Editorial / Call of the past
Murder weapon in Kashipur
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL / CALL OF THE PAST 
 
 
 
 
The ghost of an agitational past has now come back to haunt Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the chief minister of West Bengal, who is committed to give the state a new image and a better future. He has realized that demonstrations and disruptions at the drop of a hat only serve to give West Bengal a bad name. A state for strikes and rallies is not a sobriquet that can be worn with pride by a state bent on going forward. This realization may have come to Mr Bhattacharjee some time back, but he articulated it only when his train from Darjeeling to Calcutta was held up by protesters sitting on the rail tracks. Ironically, the protesters belonged to the Student Federation of India, the student wing of Mr Bhattacharjee’s own party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and they were expressing their anger at the recent hike in rail fares. Mr Bhattacharjee was justifiably angry at this hold up which lasted for nearly two hours. But the ordinary inhabitants of West Bengal have become immune to such disruptions of public service in the name of politics. Bandhs, rallies, dharnas, go-slows have so often hampered the normal flow of daily life that ordinary people have accepted these as a normal part of life in West Bengal. All political parties are guilty of this disruption, but even Mr Bhattacharjee will admit that these forms of protest were endowed with dignity by the left, and especially by the CPI(M). The latter won its spurs by burning trams and buses and calling bandhs.

The standard attitude of the left towards protests that disrupt public life is too deeply embedded in the notion of politics to disappear. Constituents of the Left Front, like the Revolutionary Socialist Party and the Communist Party of India, have already declared their support to modes of protest like sitting on railway tracks. From September 26 to 28, when the World Trade Organization meets in Washington DC, the Left Front will hold protest meetings in Calcutta and other parts of West Bengal. It is clear that Mr Bhattacharjee will have to clear his own backyard before he can confront the non-left parties on the issue. The main non-left political party in West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress, is unlikely to agree to any proposal that aims to stop rallies and demonstrations. Ms Mamata Banerjee, the Trinamool Congress leader, decided, when she came into politics, to follow the CPI(M) way to the limelight. She does not hesitate to disrupt and gloats over hoisting the left with its own petard. She will not hesitate to see a conspiracy to stifle dissent in Mr Bhattacharjee’s move to arrive at a consensus to stop shows of protest.

Before Mr Bhattacharjee decides to clear his political backyard, he will have to clear the ideological deadwood in his own party. He and his party will have to choose between remaining tied to the past and moving forward. As long as the perception persists that the CPI(M) has not jettisoned its past agitational practices and has not sloughed off its revolutionary zeal, no investment will be forthcoming to West Bengal. Mr Bhattacharjee has a lonely and uphill struggle ahead of him. As a chief minister, he is a man who can see tomorrow. But his party can only see yesterday.

   

 
 
MURDER WEAPON IN KASHIPUR 
 
 
BY MUKUL KESAVAN
 
 
The deaths in Kashipur in Orissa have become a national scandal. They make newspaper headlines and television news shows (notably on Star News) regularly provide footage from Kashipur besides featuring panel discussions in which politicians and nongovernmental organizations offer their separate explanations for the tragedy. The pub- lic discussion of the deaths centres on one issue: did the dead of Kashipur die of starvation or not?

The government of Orissa (and the government of India) have consistently argued through their spokesmen that the people who died died because of food poisoning, while its critics maintain that they starved to death. This is, in a sick way, about as polarized an argument as you are likely to encounter: one side adamant that people died on account of something they ate and the other certain that they died because they had nothing to eat.

A few days ago the Orissa government’s case was made on Star News by an articulate member of parliament who belonged to Orissa’s ruling party, the Biju Janata Dal. Rhetorically, the government’s argument was made up of three elements: a preliminary expression of regret for the tragedy: an attempt to put the deaths in “perspective”, that is, the longstanding poverty of Orissa, the failure of the Union government to classify Orissa as the lowest form of basket case and the consequent failure of successive central governments to give Orissa the wherewithal for tackling hunger and, in a startling shift from the general to the particular, an insistence that the deaths in Kashipur were caused not by hunger, but by poisoned mango kernels.

Mango kernels. I had never heard the two words said together before the Kashipur deaths became news, so it took a while to work out that the MP was talking about guthlees, the Hindi word for the large hard seed buried inside the mango. According to the MP, tribal communities regularly ate powdered mango kernels. In the case of Kashipur, these kernels had become toxic through long storage, so when they ate them, they died.

When he was asked why they hadn’t been given rice to eat instead, the MP insisted that the consumption of mango kernels wasn’t a result of their inability to buy other staple foods like rice. These tribals liked eating mango kernels. This was said with all the ethnographical authority of an Evans-Pritchard explaining the exotic food habits of the Nuer. The MP assured his audience that the collector of the district, well known for his expertise in the matter, had certified that the deaths were caused by kernel-poisoning, not starvation. The otherness of tribals, their odd habits and their peculiar preferences, their difference from people like you and me, formed the real context for their deaths.

The MP was a well-spoken man and this must have seemed a particularly good alibi because it made the Kashipur deaths a function of tribal choice rather than government callousness and inaction. But he forgot to explain why the mango kernels had been stored so long that they became toxic. Might this not suggest that mango kernels were, for a malnourished community experienced in hunger, a food of the last resort?

Besides, if the MP’s explanation was correct, what were we to make of the footage of very thin residents of Kashipur telling us on camera that the public distribution system had broken down, that their kin had died of hunger?

The government’s position on reaching food to the poor was that it was happening, that they were compiling lists of people who were BPL. The acronym, used knowingly by politicians, journalists, even judges in the aftermath of the Kashipur deaths, instantly made hunger an expert matter. BPL, in case you haven’t worked it out, means Below the Poverty Line. Before starving people get food from the state they get BPL cards so they can establish their malnourished bona fides. Economists spoke of the need for systems to ensure that food subsidies reached the poor instead of being diverted into the hands of profiteers. The minister of food supplies announced that food-for-work programmes were being made operational on a war footing. He reiterated his posi- tion that the Central government was willing to release the country’s over flowing, rat-ravaged foodstocks free to any needy state government and regretted the inability of state governments to “lift the stock”.

Reaching India’s surplus rice to Orissa’s poor began to seem a remarkably complex, expert matter. There were insuperable transport costs, a corrupt delivery system, the lurking danger of depressing grain prices by providing free grain promiscuously, poverty to be classified, cards to be made... An NGO lady pointed out that the public distribution system absurdly expected the starving poor to buy their whole entitlement (some sixteen kilos of rice) in one go. It was a very good point, but watching her on television, I wanted someone to explain to me in small words, why the rice couldn’t be given to the hungry of Kashipur, free?

The how of it wasn’t difficult. Send the food in via the army. Yes, I know that it isn’t the army’s job. But when has that ever stopped the Indian state in times of calamity? If the civil admi- nistration isn’t up to the task of averting starvation (or acute malnourishment, if that makes the government feel better) and if the state at the Centre or in Orissa can’t bear the humiliation of asking Oxfam what to do, why not call in the army? There would be no hesitation in times of quakes or floods, so why this restraint now?

Then I saw the difference. The reason the Indian state is relatively quick to react to quakes and floods is that they are natural calamities. They’re god’s will, nature’s caprice and, most importantly, nobody’s fault. So the army goes in to rescue the wretched and ministers, both prime and chief, do helicopter inspections within days of the first reports. In contrast it took the chief minister of Orissa weeks of hostile media coverage to make up his mind to tour Kashipur. That’s because it is impossible for a politician to act the concerned voyeur when the disaster is man-made, created or compounded by uncaring governance.

Just how uncaring was illustrated by a Star News report. A Delhi businessman, Mr Kalia, moved by reports of starvation, went directly to Kashipur, bought rice for a lakh of rupees from the collector and personally supervised its distribution. It was exactly as simple as that. Mr Kalia didn’t claim that he had solved the problem of world hunger but he had made sure that scores of families had a month’s worth of rice to eat. It wasn’t in the end an expert matter; Mr Kalia responded to an emergency with concern, cash and compassion. Why couldn’t the government of Orissa have done the same on a larger scale?

Because the government knew that the dead of Kashipur were poisoned. They had identified the bodies and found the murder weapon. Mango kernels. They then closed the case because there was nothing left to be done.

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THE TELEGRAPH DIARY 
 
 
 
 

Stay at your new posts

To the pillars for the post. Sharad Yadav, our venerable former civil aviation minister, apparently knew which one to approach when he got wind of what was in the air — reshuffle and topple — a day in advance. He is said to have got in touch with the venerable sentry to the PM, Brajesh Mishra, for a tete-a-tete with the master. Done. Vajpayeeji told him, “Sharadji, aap ka vibhag badla jayega.” Relieved. Our minister said, “Theek hai. Desh to chalana hai” (Alright, the country has to be run). Nothing so simple for our dear Ram Vilas Paswan. Unlike deshwali bhai Sharad, Ram tried to make a direct dash for his pillar, dear old Vajpayeeji. He was told to get in touch the next day, the day of the swearings-in. Early morning the next day, heart in mouth Ram asked for an appointment. He was told the PM was leaving for Vigyan Bhavan for a meeting. Paswan headed for it. When he managed to corner the boss, he is reported to have been cut short. They would meet over lunch at Race Course Road. Fair enough. When Paswan reached the PM’s house, he was informed that Vajpayeeji was having lunch at Vigyan Bhavan. Ram dashed back to find the PM lecturing on the dais. The meet over, Ramji once again landed at Race Course Road, only to be told that the PM had left for Rashtrapati Bhavan. Wild goose chase alright, but would it have yielded even if it were caught?

A bad exchange offer

An evidently wild man is booted out. That is how one could see Jagmohan’s transfer from the urban development ministry to the unexciting tourism and programme implementation department. The transfer of no other minister has of late provoked so much public ire as Jagmohan’s. While the real estate mafia and the well-connected owners of illegal Sainik Farms rejoice, the lesser mortals in Delhi are truly agitated about the future of the city. Jagmohan himself wanted to resign a day after the reshuffle, but seems to have been dissuaded from it. Among all those who sympathized with him, one advised him to do in his new ministry as good a job as he had done in the urban ministry. That was when Jagmohan hit the ceiling. “You want me to perform well in my new ministry so that I can be moved out of it as well?” Sound observation.

To garage, to garage

The Uttar Pradesh Congress may not have much hope in store, but is not preventing our netas from making a killing. As a run up to the polls and the ensuing campaigning, the state unit had decided to purchase cars for its six yatras scheduled this month and a Delhi minister was given Rs 25 lakh to carry out the operation. The deed was done. Within days, 20 shining cars were delivered. So far so good. Then came the surprise, or not quite so. Most of the cars couldn’t cross Ghaziabad. Last heard, they were being towed away to the garage. Quite a rich haul!

Very close to finish

Its a long and winding road to the Railway Bhavan, but there are indications that didi might make it after all. For one, Digvijay Singh, who was minister of state for railways both under her dispensation and Nitish Kumar’s, has been brought back and given adequate powers. Digvijay, who makes no bones about his dislike for Kumar and now reputed to be George Fernandes’s frontman, is apparently trying hard to convince the prime minister how essential didi is. Besides, Mamata’s loyal railway officials are also attempting to create the right atmosphere for didi’s return. Bengal projects are seemingly being brought to the forefront. Another reshuffle and topple on the way.

Meat for culture vultures

Atalji will be remembered for truly serving his religion, assert his saffron circle jocularly. He has done the inimitable deed of clubbing culture together with animal welfare under Maneka Gandhi who is the minister in charge. Quite justified. Since a large number of Hindu gods and goddesses ride on animals to transport them to places, the combination is more than symbolic. Looking into the concerns of culture (automatically Hindu) would also entail a concern for animal welfare. What brilliant minds!

In self defence

Seems like another cultural question. Although the Congress has taken a clear stand against the saffronization of education and the introduction of Vedic astrology, many a Congresswallah is not sure if he has done the right thing, especially since he shares the saffron bent of mind on many a thing. Take Digvijay Singh for example. He is reported to regularly visit temples (the Shani temples in particular) and sadhus. A few months back, he was seen visiting Mathura to do a parikrama of a temple. Why then oppose astrology in the syllabus? That’s probably a cover to fight the rumours involving him in a liquor scandal over which others are pressuring Sonia to drop him. God help Diggy.

What’s life without a snort?

Another siege after Tehelka. After the arrest of the Afghan cocaine dealer, the party scene in the capital has become so jaded that the supplements of local newspapers appear drab. The crowd has gone underground to avoid questioning about the dealer and the use of coke. Some names have cropped up, some conveniently forgotten. Apart from the cover that these influential users might get from their political connection, lawyers have built up another defence for them. The Afghan apparently also used to hawk expensive branded perfumes. The telephone calls to him were for those. Simple and straightforward. But what if the Afghan really starts singing like a canary?

Footnote / Many Dr Spocks for the Congress baby

It is not only her future role as the possible prime minister of India that the Congress president takes seriously. She is just as serious in her role of a granny to Rehan Nehru Gandhi Vadhra. Sonia Gandhi is so keen to make a bonny baby of Rehan that she supposedly asks wives of Congress leaders for useful tips whenever she meets them. On one such occasion, the wife of Maharashtra’s minister of state for home, Kripa Shankar Singh, had asked her to massage Baby Rehan with noorani tel, an oil used to maalish young children by the rural women of Uttar Pradesh. Sonia apparently also gives the child honey every morning, another tip given to her by some other helpful housewife. When Singh and his wife recently visited madam, she did not fail to remind Mrs Singh that she was giving Baba (that is Rehan) a massage with noorani tel and how she remembered every other detail she had suggested to her. The couple returned greatly impressed by the Nehru-Gandhi bahu’s sensitivity, magnanimity and her sense of duty. Would it help India if it could have a bonny, beautiful prime minister?

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Catching the stars

Sir — It seems the head of the Union minister of information and broadcasting and that of her numerous officials, her party and Jhandewalan, the fount of power, put together is no better than one. Sushma Swaraj needs navratnas to counsel her in her drive in the tinsel world (“Showbiz Navratnas to enlighten Sushma”, Sept 6). Fair enough. But are all advices heeded? The minister recently turned down the directive to downsize her ministry because it didn’t agree with her. The advice of this particular panel, which will supposedly combine bright minds and talent, faces the invariable risk. Shouldn’t the stars spare themselves the ignominy of being overruled in the end?

Yours faithfully,
J. Chatterjee, Calcutta

Caste aside

Sir — It is encouraging to find the inclusion of the caste issue in the discussion on the racism agenda in A.K. Biswas’s article, “Ways of an unequal land” (Sept 3). India must be the only country where even non-Hindus like Muslims and Christians, who belong to faiths that believe in the equality of mankind, are affected by the pervasive influence of caste. Thus we have “upper-caste” Muslims like the Ismailis, who wouldn’t want inter-marriage with the “lower caste” Bohris and so on. Even more mystifying is a “Malayali, Catholic, Brahmin”. There are other hilarious instances found in the matrimonial columns of various Indian newspapers.

However, I don’t think international pressure will be of much help in this regard unless there is reform from within. Education is a powerful tool. We can use it to teach future generations — from the primary level itself — about the importance of religious tolerance. Another point. The notion that Indians have never had a problem with racism is false. Racism manifests itself everytime someone looks for a “fair” bride for his son. We carry around a lot of Aryan baggage.

Yours faithfully,
Indrani Bhattacharya, Howrah

Sir — Ever since we gained independence, the people of India have struggled to retain their separate identities, both to the outside world and among themselves. There is no doubt that the most ignominious form of discrimination is apartheid, but the caste discrimination in India is no less harmful. Lower caste people in this country still have to suffer at the hands of the upper castes. We may have a rich history of struggle for equality, but we have a long way to go before we make tall claims of equality.

Yours faithfully,
Neha Chowdhury, Chandannagore

Sir — No matter how much we deride caste politics, it is true that without it, lower castes like the Yadavs or the Dalits would not have become sections to reckon with politically. Although it is debatable how much good this has actually done to the communities, the political weight they now carry has at least made them aware of their rights.

Yours faithfully,
Uday Samanta, Calcutta

Spell unbound

Sir —It is really unfortunate to see a veteran actor like Naseeruddin Shah rubbish Bollywood that has made him rich and famous (“Bollywood veneer rips in Naseer plainspeak”, Sept 3).If he felt creatively stifled, he should have done only those movies that cater to the intellectuals and refrained from working on the innumerable run of the mill movies that he has acted in.

It is also ridiculous to hear him say that Hollywood films are better than ours. He needs to be reminded that even our worst productions don’t show microphones over the head of our actors as several major Hollywood films have done. Maybe Shah should see the latest movies emanating from Hollywood, like Volcano, which shows a volcano bursting inside a city. In films like Mummy Returns, Twister, Independence Day and several others, the accent is more on action than on the script. The very fact that Hollywood keeps on making sequels shows a total disregard for new ideas and better scripts. Bollywood is also unwilling to experiment and prefers to play safe at the box office, much like Bollywood.

Yours faithfully,
G. Ravi, via email

Sir — Thank god, at least someone is trying to break the Bollywood spell.But Naseeruddin Shah must also show us the way back home.

Yours faithfully,
S. Sen, Calcutta

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