Editorial / Past and future
Doubts and reservations
The Telegraph Diary
Lettters to the editor

Contrary to popular belief, today marks the end of the millennium. As the writer, Arthur C. Clarke, said a few days ago, only an intelligent minority will be welcoming this end and celebrating the coming of the third millennium. The phrase, “intelligent minority”, is important because in the history of the second millennium many of the landmark events were first recognized and accepted by an intelligent minority. Looking back over the last 1000 years, there can be very little doubt that the invention of printing from movable type by Johannes Gutenberg sometime in the middle of the 15th century was an event that transformed the face of human civilization. But he died in penury and obscurity, and the full impact and implications of his invention were realized only in the 16th century with the coming of the book. The printed book, without which the modern world is almost inconceivable, remained for a very long time the privilege of an intellectual minority. The revolutionary impact of the printed book was felt in western Europe when the challenge to the Roman Catholic Church by Martin Luther in 1517 gained common currency through printed tracts and pamphlets written in the vernacular. What was considered by the Vatican to be a minority protest acquired a popular and revolutionary dimension through the use of a new invention.

The story of printing and its impact seems to serve as a model for many important subsequent inventions and discoveries. The proof of a heliocentric universe by Copernicus and Galileo brought ecclesiastical censure on both of them and it took some time before their discoveries were accepted as the truth. What is common knowledge today was a minority opinion and a show of dissent when they were first put forward as knowledge. Columbus’s quest to discover India by sailing west was considered a mad venture but resulted in the discovery of a new continent. The plunder of the Americas and the Indies made possible by the great sea voyages by adventurers like Magellan, Vasco da Gama, Francis Drake and Cook made possible the Industrial Revolution in western Europe. This was a revolution pioneered by a handful of entrepreneurs with the resources and the energy to try out new forms of technology to make wealth. The enterprise of a few changed the life and tastes of many, in the Western world undoubtedly for the better and in the rest, some would argue, for the worse.

Technology, when it is married to enterprise, has the qualities of what one historian has called “Prometheus unbound”. Its impact, like that of fire which Prometheus stole from the gods, can be transformative and destructive. At the end of the millennium, humankind stands poised to feel the impact of one such technological breakthrough. This is the computer revolution and the domination of cyberspace. The computer chip, many pundits are saying, has begun to transform — and this transformation will be an ever-expanding one — the way human beings live, conduct their business and even entertain themselves. Life driven by the computer, the optimists’ wisdom runs, will cement family life and strengthen feelings of community across the globe. The very nature of the technology and its potentialities make irrelevant boundaries of any kind. This triumphalism is not accepted by those who are sceptical about the impact and the transformative potentialities of computers. The scepticism grows from the belief that computers will never be able to replace human beings and this will make computers run into diminishing returns. There is the danger, sceptics argue, that productivity gains from computers have already been achieved and there can be no further boosts in the future. The matter is not decided. What cannot be denied is that across the globe, the use of the computer is still limited to a minority. The beginning of the next millennium will probably decide if what is now limited to a minority will become a majority preoccupation. The decision of this contest could very well determine the continuities between the second and the third millennia.


The women’s bill threatens to become one of the hardy perennials of parliamentary politics. During the winter session of Parliament, the Bharatiya Janata Party, with the tacit agreement of other parties, arranged parliamentary business to make sure that there was no chance of the bill being brought to the vote. Citing the lack of “consensus” on this matter, Atal Bihari Vajpayee has begun to suggest alternative ways of getting more women into Parliament; the current favourite is a law that will force every registered political party to reserve a fixed percentage of its slate of parliamentary candidates for women. In short, the bill’s in cold storage for now, but it is unlikely to stay there. When Parliament opens again, it will be back, making a nuisance of itself, distracting our august tribunes from the important business of making laws for the nation.

This means that all of us will, at some point or the other, be asked where we stand on this issue. In arguments about this bill, its supporters invariably ask (especially if you’re a man) if you are willing to concede the principle of reservation for women. The specific arrangements for embodying this reservation, they say (or imply), can be worked out later, they’re a matter of detail. The Principle is the thing. I’m not sure it is as simple as that because the devil may well lie in the detail. But to answer the question: I believe reservation for women is acceptable in principle; that is, I don’t think it subverts the nature of representative parliamentary government. So I’m for it in principle, but I’m not sure that there is a practical way of implementing this principle without complicating the electoral process to an unacceptable degree.

Why is it in principle good to guarantee a proportion of parliamentary seats for women? The short answer to that is that women constitute half the population of any society including ours. So if the female presence in the Lok Sabha has been well short of 10 per cent for the entire history of the Indian republic, there is a case for saying that its main representative institution isn’t performing its function well. More women would make parliament more representative of its electorate, which, after all, is the point of parliamentary democracy.

Yes, theoretically women today have the right to stand for elections and to vote other women into power but it obviously hasn’t happened. Consider an alternative world where the norm is unisex public conveniences. Women theoretically have the right to use them but records showed that not many women log in. Would it make sense to give them ladies loos or would we be better off arguing against such a move on the grounds that it would breach the principle of procedural equality.?

Having stated the principle, we need to consider the obvious objections to it.

One, does reservation for this class of persons — that is, women — deprive other classes or communities of political opportunity. I don’t think so. Since women occur equally within every class and community, such reservation wouldn’t reduce the common pool of seats in the way that reservation for any other class of persons would. For example, to reserve seats for other backward classes or Muslims would be to limit the number of seats available for others.

Not so with women’s reservation. Yes, men as a class would be debarred from the reserved seats but this wouldn’t qualify as deprivation because women of their community or class, their mothers, wives, daughters would be eligible. It’s like a women’s queue; all men have felt a spasm of irritation at some time or another when women cut in; but equally, all of them have taken advantage of the queue via their womenfolk.

Two, the argument that reservations for women are equivalent to reservations for a female elite, or, in Sharad Yadav’s elegant phrase, kate baal waali, the bobbed-hair brigade. By this argument, reservation would simply facilitate the entry of the Brinda Karats, Sushma Swarajs, Margaret Alvas and Shabana Azmis of the world, who, by their connections, wealth and education, are best placed to take advantage of such reservation.

This isn’t a particularly interesting objection because it applies equally to the present system of representation with equal force. The privileged status of the savarna elite hasn’t stopped Sharad Yadav from making it to Parliament, or Mulayam Singh Yadav or Arun Katiyar; so why should it be an insuperable obstacle for their womenfolk?

Three, would reservations for women establish a dangerous precedent for further reservation? Would this mean that there would be a clamour for reservation for other kinds of communities? Muslim representation in Parliament, for example, falls far short of their percentage of the Indian population; if reserved seats brought these numbers up, wouldn’t this serve the cause of representative democracy, in the same way as reservation for women does? There is already a demand that the quota of seats reserved for women be sub-divided into further quotas for OBCs, Muslims and so on. To concede these sub-quotas for the women’s seats would inevitably lead to the demand that similar reservations be put in place in for the rest. So do these demands follow necessarily from reservation of seats for women? I don’t think so.

It can be argued (as I have above) that reservation by gender employs a universal criterion which make it fundamentally different from reservation for communities defined by caste or religion. To make this argument more forcefully and to erase the impression that reservation for women is a kind of quota-mongering, the reservation for women should be set not at one-third, which makes no defensible sense, but a full half of all parliamentary seats.

Having said this, I would still argue that the women’s bill shouldn’t be put to the vote till we’ve discussed it threadbare. Unlike the suffragette movements in England, or the civil rights struggle in America, this bill isn’t the result of a prolonged struggle during which people on both sides have had a chance to have their say and air their doubts. For example, the mechanism for rotating women’s constituencies in the present bill is patently unworkable.

And there are larger doubts. Does gender reservation in politics set a precedent for gender reservation in education or employment? And if it doesn’t, what makes it different? And while ladies loos and women’s queues might be analogies that support the bill, I can think of other, less favourable parallels. Think of those zenana enclosures in Pakistan in cricket stadiums. Or those now nearly obsolete zenana dibbas (women’s compartments) in trains. Is that where women belong? I don’t know. At least, I’m not sure. Nor, I think are most of us. We need to talk this out. Whatever his motives, the prime minister did us a favour by deferring the bill.

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Seat of power

Move over Satgachhia, Jyoti Basu’s constituency. The apple in the CPI(M)’s red eyes is Jadavpur which will return the chief minister to his office in the Writers’. So if the left is having goose-bumps about the prospects of the 2001 assembly elections, it is Jadavpur which is giving the party the most of it. The symptoms are obvious. In the past one month, chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, has attended the maximum number of political meetings in his constituency. He has done a Mamata Banerjee on the Kasba dacoity victims and set the police force on its toes in the area. Apart from party meetings, he has attended a number of government functions where he has made major policy statements. It was at the inauguration of the new Kasba police station that he announced the now historic government decision regarding anti-socials and criminals and asked the police to make use of their rusting service guns. A few days later, Buddha was at another government function near the EM Bypass where he sounded the death knell for promoters saying the government will not allow them to grab the city for the rich only. In each of these interfaces with the people he reminded them, not always subtly, who he was and why he needed to be around. But for how much longer?

A persisting headache

It’s the beaten track for Trinamool’s didi. After all the BJP has been a tickler right from the beginning of a rather difficult alliance in West Bengal. What has got her goat this time is the recent directive of the central leadership of the party to its state unit to identify at least 80 seats where it can put up candidates for the assembly polls. The Trinamool believes it can at best offer not more than 50 seats to the party as part of the electoral alliance. That’s what the problem is. Convinced that Mamata will stick to her guns, senior BJP leaders have instructed state leaders to begin poll preparations in advance. Sushma Swaraj, on her way back to New Delhi from Aizawl, discussed the matter at the airport with the state unit. The party’s all India president, Bangaru Laxman, came soon after to hold closed door meetings with the state leaders. None of the BJP bigshots however bothered to call up didi although she was very much in town. Mamata, as usual, is mad with her electoral partner. A senior party leader even hazarded to fix the time she might call it quits with the NDA. “After February 20”, he says. That is before the difficult rail budget, one might add.

It doesn’t pay to slight a man

The BJP should know it is unhealthy to betray a man too often. To know the effect one has to look at the party’s MP from Delhi Sadar, Madan Lal Khurana, and his curiously vehement line against the relocation of polluting industries in the capital that is baffling party leaders. To put things in perspective one probably has to remember that Khurana recently felt sidelined again when he was put in charge of organizational affairs of West Bengal and Sikkim instead of the more prestigious charge of Haryana, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. It is probably not without reason therefore that while Khurana keeps mum on the relocation business at party meetings, he spews fire at the urban welfare minister, Jagmohan, for sponsoring the action. The other day Khurana pressed for the suspension of the drive on the plea that the police force was busy with security matters following the ambush on the Red Fort. Even the lieutenant governor of Delhi, Vijay Kapur, was taken in by Khurana’s pleading and voted for a go-slow on the relocation drive. Khurana’s little game ended when the word reached Jagmohan, who obviously put his foot down hard. But will that stop the former Delhi chief minister for looking for other ways to throw a spanner into the party’s works?

Getting ready for the big show

Its poll time in the Congress and hectic lobbying is on. The AICC session that will witness the elections to the Congress working committee is scheduled for January 6 and 7 (so the Congress really wishes to start the new year with a bang). The problem is nobody can gauge the madam’s mood. Even her own trusted coterie is clueless as to whether she wishes to be empowered to nominate all the 24 CWC members or whether she will actually go for the farce of elections where her shortlisted navratnas will be elected, with her blessings of course. Resourceful leaders like Suresh Kalmadi, Subbirami Reddy, Murli Deora and Kamal Nath are meanwhile keeping the regional satraps in good humour with the hope that they will back their candidature in the apex body. That’s a nice way to warm up for the rat race.

Footnote / Of Delhi and cheap lodging

This was before the Red Fort ambush when Lutyens’s Delhi appeared to be a decent place to live in. It was felt there would be no harm done in scaling down the threat perception to a host of VIPs who had claimed cheap government accommodation in prime Delhi on grounds of security. The urban welfare minister, Jagmohan, quite obviously closed in for his kill and sent eviction notices to quite a few occupants. The order was challenged by many who argued why Priyanka Gandhi had been given a bungalow in Lodhi Road. Others used informal channels to retain their plush houses. However, only two VIPs, who are seen to face a genuine threat from Punjabi ultras, have been allowed to stay. Following Vajpayee’s directive to the urban ministry, supercop KPS Gill has been let off the hook. The case of the former Indian youth Congress chief, MS Bitta, was taken up by the former prime minister and the once condemned bribe-giver, PV Narasimha Rao. The eviction notice was promptly withdrawn and now Bitta too can savour the pleasures of subsidized housing for ever. It depends on who’s pulling the string for you.    


Glory for one but not for all

Sir — It was thrilling to read that Viswanathan Anand has become the first Asian world chess champion (“Christmas crown for Anand”, Dec 25). But Indian sports — especially individual events — suffers from one, seemingly incurable, affliction. It is not that we do not produce sportspersons of very high calibre. The successes of Anand, P.T. Usha, Karnam Malleswari, the Leander Paes-Mahesh Bhupathi duo and others provide enough indication that there are talented Indian sportspersons. But why do we never have more than one or two people performing outstandingly well in the same sport and at the same time? This could turn out to be an intriguing sociological inquiry for some.
Yours faithfully,
Rahul Shankar, Calcutta

Fatal flaws

Sir — The death of three-year-old Riddhima Basu who was crushed by a racing bus at the Gariahat crossing last week is not a fluke accident but one of the many that the city experiences almost every month (“Bus race crushes child at father feet”, Dec 21). This area, which is one of the busiest and most crowded in the city, has become even more inaccessible during the day since the beginning of construction of the flyover. Most pedestrians try to be careful, but the drivers in their desire to overtake one another, inevitably cause accidents.

Every time an accident occurs, the state government orders an enquiry into the incident but no decisions are taken. A complete review of traffic control regulations is imperative and must be undertaken as soon as possible.

Yours faithfully,
Jyoti Haldar, Calcutta

Sir — The following steps may reduce the frequency of road accidents in Calcutta.

Private buses should not be fined by the bus unions when they are running late. Most accidents are caused by speeding bus drivers who are trying to avoid this surcharge. Buses are bound to run late, especially because of the appalling road conditions in the city. This system has worked well in the past, but road conditions have become worse in the last two decades. Moreover, the system of handing over the fined money to the next driver, is creating unnecessary competition. The lure of this money makes the second driver speed. As a result, private buses are more accident-prone than state buses.

Owners of all vehicles should be fined a minimum of one lakh rupees if their vehicle is involved in a fatal accident. This may make them drive more carefully or hire good drivers. The vehicle involved in an accident could be seized and put out of use for two months. That could be an additional punishment. The driver’s licence should be revoked for two years and records of the accident preserved.

Yours faithfully,
Mahesh K. Rathi, Calcutta

Parting shot

Sir — The story of Sonkali, the 45-year-old woman carrying her 23rd child, speaks of the failure of our population control programmes (“23 and counting, baby bomb ticks”, Dec 1). While crores of rupees have been spent on seminars, planning and campaigning, the message has not reached the poor. A complete lack of imagination and the paucity of ideas among politicians and bureaucrats have led to this crisis. China has shown the way with its rigid population control measures, but we have not learnt. India is yet to table the population bill in Parliament.
Yours faithfully,
Amitava Chakrabarty, Howrah

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