Editorial 1/ Vale of hope
Editorial 2 / To little avail
Scandalous in effect
Book Review / The emperor’s men
Book Review / With murderous intent
Book Review / Speaking in two tongues
Book Review / Ground realities
Editor’s Choice / A scholar and a Russian doll
Paperback Pickings
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1/ VALE OF HOPE 
 
 
 
 
There are fresh signs that the Central government may be willing to articulate a new initiative on Jammu and Kashmir. The prime minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, provided the clearest indication that New Delhi is thinking along these lines. Mr Vajpayee indicated, in the Lok Sabha, that he would visit the state after the budget session of Parliament, along with the Union home minister, Mr L.K. Advani and the defence minister, Mr George Fernandes. The prime minister further stated that he and his ministerial colleagues would meet a wide spectrum of people and make an assessment of the situation in the state. He also reiterated that the forthcoming elections to the Jammu and Kashmir assembly would be free and fair. It is clear that the elections to the state, which have to be held before October, provide a huge window of opportunity. If the aim of the government is to ensure the widest possible participation, then it must use the next six months to reach out to the Kashmiri people. Most important, the Centre must make a determined effort to initiate a substantive political dialogue in Kashmir. A dialogue between the Centre and the Kashmiris should be as inclusive as possible, and no group or individual must be considered untouchable. Nor should any conditions be attached at the beginning of a dialogue. It is quite obvious that any negotiations the Centre conducts can in no way compromise the unity and integrity of India. Even separatists realize this, but any explicit conditionalities make it difficult for many to make the initial leap from the streets to the negotiating table.

Equally, the Centre must promote an all-party debate on a package of autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir. It is often not realized that autonomy is synonymous with devolution or decentralization of power. The demand for greater decentralization has been part of the charter of virtually every Indian political party at one time or another. Indeed, it is not difficult to strike a harmonious balance between the need to integrate Jammu and Kashmir within the national mainstream, and the state’s demand for autonomous self-governance. Clearly, one of the most important gestures of goodwill and confidence-building would be to significantly reduce the presence of the armed forces in the state. This, of course, can only happen once Mr Pervez Musharraf’s stated intention to stop training terrorists translates into reality. It is also vital that the forthcoming polls are free and fair and are seen to be so.

Ultimately, however, there must be a realization that Kashmir is unique, and must be dealt with specially. This uniqueness is obvious for a variety of historical reasons, but Jammu and Kashmir’s singular importance to the very idea of India is often forgotten. A Muslim majority state that voluntarily acceded to India in 1947 lent tremendous strength to the construction of India as a vibrant, secular and pluralistic state. The battle, therefore, to win back the hearts of the Kashmiri people is critical not just for the recovery of the ideals that inspired Indian nationhood, but central to the war against obscurantism and fundamentalism.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2 / TO LITTLE AVAIL 
 
 
 
 
What the Commonwealth thinks of Zimbabwe is perhaps less important than what has been actually happening in the country since the elections. The Commonwealth has observed and acted on what it has seen. But its decision to suspend Zimbabwe for 12 months has so far failed to stall the downward slide of this deeply scarred polity. It is the high-minded intention of the Commonwealth to prevent the violation of democracy, ironically enshrined in the Harare declaration of the early Nineties. However, there is shipwreck everywhere in Zimbabwe, pointing up the ultimate ineffectuality of such symbolic suspensions. (A similar judgment had been pronounced on Pakistan, to little avail.) If anything, Mr Robert Mugabe’s electoral victory has freshly empowered him to retaliate with a move which is far from symbolic. The leader of the opposition, Mr Morgan Tsvangirai, has been charged with high treason, together with another member of his Movement for Democratic Change. Land-related racial violence shows no sign of abatement. To top it all, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions has also decided to actively join the fray with strikes and closures.

Apart from observing and suspending, the Commonwealth can do very little about all this. Mr Mugabe’s African neighbours and observers — the presidents of South Africa and Nigeria — who do have more political and economic leverage over Zimbabwe, have also fallen in, more or less, with the Commonwealth’s point of view in seriously questioning the credibility of the electoral process. This makes the suspension look less colonial than it would have if only Britain had pushed it through, with the support of Australia and New Zealand. But the validity of the observation process itself has not gone entirely unquestioned. The Commonwealth’s public condemnation of Zimbabwean polity was presented to the international media by the Nigerian general, Mr Abdulsalam Abubakar, whose electoral reputation in the late Nineties is far from impeccable. The head of the Norwegian observers, Mr Kare Vollan, had also observed the Ukrainian parliamentary elections of 1998. He had passed them, in spite of having found violence and intimidation during the run-up. Observing the dismantling of democracy is not the same as putting it together again.

   

 
 
SCANDALOUS IN EFFECT 
 
 
BY N.R. MADHAVA MENON
 
 
Arundhati Roy’s punishment for the scandalizing remarks she deliberately made against the courts in general and the Supreme Court in particular for the temerity shown in issuing a notice against her for the alleged demonstration outside the court has led to wide-ranging debates on the nature and scope of contempt power itself. This is to be welcomed. This writer wrote an article long ago defending the right of Narmada Bachao Andolan activists to protest against the court verdict, criticize its reasoning (without attributing motives) and take such other action within and outside the court which a liberal democratic constitution would permit its citizens. The plea made at the time was to drop the contempt notice as the facts of the case did not warrant such an action and to suggest that the approach should be not to exercise the contempt power except in extreme cases of deliberate scandalizing and disparaging of the institution itself.

After a careful reading of the actions and omissions deliberate and otherwise of Arundhati Roy, in the context in which they happened, I would argue that she did commit such an act in the latter case and deserved the punishment she received. I would further add that while it is welcome to have a debate on how the contempt jurisdiction can be circumscribed to balance freedom with the independence of the judiciary, Roy’s case is an inappropriate example of projecting where the court erred in the exercise of that power. The media’s taking the contrary position in defence of the author, however well-intentioned, is likely to boomerang, resulting in that very protector of freedom being incapacitated in doing what it is intended to do. The consequence can be terrible to both freedom and democracy.

Admittedly, freedom of expression in general and freedom of the press (media) in particular are at the core of civil liberties and deserve to be protected at all costs for the sake of democracy and human rights. Nonetheless, for preserving that freedom in the long run and that too for all citizens with differing points of view, the Constitution itself has prescribed certain limits and directed the high courts and the Supreme Court to review and decide violations if and when brought before them. The grounds on which such restrictions may be put on freedom include public order, decency, contempt of court and incitement to an offence and so on. The Contempt of Courts Act is a law which explains the parameters of such restrictions on freedom which are found necessary for protecting freedom itself. The Indian Supreme Court is the highest court of the land and its decisions or law declared by it (even if wrong or unjust in the perspective of some sections) are binding on all concerned who are supposed to respect its authority in finally deciding on contentious issues including contempt.

It is this constitutional scheme which enables rule of law to survive and democracy to function. Without that people are left only with the political processes to enforce the collective will which may not necessarily be according to the Constitution as the recent Jayalalithaa judgment had demonstrated. As such, before analysing public reactions to Roy’s punishment, it is necessary to clarify, admit certain propositions of constitutional law in relation to human rights (including freedom) and judicial supremacy in interpreting the Constitution.

It is sad that knowledgeable people including newspaper editors and a section of activists assail the highest court as intolerant, biased, tyrannical and so on without realizing that in the process they are bringing down the public esteem and credibility of an institution on which the future of freedom and democracy is heavily dependent. This is partly because of a lack of understanding or superficial appreciation of the role of courts under the scheme of the Constitution.

Is not the Supreme Court the final arbiter of all disputes and its judgments binding on all authorities, even if they are “wrong” or “unfair” in the perception of even the majority of people? While free speech allows criticism of judgments, should it not be restricted to disallow attributing motives to judges for their decision or characterizing the institution as irresponsible, corrupt and intolerant? If it is not so restricted would the judges be able to decide without fear of favour? Why is it that the Constitution itself restricted freedom of speech on the basis of contempt of court if it is not intended to be exercised whenever a judge feels that the court’s dignity or authority is scandalized? If the contempt jurisdiction is withdrawn what will be the impact on judicial authority and independence? On balance, does the small percentage of cases where the Supreme Court has punished individuals for what may arguably not be “scandalizing of court” on the facts of those cases erode freedom of speech to such an extent that it results in “judicial tyranny” as contended? Should those sections of the media which claim to be the custodians of freedom sit in judgment of judges in the performance of their judicial functions?

It is possible to make common people understand why criticism of judiciary should be restrained; but it is difficult to reason with those who know the issues and reasons but pretend to be otherwise in their public postures. The state and the political class will be happier if the court loses its credibility and independence; the people will ultimately be the losers in this game of assault on the judiciary in the name of unrestricted freedom of the press.

Yes, there are some deviations from accepted notions of fair trial in proceedings related to criminal contempt of scandalizing the judiciary. First, what constitutes scandalizing is not precisely defined. How can it be so defined except by saying that the alleged action should, in the opinion of the court, have a tendency to bring down the judiciary in public esteem? This has to be a subjective judgment on the facts of each case. The safeguard one can seek against arbitrariness in this regard is in an appeal to a higher court which is possible in all courts below the Supreme Court.

But so far as the apex court is concerned it should be vested in the judges of the Supreme Court only. At least the people should have faith in the wisdom and fairness of the 26 judges of the Supreme Court in whose charge much bigger responsibilities are vested by the Constitution. Even here there are precedents by which the power is circumscribed and streamlined. Judges in the Supreme Court have themselves written to say that the court has broad enough shoulders not to react to every unwelcome criticism and to be selective in exercising the contempt jurisdiction. Of course, in contempt proceedings on a superficial view of the matter, the judge is both the prosecutor and the judge. But in reality it is not so. In contempt of court, the prosecutor is really speaking not to the individual judge but the public at large whose interests are supposed to be protected by courts functioning with due authority and independence. It is the same logic by which the freedom of press is protected not so much to protect the rights of editors and journalists but the public’s right to information or right to know. Therefore, contempt proceedings are qualitatively different from other criminal proceedings and are based on higher constitutional principles. To say that courts are judges in their own cause is travesty of truth. To argue that judges could have filed defamation proceedings like ordinary citizens for alleged contempt is, to say the least, mischievous and destructive of freedom itself.

Coming to the facts in Roy’s case, any discerning observer can make out a premeditated plan on her part to challenge the authority of the court and attribute motives to it for what she believed to be a wrong judgment in the Narmada dam matter. She is entitled to her opinion and everyone has a duty to respect her right to assert it through demonstrations or otherwise. But how come she could not accept the jurisdiction of the court which took cognizance of what she believes to be a frivolous contempt petition by some lawyers about her alleged behaviour outside the Supreme Court? Since the court dropped the proceedings and admonished the petitioners on finding the facts, the matter should have ended there.

But here is Roy who challenged the wisdom of the Supreme Court in questioning the celebrated Booker Prize winner (by issuing the contempt notice) for what she wrote in her beautiful prose full of sarcasm and innuendoes disparaging the authority of the apex court. Yes, the court could have ignored it, dismissing it with the contempt it deserved. But this is a matter of subjective judgment and the judges who took it as scandalizing have not violated any law or acted arbitrarily. In sticking to her remarks and ridiculing judicial attitude in the matter, she did invite, probably intentionally, the action and the punishment. In doing so, she did a disservice to the cause of freedom which she was ostensibly expounding and displayed an element of arrogance which deserved to be condemned outside the judiciary as well.

Finally, it is not anybody’s brief that the judiciary needs to be protected against criticism or that judges need not be accountable or that unrestrained contempt jurisdiction be allowed. Criticism of judgments is not only necessary but needs to be promoted, if it is informed, fair and responsible. However, the limits of such criticism have to be necessarily admitted and judgment in this regard will have to depend on the final analysis on the Supreme Court itself.

Accountability of judges is a matter of increasing concern and apart from inhouse mechanisms, Parliament needs to consider legal mechanisms outside impeachment to extract accountability from judges in superior courts. Public criticism of individual judges or judgments through media in a manner questioning their independence is not a constitutionally permissible method of extracting accountability. Again, the contempt law must be revised to narrow the scope of the jurisdiction and to allow truth as a justifiable defence at least under specified circumstances. If Roy’s conviction could clarify the importance of contempt law and lead to desirable changes in balancing the interests of freedom of expression and judicial independence it would have served some public purpose.

The author is vice-chancellor, West Bengal University of Juridical Sciences, Calcutta

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / THE EMPEROR’S MEN 
 
 
BY LAKSHMI SUBRAMANIAN
 
 
NOBILITY UNDER THE MUGHALS (1628-1658)
By Firdos Anwar,
Manohar, Rs 600

The centrality of the Mughal nobility in the working of the Mughal imperial system and in its eventual dissolution is well known. Much of the existing historiography on the subject has tended to concentrate on the welding of the nobility as a class under Akbar and on its disintegration under Aurangzeb in the late 17th century. The roots of disintegration are occasionally, even if obliquely, traced to the developments during the reign of Shah Jahan, who presided over the empire at the height of its glory. It is Firdos Anwar’s contention that the workings and organization of the nobility in Shah Jahan’s reign have remained relatively under-explored and it is this gap that his work purports to redress.

The Mughal nobility was given its definitive configurations by Akbar who organized the dominant landed elements of the realm — zamindars as well as his nobles — into an official class with specific responsibilities assigned to their rank. He classified the nobles into grades that reflected the number of sawars (military contingents) to be maintained by them, the lowest rank being 10 and the highest 5000. Those holding mansabs of 1000 and above were classified as amirs. Anwar focuses on the upper echelons of the class. Arguing against the conventional wisdom of the inherent contradictions in the Crown-nobility relationship, he contends that the nobility extended unequivocal support to the Crown through various crises during the reign of Shah Jahan. He also suggests that the emperor was circumspect in his treatment of the nobility and guided entirely by considerations of practical necessity rather than by the need to reposition them in relation to the Crown. The fluctuations in the number of nobles, and in the ranks they enjoyed have, therefore, to be located in the context of changing social and economic conditions.

Anwar divides the reign of Shah Jahan into three phases: 1628-36, 1637-41 and 1642-5.The strength and status of the nobility, numerically as well as economically, in each of these phases fluctuated in accordance with the immediate economic and political developments. The emperor did not expand or reduce the size of his nobility arbitrarily — instead he aligned it with the immediate political and military reality.

Anwar also looks at the working and reworking of the mansab system by Shah Jahan to explain the shifts in the relationship between the Crown and the nobility. Following Athar Ali’s work, it has been commonplace to assume that Shah Jahan was under financial pressure and consequently enhanced the sawar mansab without endorsing a corresponding increase of the the zat mansab, This changed dramatically when in the last decade the zat was enhanced partly to enlist greater support for factional purposes. Anwar takes a different position and suggests that the emperor was fully cognisant of his financial situation and preferred to give more promotions in sawar than in zat ranks. For the greater part of his reign, he adopted a policy of compromise and conciliation.

But did the policy yield dividends? Anwar’s point about the sagacity and sensitivity of the Crown in regulating the nobility in response to the immediate requirements of governance is well taken. The second element in his argument that the nobility remained consistently committed to the Imperial cause is not as well articulated. Anwar admits that Shah Jahan could not successfully find a stable equilibrium between interdependence and contradiction of the nobility and the Crown and that his reforms provided only a temporary solution to a deep-seated problem. The reforms of 1642 created alienation and resentment among the nobility for the reduction of contingents implied a cut in its power. We are thus left with the familiar impression of an inherent structural contradiction in the organization of the mansabdari system, one that corroded the basis of the system under the last of the great Mughals.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / WITH MURDEROUS INTENT 
 
 
BY BHASWATI CHAKRAVORTY
 
 
AIDING AND ABETTING
By Muriel Spark,
Viking, £ 12.99

The title Muriel Spark has given the story is as disturbing as that of the earlier novel, Loitering with Intent. Every relationship in this new, grim comedy, from the most casual to the acutely necessary, fits into a pattern of aiding and abetting. But the insidious mesh of conscious abetting that holds the narrative together is only sporadically visible. Taking up much of the space, instead, are the endless speculations of different characters about the reasons which prompted the friends of the seventh earl of Lucan to spirit him away on the night he was supposed to have mistakenly murdered his children’s nurse in an attempt to murder his wife. He did have a go at his wife, but she managed to escape and then accuse him. Yet the characters who speculate on the motives of Lucan’s friends are themselves in cahoots with one another, whether they realize it or not.

Lucan is the “known” criminal, on the run since the gory event twenty-five years before the beginning of the novel. The action begins with his visit to the famous psychiatrist, Dr Hildegard Wolf, in her fashionable chamber in Paris. She already has another patient, Walker, who claims to be Lucan. This more obvious identity puzzle is accompanied by another identity trick. Wolf herself has a past steeped in blood. As a student, she simulated stigmata with her menstrual blood in order to defraud the gullible of large sums of money. On the run herself after her exposure, she has subsequently changed her identity and her life, and has reputedly evolved an unusual form of treatment that is both expensive and exclusive.

This dry and witty fantasia of mountebanks, blackmail and merry chases in which hunters and hunted keep reversing their roles is based on fact. That is, Lord Lucan’s alleged crime and disappearance did happen in 1974, and there were many “sightings” of him, especially in Africa, till he was declared officially dead in 1999. With this, Spark flamboyantly combines another event: the cult and later exposure of Beate Pappenheim, the young “stigmatic” who, too, managed to disappear. By inventing Walker and Wolf, Spark quietly demolishes the possibility of ever reaching the “truth” in any matter. The “alternating” identity of Lucan and Walker, by which they survive and which brings them to their respective ends, is symbolic of the moral confusion at the centre of the novel’s crisply sketched universe. Its episodes have nothing to do with morality, since the reader finds Wolf ultimately regaining control of her life. Spark’s brilliance lies in embedding this apparently amoral sequence of events in a deep and brooding moral structure, which can only be glimpsed through the ambiguities of human motive.

Although one of the three chief Catholic novelists of post-war England, Spark’s vision is very different from Graham Greene’s and Evelyn Waugh’s. The novel most obviously evokes Waugh, especially in the rather hurried ending, but Spark’s style in the irreligious use of religious imagery and metaphor is unique to her. Blood flows abundantly through the novel. Both Lucan and Beate are covered with it, suggesting, blasphemously, stigmata and purification. Tied into this theme are, rather obviously, the wolf, the fish and the lamb, and finally the ingesting of the host. The last episode is built on a disappointing stereotype. This is not surprising in a novel which shows more hurry than brevity in the second half, especially in the slightly indecisive unravelling of the plot.

In spite of its weaknesses, the dark merry-go-round of the narrative poses unsettling questions about the nature of belief and the possibilities of human credulity. The plot itself verges on absurdity, it more than “partakes of the realistic-surrealistic”, as one character says about Lucan’s disappearance. But this is familiar territory with Spark. There is a sense of sheer fun in the way aiding and abetting become confused with friendship, loyalty, admiration and love. Mutual survival and material benefit are not the only motives behind such abetting. Belief in class loyalty, in the wisdom of a proven fraud, in miracles, even in a distorted form of justice, all turn out to be equally powerful cementing factors. One example is the support Wolf gets from her lover and her patients, the most helpful of whom also seems disenchanted with her. And not one of them is ignorant of her past. Her charm and Lucan’s class are far more important in the scheme of things than fraud, falsity, greed, cruelty, selfishness, possible insanity, violence or criminality. Not only had Lucan’s friends helped him escape, some benefactors kept him alive through the years. But as always in Spark, the underlying gloom enhances rather than disrupts the glittering surface of the narrative.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / SPEAKING IN TWO TONGUES 
 
 
BY SHAMS AFIF SIDDIQI
 
 
QUIVER: POEMS AND GHAZALS
By Javed Akhtar,
HarperCollins, Rs 350

Javed Akhtar’s collection of Urdu poems, Tarkash, was first published in 1995. The original collection has been translated into various languages including Bengali and Gujarati. In Quiver,David Matthews translates the poems from Urdu to English. The intention is clearly to target the untapped non-Urdu speaking section of the reading public. Though Matthews has written an introduction, he does not tell us whether Quiver is the translation of all the poems in the original or whether some have been left untranslated.

Javed Akhtar’s father, Jan Nisar Akhtar, grandfather, Muztar Khairabadi, and uncle, Majaaz, were all well-known poets and writers. Apart from the translator’s introduction, the book also contains a short autobiographical note by the poet, translated by Amit Khanna. Akhtar’s prose is inimitable and interspersed with various humorous accounts. “Which city do I call my own?” he begins. “I was born in Gwalior, reared in Lucknow, grew up in Aligarh, played truant in Bhopal and turned wise in Bombay.” It is difficult to judge which is better, Akhtar’s prose or his verse. There is a certain candour in his prose that touches the heart, while ease and spontaneity mark his poetry.

Twenty-four poems and almost the same number of ghazals are included in this translation. His poems are certainly much better than his ghazals. Many of the couplets affect us by the novelty of their theme and the arrangement of the words. Poems like Journey of a Pawn, Riddle, Perplexity and Dilemma are thought-provoking. Whereas Time, Sorrows for Sale and Homeless appeal to our emotions. It is this delicate mix of ideas and emotion, of intellect and sensibilities that makes the poetry of Akhtar difficult to transcribe into another language.

The jacket of the book recounts Matthew’s earlier translations of classical Urdu poems. His translation of Akhtar’s poems shows Matthew’s sense of perfection. The struggle to retain the spirit of the original is evident in every page. His selection of ghazals and poems keeping in mind their varying rhyme patterns shows his subtle handling of a difficult situation. As he himself is of the opinion, he tries to steer a middle path in order to solve this tricky problem. Only readers of the Urdu original would realize the complexity of this task.

Matthew’s failure is due to the stumbling block every translator faces in the rendering of poetry from one language to another. For example, the couplet: “Oonehi imartoon se makaan mera ghar gaya/ Kuch log mere hisse ka suraj bhi kha gay,” has been translated by Matthews as, “My house has been surrounded with high buildings/ I have been robbed of my share of the sun today.” Some changes can be made in the last line, but the delicacy of thought conveyed in the original can never be captured.

The translator has also placed alongside the translation Akhtar’s original poems in Devnagari script, for the appreciation of his poetry. Although, Akhtar’s poetry in any language is sure to affect readers, in English it can at most create ripples.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / GROUND REALITIES 
 
 
BY KAUSHIK ROY
 
 
TOWARDS THE FUTURE? JAMMU AND KASHMIR IN THE 21st CENTURY
By Vernon Hewitt,
Cambridge, Price not mentioned

Continuous insurgency and subsequent human rights violations by security forces has placed Kashmir in the same position as Bosnia and Kurdistan. Is there a way out of this bloody stalemate? Vernon Hewitt tries to tackle this question. Hewitt rightly points out that the resolution of the Kashmir problem depends on India and Pakistan, as well as foreign intervention in the state.

Overt foreign intervention, warns the author, is bound to be negative. He further argues that the western media and non-governmental organizations have to take into account Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir. The economy and political situation of PoK are in a worse shape than the part of Kashmir in India. Western intervention has to, therefore, be even-handed to be effective.

Any conflict resolution measure taken by the West without including both India and Pakistan, says Hewitt, is sheer madness. For India, the retention of Kashmir (the only Muslim majority province) within the federation is the litmus test for the secular basis of the Indian political system. And in Pakistan, neither the military, nor the politicians can survive by withdrawing from Kashmir.

A bilateral solution between India and Pakistan could work out if both sides show extraordinary restraint. While Islamabad should desist from supporting terrorists, New Delhi should provide more autonomy to the valley. Is it possible to implement such a joint policy?

Optimistically, Hewitt writes that in the changing context it might be. A positive step on the part of New Delhi would be to engage the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference in talks. If India could engineer a split between the “radicals” and the “moderates” in the APHC, the scenario will improve. The next step should be to broker a deal with the “moderate Hurriyat” within a joint Indo-Pak dialogue. The PoK and Kashmir valley borders should also be opened up.

To get a “feel of the ground reality”, the author conducted interviews with the Kashmiris. He sensed that they were not enthusiastic about an independent state. “Sustainable development” is imperative for ending terrorism. The tourism industry is the principal revenue earner in Kashmir. With the possibility of peace returning in the valley, there is a prospect for the revival of tourism.

For this survey, Hewitt depends on published secondary sources. He has interviewed mainly the Kashmiri elite. Hewitt was unable to conduct in-depth interviews of the common people as he does not know either Urdu or Kashmiri. So, his reading of the ground reality might be faulty. Hewitt’s book will be praised in India but treated with scorn in Pakistan.

   

 
 
EDITOR’S CHOICE / A SCHOLAR AND A RUSSIAN DOLL 
 
 
 
 
ANTHONY BLUNT: HISLIVES
By Miranda Carter,
Macmillan, £ 20

Anthony Blunt, the fourth man in the Cambridge spy ring of the Thirties, said of his colleague, Kim Philby that “he only ever had one ambition in life — to be a spy.’’ Blunt was exactly the opposite. He earned notoriety as a Russian spy within the British secret service but he was famous in the world scholarship as an art historian, as the acknowledged authority on the 17th century painter, Poussin. This alone justifies the subtitle of Miranda Carter’s detailed, well written and sympathetic exploration of Blunt’s many lives. Blunt was a well known figure in the glitzy part of London society: he was an insider of the Palace as the Keeper and the Surveyor of Her Majesty’s Pictures; he was the director of the Courtauld Institute of Art; he sat on innumerable committees relating to art; and was the Slade Professor of Fine Art in Oxford; he was a well known homosexual; he was member of the Apostles, a secret society in Cambridge largely drawn from Trinity and King’s College students, which was presided over by the likes of G.E.Moore, Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes.

Carter delves into each of these aspects of her subject’s life beginning with his childhood and his schooldays in Marlborough. Blunt was a bishop’s son and his mother’s father was from the colonial service and was distantly related to Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. A part of Blunt’s childhood was spent in Paris. At Marlborough he was initially miserable because he was no good at games. But in the higher forms, with his friend Louis MacNeice, he formed a circle of aesthetes. Their last term was idyllic: walks over the Downs; collecting apple blossoms; and long afternoons spent lying naked on the banks of the bathing place, eating strawberries and cherries. Shades of the world so unforgettably evoked in Brideshead Revisited.

At Trinity, he first studied mathematics and then switched to modern languages in which he excelled. In the Thirties, he converted to communism largely under the influence of his lifelong friend, Guy Burgess. There was also a fair degree of peer group pressure since all those he loved and admired had turned towards communism. But his communism was more of an intellectual kind. Blunt’s recruitment to the Russian secret service was mediated by Burgess. The opening up of the Russian secret archives has shown that Blunt passed on an enormous amount of material to the Russians, especially after the war when Blunt had been snapped by the MI5. Later, he said, that after Hitler’s invasion of Russia, it did not matter since both Britain and Russia were on the same side and he was only giving to the Russians what they should have legitimately got from an ally. Some of the information was crucial: it was Blunt’s reports that turned the battle of Kursk in Russia’s favour. But the information he passed on did not result in the death of any British agents. After the war, he was a burnt-out case and had only one encounter with his Russian controller when he was asked to pass on a cheque to Kim Philby who was then under suspicion and down and out.

The flight of Burgess and Maclean in the Fifties and that of Philby in the Sixties sealed Blunt’s fate. In 1964, he confessed to MI5 in return for an immunity against prosecution. But the media hunt for the fourth and the fifth man did not stop. When in 1979, the journalist, Andrew Boyle identified the fourth man as an art historian who he called Maurice (for reasons of libel), Private Eye named Blunt. This led to a question in the House of Commons and Margaret Thatcher confirmed the suspicion. Blunt died a broken man, stripped of all his honours and looked after by a few loyal friends in his later years. When asked once why he had spied, he shook his head and said “cowboys and Indians.’’

Blunt, the spy, has always overshadowed Blunt, the scholar. Carter redresses this balance, and she is extraordinarily good in portraying this aspect of Blunt’s life, his research, his teaching and his relationship with his students. Blunt was always self-effasive: he backed into the limelight. He had the unique ability to compartmentalize his mind. He opened up only to a few who were close to him but never completely. He was never blunt.

What Blunt wrote of his favourite artist, Poussin, who he singlehandedly established in the cannon of western art could serve as his own epitaph: “he lived only for his art and for the company of a restricted circle of friends who really understood it. In his old age he cared nothing for what the world thought.’’

   

 
 
PAPERBACK PICKINGS 
 
 
 
 

Many ways to know a tradition

INTERPRETING ISLAM
Edited By Hastings Donan
(Vistaar, Rs 280)

Interpreting Islam edited By Hastings Donan is a collection of good academic essays on how “Islam is known in a bewildering diversity of ways in an increasingly interconnected world”. The contributors, apart from Ilyas Ba-Yunus, are all Western Islamists (mostly anthropologists), most of whom trace their theoretical origins back to Edward Said’s Orientalism. The essays are richly interdisciplinary, corresponding to the diversity of contemporary knowledge about Islam — Islam and the media, religious education in American schools, Islam and the seas, organized charity in the Arab-Islamic world, and a fine essay on musicology and Islam. This is a valuable anthology founded on the premise that “Islam is neither a distinctive social structure nor a heterogenous collection of beliefs, artifacts, customs and morals. It is a tradition.”

RECLAIMING IDENTITY: REALIST THEORY AND THE PREDICAMENT OF POSTMODERNISM

Edited By Paula M.L. Moya and Michael R. Hames-García
(Orient Longman, Rs 240)

Reclaiming Identity: Realist theory and the Predicament of postmodernism edited By Paula M.L. Moya and Michael R. Hames-García is a minor monster of confused thinking, right-on moralism and bad prose-style, the likes of which are spawned copiously by the publish-or-perish world of postmodern academia. Identity, according to the editors, is one of the “most urgent — as well as hotly disputed — topics in literary and cultural studies”. The array of discourses includes psychoanalysis, poststructuralism and cultural materialism, providing approaches to postcolonial, ethnic, feminist and queer subjects. There are essay titles like “The Epistemic Status of Cultural Identity” and “Who Says Who Says?: The Epistemological Grounds for Agency in Liberatory Political Projects”. There is an essay on queers “coming out”, using “postpositivist realist theory”, which sweepingly declares: “While some gays and lesbians would like to ‘just’ be gay and not be ‘political’ about it, the realist theory shows that this is an incoherent and inaccurate understanding of one’s sexual identity.” This is academic fascism at its most obtuse, and the collection revels in this kind of peremptory high-mindedness. Nobody is spared such identity politics: from queers, in and out, to “a Zulu maid and her Afrikaner madam”.

COLLECTED POEMS AND PLAYS OF RABINDRANATH TAGORE

(Rupa, Rs 95)

Collected Poems And Plays Of Rabindranath Tagore is a reprint of a selection published in 1936. It opens with Tagore’s Gitanjali translations, and includes a wide range of genres. Not everything is translated by the poet himself. C.F. Andrews and Nishikanta Mukhopadhyay are among the other translators. Apart from a few of the Gitanjali lyrics, the English renderings are mostly very bad — dated and lugubrious. Introducing Tagore to the English-speaking world through this selection would be a disaster for the poet’s international reputation.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Will peace ever come to the valley?

Peace together Sir — A.B. Vajpayee’s decision to visit Kashmir sometime in April is good news (“Atal springs Kashmir visit”, March 19). Not only was such a visit long overdue, it is likely to come as a respite for the prime minister who has been facing increasing pressure to take a stand on the Ayodhya issue from recalcitrant allies on the one hand, and hawkish elements in the sangh parivar on the other. It would also disprove the belief of the Kashmiris that politicians visit the state only in the wake of violence. Vajpayee’s proposed visit and his decision to talk to the different groups in the valley may well break the proverbial ice and assure the people of the state that the government is committed to the peace process. Though the idea of conducting free and fair elections in Kashmir is welcome, the real challenge for Vajpayee would be to ensure the participation of the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference since the latter has not displayed any enthusiasm to do so. This would not only break the monopoly of the National Conference, but would also offer greater choice to the electorate. Vajpayee could also, as a gesture of goodwill, consider some of the demands of the APHC and allow its leaders to travel to Pakistan. This would be enough to convince Kashmiris of the Centre’s commitment to peace.

Yours faithfully,
Meenakshi Gupta, Calcutta

Name does matter

Sir — The editorial, “Calling names” (March 15), has rightly criticized the mayor of Calcutta, Subrata Mukherjee, for his unilateral decision to rename Park Street after Mother Teresa. While it is true that Mother Teresa was revered by all, it is also clear that there could have been several ways of honouring her other than naming an important street after her. What the mayor has perhaps failed to realize is that with the name of a street also changes a large part of its history, inextricably tied to its former name. There was no need for it in this case.

The ignorance of the Left Front government was responsible for changing the name of Calcutta to Kolkata. There was a similar proposal aimed at changing the name of Calcutta University to Kolkata Vishwavidyalaya a few months ago. Fortunately, that proposal was later shelved. What is interesting is that the spelling, Kolkata, is wrong. The right spelling, prevalent in the 17th century, was Kalikata (pronounced “Kolikata”), which, through popular usage, has come to be pronounced as Kolkata.

The proposed change is also not consonant with the state government’s initiatives to attract foreign investors to the city, or with the setting up of amusement parks and supermarkets. The Telegraph deserves to be congratulated for being the only newspaper in the city that has been using the old name.

The West Bengal government could learn a lesson or two from the countries in the West and west Asia, which have not only retained the old names of cities, but have even replaced new names with those that are a thousand years old. The name of the Russian city, Petersburg, was changed to Leningrad, but before long, the old name was reinstated.

Yours faithfully,
Sudhansu S. Tunga, Calcutta

Sir — It is indeed ironic that the mayor of Calcutta has made a typically naïve attempt to reconstruct the history of the city. Park Street has always been the liveliest part of the city, a place where tradition and modernity meet. Mother Teresa, on the other hand, has brought the city the dubious sobriquet, the leprosy capital of India, where life is synonymous with squalor, disease, decay and death. It is doubly ironic that this attempt to free the city from its colonial past should encourage the propagation of the new myth of Calcutta. This image of Calcutta has appealed to the imagination of the affluent in the West, who are yet to free themselves from the shackles of Christian guilt traditionally associated with pleasure.

The myth has been carefully created and sustained. From aged politicians to aspiring film stars, everyone has used their association with the city as a testimony to their fellow-feeling and charity. While Bangkok has developed an identity beyond being a city known for child prostitution , Mexico City beyond being a city of kidnappers and robbers, Calcutta is still the city where Mother Teresa valiantly attempted to save the dead and the dying from the agony of living here.

The picture is unlikely to change as long as Calcuttans are occupied with the self-destructive job of rewriting the history of Calcutta.

Yours faithfully,
Atanu Neogi, Boston, US

Sir — How could A. Alexander hold Mother Teresa responsible for the misconceptions that have been generated about Calcutta in the international community (“Parting shot”, March 17)?

Naming a street after a person may not be the best way to honour him, but it surely cannot be condemned. By attempting to dedicate Park Street to Mother Teresa, the Calcutta Municipal Corporation is only trying to honour an exceptional woman, on behalf of a city and its people who are indebted to her.

Yours faithfully,
Kajal Chatterjee, Sodepur

Assembled chaos

Sir — The opposition parties of the country led by the Congress have demanded that the National Democratic Alliance government must ban the Vishwa Hindu Parishad for its role in the violence inside the Orissa assembly (“Rabbits there, tigers here”, March 17). While the activists should be punished in accordance with the law for their irresponsible and unlawful acts, the demand for banning the organization is not justified. When, for instance, the Congress municipal councillor from Godhra was arrested for allegedly masterminding the attack on the train carrying kar sevaks, did secular leaders demand a ban on the Congress?

The practice of double standards here is quite obvious. As in all attacks inspired by communal emotions, the important point has got lost in the frenzy: that the attack on the Orissa assembly was more an act of lawlessness rather than a fundamentalist one. It is imperative that the vandalism be curbed by the law and condemned by all law-abiding citizens.

Yours faithfully,
V.A. Gopala, Bangalore

Sir — The attack on the Indian Parliament was a terrorist attack, and was described as such by most, including the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party-led NDA government at the Centre. The attack on the Orissa assembly by VHP activists was also an act of terrorism, and we should not hesitate to say so just because the perpetrators belonged to the majority community and were covertly backed by the party in power at New Delhi. Can we still claim to be the citizens of a secular nation?

Yours faithfully,
Tapas Roy, Calcutta

Cyber immorality

Sir — The move to introduce photo identity cards for surfers is ridiculous (“Cybercafe photo-card plan to check porn sites”, Feb 18). Does the government need to go into so much trouble? While one is not unaware of the ill effects of cyber pornography, does it really pose that big a threat to the moral and social fabric of our society that we need to react so strongly? Aren’t there more pressing problems like illiteracy and terrorism?

No child attains maturity or enlightenment on his eighteenth birthday. Society has to nurture and prepare children for adulthood, teaching them to be pragmatic and equipping them with survival skills. Erotica, whether visual or textual, is as old as human civilization itself. Voyeurism is a phenomenon chronicled even in our epics and is not likely to disappear overnight.

The public interest litigation claims that porn sites exploit minors. However, most of them display a warning about the nature of the contents in the site before one enters it. The models who are featured in most sites are adults and internet laws dealing with paedophiliac material is stringently banned worldwide. As the expert team appointed by the Bombay high court has observed, visiting pornographic sites on the internet would be impossible to check. With more and more people purchasing computers, pornography is only a mouse-click away. The children of working parents are particularly susceptible to this menace. In fact, visiting such sites from a cybercafe is far more difficult since there is little privacy in these places.

The problem lies elsewhere. As adults, we enjoy playing god with the lives of our children. We should instead treat them as adults. It is time we trusted in them.

Yours faithfully,
Tapan Pal, Howrah

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

The Telegraph
6 Prafulla Sarkar Street
Calcutta 700 001
Email: [email protected]
Readers in the Northeast can write to:
Third Floor, Godrej Building,
G.S. Road, Ulubari, Guwahati 781007
All letters [including those via email] should have the full name and full postal address of the sender
   
 

FRONT PAGE / NATIONAL / EDITORIAL / BUSINESS / THE EAST / SPORTS
ABOUT US /FEEDBACK / ARCHIVE 
 
Maintained by Web Development Company