall can be converted into the Lok Sabha and the present Lok Sabha can become the Rajya Sabha then. The library can move out to make room for some kind of club for the hardworking MPs. The construction lobby however has better ideas. Why not bring down the colonial structure totally and build one in conformity with vastu shastra? Others have other ideas as well. They want all roads leading to Parliament be declared pedestrian zones. What will happen to the employees of the government offices in and around the area? That’s too trying a problem for our parliamentarians to bother about.

Festive offering

Its from didi with love for her Muslim brothers. Mamata Banerjee has given a special concession to her Muslim employees in the Rail Bhavan. They can leave the office an hour early as the time of the iftaar coincides with the office hours coming to an end. Since many Muslim government servants keep roza in Ramadan, the gesture has gone down well with them. Only the left in West Bengal are finding it a trifle difficult to digest the minister’s steady advances with the community.

Carried away by the national carrier

At a recent luncheon hosted by the World Economic Forum, industrialist Rahul Bajaj, who was sharing the table with the Union law minister, Arun Jaitley, shocked many by saying he preferred to fly by the Indian Airlines. Jaitley answered for Bajaj when he was asked about his rather queer preference, “It is only in Indian Airlines that Bajaj finds air hostesses of his vintage”. Did Bajaj agree to that?

Footnote/ Applying first aid

Convinced that the chinks in its armour will show in the next year’s assembly elections, the CPI(M) is busy trying to make amends. Alimuddin Street bosses are in a hurry to rehabilitate the minister of state for transport, Subhas Chakraborty, in the party’s North 24 Parganas district unit. Given the rough end of the stick for years, Chakraborty is reported to have turned down the offer pleading that he is not hankering for any plum post. However, the leadership is desperate to keep him in good humour. The grapevine even has it that it is the superboss, Jyoti Basu, who is taking the initiative to get Chakraborty settled so that he does not emerge as a challenger to the newly anointed and the still greenhorn chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. Basu is supposed to have summoned two high profile leaders, Biman Bose and Anil Biswas, and instructed them to induct Chakraborty in the party’s decisionmaking body. The move is seen to be to dissuade Chakraborty from joining rebels. “Subhasda, is a major force... and we must regard him accordingly”, says a party leader. And they better do it fast.    


Not playing fair

Sir — Lynnsey Ward, the 18-year old British model who has been accompanying Brian Lara on West Indies’s tour of Australia, has been held responsible for the latter’s poor form in the series (“English beauty blamed for Lara form slump”, Nov 29) . Interestingly, all the West Indian cricketers, except Lara, have been banned from bringing wives and girlfriends on tour. Why has Lara been spared? And if Lara misuses his privilege, is it the fault of Ward or of those who granted the privilege in the first place? Besides, a gifted batsman like Lara is unlikely to be so badly “bowled over”. Accusations like these are insulting for any self-respecting cricketer. Lara must use his bat to reply.
Yours faithfully,
Sunandita Bose, Calcutta

False fears

Sir — The article “Courting animosities”, (Nov 8), has pertinently asked whether the government of India should develop friendly relations with Muslim countries by supporting the cause of the Palestinians or with the war-ravaged Iraqis in the Iraqi-American conflict.

The rationale behind the United States giving exemplary punishment to Iraq by imposing a severe trade embargo and other sanctions is to prevent any other nation from acting in the same way. Ashok Mitra has failed to understand that. The writer has cited examples of France and Saudi Arabia who have opposed the unfavourable policy of the United States towards countries like Iraq and Palestine. However, these countries have failed to state the grounds on which they oppose US unilateralism. Ashok Mitra’s concern that Hindutva is influencing our foreign policy is misplaced. The opposition parties in our country keep quiet about the Kashmir valley massacres, but fuss over Babri Masjid.

Yours faithfully,
S.A. Sen Roy, Calcutta

Sir — Ashok Mitra’s article can only be described as ridiculously presumptive and biased. For four decades, India had been one of the strongest and most vocal supporters of the Palestinian crusade against Israel, or that of Iraq and Iran in their quest for an Arab world free of American domination. And what exactly did India get in return? Not a single Islamic state came forward to express their condemnation of the terror and bloodshed that occurred almost every day in the Kashmir valley. No Palestinian, Persian or Iraqi, leader uttered a single word against the killing of innocent Hindus.

What our left-oriented politicians have done is much more sinister. If satisfying the Russians was important for both the Marxists and the Congressmen, it was equally imperative that they woo the sizeable Muslim electorate. To presume that Hindutva is the driving force behind India’s growing detachment from Islamic issues only speaks of Mitra’s poor understanding of international relations. If India’s foreign policy has tilted towards the US and Israel, it can be justified as survival tactic.

Yours faithfully,
S.K. Biswas, Calcutta

Parting shot

Sir — Sonia Gandhi is surely not the only Indian politician who avails herself of urban comforts. The Samajwadi member of parliament, who accused her of being wrapped in a quilt when Indian farmers sow rabi crops in the cold, probably does the same too (“Samajwadi peasant posers for Sonia”, Nov 23). Does the Congress president’s lack of experience in farming deny her the right to express concern for Indian farmers?
Yours faithfully,
Shahana Ganguly, Calcutta

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