Editorial 1 / Chicken tikka at cannes
A matter of usefulness
This above all/ Of marriage and morals
People / Satish Kumar
Letters to the editor

Ms Sushma Swaraj loves it in Cannes. This is her second time, and the fun seems to get better. Between Aishwarya Rai and herself, the glories of Indian commercial cinema are being amply showcased to the world. And the Carlton had even agreed to serve samosas and chicken tikka at the India Day reception. Ms Swaraj has described Cannes as a “beautiful market”, and herself as having “brought India” to it. But why should the information and broadcasting minister, of all people, be so conspicuously selling Indian cinema on the French Riviera?

The answer to this must consider a long, and rather enigmatic, tradition of state patronage being bestowed on cinema in India. The West Bengal government’s abiding film buffery is perhaps the best example of this. The state here has involved itself in every stage of film production, from shooting to projection. This is accompanied by an equally concerted disregard for what the rest of the civilized world would unanimously consider very much the finer among the arts. Priceless libraries perish, there is no effort to buy up and preserve important paintings, less than scant support is given to dwindling traditions of classical music. But cinema remains the darling of the state, unlike anywhere else in the world, although this does anything but guarantee improvement in the quality of Bengali cinema. The state and Central governments’ unquestioned role as what Ms Swaraj calls the “pro-active facilitator” of Indian or regional cinema must therefore be questioned radically. Facilitator, yes; but proactive, not quite so much. (The film and television institutes at Pune and Calcutta also remain funded and controlled by the government.) It is certainly the government’s role to cut down legal, financial and bureaucratic hindrances to the free marketing of Indian cinema to the world. But “showcasing” — Ms Swaraj’s favourite word — Indian cinema to the world is certainly not the information and broadcasting minister’s job. If any cabinet minister is to facilitate its marketing at all, it should be the finance minister. The presence of delegates from the Confederation of Indian Industry and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry seems far more appropriate at the beautiful market than that of Ms Swaraj.

The issue here could be taken a step further. Keeping Ms Swaraj occupied — as the nation’s moral guardian or cinematic impresario — seems to have become a problem for the Centre. And one could actually question here the existence of such a cabinet portfolio as information and broadcasting. If the Indian state is to become minimal, then it is ministries like this which ought to go first. It is only through this kind of streamlining that bureaucratic officiousness regarding art and culture can be brought under control. From Pather Panchali to Devdas, the energies of Indian cinema could always go forth into the world without looking towards the paraphernalia of the state, and some of its more obtrusive peddlars. If Ms Swaraj did not busy herself with embodying Indian cinema or modesty, then she would perhaps be left with very little to do.


When Washington urges restraint on India, it should be reminded of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s snub to Bertrand Russell’s plea for concessions during the Cuban missile crisis. “I think your attention might well be directed to the burglars rather than to those who have caught the burglars,” Kennedy retorted.

This has been India’s position ever since Josef Korbel, who fathered an equally obtuse daughter in Madeleine Albright, first equated victim and aggressor when India complained to the United Nations about the invasion of Kashmir. It suited America’s Cold War interests then to pamper Pakistan. Things are different now because of the shift in the global balance of power and India’s greater strategic consequence. But India’s anguish still will not make a fundamental difference to the United States of America unless it discovers stronger national reasons for taking a more objective view of the assaults to which a billion Indians are subjected.

East Timor, which attained independence last Sunday, is a case study in realpolitik. Australia, the US and Britain, now the benign godfathers of this newest impoverished member of the comity of nations, were the very powers that betrayed East Timor to Indonesia in 1974 when Portugal’s 400-year-old colonial administration collapsed in the wake of the anti-Salazar revolution. British and American motives were strategic more than commercial while Australia’s was pure greed. It coveted East Timor waters which boast the world’s seventh largest offshore gas and oil reserves valued at more than $ 40 billion.

As the Australian ambassador in Jakarta reported to Canberra at the time, a treaty to acquire this fuel “could be much more readily negotiated with Indonesia than with Portugal or with independent Portuguese Timor”. In other words, it would suit Australia if Indonesia gobbled up East Timor. “I know I am recommending a pragmatic rather than a principled stand,” he added, “but that is what national interest and foreign policy is all about.”

Heavily involved in Vietnam, the US regarded Jose Alexandre “Xanana” Gusmao’s independence movement as suspiciously leftist. In Jakarta, on the other hand, the Americans had helped Suharto overthrow Sukarno who was seen as too pro-Chinese and too nonaligned for the West’s comfort. And so they tacitly encouraged Suharto to invade and occupy East Timor in a campaign that cost about 200,000 Timorese lives. Australia trained the dreaded Kopassus elite corps commanded by Suharto’s son-in-law. The US and Britain trained senior Indonesian officers. Both governments armed Suharto’s army, British Aerospace providing the machine guns to shoot down East Timorese protesters.

Indonesia does not have to be placated any longer. Nor can East Timor be a beachhead for the ideological enemy. Thanks to the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union’s disappearance and huge opportunities in China’s market-driven economy, the West can don its liberal democratic mantle and give its benediction to the rebirth of Gusmao’s infant republic which it strangled when it was first born 27 years ago. No great power allows itself to be imprisoned by ideals or static alignments. Yet, the US weighed in on East Timor’s side only when the Timorese themselves demonstrated the confidence and ability to take decisive action.

There is a lesson in that on how American policy can be influenced. India’s relations with the US have already improved to an extent that was unthinkable when P.V. Narasimha Rao became prime minister. Colin Powell’s denunciation of Abdul Ghani Lone’s murder as “a terrorist act designed to undermine the hopes of the Kashmiri people for free and fair elections without violence” confirms that the Americans do not have to be taught ground reality. But they are still not convinced that acting on the logic of that reality would serve their national agenda or that India expects a price for its part in the multi-faceted partnership that George W. Bush envisions. By continuing to give without bargaining, India will end up like South Korea or the Philippines in the Cold War years.

However, it serves no purpose to deny that the feeling persists, not just in the US but elsewhere too, that no matter what the legalities of the situation, India’s case on Kashmir is not impeccable. New Delhi may not have sold its argument well. Pakistani propaganda might be more effective. The religious divide may seem more impenetrable to others than it does to us. The effect is that while few abroad have heard of the plight of Kashmir’s Pandits, everyone knows that with or without Pakistani help, Kashmiri Muslims are fighting for emancipation.

But Washington would not have had much difficulty in suppressing scruples of conviction or morality if other and more powerful factors had not also argued in favour of continuing to support Pakistan. It is a fallacy to suppose that this is a fallout of the September 11 attacks, and that the Republican administration would have rushed to India’s aid if it had not been for the small matter of Pakistani help against the taliban and al Qaida. The Republican platform promised to strengthen America’s “longstanding relationship with Pakistan which remains crucial to the peace of the region” before Afghanistan became a live issue. Then, Bush’s famous gut reaction about Pervez Musharraf being the “guy” who was “going to bring stability to the country” which was “good news for the subcontinent” gave him away. As early as June last year, Christina Rocca was stressing Pakistan’s importance to the US.

On the day before the Kaluchak massacre, Douglas J. Feith, US under secretary of defence for policy, went into raptures about Musharraf at the US-India defence industry seminar in Washington. He was “a man who is trying to accomplish something strategic and historic for Pakistan,” Feith said. “He is trying to remake his country — to point it in a new direction that can increase its openness, its prosperity and its opportunities for better relations with the US and India. On this difficult experiment in statecraft hinge large national interests of Pakistan, India and the US. Islamist extremism and terrorism are a threat not only to India and the US but also to President Musharraf and the success of his grand political project. That is how we see it. We all have a stake in his success.”

I don’t know how his Indian listeners — Confederation of Indian Industry and US-India Business Council luminaries — responded to that panegyric. Did they see it as integral to the ritual rhetoric of “natural allies”? Feith’s clear message was that the US believes that Musharraf is on the right track and there is no need to pressure him to sing a different tune that we on this side of the border can hear, understand and appreciate.

This was a curious message to send for the US now explicitly condemns as acts of terrorism guerrilla outrages that are committed by organizations that claim to speak for Kashmiri self-determination. Having itself taken action against some of these organizations, Washington has made it clear that Islamabad is expected to do the same. But fearing that Musharraf will be toppled if he is restrained, it has not made compliance the price of continuing support.

The US needs to reconsider this indulgence and the extent of Musharraf’s usefulness. He did not stop Pakistani “volunteers” joining the taliban. He has not withdrawn support from the jihad in Kashmir. He has allowed taliban and al Qaida survivors to find refuge in Pakistan. His public pledges on terrorism are not backed by action. He regularly subjects the American forces in his country to indirect blackmail. And he is no Ariel Sharon whose constituency reaches deep into America’s financial establishment. He would buckle under if America cracked the whip.

US refusal to do so only drives the subcontinent closer to the brink. It encourages Musharraf to further mischief and compounds India’s anger. The conflagration, if it comes, will be the handiwork of a superpower that subordinated global peace to its immediate vindictiveness.


As usual, Scandinavians set patterns of social relationships which other Western countries take a little time to follow. The latest figures adduced by Sarah Lyall in The Washington Post show that almost half the children born in Norway are born to unwed mothers. The example is set by the royal family: Crown-prince Haakon lived with his girlfriend, who bore him a child some years before he married her. Sweden and Denmark follow close behind. In Iceland, 62 per cent of the children are of unwed mothers. In England and France, the figure of single-parent children is around 40 per cent. Switzerland and Italy are a little more conservative though heavily pregnant brides are not an uncommon sight in Italian churches. Even in a devout Catholic country like Ireland, where divorce was legalized only seven years ago, around 31 per cent of the children are born to unwed women.

Are governments of countries where the institution of marriage is fast vanishing doing something to preserve what remains of it? Evidently not. In most Western countries, the stigma of being born to unwed parents has been erased. Schools no longer demand names of both parents at the time of a child’s admission. Children of married as well as unmarried parents have the same rights of inheritance and financial benefits. In Britain, prime minister Tony Blair’s right hand man, Alistair Campbell, has three children through his lady companion. In France, “there is very little difference between being married and cohabitating”. Only in the United States of America, the government is trying hard to conserve the institution of marriage. But for how long?

India still remains a highly conservative society which regards marriage as a sacred union. But the incidence of divorce keeps going up rapidly. So also pregnancy among the unmarried girls and abortions. The vast majority of our girls are not economically independent and know that if they are not virgins, their chances of finding suitable husbands are very slim. But in India, as in the West, marriage is fast losing its sanctity and may, in the foreseeable future, become a relic of the past.

A life less ordinary

Much has been written on Amrita Shergil (1913-1941). Most of it, like Karl Khandalawala’s book, dealt with her achievements as an artist; one by Iqbal Singh, who befriended her in the later years of her life are pseudo-biographical. He knew very little of her childhood and growing years in Hungary and Budapest. About the only one who bothered to dig into her past and has the nerve to expose her not only as a great painter but also as a woman uncontrolled and with varied passions is the son of her only sister, Indira — the painter, Vivan Sundaram. He inherited Ivy Lodge, a lovely cottage in Kasauli sitting atop a ridge which commands a spectacular view of snow-clad Himalayas in the north and the sprawling Punjab plains 6,000 feet below through which the river Sutlej runs. It was in this cottage that Indira spent the last years of her life all alone and died unnoticed even by her servants.

For some summers, Vivan organized seminars for playwrights and actors and built an open-air theatre on the hillside for them to show their skills. He rarely comes up these days. A few days ago he was there with his wife, Geeta Kapur. He dropped in on me late one night and gave me his new, illustrated book Re-take of Amrita. He describes it as a digital photomontages based on photographs by Umrao Singh Shergil (1870-1954) and photographs from the Shergil family archive. I presume it is a part of the limbering-up exercise before he produces a full length documentary on Amrita to be produced and directed by Kumar Shahani.

It also happens that I got to meet, albeit very briefly, all members of the Shergil-Sundaram family mentioned in the book. Sardar Umrao Singh was the brother of Sir Sunder Singh Majithia. They were landowning aristocrats who also owned a large sugar mill in Saraya, Uttar Pradesh. Sunder Singh went into politics and became a minister in the Punjab government. (His son Surjit Singh was later Central minister in Nehru’s government).

Umrao Singh was a wayward maverick with scholastic interests: Sanskrit, yoga, Hindu philosophy, astronomy and so on. Soon after he lost his first wife, he ran into a Hungarian, Marie Antoinette Gottesman, who had come to Lahore with Princess Bamba Sutherlane, granddaughter of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. They got married in 1912. For her confinement she returned to Budapest where Amrita was born on January 30, 1913 and a year later Indira, on March 28. The outbreak of World War I kept the family in Hungary for six years. They returned to India in 1920 and made their home in Summer Hill, Shimla for the next nine years. It was here that Amrita started painting and Indira learnt to play the piano from her mother. To nurture their talent further, they went to Paris, where Amrita joined the Ecole des Beaux Arts and Indira a music conservatoire. Amrita showed her talents early and won the gold medal of the Craud Salon for her painting at the age of 20. One of her colleagues described her as “immortal”.

The Shergils lived in style and entertained lavishly. Old Umrao Singh added to his collection of photographs. Evidently he was somewhat of a narcissist. He took several photographs of himself in his younger days dressed in nothing more than his kachha. He added those of his wife and daughters taken at different stages of their lives in Hungary, France and India.

Though Amrita won fame as an artist, Indira was the better-looking of the two sisters. She married K.V. K. Sundaram of the Indian civil service who ditched his wife and children from his first wife to marry her. Indira bore him two children, Vivan and Navina, a lovely looking girl who married a German and now works for Deutsche Weler in Hamburg.

As one would expect in a family as talented as the Shergils, there was a streak of eccentricity in most of them. Amrita’s death at the young age of 31 shattered her parents. Her mother later accused her nephew and son-in-law of conniving at her daughter’s death. A few years later, she shot herself in her home in Summer Hill. In his last years Umrao Singh could be seen walking about the roads in New Delhi, an umbrella on his shoulders and a cloth bag carrying some Sanskrit books.

The chief value of Vivan Sundaram’s book on his aunt is the way he explains the genesis of some of her paintings with photographs which highlight their essential features. For anyone who wants to understand Amrita Shergil as an artist and a person, this book is a must.

Reflections on a babysitter

To put it plain and flat
She’s babysitter, and is paid for that.
Plain and flat, for she can often put on
the mat
My jokes and go on with her work.
One of the siblings six or seven
Unschooled, unleashed on the market
at eleven
She finds her slot, and I’ve often got
A taste of her mettle as she orders me
Of the study to dust it clean.
Keen like a hawk, ever on her guard
To pounce upon you even if
You utter a word against her ward.
So zealous of the child, so playfully
Uncontrollable as she laughs
Hardly ever enquired after by her
Utterly oblivious of her family,
Needling my sentimentality
About a son or a daughter,
Shouting and flitting from room to
I watch her and wonder,
A boss in my own house
Couldn’t she be a master
At any counter,
This babysitter!...
It’s a democratic order, after all.
(Courtesy: Kuldip Salil, Delhi)


Thin red line

Where have all the soldiers gone? The slightly paraphrased question in Pete Seeger’s lament from the Fifties has an answer today in Delhi’s neatly laid-out cantonment in the southwest of the city. “All of them have been deployed on the border,” says the Army PRO when we ask to interview a jawan to take a subaltern view of the dynamics of the game of brinkmanship that Vajpayee and Co. have been playing out over the past six months.

There’s an eerie sense of quiet on the stretch from Arjun Vihar and the Rashtriya Rifles Outpost, past Thimaiyya Park and to the overbridge that connects the metropolis to the gloomy Tihar Jail and Janakpuri — the only stretch that is now open to civilian traffic in the sprawling cantonment. At a time when the Prime Minister is all sound and fury, mouthing melodramatic one-liners such as “Balidan ke liye taiyyar rahiye,” no one there wants to talk to the press. The families of the jawans far away on the front line are not quite sure that it’s the right thing to do.

Vajpayee has since gone off on a holiday to Manali and several of his cabinet colleagues are fanning out across the world to convey India’s perceptions on the situation in the subcontinent. But it’s the duty of the man in the battle fatigues to just stand and wait to fight for what Rudyard Kipling called “the thin red line of honour.”

With no death-and-glory boys to interview near Brar Square — the ceremonial ground in the Delhi cantonment area where the Last Retreat is sounded for the fallen heroes — we head out of the capital and go deep into the heart of Haryana’s Gurgaon district. Over the decades, the villages in these parts of north India have provided hundreds of men in olive to protect and serve the country. In the past, many of them boasted of a soldier in every home. The numbers have gone down substantially since. But even now most villages are home to many in olive green.

It is an angry summer afternoon. The sun is an excruciating ball of fire and the unsympathetic wind shovels dust into our eyes. “Do you know anybody whose son is in the army?” we ask a passer-by on the outskirts of village Nakhraula. He tells us about Rati Ram who has served in the army and whose elder son Satish Kumar is now on the call of duty.

Ram is a war veteran who fought in the 1971 Indo-Pak war. But son Satish hasn’t seen action as yet. The latter was posted in Srinagar airport when it was attacked by terrorists sometime ago. However, Kargil bypassed him as he was posted in Jamnagar, Gujarat, then. Having joined as a jawan back in 1985 when barely 18 years of age, he has risen to the ranks of a naik now being posted in Udhampur, Jammu.

From his childhood days, Satish, yearned to be a soldier like his father. His mother is proud of the fact that he looked far bigger than most kids his age. “He was never interested in studies. Whenever I came home in the holidays,” reminisces Ram, “he used to tell me that he wanted to join the army.” Just after passing the matriculation examination, Satish joined the 26 Air Defence Regiment. When Operation Brasstacks was launched in the mid-Eighties, both father and son took part in the army exercises.

Like most jawans, Satish, now 34, has spent his life in various hotspots of the country and sometimes that means losing contact with his family for long periods. When he was recently posted in the militant-sensitive Kupwara area in Kashmir, he was not even permitted to go to an STD booth. “He would barely call once in a month,” Ram says.

Satish’s wife and two children are not around. Her brother is getting married and she is at her mother’s. In a telephone call he made last Monday, Satish had said he would try to take a day’s leave to attend the marriage. “But we don’t know if he will turn up or not. As you know, nobody is granted leave in such situations,” says his father.

But Ram doesn’t mind. And he is particular that you realise that Satish too is aware that the call of duty is paramount. “What do you expect from your son during a battle?” I ask him. For Ram, the choice is pretty simple: kill or get killed. “So you do what you have to. It is strange that when shells are dropping all around, you suddenly discover a strength and courage that you never knew had existed before,” he says with the wisdom of experience.

“But that’s a soldier speaking,” I tell him. “What about the father? Don’t you feel nervous and tense thinking about the safety of your son with all this war talk going around?” Ram is forthright. “You do get a little anxious at times. But desh seva (serving one’s country) is the duty of any soldier. Satish has to do his job,” he says.

It’s obvious that Ram is proud of his son as he shows us photographs of Satish and his wife from the family album. There is one, slightly out of focus and faded, where Satish is dressed in olive green. “He looks like a jawan. Doesn’t he?” asks Ram. It is the only time he betrays a hint of emotion: of happiness and satisfaction. At the end of the album is another photograph that shows Satish receiving his father at the railway station when he returned home after completing 30 years of service in the army.

Rati Ram and his family would be happy to receive Satish Kumar in a similar way some years later.



The spy who knew too much

Sir — History has been unkind to many a famous personality. Take the controversial Dutch spy, Mata Hari (“Monument to the myth of Mata Hari”, May 21). Dutch historians have finally done her justice by trying to dispel some of the myths that surround her. Their efforts to convert her home into a museum will benefit scholars and as a bonus, give a fillip to tourism in the area. For someone reviled as one of the greatest villains of World War I, we have little knowledge of the complexities of the life of the woman who came to be known as Mata Hari. That’s the least Margaretha Gertrude Zelle deserves.

Yours faithfully,
Rupa Dixit, Pune

Age norms

Sir — With so much hapenning on the political scene, it is good to see The Telegraph find the space to highlight how child marriages continue to be prevalent in many states of India (“Bride 2, groom 16, guardians defiant”, May 17). The marriage of two-year-old Shardabai is a slap on the face of all those human rights activists and non-governmental organizations who claim to have educated the rural masses about the evils of child marriage. Shardabai’s marriage is a serious criminal offence under the Indian penal code, for which her parents must be booked. Unfortunately in India, all efforts to eradicate this social evil have proved futile. This is mainly because of the lackadaisical attitude of the police towards laws prohibiting child marriage and their failure to provide protection to the victims. The state and Central governments too have not done anything to stop this social malaise.

Awareness must be spread among the Tawar Rajputs, Lodhas, Sodhiyas and Dangis — communities among which child marriage is rampant. The police must be more vigilant if child marriages are to stop. Also, camps to educate people about its evils might be of help.

Yours faithfully,

Sumant Poddar, Calcutta

Sir — The indifference of the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party towards child marriages in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh is utterly reprehensible. The Thakurs are naturally unconcerned about the criminality of the practice — they know that the law-keepers can be silenced with bribes.

Shardabai’s father tried to justify his action by saying that if his daughter remained unmarried till the age of 16, there was every chance of her being raped by hoodlums. Then what about Bhanwari Devi? She was married, but that did not prevent her from being brutally gang-raped by upper caste men. In her case too, the culprits escaped punishment by bribing the authorities. Child marriages will continue to take place in the rural areas of Rajasthan unless the government can ensure that incidents like these don’t happen.

Yours faithfully,
Soumitra Nandi, Batanagar

Small change

Sir — The Reserve Bank of India’s directive to all nationalized banks to give good notes to customers and withhold soiled notes is timely. Bank customers have the right to be given currency notes of the denominations they desire. For example, a person might withdraw Rs 9,000 and ask for hundred rupee notes only. In most cases, this request is denied on the excuse that the branch has no hundred rupee notes. But if one approaches the branch manager with the complaint, one’s request is complied with almost immediately. But the problem hasn’t been solved — the next time one makes a similar request, it will again be denied.

Yours faithfully,
Mahesh Kumar, New Delhi

Sir — Bhutanese currency is widely used in the Kokrajhar, Dhubri and Kamrup districts of Assam. There is no fixed exchange rate in these parts between the Bhutanese currency and the Indian rupee. Since, Indian currency notes and coins, particularly between Rs 1 and Rs 10, are not readily available, people are forced to accept Bhutanese money. Many are cheated in the process. Is the RBI unable to maintain the supply of new coins and fresh paper currency?

Yours faithfully,
Arunabh Dev Sharma, Kokrajhar

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