Editorial 1/ On the road
Editorial 2/ Reading it right
Diplomacy/ No more great games
Book Review/ Bridge across a troubled past
Book Review/ Off with his head
Book Review/ What makes a nation a nation?
Book Review/ / The French connection
Editor’s Choice/ The legacy of impermanence
Paperback Pickings
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1/ ON THE ROAD 
 
 
 
 
There was a significant jump in productivity in the United States of America in the Nineties, and estimates by the Institute of International Economics show that 50 per cent of this was due to efficiency gains resulting from openness. Consequently, following September 11, concerns have been raised about controls at the US borders, not only in terms of visitors and immigrants, but also in terms of transaction costs associated with trucking operations. For instance, trucks from Canada require three hours now at the US borders, instead of the earlier two minutes, and inventory management systems have been thrown out of gear. Consequently, in the automobile sector, major manufacturers have closed down plants. Europe is yet another example of a region where barriers to movement have been removed across borders. In contrast, India is yet unable to remove barriers to inter-state movement. 65 per cent of goods traffic occurs through road transport. While figures of actual number of trucks are difficult to come by, there are an estimated 3 million trucks and 6 million truck drivers. Ownership of these trucks is in what might be called the unorganized sector. This is not because there are barriers to entry in trucking operations, but because of a desire to avoid tax, and because of the Motor Transport Workers Act which becomes binding if more than five employees exist. To escape these provisions, there is the equivalent of fragmentation of production, with truck operators financing ownership in the names of drivers. In the US, large truck companies have improved the lot of drivers and made regulation easier.

It is impossible to regulate 3 million trucks if ownership is fragmented, and regulation and controls emerge through a variety of means. There is the sales tax, which varies across states, and so do local body taxes. While the government has talked about a value added tax from April 1, 2002 a full-fledged VAT that eliminates all local body taxes is unlikely in a hurry. That apart, state-level taxes and other inspections associated with the Motor Vehicles Act are also unlikely to disappear. Other commodity-specific laws and regulations also contribute to the estimated Rs 30,000 crore that are lost every year because of impediments to truck movements.

While reform of the Essential Commodities Act has been on the agenda, there is not much discussion of inspections associated with say the Bureau of Indian Standards Act, the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, the Agricultural Produce Grading and Marking Act or the Standards of Weights and Measures Act. As is the case with Hong Kong and Singapore, there is no reason why an unified and harmonized format for controls and regulation cannot be prepared, with requisite information sent to the border before a truck arrives there. In 90 per cent of cases, this will eliminate the need for checks and rent-seeking, with 10 per cent left for detailed scrutiny. However, this form of prior information requires the existence of large truck operators as a necessary prerequisite, and is impossible to work with the present unorganized structure of ownership. This argument also extrapolates to public transport in cities, such as ownership of buses and cabs. Small may be beautiful, but beauty has nothing to do with economic and commercial rationale.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2/ READING IT RIGHT 
 
 
 
 
A Constitution bristling with fundamental rights is not always a guarantee of equity and peace. There can be no better illustration of this than India. Fundamental rights are necessary: they posit the norm, and form the basis of legislation and judgment. But once the basic rights have been enumerated, like the right to life and to freedom of movement or freedom to worship, for example, additions only cause confusion and dilute the force of the basic rights. The proposed constitutional amendment, which makes education a fundamental right, is one such. The bill has been passed unanimously in Parliament, because no party would like to be seen as opposing something that is so evidently politically correct. For a country that has been independent for 54 years, and contains one of the largest numbers of illiterate people in the world, education is a thorny issue. But so it has been for the past half a century. It is not as if the Constitution had ignored the issue of education. The directive principles of state policy make clear that elementary education, that is education up to 14 years of age, should be made universal as soon as possible. Yet this has been one of independent India’s major and most disgraceful failures. It is not clear how upgrading the education issue from the directive principles section to the fundamental rights section is going to make a difference.

Making education a fundamental right actually makes the issue more problematic. As a directive principle of state policy, the onus was on the state to oversee the spread of education. The state has failed, not always unwillingly, since the political project often gains through the ignorance of the masses. Certainly negligence had a large part to play, because the nurturing of the educated to perpetuate the governing classes also meant a proportionate carelessness towards the uneducated. As soon as education becomes a fundamental right, however, accountability remains defined while the identity of the person or institution accountable is obscured. This will only make education a lower priority in practice than it already is, while it will also subvert the position of the fundamental rights already present. Instead of making education a fundamental right, the state should ask for the electorate’s cooperation to help educate the children of the country. Right action is rather more important than politically correct public gestures.

   

 
 
DIPLOMACY/ NO MORE GREAT GAMES 
 
 
BY K.P. NAYAR
 
 
It was a television clip which put this week’s Afghanistan talks in Bonn so appropriately into context. It was also the only worthwhile story which CNN’s Christiane Amanpour has done so far during her various forays of parachute journalism into and out of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The TV clip in question showed an Afghan in Kabul speaking Russian and commenting on the return of the Russians to Afghanistan’s capital — not as an occupation force this time, but as bearers of emergency relief. Some of the Afghans interviewed on CNN said they had spied for the anti-Soviet mujahedin as children. Others had actually killed Soviets in uniform. But it was clear from the story that the Afghans, in their determination to throw out the invaders from Moscow had taken the trouble to learn the language of the occupation forces.

It is this quality among Afghans to learn languages easily which made a big difference to this week’s talks in Bonn on Afghanistan’s future. The language of communication among the four Afghan groups invited to Bonn by the United Nations is not Pushtu: not because the Pashtuns are inadequately represented in Bonn, but because Afghanistan is, in fact, now Dari country. The Pakistanis would like the world to believe that Pushtu is the dominant language of Afghanistan. Implicit in this suggestion which has been unquestioningly bought by the Americans is the myth that the Pushtuns are to Afghanistan what the Russians were to the Soviet Union. It is one of the many myths which Islamabad is exploiting to perpetuate its taliban-style grip on Kabul.

Afghanistan is an unknown entity for many people and a society beyond comprehension for many more. Few people therefore are aware, for instance, that King Zahir Shah does not speak Pushtu, but he speaks Dari. Ever since the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1978 and Pakistan became a frontline state against that invasion, successive rulers in Islamabad have done everything possible to change Afghanistan beyond recognition. These efforts reached its peak in 1993 when the Inter-Services Intelligence was given the task of creating the taliban and preparing it to take over Afghanistan. The creation of the taliban was not a mere military-political initiative by Pakistan. It was also an attempt to replace tribal loyalties, the fountainhead of bonding in Afghanistan, with loyalty to Islam. Fundamentally, this change which was attempted by the taliban and its patrons in Islamabad and at the army general headquarters in Rawalpindi was alien to the Afghan ethos.

Islam of the taliban variety has never had any place on the mosaic of Afghanistan throughout its history. Although only four groups are taking part in the Bonn talks, it would be wrong to say that the composition of these delegations is unrepresentative of Afghan society. The Pashtuns are there too, represented by the nominees of the recent convention of tribal elders held in Peshawar. What the meeting in Bonn has so far served to assert is that there are only two elements which are in a majority in Afghan society: Sunni Islam and the Dari language.

Since majority is the essence of a post-conflict Afghanistan which the international community is interested in, these elements have to be nurtured. Pakistan can be expected to do its utmost to negate these: its interference in Afghanistan can continue only if the majority is divided up into minorities so that its proxies can control that country the way the taliban did for five years.

One idea which found resonance among the leadership of the anti-terrorist global coalition is that Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan must be protected after the taliban is routed. Pervez Musharraf has been at his wily best in getting the Americans and others to accept that Islamabad has “legitimate” interests in Afghanistan. But Musharraf has been careful never to spell out these interests.

Implicit in the encouraging deliberations in Bonn so far is a rejection of the notion that Pakistan must have a say in the future of Afghanistan. The first step towards that rejection is the insistence of the Northern Alliance throughout the week in Bonn that there is no need for any multinational force within Afghanistan. By insisting that Afghans alone will look after their country’s security in future, the Northern Alliance is signalling that Pakistan ought not to have any role, directly or directly, in determining the internal affairs of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the uncompromising opposition by the Northern Alliance to any multinational presence in Kabul has been interpreted as opposition to the American, British or other forces on Afghan soil.

The leadership of the Northern Alliance knows from its experience with America after the Soviet pullout in 1989 that Washington does not have the resolve to stick it out in a place like Afghanistan once its immediate, short-term interests are met.

In any case, it is clear from statements by the president of the United States of America, George W. Bush, this week that he is keen to go after Saddam Hussein now that he has been encouraged by the results of seven weeks of bombing in Afghanistan. Without America’s resolve, its allies would be loathe to linger in Afghanistan. Which leaves only Pakistan willing to have a direct or proxy presence there. And that explains the opposition by the Northern Alliance to foreign soldiers in their country.

The choice before the international coalition once Afghanistan settles down is to decide whether Pakistan should pay a price for what it did to its northern neighbour, especially in the last eight years. Or whether Islamabad should be given a prize for its actions. Musharraf would very much like the latter, which is why he keeps talking in vague terms about his country’s legitimate interests in Afghanistan. Logically, the international community could accept Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan broadly in the following terms: preventing terrorism, stopping the flow of small arms into its territory, ending the flow of narcotics across borders and ensuring smooth trade.

Pakistan cannot do anything effective against terrorism in post-conflict Afghanistan unless it makes big compromises in its Kashmir policy. Therefore, countries like the US which want Pakistan to pursue Musharraf’s choice of being with the anti-terrorist coalition will have to force the general to change his policy of abetting terrorism in Kashmir. Alternatively, they will have to treat Pakistan as an extension, albeit more sophisticated, of Mullah Omar’s Afghanistan. There is no dispute about the fact that in the post-Soviet years, when Afghanistan was flush with all sorts of weapons from Kalashnikovs to Stinger missiles, many of these found their way into the arms bazaars of Pakistan.

But unless Pakistan is able to control its own arms traders, there is no way it can prevent the influx of arms from across the Afghan border into its territory. On the face of it, this is a tall order. There are huge areas of Pakistan, especially in the Northwest Frontier, where the writ of the central government — or any government — does not run. Arms merchants thrive in these areas: the gun culture has been part of this ethos for generations. It is unlikely that Musharraf can do anything about it. As for narcotics, Afghanistan’s record of controlling the cutlivation of opium and trade in narcotics has been far better than that of Pakistan. Even the US has acknowledged this despite its aversion to the taliban.

Trade, it must be conceded, is a bilateral matter to be settled between Pakistan and whoever is in charge in Kabul. Pakistan cannot ask for trade with Afghanistan as a matter of right. On the contrary, under international law, Afghanistan can expect the reverse of Pakistan. As a landlocked state, Afghanistan has the right to have access to goods through Pakistan. The same does not work the other way round. In any case, Pakistan’s idea of trading with Afghanistan is to control eventually the routes of commerce to central Asia. Other countries in the region, such as India and Iran, will not allow this economic hegemony by Islamabad in all of central Asia as part of any legitimate interest in Afghanistan.

For that matter, the international community has no right, whatsoever, to ask Afghans to secure the interests of their neighbours. It is for those neighbours to work out a modus vivendi with whoever is in charge in Kabul in future so that mutual interests are protected. To deal with Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan as a one-way street is a recipe for trouble in future. Kamalesh Sharma, India’s permanent representative to the UN, put it succinctly when he told the security council two weeks ago, “No more Great Games or any games. An Afghanistan at peace with itself is in the best interests of all.”

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ BRIDGE ACROSS A TROUBLED PAST 
 
 
BY VISHNUPRIYA SENGUPTA
 
 
OUR WEDDINGS
By Dorit Rabinyan,
Bloomsbury, £ 9.99

Close on the heels of her debut novel, Persian Brides, comes Dorit Rabinyan’s second novel, Our Weddings. The 29-year-old Israeli author’s novel is translated dexterously from Hebrew by Yael Lotan. While Persian Brides, which won the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Literary Award in 1999, is set in the fictional Iranian village of Omerijan and revolves around two young girls, Flora and Nazie Ratoryan, Our Weddings is a family saga that weaves its way through India, Iran and Israel to map the rugged terrain of the Azizyan household. A sequel and yet not quite, Our Weddings seems to make a further inroad into the history and literature of the diasporic Jewish community, an intrinsic part of Israel.

Rabinyan is among those writers who believe it is important to build bridges into the past and establish a bond with one’s ancestral place. Her desire to journey back in time may also be explained by the circumstances of her family’s migration from Iran to Israel. Her parents, both of whom hailed from Isfahan, grew up in Teheran, met and got married in Kfar Saba in Israel. It was here that Rabinyan was born. Having observed her society from close quarters, the author is well-equipped to provide a glimpse of the same in Our Weddings.

The novel is divided into five sections, in the last of which it comes full circle. It focuses on the orthodox Azizyan household, where women, in their circumscribed roles, prioritize motherhood above all else. As a child, Solly Azizyan, the patriarch, lived with his parents in Iran and then, with his mother, in South Tel Aviv. His wife, Iran Eliaspour, spent her formative years in Isfahan, then moved to Calcutta with her parents and, following the demise of her father, shifted base to Israel. Solly is a gentle but skilled fisherman who makes for a doting father; the petite, beautiful and childlike Iran, on the other hand, metamorphoses from the mistress of the oriental kitchen to an overly concerned mother. Following their meeting and marriage in Tel Aviv, they shift to Givat Olga, where they purchase a small flat with 5,754 pearls of the 5,854 pearls Iran’s mother had stitched on her wedding gown.

They soon have a big family with five children. Maurice, the first born, has a weak heart on the right side of his chest and is vulnerable. He is evidently outshone by his three gorgeous sisters: Sofia, the eldest, craves for luxury and a rich husband; Marcelle suffers from insomnia and is perpetually buried in a romance novel, while Lizzie, the third, is a hard-of-hearing nymphomaniac who is often flogged by her husband and brother for her waywardness. The youngest, 11-year-old Matti, whose twin brother is stillborn, is a hyperactive, deranged child.

Sofia, Marcelle and Lizzie enter into failed marriages in their illusory search for happiness and, disillusioned, return to the folds of the family. The other members live like individual islands, although under one roof. In the end, all that remains in the Pandora’s box is the hope that they will eventually find whatever is needed to “work things out.”

The novel is rooted in a specific tradition and culture; nonetheless, the milieu is identifiable and the characters true to life. It flits back and forth in time and each character is fleshed out, down to the minutest detail. But it is the women who occupy centrestage. In the course of tracing the history of the immigrants, Rabinyan holds a mirror to the society, revealing how eastern Jewish families, which live in the suburbs, have to make the best of the limited options available to them. Most women, far from being emancipated, can only look forward to marriage; they marry in haste and are unable to carve a distinct identity for themselves outside the shadow of the father or the husband.

In contrast with the taut, oppressive atmosphere, the narrative is lucid and free flowing. But what is truly remarkable is the apt usage of imagery which gives this visually poignant novel a palpable sensuality that lingers even after its close.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ OFF WITH HIS HEAD 
 
 
BY ASHIS CHAKRABARTI
 
 
BIN LADEN: THE MAN WHO DECLARED WAR ON AMERICA
By Yossef Bodansky,
Forum, Rs 675

By now, he has emerged as the first legend of the 21st century — the quintessential hero for most of the radical Muslim world and the evil incarnate for the rest. One story is the romance of Osama bin Laden, the scion of one of the richest families of the Arab world who left a life of luxury, home and country to live in caves in mountainous Afghanistan, from where he led his god’s war against the satanic West, bringing mighty America on its knees. The other picture has him as the latest equivalent of the demented genius, in the mould of Hitler or Stalin, driven by a diabolical distortion of religious faith to mad acts of destruction. Despite its obvious pro-Western perspective, Yossef Bodansky’s bestselling book steers clear of either caricature and presents bin Laden’s story with scholarly objectivity. His portrait of bin Laden is not of an evil lone ranger, but of a master builder of a worldwide movement and its financial, military and political networks. Bodansky, who was the director of the United States of America’s congressional task force on terrorism and unconventional warfare, has delved into years of experience as a terrorism expert to uncover the tangled web of international Islamist militancy.

Osama bin Muhammad bin Laden was born “probably in 1957” in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, one of about fifty siblings from his father’s several marriages. Careful of his children’s education, his father, a small-time building contractor, sent bin Laden to schools in Medina and later Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s main commercial port on the Red Sea. The oil boom of the Seventies did much to change his father’s fortunes. The business grew fabulously to make the Bin Laden Corporation one of the biggest construction companies in the entire Middle East. His father’s special relationship with the Saudi royal family earned him the contract to rebuild and refurbish Islam’s holiest mosques at Mecca and Medina. Young bin Laden was meanwhile training to follow in his father’s footsteps, studying management and economics at King Abdul Aziz University at Jeddah.

Jeddah was something of a melting pot. Being a port city, it was exposed to Western culture. It was also a hotbed of Islamist radicalism at the time of a fresh spell of Islamist enthusiasm in the Arab world, jolted by the visit of the Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, to Jerusalem in 1977 and his subsequent signing of a peace agreement with Israel. If his father’s involvement with the reconstruction at Mecca and Medina kindled the first religious flame in the young bin Laden, his student days at Jeddah stoked it. It was at King Abdul Aziz Univer- sity that he came under the spell of his first mentor in Islamist jihad.

Sheikh Abdallah Yussuf Azzam, the Jordanian scholar who came into contact with militant Islamists during his stint at Cairo’s al-Azhar University, was teaching at King Aziz University when bin Laden was a student there. The Muslim world needed “jihad and the rifle alone: no negotiations, no conferences, no dialogues”, he would tell his students, to be liberated from the corrupting, oppressive hold of the West. Azzam played a key role in establishing what later flourished as the International Legion of Islam.

According to Bodansky, two events happened in quick succession to give the Islamist jihad a sense of purpose. The Islamist revolution in Iran, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, in 1979 heralded a new dawn for the Islamic world, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December that year presented a challenge and a theatre. Bin Laden and Azzam were among the first Arabs to arrive in Pakistan on their way to Afghanistan to take part in the Afghan jihad. Azzam was to remain one of Laden’s mentors till he was assassinated in 1989 at Peshawar in a car-bomb explosion, allegedly in an operation sponsored by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. But, one Egyptian lieutenant of those early days in Afghanistan, Ayman-al-Zawahiri, remains bin Laden’s second-in-command to this day. By the time the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, bin Laden had become a central player in Islamist militancy in different parts of the world.

The next phase began with the Kuwait War in 1990 which saw a bigger American military involvement in the Arab world. For bin Laden the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia, was the vilest symbol of the West’s affront to Islam. His increasing criticism of America, once his trusted aide in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, landed him in conflicts with Saudi authorities who had also patronized his Afghan crusade. Expelled from Saudi Arabia, he took refuge in Sudan, the new centre of African Islamist militants, where he soon became a part of the inner circle of the country’s spiritual leader, Hassan Abdallah al-Turabi.

When Sudan too expelled him under pressure from Saudi Arabia, bin Laden made taliban-ruled Afghanistan his home in the summer of 1996. Henceforth, Afghanistan — with Pakistan’s control and assistance — would be bin Laden’s training ground for jihadis from all over the world. In August, 1996, bin Laden issued his first formal, twelve-page “declaration of war” against the US. His big strike came in August, 1998, when his terrorist squads bombed US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam, followed by about 80 US cruise missile attacks at his camps in the Khowst area of eastern Afghanistan. Bin Laden survived the attacks to launch his war on American soil on September 11 this year, when terrorists from al-Qaida and other groups orchestrated stunning suicide attacks in New York and Washington.

Writing at the end of 1999, Bodansky predicted prophetically that bin Laden was planning even bigger strikes at the US, including biological warfare with deadly agents like anthrax and disease-causing viruses like Ebola and salmonella. He also says that since 1996, he is said to have spent over $ 3 million to purchase a nuclear suitcase bomb. “Ultimately, the quintessence of bin Laden’s threat”, Bodansky argues, “is his being a cog, albeit an important one, in a large system that will outlast his own demise — state-sponsored international terrorism”. It is a chilling book that should warn world leaders, including those in the US, about the dangers of supping with the devil for short-term strategic gains.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ WHAT MAKES A NATION A NATION? 
 
 
BY ARNAB BHATTACHARYA
 
 
A BIOGRAPHY OF THE INDIAN NATION, 1947-1997,
By Ranabir Samaddar,
Sage, Rs 495

There has been no dearth of theories about the concept of nationhood in the 20th century. The history of the development of Indian nationhood has traversed devious routes, riddled by discontinuities and paradoxes. The history of Partition has reached us fragmented and mythified, and it remains a major impediment to our understanding of post-Independence history from the perspective of decolonization and of the process of nation-making.

The problematics of India’s post-colonial nationhood comes under scrutiny in Ranabir Samaddar’s A Biography of the Indian Nation, 1947-1997, a kind of sequel to his earlier works on south Asia. Samaddar’s self-professed motivation has been his “intellectual dissatisfaction with current political discussions on nationalism”. He cautiously steers clear of writing a political history of nationhood. Taking his cue from Rousseau’s famous question in The Social Contract — “What makes a people a people?” — Samaddar asks, “What makes a nation a nation?” The answer has not, however, been a straightforward one. Samaddar propounds the “inadequacy” theory of a nation-state which stresses the revisionist aspect of statecraft. The author stresses the theme of “possibility” to show how nationalist discourses reveal “the reality of the impossible” to justify the present.

Another salient feature of nationalism, which Samaddar underscores by quoting from Etienne Balibar’s Masses, Classes and Ideas, is its inner contradictions like class differences and ethnic strifes which it has to constantly negotiate and tussle with to arrive at a nationalist consensus until the “adequacy” of the nation form is re-achieved. The Indian nation is thus not autonomous but heteronomous.

Jacques Derrida’s dictum that “a supplement of nationalism [is] within nationalism itself” is at the heart of Samaddar’s intellectual quest. He proposes to approach the inner supplement from the outside, as a result of which his work deals with the internalities of the nation-form as distinguished from the “externalities” with which his preceding volumes have concerned themselves. The first chapter of the book, “The Birth of a Nation” discusses how the nation was denied “a clean birth” by a “rogue past”. The Partition issue is thus surrounded by a haze.

The second chapter pays attention to the promises of revolution which are concomitant with the genesis of a nation, and which end in passive revolutions through which the nation seeks to achieve completeness. Samaddar starts with Eric Hobsbawm’s view that nationalism is “the child of the dual revolution”, industrialization and Westernization, and goes on to analyse mass politics like the middle-class mobilization of the peasantry, and the youth insurgency and Naxalite movement of Bengal in the Sixties and the early Seventies.

In the rest of his book, Samaddar delves into the dynamics of passive revolution with Bihar in the background, the politicization of the caste-problem and so on. The nation’s twin subjects, the citizens and the aliens, play important roles in defining nationhood and territoriality. Samaddar, drawing upon the autobiographies of Sarala Debi Chaudhurani, Manikuntala Sen and Hena Das, demonstrates the gradual blurring of the distinction between the home and the world. He points out that the civilianization of the militia has become integral to the modern notion of nationhood. Samaddar’s final suggestion is that internecine dialogues be initiated and democratized in order to make them essentially cooperative, productive and pro-active.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ / THE FRENCH CONNECTION 
 
 
BY LAKSHMI SUBRAMANIAN
 
 
A EUROPEAN EXPERIENCE OF THE MUGHAL ORIENT: THE IJAZ-I-ARSALANI OF ANTOINE LOUIS HENRI POLIER
Translated and with an introduction by Muzaffar Alam and Seema Alavi,
Oxford, Rs 750

The tradition of letter writing and correspondence was integral to the medieval Indian world. This has made available a pool of discrete information, impressions and interpolations that modern historians have readily dipped into to construct the world of the Persianized elite of medieval and early modern India. The Calendar of Persian Correspondence, running into volumes, Persian records on Maratha history, letters written from Maratha camps have thus been the staple of historians working on aspects of eighteenth century politics.

Antoine Louis Henri Polier’s letters are both part of the tradition and yet goes far beyond it in that it effectively collapses the text into the context, thanks to a compelling introduction by Muzaffar Alam and Seema Alavi. While attempting to describe a multi-dimensional historical experience it locates at one level a European adventurer in the turbulent world of transition politics of the eighteenth century and details his idiosyncratic engagement with the cultural world of the ruling Indian elite, and questions at another, the familiar inflections of the orientalist construction of India.

A military engineer, architect and collector of oriental manuscripts, Polier entered the service of the English East India Company in Madras, struck up a close friendship with Warren Hastings in Bengal and subsequently made his way to Awadh in the capacity of a senior officer in the survey department of Shuja ud daulah, the nawab of Awadh. He created a niche for himself in Awadh society, accumulating huge fortunes in private trade, striking a very close connection with the nawab and finally succeeding to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in Lucknow, despite his detractors within the English camp.

All along, Polier built up his reputation as the antiquarian gentleman par excellence, collecting manuscripts, commissioning paintings and compiling notes for a book on Hindu mythology. Like other members of the literati, Polier struck connections with notables in local society through letters — the ijaz — written by munshis, of whom Kishan Sahai seems to have been the principal one.

The letters make fascinating reading. For one, these embody Polier’s identification with the local elite as much as they do his empathy with the English connection. The sympathy and loyalty derived from a professional and linguistic commonality. He could speak and write English, called himself an angrezi, and this seems to have been informed not merely by considerations of political exigency.

His engagement with the indigenous literary traditions, his interest in the vibrant book bazaar of northern India, a product of an old Islamic tradition and intellectual legacy was different from British Sanskrit orientalists. It was not driven by the need for good governance — rather it encompassed a wider all-embracing intellectual interest of the Renaissance variety. Polier appeared to show greater sensitivity to the syncretism of the Indo-Islamic experience and did not look at Hindu and Islamic texts as fractured and fragmented categories.

As a Mughal noble, passionately committed to the Persianate way of life, Polier was sensitive to the nuances of contemporary social manner and the cultural signifiers of the Indo- Persian cultural set up. One of the letters addressed to Saiyid Muhammed Azim in Lucknow reveals his fetish for elegance in designing a tent and its interiors which he felt needed “floor mats” (shatranji), “pink and blue in colour and of such sizes that one of them is fit to be spread under the small tent without the poles and the other pair on the floor under the flap”.

His letters to his domestic attendant enquiring after his ailing bibis saw Polier in the role of a devoted and imperious husband; “Clean the house”, he wrote, “[where she moves] and see that the asils attend on her day and night...Take care of her and keep me informed about the daily developments. I was unhappy that you did not write to me about her distress. I warn you that if, God forbid, anything untoward happens you will...”

What kind of orientalism did Polier then represent? For Alam and Alavi, Polier’s writing could be used to correct the current perspectives on orientalism that has been constructed on the basis of European sources. Polier’s orient was a more nuanced domain as his writing was an integral part of the living Indo Islamic intellectual tradition. It stood in marked contrast to both the British Sanskrit orientalists and to the missionaries.

Like Burrow and Gentil, Polier was concerned with the larger historical process that had gone into the making of India’s civilization. His orient was more expansive and his collection more eclectic. What engendered this difference in perspective — whether it was to do with an idiosyncratic individual who enjoyed his bibis and books or whether he with his French counterparts represented a variation in the larger European tradition is something that remains unanswered in the volume.

   

 
 
EDITOR’S CHOICE/ THE LEGACY OF IMPERMANENCE 
 
 
 
 
THE EPHEMERAL MUSEUM: OLD MASTER PAINTINGS AND THE RISE OF THE ART EXHIBITION
By Francis Haskell,
Yale, £ 19.95

The term, Old Master, Francis Haskell tells us in this very provocative book, can be traced back to the the 1770s. By the 1790s, it had become an accepted term and referred to “all those artists who had lived before the French Revolution”.

The Old Master exhibition is a bit of an oddity in the world of art. Such an exhibition “brings together in a clearly defined space works of art that had originally been designed to be seen in wholly different locations.” The first step towards an Old Master exhibition was taken when it became an accepted practice to remove works of art from churches, civic monuments and personal dwellings, for which they had been originally commissioned, and then installed in art galleries and museums. Such installations had the virtue of being permanent. Thus works of art brought into France from Italy as part of Napoleon’s booty found a home in the Louvre or in other galleries.

The Old Master exhibition proceeds to uproot works by an artist or a group of artists and to display them within a museum or a gallery for a period of time. The exhibition is built around works of art which are “on loan”. Again, in the modern world, such an exhibition can move from Paris to London to New York and so on. The Old Master exhibition gifts to works of art a mobility that was absent in their original inspiration. Haskell begins his book with the following dramatic statement: “Miles above us jets speed through the skies carrying their freight of Titians and Poussins, Van Dycks and Goyas.”

The Old Master has important implications for areas far removed from art. Tourism and publishing are obvious examples. But as Haskell points out, such an exhibition has an impact on national, and at times even personal, prestige. Even more intangibly, the ways people look at art and appreciate it are formed by exhibitions of this kind.

It has enormous significance for the study of art history. “The bringing together,” Haskell writes, “from public and private collections scattered across much of the world, of many of the pictures painted by a single artist over the course of his career allows us to scrutinize his development with a rigour that neither he nor his patrons can ever have envisaged: perfunctory drawings and rough sketches can be hung next to highly finished paintings and sculptures so as to reveal successive stages in his creative process.” Through such exhibitions national glory can be propagated, renowned orthodoxies challenged and political causes promoted. The ephemeral is given a semblance of permanence through the catalogue that inevitably accompanies such an exhibition.

There is inherent in Haskell’s analysis a bias against the mounting of gigantic exhibitions which have become so much a part of the modern art world. He traces the history of such exhibitions to show the diverse needs they served, and not all of them were real artistic needs. He emphasizes the dangers involved in moving paintings and art objects across the globe. It is not his case to ban such exhibitions. But he makes us more aware of the nature and purpose of such exhibitions. He contrasts the permanence of art with the transitoriness of the Old Master exhibitions.

The latter have the quality of Cinderella’s ball gown — they exist only for a limited period. The crowds who queue up to see such exhibitions share with Cinderella, Haskell notes, a sense of heightened emotion and observation because, like her, they know the magic is shortlived.

   

 
 
PAPERBACK PICKINGS 
 
 
 
 

War and peace forever

THE KINGDOM OF GOD AND PEACE ESSAYS
by Leo Tolstoy
(Rupa, Rs 195)

The kingdom of God and peace essays by Leo Tolstoy is peculiarly relevant for the times. The translation by Aylmer Maude is easy-flowing, and his brief introduction places the essays in the volume in the context of Tolstoy’s life and times. There is an irony in the relevance of the essays. Based on Tolstoy’s experience of Christian teachings, his passionate belief in non-violence brings into sharp relief the human folly behind the tragedy that has overtaken the world today. The book is a reminder of how differently religious teachings can be used. Through the essays, Tolstoy moves from Christianity to patriotism, from patriotism to government, all of which are issues that have to be debated anew. The greatest irony, though, is that the man who spoke thus so many years ago was as unacceptable to his peers then as a person with similar views would be now.

THE SUCCESS OF INDIA’S DEMOCRACY
edited by Atul Kohli
(Cambridge, Rs 695)

The success of India’s democracy edited by Atul Kohli is a rich collection of essays by scholars of Indian politics which at basis celebrates what India’s experiment with democracy has achieved in the face of gigantic odds. Broadly divided into two main themes, that is, the consolidation and deepening of democracy in relation to political institutions and social demands, the volume opens with Kohli’s introduction and Sumit Sarkar’s discussion of the historical inheritance of Indian democracy.

THE GANGES AND THE SEINE
by Sidney Laman Blanchard
(Rupa, Rs 295)

The Ganges and the Seine by Sidney Laman Blanchard is a whimsical, wry yet reflective account of the British experience in India in the mid-19th century. The second part of the book ranges around the Seine in mid-19th century Paris, the two parts making up a stimulating travelogue in place and time. The interest of the book lies in its combination of anecdote, memory, autobiography, fiction, snatches of assimilated folklore and poetry. What makes it fun to read is the immediacy of the experience of the 1850s and 60s.

BLACK, WHITE AND VARIOUS SHADES OF BROWN
(Penguin, Rs 250)

Black, white and various shades of brown collects the most interesting inputs posted on the sulekha.com site. Some fiction, some rumination, a few confessions, a little reverie — and yet the volume evokes interest as something more than transient. The range of professional fields of the writers is truly impressive. But the generic feature is the remarkable intimacy of the inputs, a quality no doubt induced by the medium.

Dishonoured by History: ‘Criminal Tribes’ and British Colonial Policy, written by Meena Radhakrishna, has been published by Orient Longman and not by Oxford as noted in the review,“Natural born criminals” (Nov 23). The error is regretted. — The editor

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Doubtful bonding

Sir — There is an ominous parallel to be drawn from history for the current Afghanistan peace talks in Bonn. In the same Petersburg Chateau, Adolf Hitler met Neville Chamberlain just before the outbreak of World War II. After that visit, Chamberlain arrived back in Britain famously declaring “peace in our time”. Joscker Fischer, the German foreign minister who welcomed the delegates, echoed Chamberlain when he declared, “I urge you all to forge a truly historic compromise.” Fortunately, this time, Francese Vendrell, the United Nations envoy, has warned the waiting public not to expect too much, a wise note of realism given that Burhanuddin Rabbani, titular head of the Northern Alliance, has chosen to remain in Kabul. Furthermore Rabbani’s comments on the talks have been ambiguous and he no longer appears keen to relinquish his presidency (“Rabbani olive branch to talibs, not taliban” Nov 26). Is he becoming the Hitler of the peace?
Yours faithfully,
Devabrata Dutta, Calcutta

Kingdom in trouble

Sir — Nepal has always been a kingdom apart. Its politics has seldom engaged India’s attention, even its six-year-long conflict with Maoist rebels has attracted only passing comparisons with the Naxalites in West Bengal or the People’s War Group in Andhra Pradesh. Now, with over 150 dead in the past week and the declaration of a state of emergency, we might ask: where has India’s and the world’s attention been during the four months of peace talks in Nepal before the current violence? Of course for the past two months the focus has been on Afghanistan. But wouldn’t Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s recent pledge of assistance and the world’s sudden attention have been more appreciated before September 11 (“Nepal appeals for help, Atal responds” Nov 29)?

The fault in part lies in the Nepalese government’s playing down of the conflict. It has avoided all scrutiny of the monarchy since the massacre of the former king and his relatives. And what better reason for continuing a monarchy than the possibility that the new king might conclude peace with the republican Maoists. The government has also sought to protect the tourist industry.

This attitude on the part of the Nepalese has allowed the Indian government to remain disengaged from a Nepal that appears economically, culturally, racially quite different. One detects the same attitude of New Delhi in its dealings with the Northeast.

Sadly, the precarious ceasefire which held the peace in Nepal for the last few months has only been brought to our attention by its sudden end. And only now, with a Maoist leader telling a BBC correspondent that he has plans to spread the revolution abroad does the Nepalese prime minister choose to contact Vajpayee. One can only imagine both were exchanging apologies for not having talked earlier.

Yours faithfully,
Monica Sen, Calcutta

Sir — Let us hope there are no more security lapses in north Bengal, lest India be accused of too close an involvement in the current conflict in Nepal. Imagine the government’s embarrassment if at upcoming talks in Kathmandu between the Indian prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and the Pakistan president, Pervez Musharraf, Vajpayee accuses Musharraf of harbouring Kashmiri militias and Musharraf retorts that Maoist leaders recently held a meeting in Siliguri, and that a bus with Indian number plates was found packed with explosives (“Nepal alert along border” Nov 27). Of course now the government has tightened border patrols. But Vajpayee must pay more attention to Nepal in the future.

Yours faithfully,
Rohit Nayak, Bhubaneswar

Unexpected visitor

Sir — If the Pakistan president, Pervez Musharraf, is not exactly terrified, he will at least be wondering at the audacity of the former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto (“Delhi sends Benazir reminder to Pervez” Nov 26). Bhutto, an outspoken critic of Musharraf’s military dictatorship has, since September 11, been cautiously supportive of Pakistan’s role in the war on terrorism. But now, with the taliban largely defeated, she has chosen to relaunch her criticism and her political career with the promised 2002 elections approaching. She again attacked Musharraf’s dictatorship and stressed the need for normalization of relationship between India and Pakistan. She made a start by referring to Pakistan occupied Kashmir, and not to Azad Kashmir. And just to ensure controversy she chose India as her stage.

Has Bhutto got the publicity she wished for? Is Atal Bihari Vajpayee happy about granting her an audience? How would Musharraf react to suggestions about deeply unpopular concessions over Kashmir? All we know is that Bhutto always has her own interests at heart.

Yours faithfully,
Eileen Aggarwal, Calcutta

Sir — Benazir Bhutto’s coming to India suggests that she has been added to L.K. Advani’s and Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s list of friends. But is she being a friend to India? Her talk of normalizing our countries’ relations through addressing the Kashmir issue would be believable if it weren’t for the powerplay in the name of democracy.

Yours faithfully,
Sumant Poddar, Calcutta

Breach of trust

Sir — I am a regular passenger of a local train in the Sealdah division. On one particular journey on November 9, I was travelling in the ladies’ compartment, where I usually sit, only to find a few boys had occupied the roof.

They were peeping and shouting though the few uncovered areas of the train roof. You normally see such scenes only in films. We were disturbed but could do nothing. Just before the Titagarh station these boys urinated from two of these open areas into the ladies’ compartment. Whether sitting or standing we were drenched. These boys got down at Titagarh station; I got down at Barrackpore and informed the station master. But there was no general reserve police officer to report how our security had been breached.

Yours faithfully,
K. Paul, Calcutta

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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All letters[including those via email] should have the full name and full postal address of the sender    

 

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