Editorial / The fight against evil
Measure for measure
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL / THE FIGHT AGAINST EVIL 
 
 
 
 
History has often been defined as a success story. One reason for this is the fact that victors often write the history, or it is written from their perspective. The same thing holds true for war crime tribunals. They are invariably constituted by the victors or at their behest. Thus an element of victors’ justice is embedded in the very idea of a court constituted to judge what are considered crimes against humanity committed during a time of war. To an extent, therefore, the former Yugoslav president, Mr Slobodan Milosevic, now being tried by the tribunal at The Hague, is justified in ranting against the court that is judging his case. The cards were stacked against him even before he appeared before the tribunal. This is not to say that he is innocent. He has the blood of hundreds of thousands of Albanians on his hands. The point is to underline a fundamental paradox inherent in the very idea of a court set up to ju- dge crimes against humanity. Such a court was first created in the aftermath of World War II and it proceeded to preside over the Nuremberg trials in which Nazis were prosecuted for their misdeeds. A similar court was set up in Tokyo in 1948 under the auspices of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. Both were created and manned by the Allies and this produced certain anomalies.

In Nuremberg, for example, horrible atrocities perpetrated by the Allies were not part of the proceedings. There was no mention of the bombing of the defenceless city of Dresden in which tens of thousands of civilians died or of the Katyn massacre in which nearly the entire officer corps of the Polish home army was killed by Joseph Stalin’s orders. Stalin’s concentration camps and pogroms — no different in content and purpose from Adolf Hitler’s — have never been brought under the ambit of crimes against humanity. In Tokyo, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was also not considered a crime against humanity. These lacunae flowed from the fact that the courts in Nuremberg and in Tokyo were set up directly by the Allies who had won the war and therefore were in a position to fix the terms of the court. As one judge observed in the Tokyo trial, a lost war is itself a crime.

Even though the Nuremberg and the Tokyo trials form the models for contemporary tribunals on former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, there are significant differences between the court at The Hague and those that were formed after World War II. The tribunal at The Hague has been set up under the auspices of the United Nations. It cannot, therefore, be labelled a victors’ court. Bringing Mr Milosevic to justice may have had behind it considerable pressure from the United States, but the judges presiding over the case cannot be described as being tied to Uncle Sam’s apron strings. There have been efforts to make the approach to war crimes or crimes against humanity a little more objective, and to take the judging of such crimes away from the aegis of victors.

The history of the world, from a cynical but entirely justifiable point of view, can be read as a long and unfinished narrative of atrocities perpetrated by the powerful on the powerless. Yesterday’s powerless, when they become powerful, have no qualms about unleashing violence. “Those to whom evil is done”, W.H. Auden wrote, “do evil in return.” The cycle needs to be broken somewhere, somehow, if the world is to be humanized. War crimes tribunals, however problematic, is a step in that direction.

   

 
 
MEASURE FOR MEASURE 
 
 
BY AVEEK SEN
 
 
Iris Murdoch loved attending Professor Fraenkel’s famous Agamemnon class. This was in Oxford in the early Forties, and the late philosopher and novelist, then a young student at Somerville and as robust as a “little bull”, felt reverence and fondness for this venerable and gnome-like Jewish refugee from Germany. He had twinkling black eyes and was devoted to his wife. Iris would later describe to her husband the excitement of the textual world the professor revealed to her, mentioning with amusement how he had stroked her arms and held her hand during tutorials. In fact, her college tutor had said with a smile when she farmed Iris out to Fraenkel, “I expect he’ll paw you about a bit.” “As if no sensible girl,” Iris’s husband adds in the late Nineties, “aware of the honour of being taught personally by the great man, would be silly enough to object to that.”

Finding nothing dangerous or degrading in Fraenkel’s behaviour, the notion of sexual harassment had never occurred to Iris, and is invoked later by her husband as a rather quaint idea. The world that the three of them shared seem to have been held together by notions of academic conduct, and by a kind of tolerant humour, which many today would find unacceptable, distasteful and perhaps quite incomprehensible. The eminent classicist, his pupil and her husband, all bring to mind a phrase from J.M. Coetzee’s novel, Disgrace. They are all “moral dinosaurs” whose ethical position, if there was one at all, would be struck down in no time by a modern university tribunal authorized to deal with such matters, on either side of the Atlantic.

Sexual harassment is now not only a well-defined and punishable offence in most academic and professional spheres in the West, but it has also produced an entire genre of fiction and drama in English. Apart from Coetzee’s novel, which could in no way be confined solely to this genre, there is David Mamet’s play, Oleanna, Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man and most recently, Philip Roth’s new novel, The Dying Animal.

These are all set in academia, taking up the myriad consequences of the sexual affairs of male humanities teachers, usually ageing world-weary hedonists, with their young female students. Poised between wish-fulfilment and nightmare, the erotics of the classroom provide the ideal opportunity for exploring questions of desire, power, privacy and freedom. In their different ways, these authors all engage in what Roth calls “the great fight about the permissible”, in life and in literature, pitching the claims of desire against “the communal righteousness”. The common enemy is American political correctness — its obtuse, literal-minded puritanism, which fails to encompass the complexity of specific human situations.

Britain seems to have glimpsed something here. Many British universities are now attempting to go beyond blanket prohibition by legitimizing relationships between teacher and student. Birkbeck College, London, for instance, permits such affairs, provided the teacher immediately notifies the head of department and other students in the class. The teacher also st- ops marking the student’s work to avoid allegations of favouritism. The community of the informed must also include the university registrar and external examiners.

The Birkbeck policy is laudable in trying to make room for human inevitabilities within the hierarchy of the institution. Yet one could feel profoundly uncomfortable about, even terrified of, such a policy. Also, it brings out quite clearly the impossibility of transplanting such resolutions to the Indian academic scenario, where such awarenesses, and their implementation, are incipient.

The most frightening thing about the Birkbeck policy is the inroads it could make into the privacy of the individuals concerned. Sexual relationships could undergo a sea-change, forcing people into fundamental decisions regarding their separate and joint lives, when faced with the imperative of having to inform an entire community of people. An institution should be the last entity to be forcing people to take this step.

Besides, there could be finer questions, as always in these matters. What constitutes a sexual relationship? Is it necessarily defined by the act of sex between two people? Can a “platonic” relationship not replicate, at a purely mental level, the sexual relations of power which the institution seeks to regulate, having exactly the same effect on the student’s performance and evaluation? One recalls that indispensable neologism, “mindfucking”, used by a harrowed student to describe the pedagogy of that damaged — and presumably damaging — archangel, Paul de Man.

What Birkbeck could be forcing upon its staff and students is a public and prudent relationship, outlawing, for instance, a couple who get a great kick out of sheer secrecy, which, ethically speaking, could be a perfectly legitimate pleasure. As Coetzee’s protagonist reminds the tribunal at his trial, “There are more important things in life than being prudent.”

When it comes to legislating human sexual behaviour, law is in the unenviable position of having to deal with two opposing pressures. First, the need for particularity, a narrowing of focus on the specificities of a situation. Second, the equally essential need for inclusiveness, of framing principles, and pragmatic guidelines for action, which would accommodate a potentially infinite range of particulars. To be caught between these two requisites is both a practical and a philosophical problem, and makes the formulation of sexual harassment definitions and guidelines a deeply challenging task for individuals and institutions committed to justice as well as complexity.

In India, notions of sexual harassment, particularly within academia, remain deeply entrenched in established social norms. Somehow obscurely linked to the father-daughter incest taboo, imagined forms of harassment reproduce the traditional gender bias of a patriarchal and heterosexist society: an older empowered male abusing a younger, weaker female. This could work against both sides of the harassment equation. It could also render completely invisible other forms of sexual exploitation: between members of the same sex, the manipulation by the younger of the older, by the apparently powerless of the technically empowered. If the classroom invests the teacher with a form of power that could be abused, then legal prerogatives could give the alleged “victim” a form of power which could also be abused with devastating effect.

The scope of the basic definitions requires constant examination. Why, for instance, should the universally sanctioned bullying of the “effeminate” male at school, university or the workplace not be considered sexual harassment, given the extent of lasting damage it could do to his physical, emotional and sexual lives? Any harassment code will remain necessarily unfair and incomplete in a society whose official stance with regard to sexual orientation remains brutally discriminatory. Consider, too, the imposition of a dress code on adult female students by the college principal, with the twisted peremptoriness of a wicked uncle. Forcing women to comply with the obscenity in the beholder’s gaze is certainly a violation. Would it be stretching matters too far to also think about conservative staff-rooms silently — and sometimes not so silently — outlawing female smokers?

In the Harvard Law School sexual harassment guidelines, there is a significant struggle between “institutional values”, “mandates of state and federal law” and “traditions of academic freedom”. Its complex text-commentary-illustrations format must accommodate not only “precision” and “reasonableness”, but also that uneasy interloper into such hallowed grounds — humour.

One of the illustrations presents a classroom discussion. “Professor M tells an improbable story, taken from the Talmud, about a man who accidentally falls from a roof and onto a woman in such a way that sexual intercourse accidentally occurs. N, a student in the class, complains that the story was ‘unwelcome’, that it was ‘abusive’ of the sensibilities of women in the class, and that it created a seriously hostile environment for women by trivializing problems of sexual subordination and rape.”

The judgment of the Harvard Law School on this matter says, “N’s arguments notwithstanding, Professor M has not violated this guideline.” One reads this with considerable relief.

   

 
 
THE TELEGRAPH DIARY 
 
 
 
 

Unromantic links

Everyone loves Nagma. But there was consternation all round when it seemed, for a brief mad time, that the captain of the Indian cricket team loved her too. The Indian cricket fan is a sad and wise organism. He has seen his idolized Azharuddin go this, that and ever which way, led by that heartless god of hearts with the flowered bow. Ever which way but towards further cricketing glory. So there is relief and quiet jubilation that the budding romance seems more off than on. But how did all the reported sweet nothings turn into just nothing? The grapevine has it that the Indian captain began publicly distancing himself from the episode once he heard reports that the Central Bureau of Investigation was looking for links between Nagma and certain not-so-distinguished men in Mumbai and west Asia. The captain of the Indian cricket team is wise in action even if, occasionally and reportedly, he is foolish in love.

Canker in the friendly heart

Love takes a myriad forms. Loverly love, friendly love, platonic love... oh, well, sisterly, brotherly...and so on. And since we are on the subject, where is Govindacharya? The BJP ideologue is in Kedarnath, sulking, avoiding everyone in his self-imposed agnyatavas (exile incognito). But no, Govindaji is not angry with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, LK Advani and the others. Those little spats are things of the past. But this hurt is more like that caused by the cold winter’s wind because he is pained with the conduct of his “friend”, Uma Bharti. Reportedly she has been saying unkind things about him. Govindacharya is wondering if it is the same Uma who had once described him as a gulab jamun (dark outside but sweet inside). Sadly, sourness is all.

Mix ‘n’ match for better results

From the solitude of the mountains to the hurlyburly of politics... and what a change there is! Mani Shankar Aiyar has been holding party meets to educate the “cadre” about Tehelka — in Patiala, Varanasi, Guwahati and Mumbai. It might strike an observer as strange that not everyone invited to these meetings is a Congress person. Journalist-economist Sunil Jain and the former aide to Yashwant Sinha, Mohan Guruswamy, were invited to speak about scandals and — dear me — what is wrong with Yashwant raj. Mani is broadminded.

It is a pity that every positive quality can be called by other names. Mani has received a letter from Jairam Ramesh pointing to the “ideological blinkers” that he sports in his writings . Mani wondered, not too sweetly, if Sonia has authorized Ramesh to “vet” all writings from Congressmen even if these are simply airings of personal views. “He thinks he is going to be next finance minister,” Mani said. Maybe the gentle Manmohan Singh has a rival!

Four men in the same boat

Hardly surprising, since competition is the name of the game. Look at the four members of the official team that accompanied Sonia Gandhi on her much-hyped US visit. Only the gentle Manmohan conducted himself with dignity. The other three, Natwar Singh, Murli Deora and Jairam Ramesh, couldn’t have made the schoolboys’ exemplar of good manners category if put on the rack. Natwar Singh was quite uppity with Deora and Ramesh, or so the whispers go. There was quite an ugly show of petulance when one of the three members thought his name was missing from the list of people who were going to accompany the Congress president on her visit to the UN chief, Kofi Annan. Another member of the team decided to compete for Mr Bad Form 2001 by insisting on occupying the seat earmarked for the Indian consul general on the dais at a felicitation organized by NRIs in New York. Apparently, Natwar Singh had calmly told the organizers that he and Manmohan Singh alone would sit on the dais with Sonia Gandhi and the other two should be allowed to melt with the crowd. The insult evidently went down the wrong way.

Unholy tiffs at holy moments

But all this keeps the adrenalin flowing. That’s why squabbling is the politicians’ all-time favourite sport. Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh and his Chhattisgarh counterpart, Ajit Jogi, seem to be fighting over everything from water, power, aircraft, funds to other “good things of life.” Now the battle for supremacy has reached another plane altogether — godmen! The other day, Diggy raja was enjoying all attention as chief guest in the meet felicitating the Shankaracharya of Kanchi till Ajit Jogi landed up unannounced. Diggy was not amused. He — oops, petulance again — refused to read the speech in honour of the Shankaracharya. Guess who loved Diggy’s irritation? Jogi of course. He innocently wondered why his “good friend” was so upset. The doors of religious leaders are open to all, he added. (In gentle rebuke?) Why be materialistic in a religious ambience? Quite right, Jogi. Politics is very much a matter of this lower earth.

Hairy where he should be

Jackie Shroff has done the unthinkable. He’s shaved off his trademark moustache. That’s quite a sight. No film director could have persuaded him to abandon something so dear to him. But love achieves the unthinkable, always. It was a “present” to wife Ayesha on their wedding anniversary! Well, yes, she had expressed a desire to see him moustache-less. Happy close-up, Ayesha!

Master of the circus ring

Now that Fathima Beevi’s gone, who will be governor on a permanent basis? Eligibility criterion: can keep Tamil tigress in check. Just being representative of minorities (Sikander Bakht) won’t do. And certainly not a past history of having overturned the Karunanidhi government (Surjit Singh Barnala). Well then?

Footnote / Knowledge brings its own reward

But Ms Beevi herself has no problems. She has suddenly become a role model for the opposition parties. They loved her unceremonious recall. It has given the Congress and its allies, the RJD and the AIADMK, a stick to beat the NDA government with in Parliament. The Congress and the AIADMK have additional plans. They have discovered in her the new guardian of the Constitution and a secular faithful. The day she resigned from the post of the governor of Tamil Nadu, Jayalalitha rang her up and offered her a Rajya Sabha seat. Beevi politely told Jayalalitha that she had served in top constitutional posts and it would not be right to accept a Rajya Sabha seat. Evidently, Beevi perceives her status to be higher than that of an ordinary MP. Her forced removal is the right spur for the Congress and its allies to project her as a presidential candidate if KR Narayanan does not insist on a second term. Beevi as vice- president would do as well. “Who can be a better choice? She knows her law and the Constitution better than anyone else,” said a CPI central committee leader. She’s on the right curve: from the shadows into light.    

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

All hyped up

Sir — Imran Khan’s reaction, when offered to provide a daily commentary on Pervez Musharraf’s visit, pretty much summed up the entire attitude of the media to the talks (“Summit call-up for analyst Imran”, July 7). He didn’t know whether he wanted to be “part of the hype”. And hype is an understatement. Thanks to the media, we now know what Musharraf’s ancestral home in Delhi looks like, who its current residents are and how much they will be spending on sprucing up the place. And now we also know who his childhood maid was, her wardrobe and her daily routine. The hype is fine as long as the media doesn’t forget to report on the summit in as much detail as it has the monthly salary of Musharraf’s maid.

Yours faithfully,
Sheila Verma, via email

Consuming woes

Sir — Reportedly, one of the amendments proposed to the Consumer Protection Act is its exclusion from applicability where “corresponding remedies of judicial nature are available”. This proposal needs to be opposed tooth and nail.

Public utilities like railways, telephones and banks have always fought shy of the CPA whenever consumers have sought to make them accountable. To avoid action under the act, banks have set up bank ombudsmen. These are staffed by retired bankers sympathetic to their erstwhile colleagues. Telephone adalats are manned by departmental officers. Subscribers who approach them hardly ever get justice.

In spite of their shortcomings, consumer courts offer inexpensive and relatively speedy remedies for aggrieved consumers. This benefit should not be given away by succumbing to the bureaucracy for which non-accountability is an article of faith.

Yours faithfully,
M.R. Pai, Mumbai

Sir — Consumers are probably the worst off when it comes to the cellular phone operators. The Telephone Regulatory Authority of India should instruct them to refund excess deposits of old subscribers since they have lately reduced deposits for the new subscribers. TRAI should also ensure that the operators cannot make money through tactics like “minimum airtime commitment” billed as monthly advance. Subscribers’ interests may be safeguarded by securing their deposits with cellular companies in government securities. Frequent changes of tariff plans are inconvenient for subscribers. Caller identification charges should be part of the rent. And all tariff mentioned in bills should be inclusive of service tax for the easy comprehension of subscribers.

To prevent theft of mobile phones, cellular companies could have the chassis number of instruments recorded together with the mobile number of respective sim cards. It would be easier to apprehend the use of sim cards on stolen instruments. The companies should also think of a long-term insurance policy for the phones.

Yours faithfully,
Subhash Agrawal, Dariba

Train load

Sir — The timings of a number of trains running from West Bengal have changed significantly from July 1. However, the most important timetable, Trains at a Glance, is yet to arrive, to the confusion of all passengers. Bookstall owners at both Howrah and Sealdah railway stations languidly state that this timetable, effective from July 1, “will arrive in five or six days”. The timetable should have been made available to the travelling public at least one month prior to the actual changes so that passengers could plan their journeys accordingly.

This lackadaisical approach to the release of such an important document to the public has been a common practice down the decades. It is time for the railway authorities to change this attitude. Since it is already late this year, from next year, timetables must be released well in advance.

Yours faithfully,
Philip Elisha, via email

Sir — Appeals have been made to the social welfare ministry, the Indian Airlines and the finance ministry to give concessions and other benefits to those who are visually impaired. The finance ministry is reportedly considering the genuine demands of this section of people. Rail concessions are also not given to these people, although those with 40 per cent or above impairment fall within the definition of “blind”, if one goes by the official book. The Indian Railways should extend its helping hand to these people.

Yours faithfully,
C.V. Sonpal, Raniganj

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