Editorial / Ashes to ashes
Beethoven or the Mahatma
This above all / At home in the jungle
People / Manjit Singh Sekhon
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL / ASHES TO ASHES 
 
 
 
 
Not satisfied with the carnage in Gujarat, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has now decided that it will carry its politics of hatred across the country. There is no other meaning that can be given to its desire to carry across India the ashes of those who perished in Godhra. This is potentially even more provocative than Mr L.K. Advani’s rath yatra. Mr Advani wanted to mobilize Hindu opinion when he travelled on a Toyota dressed up as a chariot. The so-called asthi kalash yatra has no other aim save inciting Hindus against the Muslims. The only possible consequence of such a yatra can be more plunder and killings in other parts of the country. This is the only thing that the VHP wants. Its anti-Muslim programme has received a new impetus from the announcement of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, often considered the centre of the sangh parivar, that Muslims in India can only carry on living in India on the goodwill of the Hindus, the majority community. The aims and programme of the VHP are totally against the Constitution. The VHP does not accept the idea of secularism. It wants India to become a Hindu rashtra in which non-Hindus will live as second class citizens. Non-Hindus, according to the VHP definition, are non-Indians. The VHP’s attitude to the Constitution was clear from its defiance of the Supreme Court on the Ayodhya issue. Fortunately the defiance did not translate into action but the attitude of contempt was writ large.

The first victim of the VHP’s brand of extremism has been the National Democratic Alliance. The allies of the Bharatiya Janata Party — and the support of the allies is crucial for the survival of the NDA government — have expressed their displeasure at the VHP’s asthi kalash yatra. Despite Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s personal disapproval of the VHP and his attempts to distance his government from the Hindutva agenda, the allies cannot help but see Mr Vajpayee as somebody affiliated with the sangh parivar. The allies have asked Mr Vajpayee to stop the VHP from going ahead with its programme. Mr Vajpayee will do his best to placate the allies because therein lies his government’s survival. He will have to deal with the VHP with an iron hand. It has already gone too far. He will have to tell the VHP and the puppeteers in Nagpur that a programme like the asthi kalash yatra puts the future of the government in jeopardy. The VHP and the RSS will have to choose between ideology and the BJP continuing in office.

The threat of the VHP and the plight of the government in the face of it may very well be the first of many such episodes. The VHP will continue to harass Mr Vajpayee’s government as long as it continues to rule under the flag of secularism that flies at half-mast. Mr Vajpayee must come out of his closet and stop being a reluctant secularist under pressure from the allies. As the prime minister of India he must address the issue of the politics of hatred. He must act to curb those who act on the basis of such an agenda. He must assert that India is the home of all those who live here and not only of those who see themselves as born again Hindus. He must declare that the dharma of Hindus has nothing to do with Hindutva.

   

 
 
BEETHOVEN OR THE MAHATMA 
 
 
BY RUKUN ADVANI
 
 
In a mundane and literal sense, the most visually arresting figure in Richard Attenborough’s film, Gandhi, was the protagonist’s associate, Mirabehn. Just looking at her was enough to make most people want to know more about her, but the sources on her life seem to be ridiculously scanty. She wrote a partial autobiography called The Spiritual Pilgrimage which was published in 1960, and in late 1982, a few months before her death that year at the age of 90, the well known London-based European journalist, Gitta Sereny, interviewed her for a long New York Times magazine article on her life and work with Gandhi. Other than this, there seem to be stray remarks on her career in writings by Gandhi and his followers, alongside snippets here and there by historians such as Anne Taylor (the biographer of Annie Besant), Hugh Tinker (the biographer of C.F. Andrews), and Ramachandra Guha (the biographer of Verrier Elwin) — fragments, in short, by sane revisionists who have been showing us that the raj was a surprisingly various enterprise which comprised much more than high imperialism and economic exploitation. However, a full biography, or at least a hypothetical book with the title Gandhi’s Women: The Subordination of Sexuality, containing a long chapter on Mirabehn, still remains an academic publisher’s dream.

Mirabehn, as is well known, was born Madeleine Slade, the daughter of an affluent British naval officer who rode to hounds and played the piano. Much more easily than Elwin, Besant, and Andrews, she need never have chucked up the abundant material comforts that comprised her surroundings: she could have lived a life of aristocratic opulence and died in comfortable obscurity. But the puritanic, ascetic, missionary impulse which drove her better-known countrymen to go native and resist the raj was even more instrumental in her case, for it made her renounce not just piano and horse but even her own sexuality in the cause of Gandhi. This is the Mirabehn we know: an epiphenomenon of the Mahatma with the bit-part in the history of the Indian national movement. It is almost unknown that, in fact, the first and last love of Mirabehn’s life was not Mahatma Gandhi but Ludwig van Beethoven.

It was her adolescent interest in Beethoven’s music that drove Madeleine Slade to meet one of his hagiographers, Romain Rolland. Sensing that she was spiritually driven, he pointed her in the direction of the Mahatma, whose work soon became music to her ears. Her proclivity for song, like that of the medieval Mira, was transformed into bhakti — in her case for a living saint. Metaphorically, or as Freud would put it, she “murdered” Beethoven in order to become “Mirabehn”.

In certain intellectual circles, during the early 20th century, a lethal compound of hung-over Victorianism, Ruskinian Christianity, William Morrisian morality, and Leninist Marxism (Lenin worshipped and then exorcised Beethoven’s sonatas from his mind) hung about the air, making people like Madeleine Slade feel that austerity, specially in the context of hallowed Indian tradition, was the surest route to spiritual salvation. Banishing sex and music from her life was not just in line with what Gandhi ordained, it was also not far from what the doctor seemed to have ordered for Francis Younghusband and Sri Aurobindo.

So for many years, Mirabehn remained “married” to Gandhi in the celibate manner he dictated. There were no Beethoven recordings that could have sustained her during her second marriage, to Gandhi, the distance between Sabarmati and Vienna being absolute. The music of her youth had been excised from her new-found nationalist body much as Gandhi had driven out sex from his. It requires iron will to cauterize passions as physical as the love of music and sexual craving, and in this respect it does not require a feminist historian to make obvious the quite heroic ways in which Mirabehn managed to stay in step with the Mahatma. When he died, however, the Beethoven she had buried within her deepest recesses came back to life within her.

Mirabehn came in to my life via Beethoven. It was around 1990. I was sitting in my publishing office, sick of reading academic garbage and trying to banish the tunes in my head. Remembering T.S. Eliot of Faber & Faber, I had just penned a stupid couplet in homage to him which summed up my life — And in my room the academics come and go/ Talking of Michel Foucault — when a fax floated into my in-tray. It was from a “countess” called Rosalie Spalt in Vienna. The countess said she was one of the trustees of the estate of Mirabehn. Mirabehn, she said, had upon her death left behind an unpublished manuscript on the spirit of Beethoven. Would I be interested in publishing the script, asked the Austrian countess? If yes, Yehudi Menuhin had agreed to write a preface. She was writing to me because I was Indian and Mirabehn had loved India, plus she’d heard I was a publisher interested in Beethoven.

I began to swell like a balloon: it looked to me like this was some sort of message from Beethoven Himself — he was known to have been interested in Brahma and had read some of the Hindu scriptures popularized via William Jones by Schlegel. I badly wanted to publish a script which was about Beethoven, which had no footnotes, and which was not going to make even more Foucault come out of my ears. Was Beethoven asking me to take on Mirabehn, I grandly wondered.

My reply to the countess yielded Mirabehn’s script within a week. I began reading it with great interest. Within an hour or two I was deflated: there was nothing in the script other than the passionate personal devotion that Beethoven’s music — like Elvis Presley’s — is known to excite in many listeners.

In nationalist history, Mirabehn dies with Gandhi and disappears into unknown European thickets. In fact, for anyone interested in music rather than nationalism, this is when she comes alive. For, Mirabehn leaves India after Gandhi’s assassination to seek her personal resurrection as a lover of Beethoven. In a Freudian sense, you might be tempted to say she assassinates Gandhi, or that she murders a father in order to be with a grandfather. Accompanied by an Indian servant, she lives in the countryside where Beethoven drew inspiration for his sublimest compositions, hoping to breathe the same air. The last third of her life is spent around Gneixendorf and Heiligenstadt, suburbs of Vienna connected with incidents in the composer’s life. She wanders there in search of Beethoven’s spirit. She hears his music afresh after years of living without it.

But that was about it: the script said practically nothing that was not already known about Beethoven and his music. With great regret, I returned it to the countess. As a publisher, I had never felt more disappointed. Beethoven had not, after all, been beaming me a message; a pendulum was swinging me back to Foucault.

Mirabehn’s script, fortunately, met a happier end. The countess sent it on to the Gandhi Peace Foundation, which is in the business of preserving Gandhiana. Yehudi Menuhin wrote his preface and the book was published. I felt absolved in an inexplicable sort of way. The publication of Mirabehn’s final life-work, it seemed to me, had in some way managed to reconcile the hidden struggle within her between rural Gujarat and the rural environs of Europe, between music and the Mahatma, between the spirit of Gandhi and the spirit of Beethoven.

   

 
 
THIS ABOVE ALL / AT HOME IN THE JUNGLE 
 
 
BY KHUSHWANT SINGH
 
 
The Bedis — Ramesh and his sons, Rajesh and Naresh — are by any reckoning a most remarkable family. Rajesh and Naresh have made a niche for themselves among the world’s best wildlife photographers. To shoot elusive animals with movie cameras at close quarters needs enormous time, patience and dedication. They have all three in ample measure. Their films have been shown on television channels of most countries. Less is known of their father because he is a shy, retiring person, reluctant to talk about his achievements. But he is the man who inspired his sons and made them into the world celebrities they are today.

Ramesh Bedi is of the same age as I am and born not very far from the village of my nativity, now in Pakistan. He studied Ayurveda at Gurukul Kangri (Hardwar) and set up an Ayurvedic pharmacy in Lahore. On Partition, he left Pakistan and served in the government of India’s health ministry as a research officer till he retired in 1973. He made his home in Hardwar and resumed his search for medicinal herbs found in the Himalayas. He was invited by the governments of Bhutan and Brazil to do the same in their countries. His list of jaree-bootees comprises 8,000 species listed in pharmacopoeias. He has written extensively about them; many of them translated into different Indian and foreign languages. He has been honoured with honorary degrees and awards.

Ramesh Bedi’s latest offering is Among Tigers and Tuskers. It is based on his observations of wildlife in the Corbett National Park, where he spent many months with his sons, armed with cameras. Most of the time they rode on elephants and on occasions were attacked by angry tigers, whom they had disturbed while devouring their kills. They also ran into herds of wild elephants and had narrow escapes from the wrath of rogues on the rampage. This book has some beautiful, colour photographs and a glossary of animals, reptiles, birds and trees found in the Corbett Park.

Untying the knot

The institution of marriage seems to be slowly dying out. More and more people prefer to live with their loved ones without going through religious ritual or a civil marriage. As long as they dwell under the same roof, their children have no emotional problems which children of single parents are prone to have. If they do not hit it off, they simply go their own ways without going through the nastiness of divorce proceedings.

Among people of my generation, divorces were rarely heard of. The stigma of being divorced could not be wiped out for the rest of their lives. Everyone subscribed to the fairy tale endings, “then they lived happily ever-after.” Of course, this was not true because infidelity and extra-marital liaisons were common, but the facade of contented matrimony was maintained.

It is different with my son’s generation. Most of his contemporaries have broken marriages. Some live together without being married: No stigma attached to them.

Is n’t it time we took a dispassionate look at the institution of monogamous marriages? Monogamy is clearly against human nature. Also, human nature requires that women who bear all the burden of giving birth to children and most of it in rearing them need protection as well as emotional and financial support. Children need both their parents in their growing years. What then are the right answers to matrimonial problems? I have no suggestions to make.

The champ in our midst

Some years ago when I was in Muscat on the invitation of Humayun Zafar Zaidi of the Indian Muslim Association to speak on the poet, Allama Iqbal, I met a large number of eminent Indians and Pakistanis. At the farewell dinner there were almost a 100 guests including ambassadors of both countries. At the time I did not know who had laid on the lavish feast. Much later I learnt that my hosts were Mohammad Ali and his wife Rasiya. He was born in village Talikulam (Trichur district). He was trained as a civil engineer. For higher studies he went to the United States of America and France. On his return he set up his Galfar industries in Cochin. In 1970, he went to the Middle East to set up a construction company, which today employs nearly 14,000 workers, the largest in the Sultanate of Oman. He keeps shuttling between Kerala and the Gulf ever-expanding his business, as well as setting up schools, colleges and hospitals. He has been awarded an honorary doctorate by the Glasgow Caledonian University and recently given the highest civilian honour by the Sultan of Oman. A fortnight ago the Indian community of Muscat celebrated his rise to fame and fortune: he has become a multi-millionaire. Mohammad is only 52.

Ali’s list of assets is impressive. He was the first to manufacture activated carbon in Cochin. He followed it up by setting up a construction company in Bangalore. Among other works, he built the Cochin International airport. Then the Le Meridien hotel and the International Convention Centre in Cochin.

To repay his debt to his home state he built the CSM Central school in Thrissur and the Muslim Souhrida Vedi in Cochin. In Oman, he opened an Indian school and colleges to teach engineering and medicine.

One is tempted to think that there may be something common between Mohammad Ali, the world’s boxing champion of yester years and our own Mohammad Ali from Kerala. He is well on the way to becoming the champion of Indians living abroad.

What’s in a religion?

Are we true Hindus?
Are we true Musalmans?
If we are so —
Then why are we taking
each other’s jaan
Which religion are we following —
Are we following Gita?
Are we following Quran?
We are not humanbeings
We are not even animals
We are worse than the shaitans
What will we gain
If we build a temple
Or what will we gain
If we build a temple
Or what will we gain
If we make a mosquev
by killing so many insaans
You must tell your spiritual leaders

“don’t try to become bhagwans”
First try to love your neighbour
First try to become insaans
Only then we will follow the Gita
Only then we will follow the
Quran
Only then we should hold the
Tiranga
Only then we should sing —
“Hamara Bharat Mahan”
(Contributed by J.P. Singh Kaka, Bhopal)

Money does matter

A miser was convinced by a friend to buy a couple of lottery tickets. But after he won the big prize, he didn’t seem to be happy. “What’s wrong?” the friend asked, “You just became a millionaire!”

“I know,” he groaned, “But I can’t imagine why I bought the second ticket!”

(Contributed by Reeten Ganguly, Silchar)

   

 
 
PEOPLE / MANJIT SINGH SEKHON 
 
 
 
 

Flights of folly

Flying officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon dashed to his Gnat just as the piercing wail of the siren was reaching a crescendo. Six F-86 Sabres of the Pakistani Air Force were strafing the Srinagar airfield. Nirmal Jit took off in defiance of conventional wisdom that advised pilots to wait till after an attack had peaked. The 28-year-old shot two Sabres and was ultimately brought down after a tree-top level dogfight in which he was hopelessly outnumbered.

Among those who were witness to the young pilot’s feat that forced the enemy aircraft to abandon plans of attacking Srinagar town was Manjit Singh Sekhon. Nirmal Jit, the only winner of the Param Vir Chakra (the highest gallantry award in the services) in the Indian Air Force, was six years junior to Manjit Singh. Both come from the same village, Issewal, near Ludhiana.

At almost every anniversary of Nirmal Jit’s martyrdom, Manjit Singh has visited Issewal and relived those moments that happened on December 14, 1971. Issewal’s proud villagers have showered Manjit Singh with love and respect. Issewal is but one of many Punjab villages where military service is a way of life, where most households have a son in the armed forces. They come into the services as country bumpkins and after rigorous training, the men are separated from the boys. The better ones are refined as officers. When they don their air force blues or army olive-greens, they also become gentlemen. These are fighting men, men trained to win wars, to kill the enemy and to survive in the harshest of battlefield environs. They are not diplomats.

Why else would Air Marshal –– now retired –– Manjit Singh Sekhon write to former Punjab chief minister Prakash Singh Badal, urging him to use his political clout to get him the position he so coveted –– as Air Officer Commanding in Chief, Western Air Command –– on his official letterhead?

Manjit Singh Sekhon rose through the ranks. Commissioned into the service as a transport (helicopter) pilot, he graduated to flying fighters –– itself a rarity in the service even now. It is easy to kick a man who is already down, and there are contemporaries of Sekhon in Delhi who say that he might not have made the grade –– as a fighter pilot –– in the normal course of things.

If that is true, then the wizard in Sekhon must have developed a talent for flying planes and winning awards almost overnight. And if Sekhon, the fighter pilot, is a fraud, then half of the IAF’s 11,000-strong officer-cadre are cheats. One of the most decorated officers in the IAF when he retired –– Sekhon has won 17 awards including a Param Vishisht Seva Medal, a Vir Chakra, a Shaurya Chakra and the Vayusena Medal –– the former Air Officer Commanding in Chief (AOC-in-C), Southern Air Command, was the fifth seniormost officer when Air Chief S. Krishnaswamy summoned him to Delhi last fortnight and asked him to put in his papers.

In the IAF scheme of things, an Air Marshal posted as AOC-in-C Southern Air Com-mand will feel that he has been given a raw deal. The Southern Air Command, based in Thiruvananthapuram, guards airspace over the Bay of Bengal, the Lakshwadweep and Andaman and Nicobar. No frontline fighter detachments, though fighters can land in Madurai if required. Its aircrafts are mostly helicopters and transporters.

When Sekhon became a fighter pilot, he thought he had left all that behind. It is not wholly unusual for the senses to take leave in times of professional frustration. Since adrenalin flows faster in fighters, they also aim for fast track career paths.

In fact, Sekhon had been waiting eagerly to get into action. And action was what the Western Air Command –– the IAF’s most strategic operational command –– promised. Guarding airspace from north of Rajasthan through Punjab to Jammu and Kashmir over an uneven international boundary means the IAF has posted the bulk of its fighting power in the region. A conservative estimate puts the IAF’s strength here at about 10 MiG21 fighter squadrons plus squadrons of Jaguars, MiG27Ms and MiG23BNs and, of course, a major transport base at Chandigarh. Com-pared to the Southern Air Command, this was big.

Sekhon had sensed a chance to be AOC-in-C once earlier –– in 2001 –– and that was when he wrote to Prakash Singh Badal. A whiff of taking a shot at the post for a second time came on January 19 this year when the flamboyant Western Air Command chief Air Marshal V.M. Bhatia’s plane was fired at.

As per rule, Air headquarters had to appoint an officer of the same rank for an inquiry. The IAF says the inquiry report is pending finalisation. But it is clear that Air Marshal Bhatia was in the wrong on at least one of two counts –– he was flying an An-32 on a maiden flight to Kargil airfield when he was supposed to be flying fighters. The An-32 is a larger and slower aircraft and the landing in Kargil is dicey.

It is possible that Air Marshal Bhatia was at fault on a second, more dangerous, point –– violating Pakistani (or PoK) airspace. With troops massed along the frontier, the incident could have snowballed into a major conflict. Pakistani authorities said in Islamabad later, that the aircraft was fired at when it entered PoK airspace and was fired at again by the Indian army when it re-entered India. Bhatia literally escaped by the skin of his teeth because a missile that struck the plane did not explode.

Just as Sekhon was putting all this together into his “fact-finding report”, someone lit a bomb behind his back, leaking to the press in Chandigarh, his letter to Badal.

Political lobbying to not only win new posts but even to retain existing ones in the armed forces is not all that new. Navy chief Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat had refused to implement the recommendation of the Appointments Committee of Cabinet which had asked for then Rear Admiral Harinder Singh to be promoted. Bhagwat felt the decision was made on political and not professional grounds. (Vice Admiral Harinder Singh resigned from the navy earlier this month citing personal reasons). Neither Air Marshal Manjit Singh Sekhon nor Air Marshal Bhatia were considered to be seriously in the running for the post of IAF chief. Air Marshal Bhatia is due to retire in October this year. Like Sekhon, he too is a highly decorated officer. Sekhon was to retire in May 2003.

Sekhon is back in Thiruvananthapuram now, packing his bags. In his village, Issewal, the Sarpanch and his fellowmen are angry that an officer of his calibre has had to make an unceremonious exit from the service.

But Sekhon is an officer of the armed forces, and supposed to lead by example. Even as he was putting in his papers, he fought back by citing instances of other officers who lobbied with politicos. Sadly for Sekhon, they are not known to have used official letterheads.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Point to note

Sir — The Commonwealth’s decision to suspend Zimbabwe for a year following the spate of violence against its white population is a harsh step (“Commonwealth suspends Zimbabwe”, March 20). The imposition of economic sanctions by the Swiss government has already been a bad blow for the Zimbabwean economy. History has shown that most countries at some point of time have had dictators, many of whom were racist. Moreover, suspension from the international fora has not precipitated a political change in the country in question. So what is the point the white majority in the Commonwealth is trying to make?

Yours faithfully,
Ritwik Sarkar, Calcutta

Treat them alike

Sir — The editorial, “Peace of death” (March 14), has rightly pointed to the police’s inefficiency in handling mobs. It was hoped that the attack on the American Center in Calcutta would make the force re-think its methods, but it is obvious that nothing much has been done. The inhuman way in which the police dealt with the crowds in Taldi, Canning, is shocking. It was alleged that the police opened fire to control the unruly crowd. Why they did not take recourse to less violent means such as water cannons or rubber bullets is anyone’s guess. Most surprising, the officers concerned have not even been reprimanded for their actions which led to one death.

Security in the state cannot improve unless the police pull up their socks. The government, at the state level, must ensure that there is a serious evaluation of the modus operandi of the police force. Else, unnecessary deaths and casualties such as those in Taldi might be routine fare every time the police are called in.

Yours faithfully,
Seema D’Souza, Mumbai

Sir — Contrary to what “Peace of death” claims, it would be incorrect to say that West Bengal or any other part of India is a “secular heaven”. The strange bias of the government towards one community or another can be seen through various incidents. For example, the difference in treatment meted out to Muslims on pilgrimage and Hindus on pilgrimage. While the former receive a government travel concession to Haj, the latter receive no such favours. The government must realize that such unfair treatment is one of the main reasons why certain sections of the Hindu community believe that they are getting the short end of the stick. If the state wants to avoid incidents such as the one in Taldi, government policies must be reevaluated.

In a volatile country like India, it is strange why the government seems to be unable to strike a balance in its treatment of the two communities. To keep the minority community happy, it should not begrudge Hindus the same concessions which are made in favour of the Muslims.

Yours faithfully,
Sunita Gupta, Calcutta

Going up in smoke

Sir — It was distressing to see a number of young people smoking hookah (“Hip and hooked to hookah”, March 2). This despite the fact that the Supreme Court has banned smoking in public places as well as the sale of certain tobacco products. The government should ban hookah bars and prevent the youth from indulging in such decadent habits.

Yours faithfully,
Mohan Lal Sarkar, Budge Budge

Sir — Smoking hookah seems to be the latest craze in Mumbai. Despite claims by the owners of such chill-out joints, it is hard to believe that hookah will not have an ill-effect on health. What is astonishing is that the state police have allowed these parlours to come up irrespective of the recent ruling of the Supreme Court on smoking in public places. This mode of lifestyle is also an interesting indicator of the changing standards of living and values among the young of Mumbai.

It is true that this does not require any moral policing but in a country where the rates of death by cancer is going up by bounds, a more responsible attitude is needed. One hopes that good sense will prevail among the youth, thus preventing them from continuing with the latest fad.

Yours faithfully,
Kaushik Ghadge, Pune

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