Editorial / Taking rights seriously
The stamp of ugliness
People / Chokila Iyer
The Telegraph Diary
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EDITORIAL / TAKING RIGHTS SERIOUSLY 
 
 
 
 
An order given by a chief minister that fetched him popularity and routine protests against this order — behind these two commonplace events lies a profound philosophical debate. This is the principal reason why the controversy raised by Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s injunction to the police that it should use zero tolerance when dealing with dacoits and anti-socials cannot be ignored. Human rights organizations in West Bengal have all voiced their disapproval of the chief minister’s orders to the police force of the state. These organizations argue that by giving the police the right to kill at its own discretion, Mr Bhattacharjee is, in fact, violating the right to life which is not only enshrined in the Constitution, but is also a fundamental feature of most theories of rights. The right to life is one of the inviolable features of any democratic society. It forms the axiomatic basis of any theory of liberty and freedom: for a man to be free has to be alive first. Thus an infringement of this right is seen as a threat to other liberties and indeed to the very working of democratic society. Any theory of individual freedom assumes the right to life and a violation/suspension of the right by the state contains the seeds of a non-democratic/totalitarian polity.

Those who are condemning Mr Bhattacharjee are seeing in his statements an expression of the overbearing power of the state. The chief minister, according to this line of thinking, is enabling the law and order machinery of the state to directly attack the right to life of individuals and to step outside the limits that have been put on the state’s power by the makers of the state. This is a serious critique which focuses on the thorny question of the relationship between individual rights and state power. An untramelled pursuit of individual self-interest in society — the logical thrust of individual rights theories — would inevitably lead to the destruction of society. To stop such an eventuality, political theorists from the time of Thomas Hobbes, have seen the state as an entity arising out of a contract made by individuals: the latter surrender or curtail some of their interests for the preservation of the greater good. From this perspective, there is no inherent contradiction between individual rights and state power. In the second half of the 20th century, with the experience of the totalitarian regimes behind them, some theorists have argued that this power of the state is a necessary evil. It cannot be done away with but it should be seen as evil and thus not be deified.

The necessity of the state and the exercise of its power to limit some rights arise on questions like national security, public health or morals, public order and so on. The state under certain circumstances uses its power in the public interest and curbs the rights of certain individuals. In such extreme cases, the good of the collective is placed above the rights of certain individuals. Thus in the current debate in West Bengal, the right to life of some individuals and their access to the rule of law are being limited. This limitation grows out of the utter disregard these individuals have shown towards the right to life and the right to property of other members of society. An advocate for Mr Bhattacharjee would make the case that if he had not come down so strongly in favour of the collective and had worked within the ambit of the rule of law, he would only have encouraged further violation of rights which would have adversely affected the very fabric of society. If he had done that he would have failed in his responsibilities as chief minister and would perhaps have breached the trust the people have reposed in him. Hard cases, jurists say, make bad laws. Mr Bhattacharjee has, in fact, reacted to an extreme case. The use of violence by the police, he, and others with him, hopes will bring back normalcy to civil society and restore the delicate balance between individual rights and state power.

   

 
 
THE STAMP OF UGLINESS 
 
 
BY RAMACHANDRA GUHA
 
 
Of only two departments of the mighty government of India can it be reliably said that they serve the people of India. One is the Indian Railways, that colossal, shambling but still serviceable enterprise that allows the poor man (and woman) to travel from village to place of work, and back, at a trifling cost. One of the best things bequeathed us by the British, the Railways criss-crosses our land connecting places big and small by trains fast and slow. Were the Railways to be privatized, hundreds of millions of Indians would be seriously affected. For the first thing the new owners shall do would be to shut down all lines that do not make a large profit. The Rajdhani Express would still run between New Delhi and Calcutta, but Surat-Bhusaval Passenger, and other such trains, would be immediately consigned to the ash-heap of history.

The other government department that is of truly public service is the Post and Telegraphs. Family and community remain the building blocks of our society; and it is the Post, and oftentimes the Post alone, that keeps in contact the discrete units of our families and communities. It was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi who first saw how a human fraternity could be sustained by means of the lowly postcard. But it is not merely his memory that keeps the cost of a PC stationary, at 25 paise per card. Rather, it is the knowledge that the postcard remains the most reliable and cost-effective way in which two Indians connected by blood or friendship can communicate with one another.

The postman is the only government functionary whose arrival at your house does not necessarily connote bad news. The policeman, the tax man, the electricity man: if these public servants call on you it is generally for some private purpose. Sometimes the aim is pecuniary: the transfer of some of your money into their pockets. The postman stands as a sterling exception to this rule. His intention might be pecuniary too, except that he does not ask for your cash but actually passes on cash to you, this sent by a father or husband or aunt living or working a thousand miles away.

In some parts of India, such as the Uttarakhand Himalaya, most homes are kept going by the money-order economy, by money earned by males working in the plains and carried to their women and children by the hardworking and (for the most part) honest postman. I cannot claim to be part of this economy, but I can nonetheless testify to the reliability and efficiency of the Indian postal system. Over the years, I must have posted myself two hundred book parcels from various places overseas: only two of these did not reach my Bangalore home.

The postal strike just over did not much affect the many Indians who have abandoned the postcard for the courier letter. But it was certainly noticed by the less wealthy Indians, notably the families in the villages and small towns whose survival depends on the monthly money-order from the city. Middle-class families also felt the pinch, especially the elderly among them, whose respect for tradition, and lack of an expense account, does not predispose them towards Blue Dart and DHL. Indeed, one distinguished retired scholar offered the theory that the postal strike dragged on so long because the representatives of government asked to negotiate with the union leaders had been carefully bribed by the courier companies.

This explanation for the postal strike speaks of a widespread scepticism of, indeed contempt for, our political class. But on a recent visit to Nagpur I was offered another theory for the strike: a theory that is equally conspiratorial, if altogether more disturbing. This held that the strike was orchestrated by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to spite the Christians, whose cards of greeting for their most important festival would now not reach the intended recipients.

Events in Gujarat and Orissa, and other places, have justly aroused suspicion among the Christians as regards the intentions of the VHP. However, it does seem quite unlikely that this — admittedly despicable — organization was behind the postal strike itself. All the same, there is reason to believe that the postal system has not been immune to the saffronizing of the state. Consider thus a stamp recently issued by the P and T department to commemorate “Sindhu Darshan”. This would be a festival not easily recognized by most readers of The Telegraph — and rightly so. For “Sindhu Darshan” is not an occasion recognized by the ritual calendar of the Hindus, either.

This festival, such as it is, was invented by Tarun Vijay, an ideologue of the sangh parivar, who runs a journal named Panchajanya. Three or four years ago, Vijay decided to hold a ceremony affirming the sacredness of the river Indus, which flows briefly through Ladakh before entering Pakistani territory. Both “Hindu” and “India”, he argued, ultimately derive from “Sindhu” — the ancient name of the Indus. The worship of the river would therefore underline our Hindu-ness as well as the Indian- ness that (in the eyes of Vijay) is coterminous with it. L. K. Advani air-dashed to Ladakh to participate in the ceremony, in the company of saffron editors who then wrote about the affair in their newspapers.

The ceremony has, I believe, been held every year since. That is Vijay’s choice, and if Advani wants to patronize him, that is his choice. But how does this highly personal enterprise qualify for recognition by the postal department of the government of India? In the past, our stamps have honoured all our recognized religions and religious leaders, but also non-religious figures such as military men, scholars, sportsmen and singers. Indian stamps have also communicated social messages, the importance of vaccination against smallpox, for example. This is absolutely the first time that a private politico-religious enterprise has been given the stamp of postal authority.

One must note, too, the subliminal message of the “Sindhu Darshan”. This is in favour of the idea of “Akhand Bharat”. Aside from Tarun Vijay, the most famous modern worshipper of the river Indus was Nathuram Godse. Godse’s ashes are still in the hands of his family, for Gandhi’s murderer had left instructions that they must be submerged in the Indus, but only after Pakistan had once more become part of India. The “Sindhu Darshan” is thus part of an expansionist ideology that, at the very least, mocks the status of Pakistan as an independent nation.

To these moral and political objections to the new stamp I would add an aesthetic one. The stamp displays a river with mountains surrounding it, drawn with crude lines and in loud colours, with an unidentified (and unidentifiable) animal looking on. The stamp’s design confirms what one had suspected all along: that the Hindutva project ultimately fails on aesthetic grounds. These chaps design ugly stamps and, judging by the models on display, ugly temples too.

The great Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, if it is ever built, will be a sore sight to the eyes: large, ornate marble pillars, plastered over in white lime, in the hallowed tradition of the artistically undistinguished temples of northern India. The future pilgrim, visiting Ayodhya, will be well advised to then seek out the fabulously beautiful temples of Orissa and Karnataka. Is it only an accident, I wonder, that those two southern states also have a decent record of communal harmony?

   

 
 
PEOPLE / CHOKILA IYER 
 
 
 
 

Just woman

Brajesh Mishra and an old friend swap South Block tales. It is a chilly 5 ’o clock December evening when a sharp ring from the telephone breaks into their conversation. Mishra answers, quickly following up his “hello” with a cheery “Good morning! I’m very pleased you’ve got the job...”

“Was that Washington then?” asks the old friend when the call concludes — a guess based on the difference in time zones.

“No, it was Chokila Iyer,” replies Mishra, national security adviser and the Prime Minister’s principal secretary, with a smile.

It could have been a messy situation, but Iyer’s appointment as India’s first woman foreign secretary showed “a rare display of consensus” between Mishra and foreign minister Jaswant Singh. Realising that an appointment of the much favoured Kanwal Sibal, at present ambassador to France, as foreign secretary — over the other contenders, including Iyer, two batches senior to him — would have caused far too much heartburn among the foreign service ranks, Singh decided to sidestep Sibal this time round. An argument, insiders say, that was put forward by Brajesh Mishra quite sometime ago.

But the diminutive, rather nondescript Iyer herself, currently ambassador to Ireland, has admitted in an interview, to the “surprise element” being clearly there in the news of her appointment. She cannot but be aware that someone with her relatively unimportant innings has never made it to the post of foreign secretary before. As one old South Block watcher puts it: “It is one of those famous happenstances where someone lands somewhere without any speculation whatsoever.”

As the second seniormost IFS officer she was of course nominally in the race. But no one gave her a second thought with Deb Mukherjee, ambassador to Nepal and the seniormost in the IFS hierarchy, Sibal, recently designated the next secretary (East), Dalip Mehta, the dean of the Foreign Services Institute, and R.S. Kalha, secretary (West) in the running.

It was Sibal, brother of Congress Rajya Sabha MP Kapil Sibal, who was seen as the strongest contender. “But promoting Sibal to the post of foreign secretary would have superseded 18 officers which would have caused far too much resentment. It might have led to many resignations or to the officers taking the government to court which would clearly have been embarrassing,” says one foreign affairs commentator. Deb Mukherjee on the other hand was too senior. If appointed he would have had only seven months in the job, while Iyer will have 14 months to retirement. “Finally, the Prime Minister stepped in and chose to appoint Iyer, though it is true that going by usual standards she does not fit the bill for the post,” says a PMO insider.

Chokila Iyer, Tshering before she married G.C. Iyer who retired as controller general of accounts, is by all accounts “a very decent person and a very correct officer,” says a retired bureaucrat. “She always maintains her dignity and given that all critical foreign policy decisions are by and large taken by the PMO, Iyer is seen to be a reliable enough conduit,” he concludes.

What Iyer lacks, apart from a definitive personal profile of any kind, is the right sort of experience. She has never been head of a mission in one of the important locations, like China, Russia, the European Union, the UK or the United States. She has instead been in the Seychelles, Mexico, The Netherlands and now Ireland. She will also be the first foreign secretary who has not been posted in any of India’s neighbouring countries. Both are considered to be the two most important unwritten qualifications for the job of the foreign secretary. All foreign secretaries in recent memory have had both these stints under their belt.

Even in New Delhi Iyer was equally unexceptional, with stopovers as joint secretary (South) and additional secretary (Emigration, Passport and Visas) at the MEA headquarters.

Still, she does have strengths recommending her case. In this day and age, the most important of these is the fact she is a woman. She is also the topper of her batch of ’64 and the second seniormost in the foreign service. Moreover, she is from Sikkim. When she joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1964, Sikkim was still a protectorate but a special agreement between Sikkim and India permitted Sikkim nationals to join the Indian civil services.

Her northeast connection is something Iyer likes to play up. Which might have been why she chose to wear the baku (traditional Sikkimese dress) to work during her days at South Block. All that has helped, especially as the government chose to make the foreign secretary’s appointment “a statement on its forward looking social policy”. Though Iyer was actually born and brought up in Darjeeling where most of her family still lives. She studied at the Loreto School there. “I am a pure Darjeeling product,” she reportedly said in an interview from Dublin.

Some of Iyer’s colleagues from her 1964 batch who concur that she doesn’t have the required experience, still say she is “earnest and can pick up even if she doesn’t have the background”. Another old friend of Iyer’s — “I knew her from the days we would all go swimming together,” he laughs — says that the “domesticated” Iyer is “very friendly, charming and gracious”.

Qualities which may, or may not, make a good foreign secretary. “The appointment of someone like Iyer is an important indication though of how the government might now be looking at the post on the whole,” says one foreign affairs expert. “With Jaswant Singh being such an active foreign minister, the entire ministry has come to be associated with him. This has really reduced the role of the foreign secretary quite a bit. In that context one candidate is as good as another, because possibly the government isn’t really looking for anyone high-profile any more.”

In which case appointing Iyer was really not such a bad decision after all. After waiting for 53 years to choose a woman, and that too of Sikkimese origin, the government has got a chance to be perfectly politically correct. And the new soft-spoken 50-something foreign secretary is hardly about to make herself heard now.

   

 
 
THE TELEGRAPH DIARY 
 
 
 
 

Doing it in style

Everybody has a summer holiday. And some have winter holidays too, especially if it is after a hard session in Parliament. So don’t grudge the anti-aircraft guns, rocket launchers, the numerous radars, the security curtain or the sweeping arrests in Kerala or Kumarakom to be more precise. No less than the prime minister of India is taking his New Year break and it better be in ishtyle. Why then did it have to be so staid and no-frills the last time in snow-capped Manali? That’s easy. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was then still unsteady on his feet (you can guess why), there had not been any famous afterword on Ayodhya, no chance for the saffron rath to come out of its wrappings as yet and the opposition hadn’t been left licking its wounds the way it is now. The bash this year is therefore right in place (even if the birthday cake is for Vajpayee’s son-in-law) and so are the ghazal-e-shaams and the dance recitals. The problem is with the gathering clouds which might upset Vajpayee’s chances of getting a nice, soothing herbal massage in the backwaters of Kerala. Cut. The focus shifts to 10 Janpath, where the leader of the opposition has no such luck. Sonia Gandhi will be firmly stationed in New Delhi and probably be having a quiet dinner with daughter Priyanka and grandson Rehan and her family from Italy. Will she be quietly planning her next onslaught on the holidaying man as well?

A day of solitude

She is getting used to the chimes of different kinds of bells — those of temples, not of the church anymore. Till Rajiv Gandhi was alive, Sonia Gandhi was a practising Christian. On Christmas day, this Nehru-Gandhi bahu would visit St Patrick’s church, adjacent to Rashtrapati Bhawan and take along Priyanka and Rahul with her. Politics and party presidency changed all that. Now madam has to act the true Hindu Brahmin widow. One of the occupational hazards, one might say. Although Sonia is still a Catholic, prays even while travelling in the car and never forgets to cross her heart before stepping out, Christmas is not much of a celebration anymore. For the last two years she has not received visitors nor accepted gifts on the day. Christmas is spent indoors. As in the previous years, this year too the family had come together. There was Rahul and Priyanka with her hubby and chubby son. Sonia’s mother, sister and brother-in-law from Italy were there too. A quiet Christmas with the family. That’s what it’s like in the Continent anyway.

Who’s the boss?

Senile men in khaki shorts and carrying saffron flags. That is what the RSS would come to be identified with if the sarsanghchalak, KS Sudarshan, does not shut up soon. The BJP leadership has been more than once embarrassed by the RSS chief’s utterances. Sudarshan’s recent bomb theory in relation to Ayodhya probably takes the cake. It has failed to cut much ice even with diehard saffronites. According to a senior BJP leader, Sudarshan is breaking all decorum observed by his predecessors. “Rajju Bhaiyya had started politicizing the RSS and Sudarshan has gone a step further”, is how he explains the old man’s brashness. The BJP leaders have also reportedly begun to suspect the political ambitions of the RSS. Meanwhile, the man who is said to have bombed the Babri Masjid and made things easy for the saffronites has, without mincing words, called Sudarshan a liar. When will the BJP learn to call a spade a spade?

Mending ways

You have the BJP chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Rajnath Singh, banning beauty pageants in the state and leaving the Lucknow beauties in the lurch for no fault of their own. Then you have directives against honeymoon, a sure way to marital discord even before one can think of bliss, and a lot of smooth talk on how children of the Hindu nation ought to address their parents. After all that you have the self-appointed Hindu policeman of the nation, the VHP, slamming a fatwa on New Year celebrations. The organization has threatened action against anyone found revelling on December 31. It has warned hotels against holding celebrations of any kind to mark the new year. To add substance to the warning, they have threatened to disconnect electricity supply to all hotels and restaurants who disobey the orders. The VHP believes it is time the nation got rid of its colonial hangover. Is the VHP thinking of changing the calender as well for its Hindu rashtra?

Footnote/ One from the fraternity

So his sins have caught up with him? Ever since Shekhar Suman started selling his Movers and Shakers, a take on the inimitable Rashtriya Janata Dal leader, Laloo Prasad Yadav, has been an indispensable part of the show. The man and his imitation recently met. Did the earth move and shake? Well, almost. Not used to letting go an opportunity, our bumpkin shot out in crisp Bhojpuri, “Arre o Shekharwa! Kya hamare se hi sari kamai karna hai(Shekhar, do you want to earn all your money using me)?” His social savvy and screen presence deciding to leave him at the right moment, Suman struggled with a response to Laloo’s question. The BJP’s Narendra Modi came to his rescue. Modi answered for the TV star, “Arre Lalooji, aap ko to ise dhanyawad dena chahiye. Yeh aapki muft mein publicity karta hai (You should thank him instead. He is giving you free publicity).” The mover and shaker of Bihar and at times the nation, immediately saw the point. Last seen, he was making giant strides towards Shekhar, who incidentally is a fellow Bihari, to hug him. Should we watch out for the next episode for a replay?    

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Talk about discrimination

Sir — While the Constitution guarantees equality before law to all its citizens, women who are seeking justice are often discriminated against by our legal system. The report, “Equality is many a legislation away” (Dec 27), has pointed out that the judiciary needs to be sensitized on gender issues. India can learn from the new and democratic constitution of South Africa which is guided by the principles of racial and sexual equality. That two South African judges were invited to the city to participate in a discussion on gender indicates that the work done by women’s groups has paid off. More seminars would go a long way in opening the minds of people and in reforming the age-old prejudices against women.
Yours faithfully,
Mahela Bhattacharya, Calcutta

Secular sins

Sir — It is surprising that Mani Shankar Aiyar is allowed to make offensive remarks in his column, “Mani Talk” (“Somnath and Ayodhya”, Dec 19). Should a newspaper be a forum for a member of parliament to indiscriminately express his personal and biased views?

Aiyar has attempted to project Jawaharlal Nehru’s government as a secular one. This is far from the truth. Nehru was one of the most communal politicians this country has ever had. It was Nehru and his cohorts who first divided India on the basis of religion. In case Aiyar does not realize this, any talk about secularism in the present scenario is hypocritical.

His presentation of the Somnath-Ayodhya issue is completely one-sided and is propaganda of sorts.

Yours faithfully,
B.K. Roy Chowdhury, Calcutta

Sir — Should the prime minister of a secular country make a statement in Parliament in support of the construction of a temple, especially when he is speaking as the head of the state? Mani Shankar Aiyar has raised a very pertinent point in his column. Be it wishing the members of a religious community on a festive occasion or the existence of special laws for certain communities, Indian politicians have always involved themselves in matters of religion. In fact, the very concept of secularism, as it is defined in our Constitution, is different from that of others.

According to the Indian constitution, the state does not recognize any particular religion and citizens are free to propagate, profess or preach any religion of their choice. The state gives equal respect to people of all faiths, and all religious denominations are free to set up places of worship. It is high time that the state distanced itself from all religious matters and gave more attention to administration and other pressing issues.

Yours faithfully,
Mithu Khanna, via email

Life after death

Sir — Indian politicians can learn a valuable lesson from the former prime minister of Sri Lanka, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who had made arrangements to donate her eyes after her death. Donation of eyes and other body parts should be made popular by creating an awareness among people and by passing adequate legislation.

This should also include the donation of dead bodies for medical research. Incentives could be given to people who donate their bodies for medical research. For instance, a donor could be allowed to nominate one person so that he can get free medical treatment for the rest of his life.

Yours faithfully,
Madhu Agrawal, Delhi

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

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