Editorial / The middle path
Under god’s yoke
This Above All / A language for Indians
People / Colin Powell
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL / THE MIDDLE PATH 
 
 
 
 
Religion is the opiate of reason; it can also act as a stimulant to action. This was demonstrated with a most terrible cruelty, if with startling finesse, when religious fanatics destroyed the World Trade Center in New York and part of the Pentagon in Washington. The aftermath of this devastation has left the Islamic world in complete turmoil. It is possible to distinguish here a difference in response between the heads of Islamic countries and Muslim popular opinion. Almost all Islamic countries, save Iraq, have condemned the terrorist attacks on the United States of America. The tenor of the condemnation may have varied, but the disapproval of the act was clear. The responses of the heads of state were based on their sense of realism and their perception of the dangers inherent in this kind of irresponsible use of violence to secure obscure political ends. Muslim popular opinion, on the other hand, has not been governed by any such considerations. Muslim opinion, where it has been vocal and visible, has been strident in its criticism of the US retaliatory action against Mr Osama bin Laden and the taliban. The open rejoicing of some Palestinians on September 11, as seen on television, remains firmly etched in public memory even though no other expression of Muslim opinion has endorsed the terrorist attacks.

Given this divergence between the opinion of governments and the populace, it is justified to doubt the existence of something called “the Islamic world’’. Moreover, what is being identified by the media as Muslim popular opinion is the articulation of only the vocal sections of the Muslim people. Those sections represent a minority. It is possible to conjecture that there are Muslims who are untouched by such opinion and do not share the values that the opinions project. Poor Muslim peasants in India, Sudan, Bangladesh and so on, unless galvanized by fanatical propagandists, are too busy ekeing out a living to be concerned about a wider world and its preoccupations. A silent majority is not necessarily a support base for a vocal minority. Rioters in Pakistan, Nigeria and Indonesia cannot claim to speak for all Muslims across the world. There can be no doubt that the Western media have demonized Islam, but Muslim opinion has also done precious little to correct this misrepresentation.

On both sides of the divide, the militant trends within Islam get more than the attention they deserve. Every religion has within it its own fundamentalist strands. The mystical and profoundly philosophical dimensions of Islam, as manifest in the writings and teachings of the Sufi saints, are as much a part of the Islamic world as the more activist and militant expressions of the faith. Islam cannot be seen and should not be projected by its adherents in monochromatic terms. Like terrorism, religious fundamentalism of any kind and within any religion is a threat to civilized existence. There is a need to recognize this within religious communities. Muslims need, in the present conjuncture, to be specially aware of this danger as they and their responses are now under the glare of light. No religion can be an alibi for violence and the mindless taking of human lives.

   

 
 
UNDER GOD’S YOKE 
 
 
BY PRATAP BHANU MEHTA
 
 
The growing presence of violence justified in the name of religion raises profound questions about the possibilities for religion in the modern world. The association between religion and violence has, as a historical matter, been long and intimate. But religious violence in the contemporary world stems from specific challenges thrown up by modernity. Both those who claim that religion seamlessly justifies violence, as well as those who, out of piety, deny that true religion ever justifies violence risk missing the historical specificity of the relationship between religion and violence in the contemporary world.

While religious arguments, texts, symbols and mythologies have always provided a matrix that legitimizes and sustains violence, there is something distinct about modern forms of religious violence. For one thing, the narratives of violence and sacrifice in most ancient texts, like the Vedas, The Old Testament, Mahavamsa, the Mahabharata or even the Quran, whether read literally or allegorically, go to considerable lengths to give their due to the victims of violence. There is a sense in which the victims of violence in the stories of these texts are consecrated and recognized. While they may be the objects of violence, because they deserve punishment, or because they are pawns in cosmic drama, these texts go to great lengths to argue that the violence will in some sense redeem the victims as well.

Modern religious violence, it seems, is based on effacing the identity of the victims in a more fundamental way. Nowhere, in terrorist or communal violence, is the thought that the victims of violence will somehow be redeemed by the violence they suffer. The enemy, if you like, is altogether more abstract, alien and invisible. The victim, in modern violence, is meant to be expunged by violence, not redeemed.

This feature of modern religious violence is not surprising in the light of the fact that most religious violence takes its energy from nationalism. The relationship between religion and nationalism is complicated and longstanding. But whatever their other differences, both have one crucial thing in common. These are the only two ideologies capable of consecrating death. Their weird and alluring fascination may stem in part from the fact that no other ideology can quite perform that question. The troubling question is whether their power to give death meaning is simply the other side of the coin that justifies killing. Traditionally, the justifications of religious violence stemmed from three analytically distinct motivations. Violence, especially in Indic religions, was often legitimized as necessary to some ongoing cosmic process. Sometimes violence was millenarian in purpose: an attempt to create a world that was more hospitable to religious purposes, by either converting non-believers, or bringing social relations more in line with some view of an ideal society or what god might require of us. This aspiration has its secular variants in murderously revolutionary ideologies of the 20th century.

The third motivation stemmed simply from collective narcissism. The idolatry of group membership, the idea that one’s group, irrespective of its moral content, ought to be the self-sufficient source of all meaning, produced motivations that sought to expunge any threats to group identity. Most religious movements sanctioning violence have had one or more of these motives available simultaneously. Religious zealots have both sought to, through violence, create a morally purer world, and have extolled their own collective identities. The problem for religion in the modern world is that it is impossible to imagine it playing a prominent public role without generating violent impulses.

This is so for two reasons. First, while group identities of some sort are inevitable and desirable, they are the principal source of the tendency of political life to waste lives. In very strong attachments to groups, individuals acquire abstract passions. On the one hand, they alienate their own individuality. They are determined by something outside of themselves. This at once elevates them, makes them part of a larger and more enduring whole. On the other hand, their identities become abstract. They become one thing rather than another.

Both this abstraction and self-surrender render individuals invisible even to themselves, curtailing their own sense of multitude and possibility. And they comprehend others only through abstract identifications. These abstract identifications are necessary to sustain the logic of violence. Any difference, or a sense of abundance, is seen as a threat to that abstract identity that one acquires. In so far as modern religious nationalism extols group identities, and forgets Emerson’s profound sense that no society can ever be so large as one man, religion will be destructive in public life. It is difficult to imagine any collective religious identification that does not run the risk of collective self-idolatry.

Second, the modern world is more diverse and complex. More and more areas of our life are disembedded from their religious contexts. It is no accident that when we talk of taking religion seriously we do not imagine that we want our economy to be governed by Hindu theories of the division of labour or that Central banks must consult traditional prohibitions on usury before setting interest rates. Nor can our notions of justice, rights and obligations be easily accommodated within traditional religious frameworks.

The point is that it is almost impossible to govern large parts of our workaday existence on religious lines. If not in politics, if not in the economy, if not the structures of public existence, where will a religious way of being be embodied in this world?

The fact that this question does not admit of an easy answer makes religious identities fragile and anxious. The Enlightenment hope was that religion would at most occupy the residual space of private belief and ritual. While, as a historical process, religion is increasingly privatized, this only exacerbates the predicament of the believer rather than solving it.

One could argue that religion will never be marginal in so far as it is a significant source of meaning in the lives of many. But whether this meaning can render the complex experience of modern societies into a coherent, ordered whole is more doubtful. It will do so only through an insistent will to simplify the world and purge it of all its contradictions. The religious fanatic is essentially longing for a simplified world, free of difference, coherent and ordered to a simple moral logic. Creating that world cannot but be violent.

A strong religious identity in the modern world can be sustained only through the following means. First, by acts of withdrawal that explicitly acknowledge that this world will always be alien and inhospitable and one can only put in order one’s own soul, not the world. But in the absence of that inner strength of conviction, the only public way to assert religious identities is through acts of will. Since religious convictions cannot be embodied in an ongoing teleology of everyday life, since a large number of social practices are outside its sway, religion can be asserted only as a marker of difference.

It is not an accident that most public assertions of a religious politics quickly degenerate into a distasteful collective self-idolization. Even well-meaning homilies to the effect that all religions are good, and compatible with one another, is simply a sign of the inner vacuity of religion. They can be made compatible only if they have no content. Growing religious clamour is a sign of the weakness of religion, not its strength. More and more people claim to put themselves under god’s yoke because they do not feel his presence.

The author is professor of philosophy and of law and governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

   

 
 
THIS ABOVE ALL / A LANGUAGE FOR INDIANS 
 
 
BY KHUSHWANT SINGH
 
 
I am entirely in favour of making English an Indian language on our terms. Maul it, misuse it, mangle it out of shape but make it our own bhasha. The English may not recognize it as their language; they can stew in their own juice. It is not their baap ki jaidaad — ancestral property.

Professor K.S. Yadurajan, who writes a regular column for The Deccan Herald, agrees with me. A compilation of his articles, Current English: A Guide for the User of English in India, published a few weeks ago has on its cover some common Indianisms: pin-drop silence, foreign-returned, eat crow, very most urgent, Sir, your good name?

There is a lot of useful and amusing information in the compilation. What is the origin of All Fools’ Day? The professor explains: “With the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1582, the New Year was officially moved from March 25 to January 1. But people were slow to accept the change. Many still went about making New Year visits (on April 1). Their more alert friends naturally made fun of them. They became April Fools.

“Such innocent mirth could not be allowed to die. Long after the calendar confusion ceased to bother anyone, fun lovers everywhere indulged in practical jokes on their friends, making April Fools of them. The practice has continued to this day. Even the media has not been able to resist the temptation. British television once showed Italian farmers harvesting spaghetti from trees.”

“In retrospect we can see that good old Noah who sent out the dove to find out dry land after the Flood was the first April Fool.”

“In a charming essay, Charles Lamb (Essays of Elia,1823) makes April 1 a celebration of all the famous fools of history. (Alexander the Great is included in this distinguished crowd, shown like a baby crying, as there were no more worlds to conquer.) There is much to be said for setting apart a day as ‘All Fools’ Day. The more laughable blunders a man shall commit in your company, the more tests he giveth you that he will not betray you or overreach you. In short, the fool is an honest, simple, lovable person. Let’s celebrate him.”

He quotes an amusing use of the word, flabbergasted. Instead of being overwhelmed on being introduced to Prince Charles and Princess Diana on their visits to Delhi, an Indian said he was flabbergasted. “At a reception given at the British high commission in New Delhi, the editor of an Urdu newspaper is reported to have welcomed them with the outburst: ‘Your Majesty, I am really flabbergasted at meeting you.’”

To be flabbergasted means to be overwhelmed with shocked amazement. I am flabbergasted at your effrontery. She was flabbergasted at the casual way he spoke about his affairs. How then could the worthy editor say he was “flabbergasted” at meeting the Prince? The Prince (and the late Princess) must have been flabbergasted at this welcome.

A wealth of information is to be found in Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases. It quotes a poem by an English lady who after a brave attempt, gave up learning Tamil:

In common usage here a chit
Serves for our business or our wit.
Bankshal’s place to lodge our ropes,
And mango orchards all are Topes.
Godown usurps the ware-house place
Compound denotes each walled space.
To Dufterkhana, Ottor, tanks
The English language owes no thanks;
Since office, Essence, fish-pond shewv
We need not words so harsh and new.
Much more I could such words expose,
But ghauts and dawks the list shall close;
Which in plain English is no more
Than Wharf and Post expressed before.

Most of us use the expression, “pay through one’s nose”, for having to pay too much. Few know its origin. Professor Yadurajan clarifies: “Nobody knows for certain how the phrase arose. One suggestion is that it derives from the nose tax levied by the Danes on the Irish in the 9th century. Those who did not pay the tax had their noses cut. Be that as it may, the phrase inspired no less a man than Arnold Bennett to compose this limerick:

There was a young man of Montrose
Who had pockets in none of his clothes.
When asked by his lass
Where he carried his brass,
He said, ‘Darling, I pay through the nose.’

Then there are put-downers: sharp, witty riposte, or rejoinders. “The irrepressible Bernard Shaw was a past master at this art. Shaw and Chesterton were as much different in their personalities as in their principles. Shaw was tall and lean; Chesterton portly and round. ‘Looking at you one would think there was a famine in England,’ said Chesterton. Shaw shot back, ‘Looking at you one would think you caused it.’ But even Shaw got more than what he had asked for when he told his wife: ‘Isn’t it true, dear, that male judgement is superior to female judgement?’ ‘Of course, dear,’ replied the wife, ‘after all you married me and I married you’.

“But perhaps the most famous put-down in English is the retort made by Wilkes when Lord Sandwich — yes, it is after him that the popular snack is named — shouted at him: ‘You, Wilkes, will either die on the gallows or from syphilis.’ ‘That depends, my Lord,’ said Wilkes, ‘on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.’”

Some delightful Punjabi recipes

It is not the national anthem of Punjab but certainly its national diet during the autumn and winter months. Just as the summer months are the mango season, from October till end-February it is sarson ka saag. In rural Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and western Uttar Pradesh they eat it day after day with blobs of fresh butter with either makkai (maize) or bajra (millet) rotis, dahi (yoghurt) and wash it down with tumblers full of chchach or lassi.

I have been addicted to it since my childhood. I believe it is the best diet to keep the stomach in good order. What I rue is that most people don’t even know how tasty it can be because they don’t take the trouble to make it properly. I have sampled it in dhabas, hotels, restaurants and Punjabi homes and am disappointed that the stuff marketed by the Punjab government is as tasteless as cooked grass.

Proper sarson ka saag needs a lot of culinary skill and takes many hours to make. We have the recipe for making it coming down many generations. It used to be a grandmothers’ speciality handed down to their daughters and granddaughters till cooks (laangrees) took over. So it has been in my family. Chandan Singh, my cook for 50 years, learnt it from my mother’s maid-servant-cum-saag-maker, Bhajno. So I eat the tastiest sarson ka saag. Chandan Singh is not very eager to make it because it takes a lot of time and trouble. I have to bully and cajole him.

A lot of ingredients go into making this saag. I am listing some of them with their Indian names as I do not know their English equivalents: mustard (sarson) leaves and stems, paalak, carrots, shalgham, bathoa, soya, methi. These should be ground and cooked for at least three hours. Then add ginger, green chollia, onions (fried till they are brown) maize and gram flour. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.

If you want to savour the taste of well-made saag, do not smother it with blobs of butter, nor eat it with makkee or bajra rotis because they lie heavy on the stomach of a person who does no physical work. It tastes best with a slice of brown bread. There is nothing to equal it to keep you in good shape. It may not give you the strength that spinach gave Pop Ege, the sailorman, but it will give you the feeling of well-being.

The last laugh

Santa purchased a new car. He started taking a longer route to reach his office. This baffled Banta. One day Banta asked Santa, “Why are you coming to the office by a very very long route ever since you have purchased this new car?” Santa replied, “You know when I purchased this car, my dealer told me that this car gives a very good average on long route.” (Contributed by Narinder Arora, Chandigarh)

   

 
 
PEOPLE / COLIN POWELL 
 
 
 
 

Voice of restraint

When an American journalist goofed up in addressing Jaswant Singh as the Prime Minister at a joint press conference with Colin Powell in New Delhi earlier this week, the Indian foreign minister could only smile wryly and correct her. But the US secretary of state, dressed in an impeccable dark suit, was quick to pounce on the rare opportunity to lighten up the atmosphere. “Congratulations,” he quipped, shaking hands with Singh, bringing laughter all around.

That was one rare moment, however insignificant, when Powell brought some lightness to his surroundings during his tightrope subcontinent sojourn. Otherwise, his earlier pronouncements at Islamabad on Kashmir had caused much anger and umbrage on this side of the fence. And, America’s highest ranking Afro-American, with a heavy-set face and a smile that doesn’t really reach the eyes, was left explaining the nuances of words like “central”.

But overall, the US secretary of state came out relatively unscathed from what could only be termed as a walk through a minefield. Keeping two traditionally warring neighbours on the same boat in an ongoing conflict to help fulfil US’s own Mission Kabul, is no simple task. But in the end, Powell managed to keep both sides pleased with the outcome. He wooed Pakistan with words such as “aspirations” and “human rights” while India was kept happy by the promise of US support to combat terrorism of all kinds, including those directed against India.

Walking a razor sharp line all the time, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had clearly made a perfect transition to the subtle art of global diplomacy.

Back in USA, ever since the two aircraft crashed into the World Trade Centre, Powell has had some equally deft workmanship to do. Being a relatively moderate voice is not easy in a country used to intervening, almost pathologically in most conflicts round the globe.

But in the days following the WTC attacks on September 11, Powell emerged as the official voice of restraint favouring limited action amidst those clamouring for a wider battle against terrorism.

His stand has earned him brickbats from conservative America. Writes Lawrence F. Kalpan in The New Republic: “Powell is today busy forfeiting America’s capacity to respond effectively to the attacks of September 11. Indeed, he’s gone out of his way to contradict just about every principle President George Bush has enunciated for the battle ahead.” According to reports, one camp led by deputy secretary of defence Paul Wolfowitz supposedly wanted to extend the war on terrorism beyond Afghanistan to a strategic bombing campaign against Iraq and Lebanon. Powell wanted to confine the war to Osama Bin Laden’s network.

The Powell Doctrine is usually summed up as a reluctance to intervene, but using overwhelming force for a quick victory once a decision is taken. During the Gulf War in 1991, visitors to the Pentagon couldn’t help noticing the quotation written on his desk. Taken from ancient Greek historian Thucydides, it said: Of all manifestations of power, restraint impresses most.

Brought up in the needy and penniless South Bronx area of New York City, the son of Jamaican immigrants never looked back once he had the chance to enjoy his first taste of military life as a cadet in his college’s officer training corps. After graduation, he was commissioned in the army as a second-lieutenant. In the 1960s, he went twice on duty to Vietnam, the first as a military adviser to the South Vietnamese government troops.

His first combat experience ended when he stepped over a dung-poisoned bamboo spear buried in the ground. A severely swollen foot forced his evacuation by helicopter. During his second tour on duty, Powell survived a helicopter crash landing, and went back into the wreckage to pull out his commanding officer and others.

His career stepped into high gear since then. For over three decades, Powell shuttled between the military and Washington bureaucracy. As an army officer, he served under three Presidents: Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Bill Clinton at the very top of the American security establishment.

But he became a national hero after the Iraq war and his charismatic image helped narrow down the national racial divide. No wonder, his memoirs, An American Journey, earned him 6.5 million dollars in advance.

Not everybody was surprised when he opted to be a Republican, a party almost totally dominated by the Whites. But his views on abortion (pro-choice) and affirmative action (in favour) earned him boos at the 1996 Republic convention. Four years later, he got a standing ovation.

During the run-up to the Gulf War, Powell was once admonished by Dick Cheney. “You are not secretary of state. So stick to military matters,” he was told. Now as the most powerful Afro-American in the history of USA, Powell faces the most challenging assignment of his career. Its success or failure would decide his ultimate place in history.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Making up with an old friend

Sir — It is heartening to hear that Atal Bihari Vajpayee has decided to go to Russia next month to participate in a summit-level meeting with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin(“PM packs for Moscow meet”, Oct 17). Given that the government has in recent times come under severe criticism from opposition parties and foreign policy experts for its alleged over-enthusiasm to participate in the United States of America’s war against terrorism, such a move could well help the National Democratic Alliance save its face. The visit could also be a turning point in relations between the two countries which see eye to eye on many issues, including their policy on Afghanistan.

Yours faithfully,
Joyita Saha, via email

No cause for joy

Sir — With the pujas round the corner, traffic in Calcutta has become increasingly impenetrable. The increasing number of vehicles on the city’s streets have made matters worse. Not only is the condition of most roads beyond repair, the innumerable potholes that dot the city’s streets make them impossible to traverse in the rainy season. The poor condition of the roads is also the cause for most accidents.

With the Trinamool Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) refusing to put an end to the hawker menace, it is unlikely that the streets of Calcutta will become pedestrian-friendly again. In some cities in the developed countries, small cars and slow-moving vehicles are barred from vying on busy streets during the peak hours. Some cities have banned the entry of small cars into business districts, while others have imposed high parking fees to restrict their entry. Worse, instead of improving the existing tram services, the West Bengal government is toying with the idea of abolishing them altogether. Even though cities like Toronto possess an efficient underground and suburban railway and bus services, it has retained trams which run through the city in high speed.

Yours faithfully,
Nitin K. Basu, Calcutta

Sir — Rash driving and rampant traffic violations have made the streets of Calcutta dangerous for pedestrians and users of public transport. With buses refusing to stop at the designated bus stops and picking up passengers from anywhere they wish to, the risk of accidents have doubled. Auto-rickshaws often carry passengers both on the left and right sides of the driver, thereby endangering the lives of the passengers as well as that of the driver. Unless the police is able to enforce stricter traffic regulations, accidents will continue to occur.

Yours faithfully,
G. Ghosh, Calcutta

Sir — The pujas having neared, the rate of public vehicles being booked by the police have increased at an alarming rate. Is it because the police have now to fill a quota of arrests and bookings during the festive season? Or is it because they can — by harassing drivers who invariably bribe their way out — earn a fast buck themselves?

Yours faithfully,
Jayashree Maitra, Calcutta

Overhaul the system

Sir — The rationing system was first introduced in our country when there was a severe crisis of food and essential commodities. Presently, the production of these items is more than our actual requirement. However, most of the items are also available at cheaper rates in the open market. Since the government has made the ration card mandatory for identification purposes, people are compelled to purchase essentials from the ration shop in order to keep the card. While the card is no doubt a boon to the lower income groups, its use should be made optional for those who would rather purchase essential items from the ordinary markets. The decision to use the ration shop should be left to the discretion of the shopper.

Yours faithfully,
Hara Lal Chakraborty, Calcutta

Sir — Ration shopkeepers often distribute good quality food stuffs only to people they know or wish to please. Most of the time, it is the well-off, who can anyway purchase goods from the market, who benefit from this partiality. The goods may vary from rice, sugar and spices to kerosene. When asked, shopkeepers invariably deny any knowledge of such malpractice. Penal measures need to be taken to punish these errant distributors.

Yours faithfully,
J. Sen Sharma, Calcutta

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

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Calcutta 700 001
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