Editorial/ Theatre of fire
All strung up
This above all/ Writing in a time of terror
People/ Ravinder Paul Singh Sidhu
Letters to the editor

Calcutta’s fires have a peculiar pattern. The most memorable of them change the cityscape. To go a little further, their effects cause ruptures in the collective memory of the experience of the city. The fire in Firpo’s Market is another addition to this sadly smouldering history. Reportedly, a strangely purposeful fire burnt down a building almost a century old, which for long housed a culture of the good life associated with the British presence in Calcutta and was later changed into a market. Time will show whether the furious allegations of ruined traders, that they have been destroyed so that a multi-storeyed structure can rise above the ashes, have any substance. The point is that the city has been changed again, in look and feel.

This is not the first market to have been burnt. Inhabitants of the city would not have forgotten the burning of most of Hogg Market in Lindsay Street, opened on January 1, 1874, although it was named after Stuart Hogg a few years later. Affectionately called the New Market for more than a century, a newer many storeyed building has been built to compensate for the loss of a large section of the original covered market by fire in December 1985. Other markets have been burnt and rebuilt, the Manohardas Katra for example. Not always have these fires been put unarguably down to accident owing to negligence, as in the case of the fireworks market in Canning Street which went up in flames in December 2000. It is difficult to avoid, therefore, unkind suppositions regarding the cause and intent of many of these fires, particularly since a few cases have been officially put down to sabotage.

Destruction followed by “development” has become rather an obvious pattern. A particularly striking example of this is the devastation of theatre houses. Although the burning down of the Star Theatre was found to be accidental and the police file closed, the fire in two others, Rangmahal and Biswaroopa, have been proven to be sabotage. All this has happened since the decline in the takings and the subsequent closing down of the professional theatre houses. The building boom in the city has spawned a culture of avarice of which promoters are the chief but by no means the only gainers. The recovery of prime sites in an overcrowded metropolis has become a priority. The means of such recovery, it would seem, are not always fair. Naturally, a mindset not averse to foul play has little time for preservation, restoration or development through continuity.

All this does not excuse the lax supervision over the use of fire safety measures, particularly in large markets and buildings. The fire in McKenzie Building is an example of such failure. More important is the fact that new market complexes and multi-storeyed office buildings are still not fire-safe, although Calcutta has by now acquired quite a history of inflammability. It is inexcusable that fire tenders are still inadequately equipped, and that after each major fire the fire department ends up with a few more injured firemen. Without strict implementation of fire safety regulations and upgrading of the fire service accidents and sabotage will continue to deface the city.


The story used to be told of an Indian high commissioner in London storming into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to protest about slanted coverage in Tory newspapers and being utterly bewildered when an urbane British diplomat enjoyed saying pointedly that while he sympathized with India, he could do nothing about it because Britain’s free press was beyond the government’s control.

Of course, no media is quite as far removed from authority as foreign — read Western — governments would have us believe. But that does not excuse New Delhi’s touchiness about what Caucasians think, which is again evident in the external affairs ministry’s tantrums over British, Swiss, Finnish, German, Canadian and European Union reactions to the Gujarat pogrom. No country is an island, entire of itself, as India demonstrated when it criticized South African apartheid, American segregation and Pakistan’s communalism.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee can spare himself international opprobrium by at once getting rid of a chief minister who connives at murdering Indians and exposes the mockery of India’s pretensions to being a modern state. Only Narendra Modi’s ignominious dismissal can restore faith in the government and in India’s future. Now we know why India opposes the international criminal court which will become operative in July. More than four decades in journalism have taught me that the mandarins who are charged with preserving India’s fair name find it easier to exercise censorship than propose remedial action.

Hankering for the white man’s approval, even the all-powerful Indira Gandhi claimed that the British Broadcasting Corporation had cancelled a programme on the Emergency at the last minute because no one was willing to criticize it. Apparently, all the other panelists supported her. As I wrote then, no other head of government kept such close tabs on the internal workings of a foreign media organization. The BBC ought to have been flattered.

Such incidents bear out everything I read in the American state department’s archives about the inferiority complex of Indian leaders. If Vajpayee’s Durga incarnate could be so susceptible, why expect greater confidence or wisdom from lesser fry paid to serve the party in power? An earlier incarnation of Nirupama Rao, the official spokesman, wrote me a stiff note of reprimand expressing astonishment at my article on Harijans in The Canberra Times. Since Harijan-burning dominated the news then, my reply asked the spokesman (whom I had not met) whether his astonishment was at my writing about Harijans (which I had done extensively at home) or writing about them in Australia.

Instead of replying, he complained at his daily briefing about a “rude” hack in Calcutta, and told a senior Australian diplomat not to believe a word I wrote because it was all for money. Continuing his vindictiveness, he then refused me permission to accept an invitation to visit Germany. In those days embassies had to send invitation letters to South Block which decided whether or not to forward them to the journalist addressed. In this case, the spokesman summoned a German diplomat, lectured him on how to win India’s friendship and returned the letter.

Having lived long enough in Europe, I was not heartbroken. But the rejection highlighted two aspects of media-bashing. First, the system of fines and rewards had succeeded in reducing New Delhi reporters to a state of subservience. Those who appear to be independent often actually played opposition politics. Second, drunk on easy victories in their captive backyard, the petty bullies who ran the ministry diligently courted Western reporters who lorded it over the capital as its new nabobs. What mattered most was that bureaucratic stupidity was identified with the country so that foreigners at the United Nations and on the international conference circuit imagined that only conceited and shortsighted little tyrants strut the Indian stage.

There are some notable exceptions. In his younger days, J.N. Dixit, who also writes for these columns, was a confident and sympathetic official spokesman. The sagacious understanding of damage control that P.V. Narasimha Rao demonstrated in December 1992 makes Vajpayee look like a bumbling amateur. He outlined his fears to the visiting American deputy secretary of state 10 days before Vajpayee’s brethren in bigotry pulled down the Babri Masjid, and wrote personal letters to the American president, vice-president and secretary of state immediately after the demolition.

Narasimha Rao may have turned a blind eye to the sangh parivar’s shameful vandalism, but his tactful gestures prompted the state department to instruct American ambassadors in all Muslim countries to defend India. Meeting in Los Angeles the day after Ayodhya, American members of the Indo-US joint business council agreed that Hindu fanaticism had not damaged India’s secular polity or the fundamentals of stability.

A very different conclusion is inevitable this time as the Bharatiya Janata Party reshapes India in its own primitive mould. Modi’s government is either unable or unwilling to uphold law and order. Vajpayee’s convoluted and contradictory speeches only reveal his adeptness as a political quick-change artiste. Disgraceful stalling tactics in Parliament warn that the government will defend its own to the last, at the cost of other communities and even the country. The prevarication of its National Democratic Alliance partners betrays their determination to cling to the crumbs of power, come what may. Yashwant Sinha’s blissful view that no one abroad is worried about Gujarat and that the media is raising a mare’s nest confirms that the only tune a minister who wants to keep his job knows is His Master’s Voice.

Far from being a moderate fallen among the likes of Lal Krishna Advani, Vajpayee seems bent on dragging and pushing India into a stinking abyss infested with matted locks and ash-smeared bodies and ringing to the sound of bell and cymbal where rational thought and non-denominational harmony perishes, and Muslims, Sikhs and Christians are either forcibly converted or relegated to second-class status. The BJP’s muscular fraternal organizations are less mealy-mouthed in honestly exalting that grim fate as Hindutva.

Authority — irrespective of party — responds at several levels when the media calls a spade a spade. When Indian publications do this, it is dismissed — perhaps not unjustly -- as an opposition tactic. When it’s the media abroad, it is shrugged off as the “foreign hand” that is forever raised against India but must be borne. What reduces South Block to gibbering fury is when Indians either write of unpalatable events in foreign papers or quote foreign sources on these subjects.

Indian correspondents of foreign publications, stringers, as they are called in the trade, are relegated to the lowest form of purgatory in New Delhi’s hierarchy of the nether regions. Mohammed Yunus, a lackey of the Nehru family who was rewarded with an ambassadorship and was the foreign media’s bane during the Emergency, would foam at the mouth at mention of stringers. Over the years, the bureaucracy has found ways and means of silencing them and discrediting their foreign contacts. But the events they write of — like Gujarat’s holocaust — cannot be wished away in this age of instantaneous electronic communication that is almost as efficient as the traditional word of mouth that carried news of Turkman Gate and nasbandi far and wide during the Emergency.

In the Fifties India showered praise on the English pastor, Michael Scott, and made him a member of its UN team to attack South Africa over the treatment of the Herreros in Namibia, but Scott became an imperialist demon later when his human concern embraced the Nagas. Presumably, New Delhi does not regard as “political interference” America’s nine million dollars aid for Gujarat relief or the demand by American senators for “a unique role” in rehabilitation. As Kargil showed, mediation is unacceptable because it can be adverse, facilitation is welcome because it is supportive.

There would be no need for such contortions if India had nothing to hide. Nor would foreigners make disparaging remarks if there was nothing to disparage.


I have often wondered why some people develop the itch to write while others do not. It has very little to do with their academic background. Many toppers in their school and college days are unable to write anything worth reading. Others, barely able to scrape through their examinations, turn into good story-tellers.

Some professions make it easier to get an access to the world of literature. Journalism is the best, one only has to guard against using journalistic jargon. The same applies to teaching. A teacher while writing must try no to become pedantic. Doctors often make good writers because they are enriched by close contacts with sickness, the process of dying, and death. Lawyers seldom make good writers. They tend to itemize their writing as they do plaints and affidavits. Soldiers are best advised to stick to writing about soldiering and battles they fought. But many first-rate writers have the most unlikely backgrounds like banking, chartered accountancy and insurance.

All this passed through my mind as I read Harinder Sekhon’s Five Decades of Indo-US Relations: Strategic and Intellectual. Sekhon comes from a family of soldiers. After getting a doctorate from the Punjab University, she taught for nine years at DAV College, Chandigarh, before she took to writing.

Five-Decades of Indo-US Relations is her second book. The title is deceptive. The book does not deal with Indo-American relations, only with academic exchanges: works of American scholars on Indian themes and of Indian savants in America. She has dealt with European writers writing well before her period of study. Many of these had no connections with the United States of America. Even of American scholars, she has missed out quite a few names, most notably Lee Seigel, Sanskrit professor in Hawaii University and author of several books in India. Sekhon certainly has the itch for writing and can write well, but she has to learn to be more thorough in her research and in organizing her material.

Too much hate, too little love

Love and hate are the two passions known among animals but most manifest among human beings. One is positive, the other negative. One would not expect the two passions to coexist, as one should normally overcome the other. But human nature is so perverse that often intense love for one’s own beliefs generates intense hatred against others who do not share those beliefs.

When these opposite passions animate the same person, a terrorist is born. Recent times have witnessed a rapid growth in the breed of such people. In our own country, we had Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. He had passionate love for the khalsa panth into which he was born, and spent many years propagating it. In due course of time, he developed hatred towards the Hindus and Sikhs who disagreed with him. He thought nothing of ordering them to be eliminated and gloated over his goons killing innocent men and women. When he was killed, his admirers proclaimed him a martyr. His evil legacy has been inherited by half-a-dozen terrorist organizations.

More in the news these days are terrorist outfits of Muslims, the United Liberation Front of Asom and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam — all born out of intense love and hate cohabiting in the same bodies. Osama bin Laden (al Qaida), Maulana Masood Azhar (Jaish-e-Mohammed), Hafiz Mohammed Saeed (Lashkar-e-Toiba), Paresh Barua (ULFA), V. Prabhakaran (LTTE), Syed Salahuddin (Hizbul Mujahedin) are living specimens of the coexistence of love and hate; in most cases love for Islam (ironically, meaning peace) and hatred for infidels inhabiting America, Israel, Russia, Serbia and India. They are willing to battle against heavy odds and die for their cause in the hope of a better life after shahadat (martyrdom).

Most Wanted: Profiles of Terror is a compilation of sixteen men on top of the hit list of peace-loving nations. In addition, there are two annexures to the interrogation reports of Omar Sheikh and Masood Azhar which give insights into the workings of their mind. There is also a lengthy introduction by the intrepid police officer, K.P.S. Gill, who had to deal with Khalistani terrorists in Punjab. His solutions are simpler: ignore human rights activists who are nothing but a bunch of busybodies and empower the police to kill terrorists without bringing them to trial.

The man who knew everyone

Banta knows everybody. He was bragging to Santa one day: “You know, I know everyone there is to know. Just name anyone, and I know him.”

Tired of his boasting, Santa called his bluff, “Okay Banta, how about Sachin Tendulkar?”

“Sure, yes, Sachin and I are old friends, and I can prove it.” So Banta and Santa dash out to Mumbai, and knock on Sachin’s, who was about to leave for a match, and sure enough, Sachin shouts, “Banta! Great to see you! You and your friend come right in, and join me for a cup of coffee.” Although impressed, Santa is still skeptical. After they leave Sachin’s house, he tells Banta he thinks his knowing Sachin Tendulkar was just a chance. “No, no, just name anyone else,” Banta says.

“Amitabh Bachhan,” Santa quickly counters. “Yes, I know him.” And off they go to the location where big B was busy shooting. Amitabh spots Banta and yells, “Banta! What a surprise! I was just on with a shooting session, but you and your friend come on, and let’s have lunch together.” Well, Santa is very shaken by now, but still not convinced. After they take leave of AB, he again expresses his doubts, and Banta again implores him to name anyone.

“George Bush,” Santa retorts. “Sure.” So off they fly to Washington. Banta and Santa are assembled with a host of people on the White House grounds, when Banta says, “This will never work. I can’t catch the president’s eye among all these people. Let me just go upstairs and I’ll come out with the president. And Banta disappears towards the White House. Sure enough, half an hour later, Banta emerges with George W. Bush on the podium.

By the time Banta returns, he finds Santa has had a heart attack, and is surrounded by paramedics. Working his way to Santa’s side, Banta asks, “What happened?” Santa looks up and says, “I was doing fine until you and the president came out, and the man next to me asked, “Who’s that on the podium with Banta?”

(Contributed by C. K. Rawat, New Delhi)

Smooth operator

The electric crematorium in Chandigarh is often out of order. The late Dr Chuttani, the former director of PGI Chandigarh, wished to be cremated in the electric crematorium. But his desire could not be fulfilled as the electric furnace was not functioning the day he died.

The municipal corporation rectified the defect recently. It was a commendable task, but more appreciable was its announcement to the public, which read: “All are requested to make use of this facility: make the environment free from pollution.”

(Contributed by Madan Gupta, Chandigarh)



Split wide open

Ravinder Paul Singh Sidhu hadn’t quite realised how lonesome it can get at the top. Even if in his case, ‘the top’ translates to a mind-boggling pile of ill-gotten wealth worth at least ten crore rupees in hard cash and more than double that in property.

Now sitting in judicial custody in Patiala, Sidhu — the Punjab Public Service Commission chairman who during his six-year term rewrote the rules of the PPSC examinations to include a bribe upwards of 50 lakhs from prospective candidates — is suffering acute pangs of loneliness. Enough for Sidhu to complain even to his long-estranged wife, Lovleen, that few people have visited him during his judicial remand in Patiala. Obviously, Sidhu isn’t familiar with what all good rats do to sinking ships.

That the 40-something Sidhu is suddenly a badly sinking ship was evident to his “very old family friend” Jagman Singh who has now “decided to come forward and help the investigating agency.” Jagman is reasonably well-positioned to do this, given that his Sector 9 home in Chandigarh was used as one of the two ‘safehouses’ for PPSC candidates to either fill up answer sheets or study the question papers a day before the examinations. The other ‘safehouse’ was in Sector 10, where Sidhu’s 77-year-old mother Prithpal Kaur lives.

The police also recently recovered 1.41 crores of cash from Jagman’s house. Some of the notes recovered carried the stamp of a Ludhiana bank, dating them October 22, 2001. The date coincides with the PPSC examinations held for the lucrative posts of DSPs. The results of these examinations have now been stayed by the Punjab and Haryana high court.

While Jagman sings, Sidhu is playing dumb. The only thing he has done though is advise his interrogators not to touch him, claiming that he might be suffering from AIDS — ascribing his sudden weight loss to this as well. That Sidhu has more than a mild fondness for the dramatic is as evident from his passion for partridge shooting as from his loud claims that even as he is being “framed as a victim of a Congress vendetta campaign,” everyone seems to have forgotten that his was a “constitutional post” at the PPSC.

In the days before the PPSC was handed over to him as his personal golden goose, Sidhu used to be a special correspondent with Chennai-based newspaper The Hindu. Born into a wealthy land-owning family of Chandigarh, Sidhu, who graduated from St Stephen’s College, was seen by the then chief minister of Punjab — Harcharan Singh Brar — as “a very educated man coming from a very good family background” and therefore ideal for the post of chairman of the commission.

Of course Brar now denies the gossipy aside that circulated during the time of Sidhu’s appointment — a possible matrimonial alliance between Brar’s daughter Babli and Sidhu. True to his own arrogant style of functioning, after accepting the appointment Sidhu never visited Brar again. A fact the former CM stresses on now, even as his current assessment of Sidhu differs dramatically from what he said six years ago. “One cannot know what kind of man one picks until time proves him. Leave alone regret, I could never have imagined he would do the things he has done...”

Not that Sidhu’s game at the PPSC was too much of cloak-and-dagger stuff. Sidhu’s ‘system’ — fitted in between hours spent teeing off at the Chandigarh Golf Club and jaunts to the US and Europe — was simple enough, according to Jagman.

“The question papers were delivered to me by Sidhu. Usually two candidates each sat at the two houses. The candidates were brought a day before the examinations and were provided with food and other facilities. However, they were not allowed to interact with anybody or make telephone calls. They were then taken on the day of the examination to the examination centre,” Jagman told the police. Candidates were also often helped by examiners who were in league with Sidhu. In such cases, Sidhu provided a list of roll numbers which were to be allotted specific marks. So stringent was his system that during the five years of the Prakash Singh Badal government (when Sidhu enjoyed untrammeled power as the PPSC head), even gold medallists, who were not party to the system, failed to make the grade. Commenting on Sidhu’s fairness in operating his system, his family members say that he refused to ‘exempt even his relatives from the payments’ for posts in the commission.

The money ‘deposited’ by Sidhu’s candidates was then collected either by Jagman or by another friend of Sidhu’s, a Markfed officer, Randhir Singh Gill, later to be picked up by Sidhu.

Sidhu used his share (obviously the lion’s share) of this ingeniously worked-out scheme to indulge in much high-living — a no-holds-barred sort of existence — which was a vast bettering of the more general sort of good life he was already used to. This included an impressive collection of houses, one in Chandigarh’s Sector 10; one in New Delhi’s Vasant Vihar (fetching him a neat 1.75 lakh a month as rent); a quaint though beautiful converted Masonic Lodge in the hill station of Kasauli that was apparently ‘willed’ to Sidhu by Avtar Singh Sekhon (Jagman Singh’s father) for help “financial and otherwise.” The police have also discovered a fourth property in Hyderabad.

The houses needed to be furnished, and Sidhu did this with customary flourish. His most lavish decor sits pretty in the Kasauli getaway. The furniture includes a mahogany bed valued at Rs 26,000; a rosewood rolltop worth Rs 25,000; a Portuguese armoire worth Rs 21,600; teakwood beds priced at Rs 22,000 each and an ebony table valued at Rs 21,600.

Along the way, Sidhu managed to spend a little something on smaller things, like amassing a collection of 200 pairs of shoes and a similar number of jackets and blazers. Being the good father that he is, he also put away 68.5 lakhs in a growth fund in his daughter’s name. A good amount of the money he earned was also sent out of the country, a transaction for which Sidhu used his NRI brother Reetinder’s help. However, Reetinder flew off to the US within a couple of days of Sidhu’s arrest.

And that brings us back to a reflective Sidhu — contemplating a lonely life at the top, even if getting there has left him some 25 crores richer.



Not a pretty picture

Sir — In his sonnets, William Shakespeare’s affections are quite clearly divided between his “friend” and the “dark lady”, although one “Mr W.H.” has been named as “the onlie begetter” of the sonnets. But there is no way to determine the nature of their relationships, or if these were sexual at all. There is also no consensus on whether the man in the sonnets was the third earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley (W.H.). Therefore, the recent discovery of a portrait of Southampton which resembles a woman, fails to throw any light on the bard’s sexual orientation (“Something queer in Shakespeare”, April 24). At best, it can be seen as an attempt to whip up a sensation on the poet’s birthday.
Yours faithfully,
Snehalata Kanjilal, Calcutta

Bending steel

Sir — The reported reason behind the removal of the chairman and managing director of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited, D.P. Seth, is his opposition to the disinvestment of BSNL. And this came after the minister for communications had reprimanded private players in the sector for neglecting the rural areas. He had also praised BSNL for adhering to the government’s policy of increasing tele-density. But then policies in India have always been hostage to the whims of politicians.

Take the case of the Bhilai Iron and Steel Plant, which will be up for sale soon. India was once the eighth most industrialized nation of the world, and owed much of this success to the performance of the state-run steel plants. Therefore, privatization is not the answer to all ills. When the steel plants had been set up in Rourkela and Bhilai, the planning commission had acknowledged that in the long run, the rate of growth of the national economy would depend on iron and steel production, besides coal, electricity, chemicals and machinery, because this would increase the rate of capital formation. But what is being witnessed is a forced sell-off of even the profit-making units.

Since the prime minister claimed recently that he was the first to have greeted the setting up of the Bhilai steel plant, maybe he should do something to stop its sale, and of others like it, lock stock and barrel.

Yours faithfully,
Seema Sengupta, Calcutta

Sir — The editorial, “Steel frame” (March 21), rightly points out that the mercantilist economic instrument of tariff walls, often used to serve political ends, has now been imposed on steel imports in the United States of America. The action has been defended on the grounds that steel is being used in the US’s fight against terrorism, and hence needs to be protected. The allies of the US may support the move, but the actual reason behind the move is not difficult to deduce. The cost of steel production in some US states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia is high owing to lack of overhauling and internal restructuring of the units there. But these states are politically crucial to the US president. Hence the increased tariffs on steel imports to boost George W. Bush’s political prospects.

Yours faithfully,
B.C. Dutta, Calcutta

Temples of doom

Sir — What passes as holy water in various Indian temples is often not potable. Hence the recent uproar over charanamrita at the Tarakeshwar temple is not surprising (“Holy water clash at temple”, April 18). The belief in miracles is so strong that even this knowledge does not stop people from drinking the charanamrita. Under such circumstances, it is the duty of the pujaris of the temples to request, even order, devotees to put the charanamrita on their heads instead of drinking it. Priests are widely regarded as intermediaries between devotees and god and their request might not go unheeded.
Yours faithfully,
Provat K. Chatterjee, Purulia

Sir — Reports of people falling ill, and even dying, after consuming prasad in temples are common. Usually comprising fruits and milk products, the prasad should not normally cause harm, unless tampered with. Will panchayats and municipal authorities caution people against the hazard?

Yours faithfully,
A.F. Kamruddin Ahmed, Hooghly

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