Editorial 1 / Violent trail
Editorial 2 / Dirty habits
Slipping into complacency
Fifth Column / How secular is the new century?
Caught in a crossfire
To get over the trauma of the great divide
Letters to the editor

Reality, philosophers say, is elusive. Despite this, it is clear that the village of Chhoto Angaria was the site of largescale violence last Thursday night. There is still a question mark over death — if people died, how many died and so on. This doubt lingers because no dead bodies have been found. But there can be no dispute that a house was burnt. There is also a police report about a prolonged gun battle that night. Who were involved in the encounter? What caused it? Where did the arms come from? Why were the police unaware of it? These are all unanswered questions which have enveloped the event in an unnecessary shroud of secrecy and controversy. The chief minister, Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, has not been at all convincing in his statements about the incident. He has much to answer for. It is not clear why it has taken the state police four days to discover that there was a pitched battle between two groups in Chhoto Angaria. This does not speak too highly of the competence of the police and the district administration. In fact, it suggests that there was initially an attempt to keep quiet about the episode but the overwhelming nature of the evidence and the outcry let loose by Ms Mamata Banerjee have forced the police to make an admission about the violence.

An attempt seems to be underway to deflect attention by pointing out that Ms Mamata Banerjee’s claims about the death toll are highly exaggerated. There may have been a touch of hysteria to the reactions of Ms Banerjee. But this by itself cannot diminish the significance of what happened in Chhoto Angaria. Mr Bhattacharjee has to explain to the people of West Bengal why pitched gun battles should take place anywhere in the state. That such battles take place — and what happened in Chhoto Angaria is by no means the first and neither is it unique — is proof that law and order in the rural world of West Bengal is on the verge of becoming non-existent. The official indifference to the incident is indicated by the fact that no minister or team of ministers has actually gone to the spot to find out what took place. If, indeed, the state administration and the ruling party are clear that their hands are clean of blood, incompetence and indifference, why is the government opposing the proposal for an enquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation?

The cause and sequence of events of the armed encounter may remain unknown or impossible to reconstruct and the corpses, if any, may not be found. But neither the Communist Party of India (Marxist) nor the Trinamool Congress can deny their involvement in the violence that has engulfed some districts of West Bengal. The exact sequence of provocation and retaliation can vary from area to area and from encounter to encounter, but clearly the battle is related to control over land, villages and cadre. This cycle of violence has been possible because the state administration has remained inactive. This inactivity is not entirely neutral. Its inactivity grows out of its subservience to the CPI(M). Administrators and police officers know that to quell the violence, they have to take action against the cadre of both parties and they are unwilling to offend the bosses in the CPI(M). There was some hope that Mr Bhattacharjee would change all this. But his handling of things have proved that for him too, party loyalty comes before the responsibilities of a chief minister.


When a shutdown and a shake-up happen together in the same state, it does speak of a schizoid system. The West Bengal government joins a countrywide strike today to protest against the Centre’s policies on disinvestment and retrenchment. While the All India State Government Employees’ Federation strikes up such a spirit of protest, Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s attentions have moved on to yet another state-run sector in an attempt to infuse a work culture in West Bengal. “Work culture” may be too esoteric a concept for Bengal’s state-run hospitals. Their dysfunctionality is so extreme and, in most cases, so barbaric that the chief minister may have to start with the more rudimentary step of reminding the hospital staff that they are actually providing essential human, and humane, services to other human beings.

In hospitals, such luxuries as attendance, punctuality, discipline and accountability can be imagined only after the matter of the most basic health and hygiene has been ensured. When faced with such fundamental habits of inhumanity — now endemic to the government health services after years of profound corruption and callousness — Mr Bhattacharjee’s call to stop disruptive agitations in hospital premises sounds somewhat rarefied. Far more important, and reassuring, is his formation of a special cell to monitor every level of hospital management in both the urban and rural areas. Only the most comprehensive overhaul can end the West Bengal health services nightmare — and an equally comprehensive and radical change in habits of thinking and behaviour on the part of the staff. Questions remain in the face of the enormity of such changes. How is this shake-up different from the outrage against state hospitals routinely expressed by Mr Bhattacharjee’s predecessor? To what extent could the members of this monitoring cell, themselves deeply culpable bureaucrats, be trusted with maintaining such vigilance? The horrific dirtiness in these institutions (flouting, for instance, every biomedical waste disposal regulation), their gross neglect of children and of the dead, the chronic absenteeism, the long neglect of the rural sector and every kind of administrative abuse have created a situation that would require Mr Bhattacharjee to start thinking of issues more basic than a work culture.


One day, shortly after Jas- want Singh was sworn in as external affairs minister, this columnist was leaving South Block when the new minister was briskly walking up the steps to the corridor which houses his office as well as that of the foreign secretary. In tow were three ministry of external affairs peons carrying up a huge, antique-looking brass lamp which had gone black from disuse over the years. “Look at what I have found”, the minister said pointing to the lamp and beckoning this columnist back to the top of the staircase where Singh was locating a suitable place to position his find.

The lamp was a beautiful piece of craftsmanship which had been abandoned for years by unimaginative babus in some unfrequented corner of the sprawling South Block. The minister had discovered it and now wanted it to appropriately adorn the MEA, part of the building whose beauty and grandeur are often underrated. Those were tumultuous days in South Block when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government was preoccupied with the task of making the world come to terms with India’s nuclear bomb. Yet, the new minister found time to attend to things in South Block which went beyond the mundane and the routine, although he was still shuttling between his offices in the MEA and the Yojana Bhavan, where he continued to be deputy chairman of the planning commission.

One of Singh’s early acts after the prime minister formalized his stewardship of post-Pokhran II foreign policy was to get South Block’s babudom to clear the MEA’s parking lot which had become a mess that defied description. In a single day, the parking lot, which had become a nightmare for resident ambassadors in Chanakyapuri and delegations visiting the MEA, was cleared.

In retrospect, the incidents of the lamp and the parking lot are symbolic of what could have been done in the MEA. The minister discovered the exquisite lamp and gave it the pride of place, but it did not fulfil the expectation of spreading light in one of the most crucial corridors of decision-making on Raisina Hill. The year 2001 should have been the dawn of a new era for India’s foreign office. For the Indian foreign service, this is an year of catharsis. At the end of the two-year extension of service brought about by the raising of the age for superannuation, an unprecedented number of senior diplomats are retiring from service. It would be a cliché to say that this, combined with the momentous changes now taking place in the world, offers new, unprecedented challenges to Indian foreign policy.

Judging by the Vajpayee government’s impressive record of having broken the diplomatic stalemate that followed Pokhran II, it would have been reasonable to expect South Block to rise to the challenge. But as in the case of the lamp which Singh discovered, the expectation of light has been belied in preparations for charting a new foreign policy course in the immediate future.

In the aftermath of its twin successes in dealing with the fallout of the nuclear tests and forging a new equation with the United States, the Vajpayee government has become a prisoner of complacency in conceptualizing India’s external affairs for the 21st century. In this environment, it has opted for hyper-activity, which is sorely lacking in substance. The millions of words which have been churned out in the international media by hacks and experts following George W. Bush’s victory in the US presidential election unequivocally confirms this sad reality of New Delhi’s predicament. India stands out in every significant ana- lysis of prospective US foreign policy in the next four Bush years, being singularly ignored. If at all there is any mention of India, it is confined to a sentence or two. Unlike Japan, China, South East Asia, Europe and Latin America, all of which have been the focus of analysts.

There was a time when the Indian leadership would have considered this a blessing. The less they bother about us and leave us alone, the more we can get on with our business, Indira Gandhi would have said. But not any more. A de- cade ago, India took the landmark decision to become part of globalization. If it does not follow this up with positioning itself where it cannot be ignored by the world, the achievements of the Vajpayee government’s external policies in the last two years will soon be neutralized. Avoiding this requires innovation, an openness to new ideas and a willingness to see criticism as creative and positive.

Look, for example, at what China is doing. The Republican party’s campaign platform, to which Bush is committed, mentions China as a “strategic competitor” to the US in the years ahead. The conservative think tanks in Washington, which provided inputs for the Bush campaign, are all wary of China and want the new administration to follow a policy of containing Beijing.

But with one well-considered move, the leadership in Beijing has put China-baiters in the incoming administration on a leash. China has chosen as its new ambassador in Washington the man who was interpreter to the president-elect’s father 23 years ago. Bush Senior, it must not be forgotten, was head of America’s liaison office in Beijing before the US and China established diplomatic relations. Yang Jiechi, whom the Bushes call by the nickname “Tiger”, was also interpreter to Deng Xiaoping when President Ronald Reagan visited China in 1984.

In 1989, after the army crackdown in Tiananmen Square, it was through Yang that President Bush conveyed a message to the Chinese leadership that despite public outrage over the crackdown, Washington did not intend to derail its tenuous ties with Beijing. This reference to “Tiger” Yang is not intended to draw a comparison between his nomination as ambassador to the US and India’s own nomination of Lalit Mansingh as its new envoy. Indeed, Mansingh’s is a well-considered choice since he served as deputy chief of mission in Washington for over three years.

The point to make is that the last time South Block did anything as innovative as China’s nomination of Yang in dealing with the US was way back in 1992. In lobbying with the incoming Clinton administration, MEA enlisted the services of Dinkar Srivastava, then a junior member of the IFS, who knew Bill Clinton several years earlier as governor of Arkansas. But the unwillingness in South Block to innovate is nothing compared to the way inputs supporting presumed policy are tailored for internal discussions. If expectations from the Vajpayee government on external affairs are no longer being met, it is partly because the external affairs minister is neither being told the whole truth nor being given a wide choice of options.

Be it on Afghanistan, the Gulf or southeast Asia, he is only being told what officials believe he wants to hear. In its top secret files, South Block has verbatim accounts of tirades by the Chinese president, Jiang Zemin, against India made in recent conversations with foreign leaders. In at least two such conversations, Jiang is on record as having told foreign leaders of the need to teach India another lesson as in 1962. Regrettably, there has been no frank discussion of these accounts within South Block which may have opened up a variety of policy options on China.

On Russia, for instance, the MEA’s spin doctors have been putting out the canard that Moscow needs New Delhi much more than the other way round. If that was, indeed, the case, why did President Vladimir Putin wait till October, when he visited every conceivable capital, including Pyongyang, before travelling to New Delhi on his first visit to India? Nor has there been any attempt to honestly analyse why expectations were not fulfilled during Singh’s visit to Moscow in summer.

Iraq and Iran are two other cases in point. The flip-flop on South Block’s policy towards Baghdad — which enraged the Iraqi ambassador in New Delhi to give an interview critical of that policy last year — has ensured that when the UN embargo is lifted, India gets only crumbs of Iraqi business, some of which may even go to countries which actually went along with the embargo in earnest. Iran, which was a landmark success of Indian foreign policy under P.V. Nara- simha Rao, has virtually given up on New Delhi after waiting in vain for years for anything tangible to happen.

All this is not to diminish the outstanding achievement of the Vajpayee government in having weathered the fallout of Pokhran II to a point where the world grudgingly accepts India’s nuclear status. But having done that, is India anywhere near, for instance, of being able to contest an election in the near future for a non-permanent seat in the UN security council, something which even Bangladesh and Singapore can aspire to? The real worry is that unless this trend is arrested, a time may soon come when New Delhi’s writ will not run even in the non-aligned movement or the Group of 77, organizations which it has always thought of as part of its natural support base.


India ended the last year of the previous millennium with the declaration of a war on secularism. It came from no less than the prime minister himself, and his private musings from Kumarakom have done nothing to alter this significantly. There was some hesitation about the effect this would have on the electoral fortunes of the Bharatiya Janata Party. This was reflected in the contradictory statements that emanated from the camp. While the new president of the party wooed the minorities from Nagpur, L.K. Advani called for “Indianizing” Muslims, Christians and other minorities from Agra.

But why this sudden change of tune? One reason could be that it would be easier to woo the United States administration if the anti-Islamic character of the BJP was highlighted. The US fear of Osama bin Laden and other fundamentalist Islamic formations should not be underestimated. A communalized Hindu government would be the best ally against Islamic militarism. It is better than an opportunist militarist regime like the one in Pakistan.

< p>The other reason could be the disappointment with the National Democratic Alliance itself. It has not allowed the BJP to grow in areas where the allies have a bigger presence. At the same time, the blurring of the Hindutva appeal has not helped it in its home turf, especially Uttar Pradesh. Tensions within the sangh parivar have reached uncomfortable proportions because of this. A return to Hindutva would advance BJP interests, particularly in the Uttar Pradesh elections.

Blurred appeal

What might follow now is an intensive and widespread campaign of the rath yatra type. This would be supplemented by communal unrest. The BJP’s calculation most probably is if the Muslim vote will not come to it, the best that could be done is to consolidate the Hhindu vote as much as possible.

It is unlikely this line is going to fetch the BJP the dividends it expects. Apart from the extent of the Hindutva appeal to Hindus, the performance of the BJP-led government in Uttar Pradesh and more basic problems like employment will shape the electoral choice of a large section of the people.

This year is likely to witness a “challenge and response” contest over large parts of the country. In order to engage in this contest, secular parties and personalities will have to develop an ideological campaign as powerful as that being planned by the parivar. It will have to take into account the religious sentiments of the people, including the desire to have a temple at the birthplace of Ram.

Care would also have to be taken not to rely on Muslim communalism to counter the sangh parivar. The misuse of caste feelings should be forestalled, or the combination of casteism with Islamic fundamentalism. This strategy of both the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party is as dangerous as that of the parivar.

Positive signals

There were positive signals from the Congress by the time the last year faded away. The election of Sonia Gandhi as the Congress president was not just a personal triumph, it was the triumph of a vision which would shape the future. There is surely a long way to go for the Congress before it can once again play a dominant role in national life. The return to the ideology of M.K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru and the state policy of Nehru and Indira Gandhi have been only partially accomplished. Factionalism may not be as rampant as before. But it still exists.

In the crucial area of economic policy, the Congress has been able to reach a balanced approach through discussion. The Nehru-Indira Gandhi strategy has been upheld as relevant, although it is no longer treated as a dogma. It has to be changed and developed. The 1991 reforms was based on this understanding. Though disinvestment was required, privatizations is not the new mantra. The public sector had to be reformed, not assaulted.

The left has not fared well and there is little hope of a better performance. While it has recognized the BJP as the main enemy, it is yet to recognize the Congress as its main ally. The development which is most significant is the intensification of terrorism. The attempt to end the Kashmir imbroglio throu- gh a ceasefire is likely to turn out to be a trap rather than a road to peace. Without breaking the back of terrorism, there can be no peace.


“They can kill militants, but why are they targeting the innocent?” This anguished cry pierced the tension in Manipur’s Malom village after a woman lost her son in police firing following an attempted ambush by militants on an Assam Rifles convoy. The incident, one of many such in the Northeast, is symptomatic of the prevailing “disorder” in several parts of the country, especially in states where counter-insurgency operations are in progress.

While reacting to such killings from the comforts of a city far removed from the scene of crime it is possible to exaggerate the measure of guilt on the part of security forces. But though some members of the troop do violate rules and indulge in excesses, it is unfortunate that their action is allowed to taint the credibility of an entire unit.

It is rarely conceded that in tackling militancy, the army, the police and paramilitary forces are pitted against severe constraints. Not only do they operate in a hostile, unfamiliar environment, even the local language is alien. Identifying and singling out terrorists in a sea of humanity is not easy, despite gruelling training. Add to this the expertise of insurgents on home turf, their superior weapons and “ideological” motivation, as well as the popular support they receive, and one can see why the state machinery which tackles them is usually in a no-win situation.

Seldom have human rights bodies questioned the killing of soldiers or policemen by militant outfits, criminals or dacoits — is a securityman’s right to life not worthy of introspection? There are, of course, the “excesses” — occasions when the guardians of the law overstep their limits to wreak havoc on the public morale. Rape in custody is not a figment of imagination; women who have been compelled to seek police help have learned the bitter truth. It is perhaps simpler to take the law into one’s own hand than seek vindication with the help of uniformed goons steeped in corruption.

Horrific tales abound in areas where the Armed Forced (Special Powers) Act and Disturbed Areas Act are in force. These laws, unequivocally labelled as “black”ones, empower the army to arrest and question (read kill) people and destroy property (hideouts, training camps, arms dumps) on the ground of “suspicion” alone.

Human rights organizations like the Manab Adhikar Suraksha Samiti in Assam or meira paibis (women’s bodies) in Manipur, among others, have been vociferously seeking the repeal of these laws citing cases of torture, custodial death and fake encounters. They point out that under these acts, securitymen, not below the rank of a sub-inspector or a havildar, can “fire upon, or otherwise use force, even to the causing of death, against any person who is acting in contravention of any law or order in a disturbed area.”

What they find more damning is the clause which states: “No suit, prosecution or other legal proceeding shall be instituted except with the previous sanction of the state government against any person in respect of anything done” while exercising these powers. That the same law also specifies that “nothing in this Act shall protect a police officer making a malicious arrest” is mostly overlooked.

Rarely do policy-makers or social scientists pause to consider the root of aberrational behaviour by the very force raised to provide protection to the public, not terrorize it. In most “disturbed” states, the administration and bureaucracy are busy lining their pockets and mastering survival strategies, leaving the implementation of law and order entirely in the hands of the troops and this often results in misuse of power.

When securitymen overstep the basic principles of law, they not only taint the credibility of the entire force, but give their opponents the much-sought-after opportunity for a smear campaign. Besides the tattered reputation, the persons at fault help trigger a sympathy wave for the militants, thereby inverting the very purpose of counter-insurgency operations. It also proves, as human rights advocates unfailingly point out, that “the state is not strong enough to protect itself through legal and constitutional means.”

The army authorities, having sampled ground realities in insurgency stricken states, are now educating the troops on the “rights” of the people living in violence-prone areas. They are also conducting spot surveys, trials and penalizing guilty personnel. There is a degree of realization that circumstances sometimes compel the local residents, especially those in rural areas where security measures are a luxury, to express solidarity with militant outfits. But though protagonists of counter-insurgency operations are beginning to appreciate this, it is a case of too little, too late.

Resentment against the armed forces runs deep and no one, certainly not those at the receiving end, is willing to admit that when militants open fire on innocent bystanders in a crowded marketplace (as is usually the case) it is impossible for the police to single out the culprits while retaliating. Similarly, when an armyman witnesses an ambush on his convoy, he returns fire instinctively, without intending to hurt those who may be caught in the crossfire.

In fact, bringing guilty securitymen to book is less arduous than identifying criminals or militants engaging in mayhem. Extortions, abductions and massacres are all diverse forms of infringement on rights of individuals. Those who live in daily fear of their lives, or spend sleepless nights wondering about the fate of a kidnapped child, or face the trauma of having one’s family wiped out by masked terrorists before one’s eyes are just a few of the victims of insurgency. Ironically, those appointed to protect their interests are mere parts of a paralysed machinery.

If it were not for the fear of retribution, policemen would not have allowed rebels to snatch arms without demur. Why is action “delayed” whenever violence erupts a stone’s throw away from a police station? It is ultimately the shadow of vendetta that immobilizes the force and displaces its priorities. The repercussions from militants, the people and even human rights organizations, who are quick to latch on to the foibles and frailties of securitymen, whatever the compulsions or circumstan- ces, act as deterrents to prompt action.

Those upholding the right to life, even that of killer gangs, overlook basic tenets of national security and public order. The civil society which voices outrage over the killing of hardcore militants or criminals rarely resorts to an outcry over any massacre of soldiers or policemen. The latter, too, are sons and fathers, they die in harness, often far from home, simply because it is their job to face bullets. It is true that their kin are “compensated”, but can the right to life ever be evaluated in terms of money in avoidable circumstances? It is time those upholding rights realized that a demoralized force can hardly deliver the goods and it is ultimately the public that suffers.


A shrunken Bihar, now almost half its former size and almost totally dependent on agriculture, faces yet another crisis. The farmers of the state cannot sell their paddy even after producing a bumper harvest. “We have lost our mineral resources and industries to Jharkhand and now even our agriculture seems doomed because of lack of access to market”, says a senior state government official. Poor peasants are being forced to dispose of their paddy at extremely cheap prices in the absence of procurement by the Food Corporation of India.

An all-party delegation of Bihar members of parliament met the prime minister in November to expedite the promised compensation package to Bihar after the bifurcation. A special cell has already been set up in the planning commission to work out this compensation package.

While the Rabri Devi government accuses the Centre of not opening enough FCI purchase centres, the Bihar unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party alleges that the state government is not cooperating with New Delhi in this matter.

Rabri Devi has also written to Atal Bihari Vajpayee saying that Bihar’s farmers were being forced to sell their produce at less than Rs 300 per quintal, while the minimum support price for even the lowest quality paddy is Rs 570 per quintal. She has urged Vajpayee to instruct the FCI to open more procurement centres, particularly in the canal irrigated areas of the state which are considered its rice bowls.

Lend a hand

Peasants in the rice bowls of central and north Bihar face economic ruin. After failing to recover even the production cost, farmers are facing utter penury. The poorer sections of the peasants are the worst hit because they have to sell their produce before the prices go up.

If news from the agricultural front is bad, the overall economic situation in the state is even worse. State government employees and teachers are not being paid their salaries in time. After the division of the state, the revenue receipts from both tax and non-tax revenues have diminished drastically in Bihar. An all-party delegation of Bihar MPs, headed by Nitish Kumar, has recently submitted a memorandum which points out that two-thirds of the sales tax, excise duty and royalty from minerals that earlier accrued to Bihar, will now go to Jharkhand. Again, urbanization in Bihar, after the bifurcation of the state is only about 10.76 per cent compared to the national average of 25.71 per cent.

Much of the grimness of this situation can be blamed on the years of bad governance. But that is a different story altogether. For the moment, Bihar needs financial resuscitation through Central assistance. If a proper development package backed by effective monitoring on the part of Centre is implemented in Bihar, it can tide over its present difficulties.



Smoke gets in your eyes

Sir — If “Hollywood stars who smoke in films encourage young fans to do the same”, then, by the same logic, their achieving impossible feats on screen should have inspired young Americans to emulate them (“Smoke sting on Hollywood stars”, Jan 6). Since the latter does not seem to have happened, the former, too, can be ignored as a mere theoretical possibility. Also interesting is the fact that such charges have come up only recently, when, in fact, smoking in films is decreasing. Heroes like Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable, and even leading ladies like Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor, were known by the way they held their cigarettes or cigars. And yet, the chain-smoking icons never had to face the charge of being corrupting influences in the Forties and the Fifties. The recent study which came up with these findings is just one of many such studies which attribute even the smallest individual delinquency to social conditioning and influence, so that the offender takes no responsibility for his vices.
Yours faithfully,
Nirupa Goswami, Calcutta

Strike out

Sir — It was a physical attack on her a few years ago by hooligans belonging to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) that had catapulted Mamata Banerjee to a coveted political slot, that of the future chief minister of West Bengal. She went on to form a party of her own, the Trinamool Congress, and entered into an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party to form the government at the Centre.

Several histrionic resignation episodes later, she has realized that her attempts to curry favour with the people of West Bengal have not gone down too well with those targeted. In particular, her blatant wooing of the Muslims has evoked adverse reactions in the Hindus. Her latest bandh call is obviously aimed at retrieving part of the lost ground.

But the ground on which the bandh was called defies logic. The calling of a bandh on the pretext of a physical attack only goes to demonstrate Banerjee’s tendency to create mountains out of molehills. It also proves that she is increasingly becoming obsessed with the idea of ruling West Bengal after the coming assembly elections. However, if she does not mend her ways and restrains her populist politics, she will soon find that she has been counting her chickens before they were hatched.

Yours faithfully,
R.H. Putran, Calcutta

Sir — What has happened to Mamata Banerjee’s high-sounding lectures on being opposed to bandhs? It was only a few months ago that she became vocal against such strikes. She even called a protest on a Sunday to prove how sincere she was. But this is mere rhetoric, as the January 5 statewide bandh demonstrated (“Trinamool wields stick of strike”, Jan 5). This will surely not help her in the coming assembly elections. Banerjee might end up nursing more than an injured foot.

Yours faithfully,
Shibani Saha, Baranagar

Sir — The 12-hour Bangla bandh called by the Trinamool Congress on January 5, has shown once more that our political leaders still cannot think beyond resorting to negative politics. Incidentally, the politics of bandhs practised by Banerjee has been popularized by the leftists. Since Banerjee has her hopes pinned on becoming the chief minister of West Bengal, she had better concentrate on education, health and industrialization in the state, the areas where the Left Front government has failed.

Yours faithfully,
Arunava Bose Chowdhury, Barrackpore

Shrews and tamers

Sir — The editorial, “Labouring equals” (Jan 2) deserves praise for highlighting the issue of working women’s safety. But this is precisely the area on which the recent decision of the Union human resources development and labour ministries to let women work night shifts in factories falls flat. As the editorial points out, the new Factories Act would undoubtedly enable women to organize their working schedules according to their own convenience.

This flexibility would also be welcomed by those who could do with the extra allowance given to the night shift workers. However, given that rural and semi-educated women work in most of the factories, working at night with men will be embarrassing. Besides, who is to protect the women night-shift workers against sexual harassment when they return from work in the early hours of the morning?

The women’s organizations which have been opposing this proposal are losing sight of the principles at stake here — doing away with discrimination at the workplace. But they are perfectly justified in being against the decision keeping in mind questions of safety. While framing the policy, the concerned ministries must keep in mind issues like childcare and the general security of women.

In fact, in the light of these considerations, the HRD and labour ministries will be well-advised to implement the new law in urban areas, and in sectors like information technology.

Yours faithfully,
Naren Sen, Howrah

Sir — The proposed bill to combat domestic violence proposes the deployment of “protection officers” with the power to enter the premises of the household to sort out crises (“Hit-men face home guards”, Jan 4). However, it is surprising to note that the bill is concerned only about the woman and not for the man, who, it must be admitted, could also face domestic violence.

In a state which claims to treat men and women as equals, laws should never be biased in favour of any sex. It is true that women have faced oppression for a very long time, but since cases of a woman getting an upper hand in a conjugal relationship is not unheard of, any law on domestic violence should include this in its purview.

Yours faithfully,
Diptimoy Ghosh, Calcutta

Sir — Wife-beaters abound in Indian society. And the practice has the sanction of the sacred texts as well. The Matsya Purana enjoins the husband to beat his erring wife with a rope and a stick.

Disrespect for in-laws is one of the main reasons behind wife-beating. Anthropological research reveals that marriages do not take place between individuals, but between kinship groups, essentially alien to each other. Hence the hostility.

This is a deep-rooted social evil, and must be treated with a sensitivity towards and knowledge of social anthropology. Merely criminalizing the issue will not be enough.

Yours faithfully,
Radhakanta Seth, Sambalpur

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