Editorial 1 / Custom has staled
Editorial 2 / Club of eight
A friendship in hostage
Fifth Column / Taking an entirely different line
The dusk of the red gods
Take a more constructive approach
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1 / CUSTOM HAS STALED 
 
 
 
 
The budget may have attempted some rationalization on excise, but customs duties have not been rationalized. The government may argue that the peak basic customs duty is now 35 per cent and has been reduced following the slashing of the 10 per cent surcharge, but this is not convincing. Thirty five per cent is more like a modal value and there are seven tariff lines with duties higher than 35 per cent. In the last four years and before the elimination of the surcharge, the average rate of protection in India had gone up, if one includes the former surcharge, the special additional duty and anti-dumping duties. When Mr P. Chidambaram was the finance minister, there was talk of Asean levels of duty soon. That has not been heard of for some time and the Economic Survey talked of “Asian” levels of duty. “Asian” is considerably different from “Asean” and is an expression that is deliciously vague. Fortunately, Mr Yashwant Sinha’s speech does mention “east Asian” duty levels of 20 per cent in three years and so, inefficient industry should be on notice. But that is in the future.

For the moment, other than the elimination of surcharge, the budget has pandered to protectionist sentiments. In view of imminent phase-out of quantitative restrictions on imports from April 2001, there was a threat perception about agro products and manufactured items. It is debatable whether there is genuine threat for agro products across the board, barring a few items like groundnut, edible oils and dairy and poultry items. However, the Congress has attempted to extract mileage out of agriculture and has argued that applied rates should not be lower than World Trade Organization-bound rates, which are commitments on ceilings. Mr Sinha has taken some wind out of this sail by hiking duties on tea, coffee, coconut, crude and refined edible oils.

India is a signatory to a plurilateral agreement on information technology that requires duties on IT products to be reduced to 0 per cent by 2003. Hence basic IT duties are down to 15 per cent and as part of a textile package, duties on textile items and related machinery have also been slashed. Perhaps the strangest import duty cut is that on soda ash, clearly introduced at the behest of Americans. On manufactured imports after phase-out of import licensing, the threat is primarily to small-scale industry and the sooner this sector is dereserved, the better. Garments apart, only four additional items have been earmarked for dereservation. More significantly, liquor and automobile lobbies have prevailed. The form of liquor protection has not yet been announced and will surface later. However, for second-hand car imports, basic duty will be 180 per cent, suggesting that imported second-hand cars pollute the environment, but domestic second-hand cars help the green cause. While direct and excise collection procedures are ostensibly being simplified, there is the bizarre stipulation that countervailing duties for consumer goods will be charged on maximum retail price rather than on cost insurance and freight price of imports. This has already been attempted for China, but China is not yet a member of the WTO. WTO norms insist on transaction value and the MRP provision may be held to be violative of WTO principles. In addition, this clause leaves considerable scope for discretion and harassment with customs in deciding margins that should be subtracted from MRP. Thus, on import duties, Mr Sinha does not merit more than a three out of 10.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2 / CLUB OF EIGHT 
 
 
 
 
The move by eight Congress legislators to join the Trinamool Congress might please Ms Mamata Banerjee because it takes her a step closer to vindicating her claim that in West Bengal she is the real Congress. But this joy may be bereft of substance because the departure of these legislators may not adversely affect the Congress in the numbers game. That Mr Sougata Roy and his friends would leave the Congress became a fait accompli as soon as the Congress president, Ms Sonia Gandhi, made it clear that she would not consent to a Congress-Trinamool alliance as long as the latter remained tied to the Bharatiya Janata Party. Once this decision was conveyed to them, the eight legislators did not vacillate. This exit of eight legislators further diminishes the Congress’s strength but it does not spell its complete obliteration. Ms Banerjee will now have Mr Roy, known as a thinking politician, beside her. Mr Roy’s left-of-centre proclivities will bolster Ms Banerjee’s populism. This might add to Ms Banerjee’s popularity, but it may not make her a better leader for the state.

Ms Banerjee’s position may not have really improved by the addition of these eight legislators. For one thing, hardly any of them command any kind of popular support. In fact, there are grounds to suspect that they have jumped on Ms Banerjee’s bandwagon not out of any sympathy for her but to ensure that they get returned in the forthcoming elections. Their move may not be without a dash of opportunism. Second, all the newcomers to the Trinamool Congress are from in and around Calcutta. Ms Banerjee is already strong in these areas and her position is in no way enhanced, neither is the Congress’s position radically altered. It would have been a different matter for the Congress had this split occurred in north Bengal. The popular anti-left vote in West Bengal is slowly moving towards Ms Banerjee but there are no signs that Congress voters en bloc across the state will stamp on the Trinamool Congress symbol. Without such a development Ms Banerjee might well harbour mixed feelings about defections from the Congress. More of such additions increases the possibility of resentment among her original supporters and the risk of factionalism within the Trinamool Congress.

   

 
 
A FRIENDSHIP IN HOSTAGE 
 
 
BY K.P. NAYAR
 
 
It has been a good week abroad for India. For the first time, for the very first time in several years, India was on top of the news last week in its own right, for reasons of its destiny and standing in the world. And not because of natural disasters, nuclear tests, terrorist violence, plague or communal disharmony.

Last week, first there was the budget, which has been received well overseas — particularly because less was expected from the finance minister, Yashwant Sinha. The Gujarat earthquake had dampened hopes of any second wave of reform, which were low anyway with a string of state assembly elections round the corner and the political compulsions within the ruling National Democratic Alliance taking their toll on the reform process. But the international consensus so far has been that this year’s budget may, after all, be the prelude to another round of much-needed reform.

Then came the outrage from the taliban: the decision by the Khmer Rouge of Afghanistan to interpret Islam as a licence to destroy everything pre-Islamic. For once, South Block rose to the occasion and did what it was supposed to do: defend the heritage of India’s neighbourhood for the sake of mankind. Significantly, major United States television networks, which reported the offer of the external affairs minister, Jaswant Singh, to salvage Afghanistan’s Buddhist heritage described it as as an effort by the “regional power, India” to do its share for preserving the relics. If this effort by South Block is part of a belated attempt to end the long catalogue of mistakes in New Delhi’s dealings with Kabul in recent years, it is to be whole-heartedly welcomed.

But any meaningful initiative by India on Afghanistan mandates greater coordination with countries like Russia and Iran, not the US. In the last one year, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government had deluded itself into believing that it has done everything possible to realize the full potential of its relations with countries like Russia and Iran. But beneath all the trappings of these efforts has been an unspoken attempt to make relations with Russia or Iran hostage to India’s ties with the US.

That the euphoria over the visit last year by an American president to India, for the first time in 22 years, still lingers is a tribute to the charisma of Bill Clinton. But to ensure that India’s foreign policy does not become America-centric and thus resemble that of Pakistan for most of its existence, it is necessary to put New Delhi’s friendship with some other countries in perspective.

Take India’s relations with Russia, for instance. A little-known anecdote about a spin-off of president Vladimir Putin’s visit to India in October last year is indicative of what remains even today of the old Indo-Soviet camraderie.

Putin’s 49th birthday was within days of his return to Moscow from his trip to India. His mentor and predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, had planned a very special birthday party for Putin. Yeltsin had carefully timed the release of Midnight Diaries, the third volume of his memoirs, to coincide with his successor’s birthday. And he had arranged a party with 150 guests in Moscow for the twin events — the book release and the president’s birthday.

Putin, fresh from his India visit, however, chose a unique way of celebrating his birthday. He went to St. Petersburg and had an Indian dinner with family and close friends at the “Tandoor” restaurant in his home town. There, he presented “Tandoor” with a photograph of him receiving an honorary degree from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

During the Soviet days, this anecdote about Putin’s birthday solidarity with India would have been household information all over the country. As much would have been made of it as Clinton’s periodic dinner visits from the White House to the “Bombay Club” Indian restaurant near the presidential mansion in Washington. But not any more. In recent years, there has been official discouragement of the kind of effusive coverage of Indo-Russian relations that characterized Soviet days.

This has, by no means, been prompted by the political leadership: it is more a product of ignorance and bias towards the West of the kind that held sway over Andrei Kozyrev’s foreign ministry in Moscow earlier. There have been attempts to underplay the potential of New Delhi’s ties with Moscow — indeed of the potential of Russia itself. Those on Raisina Hill who think Russia is going to be a “third rate power” — to borrow I.K. Gujral’s notorious description of the United Kingdom on the eve of Queen Elizabeth’s India visit — are seriously mistaken. And a policy predicated on such a premise can only do lasting harm to India’s interests in a rapidly changing world.

There is not enough appreciation in New Delhi’s corridors of power that Putin’s Russia is — and will be — radically different from the amor- phous post-communist country which Yeltsin fashioned during his years in power.

A close look at the peripatetic Putin’s travel itinerary is enough to convince anyone of this. In the last week of February, for instance, Putin was in Austria, then in Ukraine. Back in Moscow, he had talks with the German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, before meeting the secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, Lord Robertson. While his foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, met his US counterpart, Colin Powell, in Cairo, Putin’s office finalized his trips to South Korea and Vietnam. Putin has been to Cuba and Canada in recent weeks. The German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, was in Moscow in January. The list goes on and on.

At the same time, Sergei Ivanov, the head of Putin’s powerful national security council, surprised delegates at the recent international security conference in Munich by revealing that the post-Yeltsin policy-makers had concluded that the Commonwealth of Independent States experiment had failed. Ivanov said that a review of the key elements of Russia’s CIS policies had been conducted as a result of “the realization that accelerated development of the Commonwealth into a full-fledged international association is not possible in the near future”. As a new policy, Moscow will, instead, protect its interests in the former Soviet Union by developing bilateral relations with specific CIS states. Putin’s meeting withthe Ukraine president, Leonid Kuchma, came soon after Ivanov’s statement in Munich, triggering fears in Washington that it marked the start of a process which will eventually integrate Ukraine with the Russia-Belarus union. Simultaneously, cash-rich Russian companies — such as the fabulously wealthy Gasprom, the oil and gas conglomerate — are spreading their tentacles in eastern Europe, among the old satellite states of the Soviet Union.

There is little so far to suggest that India’s political leadership has grasped the significance of these momentous changes in Moscow. The determination of the new US president, George W. Bush, to push ahead with the national missile defence system has created a common cause between Moscow and European capitals. If Washington’s pursuit of NMD leads to the abrogation of the anti-ballistic missile treaty, it will be a return to the days of Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament in Europe. CND became one of the most important tools for Soviet influence in Europe in the Seventies and the Eighties.

India’s mealy-mouthed response to NMD, which is opposed not only by China and Russia, but also by most of Europe, must be seen against this backdrop. It will be a pity if New Delhi, which has been a consistent supporter of peace and disarmament, now shrinks from opposing NMD forcefully merely for fear of upsetting Washington.

Indians must also remember that Putin’s Russia has so far firmly turned down the Bush administration’s demands that Moscow should suspend the supply of nuclear fuel to Tarapore. New Delhi may argue in its defence that military deals with Russia are proceeding as planned and that ties with Moscow are strong. But with the changes that the Bush administration is planning in its foreign and defence policies, a message ought to go out loud and clear from New Delhi that its relations with Moscow — and other similar countries — are not hostage to its new friendship with Washington.

   

 
 
FIFTH COLUMN / TAKING AN ENTIRELY DIFFERENT LINE 
 
 
BY R.C. ACHARYA
 
 
It is quite evident that Mamata Banerjee believes in the adage “Cut your coat according to the cloth”. The railways minister has not increased passenger fares and has proposed only a token two per cent hike in the freight charges for non-essential goods. She has boldly opted against any new projects and at the same time, provided for increased allotment to expedite the completion of projects which have been languishing in the “pink book” with a token grant for years.

The unigauge project, which has seen some 11,000 kilometres being converted from metre-guage and even narrow-gauge to broad-gauge, has been the primary factor behind the bankruptcy of the railways. Moreover, out of the current list of 81 unfinished new lines, 76 have shown a negative rate of return and yet have found their way into successive railway budgets.

Being the self-appointed messiah of the underprivileged, former railways minister Ram Vilas Paswan had sought to gain immense political mileage by announcing six new railway zones in addition to the nine already present. This despite knowing that the railways had initiated a massive drive to downsize its staff and had reduced its manpower from 1.65 million in 1991-92 to 1.57 million in 1997-98. Thankfully, Paswan’s quixotic venture has been put on the backburner.

Politics outweighed

The Justice Khanna committee, looking into the problems of the railways, has noted that the tussle is really between economic rationality on the one hand and the political drive to favour specific constituencies on the other. The committee concluded that the only way the railways could hope to be socially useful was by being financially productive. By refusing requests for new lines, gauge conversions and electrification projects, Banerjee has proved beyond doubt that she is more of hard nosed CEO and less of a politician looking for cheap popularity.

The year 1999-2000 saw freight targets not only being met but surpassed by an all time record of 35 million tones. Banerjee hopes the Indian Railways will be able to meet the enhanced target of 475 million tones for this year. Passenger earnings have also zoomed to Rs 8,552 crore by January. 2001, Rs 740 crore higher than the corresponding period for last year.

The need for doubling has been fully recognized. Also, Banerjee has announced no less than five new projects including Bandel-Jirat, Baruipur-Magraghat, and Harishchandrapur-Kumarganj sections in the eastern sector to be taken up in 2001-02. She has proposed 26 surveys for new lines, one for gauge conversion and three for doubling and electrification each, which have effectively postponed demands for these new lines to a much later date.

Better deal

Despite a Central support stagnating at Rs 3,540 crore, Banerjee has managed to find Rs 11,090 crore to expedite ongoing projects. She is hopeful that seven of the ongoing new line projects — of which Kakdweep-Kashinagar, Eklakhi-Gazol, Jaruri-Banspani and Tamluk-Bajkul are on Eastern/South Eastern Railway — will be completed by March 31, 2001.

Safety continues to be accorded the highest priority in Banerjee’s scheme of things. She has provided a significant jump of 26 per cent over an outlay of Rs 2,050 crore for 2000-01 on safety provisions. She has gone on to nominate the chairman of the railway board, where the bureaucratic buck stops, as incharge for rail safety to emphasise her concern for this vital area.

Calcutta will soon see a 30 bed hospital for Metro Rail employees. A vital line between Ultadanga and Rajarhat, connecting Dum Dum airport to Titagarh in the north and Garia in the south on the Circular Railway will soon take shape. Banerjee is also confident about an extension of the Metro Railway.

No less than 24 new trains are some of the goodies which Banerjee perhaps could not avoid giving away. The proposed six additional EMU trains and four DMU trains on new sections should make people happy without straining the railway finances.

Banerjee has also tried to provide a better deal for harassed passengers by adding 71 stations to the existing 670 under the passenger reservation system. This will enable more passengers get the benefit of computerized booking, while better amenities will be made available with a hike of 39 per cent in the budget allotment over last year.

   

 
 
THE DUSK OF THE RED GODS 
 
 
BY BIDYUT CHAKRABARTY
 
 
The forthcoming assembly election in West Bengal is an unusual phenomenon for two simple reasons. For the first time, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is not as sure about its victory as in the past elections. Besides factional rivalries, the formation of the Party for Democratic Socialism is certainly a clear indication of what has happened to the CPI(M) after being in power for more than two decades. It is too early to predict the future of the Saifuddin Chowdhury-led PDS. What is clear, however, is the articulation of dissent in the form of specific organizations that draw, inter alia, upon the failure of the Left Front in the state.

The second reason is probably more significant. So far, the opposition was fractured and the CPI(M) and its partners won the elections rather comfortably because of splits in the anti-Left Front votes. The idea of a mahajot is being floated to avoid division among the anti-Left Front voters. Even if a mahajot does not take off formally, there are indications that those who are strongly opposed to the Left Front will strike an informal deal to defeat the CPI(M) and its supporting parties.

The popularity of the Left Front is on the wane, if we look at the number of seats and percentage of popular votes in favour of the Left Front in successive elections since 1987. Not only has the CPI (M) lost 30 seats within nine years, but its share of votes has also dwindled. The front’s loss was certainly the opposition’s gain. The Congress, that lost miserably in both the 1987 and 1991 elections, captured almost one-third of the assembly seats. Unlike the CPI(M), that lost about two per cent of its votes, the Congress, though a divided house, gained more than four per cent since the 1991 elections. Except the Communist Party of India, the other major partners, the Revolutionary Socialist Party and the Forward Bloc also witnessed a clear decline of their share of votes.

It is evident that the Left Front constituents have been experiencing a gradual, but steady, decline in West Bengal. Also, there are clear indications that the left support-base does not appear to be as stable as it was before. What has contributed to this is not difficult to understand.

One of the reasons for strong criticism against the front is its dismal performance in two important aspects of social and political life — health and education. Despite good doctors and other health workers around, the decay in the basic services is appalling. Moreover, the growing practice of according priority to those with recommendations from the local party for treatment in the government hospitals has alienated a large number of committed voters, leave alone non-committal ones, who found, in this, a deliberate effort to marginalize those opposed to the front. Moreover, the Left Front’s policy of completely eliminating English upto class V had contributed to the erosion of its support among the urban middle class. Even with the recruitment of teachers, from the primary to the university level, merit is ignored and what appears to be decisive is the approval of the CPI(M).

The gradual decay of civic amenities, like maintenance of roads, regular clearing of garbage from the streets, has also consolidated the opposition to the front in urban areas. Neither the Calcutta Municipal Corporation nor other municipal bodies in the outskirts of Calcutta made any significant impact on the minds of urban voters as effective civic institutions.

What is gradually alienating the Calcutta voters from the Left Front is probably the failure of the government to halt the decline of Calcutta as a metropolis. The decay of Calcutta is slow but obvious. The process began with the Naxalite violence and labour unrest under the two United Front governments (1967-1970). The flight of capital ensured that fewer jobs were available and the well-planned design to cripple academic institutions like Presidency College led to the brighter students and teachers migrating elsewhere, mainly to New Delhi. What replaced them, however, was not a proletarian cultural revolution, but a feeling of frustration and bitterness.

Even the decree that English will not be taught till class VI is seen as a deliberate move to cripple the Bengali middle class which will be at a disadvantage in relation to others with jobs outside West Bengal. The domestic job market is not very encouraging either. The younger voters, in particular, have thus become hostile presumably because of rapidly shrinking job opportunities in the state. Since these voters do not have any political memory of state repression, prevalent in the late Sixties and early Seventies, they are not emotionally attached to the Left Front as an ideological force.

Another reason for the diminishing popularity of the Left Front government is certainly its failure to accomplish the promised industrial resurgence in the state. The inability of the front to reverse the industrial decline or even to mitigate the stagnation after more than two decades of being in power has caused serious disenchantment among a large section of the urban population. The nodal agency for industrial regeneration, the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation, headed by the CPI(M) member of Parliament, Somnath Chatterjee, has apparently failed to bring about any noticeable impact on the industrial front.

The fanfare with which the WBIDC was hailed was short-lived because until March 1997, 18 of the 26 projects were shelved after spending almost Rs 12 million. During the last financial year, the corporation’s loss went up to Rs 120 million. The industrial scenario has been equally hindered by the mindless and crude economism of the communist leadership. Far from industrial rejuvenation, the frequent closing down of factories and consequently, the retrenchment of a large number of workers has eroded the support base of the left coalition substantially.

The CPI(M) is probably paying the price of remaining in power for this long. Those who wield public influence and shape policy are not ideologues or mass leaders, but bureaucrats. Furthermore, the government decisions, on most occasions, are largely the product of inputs provided by the so-called local committees that have become parallel centres of power. These committees have so much power that the government officers appear peripheral. The ubiquitous CPI(M) local committees constitute the nervous system of the Left Front government.

This includes the panchayat officials’ ability to dole out favours to those recommended by the local committees. This breeds manipulators and backroom tacticians, not leaders. They have been, so far, most efficient in sustaining both the party and the government in an environment where the opposition is too feeble to combat the state-sponsored agenda. The rise of the Trinamool Congress and the possibility of a mahajot is likely to create a forum for those opposed to the Left Front.

   

 
 
TAKE A MORE CONSTRUCTIVE APPROACH 
 
 
BY TIRTHO BANERJEE
 
 
The Sardar Sarovar dam over the Narmada falls in the area of the triple junction of a fault zone. This means it is seismologically sensitive and a geologically disturbed area. Similarly, Sunderlal Bahuguna, the noted environmentalist, avers that if the Tehri dam cracks due to an earthquake, Rishikesh would drown in 63 minutes and 17 minutes later, Hardwar would be inundated.

The earthquake in Gujarat has brought to the fore the danger of building large dams in quake-prone zones. Geologists and seismologists believe that both the Narmada and Tehri dams could spell doom if an earthquake above eight on the Richter scale takes place. Besides, both these projects can even induce seismic activity and trigger earthquakes.

While calculating the safety of the dams, reservoir induced seismicity must be taken into consideration. RIS gets accelerated by a large mass or body of water. If there is more stored water which seeps down the earth, the possibility of an earthquake increases. In both Tehri and Narmada dams, the RIS factor is high because they are quite huge and the pressure exerted by the weight of water is tremendous.

A senior geologist at the National Geo-Physical Research Institute points out that Koyna in Maharashtra is highly RIS prone. The largest known reservoir-induced quake measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale occured here. There are 12 more sites in India which are vulnerable to reservoir-induced quake. The Jabalpur earthquake in 1998 was RIS related.

Handle with care

A University of Colorado research has warned that the Tehri dam might release elastic strain energy along the faultline between Nepal and Tibet. This might trigger an earthquake of as high as 8.9 on the Richter scale or four quakes of 8.2 in the time to come. In fact, the Himalayas are earthquake prone and building a 260.5 metre high dam in the mountains defies logic. Earthquake experts underline that stress is building up along the “active faultline” in the Himalayan ranges. Already the Uttarkashi and Chamoli quakes few years back have destroyed parts of the ecology of the region.

However, Indian planners are still not heeding the warning signals. The Bhuj and Uttarkashi earthquakes indicate that big dams should not be built in areas ecologically and geologically fragile. The way out is to build small check dams on fast mountain rivers. The strong pro-big dam lobby has to be grounded by the government while weighing the pros and cons of every project.

Experts believe that the government should ensure that every dam that is built passes through a screen of several checks and balances that clearly evaluate all types of ecological and social effects likely to be created. And although big dams might generate more energy, they should not be allowed in fragile regions.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Practice unmakes perfect

Sir — The Indian cricket captain’s decision to play for the Board President’s XI badly exposes the his team’s poor preparation before taking on the Australians (“Sourav to play for Board XI”, March 3). The ongoing series was being touted as the one which would decide whether the Australians are worthy of being called the world champions. Ganguly’s decision, coming after India has lost the first test without even putting up a fight, only proves that while the visiting team has been preparing for the past three months, the Indian captain has to play a practice match after the first test as he is out of touch. This also gives away the contrasting levels of professionalism in the two teams. What was achieved from the much-publicized practice camp in Chennai if the captain still needs to play practice matches to get himself in tune? At least Ganguly realized he was not fully prepared and is trying to make amends. But what about the rest who, with the exception of Sachin Tendulkar, also failed to to deliver?
Yours faithfully,
Saptarshi Bhose, via email

Heap of broken images

Sir — The taliban’s vandalizing of Budddhist artefacts in Afghanistan has shocked the world (“Taliban turn guns on Buddha”, March 3). Such an act would erase not only one of the major achievements of early Buddhist architecture, but also the chequered history of the region. Besides attracting attention and commanding respect by their dimensions, the two statues of Buddha in Bamiyan inspired all the gigantic statues that followed, including the statue of Buddha at the Husain Sagar Lake and the image of Mahavira at Sravanbelagola.

Stylistically derived from Graeco-Roman and Iranian sources, the Bamiyan statues and caves stand parallel to Gandhara art. The Bamiyan frescoes saw the unique mingling of at least three different traditions: the Indian, the Sasanian and the central Asian. It is sad that the only way to save the remaining artefacts is to encourage their smuggling out of Afghanistan.

The government of India must be congratulated for expressing its concern and resentment over the Bamiyan vandalism. But at the same time, it must remember that Bajrang Dal and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh share a similar mindset. School texts recommended by the sangh parivar are propagating ideas to the effect that several renowned Muslim monuments were built on Hindu shrines. The incidents at Bamiyan should make Indians aware of the fundamentalist threat to some Indian monuments and artefacts.

Yours faithfully,
Anshuman Bhowmick, Calcutta

Sir — The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government of India has no moral right to condemn the destruction of the Buddha statues in Afghanistan. The BJP’s parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and others in the sangh parivar have been involved in similar acts, like the demolition of the Babri Masjid. As far as the transportation and preservation of the statues in India are concerned, the inefficient government machinery is simply not upto it. The state of the national heritage monuments is proof enough.

Yours faithfully,
S.M. Fernandes, via email

Sir — Some “secular” leaders of India have been trying to draw a parallel between the destruction of the Buddha statues in Bamiyan and the demolition of the Babri Masjid in India in December, 1992. But such a comparison is ridiculous. While the act of demolition of the mosque cannot be supported, it must be pointed out that the grudge of the destroyers sprang from their belief in the fact that it has been built by demolishing a Hindu temple. In Afghanistan, no such passion seems to be at work, only a peculiar irrationality.

Yours faithfully,
Gouri Shankar Agrawal, Calcutta

Sir — The nurturing of fundamentalist forces during the Eighties against a world power has resulted in things coming to such a pass in Afghanistan. The power-wielding forces should realize what monsters they have created by encouraging fundamentalism around the world in general and the third world countries in particular.

Within a few years after prophet Muhammad’s death, the new power-holders used Islam to further their vested interests by converting the Islamic state into a kingship against the edicts of the prophet. These rulers were the biggest opponents of the prophet initially and accepted Islam much later. They also indulged in acts which were anti-Islam. The taliban has only turned the clock back to those old days.

Yours faithfully,
Ahmad Cameron, via email

Sir — The worst side of religious fundamentalism was revealed when Afghanistan’s minister for information and culture said, without batting an eyelid, that the Bamiyan Buddhas were “easy to break apart and did not take much time.” But in the middle of worldwide protests, where are the so-called secular intellectuals of India? Why aren’t they out on the streets, displaying their wrath in rallies, meetings, poems, stories, editorials and so on?

Yours faithfully,
Shikhar Ray, Baruipur

Sir — The picture of a Buddhist monk beating with a stick the effigy of the taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, was shocking (page 6, March 4). The expression of pure aggression on the monk’s face has its own horrible story to tell. For him, the destruction of the statues was first an act of violence against the propounder of his faith and then the destruction of a historical document. The hatred written all over the monk’s face belied the principle of non-violence associated with Buddhism. But perhaps this reveals how sensitive even the most non-violent of communities can get once its faith suffers indignity.

Yours faithfully,
Shreya Agarwal, Calcutta

Pilgrims’ progress

Sir — It is unfortunate that the Union government has decided to subsidize Haj pilgrimage (“Haj subsidy”, Feb 7). The money spent will be the taxpayers’, most of whom will get no returns for it. Subsidizing Haj is not based on any grand principle of secularism. It will not enhance the image of the country in the world. It will not even win India friends in Muslim countries. Even Islamic countries do not subsidize Haj. The policy of appeasement is clear from the fact that no such subsidy has ever been demanded. This is unsound economics, sectarian politics and bad diplomacy.

Yours faithfully,
Robin Kumar, via email

Sir — Why is there so little information on the Haj subsidy? Has any pilgrim got the benefit of the subsidy yet? The government’s Haj committee takes from each Haji more than Rs 80,000, whereas private tour agents charge Rs70,000, which covers all expenses, including food and travel. Some money is also given back in Saudi Arabia for pocket expenses. If these private tour organizers can ensure all reasonable comfort, who needs a subsidy from the government Haj committee?

Yours faithfully,
Abu Bhaiya, Calcutta

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