Editorial/ One hundred days of promise
Bengal starts happening
Another great Indian novel
People/ Martin Macwan
Letters to the editor

Averdict on a political leader is a tricky business, trapped as it is between two opposing views of history. One school famously believes, following the comment of a British prime minister, that a week is a long time in politics. The other follows Zhou en Lai, who said on the bicentenary of the French Revolution that it was too early to assess the event. The Telegraph will thus be forgiven if it finds it difficult to make a full evaluation of Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who completes 100 days in office today. It is, however, not impossible to judge what Mr Bhattacharjee’s tenure as chief minister — call it long or call it short — has come to represent for West Bengal. This can be summed up in one word: hope. After more than two decades of stagnation and inertia, there is a refreshing vibrancy in West Bengal’s corridors of power. Mr Bhattacharjee — his attitudes, his utterances and his actions — is the agent of this change. He has successfully instilled a new life into a languishing state. Rigor mortis has been replaced by activity. West Bengal, given up for dead, promises, Lazarus-like, to live again. The dying state has received, one could say following the biblical analogy, the touch of the master’s hand.

This transformation is noteworthy because when Mr Bhattacharjee assumed office, expectations from him and from West Bengal were non-existent. Few expected Mr Jyoti Basu’s cup-bearer to be the harbinger of a completely new era. Yet this is exactly what Mr Bhattacharjee has done with a remarkable degree of success. To chart his way out of the prevailing apathy and despair, Mr Bhattacharjee proceeded to mark out his areas of priority. As a practising Marxist, he knew that people’s aspirations and perceptions are ultimately determined by economic conditions. He identified, thus, with unerring judgment, the industrialization of West Bengal, as his chief concern. He realized that capital had been shy of West Bengal because of tardy government response and the fear of political interference. Mr Bhattacharjee acted swiftly to dispel these notions. He met investors, admitted past mistakes and took quick decisions. This initiated a reaction through which once bitten capitalists were twice confident about putting their money in West Bengal. The promise of a new epoch moved beyond rhetoric as files moved faster and as accountability and punctuality were introduced in government offices. An old communist, contrary to expectations, has learnt the ways of the market place. Buoyancy has taken the place of cultivated cynicism.

Hope has not been without hiccups. Kidnapping and murder threatened to blot Mr Bhattacharjee’s copybook. But tragedy turned to triumph as the police, fortified by a sense of freedom emanating from the chief minister, cracked the cases. Education remains a problem area with party prevailing over merit and excellence. There exists still an unresolved tension between the government and the ruling party. These, one assumes, are items on Mr Bhattacharjee’s future agenda. If he addresses them, and continues to build on his present goodwill and promise, there will be no cause for the bouquets to wither.


When the American consultancy firm, McKinsey, made a presentation on the state’s economic recovery map two years ago, it held out the example of the amazing transformation of Pittsburgh. In the early Nineties, the American town, with its decaying metal and chemical industries, heavy pollution, labour militancy and abysmal living conditions, was likened to “hell with the lid blown off”. Investors avoided it like plague. Scared of an irreversible slide deeper into the pits, all sections of the townspeople — businessmen, public administrators, trade unionists and even religious leaders — got together to take what they called the “Pittsburgh Pledge”.

Having decided on a consensual vision for the city’s redemption and regeneration, a task force went about giving shape to this vision in a 100-day action plan. A flurry of activity — from broad-spectrum policy changes to the nitty-gritty of urban planning — transformed the town in the next few years. The town’s new face launched a thousand enterprises. “West Bengal can achieve the same success,” the McKinsey study said.

It was difficult — almost naïve — to believe Pittsburgh could be repeated in Calcutta or Bengal, given the depth of despair and the image of ossification that have long darkened the state’s horizon in the eyes of investors. Jyoti Basu, once the symbol of the Marxists’ crusade for change, was no longer considered the big man for the big leap forward the state needed. Anyway, he was preparing to take his last bow. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was the new messiah who would rain manna on the desert, making it the promised land. He passed the first test with a victory that stumped pollsters predicting the end of 24 years of left rule.

Neither did Bhattacharjee promise nor did anyone expect him to achieve a hundred-day wonder. But exactly a hundred days in office after the elections, he still rides the crest of that wave of hope. His was an agenda — and a mandate — for change and he seems to be trying hard to keep his commitment to it. At least, that is the perception he has generated. In governance, as in politics, perception makes or unmakes reality to a large extent. For West Bengal, this is particularly true because the state’s image has been one of its main enemies of promise.

For someone who seriously believes things need to be changed, the beginning has to be made with two basic assumptions — that certain things in the past have not been either good or not good enough and that the road to recovery has to be hit and traversed fast to make up for lost time. If the Marxists had failed to script enough economic success stories, one reason was their illusion that they always knew best. Bhattacharjee admitted, with hitherto unknown candour and humility, that much time was lost and much initiative botched because of past journeys with- out a map. Hence the Do-It-Now mantra with which he plunged into his new business.

He began where any salvation drive in the state should begin — at Writers’ Buildings. The red-brick building housing the state secretariat symbolizes all that is wrong with governance in Bengal. Bhattacharjee, who has known the place too well in his long ministerial stints, has begun to shake it up. It is not just his government’s memorandum of understanding with Microsoft to introduce e-governance in the state; the chief minister also sounds genuine when he now rues the left’s opposition to job-snatching computers. The day may not be far off when government employees will have to punch their cards for entry and exit. Their work too will be monitored through their performance diaries.

Not just the employees, the ministers too would have to account for their performance. The first step in this direction was taken when Bhattacharjee, along with the commerce and industries minister, Nirupam Sen, the finance minister, Asim Dasgupta, and the panchayat and health minister, Surya Kanta Mishra, had two sessions with each of the other ministers, setting priorities and time-frames for their work. The Left Front committee, which promised to do a review of the government’s functioning every three months, began with the power department.

Not long ago, businessmen made fun of the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation’s claims of speedy, single-window clearance of projects, saying it may have a “single window, but it also has many doors”. Suddenly, there is a wind of favourable opinion blowing in the same circles — not just about Bhattacharjee, but also about Nirupam Sen. Following in Microsoft’s footsteps, software giants like IBM and Intel are coming up with serious investment proposals.

It has started happening. Last year, software exports from the state were worth Rs 965 crore — no mean achievement for a state that declared an information technology policy only in 1999. The chief minister hopes that the IT-sponsored turnaround will go a long way in stopping the brain drain from the state. But he must be knowing the limited role of information technology in overall economic growth and employment generation. So a whole range of small and medium range industries like leather, plastic, sericulture and hosiery have been identified for greater attention so that these can generate 600,000 jobs over the next few years.

When he began his new innings after the May elections, Bhattacharjee spoke of the need to correct the mistakes of the past in two crucial areas — health and education. That he meant business was underscored by his choice of Surya Kanta Mishra as health minister in addition to his panchayat charge. The two steps Mishra has taken so far — dissolution of the hospital management committees, packed with power-brokers of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and proposing autonomy for the SSKM Hospital — look good for a new approach.

His department is also preparing a detailed plan for a complete overhaul of the healthcare system with possible private participation. Bhattacharjee seems keen on breaking from the past in trying to reintroduce English in schools from class I, although he faces considerable opposition from sections of his own party leadership. What he and Sen have said about school and college teachers’ accountability did not please the Marxists’ considerable votebank. But they did bring in a refreshing change, at least of intent.

Yet, these are only ripples, not waves, of change. He will have to do much more and much faster if he is not to lose the early initiative. Bhattacharjee’s greater challenges will unfold as he steps on thorny issues like privatization or the closure of sick state public sector undertakings, overhauling the state electricity board or ridding education and health of pernicious party influence.

When he goes to Japan next month, on his first trip abroad as chief minister, to try and attract investors, he will know that the new Japanese prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, who began his economic firefighting with the slogan, “Reforms with no sacred cows”, has won massive victories for his party in recent elections. He can also learn on the trip how Japan’s prefectural governors are increasingly competing among themselves to attract foreign investors. But, when he meets Mitsubishi Chemicals officials in Tokyo, he is likely to be asked a blunt question, “How much longer will it take to improve the road to Haldia?”


The story begins in January 1977, with the arrival in Delhi of Rudyard Hart, a Coca-Cola executive, his wife, Katharine, and their two children, Priscilla and Kim. It was Rudyard’s wish to be posted to Delhi because his parents had been missionaries in India and he, as a child, had been enchanted by Kipling’s Jungle Book — hence his name, Rudyard, and his son’s, Kim. He hoped to double and treble sales of Coca-Cola in India. He ran into the stumbling block named George Fernandes, who had become a minister of the Central government and ordered Coca-Cola out of the country.

In sheer frustration and with little to do, Rudyard began an affair with his Indian stenographer, Nandini. She was animated and a lot more fun on the office table than his straight-laced Katherine on the comfortable matrimonial bed. When the wife and children were out at the American school, Rudyard brought Nandini home so that they could get more mileage out of copulation. Unfortunately for them, one afternoon Priscilla barged into the bedroom and saw her father up to no good with his nut-brown steno. Her love for her father turned into loathing. The Harts returned to the United States, had a divorce and Rudyard was left without his family.

Years later, Priscilla volunteered to work for a US-based agency to propagate family planning programmes in India. She was 24 and had overcome her revulsion for sex. She had many affairs, including one with a black American college basketball player. She was posted to a small district town, Zalilgarh (wretched fort) in Uttar Pradesh, not far from Ayodhya. The year was 1989. Communal passions were high. Leaders of the sangh parivar were determined to build a Ram temple exactly on the site of the Babri Masjid. Muslims were equally determined not to let them do so. Hindus carrying trishuls marched through Muslim mohallas shouting slogans. Muslims, though outnumbered, armed themselves and manufactured crude bombs.

Two men on whom the burden of maintaining peace rested were Lakshman, the district magistrate, and Gurinder Singh, superintendent of police, both products of St Stephens College and close friends. Lakshman, a Keralite, had an arranged marriage to a woman who regarded sex as a loveless duty every married woman had to undergo. They had a daughter devoted to her father. Gurinder, who loved his liquor and laced his speech with four-letter words, was a brave man with a heart of gold.

Priscilla ran foul of both Hindus and Muslims because of the work she had to do. She helped a Muslim woman, Fatima Bibi, to abort her seventh pregnancy and earned the dire hatred of her husband, Ali, a motor driver. Leaders of the sangh parivar had their own reasons for wanting Priscilla out of their way.

Priscilla turned to Lakshman. Business turned into friendship, friendship led to sex, sex to love. Twice a week they met in a dilapidated fortress some distance from Zalilgarh to watch sunset and make love. Lakshman was torn between sticking to his loveless marriage and resigning from the IAS to migrate to the US to start a new life with Priscilla. Gurinder persuaded him to stay on with his family in India. Together, they quelled a Hindu-Muslim riot in Zalilgarh with Gurinder shooting down a few marauders and enforcing a curfew over the town. Meanwhile, Priscilla, who had no concern for Hindu-Muslim tensions, went to the ruins to keep her tryst with Lakshman. He did not turn up. Her killers did. We do not know whether they were Hindus or Muslims. Her murder made news in America. Her divorced parents decided to return to India to see where she worked and died.

It is a gripping tale through which Shashi Tharoor encapsulates the problems facing present day India. He does it through press reports, correspondence between different people and interviews between an American journalist and the main characters in the tragic drama. The man who comes off best is the hard-drinking, foul-mouthed policeman, Gurinder Singh. His last act is to suppress the post mortem report of Priscilla which revealed that she was pregnant when she was killed.

Shashi Tharoor, a senior officer in the United Nations, has written five novels, including a bestseller, The Great Indian Novel, based on the Mahabharata. I have little doubt, Riot- A Novel is his best achievement. It is of contemporary importance, unbiased, beautifully crafted and written. If I had my way, I would make it compulsory reading for all hate-mongers: Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Sikh. Despite its frequent forays into erotica, it is a novel of historical and moral significance.

Situating a birthplace

“Neither the seven-day week nor the division of the months into 30 days was included in the Hindu calendar, the Panchang, until the fourth century AD. So even if Rama was a historical rather than a mythological figure, you have to get into a lot of guesswork before you date him. The Ramayana has suggestions that Rama lived in the dwapara yuga, about five thousand years ago, rather than the treta yuga of traditional belief. There is a Hindu pundit, a learned man, though without a degree in history as far as I know, a man called Sitanath Pradhan, who goes so far as to declare that the great climactic battle for Lanka was fought in 1450 BC and that Rama was exactly forty-two years old at the time. On the other hand, historians dating the existing texts of the Ramayana pretty much agree that it was composed sometime between 400 BC and AD 200, which is also the period in which that other great epic, the Mahabharata, was written, give or take a couple of hundred years. Confused enough? Your Hindutva types are presuming to know the exact place of birth of a man whose birth date is historically unverifiable.

“I know there are people who’ll say, ignore these petti-fogging historians, how does it matter? All that matters is what people believe. But there too, my historian’s inconvenient mind asks, when did they start believing it? The Ramayana existed as a text, as an epic, for about a thousand years before anyone began treating it as sacred. There is no evidence of any temple being built to worship Rama anywhere in India before the tenth century AD.”

A Sikh makes it to the hall of fame

How lucky I am and how great
For only forty years I had to wait
To hit the Arjuna mark, because you
I have been the fastest runner of the
The flying sikh, you called me affectionately
And made me into a legend
Of great heart, good humour and footspring
When chasing a thief I left him far behind
To prove that I am Milkha Singh
Believe me, with all of you I was laughing
But I am afraid I have to reject this honour
And still praise the Almighty that he
could stir
In good time our sports masters
And save me from being resurrected
Half a century later
Like the Olympic medallist K.D. Jadhav,
the wrestler
And don’t you think I should run faster
than ever before
Because their Highnesses have formally
opened the door
To my fame, and proved that I am Milkha
Of glory and humour the undisputed
No longer relaxing.


Caste on the map

Martinbhai Chhotubhai Macwan was swamped by a wave of hostility. He was in a television studio, arguing that caste had a place in the coming world conference on race in Durban. His opponent — a Member of Parliament — held that caste was not an issue. But the Parliamentarian had a curious way of referring to Dalits in his deposition. “You people,” he said to Macwan on several occasions, prompting the anchor to ask if the Dalits were not his people as well. The MP let that pass.

“I felt really very sad,” Macwan says, recalling the debate. “People still seem to know so little about the state of Dalits. Prejudices are still so strong.”

Macwan missed the conclave — a debate on the issue again — in another programme on television the following evening. Dalit writer-scholar Kancha Ilaiah sat all by himself in what looked like a room full of jeering upper-caste men and women. Macwan later heard how a student — and at another point in the programme, a noted academic — described the Dalits as a privileged caste. And how the studio burst into spontaneous applause.

For a so-called privileged class, the Dalits are curiously dispossessed — bereft of land, of jobs, of education, of basic amenities and of human rights. Consider these statistics. About 70 per cent of Dalit homes have no electricity and 90 per cent no sanitation. More than 20 per cent of the Dalits do not have access to safe drinking water. In 1999, 86.25 per cent of SC households were landless or marginal. In the last decade, general crime has fallen by 1.2 per cent. But crimes against Dalits have gone up by 99 per cent.

The National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR), of which 42-year-old Macwan is the convener, intends to take these issues up in Durban. Macwan, who is now in the South African city for a series of meetings before the conference, will however be back in India when the meet opens. “I think it is important for me to be here with our people while Durban takes up these issues,” he says.

The Durban conference organised by the United Nations opened up the floodgates of controversy even before the meet could begin. The Israelis are upset about Zionism forming a part of the agenda. And the Indian government is up in arms about a move to include the condition of Dalits in India in the discussions.

New Delhi did its bit to elbow out the inclusion of caste at the meet, arguing that caste was not race. Barbados had wanted to include discrimination based on work in the proceedings but was forced by India to squash the move. Even Nepal had tried to speak of caste in the subcontinent, but was persuaded by New Delhi to drop the issue.

“Despite all that, it has now been decided by the organisers that caste will be among the issues deliberated in the world conference,” says a relieved Macwan. “We have been taking these issues up at home, but nothing has happened in these 50 years. Now we need to take it before a world forum.”

And Macwan should know the importance of global attention. Till last year, even though the Gujarati Dalit Christian had been working for Dalit rights in Gujarat for over 20 years, few in the country knew of him. Then, the Robert F. Kennedy award was bestowed him — and Macwan became the symbol of Dalit empowerment.

Macwan’s story is the stuff legends are made of. His mother worked in a tobacco factory and his father was an agricultural labourer. Young Macwan went through school and college while he worked at the tobacco factory. He lived among scavengers, whose rights his organisation, Navsarjan, has been spearheading for over two decades. “Most scavengers are employed by the government,” Macwan, who later did his M.Phil from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, says. “And they continue to earn Rs 50 a month.”

Navsarjan deals with land issues as well. It has an organised legal and research network. “Its members are young Dalits. The moment they come to know of a Dalit being dispossessed of his or her land, they move court,” says a scribe who has written about the work of Navsarjan. “They know the legal system and manage to win most cases or work out settlements,” she says. She points out that there has been a marked difference in caste equations in the region in recent years. In areas where Navsarjan has a strong presence, the upper-castes are uncharacteristically humble. “‘Arrey, arrey baithiye baithiye,’ they say when the Dalits go to an upper caste house to discuss a matter.”

Among the Dalit villagers, of course, Macwan is like a demi-god. And that’s not surprising, since his organisation fights for a people that modern India thinks it has left behind in the pages of history. “Macwan’s group has done some very good work in the area,” says Chandrabhan Prasad, a Dalit intellectual. “But because he has always been with the NGO movement, he has a low profile outside the Dalit movement,” he says. Adds Vimal Thorat, a Dalit academic who teaches Hindi in the Indira Gandhi National Open University, “Navsarjan has brought about real changes in the villages of Gujarat.”

His group has also been focussing on education in Gujarat. The $90,000 that Macwan won for his two recent awards — the Kennedy prize and the American Gleitsman Foundation award — went into the spread of schools in Gujarat. “But I was really touched when the villagers came to me one day, carrying Rs51,000 that they had collected to give me after I had put the award money into educational schemes,” he says.

There is suspicion in some quarters about the funding of the Dalit movement, which has never been short of money. But Macwan says Navsarjan functions with the help of donations — Rs21 lakh has been contributed by the Dalit community — and money from foreign funders.

But, clearly, for the NCDHR, a federation of over 20 Dalit bodies, money is not the issue. The fight, right now, is allowing Dalits to live with dignity.

At Durban, there will be some — like Chandrabhan Prasad — who will urge the world community to impose sanctions on India if it does not improve the status of Dalits. Others, such as the group Macwan represents, hope that Dalit human rights will come up before bilateral dealings are struck or work as a precondition for grants and loans.

“We have seen it happen before. World pressure helped bring apartheid to an end. And the women’s movement has got a real boost because of global pressures,” says Macwan. “We are hopeful.”

And after Durban? “After Durban, we continue with our battle back home in India,” he says. “After all, we are essentially street fighters.”



Means to a sleazy end

Sir — The recent revelations made by the news report, “Army officers wanted sex: Tejpal” (Aug 23), helped re-establish the fact that the deeper you dig the more dirt you come up with. The army and Samata Party members of Parliament can turn blue in the face asking for the arrest of Tehelka’s Tarun Tejpal. It is apparent that they have been caught red-handed and are using any excuse to try and shift focus from themselves. It is indeed true that by procuring sex workers for the army officers, the Tehelka officers have gone against certain provisions of the Indian Penal Code. But sometimes, and especially in this case, the means do justify the end.
Yours faithfully,
Shipra Basu, Calcutta

Three times as good

Sir — It was disgraceful to watch a television news report which showed members of parliament standing outside Parliament, smiling shamelessly after the cabinet decision to increase their pay threefold. The decision to raise the salary, perquisites and other benefits of the MPs within a gap of a mere three years since the last hike has come at the most inopportune moment. The economy is in bad shape, industrial growth has slowed down, prices of essential commodities are on the rise and people are being laid off jobs. Going by rough estimates, it seems that the total cost of an MP (salary, allowances, perquisites and so on) would amount to Rs 24 crore annually. This will be at the expense of the taxpayers.

Tax laws are becoming increasingly stringent while interest rates in banks, provident fund and small-savings schemes are declining. Besides dealing with these economic pressures, people will now have to shoulder the financial burden exerted by the increase in salary of the MPs.

The cost of a day’s proceedings in Parliament can be calculated from the fact that an hour costs Rs 9.32 lakh. Yet the MPs do not hesitate to waste the tax-payers’ money by disrupting the house over trifles resulting in frequent adjournments.

The salaries and earnings of the MPs should be directly connected to the smooth functioning of Parliament and they should be held accountable for their conduct. It is only now that a decision is being taken to penalize disruptive MPs.

Yours faithfully,
S. Balakrishnan, Jamshedpur

Sir — The present government’s poor knowledge of tax laws and financial matters was well displayed by the news report, “3-times pay and perks for MPs”. It is one thing to pay the MPs a substantial salary. But the perquisites being offered, such as free first class air travel for MPs and their families, a limit of 100,000 local calls on their cellular phones and so on, are ridiculous. If the proposed salaries and perquisites are actually given, a clause should also be introduced along with the bill. If the MPs disrupt Parliament and do not allow it to run smoothly on any particular day, a heavy penalty should be levied on each MP at fault. Given the regularity with which Parliament is disrupted, government revenue shall definitely grow if this clause is implemented.

Yours faithfully,
M. Kumar, via email

Sir — I must congratulate the finance minister for the hike in payment in the salaries of MPs. It seems he has forgotten that a while ago, in the 2001-02 budget, he cut the interest on the monthly income scheme of the post office. This decision adversely affected a major portion of the middle and the lower income groups.

Does the finance minister not realize that by hiking the MPs’ salaries to three times the original amount the burden on our economy will increase? To be fair to both the MPs and the common people, the finance minister should also raise the interest of the monthly income scheme. Why should the people be neglected in this time of plenty?

Yours faithfully
Pranab Chakraborty, via email

Sir — The Union cabinet’s clearance of the astronomical hike in the salaries of the MPs is outrageous. First, India is going through one of the worst economic slumps in the last couple of decades. Second, the behaviour of some of these MPs, both in and out of Parliament, is at an all time low. Before claiming a pay hike and then gloating over it, they should improve their conduct.

It seems our politicians are trying to emulate the erstwhile rajas and nawabs of pre-Independence India who had no qualms about living lavishly while the people of the country starved.

Yours faithfully
Phani Bhusan Saha, Calcutta

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