Editorial / Bandh on the run
Keep Dalits in the fold
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

The point that bandhs are no longer a political weapon and that they damage work culture does not bear repetition. It has been made with force in these columns and elsewhere ad nauseum. But in West Bengal the articulation of such a view point has little or no effect. The absence of impact does not relate to political parties alone but to a wide spectrum of Bengali society as well. Political parties, be it the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and other left formations or the Trinamool Congress or the Congress, are all caught in a trap which is entirely of their own making. Their ideological blinkers and their doctrinaire myopia have combined to make them irresponsible, and have rendered them incapable of seeing anything outside their narrow sectarian ends. Yet what cannot be denied is that political parties do not exist in a social vacuum. They too can be forced to change their attitudes, programmes and even their modes of protest under pressure from the public. For this to happen, there has to be a growing and open expression of disapproval of the way political parties organize their agitation and their protests. Such an expression of public disapproval has not happened in the case of bandhs. Thus bandhs continue to be called and continue to succeed whenever called. It would not be an exaggeration to conclude that in West Bengal there is a societal acceptance of bandhs. Hence, political parties, irrespective of the colours on their flags, continue and will continue to call bandhs.

Both the chief justice of the Calcutta high court, Mr A.K. Mathur and the United States ambassador, Mr Richard Celeste, in their different ways have drawn attention to this dimension. Their statements might raise hackles among the political classes but observers of West Bengal’s social life and its changing mores cannot dismiss the comments. The wide acceptance of bandhs in West Bengal is related to the Bengalis’ love for holidays. No other state has as many listed holidays as West Bengal. Holidays run the gamut of all religious festivals. To this are added some “secular” days which are special to West Bengal: the birthday of Subhas Chandra Bose, May Day and Bengali New Year. It will be noted that bandhs are invariably called either on a Friday or a Monday or the day before a holiday so that the people can enjoy a number of days without going to work. In no other state does work, even in banks and the stock exchange, come to a complete standstill for four days on the trot as it does in West Bengal over Durga Puja. There has been no campaign ever to tell the people that so many holidays are unwarranted and harmful. This only strengthens the common impression that the people of West Bengal loathe the idea of work.

This impression has a long history and concerns the high caste elements of the population since the lower castes, the peasants and workers, have to labour for sheer survival. The inherent indolence grows out of the dependence that most upper caste families had on rent incomes from land. Parasitic and absentee landlordism provided the economic basis of the Bengali middle class and its achievements. The complete erosion of that basis has not been replaced by a positive attitude towards work or by any efforts to overcome the indolence bred by nearly two hundred years of drone-like existence. This has been overlaid with irresponsible trade unionism promoted by various political parties especially by the CPI(M). This irresponsibility nurtured the idea that in West Bengal the work force could collect its wages without doing a stroke of work. Strikes, go slows, gheraos and bandhs fitted easily into this political and cultural ambience. West Bengal has gone through innumerable political upheavals but these have not altered the dereliction of duty that informs all work-related things in the state. The transformation of this aspect of life cannot be left to political parties. It is a challenge facing Bengali society. The people have to decide what they think is more important for them: holidays, bandhs and things like changing names of streets and cities or work, productivity and profit.


Up to 1947, several kinds of communities (not necessarily defined by religion) were given reserved political representation in India: Muslims, women, Europeans, Dalits and so on. With two exceptions (Dalits and Anglo-Indians) such reservations were abolished after independence. Communal representation, it was argued, had been divisive. Hindu polemicists who routinely accuse the state of pampering Muslims would be incensed by any move to restore reservations for Muslims. Given this republican allergy to communal reservations, it comes as a surprise that the Constitution has been operating a system of Hindu reservation for half a century.

Dalit reservation is Hindu reservation. The only Indians eligible for scheduled caste reservations are those whom the census records as Hindu or members of religious communities that are treated by the Constitution as Hindu by a kind of default: Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains. Muslims and Christians are excluded.

The reasoning behind this distinction is that untouchability (the rule of thumb used to define scheduled castes) is peculiar to the Hindu caste system. Dalits suffer disabilities because caste Hindus consign them to an existence beyond the Hindu pale. Since Dalit reservation is meant to redress this uniquely Hindu wrong, the question of Muslims and Christians sharing in this reservation does not arise.

This is a deceptively simple argument. The injustice that Dalit reservations address is a history of degradation and deprivation, a denial of education and access to employment, a vicious segregation, a denial of the physical space and basic amenities that make for honourable living. Dalit reservations in the domains of politics, academics and employment try precisely to make up for this loss of opportunity in the secular domain: jobs, political power, and education. When well-meaning upper-caste Hindus campaigned to open temples to “untouchables” as a way of expressing their concern for them, they missed the point. Dalits wanted action that acknowledged their humanity, not their Hindu-ness.

Now consider this. A Dalit, sick of upper-caste discrimination, decides like Ambedkar to formally renounce his Hindu identity in protest. Unlike Ambedkar, who converted to Buddhism, this hypothetical Dalit converts to Christianity. He is automatically disqualified from every kind of reservation. Why? Are we to assume that by becoming Christian he has emancipated himself materially, has transcended epochs of exploitation? He may not want to worship in Hindu temples any more, nor sup with Hindus, but he still needs access to education, employment and political representation. He is denied them because the Constitution does not allow Christians of Dalit origin to apply for reservation.

If this denial is based on the dodgy argument that Christianity and Islam are egalitarian faiths and therefore their adherents have no need of reservation, why does this not apply to mazhabi Sikhs, who belong to a faith as fiercely egalitarian as any? Because Sikhs are considered Hindus for constitutional purposes. It isn’t much of an answer but it is the only one on offer. It is based on the curious assumption that religions of “Indic” origin are basically Hindu.

The sangh parivar lives by this assumption. This should surprise no one. That the Constitution shares this assumption and makes it operational in the business of scheduled caste reservation should raise a few eyebrows. Seen from this point of view, scheduled caste reservations could be construed by a “Muslim” polemicist as a gigantic inducement held out by the state to keep Dalits Hindu.

But let us, for the sake of argument, accept that the reasoning behind the exclusion of Muslims and Christians from scheduled caste reservation is sound. Let us accept that scheduled caste reservation exists to compensate one set of Hindus for their historical oppression by another set of Hindus. This raises another question: why should Muslims and Christians help pay this compensation? Why should they share in the costs of compensating scheduled caste Hindus when they can’t share in the benefits of reservation? That they are made to share in the costs is self-evident: when, from the general pool of jobs, academic places and electoral seats, a percentage is reserved for Dalits (defined as Hindus) they become unavailable to everyone, not just upper caste Hindus.

Let me illustrate this: a teaching position, say, a readership in modern Indian history, is reserved for Dalit candidates. A Christian can’t apply even though he has no responsibility for the condition of Dalits in this country. So he is made to suffer a loss of opportunity because of something one lot of Hindus did to another. That doesn’t seem fair. Perhaps a “Christian” rhetorician could argue that there should be a Hindu quota of opportunity from which the Dalit share should be subtracted, given how keen the Constitution seems to be to keep Dalit reservations Hindu.

Apart from discussing the injustices internal to the mechanism of reservation, I’m trying to make a larger point. “Hindu” ideologues consistently argue that the Indian state panders to minorities, pampers Muslims and generally goes out of its way to accommodate exceptions to a republican norm (such as monogamy) when the sensibilities of minority communities are at stake.

By demonstrating how, in the matter of scheduled caste reservation, the Constitution makes exceptional arrangements (extensive reservation) for beneficiaries specifically defined as Hindu, I want to show that this stereotype of the minority-loving, Hindu-baiting state doesn’t fit the reality of the republic.

I am not seriously trying to press for a Hindu quota out of which Dalit reservations should be subtracted: I am trying to explain that in a complex, plural and unequal society such as ours, the state can’t always appear to be even-handed, or make the assumption that one size fits all, or always apply a principle uniformly and consistently. Every attempt to make special or exceptional arrangements is vulnerable to the charge of bias or favouritism.

Muslims and Christians could (as I have shown) plausibly argue that scheduled caste reservations discriminate against them or, conversely, favour Hindus. That they haven’t made this argument is greatly to their credit. The next time you hear a muscular Hindu working himself into a lather about how soft the state is on Muslims, how it subsidizes haj pilgrims or tolerates polygamy, you could tell him that.

[email protected]    


Setting trends

No one suspected the prime minister of making a fashion statement. But he seems to have done that too among the hoary political circle of the capital. There was a queue for knee corrections after AB Vajpayee walked upright. Now the Congress veteran, Narain Dutt Tiwari, wants to join the gang. Having developed a knee problem, the Congress leader met Vajpayee recently to gain firsthand knowledge about C Ranawat’s expertise with old knees. The prime minister gave him valuable tips. Evidently, limps are not the only subject of common interest. Tiwari and Vajpayee apparently get along well and their proximity has even landed the Congress leader in trouble. Tiwari’s lavish praises of Vajpayee has made it to Panchajanya, the BJP mouthpiece, and the cosiness has caused so much annoyance in 10 Janpath that Tiwari may now miss his berth in the Congress working committee. Does that unnerve the Congresswallah? Heavens, no. What is a CWC berth to the presidentship of the nation? There are whispers that the prime minister might back Tiwari for the top slot after KR Narayanan’s term ends. The NDA does not have a majority in the Rajya Sabha, so it may settle for the post of the vice-president. Apparently the DMK chief, M Karunanidhi, is keen on Murasoli Maran filling that seat. Which means there is good chance of Tiwari making it to Rashtrapati Bhavan. But will he have madam’s good wishes? Or will she see him as another old man in a hurry?

Fewer men in the same boat

The next time the prime minister wishes to muse, there will be less chaos in his media cell. The simple reason being that it will be less populated. Kanchan Gupta is supposedly leaving to join a firm in Calcutta for a healthy pay packet and the high profile HK Dua is eyeing a diplomatic sinecure. He was keen on the ambassador’s job in the Netherlands, but the MEA has other ideas. They have on offer for him a backwaters post in a former Dutch and British colony in South America. With Gupta and Dua gone, the PMO will be left with a two member media department in which Ashok Tandon will be handling liaison with the print and electronic media.The other member, Sudheendra Kulkarni, will then be free to concentrate on the prime minister’s musings and other similar gems which flow from his pen. There was in fact no place for as many as four journalists in the prime minister’s entourage to begin with. Which is probably why Dua did not accompany Vajpayee on his recent year-end holiday in Kerala. Nor did he go with the PM on the official visit to Vietnam and Indonesia. However, both Kulkarni and Tandon flew with Vajpayee on his foreign tour. Only shows who the favourites are.

Trace the missing links

A plot that could fetch an award for any storywriter who puts it into words. The arrest of one of the best known financiers of Bollywood, Bharat Shah, has rattled a number of top politicians from different ends of the political spectrum. Shah had reportedly invested a huge amount of money in some of the films produced by Smita Thackeray, daughter- in-law of Maharashtra’s tiger, Bal Thackeray. A prominent minister in the AB Vajpayee cabinet is also alleged to have business links with Shah. The Samajwadi Party and the Congress also seem to have been affected as some key leaders are said to have had connections with this man in the dock. Only the Nationalist Congress Party seems to be happy with Shah’s fate as the arrest has set both its opponents and allies running for cover. The deputy chief minister, Chhagan Bhujbal, is on his own trip, tightening the noose around every neck he can find. But can he hang them after all?

Feel the hand of god

Dissidence in the Congress will have a longer gestation period from now on. It is Jitendra Prasada’s sudden illness that has got the Congresswallahs thinking — about the risks of rebellion, that is. They can’t help brooding over the four consecutive events that have taken place within the span of a few months. Rajesh Pilot died in a car crash when he was mobilizing support against madam. Sitaram Kesri followed soon after, his last wish to take on 10, Janpath never to be fulfilled. The court verdict against PV Narasimha Rao seems to have drawn his teeth somewhat. And now it is Prasada, who slipped into a coma following a brain haemorrhage barely months after he had flexed his muscles in the party president race. Is it divine intervention then in favour of the occupant of 10 Janpath? Or is it, as devout Hindus and scores of Bollywood films in their temple climax will have us believe, god’s way of protecting a helpless Hindu widow from evil designs?

Footnote/ Scaly side of things

Never throw your weight around when the heavyweights are around. One doesn’t know if the message ultimately reached the West Bengal minister for fisheries, Kironmoy Nanda. But the minister received a dressing-down from no less than the chief minister himself recently about the way he behaved with bureaucrats. Nanda was apparently furious when some officials of the finance department suddenly stopped disbursing funds for some upcoming fishery projects in the districts following the recent floods. Stung by the humiliation, Nanda hurriedly convened a press meet at his chamber and publicly alleged that red tapism was destroying the present administration. At this, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and finance minister, Asim Dasgupta, summoned Nanda and asked for an explanation. He was also told to behave himself with juniors. Nanda however is determined to continue with his mission. Alimuddin Street bosses are obviously wary, fearing that if push comes to shove, Nanda might look for a friend in the transport minister, Subhas Chakraborty, who has already turned rebel. Is it like fishing in troubled waters then?    


Fantasy premier

Sir — The president of the United States, Bill Clinton, has been offered the premiership of Israel (“Beer-soaked Israelis want Clinton as premier”, Jan 12). A group of Israelis in a pub in Tel Aviv said that this was their favourite fantasy. The violence in the last 16 weeks has made matters worse. This humour no doubt masks their growing disenchantment with the west Asia peace process. In this gloomy scenario, Clinton, with his charisma and colourful escapades, provides a much needed diversion. However, the fact remains, with or without Clinton’s diplomatic skills, the talks will not succeed unless both sides are willing to give up their individual agenda for the cause of peace.
Yours faithfully,
Rituja Saha, via email

After all a vice

Sir — The news item, “Smoke sting on Hollywood stars” (Jan 6), and the response from Nirupa Goswami(“Smoke gets in your eyes”, Jan 10) evoke strong feelings. Goswami’s argument does not alter the fact that smoking is a bad habit that harms smokers and non-smokers alike.

Many psychologists feel that people with an inferiority complex are more susceptible to smoking. While this may or may not be true, it goes without saying that most smokers find it very difficult to quit smoking because of the nicotine contained in tobacco which causes addiction. Unless the governments at the Centre and at the states take up the matter the situation will not change.

Yours faithfully,
S. Ramakrishnan, via email

Sir — It is unfortunate that the tobacco industry is bearing the brunt of an all-round attack on smoking. This is because of the widespread belief that tobacco causes enormous harm even to those who do not smoke and has led to the demand for a ban on smoking in public places. What is conveniently forgotten is that there is little evidence to prove the harmful effects of passive smoking.

While the consumption of tobacco may be harmful to health, the livelihood of over 300 million people depend on this industry. If this ill-formed campaign against tobacco continues, the writing on the wall will be only too clear for tobacco farmers and the tobacco industry, thereby leading to further unemployment and poverty.

If India succumbs to the dictates of the World Health Organization and signs the framework convention on tobacco control, it will be destroying the livelihoods of so many people.

Yours faithfully,
Nitin Das, New Delhi

Devil’s workshop

Sir — Sugata Hazra’s article, “Statistics from a gloomy state” (Dec 27), has depicted a bleak picture of West Bengal’s employment situation. The state’s failure to create adequate number of jobs for its growing population while making tall claims about having dealt effectively with poverty, is symptomatic of the decay that has crept into public life. The state government must explain why there has been a reduction in the total number of jobs available in the state despite two and a half decades of political security.

If the government fails to take steps to address the situation, young people in the state would be forced to look for employment elsewhere. The unemployed in the state could be encouraged to form several transport cooperative societies and run passenger transport buses during the day and in the evening.

Yours faithfully,
B.C. Dutta, Calcutta

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