Editorial 1 / The lower the better
This above all / Bathing is good for your soul
In the crucible of the antique
People / Vikas Singh
Letters to the editor

There is one problem about politicians in India that is both comic and dangerous. They must meddle. When deciding what languages children should read and from what age, for example, they tend to ignore the advice of experts and professionals and go ahead with their own ideas. A very large number of the children of West Bengal have suffered from the ideas emanating from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) thinktanks in the Left Front. Not given the opportunity to learn English before class VI, these children have found to their dismay that they fall behind in competitive situations, are often uncomfortable outside their own state, and have to struggle harder than others when studying science and technology at the higher levels.

The state government changed policy in 1999, bringing the starting point of English-teaching down to class III. Now it is considering lowering it further — to class I. There was no need, in the first place, to have experimented with children’s futures. All that was needed was a clearly thought-out policy. The arguments of the leftist politicians are a breathtaking mixture of electoral pragmatics, defiant ignorance of the needs of a changing world and an untutored moralism. The last makes them say that children in the primary stage of learning should not be taught anything but the mother tongue. If it is a question of ability, then they should know that young brains can pick up languages apart from the mother tongue quite quickly. That is why India is today full of efficient young people who are trilingual, not just bilingual, often knowing two Indian languages including their mother tongue, and English. An early grounding in English would open up two worlds of learning and lessen the strain later, should the child take up another language. So there is no comprehensible answer to the question why very young children should not learn anything but their mother tongue.

The necessity of a good grasp of English in the world of today is one of the unpleasant truths that have dawned on the CPI(M) policymakers recently. But the greatest setback for them has been electoral pragmatism. The leaders were convinced that the majority of the electorate would not want to study English, it being “difficult” and “foreign”. Surveys have proved them wrong. Most people, whether from the districts or from the villages, want their children to have a “quality” education and enough English to make them socially mobile, if not highly educated. This is one more area in which history has left Marxist dogma-mongers behind. There is no need to find out if everybody “wants” their children to be taught English from class I. It may be true that sections of first-generation learners would find English in class I much too early. They could be given the choice of learning the language from a later stage, and not sitting for it in the school-leaving examination, as long as they are taught another Indian language in its place. If choice had been the guiding principle from the very beginning, life could have been simpler for students in West Bengal.

But choices for the people are not something politicians are very comfortable about, although that is hardly the most urgent issue now. What is truly urgent is that the CPI(M) policymakers in West Bengal finally make up their collective mind about the teaching of English.


At different periods of history, different people had different notions of the importance of bathing. Indians must be the only people who made a daily bath an essential part of religious ritual. After clearing one’s bowels, the next thing one has to do is to take a bath. No bath, no breakfast. No bath, no entering a temple or a gurudwara. Sikh practice puts ishnaan (bath) on a par with prayer (naam) and charity (daan). Bathing in rivers, notably the Ganges, washes off sins. Likewise, Sikh ritual prescribes a bath in the sarovar (sacred tank) alongside a gurudwara as a spiritual cleanser. The most important sarovar is the one in the middle of which stands Harimandir, the Golden Temple. The tank was dug by the fourth guru, Ramdas. The incantation which goes with the holy dip runs:

Guru Ramdas sarovar nhaatey

Sab utrey paap kamaatey

(Bathe in the holy tank of Guru Ramdas/ And all sins you have committed will be washed away.)

I have accumulated a lot of sins but never yet washed them off in any sacred tank or holy river. I also discovered from experience that a hot bath during the winter months often gave me a cold and I could clean myself just as well by rubbing my body with a damp towel. My college years in England changed my attitude towards bathing. Like other Indians, I believed that wallowing in a long bathtub in your own body-dirt was unwholesome. After some months I came to the conclusion that an English bath was far more cleansing than pouring water over oneself with a lota. So during winter, I bathed only twice a week. And was none the dirtier for it.

During my stint in Paris, I discovered that most French homes did not have a bathroom. Instead, they used a contraption called a bidet on which they sat astride as on a horse and turned on a tap which shot a shower of warm water into their bottoms and genitals. This, when repeated after soaping their private parts, did quite a thorough job. They sponged their armpits and liberally sprinkled them with talcum powder.

A proper body wash was a weekend ritual performed in a public bath. Most Saturdays, girls from the office where I worked spent an hour or more in these public baths and were ready for a prolonged weekend with their boyfriends. When I rented a house in a suburb of Paris, I had to have a bathroom installed.

Europeans have an interesting history of bathing. Long before they turned Christian, Scandinavians and Germans bathed naked in lakes and rivers during the summer months, and in public baths during the winter. With the advent of Christianity, nakedness came to be associated with vulgarity, lascivious thoughts and therefore, became sinful. St Agnes never took a bath; St Margaret never washed herself. Pope Clement III issued an edict forbidding bathing or even wetting one’s face on Sundays. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, the practice of bathing in rivers was frowned upon. In 1736, in Baden, Germany, the authorities issued a warning to students against “the vulgar, dangerous and shocking practice of bathing”.

Slowly, very slowly, prejudice against nudity and bathing abated. Nudist clubs sprang up. Sun-bathing in the nude became fashionable. Today, in any sea-side in Europe, Canada, Australia or New Zealand, you will see men, women and children strolling along beaches as naked as on the day they were born. And bathing together in the nude does not shock anyone except those who still regard nudity as a sin. Having a bath everyday has become a common practice.

I am reminded of an exchange of words in the British House of Commons in the early years of World War II. A labour minister in charge of power was pleading that a lot of coal could be saved if it was not used to heat water for bathing and that a bath a week was good enough. Winston Churchill stood up and remarked, “No wonder the Labour Party is in such bad odour.”

The best things in life are free

At the Roli Books party to launch The Sikhs, at Le Meridien, presided over by law minister Arun Jaitley, to the best of my knowledge, no more than 300 guests were expected. By the time I left, there were over 500 guzzling away snacks and hard liquor. And a crowd of latecomers was streaming in. I did not recognize them and thought they had been invited by Pramod Kapur or the photographer, Raghu Rai.

Neither Pramod nor Raghu Rai recognized them and assumed they were my guests. Unlike official or embassy receptions, where guests are asked to produce invitation cards, there were no means of sifting genuine invitees from freeloaders. Delhi has plenty of them who hop from party to party and enjoy themselves at other people’s expense.

Some months ago, when Ajit Cour’s Academy of Fine Arts and Literature organized a conference of novelists and poets from neighbouring countries, there was a lavish lunch laid out at the venue — India International Centre — for the delegates.

On the second day, Ajit noticed a gentleman clad in dhoti-kurta helping himself to the bhojan. She approached him timidly and asked him politely if he was a delegate. He turned nasty, “What business is it of yours to ask me? I am a Hindi writer.” She got the manager to deal with him.

The manager got the police. The free-loader was in high dudgeon and claimed he had been discriminated against because he was a Hindi writer. He had to cool his heels in a police station for a few hours — after he had finished his bhojan.

The poor fellow had not studied the art of freeloading. First you have to acquire self-confidence. Then the audacity to walk into the party exuding that self-confidence.

Large weddings give you the best opportunities to try your newly acquired skill. If it is a Punjabi wedding, don a well-starched pink turban, join the bhangra and march into the bride’s parents’ house to a sumptuous meal. No one is likely to question your credentials. Cocktail parties need a little more finesse.

It is advisable to wear coat and tie and enter when the host is busy receiving other guests. Or carry a bouquet of flowers. Even safer is to get a nice-looking bimbo as your companion. No one will dare to question the credentials of a well-dressed gigolo accompanied by an attractive girl wearing roses. Instead of one, the two of you can have your fill of champagne and caviar.


By banning the Islamist Virtue Party, Turkey may have given offence to Europe’s liberal democrats who like to believe that all opposition can be vanquished through honest, open debate. But the action has also set an example in firmness for other countries where religion threatens to overwhelm politics.

Turkey’s chief prosecutor accused Virtue, which was the main opposition group with 110 deputies, of “exploiting religion like blood-sucking vampires”. It was described as a centre of fundamentalist activity and a threat to the constitutional order. Like India, Turkey is officially “a democratic, secular and socialist state governed by the rule of law”. When Mustafa Kemal, the Ataturk, created the post-Ottoman republic in 1925, he made a clean break with the previous regime whose ruler was not only temporal sultan but also caliph of Islam, the shadow of god on earth. The reformist Young Turks identified secularism with modernism. But a mix of bigotry, political opportunism, lofty rhetoric and official high-handedness afflicts Turkey, as it does India.

In both countries, representatives of the many are seeking to remould a state, fashioned on idealistic Western lines, in the crucible of their own antique beliefs. It is not that Turkey is atheist like China. Article 24 of its constitution guarantees “the right to freedom of conscience, religious belief and conviction”, promises that “acts of worship, religious services, and ceremonies shall be conducted freely”, forbids discrimination on grounds of “religious beliefs and convictions” and even ensures compulsory “instruction in religious culture and moral education”.

But the constitution is also clear that “No one shall be allowed to exploit or abuse religion or religious feelings, or things held sacred by religion, in any manner whatsoever, for the purpose of personal or political influence, or for even partially basing the fundamental, social, economic, political, and legal order of the state on religious tenets”.

Those noble sentiments sound familiar. But, of course, there are many differences. Historically, Turkey has treated its minorities (Armenians and Kurds) with a brutality that would be unthinkable here. Turkey did not become a multi-party state until 1946. There have been three military coups since 1960. The army sees itself as the watchdog of constitutional propriety, and has no time for Islamic theocracy. It will give no quarter either to extraneous forces — Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and the Iranian clerics, in Turkey’s case, rather than Saudi Arabia — which are suspected of funding fundamentalists.

When Virtue was banned last month, the European Union bluntly declared that “the question is to find ways to render the undemocratic powers ineffective through democratic means.” In short, obscurantist elements must be won over, not suppressed. Fine though that advice is in theory, Turkey has done well to remind critics that Western governments also outlaw parties that peddle fascist or racist views, no matter how much voting support they might be able to muster.

As the battle over the Babri Masjid demonstrates, pussyfooting with public sensibilities and legal niceties only panders to popular prejudice while eroding the foundations of the state. Ultimately, the question arises: Who is the most effective guardian of what our judges have called the basic features of the Constitution? Should ultimate authority lie in legislators who must be beholden to a vacillating and unlettered public or some institution that is removed above the hurly burly of the political fray? In Turkey, the military fills that role. In India, the judiciary would dearly love to.

Ironically, Turkey’s strikingly similar conflict between religion and politics has a sartorial dimension that would not baffle Indian legislators who set as much store by such symbols of devoutness as saffron, shaven heads, kirpans, turbans and fezzes as nationalists once did by khadi. The challenge to Turkish secularism became dramatically public at a swearing-in of deputies in 1999 when a woman member appeared in the headscarf that is becoming popular with Muslim women from Malaysia to Manchester. Merve Kavakci was only 30, and, being a computer analyst, no ignorant backwoodsman either. But she was ardent in her faith and had called at international seminars for a jihad against her own country’s ungodly rulers.

Headgear acquired revolutionary symbolism twice before in Turkey. In 1825, Sultan Mahmud II banned turbans whose colour and folds flaunted the wearer’s status and replaced it with the simple fez. But in the century that followed, the fez, too, acquired all the tell-tale signs of the class system and was, moreover, seen to typify Asian backwardness. So, Ataturk forbade the fez exactly 100 years after the Ottomans had made it de rigueur.

The now ubiquitous headscarf, which prevented Kavakci from being sworn in, was also forbidden in schools and public offices. The question that Turkey must now face is: Will the ban on Virtue prove as pointless as the dress restriction? One Islamist party after another has surfaced since January 1970 when the first of them, the National Order Party, was formed. It was proscribed, as was its successor, the National Salvation Party, even though it attracted 11.8 per cent of the vote in 1973. The next manifestation, the Welfare Party, won an impressive 16.7 per cent in alliance with the nationalist Turks in the 1991 election. Four years later, its share of the vote went up to 21.4 per cent, which translated into 144 seats in parliament, to say nothing of dozens of municipalities and mayors.

Welfare was banned in early 1998; just months after 33 former Welfare deputies formed Virtue. Islamist ingenuity can be relied on to find yet a fifth incarnation that mobilizes small traders, artisans and people on the geographical periphery in its campaign to identify millet (nation) with devlet (state). In other words, they want the official apparatus to abandon its ideals and reflect the religion of the people. Turkey is experiencing a groundswell of religious fervour.

The real similarity between Turkey and India lies in the cynicism of conventional politicians who are expected to uphold the moral props of statehood. Islamist parties that were in breach of both constitutional provisions and the law regulating political parties were nevertheless coalition partners in several governments. Bulent Ecevit of the People’s Republican Party, Justice Party’s Suleyman Demirel and Tansu Ciller of the True Path Party all relied on Islamist support.

Formally, they continued to swear by Ataturk and secularism. In practice, they gave free rein to Islamists to set up their own secondary schools, and also allowed them to build mosques, some on controversial sites. There is no means of knowing whether this was only rank opportunism or whether Turkey’s mainstream centre-right parties are also secretly infected by Islamist sympathies. The Congress might have been asked a similar question when it partnered Kerala’s Muslim League. It can still be put to National Democratic Alliance constituents. In suppressing fundamentalists, Turkey’s military has often had to act against mainstream politicians.

There is sound sense in Turkey’s defence when criticized for banning Virtue that religious obscurantism is as much a social and political evil as fascism or racism. Ideally, of course, it should be countered through education, as Jawaharlal Nehru argued ceaselessly, but India bears witness that education does not always lead to enlightenment. Even if it did, it would be a painfully slow haul during which primeval forces would entrench themselves in modern garb. When the process falters, only exercising the authority that is vested in it can save the state.

It is Turkey’s good fortune that in spite of the pusillanimity and prevarication of ruling politicians like Ecevit, Demirel and Ciller, the state has not hesitated to take firm action. Presumably, this was at the military’s urging. That option is not open in countries where the vote delivers the state into the hands of populists whose own survival depends on playing to the gallery. The contrast highlights the limits and weaknesses of democracy. After all, Hitler, too, was elected to power.



Road Taken

When a slightly built, middle-aged man dressed in a white pathan suit crossed over from the other side of the fence to India on the Attari-Wagah joint border on Thursday evening, umpteen impatient television cameras eagerly and assiduously captured his every step. For, symbolically, those halting steps offered a sliver of hope for the summit talks scheduled to be held between the two warring neighbours later this month. Unknowingly, globetrotter Vikas Singh, 36, who was released from captivity by Pakistan, had become part of a diplomatic feel-good exercise.

Even in his wildest dream, the civil engineer from Banaras Hindu University wouldn’t have conjured up a scenario like this when on October 13, 1987, he embarked on an Around-The-World-In-25-Years odyssey to promote world peace and friendship from New Delhi’s India Gate lawns. There were no television crews then to bid him au revoir. Only a handful of relatives and friends were present.

Trekking from one country to another, Vikas watched history happen before his eyes. He was an onlooker when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. He saw the reunification of Germany. He witnessed the cruel war in the Balkans. And he watched Hong Kong become a part of China. The world was changing fast and Vikas was an eye witness.

But what had not changed was the tenor of India-Pakistan relations. Having trudged 62 countries,Vikas had thought Pakistan would be just another nation in his long itinerary. He was wrong.

His repeated efforts to get a visa bore no positive results. “I had been in touch with Pakistan authorities since 1998,” he told reporters. Vikas was keen to get out of strife-torn Afghanistan, having already spent about nine months in Kabul and Kandahar. Finally, he had no choice “but cross over to Pakistan and hope for a positive outcome when I met their officials face to face”. But the one-man walking show was turned away by the authorities from the Torkham border checkpost.

Undeterred, Vikas criss-crossed the rugged mountains and sneaked into the northwestern Pakistan town of Tirah in April this year. His arrest came on April 19 and he was sentenced on June 1 to three years in prison for illegal entry.

He might still have been cooling his heels in his prison cell but that his incarceration coincided with the summit talk proposals between the two countries.

That, along with the huge media campaign and Begum Musharraf’s personal intervention, combined to ensure an early release for the globetrotter. And, fittingly, he is trudging back to India Gate from Wagah border. Vikas Singh has come full circle.

On his part, the veteran wayfarer must have been revelling in the media spotlight. “Right from his childhood, he wanted to be different. If everyone was walking on the right side, he went to the left. And he loved to attract attention,” says father Surendra Singh, a retired Lucknow-based government official.

An average school student, he was interested in boxing, cycling and mountaineering, games that would have surely helped in his future endeavours. The engineering degree got him a job but the corrupt ways of the builders left him disenchanted. “‘There is so much corruption’, he used to complain,” his father recalls.

The disillusionment with his job as well as a desire to do something different spurred him on to take the less travelled path. “It is so boring to see the same faces in the same place. I want to go new places and meet new people,” he told his parents. But as the mammoth project started taking shape, his parents got worried. They tried hard to discourage him. “But when we saw that he was unrelenting, we let him proceed,” says his father.

So, with a little help from Rotary International and a local shoe company, Vikas hit the road on October 13, 1987. From Nepal down to South East Asia, up north to China, west to the former Soviet Union, Sweden, Finland, south to France, Spain, then north-eastwards to Hungary, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

From each country, Vikas sent parcels and letters home and collected his own mail from the Indian missions. He also made the occasional telephone call and sent pages of a daily diary he painstakingly kept. But sometimes, he would also be incommunicado for months.

It is from the letters he wrote that his parents came to know of his being robbed while crossing the jungles of an Asian country. “They took away his camera and other belongings. They also tortured him,” says his father. The traveller had another close shave when he was hit by a truck on a Moscow highway. He suffered concussions and was hospitalised for 10 days.

But Vikas continued on his mission. Speaking to journalists who wrote about such a long journey in languages he knew nothing about. Dragging his mobile travelling companion, the three-wheeled cart that carried his food, clothes, cooking equipment and the tent which became his home between destinations. Walking an average of 10-15 kilometres a day. And covering about 80,000 kilometres that took its toll on some 50 pairs of boots.

But for his incarceration in Pakistan that forced a homecoming on him, Vikas had no plans of returning to India till he was 48. “From Pakistan, he wanted to go to Iran. He didn’t want to come back without completing his mission,” his father said. Vikas himself once told Athens News, “If you jump off the roof and you are in mid-air, you cannot change your mind.”

Fate, or rather, the tyranny of shadow lines willed it otherwise. It is only fair though that sense and sanity prevailed in the end.

For, in his ordinary self and his seemingly ordinary endeavour, Vikas lives an extraordinary philosophy. And in an age characterised by trivial, material pursuits, he is that rare species, who has the courage to listen to his heart and make his dreams come true.

The book which he plans to write may not be the greatest travelogue ever, but few can ever hope to match its breadth of canvas.



Caught in friendly acts

Sir — They are neither sisters, nor innocent chums. The picture of J. Jayalalitha and “friend” Sasikala, clad in identical Kanchipuram silks, bears its own message (July 3). Partners in unholy acts, if the conviction of the chief minister of Tamil Nadu in the Tansi land deal case and others is anything to go by, they seem to work well together. Rising from presumably nowhere, this confidante of Amma has acquired fame, fortune and above all, the trust of one of the most powerful women in India today. Unfortunately, there will probably never be an insider’s story on the exact nature of their give and take. And all the dark acts of Amma — acid attack or midnight raid — will continue to be attributed to her alone.

Yours faithfully,
M. Singhania, Calcutta

Engineering a change

Sir — There are some major problems which students aspiring for a career in engineering or medicine face today. One, there is acute shortage of seats. There are six Indian institutes of technology, 25 regional engineering colleges, BITS Pilani, BIT Mesra and about 100 other decent engineering colleges in India today. Yet, these colleges, approximately 130 in number, are in no way sufficient for all the students hoping to gain entry into the course.

Two, there is no value attached to the marks obtained in the board examinations. All states and most colleges conduct admission tests for entrance into the colleges and most states do not consider the board examination results.

Three, there are too many entrance examinations and many of them clash with one another. Any aspiring student has to answer the IIT joint entrance examination and the common entrance test conducted by his own state.

In addition, the five Indian institutes of information technology have 200 seats each and refuse to conduct a combined entrance test.

There is no value attached to passing the IIT-JEE screening examination if a student fails to clear the main examination. Here, about 15,000 are screened from over 160,000 aspirants. Should no importance be given to the top 10 per cent who clear the examination? Students passing this examination should be given direct admission to science colleges anywhere in the country on the basis of their rank, coupled with the board examination results.

A combined examination should be held by the states and the marks used to get admission in the home state and other states as part of the “outsider’s quota”. The number of engineering colleges should be increased in proportion to the population.

Yours faithfully,
C.L. Sambhavi, Jamshedpur

Sir — The Indian Institute of Information Technology, Allahabad recently declared its results. Out of 120 candidates who have qualified for admission, 47 belong to Uttar Pradesh and 10 are from Allahabad itself. The institute probably wants people to believe that the brains for IT are limited to the state. This only shows the bias of the state for the “sons of the soil”, a principle to which no national-level institute can subscribe. Otherwise, it is impossible that only one candidate from Jharkhand has made it to the IIIT Allahabad this year. Jharkhand is known for its excellent schools and sends several students to the Indian institutes of technology. Any state where such national level institutes are located cannot be allowed to consider the institutions its exclusive grazing pasture.

Yours faithfully,
Dolly Prasad, via email

Game by the rules

Sir — Satrujit Banerjee’s explanation of alienation from the mainstream British society is not a good enough excuse for second generation Pakistanis to turn aggressive on the cricket field (“All that is not in the game”, July 4). West Indians, when they emigrated to England in the first half of the 20th century, had to endure far harsher conditions and lack of privileges. Alienation was a problem for West Indian immigrants as well. But their anger was never paraded on cricket fields, nor directed towards cricketers. The bitter truth is that subcontinental people, under the pretence of patriotism, have been at the centre of most instances of crowd violence. The irony lies in the fact that these incidents occurred at a time when players of Asian origin like Nasser Hussain, Owais Shah and Usman Afzaal are making a mark in English cricket.

Yours faithfully,
Nikhilesh Bhattacharya, via email

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