Editorial / The general drops by
World beyond the madrasah
This above all / Delighted with the posting
People / Tushar Gandhi
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL / THE GENERAL DROPS BY 
 
 
 
 
The recent visit of the Pakistan president, Mr Pervez Musharraf, to the United States of America has revealed the limits of the Washington-Islamabad relationship. While the US will remain engaged in Pakistan for the foreseeable future, it is clear that Washington does not seek to replicate the relationship with Islamabad which existed during the Cold War years. On present evidence, therefore, it does seem that New Delhi need not fear the growing ties between the US and its western neighbour. Several aspects of Mr Musharraf’s visit demand attention. Most important, there is clearly a powerful body of opinion in Washington that continues to believe that Mr Musharraf can best serve American interests in the country, and that, at present, there is no viable alternative leader who could be a useful instrument of US policy. The state department — and particularly the secretary of state, Mr Colin Powell — have projected this view most stridently.

The general has given the US unprecedented help in the war against the taliban and al Qaida, and has promised and delivered on key American demands. Indeed, Mr George W. Bush stated emphatically that Pakistan’s support for Operation Enduring Freedom had been critical to its success. The US will, therefore, not articulate policies in the short term that will undermine the military regime. The US support for Mr Musharraf was also revealed by the warm reception that he was accorded in the White House. But if Mr Musharraf’s sincerity comes into doubt or he is seen to be losing control, the US could quickly change its stance. If, for instance, there is proof of the Pakistani establishment’s complicity in the kidnapping of the American journalist, Mr Daniel Pearl, pressure could mount on the Bush administration to review its policy. Washington’s present policy of backing the Pakistani military leader will not translate into a carte blanche for the military regime. Even while Mr Bush promised one billion dollars in debt relief, there were few major concessions offered to Pakistan on key issues. The US may have agreed, for instance, to revive the bilateral defence consultation group, but there was little tangible offered in terms of military hardware.

Indeed, Washington refused to commit itself to delivering the F-16 aircraft that Pakistan had paid for, but were blocked because of the Pressler amendment. The supply of the F-16s would have indicated a major policy shift, and the US’s unwillingness suggests that no such change is in the offing. Similarly, Washington conceded no major trade or economic sops that Pakistan had been demanding. What Mr Musharraf’s visit also demonstrated was that the US will not pursue policies that may destabilize its ties with India, given the long-term strategic value of this relationship.

Even though Mr Musharraf missed no opportunity to harp on the need for US mediation to resolve the Kashmir issue, Mr Bush clearly indicated that, at best, the US could only encourage New Delhi and Islamabad to “come to the table and start to have a meaningful dialogue”. The Bush administration also prudently rejected Mr Musharraf’s absurd assertion that India may have recently conducted another nuclear test. Mr Musharraf may not have returned empty-handed from Washington, but there was more style than substance to the visit.

   

 
 
WORLD BEYOND THE MADRASAH 
 
 
BY SUNANDA K. DATTA-RAY
 
 
The madrasah controversy has brought into the open attitudes and grievances that would not otherwise have seen the light of day. That healthy development should give a further impetus to the dialogue with Muslims to ensure that they not only participate fully in all national activities but are also not denied the opportunities and just rewards of which they now feel cheated. It might even end the Brahminization of the Muslim leadership — to borrow a phrase from scheduled caste dynamics — which ensures that the bulk of the community is forever depressed.

Presumably, what the chief minister meant before he was obliged to deny everything was that some of West Bengal’s unregistered madrasahs — not the 507 affiliated ones — might be in danger of infiltration by extremist elements. This is an understandable fear, and presumably, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee spoke on the basis of intelligence. He should have stuck to his guns, for national security comes before party prospects. Even the maulvis and maulanas at a recent informal discussion organized by Calcutta’s Centre for Peace and Progress agreed that prosecution and punishment would be justified if based on evidence.

The Congress is trying to make capital of Bhattacharjee’s retraction, and some Muslim leaders are emboldened to overlook the distinction that he drew between legitimate and unrecognized madrasahs. They accuse him of trying to destroy the faith by abolishing the entire system of Islamic education. This is a canard. No one says all guest houses are terrorist dens because Peshawar’s Baitul’ansar guest house accommodated al Qaida activists. Just as gurdwaras, churches, temples and shakhas have in the past been converted to political purposes, so can madrasahs. The chief minister spoke in the context of the events of September 11 in New York and Washington, December 13 in New Delhi and January 22 in Calcutta. Related or not, the three incidents are milestones along a path of criminality in which the subversion of education plays a conspicuous part.

By 1988, Pakistan had 8,000 registered madrasahs and 25,000 unregistered ones run by semi-educated mullahs which provided the only avenue for poor Pakistani and Afghan refugee boys to receive a smattering of education. Though claiming descent from the Deobandi school, these seminaries which fathered the Students of Islamic Knowledge or the taliban, were far removed from the original reformist agenda of the first school that Rashid Ahmed Gangohi founded at Deoband near New Delhi.

To denounce them is certainly not to criticize the madrasah system or the Deobandi aim of creating a new generation of scholars to revive Islamic values based on learning, spiritual experience, shariah law and the tariqah. It must also be acknowledged that while Pakistani seminaries demonstrated how easily religion can be perverted in impoverished societies where the state is not up to discharging its social responsibilities, this perversion was facilitated by the superpower strategy in which Pakistan was a pawn, albeit a willing one.

The example of Singapore with its 100 per cent literacy is more apposite. Lee Kuan Yew vowed that he would not make education compulsory and squander energy and resources on tracking down errant children and prosecuting their parents. Instead, he would create a meritocracy that established education as the basis of advancement, while also making it easy for every family to send its children to school. Last year, however, Singapore had to make schooling mandatory to check the drift of Malay Muslims, who comprise 12 per cent of the population, to madrasahs.

Muslims already lag behind Singapore’s majority Chinese. The educational and economic gap will increase if they reject normal schooling. Apart from the danger of ethnic strife, the authorities fear that a militant group like southeast Asia’s Jemaah Islamiah, which is already accused of plotting to bomb various targets, would fish in the troubled waters of disparity. But Singapore offers the alternative of first-class, virtually free schools within easy reach of every household. Muslims cannot, therefore, complain of being deprived. Nor can they say that their religion is being suppressed for they are free to attend religious classes after school or on holidays.

According to Maulana Ainul Bari, a Calcutta madrasah lecturer, this would not work with Indian Muslims whose religious instruction cannot be confined to an Islamic equivalent of the Christian Sunday school. Because Allah’s name is the very first word that a child must be taught to utter and because he must also be able to recite the Quranic suras by heart, Muslims will stick to a madrasah-only policy, no matter how many good schools are open to them.

When it was suggested that such an overpowering religious commitment conflicts with our secular ideal, Bari and others drew a distinction between state and samaj, arguing that the Constitution sanctions robust personal faith within a secular official framework. True enough, but, as Rajendra Prasad demonstrated, men and women who are steeped in religion in their private lives are bound to project that thinking into public conduct. State-samaj anomalies prompted Syed Shahabuddin to object to official rites like lighting an oil lamp or breaking a coconut.

I should also imagine that despite orthodox protestations, madrasahs are not the choice of educated, well-placed and well-off Muslim parents who want their sons to do well in the globalized world. The registers of the best Anglo-Indian and English-medium schools would confirm that richer Muslims have no hesitation about sending their sons to them. Similarly, an examination of madrasah attendance is bound to reveal that most of the boys are from poorer village and bustee homes. They would have remained illiterate if the madrasah had not catered to their needs. The clerics who argue that madrasah education is essential to keep Islam alive probably make a virtue of necessity

In that sense, madrasahs perform a social service. But how far does it go? Though the syllabus was described as “modern, contemporary and temporal”, the demand for steps to enable madrasah boys to “compete with mainstream students in secondary examinations and at the college and university levels” indicates that the standard is not satisfactory, though communal discrimination may also play some part in excluding these boys from places of higher learning. Inadequate funding, politicization, the absence of teaching props and facilities, and teachers without proper training or commitment are common drawbacks in the entire state sector in education, but are probably accentuated in minority institutions.

Defendants say that only the 103 schools in the senior madrasah system concentrate on Islamic studies. The 404 schools (classes 5 to 10) in the higher madrasah system follow the secondary board syllabus. They have gradually diluted the curriculum’s Islamic content and admit Hindu students in substantial numbers. I have not seen a figure for the number of unofficial madrasahs — if any — in West Bengal. Nor any substantiated allegations of clandestine financing. Bari and his colleagues are justified in demanding proof before the teaching institutions in their care are tarred with the terrorist brush. They would also have been justified in claiming that while poor standards reflect on society as a whole, they are no proof of a subversive orientation.

Perhaps the most encouraging feature of the meeting was the acceptance of responsibility by community leaders to “ensure resistance through different means such as awareness programmes, seminars, campaigns, etc.,” if the government provides proof and the names of Muslims involved in anti-national activities. The discourse is not just about the role of madrasahs but also of what they might symbolize in terms of Muslim isolation and alienation. It is also of nationwide application.

Two weeks ago these columns suggested that the solution could ultimately come from only “minority legislators, officials and professionals who have as little truck with the world of Asif Reza as any Hindu bhadralok”. Justice Shamsuddin Ahmed was, therefore, a welcome participant at the Centre for Peace and Progress meeting but many more Muslims like him need to involve themselves in healing their community’s wounds and bridging the gulf between majority and minority.

   

 
 
THIS ABOVE ALL / DELIGHTED WITH THE POSTING 
 
 
BY KHUSHWANT SINGH
 
 
My opinion of the Indian postal services rocketed sky-high ten years or so ago when an irate Canadian Khalistani wrote me a very abusive letter in Gurmukhi with the address in English which read: “To bastard Khushwant Singh, India”. It was delivered to me within a week of its despatch from Canada. I can’t think of another country in the world where the postal service would have bothered to locate an individual with so unsavory reputation to discharge its duty.

We’ve had postal services of some kind or the other from times beyond memory. Every ruler employed dak runners to carry information to-and-fro from the outposts of his kingdom to the palace. At later stages people trained pigeons to carry messages tied to their legs. It was during British rule that postal services were linked to the police. A regular police force was set up in 1829; the first Indian postage stamp issued in 1840. To start with post offices were located in the same buildings as police stations. Then postal-services outstripped the police and had to have large buildings like General Post Offices to handle mail, telegrams, money orders, fixed deposits etc. Now postal services are on the decline. People use telephones, courier services, email and fax. In the near future post offices may become a relic of the past.

The story of our postal services and their close collaboration with the police needs to be put on record. They could not have found a better authority than S. Kitson, now living a retired life in Calcutta, to do so. The outcome is a handsomely produced coffee-tabler: A Philatelic Tribute to Police of India & the Sub-Continent. Six names appear on the editorial board. I could recognize one, Rajbir Deswal, IPS, Haryana cadre. He has written several books on Haryanvi humour. I am pretty certain most of the donkey-work in producing the profusely illustrated book of the police-post office liaison has been done by him.

Sounding out Goa

Goa could become the world’s most sought after holiday resort if the local administration and politicians stopped imposing their puritanical views and meddling with the ways people like to enjoy themselves. Perhaps the only justified restriction would be to tell visitors to surrender their watches for safe-keeping at the airport, railway stations and bus terminals, to be returned when they leave. They should also be advised not to bother with newspapers or watch news on TV. In Goa nature should be the time-keeper. Sleep when sleep overtakes you; rise when your body tells you that you’ve had enough rest. Drink when you are thirsty (coconut juice, feni, beer, or whatever you fancy), eat when you are hungry. Wear as little as you can to expose your body to the sun and the exhilarating sea breeze. If you wish to go naked, wear nothing while you stride the sea-beaches or lie in the warm sand. This is the kind of paradise god created when he put Adam and Eve in it – the Garden of Eden which had no evil in it except the tree of so-called knowledge. Our present-day politicians were represented by the serpent who tempted them to eat the forbidden fruit. No sooner than they did so, then they were overcome by shame of their nakedness and tried to hide their genitals behind fig leaves and were thrown out of paradise. God created Goa. Satan created serpent politicians. They should be sent to hell and let Goa again became god’s chosen country.

To enjoy Goa you have to cultivate a sense of belonging. This is best done by returning to the same place and by being on first name terms with locals. For me Goa is Bogmalo, the same hotel year after year and the D’Cruz family which owns the Sea Cuisine. I got to know them 15 years ago through Sally D’Cruz who was a masseuse in the health club of the Beach Resort. Sally married a Scotsman and migrated to the United Kingdom. I continued visiting the D’Cruz family. Sally kept sending me her news. She is now the mother of two girls. Her younger sister, Tekla, helps her brother, Dominic, to run the restaurant. I had not intended calling on them this time, but Sally rang up her family and told them she had tried to get me in Delhi and heard I was in Bogmalo. Tekla rang me up, came over to fetch me in her car, and took me across to meet her parents and brother. There was much embracing. I spent two evenings at the Sea Cuisine. It was like a family reunion. Tekla plans to get married to a local boy in March at the Bogmalo church, St Cosme a Damioa. They will have a reception for over 500 guests, drinking, dancing and making whoopee. I won’t be there but my spirits will be.

Watching people coming and going in the hotel lobby can be a game like patience played by yourself against yourself. Guess what nationality they are, what they do; whether or not a young couple are man and wife or live-in-friends. And that sort of thing. They come in groups. Brits, Germans, Australians, non-resident Indians from the United States of America, Canada and east Africa. Occasionally there are Indians from India. A sort of colour division takes place at the bathing pool and the beach. Browns open umbrellas to shade themselves from the sun. Whites strip themselves, run oil on their bodies and expose themselves to the hot tropical sun. Girls, both brown and white, with shapely bodies, stroll around with an air of casualness, aware of men ogling them. An old Indian recognizes me by my unkempt appearance and asks me if I am who they think I am. I am flattered. Pratibha Nandakumar, Kannada poet-novelist from Bangalore, breezes in and gives me a warm embrace. The lady receptionist asks me if she is my granddaughter. My ego is deflated.

On Monday the pool side appears to be reserved for women. The men are in the lounge glued to the TV watching the India versus England cricket match being played in Cuttack. They don’t budge from their seats till 5 pm when the last Indian wicket falls. England wins by 12 runs to level the one-day series. The Brits have reason to celebrate their victory. But the wily Indians rob them of their joy. A notice is put up on the bar: “Dry Day”.

A thing that has intrigued me about Goan place names is the profusion of the letter “M”. To start with the capital Panjim. Then there are: Bambolim, Navelim, Mandrem, Batim, Corambolim, Cortalim, Tivim, Ambelim, Camurlim, Loutolim, Betalbatim, Chicalem, Mencurem, Collem, Mollem. These are random pickings from village panchayat elections of one day. I could add dozens of others. Are these derived from the Portuguese occupation of this region, or are they of Konkanese origin? I hope some Goan scholar will enlighten me.

Something new to me about Goa is the increase in belief in the occult. There always was a certain amount of faith in prescribed Christian mantras, to be repeated nine times a day to cure sickness. But I had not come across Muslim tantrics practicing the trade. The Navhind Times regularly carries the ads of Baba Chandsa Bangali, and longer ones by Baba Aman Shah Bengali, claiming to have rohani ilm (spiritual knowledge), that is, tantra, mantra and yantra. They guarantee the cure of ailments, whether physical, emotional, matrimonial, or related to business. For Bhoot-pret (ghosts-spirits) and jaadu-tona (magic-sorcery), Baba Aman Shah requires you to bring two limes with you to each consultation. The fact that he can afford to put an ad in The Navhind Times regularly is proof enough that he is doing well. In addition, he runs a nimboo-pani stall at great profit.

   

 
 
PEOPLE / TUSHAR GANDHI 
 
 
 
 

Game of the name

Think Mahatma Gandhi –– think frail, half-clad, clever old man. Now think Mahatma Gandhi’s family –– and you can’t help but picture a whole bunch of equally frail, bent-over clever people of indeterminate age. Unfortunately, Tushar Gandhi, the Mahatma’s 38-year-old great grandson, is far from frail or bent-over. He is clever though, judging from the smart way he has quickly disentangled himself from a deal with US-based CMG Worldwide on the branding of the Mahatma’s name. A deal that was threatening to get hopelessly sticky.

“First I’d like to clarify that it wasn’t a ‘deal’, it was an arrangement with CMG,” says Tushar, who is in the middle of some rushed last-minute campaigning for a friend who is standing for elections as an independent candidate in Allahabad. The arrangement, or deal, would have put Mahatma Gandhi alongside Marilyn Monroe and Ginger Rogers in the CMG hall of fame, and would have also ensured that the company got a percentage whenever the Mahatma’s name was used to endorse a product. “The company had sent me a format (for my permission to use the name) for a credit card company’s commercial. I added a paragraph, saying that it was a provisional permission and would be finalised only if I was satisfied with the final commercial. Which meant that I should be convinced that it was not showing Bapuji in a negative light,” explains Tushar, adding that it was an arrangement for “a one time permission only .”

But even before the details of the arrangement got ironed out, he revoked the whole thing. “I had to...because too many Gandhians had got into the fray and were saying all sorts of unsavoury things. I have grown up respecting these people, so I couldn’t get into this kind of a mess with them.” The ‘unsavoury things’ obviously included allegations that Tushar would be making money from the Mahatma’s name. In his defence, Tushar says the money promised to him by CMG would have been used to renovate Kasturba Gandhi’s estate and for some other welfare work in Gujarat.

Obviously the explanation did not satisfy other Gandhians. And as a result of all the wheeling-and-dealing and pulling out of the wheeling-and-dealing, this Gandhi reached his favourite place again –– newspaper headlines.

He first got into the newspaper headlines when he sued STAR TV’s Nikki Tonight over gay rights activist Ashok Row Kavi’s now famous description of the Mahatma, not as Father of the Nation. He called him a baniya — which he was — but added that as a prefix to a word that expressed doubts about his parents’ legal status — which was never in question. With more than 54 descendants of the Mahatma around, Tushar Gandhi owes his instant recall value to the Nikki Tonight show. Something that he happily acknowledges even today. “I was lost in obscurity before that,” says Tushar as he remembers the furore the 1995 case caused.

Through the years he has remained a close though a little irregular –– friend of the headlines. “I keep doing something or the other which is what keeps me in the news....and I think that’s where the CMG people also found me ... in the newspapers!” he says explaining how he continues to be the most famous of the Mahatma’s descendants.

Two years after the STAR TV case, he made a well-publicised trip to Allahabad to scatter some long-forgotten ashes of the Mahatma into the Ganga. Along with documenting his ‘chance’ discovery of the ashes, triggered by a newspaper report, Tushar Gandhi also used the occasion to hit out at the “vitiated political atmosphere” in the country. In an attempt to do his bit to clean up that atmosphere, Tushar has been dabbling in politics for a while now. In 1999, he was expelled from the Mumbai unit of the Samajwadi Party for a period of six years for his criticism of party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav. The expulsion didn’t deter him, and he joined the Congress soon after.

“I have always been interested in politics...I think it has to do with my family background,” he says. Growing up in a regular middle class family in Mumbai, he feels his well-travelled parents made life at home “a little bit less like a typical Indian family of my time... we were a bit more liberal than normal Indian families.”

From politics he has graduated to his present avtaar as an extremely net-savvy graphic designer. And if Tushar Gandhi is blazing a trail on the internet, can the Mahatma be far behind? Not for very long at any rate. Along with offering penitent hackers jobs and waging patriotic war for the use of ‘dot. in’ as opposed to dotcom or org, Tushar has also begun work on creating a site to host, what he calls the ‘largest amount of archival material on Bapuji on the internet.” As head of the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation in Mumbai, Tushar has access to some of the resources, for his website which currently has over 250,000 pages of text and some five hours of audio and video on Mahatma Gandhi. Conceptualised over three years ago, some of the people Tushar roped in were NRI Indus Entrepreneurs boss Kanwal Rekhi and software guru Vijay Mukhi.

And when he isn’t working on Bapuji’s electronic archives, or trying to sell the Mahatma as a brand name, how faithful is Tushar Gandhi to his Muse in his everyday life? “I am very proud of my heritage...and I don’t see my name as a handicap in any sense.” That doesn’t mean Tushar has chosen to live the life of an ascetic. “People expect all sorts of things because of my name... but I just live a very normal life, on my own terms.” And his terms include a well turned-out apartment in Mumbai’s upscale Santa Cruz area.

“Look at it this way actually...” he says “I am a sort of Gandhi in jeans.” Give or take a couple of kilos.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Trial and error in times of war

Sir — The ongoing trial of Slobodan Milosevic will come a close second to the Nuremberg trials in future history books (“Milosevic’s epic trial opens at The Hague”, Feb 12). Milosevic is being tried for war crimes ranging from genocide to atrocities committed on women and children in erstwhile Yugoslavia. His claim that the trial is a conspiracy hatched by the West does not hold ground since the jury comprises of three international lawyers. However, it is true that war crimes by powerful nations go unnoticed, mainly because the world is yet to come to an agreement on what constitutes “war crimes”. Will the Afghans get an opportunity to put the United States of America on trial some day?

Yours faithfully,
Santanu Kar, Calcutta

Cop out

Sir — It is clear that our police force need more than just sophisticated weapons (“Arms are not enough”, Feb 12).The stereotypical image of the corrupt and lackadaisical policeman has shorn the police force of the respect they should elicit. While rigorous physical training and mental conditioning is the need of the day, the people’s faith in the police also needs a boost.

The police should strive to improve their public relations. Greater coordination between the police and the people will ensure efficiency in busting crime. The cops also need regular counselling to work better in an increasingly tense atmosphere. The security failure during the recent American Center attack highlights the fact that the police need to be ahead of the criminal.

Yours faithfully,
Sandhya Sreekumar, Calcutta

Sir — The West Bengal government’s decision to equip the lathi-wielding police force with the latest combat gizmos is a step in the right direction (“Arms course for city cops”, Feb 10). Can Calcuttans hope to feel safer now than before? Will policemen wielding AK-47s and self-loading rifles do the rounds now or is it going to be the same old story? The state government does need to be congratulated for taking the initiative after the the Centre refused to send additional Central reserve police force companies to Calcutta and adjoining areas.

Yours faithfully,
Bijoy Ranjan Dey, Tinsukia

Sir — The world has changed after September 11, 2001. War against terrorism is no longer restricted to a country or a city.

The Calcutta policemen have long been used to fighting criminals armed with pipe guns and hand-made bombs. But the adversaries have become tougher and more dangerous, as they found out to their cost on January 22.

True, the casualties may have been avoided had the state and Central governments taken greater note of the events of the recent past. The Centre must understand that while it is important to defend the country externally, funds need to be allocated for internal security too. Terrorists are not known to distinguish between the army and the police when they attack.

The difficulties of training existing policemen all over again can be appreciated, but there should be no problems in training the new recruits. The procedure must involve both physical and mental training. There are other questions too. What happens, for instance, to the old arms and ammunition when new ones are procured? Or those that are seized from the terrorists every now and then?

It is time for the army and the police to work in tandem. Sharing intelligence information and training will stand them both in good stead by improving understanding between them.

Yours faithfully,
N.R. Venkateswaran, Calcutta

Parting shot

Sir — In my review of David Davidar’s The House of Blue Mangoes (“Mapping the mango terrain”, Feb 15), I described John Milton’s Adam and Eve making their way out of “heaven”. But they actually leave the Garden of Eden at the end of Paradise Lost. I regret the error.

Yours faithfully,
Aveek Sen, Calcutta

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