Editorial / A hero of saffron
In search of antiquity
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

Indians love heroes. This devotion manifests itself in all spheres of life, from politics to culture to sports. There are national icons and there are regional ones. Every political party also has its own pantheon. When a party is in power, it tries to promote its own idol. New icons emerge or are pushed into prominence by interested parties. The latest attempt in this direction comes from the party that now claims to rule the country, the Bharatiya Janata Party. It is trying to give iconic status to V.D. Savarkar, the father of the idea of Hindutva and a former president of the Hindu Mahasabha, the earliest avatar of the BJP. The home minister, Mr L.K. Advani, flew recently to Port Blair to rename the airport there after Savarkar. A national holiday on Savarkar’s birthday may not be far off. The BJP has innumerable precedents to follow in this regard.

The choice of the airport in Port Blair to honour the new icon is related to the fact that Savarkar spent 14 years in the jail that the British had built in the Andaman islands on the model of Jeremy Bentham’s Panoptican to detain Indian freedom fighters. The Cellular Jail in the Andamans has entered the lore of Indian nationalism. Savarkar belonged to that era when nationalism was fire in the blood for most young Indians. He chose to free his country from British rule through violence and terror. He operated out of London. It was believed that he supplied arms from Europe to revolutionary societies in India; he was accused of supplying the pistol with which A.M.T. Jackson, the collector of Nasik, was shot. A warrant was issued for Savarkar’s arrest in 1910; he fled to Paris but he was arrested on his return to London. He was shipped to Bombay. He made a dramatic escape through the porthole but was captured. After three trials in India, he was sent off to the Cellular Jail to serve his sentence. All this, brave though it was, could not have earned for Savarkar a footnote in the history of Indian nationalism since many men and women of his generation performed similar feats of heroism, suffered for their commitment and, today, are not even remembered.

The elevation of Savarkar to an icon at the behest of the BJP is based on Savarkar’s activities after his release. Savarkar became the prophet of Hindutva, the ideology that India is the land of Hindus and that non-Hindus are foreigners. For Savarkar, India’s freedom struggle began with the coming of the Muslims to India. In his personal beliefs, Savarkar was an atheist but he saw Hindutva as an ideology for the mobilization of Hindus against non-Hinduism. Savarkar gave birth to Hindu separatism. He called upon Hindus to be sectarian and to be full of hate for non-Hindus. This ideology fed directly into the making of what is today called the sangh parivar. The idiom and the politics of hatred that the sangh parivar propagates in the name of Hinduism are derived from Savarkar’s writings. It is entirely apt therefore that Savarkar should be honoured now when the politics of hatred has become shrill and real. Violence and fanaticism were the two talismans of Savarkar’s life. His followers have taken up his cause and the BJP, claiming to rule India, colludes in both: violence and hatred. Unfortunate the country that needs Savarkar as a hero.


Yesterday, the temperature in Delhi touched 45 degree centigrade. A flame-thrower breeze hosed the heat into every corner of the classroom where some forty students puzzled over questions set by an anonymous examiner to test their knowledge of Islamic studies. We shrivelled in ours seats, the students and I. I was their Invigilator, their policeman.

Invigilation is a stupefying business: three hours of vigilant suspicion. I had brought my newspaper along but it was full of arson and death in Gujarat and it didn’t seem right to be reading it there. The more orthodox male students were wearing beards and caps; in the enforced idleness of that classroom, a twenty-year old image surfaced in my mind. Other students in beards and caps pacing the courtyard of an old mosque, heads deep in their books, swotting for some exam like this one, in the campus of a Muslim university a thousand years older than Jamia, where I teach. The memory was of Al Azhar and I turned it around in my mind lovingly in that oven of a room, because it had been part of a winter holiday.

London to Cairo via Sofia. Balkan Airways was the cheapest fare by miles and I didn’t need a visa for Sofia (twenty-seven hour stopover) because this was the winter of 1980 and Bulgaria believed that India was on its side of the Iron Curtain in the Cold War. The first leg of the flight was accomplished on a very small plane manned by very large air hostesses wearing little moustaches. Nearly every cliché about the Eastern Bloc had been crowded into that tiny plane. There was a severe bout of turbulence: I looked out of the window, then quickly averted my eyes: the plane was flying by the simple expedient of flapping its wings.

Sofia was cold in a communist way. There were no shops but lots of Stalinist public buildings, a church — Santa Sophia — filled with smoke from censers swung by bearded priests, and the tomb of Georgi Dmitrov, Bulgaria’s own Lenin, where he lay in a suit under glass in a vault guarded by jack-booted soldiers standing like statues in the falling snow.

Cairo was no colder than Delhi in winter and it was quite the grandest city I had ever seen. Warming to the pyramids was impossible — they were just shapes — but the Sphinx was something and the Pharaonic Museum had the greatest single collection in the world on show: all the loot from Tutankhamen’s tomb under one roof. It also had Al Azhar, the oldest university in the world. I took a southbound train the next day to catch up with Ghosh, who had set off earlier with friends for Luxor. It was the only rail line in Egypt and it ran all the way South to Abu Simbel and back. The Soviets had built it before they fell out of favour.

Luxor, the Valley of the Dead, the Great Temple at Karnak, the tomb of Akhenaton in El Minya, I thought we had seen enough ancient stuff to last us a lifetime, but Ghosh was a proper traveller, impatient with advertised ruins, and always in search of obscure antiquities. We had a special symbol on the map we were using that indicated “antiquities”. We didn’t always find them.

There was the time we set off across the Eastern Desert looking for Coptic monasteries marked on the map. We reached the Red Sea without finding them; what we did find was a horrible little prefab town, Hurghada, famous only for being bombed by Israel during the Yom Kippur war. The next morning we flagged down a truck and bumped about on its flatbed for hours looking for the same monasteries and found nothing.

There was going to be great party thrown by people we knew in the Indian mission in Cairo but we were being Travellers, so we decided to spend New Year’s in El Faiyum, which Ghosh claimed was a great oasis, just off Cairo. According to his map, it was dotted with antiquities. We bought a bottle of gin as a precaution against disappoint- ment and left the bright lights of Cairo behind.

Ghosh, who had been doing fieldwork in a village in the Nile delta for the past seven months, had just become fluent in Arabic so we kept asking our way around the alleged oasis which I expected would be a compact body of circular water with stands of trees. I never saw it. The quest for the antiquities ended the second day we were there. We were sitting in a café drinking Turkish coffee and smoking duty-free cigarettes when Ghosh decided that the proprietor was a likely native informant. Armed with the map he said the preliminary things (I can’t remember any more but either “Ahlan!” or “Allahbarifique” or something like that) and then pointed at the map and asked for the location of the antiquities.

Ghosh’s Arabic was a great asset but sometimes, and this was one of those times, it was a positive drawback. We looked enough like Egyptians to pass and Ghosh’s Arabic robbed us of the benevolence normally extended to foreigners. On one occasion a hotel refused to give us rooms (on the sound desi principle that he didn’t want to do business with the locals) and we had to take our passports out before he changed his mind. The café owner decided that we were smugglers of unknown provenance and with an officiousness peculiar to Egyptians, he became the Law.

“Antiquities, eh?” he said menacingly. Then he put his hand out and waggled his fingers in a give-me way. “Passaporth!” he demanded. This had happened once before in El Minya on our way to Akhenaton’s cave tomb and Ghosh had gritted his teeth and complied, but this was a week of hard travelling later. “Oh f...!” he said in English and we stalked out.

It was a relief to get to Alexandria where the antiquities were certifiably extinct. Ghosh and I made pilgrimages to more recent landmarks. We drank coffee at the Triannon where Laurence Durrell had once idled, laying in experience for the Alexandria Quartet, we visited the faculty of arts to which Ghosh had an affiliation, we walked about looking at the sea and savoured the miracle of being so emphatically abroad.

The second evening we were there, we dined well. We drank our way steadily through bottles of a wine called Omar Khayyam, smoked a packet or more of cigarettes called Nefertiti and ate dozens of mussels. It was the first time I had eaten anything out of a clam shell and I swallowed them whole without chewing because their flesh quivered when I squeezed lemon onto it and I didn’t want them moving on my tongue.

Afterwards, we walked unsteadily back along the great curving promenade by the sea. We spoke again of Durrell, wistfully this time, because Ghosh and I knew that the Indian novel in English was a colonial leftover, that it was impossible for an Indian of our generation to write worthwhile fiction in the language we knew best. Ghosh, who was enrolled in Oxford for a D.Phil, had been away from England for nearly a year, so I filled him in on this and that. There had been gossip in the English papers before Christmas about a novel written by an Indian. We shook our heads in sympathy and in derision: another desi in London who thought he was a novelist. We laughed.

I’d laugh now, but the heat isn’t funny, the many heads are still bent over answer books and there’s an hour’s worth of invigilation still left to do. I studied in a Jesuit school while my capped and bearded students generally come to Jamia after a schooling in madrasahs. But we have something in common. Like Ghosh and I, they have spent a lifetime learning a foreign language.

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Don’t get it wrong, lady

First things first These are not the best of times for Arundhati Roy. A few months ago, she rubbed the judges of the Supreme Court the wrong way and escaped incarceration in Tihar by the skin of her teeth. And now the patron saint of the Narmada Bachao Andolan has fallen foul of a fellow writer. In an article in the Spectator, this writer tore the Booker Prize winner to shreds. “Colossal self-importance”, outsize ego”, “sanctimonious tone” and “flatulent prose” are only some of the colourful epithets used. The essay went down well with a lot of people — but the saffron brigade really lapped it up. The BJP-wallahs are angry with an essay Roy recently penned for a national magazine, “Democracy: Who’s she when she’s at home?” In it she wrote: “A mob surrounded the house of former Congress MP Iqbal Ehsan Jafri...His phone calls to the Director-General of Police, Police Commissioner...were ignored...the mob ...stripped his daughters and burned them alive...then they beheaded him.” A few days later, in a signed article in a widely circulated English daily, T.A. Jaffri, son of the murdered man, wrote: “We were all too numbed and shocked. Among my brothers and sisters, I am the only one living in India...My sister and brother live in the US...” Sangh parivar activists, already angry with the media, see this as yet more evidence of the “biased” coverage of the Gujarat violence. Roy had better be careful in getting her facts right, or she might end up doing more harm than good to the cause she has so gratuitously espoused.

Same kid on two blocs

For the greater good? Hopefully, that is one purpose that might be served by the growing popularity of Shahnawaz Husain in the LK Advani camp. So far regarded as one annointed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee (which implicitly meant the Advani camp would have very little liking for him), Husain, is now much loved by Advani himself. At least that is one impression that came through at Port Blair where the two met recently. While Advani gushingly praised Husain, the latter lunged for his feet as a mark of respect. Why this display of affection? Husain says he learnt a lot from Advani. And Advani? Well, he has also had his lesson or two. Although it was Omar Abdullah who delivered them. After his sudden departure during the censure motion, the party has been hard-pressed for a Muslim face for the NDA. And Husain has provided a fresh one. Shouldn’t Advani love him for that?

Man of many parts

Manohar Joshi, our new Lok Sabha speaker, loves cricket and movies. So do most Indians, but Joshi is not one of those content to watch the game from the sidelines — principal sahib, as he is fondly called, is a former president of the Mumbai Cricket Association and wields considerable influence in the country’s cricketing capital even now.

The former heavy industries minister also has a toehold in Mumbai’s dream factory. He used to be Nana Patekar’s local guardian when the actor was a student. Who would have thought that Bal Thackeray’s yes-man in Delhi has such a multi-faceted personality?

Wedding of the season

When it comes to their daughter’s marriages, most Indian fathers are spendthrifts. And if the father happens to be Laloo Prasad Yadav, all arrangements have to be done in royal style. Remember how before Misa’s marriage, Laloo had overnight provided a road connection and electricity for his son-in-law’s village? The self-appointed messiah of social justice is now going about the wedding of his second daughter in similar fashion. Invitations to the ceremony to be held later this month have already been sent to all the capital’s VVIPs and Page 3 regulars. Attached to each invitation is a return ticket to and from Patna. Also, limousines have been placed at the disposal of each guest. Prem Gupta, Laloo’s man for all seasons, has been given the onerous task of herding the VVIPs into a chartered flight to Patna. Whoever said that politicians are our modern day maharajahs obviously had Laloo in mind.

She will not mind

Madam Sonia Gandhi recently proved that she can not only confidently munch on laung (or was it chewing gum after all?) in Parliament, she can also devour her dosa with as much composure, sitting all alone in the Central Hall in the Lok Sabha. Trying to meet her eyes was old foe, Sharad Pawar. Egging on other Congresswallahs was former PM, Chandra Shekhar, who said with great confidence, “Go and meet her. She will not mind.” Since when has Chandra Shekhar been mind-reading? After he lost his Ballia farm?

Offline in dedication

Lights, camera. Law minister, Arun Jaitley has realized that with the media focus constantly on him, he needs badly to keep in shape. Jaitley has apparently told journalists that he has taken to exercising seriously and even keeps his cell phone switched off while he sweats it out at the gym. Which means that he won’t entertain calls even if they are from the PM himself. Suits him. Many say Jaitley is paranoid about calls from the big boss given the possibility that he may be asked to shift from the cabinet to the party to take on the task of revitalizing it. But did he need to work so hard for that?

Cut and dried

Wicked minds think that supercop KPS Gill, appointed adviser to the Gujarat government, will have to say goodbye to his station sooner than many believe. A BJP spokesman laid it out straight. He asked scribes not to bother too much. Gill cannot stay in Gujarat. Why? “Because Gujarat is a dry state,” was the answer. Point noted.

Footnote / For the most priceless lessons

Destination Delhi. For the Manipur chief minister, Ibobi Singh, Lutyens’ city has assumed crucial significance, but not because of any talks with extremists or the home ministry. Ibobi is there with a more onerous task — apparently to get his children admitted to a reputed school in the city. He is reportedly at 99, South Avenue almost every day. And there, almost every day, he finds he has to return on the morrow. This place is the work station of Salman Khurshid, president of the association which represents this school. He finds himself in an unenviable situation. Even as president it becomes difficult for someone to get accommodation for all the bright stars of the ministerial children’s firmament. But then Ibobi is not the only anxious father. Khurshid is supposedly flooded with similar requests for admission from Congressmen who would do anything to see their children comfortably settled in any of the 85 branches of the school. Since he is such hot property, Khurshid might be wondering why madam has not considered offering him the post of AICC gen-sec.    


Wrong man for the job

Tough job Sir — The appointment of K.P. S. Gill, as security adviser to Gujarat, will only invite more allegations of human rights violations (“Gill stuck with Gujarat squad”, May 10). Gill may have succeeded in striking at the roots of terrorism in Punjab, but his tenure was extremely controversial. Also, Gill’s image as a no-holds-barred law-enforcer may not reassure the minority community who would find it very difficult to trust him. If the Centre is serious about restoring the confidence of the people, it should first suspend the police officers in Gujarat who are hand-in-glove with the rioters.

Yours faithfully,
Shailaja Tripati, Bangalore

Double standards

Sir — It will never be known whether the bomb blast in Karachi was targetted at the French naval experts or cricket teams of Pakistan and New Zealand (“Foreigners bleed in Pak blast” May 9). But that is not unusual. Neither is the Pakistan president’s hypocritical statement after the blast in which he implored the international community to try and understand Pakistan’s domestic problems and help it fight terrorism. Once again, Pakistan has tried to implicate India. In fact, the police chief of Sindh indicated that India could have been involved in the killings.

It is sad that Pakistan has reverted to India-bashing days after the Pakistan foreign minister, Abdul Sattar, talked about a joint effort with India to combat terrorism. Instead of shifting the blame, the Pakistan government should sincerely try to find the reason behind the attack. Given that the New Zealand team narrowly escaped being hurt, the International Cricket Council should tighten the security of foreign teams touring the subcontinent.

Yours faithfully,
Sumant Poddar, Calcutta

Sir — It is quite certain that the purpose of the Karachi attack was to undermine Pakistan’s security as well as attract international attention. Would Pervez Musharraf now sincerely take action against terrorist organizations in Pakistan? Will he understand India’s position now that Pakistan too has become a victim of such attacks?

Yours faithfully,
Manish Jaiswal, Calcutta

No alternative

Sir — The extraordinary alignment of Roman Catholics, Protestants, communists, as well as the Jewish and Muslim communities in the French presidential elections to keep the far-right leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, from coming to power bears testimony to the broad and secular mindset of the French electorate (“France pours to pen down Le Pen”, May 6). Even the communists were forced to set aside their reservations about Jacques Chirac, who had been accused of being corrupt and who had a rather indifferent first term in office. One wishes that political parties and the electorate in India similarly worked together to oust the Bharatiya Janata Party out of power.

Only a short distance away from France, another incident in the United Kingdom exemplified the political sagacity of the West. The sacking of Ann Winterton, the British Conservative Party member of parliament, for cracking a racist joke against Pakistanis exemplifies the maturity and sense of responsibility of political establishments in countries like Britain and France (“UK politician pays with job for Pak joke”, May 6). Their behaviour could well be contrasted to that of the coalition partners in the ruling National Democratic Alliance in India and the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, himself, who has time and again tried to reinforce his secularist image despite his defence of the communal Gujarat chief minister.

Yours faithfully,
Kajal Chatterjee, Sodepur

Sir — The defeat of Jean-Marie Le Pen in the French presidential elections is a triumph of democracy. However, given that the mandate in favour of Jacques Chirac was more a verdict against Le Pen, the French president would have to take steps to deal with the people’s disenchantment as well as stem corruption. If Chirac is unable to come up with a better showing in his second term in office, Le Pen could find his way back to the hot seat.

Yours faithfully,
Rupa Saha, Calcutta

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