Editorial 1 / Easing it slowly
Editorial 2 / From the log cabin
Coercive diplomacy
Fifth Column / The rise of the liberal academic
Teachers under attack
Document / Banish them to their ghettos
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1 / EASING IT SLOWLY 
 
 
 
 
India’s decision to initiate a process of de-escalating tensions with Pakistan has been widely welcomed by the international community. It now remains to be seen if Islamabad really translates the assurances, on the basis of which New Delhi has acted, into a firm reality. India has agreed to allow the over flight of Pakistani aircraft and signalled that it will be sending a new high commissioner to Pakistan soon. New Delhi had prohibited Pakistan’s aircraft from entering its airspace and recalled its high commissioner from Islamabad after the attack on the Indian Parliament last December. The decision to allow once again the use of airspace will not amount to a restoration of air-links between the two countries. Direct flights between India and Pakistan will obviously have to wait until relations improve further. While India’s military mobilization on the border is likely to continue for the present, it has begun moving its warships from the Arabian Sea near Pakistan back to their home bases.

India seems to have made these moves to ease tension on the basis of a clear assessment by its intelligence agencies and armed forces that the level of terrorist infiltration from Pakistan was going down. Moreover, the American deputy secretary of state, Mr Richard Armitage, seemed to have conveyed to the Indian leadership that he had secured an assurance from Mr Pervez Musharraf that Pakistan will permanently stop sponsoring terrorism in Kashmir. These are hopeful developments, but there is bound to be considerable skepticism about Pakistan’s policies and intentions, and fear that India may have acted too quickly. In the weeks to come, therefore, India will have to closely monitor developments in Pakistan and carefully assess the situation in Kashmir. The real test of Mr Musharraf’s assurances will be in Islamabad’s policies in the run-up to the assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir. Before Pakistan made its recent pledge to end its support of violence, Islamabad seemed determined to subvert the electoral process in the state.

The escalation of violence in the past few months, the assasination of Abdul Gani Lone and the attempts at silencing moderate voices seemed to be part of Pakistan’s efforts to ensure that the elections are not credible. It would be premature for India to take any steps until there is confirmation that not only has infiltration stopped, but that terrorist camps have also been disbanded. Mr Musharraf must act against elements within his own regime, particularly within the Inter-Services Intelligence. New Delhi must be prepared to resume a dialogue with Pakistan and end the military mobilization once there is evidence of real change on the ground. This must have been communicated to Mr Donald Rumsfeld, the visiting American defence secretary. New Delhi must also be prepared to consider imaginative steps to build confidence on the line of control. The recent crisis has generated fears worldwide about the possibility of a nuclear war. It is vital, therefore, to stabilize the India-Pakistan nuclear deterrent relationship. India must also engage with proposals, including those made by other countries, which could help generate greater stability in the region.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2 / FROM THE LOG CABIN 
 
 
 
 
Watching the events surrounding the elevation of Mr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam one is tempted to say that with enemies like the left and the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party needs no friends. After some dithering the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance announced that India’s best known atomic scientist would be the NDA’s candidate for the presidentship. The choice of the person was astute. Mr Kalam has stature and enjoys the added advantage of being a Muslim. These, if one were to follow the dictates of common sense, should have made him an acceptable name for the Congress and the left. The left has decided to oppose Mr Kalam’s candidature on a matter of principle. The comrades have nothing against Mr Kalam but they are unwilling to support any name sponsored by the NDA. On this matter, the left has, in fact, split the People’s Front since Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav is very keen to see Mr Kalam ensconced in Rashtrapati Bhavan. The left is still banking on Mr K.R. Narayanan, who has declared himself to be a non-starter. The Congress is vacillating. Its failure to immediately support Mr Kalam’s candidature might cost it dear in terms of its secular image. So in the politics enveloping the presidential election, the BJP seems to be running away with all the prizes thanks to its best friends, the Congress and the left.

In a sense, all this is much ado about nothing since by the Constitution the president is nothing more than a figurehead with no powers to enforce major decisions. He is an ornamental rubber stamp for the government. Under the circumstances, it is preferable to have a person of standing and eminence to serve as the head of the state. The presence of such a person adds dignity and charisma to an otherwise irrelevant office. These were bestowed on the office by somebody like Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan; Mr Kalam can return the same to Rashtrapati Bhavan. Mr Kalam’s candidature is a special tribute to Indian democracy. Mr Kalam’s beginnings are humble. His rise is testimony to the openness of Indian society. There are many shortcomings and many evils lurking in the system but Kalam’s success allows even cynics to live with hope in India.

   

 
 
COERCIVE DIPLOMACY 
 
 
BY PRATAP BHANU MEHTA
 
 
While Pervez Musharraf’s undertaking to stop cross-border infiltration is being welcomed with some relief and a little gloating in New Delhi, the political and military fallout of this latest round of diplomacy is still very uncertain. While getting assurances that cross-border infiltration will cease and a monitoring mechanism might be put in place is an important achievement, we cannot claim victory just yet.

We have to come to terms with four implications of our current circumstances. First, the dynamics of the India-Pakistan relationship is still too encumbered by the histories of the two countries for this truce to be anything but a momentary lull. Pakistan’s own identity crisis and insecurity remain deep and intractable. Democracy, authoritarianism and Islam have all failed to address the fundamental anxiety Pakistan has about its governing institutions and its raison d’etre as a nation. A contrived nationalism that draws strength from baiting India, and whose true depth remains hard to measure, is a recurring temptation for Pakistan’s political class.

India, for its part, does not have a clear endgame in Kashmir. It would be naïve for us to assume that we can simply go back to the status quo established by the Shimla agreement. While it has been fortunate from India’s point of view that Pakistan’s hand in Kashmir has, in the long run, served to delegitimize and splinter militancy within Kashmir, the blood spilt during the last decade has made our moral authority in Kashmir tenuous at best. If we manage to conduct a high-participation, free and fair election in Jammu and Kashmir, we might get the political opening we need. But the hard labour of establishing our credibility in Kashmir is yet to begin.

The international community will also demand more than a few token diplomatic gestures to help settle the Kashmir issue. Indeed, in some ways the militants have forced India to do exactly what it claimed it would never do: accept an active international role within Kashmir. There is every reason to think that the international community will pressurize India to open the space for Kashmiri autonomy in a way that the militants have not been able to achieve. This is a prospect India cannot forever avoid confronting.

If Pakistan stops cross-border infiltration, ironically our diplomatic advantage on the Kashmir issue decreases rather than increases. The Kashmir issue cannot be ultimately resolved within the framework of the kind of territorial nationalism that remains the official ideology within both India and Pakistan. If comparative experience is any guide, such conflicts can, in the last instance, be resolved only under the aegis of imaginative regional settlements and we are nowhere close to even thinking about such regional arrangements. Till such a settlement is contemplated a seeming truce will simply be a moment to reconsider strategies.

Second, we ought not to confuse infiltration with terrorism. Terrorism within Kashmir acquired its momentum from cross-border infiltration, but there is no certainty that even the sealing of the line of control will simply make terrorism disappear. If the organizations that abet terrorism exist with the numbers and strength we claim they do, there is no reason to suppose they will vanish overnight. Indeed, the danger is that their targets might shift. Israel has as much military control over its territory as one can possibly imagine, yet what it calls terrorism continues with impunity. Again, ironically, a credible commitment to stopping cross-border infiltration may give Pakistan a diplomatic leg-up in the long run.

The international community is interested in our terrorist problems only insofar as they run the risk of precipitating a serious and catastrophic war. If the LoC is secured by whatever monitoring mechanism all sides agree to, we will find it more difficult to credibly blame Pakistan for acts of violence that we might experience. Whatever we may think of ourselves, our credentials as a society that breeds its own share of violence are fairly well established, and the Inter-Services Intelligence will not forever remain our biggest diplomatic trump card.

Third, we are mistaken if we assume that the United States of America — and by implication, the international community — will remain in our favour. The US has three objectives vis-à-vis Pakistan: maintaining a credible regime that can do its bidding in the region and safeguard its interests, avoiding anarchy within Pakistan so that the military and nuclear command and control structure remains intact, and to avoid catastrophic war the subcontinent. The logic of these objectives produced the paradoxical outcome that we are seeing. On the one hand, the US will, insofar as it can, continue to strengthen the Pakistani military in the hope that it will help them with the first two objectives, while it will put pressure on it to avoid war with India. But from India’s point of view, this has the result of weakening democracy and civil society within Pakistan, augmenting Pakistan’s military capabilities and maintaining just the kind of institutions that can be relied upon to flirt with anti-India sentiment to shore up their legitimacy.

American intervention, as in the past, will do little to alter the internal dynamics of Pakistani society in a way that is propitious for it to be able to transcend the kind of nationalism that has produced such an impasse in the subcontinent. And in international politics, as Disraeli once said, there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests. Currently, the US is in the happy position of being able to befriend all sides, but it is yet to be demonstrated that the logic of US interests is squarely in our favour.

Finally, we run the serious risk of being guilty of crying wolf too often. While New Delhi is piqued with the Americans for scaremongering tactics which have led to a significant economic impact on things like tourism, insurance charges, business travel and so on, in a way, our strategy invited such a response. If our object was to convince the world that we were ready to go to war so that they might pay more attention to us, the only way the Americans could test the waters was to call our bluff. Either we did not mean to go to war, in which case, our credibility on future occasions will be diminished; or if we did, the international community was taking exactly the right steps in evacuating India.

As this instance shows, coercive diplomacy is a game many sides can play. And we would do well to remember that it is a game that cannot be played too often without serious loss of credibility. Our diplomatic options are more limited than this momentary victory might suggest.

While a reduction in tension is better than its alternative, the hard diplomatic labour of securing India’s credibility and sustaining a genuine peace has yet to begin. While India and Pakistan remain in a tense equilibrium sustained by a balance of forces — immense international pressure and their own reckonings about the uncertain consequences of war — it is still too early to assume that an accident that can make the illness in Indo-Pak relations fatal cannot occur.

The author is professor of philosophy, law and governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

   

 
 
FIFTH COLUMN / THE RISE OF THE LIBERAL ACADEMIC 
 
 
BY PRASANTA CHAKRAVARTY
 
 
An intellectual in government often arouses mistrust. Surprisingly however, most French people have welcomed the appointment of Luc Ferry, one of France’s leading philosophers, as the minister for “youth, national education and research”. Even the French radical left and far-right, generally skeptical about the center-right politics of Jacques Chirac and Jean-Pierre Raffarin, have welcomed Ferry’s appointment.

Ferry is no greenhorn in politics — he served both Chirac and Lionel Jospin as president of the national council, the body that oversees revision of the curriculum of higher education. The reaction to Ferry’s appointment is an affirmation of his remarkable flexibility. A sense of pragmatism marks Ferry’s philosophy as well as his public life. Ferry is a liberal — and it is very difficult to be a liberal intellectual in France.

In America and Britain, the features of liberal politics — limited government, multiparty elections, rule of law, an independent judiciary and civil service, civilian control over the military, right to free association and worship, private property and so on — developed in general agreement over the last two centuries; on the continent, their acceptance was the result of bitter compromise. Even in 19th-century France — full of republics, restorations, revolutions and empires — the spirit of Anglo-American liberalism never really took hold.

Radical force

This does not mean that France does not have a liberal tradition. The story of modern liberalism will be incomplete without reference to Germaine de Staël, Alexis de Tocqueville and the like. They criticized the means of the Revolution, especially the Terror but, and unlike their British or American counterparts, were resigned to live in the society it had created. The illiberalism of the right was discredited after World War II and the Holocaust, though vestiges of fascism remain in French public life, as was evident from the breakthroughs Jean Marie Le-Pen’s National Front made in the first round of the presidential polls in April.

Left-wing illiberalism was a more potent force in post-war France. The orthodoxy of the PCF — the French Marxist party — was soon supplanted by a variety of intellectual movements. These were not only anti-liberal, but also lacked any political or social programme. Politically, this meant an upholding of the status quo. The inaction of the far-left blunted its radical edge and made it seem conservative. In the liberal arts academia, it led to a sense of mourning for liberal values.

The “New Philosophers” were at the forefront of this face-off with totalitarianism. And it was Ferry, one of the best-known New Philosophers, who began the arduous task of reviving liberalism.

Healing touch

Francois Mitterand’s election as president in 1981 and the arrival of socialist plurality in parliament, capped this development. The Mitterand years helped bring France out of the long shadow of Charles de Gaulle and the conservative parties which ruled France in his name since 1958.

But at a deeper level, the rise of this breed of liberal thinkers represents a chapter in the story of France’s struggle over the heritage of the French Revolution. The PCF, which regarded itself as the legitimate agent to “complete” the revolution, was sidelined and a “centrist” republic was born. Liberalism emerged as a valid alternative to both radical socialism and the church. The French republics over the next 30 years not only proved to be fundamentally liberal but they also led to a booming economy that transformed the social landscape.

In France a philosopher in the administration is not a new phenomenon. Malraux worked for de Gaulle and Regis Debray for Mitterand. Ferry’s appointment in the French cabinet is in keeping with this trend. With Ferry’s appointment Chirac, who recently won the first round of the parliamentary elections by a significant margin, has clearly signalled to the academia the kind of politics it should encourage. This is the politics of critical liberalism. And that is something the French, the Europeans and the world in general needs now in heavy doses.

   

 
 
TEACHERS UNDER ATTACK 
 
 
BY PARIMAL BHATTACHARYA
 
 
While militant Hindutva has made the religious minorities in our country feel insecure like never before, in secular West Bengal, it is the community of schoolteachers that is under attack. Almost everyday, there are reports of teachers across the state being threatened and assaulted by local toughs, political goons and — of all people — the guardians of their own pupils.

The assault on Malati Mandal, headmistress of Jangipur High School, by the school secretary, is the latest in a series of such incidents. Last month, nearly 200 guardians of students who had failed in their examinations descended on a school in Nabadwip, beat up the teachers and forced the headmaster to promote their wards. For a similar “crime”, headmistresses of schools in Tollygunge and Howrah were roughed up — and the latter were even doused with hot engine oil in an open marketplace. The headmaster of a primary school in Malda was severely beaten up for alleged absenteeism; he continues to be in hospital in a critical condition. A teacher in Basirhat was beaten up by youth owing allegiance to a student organization for a different reason — he had refused to sign the declaration about private tuition.

While such incidents take place with disturbing frequency and are duly reported in the media, what is truly worrying is the fact that they have failed to generate appropriate public outrage or any organized form of protest from teachers’ bodies. Is something wrong with our society, or are the teachers only getting what is their due? Either way, it is a cause for concern because it is in the custody of schoolteachers that we entrust our most precious resource: our progeny.

This series of violent incidents involving schoolteachers must be taken in the context of some recent developments, particularly the stance taken by the government and the mandarins of the ruling party. Only last month, the secondary education department gave schoolteachers a deadline for submitting a declaration (moochleka) to the effect that they did not take private tuitions, failing which their salaries would be stopped. Now, of course, the concerned minister has confessed to the government’s inability to disburse teachers’ salaries before the third week of each month.

But what is most unfortunate is the ugly turn the whole episode took. While one leader tried to obfuscate the issue by comparing the moochleka with an annual tax statement, another conjured up the bogey of modern day “club-class teachers” and how they compared with the khadi-clad, umbrella-carrying schoolteachers of yesteryears. The picture that emerges from such empty remarks only helps to create an atmosphere of bitterness and mistrust and throws a smokescreen over the real issues at stake.

Private tuition is, without a doubt, a major blight on our present educational system, and a section of teachers is responsible for the current state of affairs. But having said that, we must also consider the other side of the coin — namely, cut throat competition and the desire of a section of the guardians to “buy” the best education for their wards. It would not be irrelevant here to quote some statistics from the 1992 report of the education commission headed by Ashok Mitra. In a survey of school students who took private tuitions, 59.3 per cent said that they did it in the hope of better results, while those who cited irregular classes and heavy syllabus as the reasons comprised 8.3 per cent and 21.2 per cent respectively. Even if we set aside these figures as dated and not indicative of the current scenario, the fact is that our perceptions often belie the reality that exists in a typical classroom where a teacher and a disproportionately large number of students have to grapple with a flawed curriculum and evaluation system.

Even so, it must be said, unequivocally, that a law banning private tuition is a bold and welcome step. But what is objectionable is the declaration that every schoolteacher must submit periodically as a precondition for regularly getting his salary. It not only smacks of malice against a professional community, but more important, betrays the lack of conviction behind the legislation.

Accompanying such negative attitudes is the widely-held perception that teachers nowadays get good salaries. But if schoolteachers today earn a decent pay packet, it is also true that many bright young men and women who would never have given school-teaching a thought a few decades ago now think of it as a career option. Without any disrespect to the teachers who slogged it through the hard times, this fact should not be ignored for obvious reasons.

After local-level recruitment was done away with and the School Service Commission set up, a silent transformation has been taking place in the school education system in the districts. Many middle class young men and women from urban areas are being posted to remote village schools where most of the students are first generation students from the families of marginal farmers. This often gives rise to cultural tensions — on the part of the teachers, there is the discontent born out of unfulfilled social aspirations, and on the part of the students and their families, there is suspicion and mistrust.

Many teachers, old and new, find it difficult to stay near their workplace and commute long distances from their urban homes. This prevents a sense of belonging and empathy from developing both inside the classroom and outside. Given the fact that the management of the school is often vested in the hands of local politicians and panchayats, and the popular perception that teachers are the beneficiaries of a misplaced government munificence, an atmosphere of ill-feeling prevails. In the circumstances, the slightest provocation — like the refusal to promote a failed student or allow an examinee to cheat — can lead to events taking an ugly turn.

In fact, the recent incidents of violence against teachers should not be seen in isolation. What we read and heard about is only indicative of the many such incidents that go unreported. Given this scenario, the lack of a consistent and transparent attitude on the part of the state does not help.

The government has claimed that improving the quality of education is one of its priorities and promised to revamp the system by next year. One only hopes that the architects of this change will be sensitive to the complexity and the emerging reality of the situation. Any failure to do this will only breed further ill-feeling about a community whose job it is to help build a society’s most crucial asset: its future.

   

 
 
DOCUMENT / BANISH THEM TO THEIR GHETTOS 
 
 
 
 
“Yudh ho gai hai”(war has broken out) — said a woman in Panchmahals, witnessing communal carnage in rural Gujarat for the first time. In urban areas like Ahmedabad, Muslim ghettos had already been created for a variety of reasons — Juhapura, Naroda Patia –— all Muslim areas. This time round rural ghettos are being born. Muslims are flocking in from the countryside to the nearest urban settlements, swelling the numbers in the Muslim majority areas.

Women testified to feeling an acute sense of betrayal. They feel betrayed by neighbours, friends, people they have lived with, celebrated festivals with, done business with. These people, along with mobs from the outside, looted, killed and burned their homes...How do you re-build that trust?

“I asked my neighbour Hira Bai for some water. I was told ’Aaj to pani nahin, aaj to marna hai.’ (No water today, today is for dying) — Zahida Bano, Naroda Patia. “How can we go back, the violence is still continuing. Our house was not burnt earlier. It was burnt 4 days ago.” She was clear that the violence was master-minded by Dinesh Bhai, the deputy sarpanch — Ava Bi, Mudeti village.

“Of course I can recognize them. I saw them everyday. I grew up with them. Now with my work I know everybody here. What could I tell them — don’t kill me, you’ve seen me everyday of my life?” — Saira, Vadali camp, works with the Centre for Social Justice.

The process of ghettoization has begun with the rural relief camps. Camps have sprung up wherever people ran to safety, and they invariably ran towards Muslim dominated areas. The idea of “safety in numbers” was never so acutely experienced. In each case, it has been local Muslim community leaders who have provided shelter, made arrangements to feed and house hundreds and thousands of people. In some cases food rations are being supplied by the government. But hardly any government official or elected representatives have visited. The message is clear: Muslims are not the responsibility of the state. Muslims should look after other Muslims. The Vadali relief camp (Sabarkantha district), for example, is being run by the Muslims paanch jamaat. This includes leaders from five Muslim communities: Pathan, Lohar, Memon, Mansuri and Sipahi. The overall camp coordinator is Amanullah Khan, a local Congress leader, referred to as Chacha (Uncle) by the camp residents. Amanullah Chacha was responsible for making phone calls to the Khed Brahma police station and ensuring that many stranded Muslims were transported to the safety of the camp. The maidan where the camp is located adjoins a large Mansuri settlement in Vadali. The presence of large numbers of Muslims in the neighbourhood is reassuring for the camp residents. Many Mansuri refugees have even found temporary shelter through an extended kinship network in the Mansuri settlement itself. The Vadali camp is providing shelter to a rural population spread across large distances...

Kinship networks have been instrumental in operationalizing many rural relief camps. Take the Ramayan relief camp (Sabarkantha district) for example. Ramayan (along with its twin village Mahabharat) is a Muslim majority gram panchayat, with a Muslim sarpanch — Sattar Bhai Jamal Bhai. Nearly 500 refugees have gathered here from a radius of up to 50 kilometres, mostly relatives from neighbouring villages. The camp itself is unlike Vadali. Here the refugees have taken shelter in the homes of extended kin members. It is only for meals that they gather in a large hall and are fed from a common kitchen. Until 10 or 12 years ago, the village was called Pratapgarh. Then the villagers saw the TV serials — Ramayan and Mahabharat. They loved the Hindu epics so much that they decided to rechristen their village. One wonders if they would ever do the same again?

To be concluded

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Right man for the job

Sir — With the numbers clearly on his side, the spearhead of India’s nuclear programme, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, will soon be able to realize his dream of taking a moonlight walk in the Mughal Gardens adjacent to the Rashtrapati Bhavan. It is ironic however that he will be taking the place of the man he had once confided to about his dream (“Missile Man cruises towards pinnacle”, June 11). The reason why Kalam’s candidature as president is welcome is that he is not a party man and will hopefully be immune to the intricacies of party politics. At a time when India’s image as a mature, multicultural democracy has taken a severe beating in the aftermath of the Gujarat genocide, Kalam’s election to the top post is likely to send the right signals to the international community as well as to minorities at home. Kalam, with his unconventional hair and professed love of the sea, poetry and Subramaniam Bharti’s songs, will also add some glamour to the post.

Yours faithfully,
Doel Dutta, Calcutta

Paper chase

Sir — In his article, “The morning papers” (May 30), Aveek Sen has made certain observations about the classics which do not conform with their character. He has singled out a particularly gruesome incident from the Iliad to point out its analogy with a similar incident that occurred during the recent Gujarat riots. The Iliad, which is considered a “primary epic”, deals with the deeds of heroes. Since most ancient writers drew from history as also from the oral tradition, it is understandable that the epics contain elements of the primitive and the barbaric. But by and large, an epic centres around a heroic or a quasi-divine figure on whose actions depend the fate of a tribe or a race. An epic thus necessarily represents the ideals of heroism and nobility. It would be inappropriate to conclude on the basis of one unusual incident in an epic, as Sen has done, that “epic poems are sites of absolute licence, where entire communities of men and gods could play out...the most barbarous desires, the deepest hatreds”.

People are often tempted to highlight an aberration, even at the cost of misrepresenting the pattern of things, in order to prove a point. Sen could not resist the temptation. Not just the epics, Sen has a distorted view of the other classics as well. He holds that “the classics have never hesitated to represent and reflect on the entire spectrum of human cruelty, most often with the utmost amorality and unsqueamishness.” It would be pertinent to point out in this context that our Sanskrit classics are imbued with a high morality and they follow the rules and principles of decorum which have become part of an accepted literary tradition. Our aesthetics had even gone to the extent of banning the representation of grim realism, namely, death, war, murder and cruelty on stage. There is an underlying moral tone in the Western classics too. The rules of propriety and decorum are also respected by them.

Yours faithfully,
P.C. Banerji, Calcutta

Sir — Aveek Sen’s article, “The morning papers”, was fascinating in its analysis of the role played by newspapers in bringing us news about different events ranging from the carnage in Gujarat to sports and their impact on us. As rightly pointed out by Sen, although most of us are far removed from the reality of violence and mayhem in Gujarat, the distance did not affect our ability to understand what was happening there. Sen’s observation that “at the centre of much of this violence is an epic poem”, only reiterates the utter pointlessness of the violence that has engulfed Gujarat.

The shocking image of the slaughter of the Trojans in the Iliad, which reminds Sen of the genocide in Gujarat, is disconcerting. The recurrence of images from the classics in real life is also probably the reason why we are asked to read the classics both as children and as adults. They reiterate the centrality of human experience and the sameness of the range of emotions over generations — pain, happiness, death, cruelty, betrayal and so on.

Yours faithfully,
Rituja Chattopadhyay, Calcutta

This law is an ass

Sir — It was disturbing to note that the West Bengal government has decided to enact a law that would make the mother’s identity sufficient for a child’s social and legal recognition (“Law to recognize mother’s primacy”, April 20). Once this law comes into force, the father’s signature would become optional on admission forms for hospitals and schools or even on passports. Though the law had initially been proposed for the benefit of test-tube babies, it will cover all children. If enacted, this law, will have tremendous repercussion. It could, for example, be misused by wives who do not want their husbands to have any say in the upbringing of their children. There have been numerous cases where husbands have been mute witnesses while wives have taken their children away from them. Further, the existing laws of the land also favour the mother who is usually given custody of minor children in case of a divorce. Misuse of Section 498A of the Indian penal code, which penalizes the husband and his relatives for “cruelty” on the wife, is rampant nowadays.

This law, which has supposedly been proposed after a study of similar laws in the United States of America, the United Kingdom and Germany, will be the first of its kind in India. But the social structure in India is quite different from that in Western countries where there is greater gender equality. In India, particularly in Bengal, families stay together by making personal sacrifices. Enacting laws without taking into consideration the social dynamics could only lead to its misuse and cause further misery.

Yours faithfully,
Prosenjit Roy, Durgapur

Sir — Tirna Roy’s article, “Escape to reality” (May 19), has rightly questioned the relevance of Henrik Ibsen’s Nora in this age of emancipated and independent women. Women have come a long way since Ibsen penned “A Doll’s House”, in 1879. A large number of women today have respectable jobs and are no longer confined to their homes, nor are they completely dependent on their husbands.

However, despite their so-called “liberation”, women are still perceived as commodities by the market. Advertisements denigrate the woman. She is used to sell everything from coffee to cars and is usually portrayed as the home-maker, much like Nora, leading a contented life with a husband and two children. Although women today are much better off than their previous generations, they are by no means at par with their male counterparts.

Yours faithfully,
Sujit De, Sodepur

Sir — Rahul Bose’s letter, “Case laws” (May 13), has highlighted an important issue that is often overlooked by women’s organizations and the law of the country. Section 498A of the IPC can be misused by a recalcitrant wife to harass her husband and in-laws. The latter often go through a greater emotional trauma than the wife. In the absence of some kind of a safety net, this law is used by a weapon by estranged wives in divorce cases. Special provisions should be made in the statute so that the courts can punish false complainants by asking them to pay a heavy fine.

Yours faithfully,
Abhijit Bhattacharyya, Howrah

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