Editorial/ Stare them down
Those supermen in history
People/ Mehdi Hasan
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL/ STARE THEM DOWN 
 
 
 
 
Timothy McVeigh died with his eyes wide open. His last stare, unblinking and expressionless, haunts the witnesses to his execution on June 11. Most of them were survivors and relatives of the victims of the bomb which McVeigh set off in Oklahoma City six years ago, killing 168 men, women and children. Most interpret this stare as McVeigh’s chilling lack of remorse for this act of domestic terrorism. He could even be deliberately trying to “stare them down”, a tactic possibly learnt during his years in the army, which included a stint as a gunner in the 1991 Kuwait War. He did make it a point to look into the eyes of the journalists, lawyers and United States federal government officials gathered to watch the execution. But these other witnesses were the only ones McVeigh could not have made eye contact with. Some of this stricken lot were sitting behind a one-way screen to watch him die; others watched a close-circuit broadcast of the event in Oklahoma City. McVeigh did not know that he was looking straight into a television camera as he lay down “very still”. So, in all probability, he was staring at his own death in those final moments.

McVeigh preferred to call his death a “state-assisted suicide”. It was also, clearly, a state-assisted spectacle. At least two sets of gazes were focused on him as he died — the eyes of the state and of those who had been devastated by his act of violence. Each brought to the event a set of desires and responses. About a fifth of those who had suffered in his hands felt that simply knowing that he was dead was not enough. They also wanted to watch him die. Although their responses range from a sense of futility to elation, a word frequently used by them is “closure”. It is associated with a welcome sense of an ending, bringing with it peace and relief. According to the relative of a victim, viewing this event was like a “period at the end of a sentence”, just as the German government wanted to put a “financial full-stop to the darkest chapter” of Germany’s history by compensating the survivors of the Nazi labour camps. For this witness, the need to create a psychic “demarcation point” is part of what she sees as the “completion of justice”. And it is in this linking of a deeply personal compulsion with the process of the law, that the role of the state in preparing the spectacle begins to appear sinister.

There is an understandably religious undertone in the amorphous language used by these witnesses, and this suddenly becomes explicit in the federal legalese spoken around the event, from the attorney general’s intercessions to the president’s homily. What this official language invokes, if only by disavowal, is the link between justice and ven-geance (human and divine), between punishment and sin. The president sees the Oklahoma City victims being given “not ven- geance, but justice”. Yet he also talks about a reckoning, about the good that overcomes evil, about redemption, eternal justice and a purpose “greater than our own”. This is, quite unmistakably, the Puritan apocalypse, by which human sinfulness must be tried in the theatre of god’s judgment. And in this, the agnostic McVeigh — who talks about “the nature of the beast” and about the dead children as “collateral damage” — as well as McVeigh’s punishers are fired by the same sort of imagination and theology. What is disturbing about this connection is the way it helps the federal government and its justice department to accommodate an essentially irrational human instinct, through religion, in the ostensibly neutral and rational operations of the state.

In this vengeful theatre, the state legitimizes, perhaps even creates, the witnesses’ desire to see McVeigh die in the name of a rightness — and a righteousness — that spring from another order of rough justice. McVeigh saw the federal government as his implacable enemy, eventually turning upon it, to brutal effect, the pathology that he saw embodied in the state’s paranoid abuse of civil liberties. In persuading his victims that they need to take an eye for an eye, the state seems to have foisted upon them a mode of redressal that could take justice back to an older dispensation.

   

 
 
THOSE SUPERMEN IN HISTORY 
 
 
BY RAMACHANDRA GUHA
 
 
The strengths of Indian federalism are manifest most directly in the names of the country’s airports. For in the 21st century, the places where planes land or take off are potent symbols of prosperity and power. They denote the meeting of the local and the global. They provide access to the outside world while linking it firmly with the place one calls “home”.

It is scarcely a surprise, then, that Indian airports always take their names from local or regional heroes. Hence Guwahati’s airport is named after Assam’s first chief minister, Gopinath Bordoloi, Hyderabad’s and Bhubaneswar’s take their names from the most charismatic politicians the respective states have produced, N.T. Rama Rao and Biju Patnaik. Chennai’s airport has two wings: the domestic terminal is named after the Congress colossus, K. Kamaraj, the international terminal after the giant of the Dravidian movement, C.N. Annadurai.

The five names in the preceding paragraph are of men who all served as chief ministers of their states after 1947. In a different category are the men after whom the airports in Calcutta and Mumbai are named. Subhas Chandra Bose died a few years short of Indian independence, and Shivaji died in the year 1680. Yet one cannot think of the Calcutta airport taking the name of a mere chief minister, whether B.C. Roy or Jyoti Basu. Likewise, to affix the name of Y.B. Chavan or even Bal Thackeray to the city’s airport would guarantee that Mumbai shall instantly go up in flames.

The cult of Bose is well-known to readers. On a recent trip to Maharashtra, I was exposed afresh and with force to the cult of Shivaji. I was visiting Panchgani, an educational town sited on a hill, surrounded by other hills with forts once controlled by the greatest of Maratha warriors. One Sunday, my hosts took me on a day trip to the fort of Pratapgarh, two hours drive from Panchgani. Also in the party were a bunch of American students. Our guides were two scholars from Pune, steeped in the lore and folklore of Shivaji.

Pratapgarh is the place where Shivaji met and assassinated Afzal Khan. The Maratha was a bare five feet in height; his adversary, a foot and a half taller. But the Maratha was endowed with a keener understanding of the local environment, and a sharper intelligence. And he was not above a little deceit. When Afzal Khan asked to meet him Shivaji went prepared with tiger claws, with which he stabbed the unsuspecting Pathan to death. But then, our guides told us, he insisted that his enemy be interred with the honours due to a visiting army’s senapati. So Afzal Khan’s body was carefully buried a hundred feet below the main fort. It is now covered over with a pretty and well-maintained shrine, paid for by the public. The larger hill thus stands as a monument to Shivaji, the little hill to his one-time enemy.

On the journey to and fro, and especially on the fort itself, we were subject to a string of Shivaji stories. A story illustrating his skill with the horse; another of his skill in fort construction. A tale of his bravery and valour in battle, another of his artful planning of the defensive retreat. Around us were other groups of worshipful visitors, listening likewise to stories of Shivaji’s greatness, these told by one of the countless guides who make their living off the traffic to the fort.

At the end of a long, hard climb, we reached Pratapgarh’s crest. Here lay a statue of Shivaji astride his horse, commissioned in 1956 to mark the imminent coming into being of the state of Maharashtra. The statue was unveiled, so the plaque in front told us, by Jawahar- lal Nehru. On the statue’s side there was an inscription set in stone. I asked one of our guides to translate. These were the words of a Portuguese governor of Goa, speaking in 1666, saying of Shivaji that in courage and inspirational leadership he was the equal of Alexander the Great.

The literal-minded historian would ask for documentary proof of this tribute. In truth, it doesn’t matter. For all Maharashtrians believe in what the Portuguese governor is believed to have said. In that state the cult of the Great Warrior transcends party, class, caste, gender and generation. For those who associate Shivaji with the Shiv Sena, remember that it was a Muslim chief minister of the Congress, A.R. Antulay, who fought an election promising to bring Shivaji’s sword back from London. Urbane professors with PhDs believe as passionately in the myth of Shivaji’s omniscience as unlettered rustics. There are some Maharashtrians who think that Shivaji never lost a battle, and many more who insist that he was of pure Rajput stock, this despite the fact that he had to get Brahmins from distant Kashi for his coronation. The local priests had refused, insinuating that Shivaji was actually descended from Dhangar pastoralists (as he well might have been).

There are some telling similarities here with the cult of Bose. For his admirers also come from all parts of Bengal and subscribe to all shades of political opinion. In the collective imagination Bose too is immaculate and indestructible. He was incapable of a mean act or a sharp word. He was a leader of supreme tactical skill. And naturally, he always had uppermost in his mind the welfare of his people. There are some Bengalis who refuse to believe that Bose is dead, and many more who cannot allow the possibility that he ever married, that ordinary human act somehow subtracting from his unqualified devotion to the nation.

Go back for a moment to the other leaders after whom India’s airports are named. Rama Rao and Patnaik, Annadurai and Kamaraj, were contentious figures in their own states. They had admirers as well as detractors. Their policies and their legacies have been praised as well as vilified. That is as it should be, for these were all figures of history. So were Shivaji and Bose, but they have instead been transformed into figures beyond history, figures of myth and of legend. Why has this happened? Why do Bengalis and Maharashtrians treat their heroes with a reverence excessive even by the standards of India and Indians?

I think the cults of Bose and Shivaji have their origins in the decline from an earlier prominence of the states of Bengal and Maharashtra. Bombay and Calcutta were once the two great cities of India. It was in these cities and their hinterlands that Indians were first exposed to modern education and modern politics. These urban centres gave rise to a renaissance on the eastern and western edges of our land. Thus Bengal and Maharashtra between them produced the bulk of modern India’s great reformers, writers, thinkers and politicians. They produced the best of modern India’s scientists and entrepreneurs as well.

The dominance of these two states and linguistic communities was threatened and in time undermined by two near-simultaneous processes: the shifting of the capital of British India to Delhi in 1911, and the return of Gandhi from South Africa in January 1915. Gandhi moved the centre of the national movement to the then relatively obscure town of Ahmedabad, and then de-centred it altogether by setting up district and state Congress committees all across India. Meanwhile, Delhi became the new magnet for scholars and writers with talent and ambition. Particularly after 1947, it also became a centre of intellectual excellence. The University of Delhi prospered as the Universities of Bombay and Calcutta declined.

The cults of Bose and Shivaji are in part, perhaps in good part, a response to this loss of cultural and political power. They provide consolation to the Bengali and the Marathi, a reminder of the old days when their leaders led, and the rest of India followed. It is probably not an accident either that both cults foreground masculinity and military strength. In this they cock a snook at the competing cult of Gandhi, the cult which promoted accommodation, compromise, and non-violence.

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PEOPLE/ MEHDI HASAN 
 
 
 
 

A Pawn is Born

Popular culture has often served as delicious fodder for rulers caught in a cleft stick in the Indian sub-continent. More so, when it helps strike a chord among millions on either side of the fence.

Back in the Eighties, Pakistan’s General Zia-ul-Haq used cricket diplomacy to confirm it was the willow game, and not hockey, that would stoke sub-continental passions in the future. And now, about two decades later, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee hopes to strike the right note with his rather delayed, get-well-soon letter to Mehdi Hasan, Pakistan’s ailing ghazal maestro. The Prime Minister wrote: “I join millions of fans in India in praying for your speedy and complete recovery so that the world of music may continue to have one of its greatest living exponents for a long time.” Words that are music to millions of ghazal lovers in the sub-continent.

One would sincerely hope that the Indian Prime Minister’s missive is much more than merely a subtle tactical note amidst the changing winds of border diplomacy. After all, the same government still stubbornly refuses to play cricket with its ‘hostile’ neighbour. And cultural barters across the border remain at a low ebb. In fact, cultural exchanges between the two countries have vacillated between extremes. The roars of appreciation at a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan show has often been counterbalanced by the disruptions at a Ghulam Ali concert.

But there is no denying that Hasan, 70, who suffered a debilitating paralytic stroke sometime ago and is still bed-ridden, is genuinely revered by music-lovers on either sides of the uneasy border. Anyone who has ever heard Hasan sing, either live or a record of his private albums, will never ask, why. Certainly the most celebrated male ghazal singer ever, Hasan stands alongwith Begum Akhtar and Mallika Pukhraj among the best in the trade. His deep velvet voice and his matchless style of relaxed rendition make him the king of ghazals, a title he holds even today.

Few artistes have drawn such unqualified acclaim from ustaads and contemporaries alike. Lata Mangeshkar once said, “Mehdi Hasan ke gale mein bhagwan bolta hai.” Even music director Naushad proffered, “Unki tareef to suraj ko chirag dikhana hai.” Next generation ghazal singers such as Jagjit Singh, Talat Aziz, Penaz Masani and Rajkumar Rizvi have all acknowledged him as a master, Hasan’s influence starkly visible in their singing.

Virtuoso Hindustani classical singer Pandit Bhimsen Joshi too is a great admirer of Hasan; their relationship filled with warmth and respect for each other. Once when Joshi walked in midway during a Hasan concert in Pune, the latter came off the stage to embrace him. He then proceeded to sing the memorable, Zindagi mein to sabhi pyar karte hai, main to mar kar bhi meri jaan tujhe chahoonga, said to be one of Joshi’s favourites.

Mehdi Hasan comes from village Lunwa located in Rajasthan’s Jhunjhunu district. It is said that his ancestors were once singers in the court of Amer who later migrated to the Shekhawati region. Later they became the singers in the courts of the Mandwa nobles. The family migrated to Pakistan during Partition.

Accounts differ as to who really groomed Hasan into a polished singer. Some attribute it to his father Azim Khan, who was an exponent of Indian classical music and played for the maharajah of Jaipur. Others credit it to his uncle, Ismail Khan, a student from Bhatkhande College, Lucknow. It is said that he took the six-year-old boy under his wings and started training him in the highly contrary arts of singing and wrestling.

Hasan mastered a wide range of vocal styles: dhrupad, khayal, thumri and dadra at a relatively young age. After he was successfully auditioned for Radio Pakistan in Karachi, he received Rs 35 as payment, about three times more than what a singer received those days. But the story goes that music aficionados who heard him thought that Hasan deserved to be paid at least Rs 100!

He started out as a classical singer on the radio but later switched over to ghazals. Soon he was singing regularly for films, starting with Mere khayal-o-khwab ki duniya in Shikar (1962). Many of these filmi ghazals such as Rafta rafta woh meri are as timeless and memorable as those sung by Mohammed Rafi in films like Barsaat Ki Raat and Mere Mehboob.

The film ghazals of Hasan, though, hardly showcase the tremendous vocal range of the maestro. Any live recording of the same extended version are miles ahead in quality. A gem of an album came out following the recording of classical ghazals in rare ragas where Hasan was accompanied by the noted sarangi player, Sultan Khan of India, and tabla nawaz, Shaukat Husain Khan, of Pakistan.

In Hasan’s rendition, the rigours of classical training easily blend with the pain and passion of the poetry that he sings. There is a painstaking meticulous about his selection of ghazal and a thoroughness with the diction. And there is almost an obsession with perfectness.

Hasan’s popularity spread in India primarily in the Seventies and Eighties. When he got a chance to perform, it soared further as connoisseurs thronged to listen to the authentic sound of a genre that Hasan had assiduously shaped over the decades. The debate was: Who’s better, Ghulam Ali or Mehdi Hasan? For connoisseurs, the answer was never in doubt.

The paralytic stroke sometime back denied his admirers the pleasure of listening to his magic voice. Doctors felt that the punishing mental stress and fluctuating blood pressure had caused the stroke which came, ironically, during a concert tour in India. Hasan lost his voice and also part of his memory affecting the left side of the brain and the right side of his body. With regular physiotherapy as well as speech therapy, doctors say he will recover with time.

In his reply to Vajpayee, Hasan has also expressed his desire to walk the bylanes of his ancestral village and his son, Arif, has said: “If health permits, he would like to perform too.”

There is no denying that Hasan’s sentiments are real. In a climate of mutual suspicion, only a genuine artiste can utter words like: “Jo haq Pakistanion ko meri ghazlon pe hai, wohi Hindustanion ko bhi hai. Unhone mujhe kam pyar nahi diya.”

Sometimes, out of compulsion, politicians too speak the truth. The Prime Minister’s letter correctly points out that Mehdi’s ghazals “like the music of the great artistes of India and Pakistan, reminds us of the common bonds of culture and spirituality that unite our two countries.” But then, such truths often becomes a casualty in the hands of realpolitik.

   

 
 
THE TELEGRAPH DIARY 
 
 
 
 

A cosy party

Et tu Sudip? Trinamool MP and Mamata Banerjee’s most trusted lieutenant, Sudip Bandopadhyay, looks very likely to have been, let’s say, nipped by the Ajit Panja bug. The symptoms were obvious when Sudip, along with his newly elected actress-wife, Nayana, reportedly paid a visit to a BJP leader in his house in central Calcutta without breathing a word about it to either the Trinamooli didi or her party brothers. The rendezvous has obviously upset Mamata, who, her associates say, thinks that Sudip should have avoided the socializing, especially given that the state’s saffronites are so bitterly opposing didi’s return to the NDA. Many Trinamoolis no longer want to have Sudip as their party spokesman. The state BJP meanwhile has also hauled up its leader, who is alleged to have helped Nayana bag an appointment with the Union minister for information and broadcasting, Sushma Swaraj, last week. Sushmaji stays in the central Calcutta house when she is in the city and the leader, whose house it is, is simply using the connection — is how the state BJP unit sees the indiscretion. The matter apparently has reached the court of the Union minister of state for communications, Tapan Sikdar, who is said to have regarded the act as “unbecoming” of a party leader. But maybe not quite as unbecoming as Sudipda’s and Nayanadi’s. What do you say, didi?

Part of the show

What is becoming of the reforms guru, Manmohan Singh? He seems to be madam’s favourite man of the month. Sonia has given him charge of the forthcoming Punjab assembly elections, never mind if the sardarji has never contested polls from the state. Singh is also supposed to accompany her to the US to project the party as a friend of liberalization. Murli Deora and Jairam Ramesh will be there to draft speeches and arrange meetings with powerful lobbies. Natwar Singh’s vast diplomatic experience has become crucial to the exercise. Which means Singh is not the only guru on the show.

Belling the cat?

About another guru. The room of Vincent George, the all powerful former secretary of the Congress president was vacated recently. Strangely, the room is now shorn of all chairs, tables and other furniture, that is, everything except a phone. Is that to keep a bell ringing somewhere?

Extended conversation

A new wind is sweeping the valley and the one blowing it is the prime minister’s deputy and Union home minister, LK Advani. The sudden direction and cohesion in the Kashmir policy is apparently because of this man’s proactive approach to the problem. Advani views the terrorist problem on the ground as first and foremost a law and order problem. And with the PM’s principal secretary, Brajesh Mishra, nowhere on the scene, Advani seems to be having his own way in dealing with the menace of militancy. The smooth national security guard operation in the Shangus mosque recently was a direct fallout of this. When the decision to flush out the mosque was taken, AB Vajpayee was reportedly in the Breach Candy Hospital. A hotline between the two most important faces in the government turned out to be instrumental in deciding the fate of the militants holed up in the mosque. That would mean it was Advani who spoke the last words.

Because of their cause

Lieutenant General Prakash Mani Tripathi is the head of the joint parliamentary panel on the recent stock scandal. The MP from Gorakhpur is however sure that no one in eastern Uttar Pradesh knows about his high profile job. Tripathi naturally wishes that the print media of the region be invited to every JPC meet to write the news back home. The official explanation is obviously different. Tripathi argues that a lot of small time investors have lost money, so they ought to know how parliamentarians are probing the case. Well-thought out, Mr MP!

Curtains on a steamy scene

After the release of a pornographic book by the chief of the railway board, the Rail Bhavan is having to deal with an officer who allegedly used the services of a sex-worker in Germany and left without paying. The department, which apparently has had to pay up, doesn’t know how to account for it. One bright mind suggests it can be put under “engine running out of steam”.

Footnote/ Around the world in seven days

The babus of this country are a marvel. One recent example would illustrate this. The vice-president of India, Krishan Kant, was about to go on an official visit to Cambodia. An Air India aircraft, which was apparently what was desired, was unavailable. So, instead of a direct Delhi-Phnom Penh flight, Kant and the babus accompanying him went around the world (well, almost), hopping from Bangkok to Singapore to Bali, before they reached their destination. The four day official visit to Cambodia got extended to a nine day tour as the Indian air force’s 737 aircraft needed to be refuelled every four hours. Since the vice-president needed to rest at all these destinations, the officials apparently had no option but to “kill” time by shopping in the fabulous malls of Singapore and the sleazy joints of Bangkok. When the entourage reached Bali, everyone (while, one presumes, the vice-president was “resting”) is supposed to have headed for the beaches. The government, given its current preoccupation with cutting costs, probably needs to consider what it gained by denying Kant a larger aircraft. A larger bill, perhaps.    

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Cleaning up

Sir — Sonia Gandhi is evidently determined not to rest on the few laurels she has gained in the assembly elections (West Bengal should not be mentioned here). She has taken up the issue of party funding which has been hanging fire since the Election Commission brought it up long ago (“Congress clean up with cheque donations”, June 10). By insisting on transparency, Sonia Gandhi could be setting an example for political rivals as well as trying to make a clean break from the past by putting Bofors to rest. But the ghost is well-entrenched in the machine. Would donors be willing to pay by cheque even if the party were willing to receive cheques? The lady will have to work around that one.
Yours faithfully,
Rupa Saha, via email

Poisoned cup

Sir — Observing World Environment Day on June 5 every year has become a ritual which makes very little difference to most people. The degradation of our environment is evident from the increasing deforestation, compounded by a growing population. An increase in the number of vehicles has led to emission of gases like carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide. The use of fossil fuels — like coal and petroleum — has further increased the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, aggravating the greenhouse effect. One way out of this problem would be to emphasize alternative sources of power. Untreated effluents from municipalities and factories are often discharged into major rivers. Carcasses of humans and animals further pollute these rivers. The only way to change existing attitudes would be to make environment studies a compulsory subject in school.
Yours faithfully,
M. Das, Jamshedpur

Sir — There is very little awareness about the environment among Calcuttans. The Ganges, which is also known as the Hooghly in West Bengal, is the lifeline of the city, and is shrinking rapidly. The city throws tonnes of chemical and faecal waste into it on a regular basis. The discharge of dangerous chemicals from factories and industrial units makes the consumption of this water extremely dangerous.

The Ganga action plan, which was initiated by Rajiv Gandhi, has not served it purpose. Of late, environmentalists have voiced legitimate concern about the availability of pure, drinking water in a few years from now.

A test conducted by some city scientists has exposed the deteriorating quality of drinking water. The river, which passes through the heart of the city, has its oxygen level dipping to zero at certain points, thus posing a serious threat to aquatic life.

The only way to combat water pollution is to educate people about the importance of natural resources. The West Bengal chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, must take adequate steps to address this problem.

Yours faithfully,
Gautam Dasgupta, Calcutta

Sir — The editorial, “Those old jalopies” (June 7), is right in saying that the chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, will have to do a lot more than just giving speeches to prove that he is committed to reducing pollution. The Supreme Court’s ruling that private vehicles should conform to Euro I and II regulations, should make the job of the state easier. It is helpful that the court had also directed the Central pollution control board to ban all two- and three-wheelers which are more than 15 years old.

Yours faithfully,
Naren Sen, Howrah

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

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