Editorial / No mean business
Phoolan’s stories
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

The chief minister of West Bengal has reason to congratulate himself. The upcoming contract with Microsoft puts West Bengal among the Indian states forging ahead in the application of information technology in administration. Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and his men have displayed a mentality befitting the changing times. From his statements, it is clear that he is only too conscious of West Bengal’s poor showing in industrialization. He feels that a spurt in e-business would help compensate for the state’s slow start on the industrialization front. Nor is the e-business being thought of in isolation. E-governance, on the model of the project Microsoft has offered Britain, is to be introduced to improve the government and administrative work culture. Working with Microsoft itself might seem a guarantee of success. The inputs of Wipro and IBM in training future IT experts in schools and colleges would help infrastructure-building, revenue and employment. Unlike many other plans of the state government, this one shows foresight.

The focus on the new phenomenon, however, might distract attention from certain other painful necesssities. Evidently, the chief minister has made no mistake about the value of a viable infrastructure as far as e-business is concerned. Reportedly, Reliance Infotech is about to sign a contract with the government regarding the laying of optical fibre cables. The same comprehensive attention earlier would have been helpful to traditional enterprises, and may have slowed the industrial decline of West Bengal. Mr Bhattacharjee has said that investors will be encouraged in both traditional and IT-based industries. But promising noises to investors have been made for a long time, while the reasons behind investor shyness have never been tackled. The secret lies not in promises, but in political will. No resident of the state will believe, for example, that the condition of roads could not have been improved since the time the state government turned investor-friendly. Just this one basic difficulty in communication means enormous losses — sometimes everyday, in the case of perishable produce.

This is merely one example. Every field of infrastructure, ranging from irrigation to electricity, needs immediate attention. The problems have been identified, they can be corrected; what has yet not shown itself is the will to map, plan and carry the plans through. Labour relations are a sore point, and it is common to place the entire blame for this on militant trade unionism — for which the majority party is largely responsible. Doubtless this is an important factor, and Mr Bhatacharjee’s concern with work culture is well-founded. But recent studies have repeatedly shown that this is not the whole story. Unacceptable management practices, in jute mills for example, consistent overmanning, lockouts by owners, all help in creating tensions in labour relations and damage the industrial climate of the state. The opening of new jute mills and other factories is certainly good news. But there is yet no guarantee that these will be profitable, that the fate of the new mills will be any different from the old.

A change in mentality can be welcomed wholeheartedly when it comprehends the past and present together with the future. The excitement over e-business gives no indication that the government has also developed the will to look at the dismal scene of traditional business. But e-business cannot bloom in the void. All the e-savvy states in the country initially rely on the infrastructure and prosperity brought by traditional industry, much of which is agro-based. It is not something the government can afford to forget.


One of the most striking pictures of Phoolan is the one taken at her surrender in 1983. She almost fills the frame. But she looks away from the camera, with only a part of her profile showing as she gazes down at the faceless multitude before her with her hands raised in a namaste. The gesture could be anything — apology, surrender, greeting. At this moment she is stepping into the long and complicated ritual of rehabilitation, as punctuated with ordeals as the purification ritual of any tribe. Yet she is as far from the spectators of this real-life drama as from those looking at the photograph. Her face is impenetrable, but not expressionless. The downturn of her mouth could be sulkiness, fear, defiance, bewilderment or any combination of these. Her gaze is intense, yet withdrawn.

Is she a wild little girl, lost and afraid in the world to which her surrender has brought her? Or is she firming up her unsmiling mouth to take on another challenge? Or is she still immersed in the memories of the blood-revenge culture of the Chambal ravines? She fills the frame, yet does not dominate it. She is caught in a circle of eyes, fixed in other people’s perceptions. And this is the space she inhabited till her death.

It is almost as if the “person” called Phoolan was usurped by a commentary of many voices, chaotic, but overlapping one another through common and convenient assumptions. The voices are complicit in covering up gaps that hinder the construction of a “personality”. She had spoken in many voices too, as observers and biographers noted, and different commentators chose just the ones each wanted. The mystery of Phoolan’s personality is, therefore, a carefully preserved one.

Phoolan came trailing enigmas: oppressed little girl turned bandit in revenge; a raped and humiliated “piece of rubbish”; possible author of a famous massacre. Elusive like a fairy or a predatory animal, she was surrounded by lovers and admirers in the wilds and in prison. Thence emerged the champion of the backward classes, housewife and “agriculturist”, and finally a member of parliament. From brutal murderess into tame parliamentarian, from the unmapped murk of the ravines into the glare of the arclights. Who was she? Which one? How many?

Did she really refashion herself, over and over again, with indomitable spirit, as her champions have claimed? Or with shrewd calculation and “astuteness”, as her lawyer remarked? Are we interested in knowing whether she did remake herself? In spite of such outpourings of material about her, biography and film included, have we any inkling of what she thought, what her past was “actually” like, how she dealt with her memories, what “really” happened? Do we believe that trying to know her would be convenient?

The enigma is preferable. Only then can the world outside the ravines — with its policemen, politicians, activists, biographers and filmmakers, backward classes longing for a leader — find the pieces they want to use. The whole truth is always undesirable.

The lore that Phoolan brought with her gained her numerous champions. The most honest in utilizing it was her political mentor, Mulayam Singh Yadav, who supervised the withdrawal of most of the cases against her and projected her as the new other backward classes leader. This was the most direct use of social banditry for the politically correct purpose of drawing OBC votes. Yadav never pretended to be interested in what Phoolan was, or thought, or wanted.

But there were other champions too, spokespersons who aspired to give Phoolan’s experiences shape and meaning, to place them in a context of a greater morality, of nobility and justice. Arundhati Roy spoke up brilliantly for Phoolan’s rights as the subject of a successful film. She was disconcerted when Phoolan settled with Channel 4 for the sum of $40,000. Canniness and greed did not become either Roy’s heroine or Shekhar Kapur’s. Everyone needed a legend — and the legend, quite unexpectedly, extracted a price.

Even Mala Sen, her biographer-turned-friend, was repelled when Phoolan insisted on supporting child labour among the poor. However aware Sen was of the ambiguities of Phoolan’s story and character, this still upset her. Phoolan failed and baffled them all. But the point is that people needed not her, but what she could be made to represent. So the bafflement itself became glamorized, an element of the Phoolan mystery.

There are many records of Phoolan telling parts of her own story. She may have remembered her past, or thought she did. It was what she said she remembered that was, for her interlocutors, the kind of thing that they expected to happen to a lower-caste illiterate girl from a backward village. The tale acquires symbolic proportions, a confirmation of the hitherto largely imagined sufferings of all such women rolled into one.

Within this story, what makes Phoolan different is rebellion. There is now a comforting reason — familiar through childhood tales of banditry — for her to become a dacoit, even a murderer. Simple poverty and oppression, with access to arms, which are the reasons dacoits become dacoits, are not exciting enough. To glorify this would be to acknowledge that banditry, among certain peoples, is linked to the traditional deprivation of entitlement. That would demand serious change. Focussing on a symbol, which Yadav did, relieves everyone of that burden. Politics, activists and the media, all need fables that will move, persuade and sell.

Oppression-rebellion-revenge is a saleable theme. On the popular level, it appeals to primordial notions of justice, which match, in this case, the social justice trend in contemporary electoral politics. Revenge can be perceived as the only honourable response to oppression in Phoolan’s circumstances. Hence the prominence given to rape. She can be “redeemed”. This is where the state and the political parties can step in. It is a sign of their nobility, called forth by Phoolan’s honourable rebellion.

The entire process is best exemplified by Behmai. Phoolan evaded or denied her part in the Behmai massacre. Yet a whole lore was built up around it, which resonated again at her death. Given the obscurity that shrouds caste wars in the interiors of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, it is almost impossible to say what happened. One would have thought that Phoolan’s elevation to MP status would have gained by a playing down of Behmai. Yet Behmai is a loaded word from which Phoolan’s image was never to be freed. It was an essential ingredient in the glamour of the dacoit-turned-MP. She was not beautiful by the standards of the society which she had entered as a heroine. Even the tales of her many past lovers did not help her to make the grade. Perhaps the idea of a much-raped woman with a string of lovers was too discomfiting for the limelight. Behmai would have to do.

Behmai itself is a symbol. It is an event (massacre of males) and a locale (Thakur village). Lootings and kidnappings are too mundane; they do not fire the voyeuristic imagination. Behmai gives Phoolan a necessary and unique stamp. The state needs it for a sensational display of its redemptive power. The political party needs it to show the OBC electorate that Phoolan as a leader can go to any lengths to avenge caste oppression, as she did in Behmai. Behmai is also part of the mystery of the biographer’s subject, part of the ambiguity, so aesthetically satisfying, that Roy lauds in Sen’s book.

The story has drawn to a satisfying close with her hideous death, because now the finishing touches can be put to the legend — or legends. There are so many that children can go to sleep with: bad-woman-turned-good, punished for the bad in the end; brave girl-turned-avenger redeemed by the ruler but fallen to an old enemy; champion of the oppressed brought to an untimely end because of her indomitable courage. This can go on. Lies, greed, fear, insecurity, indecision, suspicion, shrewdness, complacency, ignorance will have no place in these tales. Society has created a moral tale, only one has to pick ‘n’ mix morals to suit one’s position and need. Phoolan herself is lost somewhere between the moral tale and the amoral act of making it.

No doubt she had extraordinary capacities. Her spirit, whether innocent or canny or both, her survival instinct, her adaptability, her charm, her secretiveness are all material out of which tales can be made, and might set her apart from the other women bandits of the Chambal. But the point is that everyone knew not knowing her would help. This wilful ignorance may be the necessary condition of all legend-making.

But Phoolan can have her own revenge. As a “person”, she never coheres. She presents to us, to all the tale-makers, the unsettling possibility that there is no coherent “individual” in any of us. We are a conglomeration of reflections of other people’s impressions and memories of ourselves. To survive with sanity, we merely stitch these together and claim them as our individuality. Perhaps it is this message that Phoolan, and many legendary figures before her, want us to register.



All in the head

Cat among the pigeons? When Parliament convened for the monsoon session, many were puzzled by the presence of a man sitting in the Congress benches, sporting dhoti-kurta and a topi which hid a clean-shaven head that would have otherwise reflected the fans above. Heads put together, it was discovered that the topiwallah was none other than Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, the Congress chief whip and aspiring chief of the Bengal Congress unit. Priya has just returned from a trip to Tirupati. There are speculations about what took him there. While some believe it was to ensure better political luck, both for him and his wife, naughty souls think it was to thank the lord for keeping Mamata Banerjee away from the chief minister’s chair in his home state. Anyway, there seems to have been no divine intervention in his parliamentary affairs. Despite boasting to the media that he would drop a “bombshell” that would fix the finance minister and his cronies in the UTI, Priya has turned out to be a damp squib. However, inspite of failing to provide the evidence, Munshi has reportedly kept insisting that he and his family lacked adequate protection. Does that mean he knows about some crucial UTI facts which he has withheld or that he, after all, does not believe in the lord as his protector?

Fight round one

Seems like only the lord can help the the Northeast, that is, given the way things are going. The likely appointment of the Congress-ditcher, Nationalist Congress Party leader, PA Sangma, as the Centre’s interlocutor to solve the Naga problem could pose more problems for the region which has three states under the Congress wing. There is evidently no love lost between Sangma and Mani Shankar Aiyar, the AICC incharge of the three states. When the news of Sangma’s probable appointment reached the Congress office, the temperature soared. “We will teach him a lesson”, a Congresswallah exploded. Another added pityingly that a man who once considered himself to be prime minister material should be found holding only a diplomatic assignment. Madam’s followers are confident that the NDA does not wish to solve the Northeast problem, “otherwise they would not have shown us a red rag like Sangma”. Beginning of another bullfight.

New house, new man

Moving in, which also means moving up. The BJP chief, Jana Krishnamurthy, has been allotted a new house. The place which will be the leader’s new home belongs to Arjun Singh, who is supposed to be vacating 32, Canning Lane for a bigger bungalow. But there are bigger reasons for the shifting out. An unsuccessful bid to dislodge PV Narasimha Rao from the political stage and two electoral defeats later, the wily Thakur is now left with health problems and an uncertain future. Lets hope vastu shastra works for him.

Whose seat is it anyway?

Smooth operation. Didi never forsook her seat in Parliament. So she does not need either the permission of the prime minister or the speaker of the Lok Sabha to go back to her seat. Slipping into the house with unnatural quietness last Thursday, Mamata Banerjee took her place beside colleague and close aide, Sudip Bandopadhyay. When spoilsport Somnath Chatterjee declared that the Trinamoolis should clarify if they were with the NDA or the Congress, it was Sudip who spoke up. With a coldness which froze the house he said that he was occupying his seat in the house and if this was not his, he would resign. Smart kid.

Operation kitchen

Meanwhile, Trinamool councillors in the Calcutta Municipal Corporation are proving themselves to be no less smart. Rajiv De, mayor-in-council, is apparently greatly disturbed by the “clean kitchen campaign” of colleague Javed Khan, who clearly enjoys didi’s support and has his own solid political base. To counter his adversary, De is apparently trying hard to convince the mayor, Subrata Mukherjee, of the unwiseness of locking horns with the Chowringhee hotel-lobby after having been elected from the Chowringhee seat. De’s position has been strengthened by rumours that health inspectors close to Khan are only making a show of the entire expedition. Cornered, Khan has said that the identity of the inspectors be revealed before he is made the scapegoat in the political slaughter. Check mate?

Next in the queue

The career graph of madam seems to be going right through the roof. Industrialists are reported to have joined the queue outside 10, Janpath and party members don’t believe they are mere “courtesy calls”. A coup in the offing?

Bollywood watcher

Hero worship. Seems like eighth wonder, Sachin Tendulkar, can’t stay too far away from the Indian vice. At the special screening of Lagaan, which Aamir Khan had apparently arranged for nightingale Lata Mangeshkar, Sachin was one of the celebrity invitees. And it wasn’t the second half of the cricket — the cricket match with its nailbiting finish — that was the reason for the visit. Sachin is said to be invariably present at all special shows of Aamir Khan’s releases. Bowled over!

Footnote / Battle lost and won

Loser wins. At least in Bellary. Election fever over, Sonia Gandhi may have forgotten this constituency in distant Karnataka for upperstate Amethi, but Sushma Swaraj who lost the elections here has not. The minister for information and broadcasting is said to be in close touch with the people who once preferred Sonia to her. She is expected to be there soon on a festival in which married women fast for their husband’s wellbeing. Swaraj is also scheduled to attend a mass marriage during her visit to Bellary. “I am not in the habit of dumping persons”, she said, pointing to the only 56,000 vote-difference with her adversary in the 1998 Lok Sabha elections. Do the people of this constituency feel the same way about Swaraj? May be. But the chief minister of the state, SM Krishna, is in no mood to listen to that rubbish. A package of Rs 300 crore has been announced for the development of the region. Come election time, the residents of Bellary will thus be called to vote either for money or emotional ties. The votes, presumably, this time will veer towards the latter in case the crores go into the pockets of the Congresswallahs.    


Creating a bad myth

Sir — Like me, there are thousands of Indians still alive who have had the good fortune of having seen Subhas Chandra Bose in flesh and blood. It is shocking for us to see a serial on Netaji on a major television channel because the protagonist, former star, Biswajit, has no similarity with the man, leave alone the commanding personality or the charisma required to portray the leader. Also, gaffes in the storyline would tend to mislead the younger generation for whom Netaji is only a myth. Let Bose not be made a source of cheap publicity and easy money again.

Yours faithfully,
Amullya C. Roy, via email

Idling away

Sir — Ashok Mitra seems to suggest in “Idle thoughts on betrayal” (Aug 1) that all state-owned financial institutions have made bad investment decisions throughout their long history and it was the nature of the command economy and the ineptitude of the press that lent an aura of infallibility to them. No mutual fund in any financial market has had such a long successful stint as the Unit Trust of India. This is probably more because of the imperfections of our domestic capital market than because of the prescience on the part of the UTI fund managers.

Some more idle thoughts. There was a report on the same day in another newspaper about the fiscal irresponsibility of the revered Left Front government in Calcutta. Will Mitra provide us with some more idle thoughts that refute the findings of the comptroller and auditor general of India? The UTI investment in Cyberspace is a matter of bad policy, with or without overtones of political/bureaucratic cronyism which needs to be investigated. This has nothing to do with the process of liberalization, which if pursued would take discretionary powers out of dirty hands.

Yours faithfully,
Partho Datta, via email

Sir — The UTI is not trustworthy, but neither is the present government at the Centre. This is evident from the frequent changes made in the financial policy in the name of salvaging the economy of the country. Those who suffer most are the common people, especially the senior citizens, who depend on a fixed income to feed their families. The rates of public provident fund have been changed even for existing account holders. Holders of PPF had been guaranteed a rate of 12 per cent interest per annum. Now the rate of interest has been slashed to 11 per cent and it holds for the existing PPF-account holders as well.

Again, tax deduction at source was applicable for an earning of Rs 10,000 from bank deposits. Investors had planned their investment in banks accordingly. Suddenly, the cut off limit has been reduced to Rs 5,000 in the budget, and once again this holds for existing fixed deposits as well. One can go on about reasons to mistrust the government itself.

Yours faithfully,
Mahesh Kumar, via email

Primary matters

Sir — The decision of the West Bengal higher secondary council to change the syllabus of a number of subjects is welcome (“HS syllabus makeover next year”, July 24). The council has brought about minor changes from time to time in a number of subjects, either on a routine basis or on the recommendation of experts. However, it should be noted that the Urdu syllabus has remained unchanged since its introduction to the course in 1976. This is an indication of the negligence of the government from a lack of interest on the part of the lovers of Urdu.

I appeal to the teachers concerned with the subject to send their suggestions about the changes needed to the council at the earliest so that students who have Urdu as their first language may be benefited. It is not only the syllabus, the examination questions also need a thorough change. The distribution of marks for the questions does not tally with that of the questions set on languages like Hindi or Bengali.

Yours faithfully
S.A. Rahman Barkati, Calcutta

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