Editorial / Colour rises
Selective democracy
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL / COLOUR RISES 
 
 
 
 
A Bengali storyteller once constructed a fantasy in which Indians had colonized Great Britain. It would be far fetched to see the appointment of Mr Shailesh Vara to the deputy chairmanship of the Conservative Party as the fulfilment of that fantasy. But if Enoch Powell had been alive he would have seen the appointment as the end of civilization as he had known it. So would Winston Churchill, the great mourner of the passing of the British Empire. Mr Vara’s appointment is imbued with symbolic significance. It is evidence of how multicultural Great Britian has become. This appointment, more than the popularity of chicken tikka masala as a filler for sandwiches and the mushrooming of Indian restaurants in Britian, is the real index of the unintended consequences of the British Empire. Great Britain in the 19th century was a home of political exiles and émigrés. But the entry of coloured people into Britain is a post-imperial phenomenon. The loss of empire and the cost of World War II left Britain in economic doldrums. The recovery came through enormous public spending in reconstruction, aided by cheap labour. The latter was provided by immigration from the former colonies, Africa, the Carribean and south Asia. In the Fifties and the Sixties, the coloured population had a ghettoized existence and never became a part of the mainstream of life in the British isles. The exceptions were remarkable because they were so rare.

The situation changed rapidly from the Seventies when children of the original immigrants, especially those that had come from south Asia, began to receive education and to compete for jobs. Success led them them to come out of the ghetto-like existences — in Southall for the Indians and Pakistanis and Clapham for the Afro-Americans — and to demand their rightful place in the mainstream of British life. The racism which had been incipient before suddenly came out in the open in the fulminations of leaders like Enoch Powell in the Conservative Party and in the violence of the National Front in the loony fringe of British politics. The Tories were slower to adapt to the realities of multicultural Britain. Yet, ironically, it was the policies of the remarkable Tory leader, Ms Margaret Thatcher, which made British society more open. Her policies and their success meant British society became one that was increasingly based on merit rather than on class and birth. In such a society, colour of skin increasingly became irrelevant. It is thus entirely fitting that an Indian should come to be appointed to a high post in the Tory party.

It would be simplistic, of course, to assume from this that racism in Britain is dead and buried. The shadow of race riots is a constant reminder that there are pockets in Britain where the white and the coloured populations do not coexist peacefully, where their respective perceptions of life and culture are dramatically different and threatened by anger, envy and hostility. An individual’s success can never be an index of the condition of south Asians in Britian. But it is a sign of change, of prejudice disappearing under the forces of history.

   

 
 
SELECTIVE DEMOCRACY 
 
 
BY MUKUL KESAVAN
 
 
How does the United States of America. combine democratic practice and dreadful cruelty with so little self-consciousness? How do Americans hold on to the conviction that America is principled, innocent, naïve and good when so much in its history indicates that America has been self-serving, cynical and wicked? How can America be both without noticing? What insulates American goodness from American badness?

The commitment of America to liberty and its willingness to ignore the liberty of others would not normally be parad-oxical or intriguing — most nations place their interests above the interests of others. What makes America interest- ing is its self-image and its example as a democracy.

It’s self-image has been regularly aired in the aftermath of the recent tragedy. President Bush has characterized his campaign against Osama bin Laden and the taliban as a defence of Western Civilization and Democracy. American commentators have begun to reach for Hitler and Nazism in their attempt to put bin Laden and his brand of terrorism in context. Predictably, critics have cited America’s violence in Japan,Vietnam, Cambodia and Iraq and asked why the deaths of American civilians should count for more in the assault on liberty or the reckoning of evil than the deaths America inflicts upon the civilians of other countries.

The cynical answer would be that America has been on the winning side in the major conflicts of the twentieth century and winners write the history books. There is some truth to this — had Japan won World War II, Truman would have been remembered in the textbooks of the world as one of the wickedest men in history. As things are, Americans feel little or no guilt for Hiroshima or Nagasaki and Truman is remembered in the history books as a cut-rate statesman.

But most of us who value democracy and deplore Hiroshima, accept that the right side won. We also accept that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the authoritarianism that it represented was a good thing. But we resent the use of democracy as an alibi for atrocity and sometimes wonder if there isn’t a Jekyll-and-Hyde quality to American democracy, whether selective concern and cruelty aren’t built into the political experiment that began with the American Revolution two hundred and twenty-five years ago.

To understand the peculiarities of American democracy, it’s useful to remember that America started life as a set of white settler colonies. Thanksgiving, America’s national festival, celebrates the survival of early white settlement. The Pilgrims and Puritans of the New England colonies in the early seventeenth century had come to America seeking freedom from religious restraint but not in the name of religious tolerance; they intended to establish a “Zion in the wilderness” where deviation from their interpretations of orthodoxy would be severely punished.

The liberalism and eclecticism of William Penn who favoured religious toleration and opposed slavery quickly lost out to the self-righteous authoritarianism of those who balanced equality within the chosen community with genocide and slavery outside it. Early treaties with Native Americans were torn up as white settlements expanded in their hunger for land. White settlers saw “Indians” as fauna: they were, depending on context and mood, either noble savages or savage vermin.

The extermination of Native American communities and the systematic integration of slaves into the economies of the cotton producing states forced white Americans early in their history to create justificatory distinctions between civilized and savage, Christian and heathen, freeman and slave. The 1776 Revolution created a slave-owning democracy. Slavery and radical inequality weren’t unique to the young American republic; what was unique was that the modern world’s first republic, modelled on the pattern of Classical democracy and secularized by a tradition of religious dissent had to reconcile universalist principles of liberty, equality and freedom with a discriminatory practice that routinely denied non-white people their humanity.

Jefferson, for example, declared that he was unalterably opposed to slavery but also believed that blacks and whites couldn’t live together because of inherent racial differences. What he meant of course, was that they couldn’t live together in equality which is why, unfortunate though it was, slavery had to continue. Lincoln had an emancipation plan according to which the slaves were to be freed by state action, the slaveowners were to be compensated and the freed men were to be colonized abroad.

Americans can justifiably argue that discrimination, dreadful though it was, was gradually overcome. This is something that we should all acknowledge; few countries have invested more effort in the institutionalization of individual liberty. But the early history of a republic founded on radical discrimination left its mark on America’s democratic culture.

America admitted its minorities to full citizenship grudgingly and the condition of this admission was assimilation. Martin Luther King was a great man but he was also a middle-class, English-speaking preacher in a suit. Educated blacks became honorary whites and as the vocabulary of political correctness changed, countries and peoples were granted admission into a mainly white free world — thus Japan became a honorary Western country.

When assimilation doesn’t work, when an antagonist is culturally and ideologically different enough to be threatening, America behaves like a laager democracy, circling its wagons to defend real but selectively applied Western values, against circling hordes of kafirs or gooks. Loss of civilian life beyond the assimilationist pale ceases to count as human suffering, it becomes collateral damage in a worthy cause. We see this in Hiroshima, in Cambodia, in Vietnam, in Iraq, in the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, in Bush’s “crusade” and his generally sub-biblical rhetoric, in the greater value placed on Israeli lives in the west Asia conflict (Israel being a western port in a sea of Arabs) and today, in the barely denied “civilizational” hostilities between the “West” and “Islam”.

The point of this argument is not to deny the critical importance of American democracy for the rest of the world, but to suggest that the cause of liberty and the taint of discrimination are joined at the hip in the evolution of democracy in America.

[email protected]

   

 
 
THE TELEGRAPH DIARY 
 
 
 
 

Go with the wind

The ill wind blowing over the Congress kingdom swept an unlikely visitor to the party’s doorsteps. The AICC choked when the RSS sarsanghchalak, K Sudarshan, landed there all of a sudden. Sudarshan had gone to Madhavrao Scindia’s house to pay his respects, but the dead leader by then had already been taken to the Congress headquarters. The RSSwallah did not hesitate to follow him into enemy territory. The visit has invariably kicked up speculations. One theory is that Sudarshan’s pursuit made it evident that the parivar is eyeing the young maharaja of Gwalior. The rest of the palace is already with the BJP, so if Jyotiraditya joined the gang, the Congress hegemony would end in the Hindi heartland. Perhaps, this particular grapevine has it, that is why the entire Hindutva galaxy — AB Vajpayee, LK Advani, Pramod Mahajan — were there in Gwalior. If they wanted, they could have reminded the Gwalior scion that his father was sorely disappointed with his party, especially with madam. It was Kamal Nath who was made the AICC gen-sec, not Scindia. It was Manmohan Singh who had become the compromise candidate for prime ministership in the future, not Madhavrao. The rajab was left by the wayside despite being elected to Parliament nine times. Fair enough. But will that be enough reason for the son to betray his father’s loyalty?

And here starts the 100 metres dash

From ashes to races. Even before the funeral pyre of the late maharaja of Gwalior had cooled, the sprint to the post of the Congress deputy leader of the Lok Sabha had begun. The names of the former speaker, Shivraj Patil, the disgruntled UP veteran, Narain Dutt Tiwari, Congress mediaman, Jaipal Reddy, Bengali Congresswallah, Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, foreign affairs expert, Natwar Singh, and former sports minister, Margaret Alva are doing the rounds. Each has some aces up his sleeve. If Patil is an expert on constitutional matters, Tiwari, the former Brahmin CM of Uttar Pradesh, is the need of the hour. Natwar’s diplomacy would be important if a war hit the shores. Again, don’t dismiss the media-savvy Reddy. There is also Das Munshi, the young, wily leader who would fit the bill perfectly, not to forget Alva, the articulate, experienced representative of women in the house. But then hold it! We’ve left out the most important factor. What does madam think about each of them?

Votes in the right boxes

Evidently, in India, people do not cast their votes, they vote their castes. It was evident in the manner the Aggarwal samaj celebrated the induction of Ved Prakash Goyal in the cabinet and Vijay Goel as a minister of state in the prime minister’s office. Rebel BJP ally from Uttar Pradesh, Naresh Aggarwal, of the Loktrantrik Congress Party, was however disappointed as his samaj made no case for his return. The trader community quite naturally has its calculations right. It could not back a loser.

A secretary and a minister

Instead of concentrating on the clash of civilizations, the prime minister should probably pay more attention to the clash of egos in his foreign policy establishment. While his principal secretary, Brajesh Mishra and foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, continue to lock horns, the PM seems to be oblivious of the confusion that has gripped the foreign office. Soon after Black Tuesday, Mishra as national security advisor had flown to Paris and Washington DC to meet officials. He returned to report matters to the PM. Soon after, the legitimate minister for foreign affairs, Singh, left to meet President Bush, who despite his pressing schedule reportedly spent some 40 minutes with the minister. But with Mishra and Singh said to be hardly on speaking terms, the ministry of external affairs fears that their interlocutors in Paris and Washington DC would not only be able to see the differing perceptions, but would also exploit the situation. Only AB Vajpayee can help, but will he?

Cutting through the short cut

Fit to size? For several decades, successive heads of the intelligence bureau of the country have enjoyed unrestricted access to the PM. The director could meet him any time of the day without appointment. This was because of the sensitive nature of the job and the top secret information that could be of use to the prime minister alone. Not anymore. The privilege is no longer available to the director. Reportedly, now he can meet the PM only through his principal secretary, that is Brajesh Mishra. Which means the director has to share with the secretary the information he would have for Vajpayee. Seems like Mishra is serving as both eyes and ears for our dear prime minister.

Hero scores a zero

Hero number one, Govinda, is no longer satisfied with gyrating with double heroines. He wants to act as well. That was probably what took him to Shyam Benegal. The talks reportedly broke down. Benegal seems to have been put off by Govinda’s notorious reputation (a perpetual latecomer, for example). But our hero says he withdrew because he found the role a “disrespectful” takeoff on the Bihar ka raja, Laloo Prasad Yadav. Should we believe him, kyon ki woh jhoot nahi bolta?

The last word

As is wont, soon after Madhavrao Scindia’s death, tongues started wagging about how everyone who had challenged madam had met their nemesis. The untimely deaths of Rajesh Pilot and Jitendra Prasada were recalled as proof of retribution. It was Scindia’s turn because he too had begun to harbour the unholy ambition. Bottomline.

Footnote / Those who narrowly missed the blaze

In evil hour. A Tollywood actress recently shot to fame for having shared it on the Black Tuesday in the US of A (she didn’t take the flight that crashed into the WTC). But there seem to be others from filmdom who turned out to be just as lucky. Just hours before the twin towers came crashing down, Juhi Chawla had apparently told a scribe that the entire Asoka team, including her hubby, Jay Mehta, were in New York and that she (one of the producers of the film) had to move to Hyderabad for her shootings. The team actually was then at the heart of Manhattan waiting to catch a flight to Toronto for a screening of the film the next day. Others like Aamir Khan, Gracy Singh, Anil Kapoor and Aishwarya Rai had only just left New York for the next leg of their stage shows. There were others who narrowly missed the hour. Former Miss Universe and now the invariable woman in the innumerable filmi triangles, Sushmita Sen, and her lensman buddy, Subi Samuel, were booked for a holiday in New York. Only the WTC crumbled the day before their departure. The stars should probably thank their own stars.    

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Never plane sailing

Sir — It is not yet clear what exactly happened on board the plane, Alliance Air Boeing 737. If one is to go by the conflicting reports in different newspapers, the incident may well have been a hoax or a drill exercise that did not go as planned. As is usually the case in India, the blame game has already begun with the civil aviation minister, Shahnawaz Hussain, blaming an anonymous caller and the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, expressing his displeasure over the incident. Inquiries may or may not be useful. It is important that the authorities address the more crucial issue of aviation safety. Or another Kandahar may well be on the cards.

Yours faithfully,
Vasundhara Trivedi, via email

Safe measure

Sir — The imposition of a safety cess on railway passengers under the pretext of ensuring safe travel is unfair and totally unnecessary. Safety can be ensured by enforcing the rules that have evolved since 1853 when the railways were first introduced in India. There are many procedures that have to be followed before a mainline train can start off. Even a relatively lower rank official like a bridge inspector can stop a train if he feels that a particular bridge is unsafe. There are other safety measures too. Sheer carelessness or neglect in following them is the main cause of railway accidents.

Repair of worn-out tracks and the rebuilding of old bridges is long overdue. The recent collapse of a bridge near Kozhikode in Kerala should act as a warning. If the present neglect continues, there will be similar accidents in other parts of the country as well. An increase in fares or the imposition of a cess will not ensure passenger safety. Rather, the Centre together with the ministry of railways will have to ensure that there is proper utilization of funds to improve the existing services.

Unfortunately, the railways in India are misused by politicians, bureaucrats and railway employees. Often party workers travel without tickets during the mass rallies during the elections. The Indian railways also loses huge sums of money as many people travel without tickets regularly. The deterioration of law and order coupled with the lackadaisical attitude of the state and Central governments have led to the dominance of mafia gangs who have made railway stations into their hideouts. Yet the government continues to be oblivious to all this.

Yours faithfully,
M.R. Pai, Mumbai

Sir — It is the responsibility of the railway authorities to ensure the safety of passengers (“Fair hike gift on Mamata return”, Aug 30). Instead of doing so, the ministry of railways has increased passenger fares by introducing a safety surcharge that would vary according to the distance travelled. According to the government, the proceeds will be used to modernize the railways as well as constitute a safety fund.

One cannot help wondering why the government has not done anything to modernize the railways in the last 20 years and has only woken up to the need to do so recently. Despite the fact that accidents occur quite frequently, successive railway ministers have done very little beyond tendering their resignations whenever there is an accident. The root of the problem is ineffeciency and the lack of proper infrastructure.

Yours faithfully,
Nripen Basu, Shantipur

Sir — While returning to Calcutta by the Kamrup Express on August 17, I realized for the first time what neglect and the lack of proper management had done to the Indian railways. The passengers of the Kamrup Express, which is one of the most prestigious trains in the Northeast, had to suffer throughout this long journey as the compartments, specially the S-5 and the S-6, had no drinking water and the basins were choked with dirt. Most passengers were afraid to use the toilets which were dirty and littered with rubbish. By nightfall the stench from the toilets worsened. After serving dinner to the passengers, the dining car staff dumped the unclean dishes and the leftovers inside the compartment which added to the passengers discomfort.

However, the ordeal was far from over for the passengers. The train got detained at Baluka Road and Malahar stations for no apparent reason. As both these areas are known for robberies, this made the passengers extremely uncomfortable. Since passenger safety and cleanliness are not a priority with railway authorities, the hike in passenger fares is unwelcome.

Yours faithfully,
Santanu Basu, Malda

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

The Telegraph
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Calcutta 700 001
Email: [email protected]
Readers in the Northeast can write to:
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