Editorial / Train to nowhere
Firing from happiness
This above all / Everybody loves a good drink
Peoeple / Tarun Tejpal
Letters to the editor

Acts of desperation often mark the decline of a political leader. It may not be time yet to script the story of Ms Mamata Banerjee’s end as a leader, but her threat to paralyse Parliament on the issue of bifurcation of Eastern Railway is perhaps the strongest evidence of her growing unimportance. That she has to hold out such a threat to be heard by the government she supports shows the extent of her alienation even from her political allies. As nothing goes right for leaders who find themselves reduced, her fight against the railway ministry’s proposal has only sent out negative signals. In better times, it would have been seen as another of her crusades for justice for Bengal and strengthened her position in her political constituency. Now, it is seen as a desperate attempt to fight back for the humiliation of not getting back the railway ministry. To add insult to injury, the deputy prime minister, Mr L.K. Advani, who now has the job of adjudicating on the Eastern Railway issue, has publicly snubbed her by announcing that he had opposed her return to the railway ministry.

Ms Banerjee once created a space for herself in the National Democratic Alliance government far out of proportion to the Trinamool Congress’s strength in the Lok Sabha. But in just a year’s time the NDA’s — and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s — attitude to her has changed from indulgence to indifference. Even Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was once unusually accommodating, and the NDA convener, Mr George Fernandes, who would be troubleshooting for her benefit, seem to have grown weary of her tantrums. It is amazing how she failed to see the telltale signs of the shrinking of her bargaining power and her space in the NDA’s scheme of things.

She should have read the signals after she lost the assembly elections in West Bengal last year. To the BJP, she thus became not only unreliable but also a loser. Her rehabilitation in the NDA did not mean a return to the old equations. Further evidence of her reduced appeal came in some municipal elections in West Bengal, in which the Trinamool Congress not only failed to match the Marxists but also slipped behind the Congress in popular support. Her humiliation over the cabinet berth was closely followed by yet another on home turf in this week’s assembly byelection in Howrah. It should have occurred to a more pragmatic politician that the BJP would henceforth invest more in allies from other states where it can hope to reap better harvests in future elections. Even if it looked cynical, the sangh parivar would be less generous to her and more accommodative of the Andhra Pradesh chief minister, Mr N. Chandrababu Naidu, or the Samata Party leaders from Bihar.

Even if her argument against the bifurcation of Eastern Railway had some merit, it had no hope of overriding the NDA’s political calculations. She is thus caught in a bind. Having lost the battle in Bengal, she needed to get back her space in New Delhi, but that is no longer possible. The loss of space in the NDA could reduce her area of influence at home too. Humbled by her Marxist enemies and alienated from her NDA friends, she now faces the danger of losing hold over her own flock in the party. Times truly look out of joint for Ms Banerjee.


Accidents can happen anywhere and to anyone, but it’s the aftermath of the bombing in Afghanistan that suggests that the Americans might be beginning to wear out their welcome in a land that does not take kindly to foreigners.

Though still obscured in mystery, the event itself exposes the kind of cultural gulf that separates the United States of America, even at its most benign, from Asian countries that are blessed with an American presence. Apparently, the US forces were unaware of the custom of Afghan men, who all carry rifles, “firing from happiness” at weddings. American ground surveillance teams may also have mistaken ordinary villagers, many of whom also wear robes and large black turbans, for taliban fighters.

True, Washington usually tries to give some instruction to personnel abroad in foreign ways and customs. Obviously, the orientation was not effective this time. Or it might have been skipped altogether in the excitement of Operation Enduring Freedom. Whatever the reason, such ignorance is indicative of how easily a superpower can lose sight of human details when pursuing a grand global objective like George W. Bush’s war on terrorism.

Clearly, the US has learnt little from the far worse blunders that were reported during the Vietnam war. An obsession with the crusade against communism then prompted a brutal disregard of local sensibilities that alienated even the anti-communist south Vietnamese and played into the hands of enemies. That was when the phrase and concept of the “ugly American” gained currency.

Even when it wants to please, US diplomacy is often insensitive to Asian sentiment. Indians squirmed with emb-arrassment when Lyndon Johnson, visiting New Delhi as vice-president, jumped out of his car near the Jumma Masjid and yelled to the crowd, “Hi folks! We want to help you.” Okinawa is the scene of frequent friction with US troops.

Neither the military nor the psychological situation in Afghan-istan is comparable to Vietnam. But it bears recalling that during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, many American strategists gleefully described that country as the Soviet Union’s Vietnam. What is perilous for one Western power could be equally perilous for another.

Controversy over what exactly happened only adds to Afghan anger, and strengthens the impression of American callousness. The US does not deny that one of its B-52 bombers let off seven bombs in the vicinity but insists that a ground spotter has testified that none of them hit human targets. The only bomb that might have is said to have exploded harmlessly.

Yet four villages in Oruzgan province, once the taliban’s religious headquarters, were affected, at least 44 people were killed (including 25 members of a single family) and some 100 injured. It has been suggested that the damage might have been done by an American AC-130 gunship that mistook the wedding fusillade for enemy anti-aircraft gunfire.

In January, the US special forces inadvertently killed 21 Afghan civilians in the same place. Other such fatalities elsewhere stren-gthen the impression that the West holds Asian lives cheap. Resentful Afghans cannot be blamed for feeling that their security matters less to the US than its pursuit of taliban and al Qaida fugitives.

Hamid Karzai’s government did not say much earlier. This time, however, it has reacted sharply and demanded an explanation. The Bush administration is not contrite, although it has condoled with the Afghans. Bush will probably send an envoy to try and pacify the Afghans and step up financial and other aid. But considerations of local safety or sensibilities are not going to persuade him to relax the campaign to hunt down and destroy what Americans see as pockets of enemy resistance.

The truth is that Afghanistan is only incidental to America’s strategic purpose. It was not concern for Afghanistan but traditional fear of the consequences of the Russians moving southwards that prompted the Reagan administration’s military and financial backing for the mujahedin. Even if we disregard evidence that the Soviets invaded to pre-empt the US, it was America’s proxy war that created the nexus between the US Central Intelligence Agency and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. As the victim of one Pakistani-inspired terrorist attack after another, India is still paying dearly for that infamous collusion.

Once the Soviets had been driven out, the US was quite content to see the taliban installed in Kabul. After all, America’s Pakistani protégé had created it. Washington’s spok-esmen were careful not to criticize even the new regime’s religious bigotry. Instead, they astutely welcomed the end of the civil war and the emergence of a single victor, which, they said, would lead to stability. It was the same argument that Bush was to employ later for welcoming Pervez Musharraf’s seiz- ure of power in Pakistan.

High-ranking American leaders like Henry Kiss- inger and Richard Armitage were connected in one way or another with enterprises involving the taliban. The US was looking forward to economic cooperation with it, pegged on the oil and gas pipelines that the American petroleum giant, Unocal, proposed to lay from central Asian fuel deposits to ports in Pakistan (and, possibly, India too) through Afghan-istan. This was a high priority for Bill Clinton who realized the importance of oil for America’s superpower status.

Two unexpected developments prevented that fruition. First, the taliban’s treatment of women outraged powerful American lobbies and made it difficult even for the pragmatic Clinton administration to do business with men who so grossly violated human rights. The bombings of US embassies in east Africa drove the final nail into the coffin of the hopes of Unocal and its influential supporters in the US state department and outside.

Afghanistan, as such, played little part in any of these calculations. It was so, too, with the domino theory. The prime concern was not the plight of the Vietnamese peasant but what south Vietnam’s collapse might bode for US allies in southeast Asia like Thailand and Singapore. To that end, the Western powers initially encouraged Cambodia’s egregious Pol Pot regime (seen as less hostile than King Norodom Sihanouk) and helped to overthrow another pro-China neutral, Indonesia’s Sukarno.

America responded seriously to Afghanistan only when the terrorists attacked in New York and Washington last September. No one knows why the Bush administration did not take preventive action on the basis of early warnings. But whatever the internal turf wars and inter-agency rivalries, the US president could not sit back once the enemy had struck.

Afghanistan lurched back on the American radar, not because it was languishing under an evil and tyrannical authority but because that authority was suspected of harbouring America’s enemies. The US game with the dalai lama was replayed on a bigger screen. Normally, the US ignores the exiled Tibetan pontiff. But whenever it is annoyed with China over some trade or military matter, it invites the dalai lama to the White House for an “accidental” encounter with the president. Similarly, Afghanistan suddenly found itself the focus of American attention for reasons that had nothing to do with internal conditions.

The reason for US involvement has not changed. Karzai dare not do anything about it for he is America’s nominee. The loya jirga showed that many Afghans would have preferred the former king, Mohammed Zafar Shah, to head the government. But like Norodom Sihanouk and Sukarno, the king was also notoriously neutral during his long innings on the throne. The US wanted a vigorous supporter.

Nevertheless, Karzai must distance himself from his sponsor if he is to survive. He knows that US favour can be the kiss of death for Asian rulers, witness the fate of Syngman Rhee, Ferdinand Marcos and all those puppets in Saigon. Afghanistan is not anti-American but more incidents like the Oruzgan bombings could turn the tide. Karzai’s appeal to Afghans not to fire their rifles during weddings could be misinterpreted as surrender to the intruder’s cultural insensitivity. He must be circumspect.


I am curious to find out more about the attitudes of different religions towards consuming intoxicating drinks. I am fully aware that religious people who like to drink do so no matter what their scriptures say against drinking alcohol. On the contrary, taking wine is a part of Catholic and Anglican religious ritual. Only later sects like the Mormons who practice polygamy, the Jehova’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, Quakers and the Plymouth Brethren disapproved of imbibing liquor. There are lots of references to the joy of drinking in the Old Testament.

The attitude towards drinking underwent a change with the advent of Islam. Scholars still disagree over whether the Quran forbids it as haraam (unlawful) or only censures it as something undesirable. So drinking in public is forbidden in most Muslim countries except Turkey, Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt which are comparatively westernized. In the more conservative Muslim countries like Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh despite prohibition people manage to get it. A friend who has lived in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, the most orthodox of all Islamic states, assured me that he had little problem getting his required quota of Scotch and wines.

The Hindic family of religions, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism took a more tolerant view of drinking. Our gods drank somras; on many religious festivals drinking hard liquor or bhang (hashish) is de rigueur. My Sikh friends who disapprove of my drinking quote passages from the Granth Sahib to prove drinking is forbidden by the Sikh faith. Nevertheless, next to the Parsis (Zoroastrianism does not forbid drinking), Sikhs are the biggest tipplers in India. Strong disapproval of drinking is a later development among certain Hindu reformist movements and was given religious sanction by men like Mahatma Gandhi and Morarji Desai. Fortunately, their influence is on the wane. Prohibition is as dead as the Dodo. Drinking is enjoyable provided you drink like a gentleman and don’t make an ass of yourself and become a nuisance to others.

A wonderful journey

The Howrah-Kalka Mail starts its eastward journey from Kalka in Haryana, runs through the Indo-Gangetic plain and terminates at Howrah. It starts its westward journey from Howrah and terminates at Kalka. This train has given Kalka a place on the map of India.

Kalka is the cleanest and best kept railway station in India. So everyone at Kalka railway station will tell you. I had not been there for many years. For me, it was a station I looked forward to spending a pleasant evening, before boarding the train to Lahore or the Howrah Mail to Delhi. As I came down from cool Shimla and Kasauli to the hot, dusty plains, my clothes were drenched in sweat and my throat parched. I took a shower, changed into fresh clothes and made for the dining area largely patronized by the sahib log. A glass of chilled beer went down from my dry throat to the toes, like life-giving elixir. After a meal I took a long after-dinner stroll along the station’s two platforms before lying down on my berth. By the time the train pulled out of Kalka railway station, I was fast asleep..

The Kalka railway station is slowly coming back to its own. The Shatabdi Express from Delhi now goes all the way up to Kalka every morning and leaves there in the evening. People bound for hill resorts near Shimla find it more convenient than detraining at Chandigarh. All it needs to have is a gourmet restaurant with a bar licence to restore it to its past glory. In addition, a well-stocked book and magazine stall. You can watch the rail motor cars and the small gauge trains chug their way up the hill towards Shimla. The atmosphere can become more festive.

Chandigarh has now become a wayside station for me. The train almost empties itself there with only hill-wallahs going to Kalka, an hour’s journey beyond. A lady walked upto me and asked, “You are going to Kasauli?” I’ve just rung up my son on the mobile. He says it has been pouring since the morning.” A few minutes later, her husband came over and said, “If you are going to Kasauli, we can give you a lift. My car will be at the station. We live next door to your friend, Bulbul Sharma.” Introductions were made. They were Rana and Rekha Jolly.

So I saved myself a hefty taxi fare and the newly levied fee of Rs 40 per car for entering Himachal Pradesh and Rs 6 for entering Kasauli. I had the company of Rekha and Rana and took the shorter road to my destination. I also had a brief dekho and handshake with Bulbul and her husband.

The shorter route did me no good. It is a very narrow road, broken down in many places, and can lead to landslides during rainy seasons. In one word, dangerous. Despite the levy to fill its coffers, the Himachal Pradesh government has done nothing to make the journey safe for travellers. I will not be surprised if one of these days a car or a bus goes down the khud killing all its passengers. (there are sheer falls of a thousand feet or more on the one-side). Then there will be the usual passing of blame from one department to the other or blaming it on the driver of the vehicle.

Man’s best friend

My housekeeper in Kasauli kept two dogs to keep uninvited visitors and monkeys at bay, Neelo and Joojoo. Neither could claim any pedigree and had been picked out of litters of bitches living in the vicinity. Both were ill-tempered but their barks were stronger than their bites. Their ill-temper was more in evidence when I happened to be in Kasauli.

As is common to most dogs, they sense who is the master of the house, and attach themselves to him rather than to those who feed them. No sooner had I arrived than the two would vie with each other to claim closeness to me. Neelo being the younger and the tougher of the two would sit by my chair and snarl at Joojoo if he came anywhere near me. But Joojoo found ways to get round his rival. Neelo did not like to go for a stroll in the evening and would wait for me at the gate. I did not like Joojoo coming with me because he was prone to pick up quarrels with any dog we met during our walks. While going through the small stretch of the bazaar, Joojoo would fight with half-a-dozen dogs belonging to shopkeepers. However, over the years I got used to the temperaments of the two dogs and stopped fussing over them.

This went on for 14 years. Both Neelo and Joojoo aged but not very gracefully. White hair sprouted round their mouths, they became slower in their movements. I noticed the signs of ageing in the two dogs but refused to admit to myself that I too had aged and was reluctant to step out of the house.

When I returned to Kasauli in June, Neeloo was missing. My servant told me that the dog men employed by the cantonment board had fed him poison because he wore no collar. Joojoo who had spent his lifetime quarrelling with Neeloo looked older than ever before. His skin sagged over his bones, his genitals hung like a dilapidated sack under his belly, his legs trembled as he walked and his eyes looked bleary and unseeing. He would join me at tea time to beg for a biscuit or two because he could not chew anything harder.

One morning he came and sat by me while I was having my morning tea. When I got up, he stood up on his trembling legs and looked pleading at me. I spoke to him gently: “Joojoo too budha ho gaya Joojoo main bhee buddha ho gayaa (Joojoo you have got old, so have I). He looked at me with uncomprehending eyes and slowly went away. An hour later one of the boys living in the house came and told me: “Joojoo mar gaya (Joojoo is dead). I saw him lying by the club house. The cantonment board took his body away in a cart. So ended our 15-year long friendship.



Down still not out

Not long ago the tehelka office in New Delhi was bustling with a crazy energy. Today it looks sad and forlorn. Almost tragic. Not long ago the flamboyant red and green editorial section on the first floor had the spunk of the young and the cheerfulness of the uninhibited. Today the doors are locked. The swank office was shifted to the humbler basement because it wasn’t possible to pay the high rent any more. The dotcom’s state of the art computers may soon go on sale to pay off the salary of the few peons and the drivers who are still around. The editorial staff hasn’t been paid for the past six months. Even CEO Tarun Tejpal’s cosy nook on the second floor is gone. Austerity meant the basement for him as well.

It doesn’t really matter. Tejpal spends more time these days meeting lawyers and deposing before the Justice K. Venkataswami Commission set up to look into the various aspects of the defence deals which were exposed by the web portal in a sensational sting operation last year. So do most of his staff, though few are actually involved with the case. But they continue to visit the courtrooms only to lend support to an organisation, where working was also a love affair. And the affair continues, with or without a salary.

In the witness stand, dressed in his familiar blue Fabindia kurta and churidar, Tejpal makes a happy but incongruous picture. You expect to witness a furious cross-examination on the veracity of the story from the lawyers. What you hear instead is a mundane question and answer session on the journalist-publisher’s delay in filing his income tax returns.

Instead, the grilling for the day has been reserved for Aniruddha Bahal, co-owner of the portal and co-author of Operation Westend. A lawyer representing one of the accused makes Bahal take a look at the transcript of tape 7, page 34 followed by that of tape 11, page 19 (unedited version), followed by.... and so it goes, like a seamless narrative, on and on.

Sitting on the backbench, Jaya Jaitley, dressed in a deep green sari, hangs on to every word spoken. The senior Samata Party leader may have reasons to do so but, for the uninvolved, even watching the legal proceedings is a draining experience that leaves you defeated.

These are harrowing times for tehelka. The Central Bureau of Investigation raided their office last week and one of their reporters, Kumar Badal, was arrested for his alleged involvement in a poaching case.

No venture capitalist today wants to invest in one of the best-known dotcom brands in India. At least a dozen deals for a second round of investment, including one with Zee, fell through at the last minute. Not surprising, considering their main investor, Shankar Sharma of First Global, was harassed ceaselessly after the story broke.

How things change! In March, 2001, the dotcom company was walking the other side of euphoria when Operation Westend happened. The story took the lid off the nexus between politicians, defence personnel and fixers who are part of most defence deals. Earlier in May 2000, tehelka’s spycam documentary on match-fixing was the most damning revelation in the history of Indian cricket.

Not everybody liked tehelka’s methods. And, when news broke that the dotcom used the services of sex workers for the defence deal story, many were horrified. Surely, undercover journalism had gone too far.

Tejpal admits that there was an “ethical transgression” in the case but also wants everybody to remember “the big picture.” And the big picture was offering visual demonstration of corruption in the so-called sacrosanct departments of the state.

Sadly, few remember that tehelka was not only about undercover investigative journalism. In a story entitled Operation Whitewash, the portal showed how even a year after the Kargil war, a strategic post in the Dras sector, Point 5353 remained with the Pakistani troops. And, its literary section, the closest desi thing to the classy American portal, salon.com, was hailed as the best of its kind. “We used to get responses from as far as Helsinki. Even Salman Rushdie used to read our stuff regularly,” says literary editor Shoma Chaudhary, one of the last to have hung on. But even she cannot escape that sinking feeling now.

Not Tejpal. He is still not prepared to write the saddest lines. Like pebbles in the moonlight, his optimism shines through. So what if his personal debt has reached monster proportions. And, so what if tehelka’s staff has whittled down from 120 to 20. He tells you how common people, from drivers to valets to the man on the street, walk up to him for his autograph.

In small towns he is mobbed like a rock star and looked upon as a messiah. “The experience is both humbling and embarrassing. I feel with so much of gloom around, whenever people see a ray of hope, they cling to it desperately,” says Tejpal.

But the dotcom expose has also raised uncomfortable questions about the nature of the Indian state and the enormous risk for anybody who dares to go against it. Tejpal describes his battle as “a historic one.” “You have to fight for everything you value. You have to fight for your space and your freedom,” he says with stubborn confidence.

And, unlike his other colleagues, he is certain that the web portal will not fade away. So far tehelka has survived on hope and will power. But the gasping dotcom needs much more now.



What he can do, she can do better

Sir — Girls never had it so good in West Bengal. Not only have the first two positions in the higher secondary examination been bagged by girls, but Pramita Mitra has notched up an all time record of 975 marks out of 1,000 (“Girls conquer HS heights”, July 3). Although the achievement has been overshadowed by controversies about the huge disparity in the performances of Calcutta and the districts, the rise of girl power in education would be a thing to watch. For many like me, who have spent years hearing, “the first among the girls is...”, the thought of the same thing being said about boys generates a pleasure difficult to describe.

Yours faithfully,
Snigdha Guha, Calcutta

Tinker, tailor

Sir — Atal Bihari Vajpayee has clipped the wings of possibly the only honest minister in his cabinet: Maneka Gandhi. Despite the many obstacles posed by the bureaucracy and her cabinet colleagues, including the former Union health minister, C.P. Thakur, Maneka Gandhi went ahead and exposed the sordid picture of how animals were used by the scientific community in India. The recent report of the Committee for the Purpose of Control and Supervision of Experiments on Animals revealed that even the premier research institutes flout the existing norms while using animals for experiments. Ironically, most of these institutions are Centrally-sponsored. The report allegedly cites instances of dogs being locked up in kennels, drinking their own urine in place of water. Cats are hooked up to wrongly fitted electrodes and calves are cut up and left to die, all in the name of science.

Thakur, who was the prime spanner in Maneka Gandhi’s works, has also lost his ministry. But what could be the reason behind felling Thakur and Maneka Gandhi in one swoop?

Yours faithfully,
Abhijit Roy, Jamshedpur

Sir — Keeping in mind the demands of coalition politics, changing the composition of the cabinet from time to time is understandable. But what could be the logic behind swapping portfolios between cabinet ministers, as in the case of Yashwant Sinha and Jaswant Singh (“A swap and some tinkering”, July 3)? There could be two reasons for this. Either the prime minister failed to put the right man in the right place at the start or both the ministers have proved to be inefficient. But neither proposition seems true. For, it is only Sinha who has got faced flak for his policies. Singh has been widely appreciated for efficiently steering India’s foreign affairs. Does Atal Bihari Vajpayee think that putting Singh in charge of finance will lift the ministry’s sagging image? But in this age of specialization, shouldn’t a ministry be put under the charge of only the person best-equipped to handle it?

Yours faithfully,
Kaushik Wadera, Calcutta

Long march

Sir — Narendra Modi’s proposed gaurav yatra has been aborted for two reasons (“Gujarat yatra off”, July 3). First, the leader of the opposition, Sonia Gandhi, had reportedly put pressure on the prime minister to stop the yatra. Second, the National Human Rights Commission had warned the Gujarat government that it might lead to fresh violence in the state. The point that is being missed here is that the walk was planned with the coming assembly elections in mind. Most parties take out such walks and processions before facing the ballot. The Congress too had earlier announced to take out a yatra. In Karnataka, the Congress had in fact taken out a yatra just before the assembly elections. However, it is true that in the proposed yatra, Modi would have tried to gain mileage out of the recent carnage there. Perhaps the Election Commission should have allowed Modi to continue with the yatra provided the subject of the post-Godhra violence was not broached.

Yours faithfully,
V.A. Gopala, Bangalore

Sir — Judgment Day might be approaching Narendra Modi faster than he thinks. The formation of an international criminal court gives hope to the wronged Muslims in Gujarat. That the abettor of the killings is walking free is shameful. If the court sets some positive precedents, it will deter such abuse of power.

Yours faithfully,
Sumit Majumdar, Calcutta

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