Editorial 1/ Unfounded fears
Editorial 2/ Never ready
Veiled revolution
Fifth Column/ He never eats them before lunch
This above all/ An ascetic in Bollywood
Does a miracle happen only once?
Letters to the editor

There is only one way to describe the president’s speech on Republic Day eve — embarrassing. It was not just the lack of finesse in very obviously criticizing the government in power, but also the fact that Mr K.R. Narayanan had got both his theory and his history topsy-turvy. This is not the first time that the appropriateness of some of the president’s comments in his public speeches has been questioned. As the formal upholder of the Constitution, the president of India is above party politics in his official persona, whatever his private leanings. Mr Narayanan has tended to tread the razor’s edge in this. His comments have left no doubt about his sharply critical attitude towards the Bharatiya Janata Party. In the latest speech, Mr Narayanan went further than usual. He had two outstanding concerns on Republic Day eve. One was Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s suggestion that Parliament have a fixed term in the interests of stability and economy. The second was the proposal for indirect elections by the Constitution review commission. The Indian system has no dearth of fora in which all new proposals are debated. Instead of letting things take their own course, the president felt called upon to declare that any review of the Constitution was unnecessary. Given the number of amendments that the Indian Constitution has undergone, the president’s dark hints of imminent dictatorship were rather too hasty.

And it is here that Mr Narayanan got his history and theory really wrong — in the comparison of Ayub Khan’s system with indirect elections. Khan nurtured a system of limited franchise, which allowed only certain groups of people from the privileged classes to vote. Indirect elections, or the electorate college system, is already in place in India in the case of the election of the president, the vice-president, members of the Rajya Sabha and members of the legislative councils. Extended, it need not mean taking power away from the people. Instead, it would make local elected leaders directly accountable to the popular electorate and concentrate more power in the local bodies and the states. A movement away from a centrist structure deserves serious debate. What seems to have upset the president most is Mr Vajpayee’s suggestion of a fixed tenure for Parliament. This again is not a suggestion to be dismissed out of hand. The Constitution review commission’s proposal puts forward a system in which the vote of no confidence for a government is supplemented by a vote of confidence for another government. If one government goes, another is ready to take over. Else the old government continues in power. The experience preceding the BJP’s latest tenure of governance would be an argument in favour of such a system. The president’s fears regarding dictatorship are not grounded in Indian reality. By shooting down proposals in a speech to the nation he was, in fact, putting a closure to democratic discussion.


The scale of devastation wrought by the earthquake in Gujarat defies comment. It would be crass to make too much of the discrepancy between the official readings of its magnitude. Whether or not to call it a “national calamity” — a disgracefully inevitable aftermath of every catastrophe in India — should also be bypassed. But the picture of pervasive unreadiness that is beginning to emerge as the death toll rises to tens of thousands needs urgent comment. The repeated inability to cope with calamities of this dimension shown by Indian states and the Centre, their spectacular inability to learn from past crises, are now becoming as “natural” as the calamities themselves.

First, although the actual occurrence of an earthquake cannot be predicted, it is a well-established fact that the Rann of Kutch is located in the highest risk zone of the seismic map. Yet, construction and planning in the area show a complete lack of awareness of the most basic notions of earthquake-resistant building. The safety guidelines are all there, but the civic authorities have failed to enforce any of these. The killer structures are all modern buildings whose construction thrives on the illegal and the unauthorized. Second, the state and the civic machinery have also shown total unpreparedness with the relief operations. The crucial period is the hour immediately after the major tremor, when people trapped under the debris can still be saved from being crushed or suffocated to death. And it was at this stage that the victims were left to fend for themselves entirely. The usual emergency services were far from being equipped for an instant response. The major relief operations are carried out, in every Indian crisis, by the armed forces. The taking of the armed forces for granted has become a habit with every state government, crippling its capacity to draw up its own crisis management strategies. Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra have shown relative success in learning from experience, drawing up precautionary and rehabilitation programmes with earthquakes and cyclones. But Orissa remains the norm — both in unpreparedness and in the corruption and disorganization with which relief materials and funds, pouring in immediately after a crisis, are managed. The Centre’s laying down new criteria for accepting foreign aid at this hour seems bizarre. Putting together the proper infrastructure for the deployment of aid would certainly be more constructive than obstructing emergency skills with red tape. A comprehensive national disaster management plan, germinating for a while now, needs to be drawn up immediately. Ensuring its implementation at the state and district levels is the only way in which India can pull itself out of its inhuman jadedness with calamities of this dimension.


On January 5, 2001, newspapers carried a photograph of Asiya Andrabi, head of the pro-Pakistan Duhktarane Milat, and three other women at a press conference in Srinagar. The women are clothed in black, except for their hands and their eyes. An average reader would describe their dress as burkha. It is perhaps more accurate to describe it as hijab.

While burkha conjures up images of obscurantism, illiteracy and oppression, hijab bears very different connotations. As a Muslim student of mine at the University of California, Berkeley, declared, the muhajjaba (hijab-wearing woman) willingly covers her head. She participates not in patriarchy, but in a “contra-modern revolution”.

I left India two months before December 6, 1992, still basking in the cosy glow of secularism. At Oxford, I encountered, among other things, the topsy-turvy world of pan-Islamism. I was bewildered by all those Muslim women at Oxbridge who were articulate and ambitious, but who foregrounded their Muslimness by wearing a headscarf. This was clearly a choice, not a compromise. To discover its reasons, I spoke to Muslim women from Malaysia, Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and Chechnya, to British and American Muslims from Bengali, Punjabi, Hyderabadi and Kashmiri families. I wanted to understand, through these diverse women, the pull of the hijab, and not condemn it outright (much the easier option in the circles in which I move).

In the process I learnt that the terms burkha and purdah are not in currency among such women. Iranians wear the chador — an overgarment resembling the south Asian burkha, but not necessarily black, teamed with an often rather fancy headscarf. Most Sunni Muslim women describe their Islamic dress as hijab (Arabic for “modesty”). This can range from trousers and a turban-like headscarf to a long skirt and loose headscarf framing the neck and shoulders. The lowest common denominator is the headscarf, which signals “I am Muslim and proud of being so”.

Secondly, hijab has more to do with constructing a neo-Islamic identity than remembering south Asian traditions. Most south Asian muhajjabas reject the salwar-kameez-dupatta or sari worn by their mothers (who are not necessarily burkha-clad) as “un-Islamic”. They thereby bypass such inherited identities as Pakistani/ Bangladeshi/Indian, which in any case remain insufficiently defined in the case of families that left south Asia around the time of the Partition (and who prefer, therefore, ethnic labels such as Kashmiri, Bengali or Punjabi over national ones). By adopting, instead, the headscarf and modest “Western clothes” they tap into a subculture of self-definition for various non-white women growing up in first world milieux — be it France, Belgium or Germany.

Hijab enables such women to negotiate diasporic identity and participate in a wider discourse of “discovering the truth about Western imperialism”. This discourse, disseminated ironically through the electronic media, constantly connects modernity with the colonialism of various “Muslim peoples” and with American neo-imperialism. It brands 20th century “modernizers” such as Mustapha Kemal Ataturk and the Shah of Iran as elitist and atheist genuflectors to Western culture, whose misguidedness crystallized in their mass unveiling of women. Hence the support of the chador by many Iranian feminists and the agitations by women in Turkish universities against Ataturk’s ban on headscarves in campuses.

This highly politicized Islam grants an agency to Muslim women in the Western world, finding visible expression in the headscarf and/or other forms of Islamic dress. For many young women, of course, it is simply a way of being different and, as some men might admit, seductively so (remember Pakeezah?). I once asked an extremely stylish Afghan student whether she would ever consider hijab. Her reply: “My parents would never insist on it. But one day, after Jumma namaz, I walked out on the street with my headscarf. I sensed people looking at me strangely. Suddenly, I was different, and it felt powerful.” This power hit me when, on the streets of Copenhagen, I saw a young woman in headscarf and sequinned jeans, smoking a cigarette with insouciance. It struck me again when, at a San Francisco evening of “Islamic protest poetry”, a woman, scarf as tight around head as trousers around hips, spoke of Allah and against the taliban’s treatment of her sisters.

Does all this have any relevance for India? The day after the Andrabi photograph appeared, I attended a symposium on Kashmir at Netaji Bhavan. A packed audience listened to the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front leader, Mohammed Yasin Malik, the vice president of the Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party, Mehbooba Mufti, the senior journalist, Ved Bhasin, and others. We also heard questions testifying to the deep paranoia within members of the Indian mainstream (if we may thus characterize the predominantly Bengali Hindu, educated, male audience) regarding the capacity of the Kashmiris to govern themselves and their minority populations if granted autonomy and/or independence.

Amidst predictable questions about the JKLF’s setting of watches to Pakistani time, a senior academic asked whether Kashmiri Muslims would be able to protect the rights of women by preventing the imposition of the burkha. That the Andrabi photograph had done its ideological work was evident in the academic’s reference to that very photograph within his question. Was it not astonishing, I wondered, that those thus concerned about the rights of Kashmiri women were silent about the targeted rape of countless such women, young and old, about which we had just heard? Was it not astonishing that our intellectuals so readily transfer stereotypes of Islamic anti-feminism — effectively congealed in the image of the burkha-clad (usually poor and illiterate) Muslim woman — to a woman in hijab capable of summoning a press conference?

In dismissing what she called “the burkha thing”, Mehbooba Mufti declared, “People from outside do not have to teach us Kashmiris about Islam.” She was probably referring to hardline Muslim groups parading a particular mode of hijab as the only way to interpret the Quranic injunction (Sura Noor, 24:31) that believing women “draw their veils over their bosoms”. Mufti’s dupatta-covered head was perhaps her own interpretation of that injunction. What even our most well-meaning “secularists” need to remember is wearing Islam on one’s sleeve, or one’s head, does not per se signal, “here is an oppressed/fundamentalist woman”. Choice and context are more important than the outward form of female dress.

We require, instead, a nuanced understanding of which pan-Islamic trends have an impact on south Asian Muslims, and why. Simultaneously, we urgently need to unpack that lumpen category, “the minority community”, in terms of region and socio-economic status before assessing the diverse ways in which Muslim women seek empowerment while exercising their right to retain the framework of faith. Only then can we distinguish between Shah Bano and Asiya Andrabi, for instance. Only then can we ask why in highly literate Kerala, Muslim women increasingly wear the headscarf (rather than burkha) and demand entry into the masjid, while Indian Muslim women elsewhere remain ignorant that Islam does not prevent them from praying in masjids any more than it insists they don the burkha.

The author is research fellow, Trinity College, Cambridge


“I want to say something about my demonization,” said Ariel “Arik” Sharon last week. “I am known as someone who eats Arabs for breakfast. This is baseless.” Good point. In his entire life, Sharon has never been known to eat an Arab before lunch. Nevertheless, the man who is almost certain to be Israel’s leader after the election on February 6 (he currently leads the prime minister, Ehud Barak, by about 20 points) must have trouble keeping a straight face when the Likud Party spin-doctors try to re-package him as a kindly old man who wouldn’t hurt a fly, let alone a Palestinian.

He doesn’t need to do this to win over the Israeli electorate, which backs him mainly because of his hard-line reputation, though it may reassure some swing voters. It’s more important in terms of calming panicky foreign leaders. But the image of a kindlier, gentler Sharon took a beating with the publication in this week’s New Yorker of Geoffrey Goldblatt’s November interview with him.

In the interview, Sharon calls the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, “a murderer and a liar”. And he shows no remorse for his provocative visit last September to the Haram al-Sharif, the sacred Muslim precinct in Jerusalem atop Temple Mount, accompanied by a thousand policemen, even though it unleashed the “second intifada” that has already led to almost 400 deaths. “I unmasked the Palestinians,” he claims.

Sharon, not Shalom

The coarseness of the man shines through in the way he mocks Muslim claims to the Haram al-Sharif. “When the Jews pray, all over the world, they face the Temple Mount. When an Arab prays, he prays to Mecca. Even when an Arab is on the Mount, his back is to it. Also some of his lower parts.” But the real problem is not Sharon’s language. Around 40 percent of today’s Israeli voters are too young to remember the worst episodes of Sharon’s past, and most foreigners have lost track of them too. But Arik Sharon has been around for 72 years, and he has a remarkable track record as a killer of Arabs. He first gained notoriety as the commander of Unit 101, a force set up to raid the West Bank (then under Jordanian control) against Arab guerrillas. In October, 1953, Unit 101 raided the village of Kibya — and blew up 45 houses, killing 69 Palestinian civilians, half of them women and children.

Two wars later, Sharon wound up in charge of Southern Command, including the densely populated Gaza Strip that had been captured in 1967. When some guerrilla attacks occurred in 1971, he opened up broad roads to help the army deploy rapidly by bulldozing some 2,000 homes and making about 16,000 people homeless. Hundreds of suspected activists were deported without any legal proceedings; others were simply killed.

Forgotten past

Sharon’s lasting fame dates from the 1973 war, when his tank force crossed the Suez Canal and surrounded the Egyptian army, but he was afterwards denied the job of chief of staff of the Israeli defence forces. So he joined Menachem Begin’s right-wing Likud government in 1977 as minister of agriculture and launched the settlement policy that has since been the biggest single obstacle to peace.

It’s forgotten now, but for the first decade after the 1967 war most Israelis agreed that the conquered Arab lands should be given back in return for a lasting peace. Then came Sharon, who lavished government funds on building Jewish settlements all over the West Bank, with the explicit purpose of “creating facts” that would make it politically impossible ever to trade territory for peace. But Sharon wrecked his political career when, as minister of defence in 1982, he misled Begin into a deeply unpopular invasion of Lebanon, and then allowed Israel’s Maronite allies to commit massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila. As many as 2,000 were murdered.

The Kahan commission of inquiry found him “indirectly responsible” for the massacres, and declared him unfit ever to serve again as Israel’s defence minister. Though he didn’t leave politics, he was effectively sidelined for 17 years. Sharon’s fellow generals thought he was unfit to lead the armed forces. The Kahan commission found him unfit to be minister of defence. Now he is going to be prime minister. It will be an interesting couple of years.


A good way to begin the new year is by reading a good book — one that leaves its taste over the 12 months that follow. I was lucky to find one: The Death of Vishnu by Manil Suri. I had read only the first chapter when I got an invitation from David Davidar of Viking-Penguin, for its launch with the author reading some passages from the book. I was eager to see what he looked like and how he deported himself. His name indicated he was Punjabi.

So he turned to be. But born and brought up in Mumbai and currently professor of mathematics in the University of Maryland, United States. Short-cropped hair and somewhat ascetic looking like a brahmachari from a gurukul. Also very humble, when I asked him to autograph my copy, he looked abashed. In confusion he misspelt my name.

He will have got used to fame and big money. His first venture into writing has made him a millionaire. He is working on two other novels. In the short conversation we had before he went on the dais, I found he was deep into Bollywood movies.

When I said I found them appalling and had not seen one for some years, he replied, “You may find them appalling but they are the staple emotional diet of the Indian middle class.” He is right. Anyone writing of middle-class Bombayites cannot ignore their obsession with Hindi films and music.

Suri’s novel is located in a four-storeyed building in Mumbai. The top floor is occupied by a lonely widower who is forever playing a disc, which was his dead wife’s favourite. Below him lives a Muslim couple, the Jalals, and their teen-aged son, Salim. Then there are the Asranis, with their school-going daughter, Kavita, ambitious of becoming a film heroine. Beneath them are the Pathaks, who share a kitchen with the Asranis and suspect that each one cheats on the other.

However, the main character is Vishnu, who sleeps on the landing, is usually drunk and has a liaison with a prostitute. Residents of the block give him food, tea and medicines because he is dying. Ahmed Jalal considers himself to be the second “Emperor Akbar” — fired with a mission to unite all Indian religions in a new version of din-i-ilahi, with Vishnu as the god and he his messiah.

Then there is a group of women who bring them bottles of milk from the booth and dabbas for the solitary widower, paanwallah and cigarettewallahs. It is a compact little group who live in comparative harmony till Kavita Asrani, after having said “yes” to an arranged marriage, elopes with Salim. She later ditches him because she can’t stand travelling in a crammed second-class compartment in the train going to Jhansi.

Meanwhile, communal passions build up in the block of flats. What’s the Mussalman chhokra doing to a Hindu devi, running off with her in the darkness of the night?

A Hindu mob armed with lathis break into the Jalals’s flat and clobber Mrs Jalal. Her husband tries to climb up to the widower’s balcony, dangles in the air for as long as he can hold out, then falls to the ground breaking both his legs.

He lands up in the hospital with his almost dead wife. The story ends with Kavita playing the role of a wronged heroine while being interrogated by the police.

Manil Suri is undoubtedly a most gifted writer who will go very far. All his characters come alive; so does his Mumbai from Colaba, Churchgate, Chowpatty, Kamatipura to Bandra and Kandivili. He has a rare sense of the ludicrous and the erotic. He can be both funny and sensuous at the same time. In addition to all this he knows Hindu mythology and the popular superstitions Hindus share with Muslims.

What more does a novelist need? The only flaw with the otherwise highly readable novel is that Suri is at his wit’s end to bring it to a conclusion and pads it with unnecessary details to give it a saleable size.

Indian roots

I have known a lot of beautiful women of whom only two bothered to pit their good looks against other girls of their age. And won. One was the late Persis Khambatta who made her mark as an actress playing the stellar role in Star Trek and Anjana Kuthiala.

Others I know only from their photographs appearing in the papers. With the exception of Sushmita Sen who is evidently very bright and Aishwarya Rai who I concede the benefit of doubt regarding her IQ, the rest I found singularly uninteresting.

Bimbos without much brains. Who wants to befriend a beautiful doll?

One afternoon one walked into my room accompanied by her mother and D.N. Chaudhury, crusading to eradicate blindness in Himachal Pradesh. She was Ritu Upadhyay, Chicago-born, daughter of Uttaranchali parents who migrated to the United States.

Ritu is certainly no bimbo. She is a working journalist on the staff of Time magazine and now lives in New York. She was on one of her two-yearly visits to India to refresh her roots. Though she has lived all her 23 years in America, she speaks Hindi and Kumaoni fluently. So strong is the pull of the country that she has decided to marry an Indian if she can find a suitable boy.

What is charming about Ritu is that she had no intention of entering a beauty contest but was persuaded to represent Illinois because the chosen candidate was not available. And she is Miss India USA, 2000. D.N. Chaudhury has “adopted” her as his daughter-cum-helper in his campaign. She has donated her eyes and is persuading others to do the same to restore vision to those who cannot get eye-donors — the same as Aishwarya Rai is doing in Mumbai. Ritu has no desire to enter films or the world of modelling; she finds all the fulfilment she needs in journalism.

I am fine, thank you

There is nothing the matter with me
I’m as healthy as I can be
I have arthritis in both my knees
And when I talk, I talk with a wheeze
My pulse is weak and my blood is thin
But I’m awfully well for the shape I’m in.
My real problem is my “get up and go”
Got up and went, but before going
He winked and whispered in my ear
Don’t tell people some of the places
You and I have been to.
Arch support I have for my feet
Or I wouldn’t be able to walk
in the street
Sleep is denied to me, night
after night
But every morning I find I’m
all right
My memory is failing; my
head is in a spin
But I’m awfully well for the
shape I’m in
Old age is golden, I’ve heard it
But sometimes I wonder as I
get into bed
With my ears in a drawer, my
teeth in a cup
My ears on the table until I
wake up
Ere sleep comes ov’r me, I say
to myself
“Is there anything else I
should lay on the shelf?”
I come down in the morning
and dust off my wits
Pick up the paper and read
the “Obits”
If my name is still missing, I
know I’m not dead
So I have a good breakfast
and go back to bed.
The moral is this, as this tale I
That for you and me who are
growing old
Its better to say, “I’m fine”
with a grin
Than let folks know the real
shape I’m in.

“Sex is to the novelist what inflation is to the economist. Both are characterized by a rising rate of interest.”

However apocryphal this aphorism might be, at no time has it been better illustrated than in the United States in the past few months.

The US Federal Reserve, in an attempt to clamp down on the price level and thereby sustain the current economic boom that is in its 10th year, has boosted interest rates no less than six times from mid-1999 through May 2000. This has put the brakes on any inflationary pressures.

But now it appears that this might have been too much of a good thing. The chairman of the US Federal Reserve board, Alan Greenspan, remarked recently that the US economy has slowed down “appreciably” and the Fed must be alert to the risk of “excessive softening” in American demand.

It also seems that the “miracle economy” may at last have been grounded. The annual US economic growth has slowed down to less than the expected 2.7 per cent in the third quarter from the whopping 5.6 per cent in the second quarter. A worsening trade picture and lower production for inventories resulted in the economy growing at its slowest pace in four years during the third quarter this financial year.

The revised estimated growth rate of the gross domestic product has been downgraded to 2.4 per cent in the July-September quarter. This is the weakest performance for any quarter since the third quarter of 1996, when GDP rose only two per cent.

This time the cause has been the fall of high technology stock prices coupled with the strengthening of oil prices globally. The world economy has never survived such a large hike in oil prices before without a major downturn, and this — the fourth oil shock — is expected to leave in its wake ravaged economies, from the US to developing countries. World oil prices have tripled over the past two years.

The US is keen to sustain its economic expansion, which some economists in a splurge of optimism have claimed to have alchemized into a “golden economy.” Not only are gross national product growth rates the highest in a decade, unemployment is the lowest in over a quarter of a century, corporate profits the highest in 40 years and inflation has been beaten down to below three per cent. But the oil shock of 2000 may well sound the death knell of this paradigm of “new economics,” which has won many converts in recent years.

The question is, can the runaway success of the US economy be sustained for more than 10 years? Will the threesome of low unemployment, high growth and low inflation continue indefinitely?

In the third quarter, US post-tax corporate profits rose by a meagre 0.6 per cent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $654.1 billion after a 2.5 per cent rise in the second quarter. This has been the worst showing by profits after the fall of 1.6 per cent in the fourth quarter of 1998. At that time, the Asian financial crisis had driven banks to the wall.

The silver lining in the cloud for the US was consumer expenditure, which fuels two-thirds of national economic activity. It rose by an unrevised 4.5 per cent annual rate, up from 3.1 per cent in the second quarter.

In a surprise move, the US Federal Reserve engineered a half-percentage point rate cut in its overnight bank lending rate to six per cent and also lowered the discount rate a quarter point to 5.75 per cent. This is being seen as a step to stop the world’s largest economy from slowing down some more and sliding into recession. Lower borrowing costs are expected to recharge the batteries of the economy.

Some analysts, however, do not accept the view that the recent series of interest rate hikes by the US Federal Reserve has caused the economy to slow down. They argue that real interest rates in the US are actually one percentage point lower than in 1998, when rates were cut in response to the Asian financial crisis.

However, the Fed’s stubborn persistence in keeping the dollar strong has seen almost all other currencies tumble in the foreign exchange markets. The Indian rupee, for instance, fell from about Rs 42 to the greenback to nearly Rs 47 by Christmas. The rupee is expected to touch Rs 47.30 by end of March.

Whether the US growth engine is truly spluttering can be seen most easily from the British economy, which has traditionally followed the American business cycle with a lag of a few months. At present the United Kingdom is growing robustly. But if the US economy in particular and the world economy in general slow down, the UK could follow suit.

The impact will be felt through the trade account as it is an open economy and through wealth effects. There is some evidence of this already. It is rightly said that when America sneezes, Britain catches a cold. But with inflation at just two per cent, Britain can easily cut interest rates to stave off a recession.

Which brings us back to a moot point: the levers of interest rates are in the hands of central bankers, and the movements of these levers in response to price signals may well determine the fate of the world economy. It is certainly at an interesting juncture.



Purity in the head

Sir — The news report, “Titanic haircut wave in Kabul” (Jan 26), is a reminder of how things really are in Afghanistan. The ambition of becoming the “world’s purest Islamic nation” has led the taliban regime to behave in a manner that is ridiculous. The arrest of about 30 barbers for giving haircuts that resemble the one sported by Leonardo DiCaprio, the star of the blockbuster Titanic, is the latest step taken by the taliban to stem the so-called corrupting influence of the West. The regime which has already banned music, films and television has however failed to neutralize the influence of this film which is being used to sell almost every product. Such actions only demonstrate the political immaturity of the taliban regime and its failure to realize that an attempt to control every aspect of people’s lives can only result in the most unhealthy totalitarianism. The taliban should devote its time to more important issues and stop playing the role of a moral guardian.
Yours faithfully,
Monica Singh, via email

Strategic restraint

Sir — The news report, “Pakistan sees direct threat” (Jan 18), describes Pakistan’s reactions to India’s successful testing of the Agni II missile. The Pakistan foreign ministry has also renewed its proposal of a “strategic restraint regime”.

Pakistan’s statement is amazing to say the least. How long will Pakistan continue to make such hypocritical statements? Can Pakistan escape responsibility for either the Kargil war or for the export of terror into India? With the help of China, it has continued its clandestine nuclear operations while simultaneously indulging in diplomatic doublespeak. It is high time that Pakistan gets it’s act together and takes an initiative to usher in peace in the valley.

Yours faithfully,
Saswata Barman, via email

Sir — The decision to test-fire the Agni II missile, though belated, is a courageous and laudable step (“Fire power”, Jan 22). The test will provide enough data to validate a credible nuclear deterrence. However, it is difficult to understand the logic behind conducting this test while the Chinese premier, Li Peng, was visiting India.

Though Li Peng was informed in advance by New Delhi before it conducted the test, it could easily have been postponed to avoid any diplomatic fall-out. This is the first time that there has been a thaw in the relations between the two countries in the post-Pokhran era and it is difficult to understand New Delhi’s decision to take a step that could easily jeopardize future relations between the two countries. Furthermore, it would be wrong to assume that the test would give India enough leverage to negotiate with China on the long-standing border dispute.

Yours faithfully,
Sanjay Prasad, Calcutta

Backward moves

Sir — Mukul Kesavan’s article, “Keep Dalits in the fold” (Jan 14), betrays his lack of understanding of the reservation policy. His statement that the Indian Constitution has been operating a system of Hindu reservation for half a century is erroneous and provocative.

The Constitution provides reservations for the scheduled castes and the scheduled tribes. However, the majority of the scheduled tribes eligible for reservations are not Hindus but mostly Christians and from other religions. The scheduled castes have been provided reservations, not because they are Hindus, but because many of them are from backward communities and some of them were untouchables.

He is also wrong when he says that the Constitution treats Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains as Hindus. If he has made this statement with Article 25 (2) in mind he has without a doubt been mistaken. This article does not declare Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains to be Hindus. Moreover, the Dalit reservations were not meant to redress the wrongs committed by the Hindus in the past.

They are safeguards against future injustice and the prejudicial actions of society. Since there can be no compensation for past actions, the question of Muslims, Christians or Hindus paying for this compensation does not arise. Reservation only aims at helping them secure their proportional share in running the affairs of the country which has a population with a substantial percentage of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. Reservation for them does not affect the general categories. The examples given by Kesavan are misleading and wrong.

Yours faithfully,
N.G. Uke, London

State of honours

Sir — The naming of Lata Mangeshkar and the shehnai maestro, Bismillah Khan, for the nation’s highest civilian honours has proved that the Centre has learnt lessons from the mistakes made in the past. Mercifully, it has stopped the trend of solely bestowing posthumous honours to leaders like Subhas Chandra Bose, Vallabbhai Patel, B.R. Ambedkar and so on.

The very fact that the selections were made years after these leaders passed away was indicative of the afterthought that had gone into these selections. Year after year most prospective award-winners were becoming despondent with the selections. The prime minister and his selectors deserve compliments for breaking this mindset before the Buddha, Mahavira, Ashoka and others are selected while reputed contemporary figures are left high and dry.

Yours faithfully
Abhijit Roy, Calcutta

Sir — Why the big ruckus over Sourav Ganguly getting or not getting a Padma Shri or any other civilian award (“Game shadow on Sourav honour”, Jan 24)”? Can one not see that these awards ultimately have no meaning. As the editorial, “Whose honour is it any way?” (Jan 28), pointed out, any selection made for such an award is bound to be riddled with “controversies and questions marks”. Ganguly has got enough credentials already for international recognition. What more could he be looking for?

Yours faithfully,
Subir Mukherjee, via email

Oh Kolkata!

Sir — The change from Calcutta to Kolkata should have been welcomed by all. Instead, one comes across the reservations voiced by some readers in the letters column of The Telegraph. It is difficult to comprehend what all the fuss is about though.

While all government institutions have already made the change, there is no onus on either the historical or educational institutions to do the same. Therefore it goes without saying that the University of Calcutta should also retain its name.

Yours faithfully
Sudeshna Karlekar, Calcutta

Sir — It is difficult to understand the reluctance of The Telegraph to accept “Kolkata”, as almost all dailies have done. If every other linguistic group is entitled to assert its regional identity, the desire of the Bengalis to do the same should not be interpreted as a sign of chauvinism.

Yours faithfully,
Kajal Chatterjee, Dhanbad

Sir — While the government had no qualms whatsoever about altering the name of our city, most non-governmental institutions are hesitating to do the same. Would not the name Kolkata Tram Company sound discordant and strange? But then, trams are on their way out too.

Yours faithfully,
Sunil Banerjee, Calcutta

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