Editorial 1 / Dubious victory
Editorial 2 / Put in place
Handled with much finesse
Book Review / Recesses of the thought machine
Book Review / Power without much of its attendant glory
Book Review / Survival in the jungles of Germany
Editor’s Choice / Readers write on books
Paperback Pickings / Political evil is seldom spectacular
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1 / DUBIOUS VICTORY 
 
 
 
 
Electoral verdicts are not always even-handed with rewards and punishments. The spectacular victory of the four-party alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party in Monday’s parliamentary elections does not necessarily mean that the people had great hopes from the alliance. Nor does it negate the achievements of the Awami League government of Ms Sheikh Hasina Wazed. A combination of factors seemed to have worked against the League. By its own admission, the League failed to check Bangladesh’s dangerous slide into lawlessness. Criminal and corrupt activities of some League leaders and their henchmen tarnished the image of the government. The just-published Transparency International annual report, giving Bangladesh the dubious distinction of being the most corrupt country in the world, made things even more difficult for Ms Wazed. The BNP chairperson, Ms Khaleda Zia, succeeded in exploiting the report to its electoral advantage, although many leaders of the party and some of its ministers in the previous government were equally tainted. Thus, when the caretaker government began cleaning up the administration before the polls, its actions were generally approved of by the people who were fed up with the drift into violence and partisan politics. The interim government could therefore get away with several steps which were patently aimed at putting the League at a disadvantage in the polls. But the anti-incumbency factor alone would not have helped the BNP get such a huge majority if it had not succeeded also in getting together the alliance to prevent a split in the anti-League votes. Even in 1996, the splitting of these votes among the BNP, the Jamat-e-Islami and the undivided Jatiya Party of the former president, Mr H.M. Ershad, helped the League secure the largest number of seats. In 1991, the BNP could win the elections because it reached a tacit understanding with the Jamat which unofficially withdrew some of its candidates in favour of the BNP. The September 11 attacks on New York and Washington also played a part in the overwhelmingly Muslim-majority country, as the Jamat helped consolidate the alliance’s appeal against the secular politics of the League.

The League has some justification in questioning the scale of its opponent’s victory. But its rejection of the entire election, and its decision to return to agitational politics are ill-advised and strategically unrewarding. Ms Wazed had promised not to call hartals even if her party lost the polls. Ms Zia too should move with extreme caution as her next government could be up against far more difficult times than even Ms Wazed’s. With the League rejecting the election, she would be hard put to reach a consensus on any issue of national importance. She urgently needs to put the country’s finances and law and order in place. She would also have to exercise restraint and moderation in dealing with contentious issues such as amendments to the constitution, bilateral agreements with India and the official status of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman which have divided the nation into bitterly opposing political camps. A brutal majority is often fraught with dangers of authoritarianism. Bangladesh can only plunge into greater chaos if the government’s vindictiveness matches the opposition’s shutdown politics .

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2 / PUT IN PLACE 
 
 
 
 
Shows of harmony are not necessarily enough to soothe qualms. And it is more than possible that the national leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party is experiencing some qualms. Mr Keshubhai Patel’s exit as chief minister was not executed under the pleasantest of skies, and, from his point of view, the entry of Mr Narendra Modi in his place is not the best choice of successor. The point is, of course, that he was not given a choice by the high command, and that has rankled as much as anything else. Mr Patel’s performance had been nothing to write home about, and the defeat of the BJP in two recent byelections showed that the state government had not risen in the trust of the people since its losses in the civic polls a year earlier. The aftermath of the Gujarat earthquake did not show up the government in a brilliant light either. Unfortunately for this senior partyman, an abrupt exit is happening the second time round. His caste following is large and important, something Mr Modi cannot match, and a disgruntled partyman can be quite a danger.

But this is a risk the BJP has obviously been forced to take. Gujarat is too important for the party not to make a serious effort to change its image there. It would seem at first sight that the choice of successor is curious. Mr Modi is not a member of the legislative assembly. His merit lies in his loyalty to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh values and strategies. It is difficult to say how this will work in Gujarat. The high command may have taken heart from the fact that a similar experiment seems to have worked in Uttar Pradesh. Mr Rajnath Singh, the backroom boy who replaced Mr Ram Prakash Gupta, appears to be changing things for the better. The problem is that Mr Gupta was and remained almost an unknown face, while that is not quite true of Mr Patel. His work in the party and the importance of his caste following cannot be wished away. Besides, Mr Gupta was put in place after the charismatic Mr Kalyan Singh. The contrast was so stark that Mr Rajnath Singh would have come as a relief. Gujarat is central to the BJP’s policy map. It is essential for the party to ensure a change of image and performance without exacerbating already existing caste and communal tensions there. The assembly elections will be too close after this to make another change.

   

 
 
HANDLED WITH MUCH FINESSE 
 
 
BY K.P. NAYAR
 
 
All through the period when P.V. Narasimha Rao struggled to change the course of India’s relations with the Islamic countries by building a partnership with Iran, Thomas Pickering, who was the United States of America’s ambassador to the United Nations and later envoy to New Delhi, drew a distinction between “good” and “bad” Muslims in his conversations with Indians involved in the decision-making process. Trying his very best to dissuade the Rao government from tying up with Iran, Pickering cast the Iranians in the image of “bad” Muslims. For him, the quintessential “good” Muslims were the Saudis, with whom, unlike in the case of Iranians, the Indians have hitherto been unable to have a relationship with a satisfactory element of comfort level.

When America’s “new war” has achieved a degree of success, and emotions over September 11 are more subdued, Saudi Arabia’s diplomacy in the weeks that followed the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC will be held up as a case worthy of emulation, more so by countries in the Islamic world, those in south Asia not excluded.

Between September 11 and now, astute Saudi diplomacy managed to create room for the kingdom, where none was thought to be available for it to manoeuvre, what with the Federal Bureau of Investigation hastily announcing that Saudi nationals were largely responsible for the terrorist attacks. In addition, the Saudis continue to carry the albatross of Osama bin Laden’s lineage, never mind the fact that he has been stripped of his Saudi nationality.

As spectacular as Saudi Arabia’s management of its foreign policy, post-September 11, has been the conduct of its consular affairs. Under very trying conditions, the Saudis protected and took care of their citizens in the US who were easy victims to hate crimes. The way the Saudis evacuated their citizens, who were perceived as threatened, from the US is an experience which India can learn from, given its huge consular burden with non-resident Indians and persons of Indian origin.

On the day of the terrorist attacks, there were 24 close family members of bin Laden in the US. They ranged from his brothers to relatives who oversee vast bin Laden family assets in the US which have no connection with the fugitive living in Afghanistan. The assets range from real estate in Florida and Texas to an investment bank offering special services to defence and aerospace industries and ownership of a bio-medical company.

But in the current environment in the US of xenophobia against Arabs and Muslims, legitimate business is no insurance against hate crimes. So, when one of bin Laden’s brothers rang up the Saudi embassy in Washington DC and sought its protection, he was quickly taken to the infamous Watergate complex and hustled into a hotel room there.

A king is a king when he truly takes care of his subjects. In this case, King Fahd personally asked Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi ambassador in Washington DC, to protect “the innocent”. So, with the help of the FBI, members of the bin Laden clan were assembled in Texas and later brought to the national capital. Whence they were flown by a private plane to Saudi Arabia.

The bin Laden group gave one million dollars each for two chairs to be set up in Harvard for research on Islamic law and architecture about eight years ago. American companies have profited hugely from their association with the bin Laden family business. The most hated name in America today is bin Laden. It is an irony that the bin Ladens have also been among the country’s benefactors.

The challenge to Saudi diplomacy was not only to rescue and bring to safety the innocent members of the bin Laden clan living in the US at the time of the terrorist attacks. There are more than 4,000 Saudi students in American universities, men and women who share the grief and shock of Americans over what happened in New York and Washington DC last month. But for them, America was no longer safe.

No more safe than for Badr Mohammed al Hazmi, a doctor in San Antonio, Texas, who was detained for a fortnight for no crime other than that he was a Saudi. Al Hazmi, who is doing a residency programme in Texas, whose salary is paid for by the oil company, Saudi Aramco, happened to have booked a ticket from San Antonio to San Diego. He had also booked tickets for his wife and two children on the same flight. That was enough for him to be on a list of suspects. He was not only whisked away by the FBI, but also taken to New York where he was interrogated for several days. He was released eventually and sent home, but his life has been turned upside down. It would need a miracle for him to be able to continue to live in safety in the US and complete his academic programme.

American universities and research institutes are rapidly emptying themselves of Saudis. The kingdom’s diplomatic mission has carefully arranged for the safe repatriation of those who want to leave. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, is the dean of the diplomatic corps in Washington DC. He has been ambassador in Washington DC for 18 years. His reach and influence in the American establishment is unparalleled for any envoy in the US. This week, when America’s defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, was in Riyadh, his host was the ambassador’s father, Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz al Saud, the kingdom’s defence minister. The multi-million dollar airbase and command centre, 70 miles from Riyadh, which is now at the centre of a controversy about its use by US forces poised to attack bin Laden, is named after Prince Sultan.

When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 and Kuwait’s ruling family fled to Taif, across the Saudi border, Prince Bandar played a key role in stitching together the US-Saudi alliance that was the pivot of the multinational force which saw the Iraqis out of the emirate at the end of the Kuwait War. But well before the Kuwait War, the Saudis have helped the American banking system thrive with the kingdom’s oil revenue being chanelled into it. In the years following the two oil shocks, American banks have competed to be on the Saudi list for oil funds.

The popular perception in America is that US-Saudi relations constitute a one-way street. Most Americans are unaware that in the last 20 years, US companies have earned $ 50 billion, by conservative estimates, in contracts with the kingdom. American investments in Saudi Arabia exceed five billion dollars and the kingdom is home to about 30,000 Americans who live and work there. In the latest of lucrative oil contracts, the Americans will develop two huge gas fields in Saudi Arabia at a cost of $ 26 billion in one case and $ 20 billion in another.

Given such a diverse and all-encompassing bilateral relationship, the post-September 11 events have caused hurt among the Saudis. The FBI’s action in rushing to release the names and photographs of the hijackers, some of whom are alive and well, living in the kingdom as law-abiding citizens, so annoyed the Saudis that they took the rare step of going public with their grievances. Back in the kingdom, they produced some of the men who, according to the FBI, flew the planes into the World Trade Center’s twin towers and the Pentagon.

Unfortunately for the Saudis, their relationship with America is also an unequal one. So, the challenge to Saudi diplomacy in recent weeks has been to share America’s grief, to promote the kingdom’s common interests with the US and yet do it with pride without discounting Saudi honour.

It has not been an easy challenge, but undertaken so far with considerable finesse. Take, for instance, the action of an off-duty Saudi Arabian airline pilot at Washington’s Dulles airport a few days ago. Following the suspension of US flights by the Saudi flag carrier in the light of the September 11 incidents, the pilot was going home on a United Airlines flight to London’s Heathrow airport. He boarded the aircraft with a paid one-way ticket, and as the aircraft was on the runway for take-off, asked the cabin crew for permission to sit in the jump seat. That seat is in the cockpit and airlines allow off-duty pilots the courtesy of using the jump seat. It is highly unlikely that the Saudia pilot was unaware of the stir he would cause if he, an Arab, asked the crew of an American plane these days for permission to use the jump seat.

The crew promptly went into a fit and aborted the take-off. The aircraft returned to the gate, where all the passengers disembarked. The off-duty pilot and two others travelling with him were questioned by the FBI. Their luggage was offloaded. United Airlines refused to let them board the flight even after FBI cleared the three men.

It is difficult to believe that the pilot in question would have done what he did without clearance for his action from the Saudi authorities. What he did was to highlight the discrimination set in motion by the September 11 incidents, discrimination which runs counter to American values and beliefs. It was a kind of civil disobedience, which the Saudi authorities would, of course, be loathe to acknowledge.

The same finesse is in evidence in the Saudi handling of the controversial permission to American forces to use the Prince Sultan air command centre. The Americans — especially the media — uninitiated in the ways of west Asia have been unable to understand the nuances in a Saudi reluctance to give out the base for strikes against Afghanistan. What the Saudis have shown by their action is that even in an unequal relationship, such as the one between the kingdom and the US, the underdog can, at times, seize the upper hand, if only to send a powerful message.

It will come as no surprise if, at the end of it all, the Saudis are able to advance the cause of west Asian peace through their brand of diplomacy, much more than the Palestinians and others have been able to do so far through other means. Already, the Saudis are subtly telling the world in the midst of this crisis that this is not a clash of civilizations, but simply a question of taking on the terrorists with no strings attached.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / RECESSES OF THE THOUGHT MACHINE 
 
 
BY BHASWATI CHAKRAVORTY
 
 
THINKS...
By David Lodge,
Secker and Warburg, £10

It is a little disconcerting to read a David Lodge which is grave. An ambitious novel, Thinks… is also peculiarly contemporary, placing emotions and thoughts within the context of the scientific and philosophical debate about consciousness. Machines and computer programmes litter the scene. Accompanying them are the characters’ most private thoughts. Sometimes they are recorded in free-association on the “Pearlcorder” by Ralph Messenger, the director of the Holt Belling Centre for Cognitive Science in the University of Gloucester. He believes that the “soul” or “self” is merely a function of neurons in the brain. Elsewhere they are put down, conventionally, in the private journal which Helen Reed habitually uses. She is a well-known author spending one semester as writer-in-residence in the university.

The encounter between the two is also an encounter between two opposed but mutually intriguing worlds of thought. The sheer enjoyment of the brief but heady affair they conduct during the sudden absence of Ralph’s wife is enriched by the newly-widowed Helen’s constant exploration of the abstract ideas her lover believes in and a relentless examination of her own motives and emotions. There are no real winners in the game. But at the end of the story, their private thoughts and attitudes are further from each other’s than ever before. And the explanation for “consciousness” is as elusive as ever.

Thus the balance in the debate is tilted in Helen’s favour. It is the unknowability of the human mind, of the other person, which even Ralph must acknowledge at the end, faced with the discovery of his wife’s secret and the fact that Helen had known it all the time. Lodge places the personal story at the centre of the professional debate. Towards the end, in one of the finest sequences of the book, Helen addresses a conference on consciousness. She declares confidently to a roomful of cognitive scientists and theorists from the humanities that neither joy nor the darker side of the mind, madness, depression, guilt and dread, can ever be encompassed by a computer. In a sense, she has the last word. Through her, Lodge seems to be rescuing the “autonomous individual self” from the attack from both science and the humanities.

The novel is meant to provoke serious thought, not laughter, although there is plenty of wit and the occasional sparkle. But the disappointment does not end there. The inventiveness is limited to the frame of ideas for the human story, the rest is a recitation of stereotypes. The very themes that would seem uproarious in comedy fall flat here. Lust, sex, seduction, deception, betrayal, grief, guilt, perversion, disease, death — the paraphernalia of secret lives are frightfully banal. Even the reasons of Helen’s ultimate surrender to Ralph’s advances are humour-lessly trite.

Far more interesting is Lodge’s construction. The narrative is a series of texts, punctuated very occasionally by the voice of the omniscient narrator. As Ralph and Helen reflect on events in privacy, the “objectivity” of each episode is dissolved and becomes stamped with the mark of an “individual self”, while the next event is determined by the nature and direction of the reflections. Additionally, there are the exercises produced by Helen’s students in the creative writing class, sometimes very successful parodies of famous writers, budding novels which may contain explosive revelations, visual representations of “thought experiments” in Ralph’s department, lectures and papers, email messages, and Marvell’s “The Garden”. The real pleasure of the novel lies in the intricate weaving of all these texts into the plot.

What emerges is a deliberate irony. The huge venture of cognitive science, with its brilliant machines and experiments with artificial intelligence, fails most miserably to find the route to its most exciting goal: that little bubble in which cartoon characters record their thoughts.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / POWER WITHOUT MUCH OF ITS ATTENDANT GLORY 
 
 
BY SUHRITA SAHA
 
 
LEADERSHIP AND POWER:ETHICAL EXPLORATIONS
Edited By S.K. Chakraborty and Pradip Bhattacharya,
Oxford, Rs 595

The Oxford English dictionary defines power “as the ability to do something or anything or to act upon a person or thing.” Man is essentially power-seeking and we can observe the fierce struggle for power in every sphere of life, be it social, economic, political or cultural. Lord Acton’s words, “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is more than just a saying today. Power and its inevitable abuse is all pervasive. The volume under review provides us with perspectives on power and its interplay in various fields and professions. The editors have categorized the essays into four themes.

The first theme, “Secular Insights”, incorporates essays which use the secular intellectual mode of analysis and interpretation of the phenomenon of power in society. R. K. Dasgupta’s paper highlights the dynamics of leader-team member power relationships in organizations through the concept of ego-management. Bhaya in his essay views power dynamics between individuals and organizations in terms of basic human emotions — greed and fear. Shashi Mishra argues that organizations driven by the masculine principle of power lack the nurturing-caring dimension and cease to be enduring. Floistad talks about true power and Zafiroviski discusses the theories of Weber and Marx on power, authority and leadership. Basu points out the divide between secular power and sacred power and shows how both the perspectives have misused power.

In the section “Spiritual Insights”, authors like Kamath, Rajmohan Gandhi, Pruzan Das, Chakraborty, Miller and Okn stress the fact that true power is soul power hidden in the form of mental, psychic and spiritual energy. In the third section, “Applied Insights”, the authors mainly narrate real life situations of clash of power. The section begins with McDonald’s critique of how privatized market economy has affected New Zealand. Irani criticizes the personalization of power by both Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Kandwalla and Appu describes misuse of power by both the management of sick companies and bureaucrats. According to the former chief of army, General Roychowdhury, the way power is used rests on the values and life views of individuals. Ambiranjan believes primordial ties have prevented Indian enterprises from becoming as large and powerful as those in the West. Buch argues that the working of systems depend on the personnel manning them. Kristina Iyer calls for a total reform of power management in the judiciary.

In the last section, “Sagacious Insights”, Sen, Bhatta and Bhattacharya takes a look into India’s rich heritage from which the whole world can draw the lessons on the use of power.

The volume tries to grapple with the dynamics of power. The editors need to be commended for providing theoretical explorations as well as real life representations of the use of power in both the Indian and the global context.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / SURVIVAL IN THE JUNGLES OF GERMANY 
 
 
BY ARNAB BHATTACHARYA
 
 
THE SIGN OF THE TIGER: SUBHAS CHANDRA BOSE AND HIS INDIAN LEGION IN GERMANY, 1941-45,
By Rudolf Hartog,
Rupa, Rs 395

The freedom movement in India never lacked heroes. Subhas Chandra Bose is arguably the most charismatic and controversial of them all. His uncompromising individuality caused his strained relations with Jawaharlal Nehru, his one-time supporter. His courage and confidence probably made him at times a little more impetuous than was good for both him and his country.

The one phase which remains relatively obscure in Bose’s well-charted political career is his forming the Indian Legion under the aegis of German commanders and the establishment of the Free India Centre in Berlin for propaganda. This may not be the most illustrious phase of Bose’s chequered political life, but certainly a crucial one.

Rudolf Hartog’s book is an in-depth study of this phase which highlights his political vision, his diplomatic acumen and his enormous persuasive skill. Hartog acted as an interpreter in the Indian Legion in Germany in his late teens. Quite naturally, he knew Bose at close quarters and was a witness to the trials and tribulations the legion had to go through during World War II.

The Sign of the Tiger, written “from a German perspective” is informed by a genuine sympathy for the Indian freedom struggle. This is one of the reasons why Hartog rues the tragic end of the legion and the failure of “Operation Tiger”. Hartog also laments the utter disregard for the valiant fighters of the Indian Legion in free India, which speaks volumes of his emotional involvement with the legion.

Hartog, in his limpid prose, explores the ways in which Bose wooed the Axis powers. By quoting extensively from the diaries of Kutscher and Kritter, the German officials who were with the legion right from its inception, Hartog shows how Bose, with his exceptional ability to read political situations and human minds, managed not only to form the legion on foreign soil with the war prisoners but also to impose his own conditions which would allow the legion to fight only against the British soldiers on the frontiers of India or in India itself. Hartog is, however, severely critical of Bose’s clandestine departure to the East which definitely dampened the spirit of the legion. He gives here an authentic account of the activities of the legion in Netherlands, France and Italy in the absence of Bose.

Hartog’s account, gripping as it is, is not without a touch of occasional humour. The chapter, “The Experiment in Applied Linguistics,” describes how a new language called “Hindustani” had to be created to facilitate the communication between German commanders and Indian soldiers. Hartog here chronicles how dictionaries and manuals came to be written and interpreters were imparted linguistic training as part of a broad-based communication programme. The chapter recalls a hilarious comedy of errors which guarantees to keep the reader in good humour.

   

 
 
EDITOR’S CHOICE / READERS WRITE ON BOOKS 
 
 
 
 
MARGINALIA: READERS WRITING IN BOOKS
By H.J. Jackson,
Yale, £19.95

All serious readers have some time or other marked books, hopefully his or her own and not a borrowed copy. Marking of books, Jackson’s fascinating study of the practice tells us, has a long tradition in the history of reading. It also had varied intentions and purposes. Jackson’s subject is a difficult and a treacherous one since it is impossible even to map the number of books that have been marked up and commented upon in their margins. Similarly, it is impossible to know what exactly provoked a reader to make the comment he did on a book at a particular point of time. Despite these difficulties, Jackson makes a valiant effort to make some sense out of marginalia.

Jackson points out that marking other people’s books or library copies — what is very rightly considered vandalism today — was not an uncommon thing. Glosses and scholia — the basic particles of the practice of annotation, which was one of the principle aspects of medieval and classical scholarship — were the early precursors of modern marginalia. The gloss (from which comes glossary) translates or explains foreign and obscure words; the scholium “is a note that introduces information from outside the work that some scholar (usually) has judged relevant to it — a grammatical or textual point, an elucidation, a new illustration, a historical reference, a confirming or contradicting authority.’’

Erasmus, in fact, recommended that reading was not complete without marginal comments in books. Erasmus did not make the writing of marginalia conditional upon ownership. Reading then was not a popular activity, only a select few read and they wanted their comments and views of books to be known and circulated.

If marginalia was rooted in passing around scholarship, from the 18th century writing in margins became more subjective. The reader talks to the author through marginal comments. Or marginalia could have a definite audience in mind. The book was written on for somebody special, may be a lover, to read the comments. Annotations in the margins had thus become a matter of self-expression.

Modern marginalia “vents feelings, demonstrates and improves self-awareness, and constitutes a permanent record of the reading experience.” Jackson relates this change to the emergence of the footnote at the bottom of the page which eliminated to a large extent the scholia.

One of the special aspects of Jackson’s book is her study of some of the eminent personalities whose marginalia have acquired legendary status. The obvious name is Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was a compulsive commentator in the margins of books. So much so that Coleridge’s marginalia have now been put together as a publication. What was in the margins has become the text itself.

Kenneth Grahame, the author of The Window in the Willows, spoke of the absolute value of the margin and hoped that one day there would be a book of verse which would be entirely margin. Jackson protests that “a book without text is a book without marginalia.” But it is good to have a book in which marginalia is the centre of attention.

   

 
 
PAPERBACK PICKINGS / POLITICAL EVIL IS SELDOM SPECTACULAR 
 
 
 
 
SECULAR COMMON SENSE
By Mukul Kesavan
(Penguin, Rs 150)

Mukul Kesavan’s Secular Common Sense defends Indian secularism in the same spirit as Milton’s defence of republicanism against absolute monarchy or Hazlitt’s radicalism in the face of post-revolutionary reaction. Relentless logic, scholarship and eloquence, all taken up in a dogged commitment to a political ideal, place Kesavan in a long tradition of dissent. This tradition, although parallel to academic discourse, draws its energies from more public and polemical forms of writing like journalism and pamphleteering. Kesavan traces Indian secularism back to republican nation-building immediately after independence. He takes the reader back to “the constitutional ground on which our Republic is built”, and the essay leads up to nothing less than “an argument about India”. The note of urgency in Kesavan’s critique of Hindu majoritarianism — “a coup in slow motion” — beats a dangerous jadedness which he calls “Babri Masjid fatigue”. And it is this jadedness that could change the reasoning of the state, the Indian republic’s original “common sense”: Hence, the need “to keep watch”: “If secularists want to understand the working of communalism or chauvinism in a nuanced way they have to work at historical explanations for the ebb and flow of prejudice.” Kesavan’s prose plays off long against short sentences, rhetorical questions against polemical assertions to create a lucid and compelling language of dissent and intellectual activism. “Every time Advani and his cohorts represent the Ram Mandir as a fait accompli we need to argue back because unanswered assertions have a way of becoming public opinion. To remain silent, or worse, to accept their claims in Ayodhya, is to accept that Hindu grievance takes precedence over the Republic’s laws and its institutions. To be reasonable about locating the Ram Mandir at the site of the Babri Masjid would be fatal; we need to be dogmatic in our opposition to this idea.”

STRANGER: STORIES
By Satyajit Ray
(Penguin, Rs 250)

Satyajit Ray’s Stranger: Stories is Gopa Majumdar’s translation of this film-maker’s short stories for children which came out in his magazine, Sandesh. These are twenty stories exploring versions of the uncanny, which in their unique combination of crispness and a sense of the bizarre (often reminiscent of some of Roald Dahl’s short fiction) have also engrossed many adult readers. The bizarre and the uncanny are located, in these stories, in the midst of everyday Bengali life, so stylishly and entertainingly represented in the Feluda stories. Ventriloquists, maths tutors, time travellers, ghost-hunters and schoolboys rub shoulders in these pages, and there is also the eponymous and amnesiac child-picaro, Fotikchand. One hopes these translations will not inspire any more shoddy television work, since Ray’s fiction is such a convenient quarry for unoriginal non-talents.

SIGHTS AND SOUNDS OF THE WORLD
By Khushwant Singh
(Books Today, Rs 250)

Khushwant Singh’s Sights and Sounds Of the World is an entertaining collection of travel writing from this 87-year old writer who describes himself as having lost his “lust for travel and the good things in life”, and as “one who has been in a picture gallery one hour longer than he should have”. Singh visits places in India, the neighbouring states, New Zealand, Europe and the United States. His travelling persona is characteristically unabashed: “I have always been a free-loader, always travelled first class and stayed in the best of hotels — and enjoyed myself at other people’s expense. I like good Scotch, gourmet food and vintage wines; I like the company of good-looking, animated and intelligent women. I do not object to being with them provided they are not pompous or boring.”

LIFTING THE VEIL: SELECTED WRITINGS OF ISMAT CHUGHTAI
Selected and Translated By M. Asaduddin
(Penguin, Rs 250)

M. Asaduddin’s Lifting The Veil: Selected Writings of Ismat Chughtai is a collection of this Urdu writer’s fiction and non-fiction. Consistently absorbing and fearless, Chughtai’s vision of Muslim lives and histories emerge from but transcends the orthodoxies of the Progressive Writers’ Movement. This collection includes such famous stories as “Kafir” and “The Quilt”, one of the first Indian explorations of an erotic relationship between women. “In my stories,” Chughtai writes, “I’ve put down everything with objectivity. Now if some people find them obscene, let them go to hell...These people think that there’s nothing wrong if they can do things behind the curtains...They are all halfwits.”

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Of rights and wrongs

Sir — The report, “Minority vote ‘fraud’ in UP rolls” (Sept 29), is alarming and shows how minorities are being harassed under the present government in India. In the run-up to the elections in Uttar Pradesh, a fraud was detected by the election commission in the district of Moradabad involving the slashing of names of Muslim voters from the rolls and the adding of Hindu names instead. This is a grievous offence and one wonders how this came about without the knowledge of senior officials, including the election officer and district magistrate of Moradabad. During the tenure of our prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Muslims and Christians have been the worst sufferers of a range of discriminatory attitudes. It comes as no surprise that this should happen in UP prior to the approaching polls. The prime minister should note the present situation and keep in mind that such infringement on the minorities’ rights may prove to be fatal for the Bharatiya Janata Party regime in UP. Will such discriminations ever stop in India, even if only for the sake of maintaining power?

Yours faithfully,
Chameli Bose, Calcutta

Root of darkness

Sir — The suicidal car bomb attack on the assembly complex in Srinagar should force the security agencies to not only revise their strategy but also to reassess their reading of the situation (“Suicide attackers strike home”, Oct 2). The death toll in this case is perhaps the highest from a single incident since 1999 when 35 pilgrims were killed during the Amarnath yatra. But it is difficult to agree with Vajpayee when he says that the attack is a sign of desperation among the terrorists. On the contrary, it might be their way of signalling that they are very much alive and kicking. Whatever the world might think about terrorism, their depredations will continue in the valley. They also want to drive home the point that now when Pakistan has joined hands with the US to combat the menace, the militants expect Washington to “lay off” Kashmir and give the terrorists enough space to continue their actions. India cannot keep waiting for the world to wake up to this reality. Keeping its territory free from the scourge of terrorism is its responsibility and it has to tie up all the loose ends itself.

Yours faithfully,
D.V. Vamsee Krishna, Bhubaneswar

Sir — The tall claim made by Pervez Musharraf, that there are no terrorists on Pakistani soil, and that Pakistan is committed to fight terrorism globally, has fallen flat on its face with the Jaish-e-Mohammad attack. Does Musharraf still think that this is part of the jihadis’ freedom struggle in Kashmir? Although the US has condemned this terrible incident, it is yet to take steps to put militant organizations like Lashkar-e-Toiba and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen on its terrorist list, as demanded by India. It should ensure that “Operation Enduring Freedom” does not limit itself to Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden, but also extends to Jammu and Kashmir where innocent people are being butchered by terrorists over the past decade. India is paying the price for releasing Masood Azhar during the hijack crisis at Kandahar in 1999.

With the US raising the hope of a “bogey” war on Afghanistan to root out terrorism, India seems to have become complacent thinking that the US will take care of its needs. Instead of informing the American president, George W. Bush, and obtaining his permission to execute its “hot pursuit policy”, India should act fast, as time seems to be running out.

Yours faithfully,
S. Balakrishnan, Jharkhand

Sir — After the suicide attack on the United States of America, it became clear that no country would be spared terrorist strikes. The latest is the car bomb attack, reportedly launched by the Pakistan-based militant outfit, Jaish-e-Mohammad, on the Jammu and Kashmir assembly. This comes less than 24 hours after the statement of the Pakistan president, Pervez Musharraf, that there are no terrorists in his country and evokes the widely circulated proposition that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”.

Countries should not ban any single terrorist group, they must take severe action against all militant outfits. The recent event in Jammu and Kashmir suggests that the banning of Students Islamic Movement of India provoked the incident. As the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, remarked, this attack reflects the “frustration” of the jihadis. The government must take necessary precautions immediately.

Yours faithfully,
Partha Sen, via email

Sir — The gruesome militant attack in the Jammu and Kashmir assembly has sent shivers across India. The US and Britain, fighting a war against terrorism, should question Pakistan about its involvement in this attack.

Yours faithfully,
Sumant Poddar, Calcutta

Sir — India’s feeling of satisfaction at being protected under the global umbrella of fighting against terrorism seems totally misplaced. If there were any doubts in this regard, they have been destroyed with the latest attacks on the Jammu and Kashmir assembly building. India’s approach is one of “ostrich optimism”. India should realize by now that this umbrella covers only American interests. Little wonder that even after what happened on US soil, the Western media labelled the Srinagar attack as the handiwork of “militant separatists”. These attacks were identical in intent and design as the Pentagon attack, only a scaled down model.

The irony is that this happened when our foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, is himself in Washington. It is high time we give up the misplaced notion that the US will fight India’s battles for it. This is the right time for India, when Pakistan is already under global pressure, to start taking effective action, and go after the Pakistan based terrorist groups ruthlessly. It should be made clear to the West that in the fight against global terrorism, opportunistic selectivity has no place, least of all hypocrisy.

Yours faithfully,
Pronoy K. Ghosh, Jamshedpur

Moment of loss

Sir — The death of the Congress leader, Madhavrao Scindia, in a plane crash is indeed tragic (“Plucked out in prime”, Oct 1). In a party with few charismatic leaders, he will undoubtedly be missed. Sadly, in the recent past ,a number of young Congress leaders showing promise have met with premature death.

The shock expressed by veteran Congress leaders is understandable given that Scindia was a man with extraordinary organization abilities. One is also reminded of the death of Rajesh Pilot, another Congress leader who died in an accident. Most Congress leaders must be experiencing a sense of deja vu considering the fact that the party has also lost leaders like Sanjay Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.

Yours faithfully,
Sankar Lal Singh, via email

Sir — The tragic demise of Madhavrao Scindia has left the whole nation shocked. It is a great loss not only for the Congress but also for the country. As the deputy leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, Scindia was instrumental in deciding the policies of his party. His vast experience coupled with his way of mingling with the masses led to his becoming a trusted lieutenant of Sonia Gandhi. He also played a crucial role in presenting his party’s viewpoint before the government and other opposition parties. Scindia’s death places a question mark over the future of the Congress. He could have been instrumental in stemming the rot that had crept into the party over the last few years. Leaders like Ghulam Nabi Azad and Kamal Nath will now have to play a more pivotal role.

Yours faithfully,
Perneet Singh Khanduja, Raipur

Sir — Another blow has been delivered the Congress by a cruel fate. The crash that killed Madhavrao Scindia claimed the lives of eight victims. This is a great loss for the Congress, which has lost a number of important leaders in the recent past, some prominent ones being Rajesh Pilot, Jitendra Prasada and Sitaram Kesri. Scindia, a quintessential parliamentarian had the charisma and appeal that cut across party lines. He wore many hats in his lifetime and filling the void created by his demise shall be an uphill task for the party president Sonia Gandhi. She has to be cautious in filling up the slot created by his untimely demise.

The media too has suffered a great loss with the deaths of four dynamic journalists.

Yours faithfully,
Harmeet Singh Chawla, Haldia

Sir — The report, “A sporting hero lost” (Oct 1), was most appropriate. Although Madhavrao Scindia was more known for his charisma in politics, he executed his role as a sports administrator with a finesse that others would love to possess. As a president of the Board of Cricket Control in India, he interacted with a wide spectrum of the public in order to improve the state of cricket in the country. He was popular not just for his administrative skills but also for his capacity as a player. It is no surprise that the present BCCI chief, Jagmohan Dalmiya, was an ardent admirer of the “raja”. His death is a great loss for the world of Indian cricket.

Yours faithfully,
P. Mukherjee, Ranchi

Parting shot

Sir — The Supreme Court’s limit on noise levels, reportedly 125 decibels, may perhaps be reconsidered (“Muzzle on high decibel”, Sept 27). Studies show that noise above 70 decibels is intolerable for most people. According to the World Health Organization, anybody exposed to noise above the 90 decibels level for eight hours a day is bound to become stone deaf. The bursting of crackers has been responsible for many permanent injuries to the ear. My mother is the victim of such an incident which occurred in 1999. Noise pollution may lead to stress, hypertension and even heart disease. All these might prove to be dangerous, even fatal, to people. It would therefore be useful to review the recent decision of the Supreme Court.

Yours faithfully,
Mohan Lal Sarkar, Calcutta

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