Editorial 1 / Pats on the back
Editorial 2 / Pieced together
Consensus and sobriety
Book Review / A new caste is born
Book Review / Global designs
Book Review / Making sense of a community
Book Review / Politics of compromise
Editor’s Choice / The real battle of Britain
Paperback Pickings
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1 / PATS ON THE BACK 
 
 
 
 
The World Trade Organization has a system of trade policy reviews, known as the trade policy review mechanism. The frequency of TPRMs varies from country to country and is a function of that country’s share in global trade. India’s prescribed frequency is once every four years, and India went through earlier TPRMs in 1993 and 1998. India’s third TPRM has just taken place in Geneva. In the course of a TPRM, the WTO’s secretariat prepares a report on the country’s trade policy. The government prepares a parallel report that can be interpreted as a rejoinder. If one accepts the hypothesis that required reforms become easier to implement thanks to external pressure, TPRMs serve an useful purpose. However, for this pressure to manifest itself, the country needs to have policies that are WTO-incompatible. In the past, three such instances of WTO-incompatible policies can be identified: justification of quantitative restrictions on imports despite a good balance of payments position, violation of intellectual property right provisions and indigenization requirements imposed in the automobile sector. All three figured in the 1998 TPRM and all three have now been junked. India’s liquor duties also violated WTO norms. But the last budget took care of this. So while there is much that the present TPRM complains about, there is nothing that is WTO-incompatible.

And the catalyst of an external trigger for liberalization is missing. The WTO’s report congratulates India for successful liberalization and lists out the old pending agenda of domestic reforms. On trade policy, the WTO complains about high and complex tariffs, tariff escalation, gaps between applied and bound duties and non-tariff barriers. None of these is WTO-incompatible. The most serious complaint is about India’s extensive use of anti-dumping. But here too, Indian procedures are WTO-compliant. There is the somewhat more hazy area of additional duties imposed on imported products, such as in West Bengal or Maharashtra, through the luxury tax idea. But trading partners may not have a case as long as aggregate duties are below bound rates. India does not have bindings on consumer goods. The government report lists NTBs and other barriers that Indian exports face in developed country markets. This is in line with the argument of developing countries and LDCs in Doha: the promised market access liberalization of the Uruguay round has not happened. Predictably, developing countries and LDCs empathized with the Indian argument. So, unlike the 1998 TPRM, the present report has not led to consternation in the commerce ministry. India has got off lightly. It has strengthened the commerce ministry’s belief that India should project itself as a leader of developing countries.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2 / PIECED TOGETHER 
 
 
 
 
The radical plan of the American president, Mr George W. Bush, for peace in west Asia has predictably generated a controversy. Although there are imaginative features in his blueprint for peace, it is unlikely to find many takers within the Arab world without significant revisions. The link, particularly between the creation of a Palestinian state and the removal of its president, Mr Yasser Arafat, has already generated negative reactions even within the United States of America’s allies. But among the positive aspects of the scheme, Mr Bush’s plan sets out a timetable for peace in the region within the next three years. Anything longer would quite clearly fall outside Mr Bush’s present tenure. The basis of the plan is a recognition of the need to create a provisional Palestinian state, and to ensure that the state is founded in a region free of extremism and terrorism. It demands action from the three parties most critical to the conflict: the Palestinians, Israel and other Arab states of the region. From the Arab states, the plan demands that they build diplomatic and economic ties with Israel. Outside Egypt and Jordan no other Arab state enjoys diplomatic relations with Israel. Mr Bush also wants that the Arab states stop the flow of money, arms and militants to extremist groups like the Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hizbullah. Syria, specifically, is asked to close down all terrorist organizations and expel all terrorist groups. Few can disagree with these aspects of the American president’s plan. However, Iran is once again identified as a supplier of arms to terrorist groups, an allegation Teheran has consistently denied. This targeting of Iran will cause anxiety within and outside the region, especially since the present Iranian government has demonstrated moderation in its policies and even signalled its willingness to soften its stance on most issues that had brought it into conflict with the US. The scheme calls upon Israel to withdraw from Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza, stop settlements in these areas, and ultimately withdraw from all the territories it occupied during the 1967 war. Mr Bush also wants a restoration of the freedom of movement of Palestinians.

But it is through the demands that it makes on the Palestinians that the plan seems unworkable. It seeks the removal of the present leadership, adoption of a new constitution, creation of a fully-empowered parliament and an independent judiciary. The blueprint also demands that the Palestinians carry out financial reforms and strengthen their capacity to fight terrorist organizations. There is much in Mr Bush’s plan that is laudable. But he does not realize that peace cannot be built by forcing people to reject their leaders. This would destroy the very essence of democratic governance and could hardly lead to stable peace.

   

 
 
CONSENSUS AND SOBRIETY 
 
 
BY ASHOK MITRA
 
 
Children, the saying suggests, should be seen and not heard. Going by the verbal pyrotechnics let loose at the two press conferences addressed by the gentleman whose election as the nation’s next president appears almost inevitable, every future head of state of the republic of India should perhaps be neither seen nor heard. The dignitary has to be literate though, for he will have to sign ordinances at great frequency. Come to think of it, it should be enough if the eminence has the reputation of being literate without actually being so: the attorney general could be persuaded to give a ruling that the president is entitled to delegate the necessary power of attorney to, for example, the prime minister, who will then do all the signing on behalf of the head of state. This will also be in consonance with the revised Article 74 of the Constitution, according to which, the president has to do everything according to the wishes of the council of ministers in the Union government.

The above paragraph will conceivably draw the ire of purists belonging to the conventional school. The person almost sure to be elected as president in a fortnight’s time has been selected, we will be told, by national consensus: it is important for the sake of the nation’s dignity, that an individual chosen through such national consensus is spared irreverence of any genre; those who indulge in pastimes of this kind ought deserve a proper dressing- down.

What however is a consensus, of which the nation supposedly should be proud? According to the dictionary, consensus represents “a general agreement”, or “the opinion of most of the people in a group”. It is not that someone picked through a so-called national consensus is a unanimous choice, he or she is the choice of the majority. The very basis of a practising democracy is combat between, and conflict of, views entertained by different members of society. Precisely this attribute distinguishes a democracy from other systems. A democratic framework is sustained by the conflation of different ideas, opinions and courses of action. The democratic process lays down the modality through which the contending proposals and points of view have to pass before a final decision, embedded in law, is reached. Considered from this angle, a national consensus represents no articulation of democracy, but its negation.

It is, it follows, no scandal, if what is proclaimed as national consensus is not agreed to by some constituents of society and they prefer to wait for a democratic verdict by the electorate. It is not only no scandal, but no treason either. We have decided to jump in the lake, therefore you too must jump in the lake, we are making fools of ourselves, you too therefore must make a fool of yourself: these are instances of specious and dangerous logic which paves the way to authoritarianism.

Give the consensus-mongers an inch and they will claim a mile. The Ram fetishists in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad have now revealed the Kashmir plan dear to their heart. Jammu and Kashmir is proposed to be cut up in four slices. The region to the north-east of the Jhelum river is to be reserved for Kashmiri Pandits; the exclusively Hindu enclave in Jammu should be given the status of a Union territory; the same dispensation is intended for Leh and Ladakh. The residual parts of the existing state are to be left for the abominable Muslims; in any case — the implication is obvious — this wretched area should be permanently under the occupation of the brave and patriotic Indian army.

Precedents are not for flouting. What the VHP thinks in the morning, the Bharatiya Janata Party endorses wholesale in the afternoon. What the BJP approves in the afternoon, the National Democratic Alliance dittoes in a late evening session held in the prime minister’s residence. Following a few hectic days of confabulation, entities such as the Telugu Desam Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham and others tend to fall in line with the NDA prescription. Once the eventful week ends, a national consensus is announced to have emerged. It is then time for thanksgiving and celebration.

Assuming identical pressure tactics are applied in the case of the proposed Manuvadi vivisection of Kashmir, those making up the rest of the nation are expected to go along with the proposal. Should they refuse to go along, they are to be dubbed as anti-national. The next stage is obviously their disenfrachisement. Wouldn’t that be loverly?

Decide in haste and repent at leisure. Even overarching ambition of the Hindu fanatics should have a pause. Mistakes committed over a matter which to all intents and purposes is now an international issue are not easily reversible. What happens to Kashmir and along the India-Pakistan border no longer belongs to the sphere of decision-making on the part of Indians and Pakistanis alone. The Americans have taken over. They are selling “sensors” to India and installing their troops, who know how to operate the sensors, on this side of the border. American army personnel are already in Pakistan to hunt down the abominable al Qaidas. Here too, precedents should matter. American army units have been in permanent residence in Korea ever since 1950. They will, rest assured, take up the status of “ordinarily resident” in both India and Pakistan as well along the celebrated line of control. That is the only way, they will explain, peace and harmony could be maintained between the two adversary-nations.

The latest Hindu thought on Kashmir will come as heavenly gift to the Samaritans from god’s own country. Now that BJP zealots have mooted the idea of a four-way cutting up of the disputed state, the next deputy assistant secretary of state from Washington DC visiting the subcontinent might well suggest a two way partition of the disputed territory and which he would describe as a reasonable compromise. He would offer a minor segment to India: the bulk of the land would be offered on a platter to General Pervez Musharraf.

New Delhi would of course protest, but a subaltern regime has its limitations, it would have to accept sooner or later, with ill grace or otherwise, what the Americans were prepared to offer. Meanwhile, while the Hurriyat Conference is comprehensively alienated, the National Conference has also been pushed to an impossible corner, of course with some help from the Abdullahs themselves. In due course, the government of India would be bereft of any sensible policy alternative apropos of Kashmir. With the establishment of the fact that those who are not with New Delhi are solidly lined up against it, Kashmir would be the easiest of pickings for the Americans.

To flaunt the datum of a national consensus, stressing the need to preserve the valley’s link with the Union of India in the face of such a chain of prospective developments, will be as much a tragedy as a comedy. Indian folklore is full of stories of buffoons and impostors catapulting to positions of power and using that power to ensure successive calamities and disasters. Folklore is however usually not taken seriously, and the message it tries to transmit is often absentmindedly brushed aside. Let there be no mincing of words here. If this nation is to survive, it would do well to brush aside national consensuses. Which is to say, it should return to democratic sobriety.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / A NEW CASTE IS BORN 
 
 
BY RAJARSHI GHOSE
 
 
UNTOUCHABLE PASTS: RELIGION, IDENTITY AND POWER AMONG A CENTRAL INDIAN CCOMMUNITY, 1780-1950
By Saurabh Dube
Vistaar, Rs 550

The book under review, Untouchable Pasts, constructs an anthropological history of the Satnamis of Chhattisgarh, an unusual community which has long combined the features of a caste and a sect. Initiated in 1820 by a farm servant, Guru Ghasidas, Satnampanth challenged the prevailing course of caste hierarchy and espoused the formless god or Satnam, access to whom was to be mediated by the hereditary guru parampara.

In fact, Satnampanth was one of the many marginal devotional communities which, down the ages, constructed, negotiated and contested the multiple identities of Hinduism. In fact, Guru Ghasidas was not even the first to play on the term, “Satnam”. The existence of a “prehistory” was underscored in the tracts of Christian missionaries like M.M. Paul and G.W. Briggs to stress the temporal quality of Ghasidas’s messianic vocation.

In this work, Saurabh Dube, offers a rich and complex fare — an expansive theoretical enterprise undergirded by substantial ethnography. Combining archival and field work, the book tries to think past overarching teleologies and determinations and tries to explore “a third space” committed to a “science of singularity”.

Dube’s account opens with the incorporation of Chhattisgarh into the Maratha confederacy. The dynamics of swarajya politics went a long way in the growth of Satnampanth. Premised on the drive for revenue maximization, the Bhonsles’ policy was well-balanced and did co-opt within its ambit some of the expectations of the villages as well. However, the chamars, even the gaonthias (that is, the muqaddams) and the substantial cultivators had to cope with the discrimination that was an intrinsic part of the high-caste Bhonsle administration.

While Dube treats the themes of land control, agricultural production and ekjati villages at length, he leaves the issue of watan rights unaddressed. This is unfortunate; for in the swarajya they were more than cuts in the social produce. They implied memorialized entitlements and evoked a larger sense of communion.

At the close of the 18th century, central India looked all posed for a fresh cycle of state formation — and it is tempting to think of the Satnamis, along with the Bhils and the Ramoshis making a kill. But Pax Britannica had a very different design in mind, namely pacification. Even as the raj made some chamars the malguzars, the majority continued as sharecroppers, agricultural labourers and poor ploughmen. Recent research has delineated the contours of seasonal and long-distance migration in this period by tribals of the region. One wishes that Dube could chart the Satnami experience in this regard also.

Rituals for the Satnamis were primarily centred around the gurus. Two very interesting photographs in the book document one of the many recastings of panthic authority and transfigurations of the guru-image. The first (1898) shot by a German missionary projects the guru as a military lord exercising the force of pastorship over his flock. In the other, the one shot in 1928, photographic art renders the guru into an icon, with moist eyes, a scriptural in hand in a serene locale.

As the ethnic mosaic of the Satnamis was transformed into a hierarchy, Satnampanth reproduced from an internally differentiated chamar society many forms of inequality. Women were denied rights in property; control over women was a component of communal honour, and access to them was a vestige of ritual power. When Satnampanth formulated its own “liberal” agenda of reform, the project crucially impinged upon the women household-domesticity complex.

Untouchable Pasts is an outstanding accomplishment of scholarship and a compelling read.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / GLOBAL DESIGNS 
 
 
BY BISWARUP SEN
 
 
EMPIRE
By Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri,
Harvard, $ 18.95

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War was also the death of the global order which had been in place since 1945. The sudden subtraction of communism from global politics has left the United States of America as the only hegemonic nation-state and capitalism as the only possible mode for constituting human existence. Hardt and Negri’s Empire is the first serious attempt — Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History or Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations being more populist examples — to theorize this new totality which has been variously described as “the new world order”, “the information age” or “globalization”. Antonio Negri is a Marxist academic who taught at the University of Padua and is currently serving time in prison for his role in radical Italian politics of the Seventies. Michael Hardt, an American, studied with Negri and now teaches literature at Duke. This collaboration is not merely of biographical interest, for it mirrors the theoretical structure of the book. While Empire’s philosophical foundations are European — part Marxist and part French poststructuralist — the US is its focus and privileged analytic object, underlining the implicit imperative that any theory of the globe must necessarily be a theory of America.

Hardt and Negri claim that the old global order constituted by nation-states and their struggle for hegemony is a thing of the past. In its place we have a fundamentally different system whose nature can be grasped only by a supranational category they call “Empire.” Empire is not imperialist, it has no relation to the territorial conquest and exploitation which characterized the imperialism of previous centuries. Indeed Empire abolishes all the binarism of the colonial era: it is both first and third world, inside and outside, periphery and centre. Rather, it is a new form of sovereignty “composed of a series of national and supranational organisms united under a single logic.” Empire manifests itself through specific states and state-like organizations: the US, the G-8 countries, political and monetary organizations like the UN, the IMF and the World Bank, and through multinational companies, media conglomerates and NGOs.

How does such a diffuse entity, whose closest historical analogue is the Roman and not the British Empire, manage to maintain its sovereignty and domination? Negri and Hardt turn to Foucault’s notion of biopower as an explanatory device. They define biopower as “a form of power that regulates social life from its interior, following it, interpreting it, absorbing it, and rearticulating it.” By utilizing the extensive technologies of communication (television, advertising, internet) that characterize the information age, biopower produces a new kind of consumer subjectivity which is in concord with the rule of Empire. And when need be — as in Kuwait, Kosovo and most recently in Afghanistan — Empire resorts to swift and ferocious military action, a “pure exercise of command” in order to preserve its rule. Because Empire believes itself to be the only legitimate entity there is, it can abolish the distance between the ethical and the juridical, and conduct a series of policing actions and “just wars” against what it considers to be “rogue” or “evil” states and organizations.

Given its financial and military might as well as its capacity for the manipulation of consciousness, Empire seems omnipotent. Negri and Hardt refuse however to retreat into a Gramscian pessimism of the intellect. In fact, they argue, the very factors which make Empire seem so invincible will prove to be the cause of its demise. Previous political orders had been founded on a supreme transcendental category — the divine right of kingship in the case of monarchies, the phantasmal people in the case of liberal democracies, and the proletariat and revolution behind communist movements. Empire is unique because it is based solely on a politics of immanence, it locates agency and causation at the level of the here and now. Consequently, the tools for progress are internal to the system, already available. Hardt and Negri point to America as the model for progressive immanence, the pragmatics of liberal republicanism which grants inalienable rights to the citizen, is for them the ground for true revolutionary action. Hence their singling out of the Wobblies, a 19th century American anarcho-syndicalist group as “the great Augustan project of modern times.” The invocation to St Augustine is not accidental — a peculiar feature of the work is its turn to Christianity as a model for radicalism.

Empire will come to an end because the processes that sustain it contain the seeds of its demise. Thus globalization, which is seen as an oppressive force by many leftist thinkers, is “really a condition of the liberation of the multitude.” The “multitude” is a political category that Hardt and Negri posit in place of the revolutionary masses. The multitude is not primarily social, it is the sum of infinite singularities. Each such singularity is a locus of power that changes and constructs the world. The death of Empire is guaranteed because “the deterritorializing power of the multitude is the productive force that sustains the Empire, and at the same time the force that calls for and makes necessary its destruction.” The global reach of the multitude’s rebellion — Hardt and Negri call for a movement which fights for the global right to immigration, to a social wage, and the collective ownership of the means of production — means that global communism is within reach. That prospect permits Hardt and Negri to close their work with the ecstatic declaration, “This is the irrepressible lightness and joy of being a communist.”

The eminent philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, has called Empire “nothing less than a rewriting of The Communist Manifesto for our time.” Such a description is a little too generous, as many commentators have pointed out that Empire is turgid and diffuse in its style, over-ambitious in its scope, and often naïve in its specific analyses. Yet its singular virtue is to realize that our old conceptual paradigms are no longer adequate to the task of comprehending global politics and to attempt to create a new theoretical vocabulary which will help us with such an inquiry. In spite of its many shortcomings, Empire is, without a doubt, the most innovative and stimulating work in political theory to emerge in recent years.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / MAKING SENSE OF A COMMUNITY 
 
 
BY SHAMS AFIF SIDDIQI
 
 
UNDERSTANDING THE BENGAL MUSLIMS
Edited By Rafiuddin Ahmed,
Oxford, Rs 595

Never before in history have Muslims become such objects of scrutiny by both the media and others as in recent times. As a result, Muslims all over the world have been indulging in some degree of introspection in order to come to terms with their position in the changing world order. Muslims in the subcontinent, too, are no different from their Western counterparts in this respect. Rather, they are more susceptible to reflection and soul-searching because of the enormity of differences in language and culture between them and their Arabian counterparts. The paucity of good Islamic literature in regional languages continues to plague the reading public. The book under review attempts to understand the Bengal Muslims, the second largest ethnic population of Muslims after the Arabs.

The book is a collection of 11 essays by historians and others who have taken a special interest in this particular language community. Unfortunately, the Muslims speaking Bengali on this side of the border have as good as been forgotten.

The introductory essay by Rafiuddin Ahmed not only summarizes the content of the book but also gives us an indication of what is to follow. In “Who are the Bengal Muslims?”, Richard M. Eton charts the evolution of the community from 16th century onwards, and also establishes how Islam became the dominant religion of the community.

Although his supposition about Islam being welded to the agrarian structure carries some weight, his use of the phrase, “cult of Allah”, is meaningless. Ralph W. Nicholas’s essay, “Islam and Vaishnavism”, is far-fetched, and his comparisons of fakirs, Vaishnavas and Sufis exposes his lack of understanding of these traditions.

Peter J. Bertocci in “Islam and the Social Construction of Bangladesh”, shows how the interpretations of Islam as a religion has affected the institutions in the countryside. Clinton B. Seely’s essay on Mir Mosharraf and Sonia N. Amin’s on Rokeya Sekhawat Hussein are somehow seem out of place in the volume.

Similarly, Joseph T.O’ Connell’s essay, “The Bengal Muslims and the State”, deals with the problems of secularism in Bangladesh and whether humanity or humanism is a better alternative for it. In “Gender and Islam” Shelley Feldman examines the position of women in Bangladesh and traces the growing importance of the Jamaat-e-Islami over the years. But it is Enayetur Rahim’s essay on the Jamaat that shows how religious fundamentalism has become significant in the politics of Bangladesh.

Instead of conjuring up the image of the Bengal Muslims, the editor seems to have mixed up Islam with Arab or Persian connections. According to him, ghazals, qawwalis and mushairas are “Islamic poetic forms” and Rumi, Ghalib and Hali wrote in “Islamic languages”.

Moreover, the book does not try to show the similarities or dissimilarities between Muslims speaking Bengalis on both sides of the border, nor does it attempt to point out the disparities in language, culture, tradition and class in the different districts of Bangladesh. In the absence of serious studies in this field, the book edited by Ahmed will be appreciated even by the common reader.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / POLITICS OF COMPROMISE 
 
 
BY SUHRITA SAHA
 
 
CLASS, IDEOLOGY AND POLITICAL PARTIES IN INDIA
Edited By Arun K. Jana and Bhupen Sarmah,
South Asian Publishers, Rs 450

Indian democracy has survived for more than five decades now and political parties of different classes and ideologies have played a crucial role in its functioning. This volume, which has been edited by Arun K. Jana and Bhupen Sarmah, tries to grapple with the multiplicity of political parties in our country — their class, electoral performance, support base and so on.

The last decade and a half have witnessed three critical trends which have long-term implications for the Indian polity. First, the Congress no longer has a hegemony over Indian politics. Second, the politics of “class” has been replaced by that of “non-class” and the mobilization of people has been based on primordial identities like religion, caste and so on. Third, the recent years have also witnessed a regionalization of politics.

Over the years, the number of regional and provincial parties has increased and they have been playing an important role in determining the future of governments at the Centre. Sudha Pai, one of the contributors of the volume, argues that the Nineties have been marked by a clear departure from the dominant one-party system which was a characteristic of the Indian polity since independence.

The gradual transition from the one-party system to a new “region-based” multi-party system, can be directly linked to the breakdown of the Congress party machinery. The decline of the Congress was further precipitated by the twin forces of centralization and deinstitutionalization that have been operating from the mid-Seventies onwards. Pradip Kumar Sengupta rightly points out that the failure of different Congress regimes to exploit the number of socio-economic opportunities that have come their way have further contributed to the decline of the party.

Soumitro De seems optimistic in his belief that the Congress may be able to come out of the crisis of the last three decades. According to him, the Indian party system is moving from a hegemonic to a turnover situation at the national level. In such a system, there is less scope for transformative politics and popular dissatisfaction is usually controlled and neutralized by the rotation of power between the two major parties, in this case, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition and the Congress and its allies.

The emergence of the BJP, with its ideology of Hindu communalism, is another significant aspect of Indian politics. The chapters by Kiran Saxena, Javed Alam, Soumitro De and Prasenjit Saha focus on the party’s ideology, composition, pragmatism and rise to power. Alam rightly points out that although the growth of the BJP has been phenomenal, it still remains deficient in certain areas. However, the party is trying to make up for its inadequate expansion and fluctuating electoral results through compromises, opportunism and the dilution of its agendas.

Indian politics has witnessed a sharp increase in the number of political parties competing in order to capture power either at the national or at the local levels. Regional parties have acquired strength partly because of the weaknesses and failures of the national party system and also owing to the rise of regional consciousness.

While the multiplicity of parties may impinge upon the stability of a government, it also strengthens the process of representative democracy. The National Conference, Asom Gana Parishad and the Shiv Sena are a few regional parties that have been discussed in this volume. The claim made by Saha and De in their joint essay on the BJP, that the literature available on the ideology of Hindu nationalism in India is inadequate, stands on weak ground. Other than the Organiser and the Marmik, one could also get a clear picture of the Hindutva ideology from the writings of Golwalkar, Savarkar, Upadhyay, Hedgewar and others.

On the whole, the wide range of articles in this volume contribute substantially to our understanding of party politics in India.

   

 
 
EDITOR’S CHOICE / THE REAL BATTLE OF BRITAIN 
 
 
 
 
DAD’S ARMY WALMINGTON GOES TO WAR: THE COMPLETE SCRIPTS
By Jimmy Perry and David Croft,
Orion, £20

There was a time when the BBC excelled in comedy on the small screen. Yes Minister, Yes Prime Minister, Fawlty Towers, Black Adder and Dad’s Army will probably feature among everybody’s list of favourites. It is impossible to forget them and their quality is reflected in the fact that the scripts stand up to reading and are as enjoyable as the TV programme.

The fun of Dad’s Army begins in the subtitle of the scripts. Walmington is a small seaside resort and the episodes take place during World War II. The local bank manager, Mr Mainwaring (pronounced Mannering, as he always insists) has been made commander of the Local Defence of Volunteers. His volunteers, a ragtag group whose members have escaped conscription because of age or other impediments, have taken it upon themselves to back Britain and defend Walmington-on-Sea against the Jerries. Dad’s Army is the story of their hilarious exploits.

The situations the scriptwriters imagined were nothing if not bizarre always. Imagine the sequence where Mainwaring gets carried away by a balloon and the whole platoon of volunteers chase him around the countryside in Corporal Jones’s van. Jones, by the way, runs the butcher shop when he is not defending Walmington. Or the episode, where Mainwaring, trying to track down yards of silk from a stolen parachute, actually goes around asking housewives if they have recently bought any underwear. All for the national cause.

The episodes are peppered with witty dialogue and the occasional double entendre. The most famous of them is Corporal Jones’s, “They don’t like it up ‘em!’’. Jones claims he was with Kitchener in Sudan and is adept at the use of the bayonet. This became one of the serial’s catchphrases. As did Jones’s “Permission to speak Sir’’, an echo of Victorian times when a private always sought an officer’s permission before he opened his mouth. The other famous one was “Stupid boy”, always directed by Captain Mainwaring at Pike, the youngest of the unit, who is a bit of a mama’s boy. Nobody who saw the serial will ever forget John Laurie’s (playing Private Frazer) “Doomed!’’. The scriptwriters tell us that it was one word in the script, Laurie grabbed it by the throat and made it famous.

But behind the hilarity is the reality of the war. The episodes bring out the hardship of rationing, the perils of air raids and blackouts and of course the petty and harmless black-marketing which brought to ordinary people some of the little luxuries of life in a scarcity economy. This is the humanity of the serial. It thus refused to romanticize the war. Not just life in the trenches but even life in the villages and small towns was full of hardship. The episodes got the funny side of patriotism which made ordinary people often take ludicrous positions and actions.

This book is a must for all those who are willing to shed their sanctimoniousness and are prepared to have a rollicking good laugh. Never mind if you haven’t seen the serial. For those who saw the serial (a recent report said that the Beeb has destroyed the tapes), the only thing missing is the song, “Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler’’, by Bud Flanagan which came on with the closing titles.

   

 
 
PAPERBACK PICKINGS 
 
 
 
 

Tea with the dowager maharani

E.M. FORSTER: A TRIBUTE
Edited By K. Natwar-Singh
(Rupa, Rs 150)

E.M. Forster: A Tribute Edited By K. Natwar-Singh is an elegant monument to the Indian predilection for paying homage. Originally published in 1964, it gathers tributes from sundry Indian diplomats and men of letters on the occasion of Forster’s 85th birthday and the 40th anniversary of The Passage to India. Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao, Narayana Menon, Ahmed Ali and others share their recollections of Forster. These are mostly worshipful: “Ultimately Forster, like an idea, or a statue in a temple, does not grow old. He gains in the richness of silence, in the inflow of light.” How did Forster — described by Lionel Trilling as “irritating in his refusal to be great” — take all this? There are also excerpts from Forster himself on India, and a few of his letters to Natwar-Singh. It is refreshing to read this from The Hill of Devi after all the breathy adulation: “The Dowager maharani — Tara Raja was her name — had long been known as Dewas-Nuisance-Lady No. 1...She squabbled with his [her husband’s] mother, she danced dressed as a man with her maidservants similarly dressed, she was unruly and bizarre, and she tried to poison him...As we poured out tea, or she the tea and I the milk, as we offered one another bread and butter, or blew the flies off the little cakes, I can never have come nearer to banqueting with Catherine de’ Medici.”

PERSONALITY
By Rabindranath Tagore
(Rupa, Rs 50)

Rabindranath Tagore’s Personality is a part of the seemingly endless flow of colourful little Tagores gushing out of this publishing house. This volume is printed in pink ink, and presents Tagore’s 1917 Pond Lyceum lectures delivered in America. There is practically no bibliographical information provided about these lectures on art and women, among other things: “But woman cannot be pushed back for good into the mere region of the decorative by man’s aggressiveness of power. For she is not less necessary in civilization than man but possibly more so.”

BAREFOOT AND PREGNANT
By Shinie Antony
(Rupa, Rs 195)

Shinie Antony’s Barefoot and Pregnant is a collection of short stories about “uterine woes”, “dysfunctional motherhood” and — mystery of mysteries — an “imminently pregnant beggar”. These stories present a procession of sexually traumatized individuals caught in predictably oppressive or twisted situations. This is a “first-time author”, who has evidently never been chastized by an irate editor for consistently over-writing her stories: “Bilateral talks between the birds broke down right outside my bedroom window. The brawl activated the Ganesh clock, which trilled shrilly and pointed at seven with a traumatized trunk, hampering my contemporary Kumbakam imitation.” Any editor letting pass this virtually incomprehensible and unforgivably dissonant prose ought to think about changing his profession.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Guess who’s come to dinner?

Sir — That Atal Bihari Vajpayee suddenly felt the need to sidestep protocol to host a lavish dinner for King Gyanendra should not come as a surprise (“King tastes dinner charm offensive”, June 25). This is a trying time for India in the subcontinent and it is only natural for the prime minister to try to keep a close neighbour on his side, especially since another one on the west is showing no signs to tone down its hostility. It would also be worthwhile to remember that the king’s next stop is at China. He could carry back the sweet memories of his visit to India and try to convince Sino leaders of the urgency of maintaining happy relations with India. Which, if King Gyanendra carried enough weight in China, could also impress upon the Chinese the need to hold back their policy of extending Pakistan military knowhow. There is no reason to deny Nepal’s experience with terrorism has been similar to India’s. But that alone could not explain Vajpayee’s generosity.

Yours faithfully,
Rita Shah, Calcutta

Don’t cry freedom

Sir — Contrary to the proposition of the editorial, “Kashmir fragments” (June 25), autonomy may not be a solution to the problems faced by the people of Jammu and Kashmir. Lack of development, coupled with the absence of infrastructure, has led to widespread discontent among Kashmiris. The state’s dependence on tourism, which had once been a flourishing industry and the only means of livelihood for most Kashmiris, backfired with the advent of terrorism. Now, given the lack of employment opportunities in the state, it is only natural that Kashmiri youths will succumb to the lure of terrorism and the money promised in return.

Granting autonomy to a state where people go hungry will be meaningless. Both the Central and the state governments need to undertake steps that will encourage the growth of trade and industry in the state and instil confidence in the minds of both investors and the Kashmiri people. The people of the state, irrespective of their religion, do not want bloodshed. One must keep in mind the fact that both Hindus and Muslims had coexisted peacefully in the valley before terrorism struck roots in the valley. The political blunders of those who have been in charge of the administration have been responsible for the alienation of the Kashmiris. The people do not want autonomy. They want security, peace and development for the state.

Yours faithfully,
Asheem Kapoor, Calcutta

Sir — Those who favour converting the line of control into an international boundary are perhaps ignorant of the fact that the maharaja of Kashmir, Hari Singh, had made the conscious decision of acceding to India on behalf of his people. Any solution that gives away half the state to Pakistan abrogates this settlement and harms India’s interests.

Pandering to the whims of the West will only further Pakistan’s designs. To call Pakistan’s bluff, India should agree to a plebiscite in the whole of undivided Kashmir, but only after Pakistani troops have withdrawn from Pakistan occupied Kashmir in accordance with the United Nation

Biswapriya Purkayastha, Shillong

Sir — The Centre’s plans to hold free and fair elections in Jammu and Kashmir could well turn out to be nothing more than an eyewash. Farooq Abdullah’s anointment of his son, Omar Abdullah, as the next chief of the National Conference shows that he is trying to perpetuate dynastic rule in the valley (“Crown with cry of autonomy”, June 24). It is obvious that neither New Delhi nor the National Conference has learnt from the past, particularly the 1996 elections which proved that the latter had lost much of its political relevance in the state.

In the past few years, New Delhi has arbitrarily rejected the state assembly’s resolution for the restoration of autonomy by bringing back the constitutional status of 1993. Civil liberties have been further curtailed and the state has been flooded by troops and para-military forces more than ever before. Thousands of political activists have been arrested and left languishing in the jails, while crackdowns on citizens have continued unabated. Even now, the enforcement of certain draconian laws makes the holding of free and fair elections in Kashmir an impossible task. The only way New Delhi could break the impasse is by ensuring the participation of Hurriyat leaders and other separatist groups in the coming polls.

Yours faithfully,
Chiranjib Haldar, Calcutta

Sir — Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s article, “Coercive Diplomacy” (June 13), provides an accurate analysis of the relations between India and Pakistan. In a few days time, Pakistan will be able to prove to the international community that it has stopped cross-border infiltration. It is merely biding time trying to convince the world powers that it is sincere in its resolve to put an end to infiltration. After satisfying the international community, it will probably instruct the jihadi outfits to unleash large-scale terror again. In all probability, Pakistan has already inducted the highly skilled Afghan mercenaries to sabotage the elections in Kashmir.

The question that India needs to ask itself is whether it is the holding of free and fair elections in Kashmir or the granting of autonomy to the state that will provide a permanent solution to the Kashmir dispute. For one thing is sure. Pakistan will never remain a silent spectator to the peace process in Kashmir.

Yours faithfully,
Ranjan Chowdhury, Edmonton, Canada

Chew on this

Sir — The decision of the Union health minister, C.P. Thakur, to introduce a new legislation in Parliament for a ban on the manufacture and sale of all kinds of tobacco products is welcome (“Gutkha ban on the cards”, June 16). While the hazards of smoking have attracted a lot of attention, the dangers of chewing tobacco have been ignored for a long time. Moreover, chewing gutka or having pan masala is socially acceptable in Indian society, which is why it does not raise questions. Thakur’s decision to implement the recommendations of the standing committee of Parliament, which has advocated a ban on all forms of chewable tobacco, is commendable.

Yours faithfully,
Deepali Roy, via email

Sir — The sale of gutka and other chewable tobacco products have already been banned in states like Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Goa. But the products remain immensely popular elsewhere in the country, especially in rural areas. It is time the government took steps to restrict the availability of tobacco in the country. The farmers of Tamil Nadu, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra should be encouraged to stop growing tobacco and concentrate on other cash crops instead.

Yours faithfully,
Manoranjan Das, Jamshedpur

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