Editorial / No vice attached
The death of possibilities
This above all / Truth about cats and dogs
People / Chittabrata Mazumdar
Letters to the editor

A deputy king is quite unheard of. An active monarch makes do with ministers, and the question of assistance and advice does not arise where the monarchy is just traditional decoration. The Indian system retains a whiff of the latter, with the head of government distinct from the head of the state. With the prime minister as head of government, the head of state or president has a role similar to that of the decorative king. The Indian Constitution, which draws heavily on the Westminster model of governance, evidently felt impelled to fill in the place of Britain’s non-functional monarchy by the office of president. For this, the framers drew on the American constitution, thus opening up the way to an anomaly derived from a presidential system of government. As a result, the two offices of president and vice-president came into being: a king and deputy king adding a fancy touch to a parliamentary democracy.

The argument in favour of a presidential chair is the old one of checks and balances carried one step beyond parliamentary premises. But it is difficult to imagine a president checking a prime minister in his tracks. Even in the case of president’s rule for a state, the president himself has little to say. If he disapproves, he can return the proposal once. But if the government is determined enough to send it back to him, he will have to sign it. The president’s is a symbolic office, embodying apolitical balance and wisdom. The president is meant to be an august presence on formal occasions, calling forth the respect with which the country should be regarded.

A role such as this need not be dismissed, but the function of the vice-president remains shrouded in mystery. It is no use looking back at the American constitution: in a presidential system a vice-president has an active role. In India the vice-president is supposed to fill in when the president is away from office. Given this is not a decision-making job, any senior person could be the president’s proxy. The governor is substituted by the chief justice when necessary. The vice-president’s role as chairman of the upper house is supernumerary too. The Rajya Sabha could well have a speaker like the Lok Sabha. A post funded by public money should offer more to the nation than an occasional presidential substitute. What it does offer is a sinecure for eminent citizens, usually senior politicians, who have pleased so many people that everyone feels benignly happy that they have been given a nice prize. If respect is the keyword for such a choice, then the concept of respect is much changed since the immediate post-independence years. And respect is best shown by giving such people creative, decision-making roles.

The whole process, from the floating of names for vice-president to election and tenure, is a peculiarly ritualistic exercise. Apart from the gentlemen themselves in the running this time — Mr Krishan Kant, Mr Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, Mr Vishnu Kant Shastri and Mr Bhai Mahavir — it is difficult to see to whom the election makes a difference. A deputy king is an absurdity after all.


The release of two Bollywood blockbusters — and the possibility of three more — on the life of Bhagat Singh is sure to provoke widespread discussion. Apart from the expected quibbles over the historical veracity of these films and their respective aesthetic sensibilities, both films prompt questions about the meaning of Bhagat Singh at the beginning of the 21st century and the issues his life raises: the place of violence in politics, the definitions of terrorism, the place of socialism.

In so many ways, Bhagat Singh’s short life is gripping material for cinema. But, as these films make no attempt to disguise, Bhagat Singh’s life is of interest not only for its dramatic qualities but also because it is a standing reproach to all that India is seen to have become. In some ways, these scripts derive their pathos from simple oppositions. Compared to Bhagat Singh, our ruling passions seem to be self-interest rather than sacrifice, a low cynicism rather than an unembarrassed idealism, a competitive frenzy rather than the search for justice, a corrupt politics rather than a transformative ambition.

Of course, within the narrative of Bhagat Singh’s life itself, betrayal, corruption and collaboration by those surrounding him are never far away. The collaboration of all those from whom imperialism drew its strength, the betrayal of Bhagat Singh’s associates that led to his prosecution and the opportunism of politicians around him remind us that political life was never uncontaminated. But that was the India we were supposed to have transcended with independence, not made our way of life. Raj Kumar Santoshi’s, The Legend of Bhagat Singh, is by far the more sophisticated of these films, and within the constraints of the Bollywood genre a considerable achievement. In contrast to the jingoism of much of Bollywood, its patriotism is more of self-reproach than a bloodthirsty call to arms, more a reminder of failed ideals than an attempt to find a new enemy.

The Santoshi version is remarkable in at least two respects. Unusually for Bollywood, it is unembarrassed by Bhagat Singh’s militant atheism and his revolutionary socialism. Bhagat Singh’s political ideology is not assimilated, as the ideology of so many radicals often is in Indian history, to a vague invocation of the ideals of justice. But more controversially, the film is hard on Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Despite Bhagat Singh’s acknowledgement of Gandhi’s charisma, Gandhi is a caricature in the film in the literal sense of the term. At least audiences in Delhi where I watched the film would break out in laughter whenever his character appears on the screen.

What is of interest in this critique of Gandhi is not the critique itself. The outlines of that critique are familiar: Gandhi’s methods would not have worked, and they were too conciliatory towards our own ruling classes. Congress moved towards a demand for purna swaraj rather than a Dominion Status under pressure from radicals like Bhagat Singh. The critique is of interest for two reasons. There is a barely disguised inference that the entire nationalist movement represented by the Congress was an odd combination of opportunism and ease. Congress leaders did not endure the gruesome tortures that Bhagat Singh and his followers did.

But more significantly, Gandhi was himself in the end sustained by the British. He was easy to deal with, his methods did not require extreme sacrifice, and the Gandhi-Irwin pact was a sell out precipitated by the Mahatma’s cunning desire to project himself. Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose see the merits in Bhagat Singh’s position, but are quickly snubbed by the Mahatma. In short the Congress, as led by the Mahatma, was always what it later came to be: a bundle of compromises, half-hearted principles, weak, and capable of sustaining itself only by opportunistic betrayals. India became what it did because the Congress triumphed. The seeds of our decline were already present in the Congress. This is the sort of critique on which, for different reasons and motives, the left and the right, and god bless his soul, Niradbabu, could all agree.

To defend Gandhi against these charges would be, at this juncture, beside the point. But the film’s portrayal of his character highlights two remarkable things about politics in our times. We now genuinely have the first post-nationalist-movement generation, not in the sense that nationalism is dead, but in the sense that the sort of nationalism identified with the amorphous shadow of the Congress is well and truly gone, and not just for followers of Godse or Marx. (On a more disquieting exemplification of this phenomenon, a young man sitting behind us was wondering whether the Jallianwala Bagh massacre actually took place.)

The second is that the disillusionment with that kind of nationalism is in part a product of how it is seen to have turned out fifty years later. It is that kind of nationalism represented by Gandhi which is now held responsible for the disarray of our politics. Other ideologies, be it Bhagat Singh’s or Bose’s, have the distinct advantage of never having become hegemonic and will remain a source of possibility. Hindu nationalism also presented itself as a viable non-Congress politics, and while its moral aspirations cannot be granted the same degree of legitimacy, it thrives on the disillusionment with so-called Congress nationalism. So the fascination with Bhagat Singh may in part be a desperate search for heroes, and with motley Gandhians unable even to mobilize in Sabarmati Ashram, Bhagat Singh remains an attractive alternative.

But watching the film, one could not help but feel that at the start of a new millennium whatever meanings we project onto Bhagat Singh, our tributes will be more an elegy than a celebration. For what has disappeared in our world is not just the unvarnished idealism, but also a sense of possibility. Whatever their other differences, the generation that came to political maturity under Gandhi or Nehru or Bhagat Singh, thought political action mattered. Political action was not just a way of collectively reorienting power to some end, but a way of deliberately crafting a self and a society.

It is not the specific content of Bhagat Singh’s ideology that matters, but the distinct sense that political action was a way of transcending one’s own past, creating a new society and fashioning a new identity, in short about opening new possibilities. There is a touch of sadness even in a slick Bollywood production on the life of Bhagat Singh, because that conception of possibilities seems like a distant gleam. Freedom is no longer, as Bhagat Singh thought, the charting of a new course; it is reconciling yourself to the iron cage around you.

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


Go anywhere in India from north to south, east to west and see peasants at work in their fields. The pattern is the same: men plough the land — you will never see a woman driving a pair of bullocks with a plough or driving a tractor. Both men and women sow the seeds. Thereafter women do most of the transplanting, tending, harvesting, winnowing and carrying the harvest to their homes. Men waste many hours in chaupals, smoking hookahs and gossiping. They again come into the picture when it is time to take the fruits of the women’s labour to mandis to sell. They celebrate the occasion by going to theks and consuming vast quantities of hard liquor, return home drunk late at night and beat up their wives because by then, their daal-roti is cold. After giving them a sound thrashing, they impregnate them, no matter how many children they already have.

Things are beginning to change but far too slowly. Women are elected to village panchayats and zilla parishads. But this has brought marginal change in their lives. Until and unless women are given right to land and right to dispose of it as they wish, they will not achieve equal rights with men. They form over 60 per cent of the population engaged in agriculture, do much more work than their menfolk, bear children, keep the home fires burning. What they get in return for the drudgery is abuse. This is the theme of a very well-researched thesis, Daughters of The Earth: Women and Land in Uttar Pradesh by Smita Tewari Jassal. The book is evidently the outcome of a doctoral thesis because it is replete with academic jargon and composite words like socio-economic, socio-legal, socio-historical. It is however redeemed by apt quotations from folk songs in Bhojpuri, Avadhi and rhymed dialogues between Pandit Ghag and his mistress, Bhadduri.

All that the dust jacket of the book reveals about the author is that she is a sociologist working as a senior fellow at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies. Her name reveals she is a Brahmin married to a Sikh (Jassal), currently India’s ambassador to Israel.

Feline feelings

It begins in spring when young people’s thoughts turn to love. Nature renews itself. Withered leaves fall, new ones take their place. Animals and birds pair up to mate. Their metabolism specifies when females come into heat and become receptive to advances of the males of their species. The only exceptions are humans. They remain on heat round the year: for them, all seasons are mating seasons.

By the time spring turns to summer, birds have prepared their nests to lay eggs. Females of most animal species are pregnant and ready to deliver as soon as nature is ready to provide them sustenance. Come monsoons and the parched land turns green. Trees bear fruit. Insects multiply by the millions to assure adequate food for birds and their hatchlings. Rains renew life by providing food for all living creatures.

I see this process of regeneration round my little apartment. Some years ago my neighbours drove away dozens of cats that had made my home their own. They said cats spread disease. This was at the height of the bubonic plague epidemic in Surat. My cats were removed to a cats’ home. And never came back. A couple of months ago, two strays decided to move into my backyard. They refused to befriend me. Then one of them had a litter of three kittens behind a bush. I tried to make friends with the kittens. Every time I saw them playing on the patch of green, I approached them with friendly noises. They simply glowered at me with their large questioning eyes. If I took a step forward, they disappeared behind the bushes.

But there was my granddaughter’s cat, Billo, who spent a lot of her time purring in my lap when no one else was around. We looked forward to her having a litter because she was often missing from the home and evidently cohabiting with a tom who prowled around in the backyard. At times Billo’s belly looked swollen. We surmised she was pregnant. Then equally suddenly the swelling disappeared. It was probably a false pregnancy — or just surplus gas. However, I did notice that she frequently visited the linen cupboard at the farthest end of my flat. It was in the lowest shelf of this cupboard that most cats I had, gave birth to their litter. Then one day without warning Billo hid herself in the linen cupboard and emerged after an hour or so, mewing incessantly. She wanted to draw my attention to something. She led me to the linen cupboard. I peered inside. I could not see anything but distinctly heard a tiny mew. We celebrated the arrival of Billo’s progeny. I still do not know if it is just one, or as is usual with cats, two or three. I look forward to having them play in my lap. There are few other things as endearing as kittens at play.

During the mating season in the animal world sex is compulsive. That poses a problem for humans who are particular about pedigrees of their pets. They take great pains to keep their pedigreed bitches from mating with aira-ghaira animal till they have found an equally high-pedigreed mate for them. One such person is my friend, Claire Dutt, who keeps three Labradors. Two are now past breeding: only one, Zoe, is still of the age to breed, and Claire is on the lookout for a suitable match for her. She sends her dogs out for an airing in the park with the servant. Apparently she sensed that while her servant was enjoying his bidi, Zoe had been up to no good with some stray dog. She was understandably upset and questioned her servant about it. His reply was charmingly naïve: “Memsahib, the two old dogs behave very well, but this Zoe: iska chaal challan kharaab ho gayaa hai—whenever she meets a male dog, she says hello, hello, hello to him.”

Fallen in a bad way

In Economics
There is the
Gresham’s Law
Which says
Bad coins push out
Good coins,
So, there is a
Of counterfeits
It is the same with people
Good guys are given the boot
Bad ones rule the roost
Mundane matters
Casual chores
Always score
Prime issues
Live concerns
Keep languishing
As before.

(Contributed by: Vishwa Nath, New Delhi)

Power of natural gas

Indian defence ministers were notorious for their lack of familiarity with military weapons and skills.

There was a time when the army was under attack by the enemy, which was using chemical weapons — in the form of gas. The Indian army was drastically short of gas masks.

The general telephoned the Indian defence minister and said: “I am running drastically short of means to fight the gas attack!”

And the defence minister promptly said: “Try using two tablets of soda bicarb dissolved in a glass of water. That should take care of the gas.”

(Contributed by Priya Nath Mehta, Gurgaon)



Love’s labour lost

He’s left the party office, someone says, and is on his way to the meeting place. Meanwhile, the meeting begins, as such meetings always do, with a “song of the people.” The small audience –– workers and employees of electricity boards and plants take their seats on the chairs arranged under a shamiana. The song over, a union office-bearer takes the microphone on the dais to narrate the success story of the Left Front’s 25 years in office and also to warn of the dangers and the enemies on the road ahead. Life flows by along the adjacent road outside the state electricity board’s head office in Salt Lake, hardly any of the passersby stopping to listen or look.

Then the leader drives up, causing a stir in the audience. In another gesture that has become part of the Left lore, the first thing he does is walk to the makeshift martyr’s column where he places a wreath and raises a hand in a communist salute to the fallen comrades. Minutes later, he speaks to the audience touching on communist struggles in Bengal, liberally punctuating the tale with references to the past and the present of the former Soviet Union, China and, of course, imperialist America.

Chittabrata Mazumdar has been doing pretty much the same thing for nearly half a century –– going around factories, organising workers and urging them to rise to the call of the party and the revolution. It has been a long journey that began in 1957, first at the factory of the Hooghly Docks, originally a Martin Burn firm and now a central public sector unit, and then at the numerous small engineering units in Howrah in the days when the little town was known as the Sheffield of India. “Hooghly Docks is dying and may go the way of so many of the closed engineering units where I worked among the workers,” he says ruefully.

He has changed little in appearance –– the thin frame draped in white dhoti and white cotton shirt, sleeves rolled up, and a pair of bright eyes peering through thick, black-framed spectacles.

So much has changed in Mazumdar’s life and times, though. The small-town labour leader has risen higher and higher in the party hierarchy to take his place among the big leaders. He is now the general secretary of the state unit of the Centre for Indian Trade Unions, the CPI(M)’s labour wing, a member of the party’s state secretariat and a member of its central committee. The labour leader also served one term as a minister in the Left Front government, when he proved remarkably successful in bringing back to life many of the moribund small and cottage industries in the state.

But there has been a big change that Mazumdar is grappling with daily. As the Left Front kept winning one election race after another in Bengal, the labour leader kept losing one battle after another for the state’s workers. Once an icon, the trade unionist now is a fallen hero who gets more brickbats than flowers, not just from class enemies who never had any reason to like him but from compatriots in the class struggle. For thousands of jobless workers in closed factories, the management and the trade unions are seen as partners in crime. Workers blame the leaders for inciting them to chase dreams that led to suicidal alleys. As they raised the struggle pitches for higher wages and less work, the fortunes of industries sunk lower.

Unions –– in factories, banks, government offices and even hospitals and educational institutions –– came to mean a license for not working and gradually became a dirty word. The leaders gave the workers the right to strike but could not stop the management from closing shop. The fear of the trade union leader either drove away the enterprising or forced them into silence. It was not always the leaders’ fault but they took the blame.

“Even a Reserve Bank survey said workers’ agitations were responsible for only two per cent of the country’s industrial sickness. Management was to blame for 98 per cent of it,” Mazumdar repeats an old defense. But he admits that it does not quite wash with the workers. The admission, though, is still couched in party rhetoric, “In organising them to struggle for economic benefits, we failed to rouse in them enough of the class consciousness that would have helped them understand why things went bad.”

Mazumdar and his ilk are now afraid that things may actually become worse. That is what he tells his audience this afternoon. “The globalisation of the economy and the open-door import policy of the Centre are going to spell doom not only for industries but also the farm sector. Where will our manufacturers sell their goods and our farmers their crops if cheaper foreign goods and crops flood our market. There will be more job losses and wage cuts.” Attending the meeting to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Left government, Mazumdar ends up sounding alarm bells and pleading helplessness in preventing the coming counter-revolution. He looks the perfect portrait of the trade unionist in defeat.

The problem is he is still not fully reconciled to ideas that might yet save the day for his flock. He has come a long way from opposing not just capitalism but capital, to accepting both as facts of life even in Marxist Bengal. He now talks of the need for “restructuring” industries. He is ready at last to accept that the worker needs to develop the right work culture as much as he needs to improve his class consciousness.

But he is still not prepared to accept the argument of the market, which says that the state should exist to promote free enterprise and not to stifle it.

The irony is that he knows the pains of the “capitalist crisis” will now be inflicted as much by the Centre, the Left’s favourite whipping boy, as by his own “government of the people.” Being in the government has forced the trade unionist to make “compromises” and accept defeat in the past 25 years. He will have to do more of that as Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee leads the government up the reform road. After the first moves in health, education and industry, reforms will catch up with labour. Mazumdar knows he can no longer ask the labourer to remain unreformed.

Mazumdar is not the first labour leader to face the test. Historically, the first such test was faced by the Labour Party in England when it came into government for the first time. His, like the Left Front government’s, only chance of survival lies in reinventing labour, in the footsteps of Tony Blair’s New Labour or Bhattacharjee’s promised New Left.



Royal rock n’ roll party

Sir — The inclusion of Mick Jagger’s name in the Queen’s honours list reiterates the royalty’s acceptance of rock and roll as a distinguished profession. Jagger’s history of drug use and his philandering ways, even at 59, did not stand in the way of the honour. Jagger is, of course, following in the footsteps of other singers with colourful lifestyles such as the “swinging” Elton John and “marijuana-smoking” Paul McCartney. The latest feather in Jagger’s cap goes to show that as long as you can sing a tune, shake a leg and sell a few million albums, the Queen don’t care if you’re walking on the wild side.

Yours faithfully,
Aruna D’Cunha, Mumbai

Test case

Sir — The report, “Cancer cloud on Pokhran test site” (June 17), detailed the effect of radioactivity in the areas surrounding the Pokhran blast site. Nuclear countries should test their nuclear weapons in areas uninhabited by man or animals. If this cannot be ensured, such tests should be banned. The post-Pokhran scene is becoming more and more disturbing. Villagers and animals in the areas near Pokhran are suffering from the harmful side-effects of radioactivity. How could the Central government forget the assurances it gave these villagers that no radioactivity would take place as a result of the tests? The animals, cows and calves, which the villagers depend on for their daily earnings are the worst affected. The cows have been giving birth to deformed and blind calves ever since the tests were carried out.

The National Democratic Alliance government, under whose aegis the tests were conducted, should provide both monetary and medical support to the people and animals of these areas and not just give money for the repair of cracks that have appeared in the houses. But then, government help has always been inadequate at the time of a calamity.

Yours faithfully,
Sumant Poddar, Calcutta

Sir — According to the report, “Cancer cloud on Pokhran test site”, the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 was a hydrogen bomb. But it was actually an atom bomb. The explosive fusion of hydrogen nuclei was not perfected in 1945 and therefore it was not possible to drop a hydrogen bomb on Hiroshima.

Yours faithfully,
Sunil K. Chakravarty, Calcutta

Sir — On the one hand you read of the disastrous effects which the Pokhran blasts have had on neighbouring areas of Pokhran. On the other, you see A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the creator of the nuclear weapons which have caused such destruction, being touted as the most competent presidential candidate India has. Could life be more unfair?

Yours faithfully,
Mala Mathai, Jaipur

Death on wheels

Sir — The recent death of Aveek Tarafdar at the DumDum Metro station was shocking. Especially owing to the confusion over whether the death was a suicide or an accident. The Metro officials have decided to stand by their story that it was a suicide despite various witnesses, including the driver of the train and other passengers, claiming that they saw Tarafdar trying to climb onto the platform from the tracks. Why would a man committing suicide try to save himself? The Metro railways is not responsible for the accident. But the officials have no business writing off a death as a suicide simply to save face.

Yours faithfully,
Vikash Goenka, Calcutta

Sir — Aveek Tarafdar’s death in the Metro station on June 17 is the 35th such death after the Metro railways started operating, and the second in two months. It is unnerving and traumatic for passengers to watch the mangled body of suicide victims being dragged out from the tracks. It is time the officials took preventive steps to ensure that the Metro is not used as the means to gory ends. Instead of keeping the tracks open to passengers, the platforms should have walls on two sides, with doors at regular intervals corresponding to the train doors. The opening of the two sets of doors should coincide. This has been done in various subways all over the world. This would prevent accidents such as the last one.

Yours faithfully,
B.P. Khaund, Calcutta

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