Editorial / Secure in ignorance
Constitutional illusions
This Above all / It is not easy to change those spots
People / Nirupama Rao
Letters to the editor

People who participate in seminars and conferences are usually academics or experts in the subject. The Union home ministry had issued a circular last month that foreign scholars coming to India to take part in seminars and conferences would have to get clearance from the Union home ministry and, in some cases, from the external ministry. The reason cited was security. Interestingly, the Supreme Court ruling rejecting a petition challenging the home ministry’s circular has reportedly termed the group of people aspiring to participate in such seminars from abroad “foreigners”. This immediately gives substance to the amorphous fears about “security”, which is nowadays flaunted like a magic muzzle against all independent questioning. The Supreme Court ruling is truly unfortunate. It might make sense technically, because the government’s decision is based on an old regulation which had rusted for want of use. The point is that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance has unearthed the buried rule and reactivated it. The reason can only be political. The Supreme Court’s upholding of the decision will help to legitimize a harmful backward-looking step.

The decision has all the stamp of the BJP about it. Tumbling into the changes enforced by economic reforms, the opening up of the markets, entry of multinational organizations and increasing privatization, the BJP desperately needs to keep on display some tattered shreds of its swadeshi credentials. Culture policing has always been the chosen field of the BJP itself, as of its saffron brethren. Academics is simply a part of that. Policing the interchange of ideas in the academic sphere by restricting the entry of overseas scholars is just the kind of bustle the government would like to be seen as engaged in. To connect this with “security”, which in people’s mind is associated with Kargil perhaps, or the Northeast, is a particularly vicious move. Any government which associates the exchange of ideas in the free and level arena of the academia with the threat to national and personal existence is moving in a dangerous direction.

The “sensitive” subjects for which scholars are to be screened have been listed by the court as political, “semi-political”, religious, communal, or related to human rights. The law is, willynilly, authorizing a government to dictate the course the development of ideas should take in what is presumably a free country. There is more than technicality that is at stake here. Surely the court, bogged down as its own processes are by piles of paperwork, knows that even if the regulation it has upheld were to be treated as a formality, no expert from abroad would be able to make it to seminars on time and, after a while, no overseas scholar would want to. It is sad that the court should say that illegal money flows at international seminars. International seminars are rather different from Bombay film parties. There is really no dearth of areas and events in which illegal money is flaunted quite openly, elections being one such. Society’s concern about illegal money is quite wasted when directed towards international seminars.

Apparently the government does not see the absurdity of opening the doors to the world’s goods while closing them to ideas. Maybe it is just enjoying itself picking on those who will be too disinterested in its antics to think of fighting. It is quite happy as long as it is the freedom of the mind that is going to be sacrificed.


As the spectre of rapidly eroding constitutional values haunts Indian democracy, the consultation papers of the national commission to review the workings of the Indian Constitution come as a deep disappointment. Far from being documents of candid self-reflection and rigorous empirical analysis, many of these papers display assumptions about constitutionalism that ought to be deeply troubling. Admittedly these consultation papers are only provisional. And the likelihood that any of the commission’s recommendations will be easily implemented is, under the present configuration of Parliament, remote. But the work of the commission ought to be taken seriously. In India bad commission reports have a way of defining the terms of debate; and the mistakes of this commission reveal how far we as a society are from grasping the subtle artifice of constitutionalism.

While many of the papers produced so far acknowledge the grim realities of Indian democracy and are admirably free of self congratulation, most of them seek recourse to the crisis of parliamentary democracy in the promulgation of new laws, injunctions and rules. The paper writers seem, like society at large, hostage to an insidious legalism. They all, explicitly or implicitly, partake of the fallacy that for every imperfection of politics, the cure must lie in a law. Laws ought to derive their authority not because they are a product of legislative deliberation, but because they act as a check on legislative behaviour. In other words the resolution to the crisis of parliamentary democracy lies outside the authority of Parliament itself.

The commission, if it is sincere about the future of Indian democracy, ought to heed Justice Learned Hand’s caution about judicial activism. Hand had argued to the effect that a society where the spirit of moderation exists no court need save, a society where the spirit of moderation is gone no court can save and a society, which looks to courts to save itself, will, sooner or later, vanquish its own spirit.

This insidious legalism is conjoined in the consultation papers with more fallacies. Indian democracy and society have long suffered from statism,the idea that the state should, in the final analysis, bear responsibility for all our problems and is the only available agency through which those problems can be resolved. Any modern state ought to play an extensive role in securing collective goods for its citizens. But if we ought to have learned anything during the last five decades it is this. States, like markets, also have their own failures and shortcomings. The consultation paper on social and economic development, while acknowledging the state’s failures, and calling for a “comprehensive approach” lends credence to statism in more ways than one can list. It obscures the distinction between constitutional basics and ordinary policy choices. It seems to be of the view that if India has not achieved higher growth rates, or better human development indicators, the fault must lie with the Constitution, rather than the specific policy choices we made.

In so far as millions of Indians still live in unconscionably degrading conditions, it reflects poorly on us as a society. But to suppose that the debate over strategies of poverty alleviation belongs to a constitutional commission is surely an exercise in overreaching. No constitution or commission for that matter can produce higher growth rates, fix the fiscal deficit, provide public housing, or design optimal tax policy. Surely no constitution can foreclose the policy choices governments make.

Just by including such matters within its jurisdiction, the commission has obscured the meaning of constitutionalism and raised false expectations. It is looking for the certainty of rules where none is to be had. And it partakes of the illusion that has governed our ruling classes for the last five decades: that mere intention is enough to secure the right effects. If the intention is right, one can dispense with any analysis of the mechanisms or incentives by which the right results will be produced.

In its attempt to get rid of the corruptions of politics, the commission would, if it had its way, make the ordinary give and take of politics impossible. Take for instance the commission’s recommendations, prompted by the P.V. Narasimha Rao case, to whittle down the immunity members of parliament have in virtue of things said or action taken by them in Parliament. The commission recommends the insertion of a new article which reads as follows: “Nothing shall bar the prosecution of a Member of Parliament, in any court of law, for an offence involving receiving or accepting, whether directly or indirectly, and whether for his own benefit or for the benefit of any other person in whom he is interested, any kind of monetary or other valuable consideration for voting in a particular manner or for not voting, as the case may be in a House of Parliament.”

Attend to the extensive scope of phrases like “indirectly” and “valuable consideration.” I challenge the reader to think of any routine political transaction that will not fall under the purview of this clause. In the drafting of this clause the commission is not only using a hard case to make bad law, it is displaying a contempt for politics that, in a democracy, is far worse than the imperfections of politics it seeks to cure.

By releasing individual consultation papers for comments, the commission seems to have forgotten that the success of distribution of powers within a constitution depends in large measure upon the interrelationships between them. It is difficult to say what changes ought to be made in the power of the governor for instance unless one knows what changes are contemplated to the powers of other offices. The structure of these papers makes it impossible to hold a meaningful discussion of each office. Perhaps it is just an artifact of the format of the commission, but the consultation papers on specific offices are meaningless unless there is a mechanism for discussing the relations amongst them.

The paper on fundamental rights is a missed opportunity in many respects. While it admirably extends the scope of rights in some respects, by giving more extensive protection to freedom of press and other media, the right to privacy and entitlements to education, it very subserviently avoids all discussion of the threats to fundamental rights that have come from the ways in which the wording of the original Constitution has been interpreted. The threat to freedom in India has always come from an overzealous interpretation of threats to national security. It is the security syndrome of the Indian state that has freely licensed censorship, undue curbs on the activities of scholars, detention without trial and extra judicial executions. Not a word is said in the consultation paper about the ways in which our legal system has sanctioned all kinds of restrictions on freedom and the ways in which non-enforcement has made many of our liberties precarious.

Making explicit rights, which we already possess if the Constitution is interpreted with care, will not strengthen our basic freedoms. A different judicial and political culture might. Of course a commission such as this cannot alter or produce either. But that is exactly the point. The commission gives us the false comfort that altering some basic constitutional rules will secure our liberty and prosperity. That this commission should so readily participate in this illusion is a sign of the distance we have travelled from a robust democracy. Instead of civic engagement, we want new rules; instead of intricate policy debates, we want platitudinous constitutional pronouncements; instead of taking the dignity of legislation seriously we show contempt for all legislatures; instead of serious constitutional debate, we want the quick fixes of a commission.

A constitutional culture is one where certain values are taken to be authoritative constraints on behaviour. The mere promulgation of rules is neither sufficient not necessary. And a society which takes recourse to ill constituted commissions to authoritatively define its values has something worse lurking around the corner: the spectre of authoritarianism.

The author is professor of philosophy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi


I owe one penny to Jagjit Singh Chauhan, self-styled president of the council of Khalistan. It was awarded to him by a London court on a case of libel he had filed against me for what I had written about him in the footnote in my second volume of History of the Sikhs. He claimed that he was a revered leader of the Sikhs and a man of peace and that Ihad maligned his reputation. I recall he claimed close to a million pounds in damages.

My publishers produced clips from BBC showing him announcing an award for anyone who killed Indira Gandhi and then celebrating when she was assassinated. That blew up his image as a man of peace.

The jury held that although I had said nasty things about him, all that he deserved in compensation was one penny. In addition, he was saddled with the costs of his suit amounting to about 60,000 pounds sterling. Nevertheless, he claimed he had been vindicated. Meanwhile, I have kept aside a penny to give him whenever he asks for it.

However, this was three years ago and out of my mind. I welcome him back home so that we can discuss Khalistan in a public debate. I would also welcome other supporters of Khalistan like Zaffarwal, Ganga Singh Dhillon of Washington, Gurmit Singh Aulakh, also of Washington, and Simranjeet Singh Mann to an open dialogue. They hold that Khalistan is the ultimate solution to the Sikh problem. I believe it will spell disaster for the Sikh community.

The only rational way to start a debate on the subject is to ask the advocates of Khalistan to draw a map of where Khalistan will be and its communal constitution, that is, how many Sikhs, Hindus Muslims and Christians it will have. Then they must spell out the future of Sikhs living outside Punjab — Ganganagar in Rajastan, the Terai in Uttaranchal and Delhi, which has more Sikhs than Amritsar or Ludhiana.

Altogether, more than 20 per cent of the Sikh population do not live in Punjab and are more prosperous than their Punjabi co-religionists. And what about Sikhs in the defence and other services, in which their representation is much higher than their two per cent in India’s population.

And finally, wherever the Khalistan of their dreams exists, it is bound to be a land-locked state entirely reliant on Pakistan and India to market its agricultural produce, for it has hardly any industry worth speaking of. If they have any answers to them, I will be glad to hear from them.

It is one thing to be angry with the government for Operation Blue Star and the massive killings of Sikhs following Mrs Gandhi’s assassination — I condemned them in Parliament and in all I have written on the subject — it is quite another thing to pose a solution which will reduce the community to abject poverty. Khalsaji, I appeal to you, ponder over your future and not lend your ears to enemies of the Khalsa panth.

In the service of the nation

Suryaprakash Singh wins his way to Parliament for the second time. The first time, he was in the opposition; the second time, his party formed the government and he is invited by the prime minister to join his cabinet. He is young, full of enthusiasm and determined to put into effect promises he had made to the country: to make the administration transparent, to prune wasteful expenditure by getting rid of unused government buildings and drastically reducing the number of civil servants. He has to contend with Mathur, who is secretary of his ministry and his private secretary, Kaul, who he trusts more than Mathur because his answer to every question put by his boss is “Yes mantriji.” By the end of his ministerial tenure, Suryaprakash Singh fails to achieve any of his aims: empty buildings remain with the government, the number of babus continues to increase, public money continues to be squandered and the country continues to go along at a snail’s pace as ever before.

This dismal picture of the country was first portrayed about England in a highly comical serial on the BBC entitled Yes Minister. The serial was adapted to Indian conditions by Monisha Shah, now settled in London. The Indian version, Ji Mantriji, has become equally popular on Indian channels, with Farooq Shaikh playing the minister, with Jayant Kripalani as Mathur and Paritosh Sand as Kaul. Ji Mantriji is now available as a book, illustrated by the inimitable R. K. Laxman.

“How do your ministers deal with the hundreds of letters they receive every day?” Suryaprakash writes in his diary: “I indicated the in-tray. ‘When am I going to get through all this correspondence?’ I asked Kaul wearily. Kaul said, ‘You do realize, mantriji, that you don’t actually have to?’ I had realized no such thing. This sounded good. ‘If you want, we can simply draft an official jawab to any letter.’ ‘What’s an official reply?’ I wanted to know. ‘It just says,’ Kaul explained, ‘the minister has asked me to thank you for your letter’. Then we reply. Something like: ‘The matter is under consideration.’ Or even, if we feel so inclined, ‘under active consideration’!

“‘What’s the difference between “under consideration” and “under active consideration”?’ I asked. ‘“Under consideration” means we’ve lost the file. “Under active consideration” means we’re trying to find it!’

“I think this might have been one of Kaul’s little jokes. But I’m not absolutely certain. Kaul was eager to tell me what I had to do in order to lighten the load of my correspondence. ‘You must transfer every letter from your in-tray to your out-tray. You put a brief note in the margin if you want to see the reply. If you don’t, you need never see or hear of it again.’”

The great master of making notes on files and doing nothing is Mathur. Another entry in Suryaprakash’s diary reads: “‘We have not done the paperwork.’ I ignored this rubbish. Paperwork is the religion of the administrative service. I can just imagine Mathur on his deathbed, surrounded by wills and insurance claim forms, looking up and saying, ‘I cannot go yet, bhagwan, I haven’t done the paperwork.’”

And yet another entry reads: “I persevered. ‘Mathur saheb, in your evidence to the cabinet committee, are you going to support my view that the administrative service is overhand and feather-bedded or not? Yes or no! Straight answer!’

“Could I have put this question any more plainly? I don’t think so. This was the reply: ‘Mantriji, if I am pressed for a straight answer, I shall say that, as far as we can see, looking at it by and large, taking one thing with another, in terms of the average of departments, then in the last analysis it is probably true to say that, at the end of the day, you would find, in general terms that, not to put too fine a point on it, there really was not very much in it one way or the other.’

“While I was still reeling from this, he added, no doubt for further clarification, ‘As far as one can see, at this stage’.

“I made one last attempt. ‘Does that mean yes or no?’ I asked, without much hope. ‘Yes and no,’ he replied helpfully.”



Behind Scenes

Had lawmaker Murphy — known for his commonplace, yet canny observations of life — had the good fortune of meeting Nirupama Rao, he would, no doubt, have penned yet another of his numerous laws. The greater the stress, Murphy would have pointed out, the more space expands to make room for more stress.

The spokesperson for the ministry of external affairs can see the world expand around her, as her own workload grows by leaps and bounds. Last week, she held briefings in a cosy, let’s-just-chat manner in her corner room in the first floor of the Press Information Bureau (PIB). Scribes on the beat would gather there every evening, casually going through her newspapers, using her telephone or just hanging around for some idle talk at the end of her daily briefings.

Earlier this week, Rao had moved to the huge hall that the PIB reserves for special occasions. The number of chairs trebled. There was a plethora of mikes on the desk, and the room was flooded by the harsh lights of television. On Thursday , she had moved to the gigantic ballroom of the Oberoi Hotel. Foreign minister Jaswant Singh had decided to hold a press conference, and a considerable part of Rao’s day was spent ensuring that it went without a hitch. An hour before the conference was to start, the 200-seater hall was full. The next day, Jaswant Singh had managed quite a good press. And for Rao, it was a good day’s work.

Ever since Rao took over her new job last month, the soft-spoken Malayalee (she was a Menon who grew up in Bangalore) has been in the thick of the Musharraf visit. If the Indo-Pak summit, slated to be held in Agra on Sunday, has a public face, it’s not epitomised by the beaming visage of Atal Bihari Vajpayee or the henna-haired President Pervez Musharraf. As of now, it’s Rao’s smiling face that talks of the summit.

Interest in the visit has been snowballing ever since the May invite was extended to President Musharraf, then Pakistan’s chief executive. Rao was pushed into the deep end on the very first day, her appointment having more or less coincided with the invite. Since then she has been handling the logistics of the visit.

Planning out the visit — while revealing, and hiding, facts of it from the public — has kept her so busy that Rao has had to defer moving into her new residence. “Let the visit get over, and I shall then think of moving,’’ she says. Meanwhile, her visiting, 11-year-old son, who was with his bureaucrat father in Bangalore all this while, complains that he doesn’t get to talk to his mother through the day. But as far as Rao is concerned, right now all roads lead to Agra.

Rao spends her day — which at this moment starts somewhere at the crack of dawn — discussing the nitty-gritties of the summit — attempting questions that, even a day before the summit, lead to no answer. She is usually jolted out of sleep by the loud jangle of the telephone bell. It could be a South Block mandarin, or a reporter. The questions vary. Somebody calls her up in the dead of night to ask her if MQM leader Altaf Hussain would be visiting India. Another wants to know who’d be the official hostess for Begum Musharraf. And so on and so forth.

The day is peppered with meetings, as Rao wings in and out of her room. There is a loud racket just outside, as masons race against time to come up with a glitzy, high-tech media room that’s been a pipe-dream for some months now. South Block had first thought it would be ready for Bill Clinton. Then, several months later, they had hoped that the room would be readied in time for Musharraf. Now, with his visit just round the corner and the masons still at work, South Block hopes to see it functioning before George Bush Jr visits India, whenever that happens.

Meanwhile, Rao continues to answer — or evade — questions. What is the strength of the domestic media? (No one knows). How many Pakistani journalists are coming? (Two plane loads so far). Will there be a joint press conference? (Possibly). Where are the press passes for Musharraf’s Rajghat visit? (The MEA has run out of them, thanks to a zealous officer who issued them on an indiscriminate, first-come-first-serve basis).

If Rao successfully handles the questions, half the battle’s won. Whether the Agra summit actually paves the way for a thawing of ties is a question that won’t really find an answer in the coming months. What’s important is that it should appear to do so.

On the other hand, the success of the first summit in 30 years will boost Rao’s graph, as the successful handling of thorny assignments in the last few years propped up the career of her predecessors (see box). For Rao, the challenge is more formidable, for it’s not just her first task as joint secretary, external publicity, but because — in these three years — India and Pakistan have constantly been on the see-saw of diplomacy.

Musharraf’s visit, less than two years after body-bags began making their way home from the mountains of Kargil, has certainly evoked a lot of hype. Cynics, of course, are convinced that little is going to emerge out of the Sunday summit. But the optimists believe that this could be the breakthrough that the world is on the look out for. If both the summit and Rao can successfully take on the issue of Kashmir, that is. “Our position has been stated and is clear,’’ is her usual response to all prickly questions.

Rao, however, doesn’t look too worried about the outcome of the summit. As the topper in her 1973 batch of probationers, confidence is something that she has oodles of. “When most young girls were talking about becoming doctors or engineers, I knew I wanted to join the foreign service,’’ she says. “And once I was in the service, I never really had to prove myself at any point.’’

She has looked after the east Asia desk, handled China in the worst of times, worked in Moscow, Colombo and Washington and headed the mission in Peru. But the acid test — she knows — will be the smooth conclusion of the Agra summit. And that’s when Rao will begin to breathe again.

The last time she put her feet up was when trouble broke out in Chennai. “I was so happy when that happened,’’ Rao confessed to some friends. “After a month, I actually managed to get a quiet weekend,’’ she said.

Famous last words?



Leave her out of the party

Sir — For a while, the government and the opposition seemed to be cooing in the same tune. Sonia Gandhi echoed the prime minister’s words on Kashmir for her American audience and the words of praise at home came gushing. Now it’s back to square one and the thing that has done it is the invitation from the Pakistan high commissioner. What is particularly jarring is madam’s decision to stay out of the tea party while her party gives company to the general (“Tea scares off Sonia, not Cong”, July 11). Americans were made to believe that she doubted the Hurriyat’s locus standi as the sole representative of Kashmiris. Would the Congress’s attendance at the tea then indicate that the rest of her gang believes her not?

Yours faithfully,
S. Soundaraya, Calcutta

Game for more

Sir — It is really sad for the Board of Control for Cricket in India that the team management’s request was not taken into consideration (“Team management wanted Nehra, Yuvraj”, June 14). The lack of communication between the team management and the board does not bode well for the Indian team, which is playing brilliantly again.

Chandu Borde has cited a very silly reason for the surprise omission of the Indian speedster, Ashish Nehra, from the team. He was too good a player to be axed from the team for the forthcoming triangular series in Sri Lanka and was one of the few bowlers who bowled well in the Zimbabwe series and didn’t get carried away by the bounce of the track like the other bowlers. The board can not justify its decision on any ground.

Yours faithfully,
Harsh Saraogi, via email

Sir — It is disheartening when people stop believing in a person because of a few failures. Sourav Ganguly has won many matches for India but simply because he has failed in nine or ten, he has become the country’s scapegoat. When India was down and out, it was Ganguly who was made captain. Under him, the team’s performance improved. Instead of criticizing him, we should support him.

Yours faithfully,
Sandeep Sharma, via email

Sir — The article, “Coming of age” (April 28), was an eye-opener for the West Bengal selectors. There is no dearth of talent in West Bengal. The only reason youngsters from villages and small towns do not make it to leagues higher than the district ones is the lack of infrastructure. Only a few cricketing academies are available to the rural youth and they are not enough to accommodate these upcoming cricketers.

The sports authorities in the state and the cricket body presided over by Jagmohan Dalmia should try and promote cricket in a more planned manner. With administrative brains like Dalmia’s and cricketers like Sourav Ganguly, Arun Lal and Ashok Malhotra training these children, there is a possibility that we might be able to nurture and help them hone their talents.

Yours faithfully,
Sumant Poddar, Calcutta

Sir — It is a pleasant surprise to see the Indian cricket team faring well under the captaincy of Sourav Ganguly. The team certainly did a good job by winning the test series against Zimbabwe. However, Ganguly’s performance left much to be desired. One hundred and six runs in six test innings and 10 runs in the three one-day matches is not we expect from a frontline batsman. Ganguly’s conduct throughout the series has also not been particularly good. He has been late for all the six tosses so far and also argued with the match referee on the outcomes of the tosses. Maybe our Maharaja needs to take a break and hopefully come back with renewed vigour.

Yours faithfully,
Chandragupta, via email

Licence to kill

Sir — Evidently, getting a driver’s licence in Calcutta is child’s play. The other day I hired a taxi at Brabourne Road and was taken aback when the taxi driver pleaded ignorance of Park Street, Camac Street or Elgin Road. He said that he had only recently arrived from Darbhanga. In 1999, his brothers here had obtained a driver’s licence for him here while he was in Darbhanga. At the cost of Rs 1,500, even his appearance before the licensing authorities was waived. With such credentials, it wasn’t surprising that he suddenly swerved onto the path of a minibus and barely missed running over a pedestrian.

Yours faithfully,
Gautam Bahri, Calcutta

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