Editorial/ House of Commoners
Strange images
People/ George Fernandes
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL/ HOUSE OF COMMONERS 
 
 
 
 
Parliament — call it the Lok Sabha, the house of commons, the house of representatives or what you will — gets its dignity from the behaviour of its members, the elected representatives of the people. The dignity is reflected, of course, in the way members of parliament preserve and uphold parliamentary etiquette and protocol. But beyond the ritual and the fanfare, there is also the intellectual and political content that members bring to the proceedings. The subjects they choose and the wit and learning that mark their speeches add to the dignity of Parliament. By these yardsticks, the dignity of the Lok Sabha has never been particularly high. There were a few good orators, like Shyamaprosad Mookerjea, Hiren Mukerji, Jawaharlal Nehru himself, whose speeches were memorable for substance and rhetoric. But memories of such speeches were wiped out by the debate on Gujarat in the Lok Sabha earlier this week. The proceedings can hardly be described as a debate. It was more in the nature of mud-slinging, and the atmosphere of the Lok Sabha was made to resemble that of a village pond around which women gather to bicker and squabble. What is worst is that the lead in all this came from the treasury benches.

The agenda before the Lok Sabha was the violence in Gujarat. It discussed everything else save what it was supposed to discuss even though the violence in Gujarat is the worst of its kind and the longest lasting since the killings that accompanied the partition of India in August 1947. The quality of the debate and the kind of emotions that were expressed only served to highlight the insensitivity and crassness of politicians, especially those claiming to rule India at present.

One example of the vulgarity on display was the comment made by Ms Uma Bharti, the minister of sports and belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party, about Ms Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the opposition. What Ms Gandhi’s chewing or non-chewing of gum has anything to do with what happened in Gujarat only Ms Bharti knows. She was obviously more interested in making cheap cracks than in discussing the gravest issue facing the country. For this alone in any civilized polity she would have been stripped of her ministerial powers. But that would be too much to expect in India, especially from a government which has bent over backwards to defend someone like Mr Narendra Modi. The insensitivity was evident in the speech made by Mr George Fernandes, the defence minister, who has made it his mission to politically defend the morally indefensible. He tried to underplay murder and rape in Gujarat by saying that such things have happened in the past. Who is to tell Mr Fernandes that decent human beings learn from the wrongs of the past, they do not condone its repetition?

This abuse of the dignity of Parliament and the reduction of it to the lowest common denominator is a sure sign of the fragility of the democratic ethos in India. The Indian democracy is the largest, but it is not the deepest. Caught in this paradox, vox populi is reduced to vox vulgaris.

   

 
 
STRANGE IMAGES 
 
 
BY BHASWATI CHAKRAVORTY
 
 
Omens are usually supposed to be palpable things: a black cat crossing the path, dogs weeping in unison at night. But there might be omens of a different kind, relatively impalpable, but far more menacing. We may not always be equipped to read them. To take a recent instance, it is useful to look at the fairly low-key response evoked in Calcutta by Gopal Menon’s film on the Gujarat carnage, Hey Ram: Genocide in the Land of Gandhi. It was one of the earliest documents to come out of Gujarat after the killings began at the end of February, but a few cassettes of the film reached Calcutta much later, when television, the press and reports by independent organizations were already unveiling the horrors of what had happened.

In a way the film itself is low key. Most of its twenty-five minutes or so are taken up with testimonies of survivors, mainly in the relief camps, interspersed with glimpses of the camps themselves. These are memorable images: huge blackened vessels atop clay ovens rising out of the arid ground, milling women and children squeezing under bamboo barriers, a child amid a restless crowd waiting as chapattis are thrown on to an enormous griddle. There are brief shots of ruined houses, destroyed localities, plundered rooms. The poignant message of the background song is emphasized at the beginning to prepare the viewer for what he is about to witness: genocide in the land of Gandhi.

It is, however, the faces that are the focus of the film. The testimonies come one after the other, often lapsing into a monotone, telling the viewer what the speakers had seen, how they had escaped or been rescued and, sometimes, what it meant to them. There are very few tears, no breast-beating, little sign of obvious grief. They are not touching faces and they do not offer easy routes to sentimental compassion. Possibly Menon had concentrated on the most articulate speakers he could find because, more than the sights of the wounded and the dead, it is the oral testimony that is his subject. But in spite of the glut of horrific images elsewhere, the sudden appearance of corpses at the end of the film has the effect of pure shock. These turn the viewer back, with renewed force, on what he has just heard, to the memory of the faces untouched by sword or fire.

Menon seems to be in a hurry to record, as clearly as possible, a set of experiences that would give the events in Gujarat a specific meaning, a particular definition. It is not surprising that the oral testimonies appear to many as somewhat “arranged”. It is true that there is a “theme” in the film. The work is cerebral, not emotional; it is urging viewers to think.

Certain features emerge from what is said. One is the active cooperation, not just the complicity, of the police and some office-bearing politicians in the killing, arson and plunder. Another is the precise planning. This includes the careful sealing off of localities in which members of the minority community live, the accurate targetting of houses and shops belonging to them, the transport of adequate fuel to these areas. The speakers are witness to the economic strangulation of a community, although the scale of the action cannot be captured by individual experience. But the testimonies are a record, unconsciously given, of a deep-laid and long-nurtured plan. There are now enough reports to bear this out.

In the film, as in the other reports, what comes through is the cruelty of the killings. But it is important to appreciate the method in the brutality. Made to appear like the crazed actions born of “spontaneous Hindu outrage” at the burning of the Sabarmati Express, the murders were perfectly focussed. That so many of the targets were women, children and even foetuses was not because they are especially vulnerable but because they represent the perpetuation of a society. Killing them served a dual purpose, both pragmatic and symbolic. If it is possible to digest the hideousness of this fact, repeated over and over again by various reports, then there can be no doubt as to what Menon is asking the viewer to engage with. What is happening has nothing to do with communal riots, it is ethnic cleansing, or perhaps only the beginning of one. Menon makes us hear the survivors, to see what genocide breeds, to know that a fateful cycle of events has begun. It may be because of this that the film appears low key. It is struggling to give shape to the evidence.

But the general reception of the film, at least in Calcutta, is a precursor to another frightening realization. There were little stirs of excitement followed quite often by a sense of anti-climax. Is that because the film does not attempt to satisfy the unconscious bloodlust whetted by reports and images in the media, or try to awaken pity for the vulnerable? This might be part of the reason. But there is something else which is more ominous. It is probably a failure of understanding.

A nation used to communal riots has its own set of ready responses to any event that looks like one. The familiar responses can be got out of the closet and aired, depending in each case on the viewer’s position in the spectrum of political correctness or incorrectness. There is nothing obviously shocking in Menon’s film to disturb this structure of reactions. Genocide in independent India on this scale is not yet a habit, although the Sikh killings in Delhi in 1984 can be cited as precedent. So this event demands a dramatic reorientation of thought and feeling. To read about genocide in other parts of the world is one thing, to witness it, at however many removes, in one’s own land is quite another. This is where the reception machinery has broken down; it has failed to grasp the seemingly incredible reality. Unfortunately we cannot plead lack of evidence, like the German citizens who could not believe in the “rumours” about the fate of their Jewish neighbours. Here, instead, there is an information overload.

Such a failure would be a costly one. The country has nothing left now but the hope of overwhelming popular opinion and ruthless defence against organized destruction. It is no longer a simple question of conscience. If it were, then the “secular” politicians could have been forgiven, because no one expects conscience of politicians. Yet one is forced to wonder whether members of parliament were really aware of what they were doing when they voted to ensure that the Bharatiya Janata Party and they themselves continue in power. It seems quite possible they do not realize that this is no longer a question of rehabilitation and appeasement, of the birth of new vote banks of losers on the one hand and gainers on the other. But nobody, politician or otherwise, can have the excuse of not knowing, for example, what happened to the Kurds in Iraq, or what happened in Bosnia or Rwanda. The information overload is futile if the connections cannot be made.

There are other connections. The events in Gujarat acquire a global dimension because their immediate international context is the “anti-terror” coalition headed by the United States of America. Gujarat exposes the core of that understanding. Within its parameters, a state need not limit itself to punishing the murderers of Godhra but can smoothly proceed to release terror on a particular community.

The failure or unwillingness to accept the full implications of what is happening can make us oblivious to the chilling indicators of a new age being born. It is enough to mention one such indicator: the remarks of the prime minister and his colleagues about the mainstream national media. These leaders feel that the media should be more “responsible”, that they should not present a one-sided picture. One national daily had its office in Gujarat attacked because it was unable to offer more “pro-Hindu” news. In contrast, vernacular dailies in Gujarat, especially two of them, were more “responsible”, offering the right kind of “news” as well as incitement and information about possible targets. Narendra Modi, meanwhile, has declared that the non-governmental organizations are stepping out of line and Uma Bharti has demanded that organizations like Sahmat be investigated and punished if found guilty of falsifying facts. The targets are not necessarily limited to particular communities any more. If we fail to grasp what all this means, or the significance of casual name-dropping in the midst of a barrage of lies, it is already getting to be too late.

Gopal Menon’s film communicates foreboding, a foreboding generated by the lack of drama, the brief flash of corpses, the flatness of the testimonies and, most of all, by the young unlined faces with eyes that express no describable emotion. These youngsters represent that huge section of children and young adults who were witnesses, often the sole witnesses, of not only the destruction of their families and neighbours but also the barbarity and exhilaration of the rapists and murderers, and the mummy’s-day-out spirit of the middle-class looters. Destroying the bases of human feeling is one of the goals of genocide. This is the gift that the inhuman perpetrator passes on to his victim.

There is no escaping the omens.

   

 
 
PEOPLE/ GEORGE FERNANDES 
 
 
 
 

Method in his madness

When defence minister George Fernandes nonchalantly described the killing and rape of women in the ongoing Gujarat communal violence as “nothing new” in Parliament last Wednesday, few could believe their ears. After all, the utterance was not made by some upstart Bajrang Dal member but by an erstwhile socialist with human rights and civil liberties credentials. No surprise, women’s groups gheraoed his South Block office and several women MPs now want to meet President K.R. Narayanan and seek action against him.

At the surface level, Fernandes’s statement goes beyond the circle of reason. It appears to be just one of those frequently notorious gaffes — usually followed by either a denial or allegations of being misquoted — that is now a trademark of the Samata Party leader. After all, why would someone who castigated all political parties for doing nothing beyond struggling for power after visiting the violence-hit Ahmedabad make such a callous remark? The answer isn’t simple to come by. It is not easy reading the mind of someone who has been a fervent anti-nuclear lobbyist, who hangs a Hiroshima picture in his office and yet says, yes, to the nuclear bomb. It is not easy to map the mind of someone who is so comfortable with contradictions.

At 71, Fernandes still looks like someone in his late fifties: lean and supremely fit. Always dressed in cotton kurtas and pyjamas, he gives the appearance of being carelessly casual. But as writer Amitav Ghosh felt after meeting him, “There was something about the studied deliberateness of his costume that spoke of a not-inconsiderable personal vanity, an absorbing concern with appearances.” The contradictions, therefore, are an intrinsic part of the Mangalore-born Fernandes.

But political scientist Imtiaz Ahmed sees a method in his utterances. He believes that Fernandes wants to demonstrate an absolute loyalty to the Sangh Parivar. “Such a statement springs from a careful calculation about his future. Perhaps Fernandes feels that he would be more acceptable as a leader over Advani to the alliance partners in a post-Vajpayee scenario. So he wants to appear more loyal than the king to the Parivar,” he says.

An associate who has interacted with the senior Lok Sabha member from Nalanda at close quarters over a period of time explains further. According to him, Fernandes is now addicted to the state power which he enjoys. While it is true that the former Mumbai labour leader had served as the minister of communications, industry and the minister of railways in the past, he got a taste of real power only in the recent past when he became the NDA convenor as well as the defence minister.

It is also well-known that he enjoys the trust of the Prime Minister often acting as his crisis manager for crucial issues such as Gujarat and Ayodhya. It is a need-based relationship and he knows that with his socialist, human rights, anti-nuclear background, he is a vital and unique cog in the NDA-coalition wheel.

And now having tasted power in its rarefied form, Fernandes wants it at any cost. The forced resignation from the union cabinet in March, 2001, when he came under investigation for his alleged role in the Tehelka arms bribery scandal, played a decisive role in the shaping of the new Fernandes. “The seven months between March to October, 2001, when he was reinducted again, were extremely desperate for him. He appeared to be miserable without power,” says the associate.

It is well known that some of his partymen were against his return as defence minister. A few of them suggested he should have waited till the Tehelka probe came to its logical conclusion. “But he didn’t have the patience. And, by rushing in to become the defence minister again he showed the fact that he was desperate for power. His present utterances in Parliament needs to seen in this perspective,” a political observer says.

There is, then, a method in the mouthings of Fernandes. Writer Ghosh once questioned the politician about his involvement with the BJP. The conversation is recounted in Ghosh’s essay, Countdown, published in the New Yorker. “He had gone to the BJP only as a last resort,” Ghosh explains. “ ‘I tried many doors,’ he said. ‘I went to the BJP only when all other doors were closed. I was facing a wall. There was nowhere else to go.’ ‘’

For any socialist, the BJP, with its partisan ideology of Hindutva, should have been a political untouchable. Fernandes’ willingness to join hands with the same forces showed that his ideology was negotiable. As Ghosh writes in the same essay, “He had spent a lifetime in politics and the system had spun him around and around until what he did and what he believed no longer had the remotest connection. I knew it to be a fact that he still possessed a certain kind of idealism. But what had prevailed finally was vanity, the sheer vanity of power.”

Perhaps, it is this sense of idealism that made him take 18 trips to the icy glacier of Siachen, the world’s highest battlefield. On tours, Fernandes is known to hitch rides with the jawans on army trucks. Consuming the same food as the rank and file on the border and behaving forthright, he endeared himself both to the soldier and the officer.

There are many other individual virtues in Fernandes which draws unqualified admiration. It is his present choice of politics which many disapprove of. In his own way, Fernandes is an ambitious and dangerous pedlar who sells the secular image of his firebrand days for the Hindutva forces in return of power and pelf. It is all about the fall of a socialist.

   

 
 
THE TELEGRAPH DIARY 
 
 
 
 

Once a socialist...

It’s been exciting times in Parliament recently. The Lok Sabha debate over the opposition-sponsored censure motion against the AB Vajpayee government saw lots of high drama, much speechifying, a bit of mud-slinging — and full house for once. But amidst all the thunder and lightning, guess who it was that stole the limelight? Ram Vilas Paswan, who had resigned from the Union cabinet the day before in protest against the government’s stand over Gujarat. The entire opposition gave the Bihari babu a rousing welcome as he rose to speak, celebrating the return of the prodigal son. A former prime minister called him from the back benches where he had been sitting quietly and asked him to come, sit next to him. After his speech, Paswan was given a standing ovation by the opposition benches. Paswan seemed a changed man, much like his old self of the United Front and Janata Dal days. And not at all like the man who, as minister in the Vajpayee government, had not only said little or nothing about secularism, but had also said that Mandal was a mistake. In his speech on Tuesday he acknowledged that, yes, he had been the one to sponsor Mandal, and castigated the government over its callous attitude towards minorities. Those who know him say he looked much relieved. After all, all that dissembling must have been quite a strain.

Eyes shut tight, ears wide open

With temperatures rising above 40 degrees celsius, long afternoon siestas have become quite the order of the day with the political class. As it is, our netas are notorious for grabbing the proverbial forty winks at meetings and functions, preferably in the full glare of television cameras. Remember HD Deve Gowda and his embarrassing habit of snoozing...err...listening with his eyes shut tight. The other day it was the turn of Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh to be caught on the wrong foot. Chandrika Kumaratunga was holding forth on the pros and cons of the pluralist nation-state at the first Madhavrao Scindia Memorial Lecture, and who do we see but Diggy raja catnapping in the very first row. To be fair, many in the audience had been unable to resist the comforts of the airconditioning and the padded seats. But you couldn’t make out from the applause at the end of the speech, Singh being the loudest to clap. Compensation, you see.

Cast out of the saffron heavens

Poor Shanta Kumar. The food minister in the AB Vajpayee cabinet finds himself the outcast in sangh parivar circles for having said that Narendra Modi should go. At first it had seemed that no one had even noticed the comment, except for RSS chief KS Sudarshan who ticked Kumar off for having talked about party matters in public. But things hotted up once the saffron bigwigs decided to defend Modi, come what may. Now, even the prime minister has distanced himself from Kumar, while for the saffron hardliners, Kumar has suddenly become a “traitor” who ought to be thrown out of the party. And to think that Shanta Kumar was a member of the RSS long before Modi. Obviously, in the saffron scheme of things, loyalty and integrity don’t count for much.

Losing height and heart

Another man finds himself shorter. The discovery comes only days after Ghulam Nabi Azad found himself cut down to size and shunted to the mountains of Srinagar. Now AICC gen-sec, Kamal Nath, finds himself in similar plight. Gen-sec Nath had organized the highly successful Congress chief ministers’ conference in Guwahati, which reportedly impressed madam. Yet, on her return to Delhi, Sonia promptly took away the charge of Assam from Nath. Now that the AICC session is being organized in Delhi, and the gen-sec in charge is once again dear old Nath, our man from Chhindwara is in jitters. What if he loses Delhi as well? Nath is said to be particularly upset over the rise of Ambika Soni and Ahmad Patel in madam’s proximity charts. He supposedly believes it to be grossly unfair because neither Soni nor Patel has ever won even a municipal poll. On top of that, he has steadfastly kept to the side of Sonia madam. Not a frontrunner then, is he?

Fate quite well known

A day before the deputy speaker of the Lok Sabha, PM Sayeed, broke the deadlock in the house by conceding to the demand for a debate on Gujarat under Rule 184, Congress leaders were happily announcing to scribes that they knew what the decision would be. And they were proved right. But Sayeed, the seventh time MP from Lakshadweep who had consciously avoided all controversy in all stints, had himself gone through acute dilemma before making up his mind, and that partly because he knew what the reaction would be. “Not only am I a Congressman, but on top of it I am a Muslim, and my decision...is bound to be misunderstood in some quarters.” You bet. Decision announced, the ruling party was seen busy looking for a full-fledged speaker the next day.

Celebrating in style

Man of ishtyle. The Chhattisgarh CM, Ajit Jogi, is destined to make it to page three of the capital’s glossies. On his 56th birthday, he is supposed to have airdashed to the sleepy hamlet of Achanakmur in the heart of tribal Chhattisgarh. The villagers were delighted to have the CM in their midst. For five hours, they made merry, dancing and singing for Jogi’s eyes only. And the CM could never have enough of that hospitality. There was local food and drinks on offer. Why hasn’t Bollywood thought of birthdays in tribal-lands?

Footnote

What’s in her mouth?

Was Sonia Gandhi really chewing gum in the Lok Sabha during the debate on Gujarat? Or were Uma Bharti and George Fernandes merely trying to malign the leader of the opposition, making a sin of “childishness” and accusing her of lowering the dignity of the august house? The consensus among the mediapersons sitting in the gallery of the central legislature is that the lady was clearly munching on something, but it didn’t look like gum. More likely it was laung. A few cloves might seem quite unexceptionable, being hundred per cent swadeshi and all that.

But even if Sonia Gandhi was chewing gum, pray, what was so wrong with that? Think of the number of legislators who chew pan or gutkha. (Wasn’t there some poor benighted soul who banned gutkha sometime back?) Chewing gum is at least less unsightly. And more congenial to the health-conscious. But who cares about all that? Certainly not Fernandes, Bharti & Co, who would do anything, spread any canard, to gain a few brownie points in their defence of the indefensible.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Longer the message, shorter the visit

Sir — It was a massive missive that Om Prakash Chautala actually conveyed to J. Jayalalithaa on his short visit to Chennai (“Surprise guest for Amma”, May 1). And never mind Amma’s complete silence about it all. There is no way she could have spoken about the government’s profound gratitude towards her for being neutral in the Rule 184 scramble in Parliament, or about hints dropped about any future entente. Never mind Andipatti’s adulation, Amma is quite sure that Tamil Nadu is not yet prepared for rekindled ties with saffron. Which means Chautala will have to make more of his short visits to Chennai on other pretexts.
Yours faithfully,
J. Chatterjee, Calcutta

Book keeping

Sir — The report, “Bonfire of books on the grounds of National Library” (April 22), was disheartening. More than a week after library books were found burning inside the compound, no arrests have been made. That the books were burnt on the library grounds and in the middle of the afternoon show that the culprits were fearless and that security is extraordinary lax inside the premises.

The state government has to take steps to ensure that the National Library is brought up to the standard of other national libraries. The library, which for long has been touted as the biggest repository of books in the country, has deteriorated beyond belief. The lack of involvement of accountability in daily operations and the fact that the library is understaffed have both contributed to this decline. If the state cannot afford to look after the library, monetary support should be sought from private agencies and corporate houses.

Finally, the less said about the state of security in the library the better. Security guards were apparently taking turns to ride a motorcycle when the arson was committed on the library grounds. Could it get more ridiculous than this?

Yours faithfully
Sumant Poddar, Calcutta

Sir — The bonfire of books on the grounds of the National Library is a shocking incident, especially since employees of the library were allegedly behind this misdeed. Since 1903, the National Library has housed several invaluable books. But the environment in the library has worsened over the decades. One reason for this is the way the library is run. Its administration is in a shambles. There is no permanent director. The director of the Indian Museum, Shyamal Kanti Chakraborty, doubles as the director of the library. Further, since there have been no recruitments since 1993, about 154 positions are lying vacant in the library. No wonder there is never enough people to man the library. Those frequenting the library are often harassed by the uncooperative staff. Labour unions have added to the trouble.

Calcutta has let many of its historical treasures to go waste. The National Library is part of that list. What is most shocking is that despite the brouhaha, there have been no further reports of the investigations undertaken. It seems that the incident will soon be forgotten and the guilty will go unpunished.

Yours faithfully,
Diptimoy Ghosh, Calcutta

Birth register

Sir — On the night of April 24, I saw a BBC world news report which threw an interesting light on Iran. Various shops stacked with condoms and contraceptive pills and a number of vasectomy clinics were shown. According to the report, pre-marriage birth control counselling is now mandatory, and couples with more than two children have to pay a fine in Iran. The report ended with a senior Iranian government official stating that it was hoped that underdeveloped Islamic countries would try and control population growth in a similar manner. Maybe it is time for India to follow suit.
Yours faithfully,
Sushanta Mukherjee, Calcutta

Sir — One finds agony aunt columns now replete with queries about sex from teenagers. Shouldn’t the Indian authorities take their responsibility of sex education more seriously?

Yours faithfully,
T.B. Saha, Calcutta

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