Editorial 1 / Labour lost
Editorial 2 / Less than human
Following their definitions
Book Review / Structures tell their own story
Book Review / Greater jihad
Book Review / View from the margins
Book Review / Empire and labour
Editor’s Choice / The importance of being Cripps
Paperback Pickings
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1 / LABOUR LOST 
 
 
 
 
At the meeting of the prime minister’s council on trade and industry, the prime minister spelt out a wish-list. This has a legislative agenda that includes not only the electricity bill and the petroleum regulatory bill, but also labour law reform. Now that the second labour commission has submitted its report, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee has promised to implement the recommendations on the basis of consensus. Consensus means majority rather than unanimity and the distinction is more than pedantic. Does one mean 8 per cent of the labour aristocracy employed in the organized sector (led by unions) or does one mean 92 per cent in the unorganized sector? There was a first national commission on labour, set up in 1966, with a report submitted in 1969. Why was the second labour commission, set up in 1999, at all necessary? The terms of reference suggest that post-1991 liberalization has altered the structure of the economy and fresh examination is necessary. This argument is of doubtful validity, since labour market rigidities in the organized sector and consequent artificially high capital intensity and loss in potential jobs have been “researched” ad nauseam. Chapter V-B of the Industrial Disputes Act is dysfunctional and does not protect the broader interests of labour. It is because this examination has already taken place that the government went ahead and announced changes in Chapter V-B in a budget speech. Hence, the second labour commission was set up not for examination but to assuage unions.

And the second labour commission has expectedly delivered. It does not want Chapter V-B changed. Coupled with similar recommendations from the planning commission’s S.P. Gupta committee, Mr Vajpayee does not have his consensus. Presumably this means that regardless of what was said at a meeting of industrialists, labour laws do not change. The second labour commission was also supposed to unify and harmonize labour laws. This was also a waste of time, because such an exercise was attempted in 1994, and the national labour code resulted. The national labour code was never implemented, and the second labour commission did not even try the rationalization exercise. Its recommendations incline towards extending labour laws to the unorganized sector, ignoring implementation problems. Thus there will be a special law for small industries that employ fewer than 19 workers and a Child Labour (Prevention and Education) Act.

If the former recommendation is accepted and implemented, it will impart labour rigidities to the unorganized sector also, thus killing the comparative advantage India possesses in labour abundance. It is not surprising that most Indian exports originate in the unorganized sector, where labour markets are at present flexible. The recommendation of a Child Labour Act is a harebrained scheme, as is the idea of a Central unemployment scheme and making social security a fundamental right. Apart from anything else, targeting, preventing leakage and implementation are serious problems. As Indian policy-making has often proved, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Pity the second labour commission was ever set up.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2 / LESS THAN HUMAN 
 
 
 
 
It takes a sick and dangerous mind to falsely accuse an 11-year-old boy for raping a four-year-old girl. But what the aftermath of this case reveals of the juvenile justice mechanism in West Bengal is even more appalling. Since March 2000, when Sonu Thakur was arrested for the alleged rape, almost every stage of the criminal procedure has managed to mete out grievous injustice to the boy and his family. Immediately after the arrest, Sonu spent nearly a month in a remand home which makes no distinction, in its living arrangements, between those being given shelter and those being punished. (Children have been known to flee this institution from time to time.) After intimate cohabitation with criminals and delinquents, Sonu was granted bail on the basis of a medical report which seemed to have decisively proved his innocence. The police, however, ignored this report and filed a chargesheet against the boy. The case was subsequently dismissed at court, together with a severe reprimand from the judge for the violation of human rights: “a glaring example of how insensitive the police can be”. The police were forced to admit their mistake.

Like any right-thinking citizen, the boy’s father then filed a complaint against the police with the West Bengal human rights commission. Since then, Mr Uday Kant Thakur’s applications have received a series of rejections which show an unforgivable combination of ignorance, bureaucratic inefficiency and sheer callousness on the part of every official handling the applications, from the registrar to the commission members and chairman. There is often occasion to lament the lack of executive powers of the human rights commissions at the state and national levels. But this case reveals the WBHRC’s inability to render to the citizens of the state even the limited support that it is empowered to give. When such an institution of vigilance repeatedly evades responsibility in the name of judicial constraints, then civil society is left with virtually no agency of redress — apart from the media, perhaps — to turn to when the law and order machinery fails to deliver justice. If such a situation ends up inflicting irreparable damage on the minds and bodies of children, then there must be something essentially wrong with the way some key social institutions distinguish between the human and the inhuman.

   

 
 
FOLLOWING THEIR DEFINITIONS 
 
 
BY ASHOK MITRA
 
 
Whether it is Jerusalem’s Left Bank or Afghanistan or The Hague, the story is the same. The American president, George W. Bush, has communicated the message to the Palestinians: they have an open-and- shut choice, either they keep Yasser Arafat as their leader or they have an independent state of their own, they cannot have both. The hyper-power has the right to decide whether the Palestinians have the right to choose their own leader — or be entitled to sovereign status. It will be an egregious error on your part to call this an act of terror perpetrated by an international bully.

In a remote village in Afghanistan, a Pashtun wedding ceremony was on in the evening, the village folk were out on the lanes and by-lanes, they lit up the neighbourhood sky in traditional manner by exploding blank cartridges in the air. That disturbed the equanimity of American pilots navigating the sky in their high flying reconnaissance planes. Peeved no end, they bombed the wedding party and wiped out two hundred lives, including those of the bride and the groom. The episode has been officially described by American top brass as the result of a misunderstanding and not an act of terror.

A handy third instance. Others abide the question; the United States of America is free. The United Nations-sponsored International Criminal Court at the Hague may have the jurisdiction to try for genocide citizens of all other countries in the world, but, President Bush has ordained, American citizens will have to be exempted. The great and noble US is entitled to commit most heinous crimes against humanity; you better examine your head before you accuse it or its president of international terrorism.

Which is precisely the problem. The hyper-power has the prerogative of defining what is and what is not terrorism. An ultimatum sent to the Palestinians asking them to get rid of their democratically elected leader is a normal event, and not terrorism. It is similarly quite normal to kill innocent people somewhere, anywhere in this far-flung globe in the course of bloodsport, that is, in case the bloodsport is indulged in by Americans. They, by definition, are non-terrorists. The hyper-power enjoys the right to prescribe both laws and definitions.

American definitions however threaten to touch our own life and living. The government in New Delhi loves to toe the American line. The US definition of terrorism is also by and large the definition of the National Democratic Alliance. The Prevention of Terrorism Act is intended to crush terrorism as defined by President Bush. Those dubbed terrorists by the US establishment must, it is implied, automatically come within the ambit of POTA. What some lesser souls may describe as witch-hunting, loyal Bush-men in the Vajpayee government will depict as suppression of terrorism.

Since our country is bound by porous land borders and equally porous ocean waters, we are supposed to be heavily infiltrated in all seasons by enemies and their spies. These enemies obviously include Osama bin Laden and his al Qaida. Enemies thus dubbed by President Bush are ipso facto are government’s enemies.

Complications set in. The POTA is a Central piece of legislation. Maintenance of law and order, on the other hand, is the responsibility of the states. New Delhi may want the act to be used in generous measure against the maraudings of al Qaida, agents of the Inter-Services Intelligence and suchlike. The state governments may however prefer a different agenda. Consider the case of Kumari Jayalalithaa. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam-loving Vaiko Gopalsamy is her favourite target. She would like to apply POTA against Vaiko and his disreputable comrades. But Vaiko is flesh of the flesh of the NDA, which Kumari Jayalalithaa is not. Thereby hangs a predicament. No provision seemingly exists in the POTA which enables the Union government to declare null and void a state government decision.

The problem actually has several facets. Just as a state government can, under the act, proceed against somebody whom the Union government would hate to proceed against, the reverse possibility is equally germane. The state governments have the right under POTA to decide who within their territory are the enemies of the nation. Their definition of terrorism may not tally with the definition of the NDA government, nor, for the matter, with that of the US administration. They have therefore every right not to throw in the dungeons those the Americans, and therefore the New Delhi regime, would dearly like to be thrown in. The Indian Constitution allows this much of latitude to the states. As long as a formal war has not been declared, the Union government’s enemies need not be the enemies of a state government. The Union government may badly want to arrest a particular person under POTA. A state government nonetheless has the right not to arrest him or her if its judgment or inclination is otherwise.

The issue involves not just legal niceties, but fundamental rights too. Osama bin Laden may be a proclaimed terrorist in the eyes of the US administration — and, therefore, the comprador regime in New Delhi. For a considerable number of men, women and children in the poorer countries of the world though, he is a cult figure, some sort of a folk hero. Right or wrong, he is reckoned to have emerged as a global symbol in the struggle against Western imperialism. In land after land, he is idolized in humble huts and hamlets. The young ones especially adore him. In Arab countries, amongst the intelligentsia, bin Laden is regarded as an apostle, as much as, for example, Edward Said is. Both, according to current legend, have contributed immensely to Arab Resurrection in the new millennium.

Disturbing reports are of late coming in of over-zealous policemen indiscriminately arresting hawkers and traders who have been caught in the act of selling pictures of bin Laden. Countrymen have the right to know whether state governments have issued specific instructions for such arrests. Because the Americans have no love lost for an individual, it does not follow Indian citizens too should begin to dislike him.

Each state government must reach its independent decision in such matters and inform the public whether it is a subversive act to sell or buy bin Laden’s picture. If no such instruction has been issued through the due process of law, policemen disrupting the sale and purchase of bin laden’s portrait would be infringing Article 19 of the Constitution. Clause(a) of the article guarantees freedom of speech and expression; clause(g) protects the right to practise any profession or to carry on any occupation, trade or business.

It is, besides, necessary to take the long view. The Americans have been treading on too many toes all around the world. It is conceivably a matter of time before a global reaction against American hauteur sets in. On that dawn, where should we, Indians, devoutly wish to be? Confiscating bin Laden’s pictures and arresting those trying to hawk these may buy us American favours in the short run. There should however be a proper cost-benefit analysis in terms of long-term dividends vis-a-vis long-term losses.

The argument can actually be stretched even further. The Maoists are threatening to overrun the hitherto-sedate kingdom of Nepal. The Americans may jump to the assistance of the Nepal monarchy; Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the obliging camp-follower, may also do so. But that does not permit policemen anywhere in the country to apprehend persons who have on their bookshelves Marxist and Maoist tracts. Individual state governments can have their little local difficulties; they owe it to their credentials to seek other solutions to these problems without recourse to administrative fiats and draconian authoritarian measures. It is still a free country. The Emergency, after all, is barely a little more than a quarter of a century old; its horrors should not be forgotten that easily.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / STRUCTURES TELL THEIR OWN STORY 
 
 
BY SUGATA RAY
 
 
A CONCISE HISTORY OF MODERN ARCHITECTURE IN INDIA
By Jon Lang,
Permanent Black, Rs 975

A Concise History of Modern Architecture in India by Jon Lang provides a historical narrative of the development of architecture from the Twenties onwards. Although the author mainly focuses on documenting and historically locating architectural trends, he also tackles certain theoretical questions, especially those on modern architectural history. The issues of modernity, postmodernity, traditional architecture and its revival, have also been addressed.

One of the most commendable aspects of this authoritative work is its diligent documentation and description of a large number of buildings built during the last hundred years and spread over 30 cities in the subcontinent. This, by itself, is a significant academic accomplishment. Further, much archival research can be discerned in the fixing of specific dates for the erection of different monuments and buildings.

The author clearly privileges the processes through which architectural developments can be traced, over theoretical discourses. He includes biographical sketches of seminal architects and explores the manner in which contemporary architects borrow motifs and styles from one another. As the author claims: “This book is as much about the flow of ideas as it is about architects and buildings.” Such a methodology is generally to be found in formal studies of pre-modern traditional architecture.

This volume has been divided into seven sections, on the basis of the time-frames of major architectural movements which have been arranged in a historically linear pattern. This gives the reader a bird’s eye view of the evolution of architecture in India. There is an engaging portrayal of the dilemma faced by architects before and after independence, as they tried to integrate international styles and concepts with the political atmosphere of the country. For its painstaking documentation and exhaustive research, this book will be a treasure trove of material for future architects and historians who want to formulate a discursive framework of contemporary Indian architecture.

Although few can fault the author’s meticulous research, Jon Lang is given to over-simplifying concepts like modernism, post-modernism and revivalism. He tends to ignore the broader political framework which gave rise to such movements and the complexities and contradictions inherent in them. For example, Lang should have tried to define what specifically constitutes architectural modernism in India, instead of merely attempting to link the modern to the “Bengal renaissance” and generally differentiating it from the traditional.

The author would have done better to suggest a specific moment which could be seen as the start of “modernity”, as far as the formal and technical aspects of the evolution of Indian architecture is concerned. Further, an important issue that has been ignored or generally kept in the margins is the question of changing tastes and interventions by a discerning audience and especially, influential patrons of architecture and art. The role of the client in deciding aesthetics, especially in the context of private edifices, has generally been ignored. If addressed, this would surely provide a more tangible logic on the question of shifting trends and styles.

However, even if one overlooks such crucial deficiencies, this remains an exceptionally important work with its rich illustrations and descriptive analyses of architectural movements, important buildings and architects over the last hundred years. This volume provides an insight into the complexities and multiplicities of modern and postmodern architectural traditions in India.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / GREATER JIHAD 
 
 
BY CHANDRASHEKHAR DASGUPTA
 
 
UNHOLY WAR: TERROR IN THE NAME OF ISLAM
By John L. Esposito,
Oxford, Rs 295

The tragedy that struck the United States of America on September 11, 2001, has focussed global attention on a new phenomenon — the rise of transnational terrorism. Terrorism itself has a long history, but in the past it mainly involved local or national issues and violent actions carried out by locals or fellow countrymen. In contrast to this traditional pattern, Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida is organized on transnational lines and its activities extend beyond national borders. The same is true of many other recently established terrorist organizations, including the jihadi groups sponsored by the Inter-Services Intelligence and operating in Kashmir from bases across the line of control.

Ironically, the US bears a major share of responsibility for laying the basis of this new wave of transnational terrorism. During the Afghan war against the Soviet occupation forces, the US and its allies not only extended massive assistance to the Afghan resistance but also helped to organize, finance, arm, train and infiltrate foreign jihadi groups anxious to join battle against the forces of “atheism”. Pakistan and, more specifically, its ISI were the conduit through which the assistance was channelled. (One of these foreign “jihadis” was a wealthy Saudi businessman named Osama bin Laden.) After the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan, thousands of Afghan, Arab, Pakistani and other jihadis, equipped with sophisticated weapons, found themselves unemployed and started looking for new battlefields. Pakistan diverted as many as it could to Kashmir; others found their way to Egypt, Algeria, Russia (Chechnya), China (Xinjiang) and other countries. Al Qaida established close links with the taliban authorities in Afghanistan and their Pakistani patrons, turning Afghanistan into a centre of transnational terrorism. Thus the first transnational jihad of modern times was organized by the Central Intelligence Agency with assistance from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

One of the many tragic consequences of the new terrorism is that it has fortified some profound misconceptions in the West concerning Islam and its followers. As John L. Esposito writes: “Government officials, pundits and experts bombard us with a litany of certitudes: …this is proof positive of a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West…Islam is incompatible with modernity and democracy; violence and terrorism are integral to Muslim belief and practice; we are now facing a global jihad against the West.” Esposito, a leading American scholar of political Islam, has devoted himself to responding to the “growing propensity among senior government officials, political commentators and the media to see a new ‘evil empire’ replacing the communist threat”.

Unholy War is a lucid, fair-minded attempt to explain to the layman current trends in Islamic thought, the different interpretations of jihad, the sources of Arab resentment against the West and the roots of anti-Western terrorism. The book illustrates some trends in Islamic thought over the last hundred years by offering an account of the influence of Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood; Mawlana Mawdudi, who established the Jamaat-i-Islami; and the Egyptian, Sayyid Qutb. Balancing the picture, he goes on to outline the ideas of three contemporary modernizing statesmen — Anwar Ibrahim of Malaysia, Mohammad Khatami of Iran and Abdurrahman Wahid of Indonesia. The views of these three statesmen, Esposito points out, “demonstrate that there is no essentialist or monolithic Islam or Muslim society. All may share a common faith, at times articulate an Islamically inspired worldview, and use Islam as a source of legitimacy and mobilization. Still their visions, goals, and strategies are shaped as much by diverse political and cultural contexts as by faith.”

Esposito explains the two broad meanings of jihad, non-violent and violent. “It is said that when Muhammad returned from battle he told his followers, ‘We return from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.’ The greater jihad is the more difficult and more important struggle against one’s ego, selfishness, greed and evil.” Esposito’s account of the various ways in which jihad has been interpreted in history in response to changing circumstances, helps the Western reader to distinguish between the Islamic extremists and the vast majority of peace-loving Muslims.

Why is anti-Americanism rife in so many Muslim countries? Esposito explains that hatred of the US is “driven not only by the blind hatred of the terrorists but also by a broader- based anger and frustration with American foreign policy among many in Arab and Muslim societies”. The American position on the Palestine issue undoubtedly gives rise to deep resentment in the Arab world, as does the plight of children in sanction-struck Iraq. This factor has been exploited not only by jihadi terrorists like bin Laden but also by secular enemies like Saddam Hussain. Moreover, America’s support and identification with many unpopular, authoritarian regimes have alienated the public in many Muslim countries.

Esposito’s thesis suffers from two major flaws. It frequently confuses Arab with Muslim opinion, and — even though it specifically acknowledges the global nature of the terrorist threat — it repeatedly falls into the error of viewing terrorism as a conflict between the Islamic and Western worlds. Because of his tendency to identify the Muslim with the Arab world, Esposito exaggerates the extent of anti-Americanism among Muslims. He overlooks the fact that a vast majority of Muslims live outside west Asia and that anti-Americanism is not endemic among the Muslims of, say, India, Bangladesh and Indonesia who, taken together, constitute a majority of the world’s Muslim population.

Secondly, Esposito barely touches upon the threat posed by transnational terrorism to non-Western countries such as India, Russia, China or Uzbekistan. The book does not contain even a single reference to cross-border terrorism in Kashmir. Esposito largely ignores the fact that transnational jihadis pose serious threats not only to the Christian West but also to non-Christian societies, including progressive Muslim countries.

As a result, he offers a grossly exaggerated estimate of the religious factor in global affairs. Thus, even while rightly rejecting the thesis of a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West, Esposito can write that the “ twenty-first century will be dominated by the global encounter of two major and rapidly growing world religions, Christianity and Islam, and by the forces of globalization that will strain relations between the West and the rest”.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / VIEW FROM THE MARGINS 
 
 
BY ARNAB BHATTACHARYA
 
 
THE BOOK OF THE HUNTER
By Mahasweta Devi,
Seagull, Rs 325

Mangalakavya, the predominant poetic genre of medieval Bengal, was a panegyric to primitive non-Aryan gods and goddesses, with the objective of inducting them into the mainstream Hindu pantheon. The glorification of these gods meant the social recognition of the marginalized communities which worshipped them. Chandimangal kavya, one of the notable sub-genres of mangalkavya, was addressed to the goddess Chandi, worshipped by the hunting community called the akhetiyas. Later, the image of Chandi merged with that of Parvati, the Brahminical goddess in the Markandeya Purana.

Mukundaram Chakrabarti was one of the principal poets of this genre. Born in 1547, Mukundaram had to leave Daminya, his native village in Burdwan district, because of political persecution. He migrated to Ararha in Medinipore district. It was in Ararha that Mukundaram composed his epic poem, Abhayamangal, which modern historians regard as the most authentic portrayal of the socio-political conditions of medieval Bengal. The epic, said to have anticipated the novel at least in spirit, has two parts. The first, Byadhkhanda, tells the story of Kalketu amd Pullora, a Shabar couple who lived by hunting.

Mahasweta Devi borrows this title for her novel (translated into English as The Book of the Hunter) on Mukundaram’s life in Daminya, the socio-political turmoil of the times, his migration to Ararha and his interaction with the akhetiyas.

The sensitive delineation the relationship between Mukundaram and his wife, and the Shabar couple, Kalya and Phuli, is the most interesting part of the novel. The nuanced account of the life of the Shabars who jealously guarded their customs from the hegemonic Brahminical cults and refused to give up hunting despite the growing incursion into forest land, is pitted against the story of how Mukundaram became a poet. The fictional framework of the novel allows for a happy fusion of myth, history and imagination.

Mahasweta Devi takes up the cause of the Shabars, declared “crime-prone” by the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871. According to her, Mukundaram, who was of Brahminical descent, “lightened the burden of mainstream society’s sin by writing Byadhkhanda”. She adds to the exculpation project by trying “to seek out the tribal identity of the Shabars”, who have by now lost much of their rich oral traditions.

The translation, by Mandira and Sagaree Sengupta who had earlier translated Jhansir Rani, confesses to compromising on “the range of diction and dialect”, but succeeds mostly in preserving the flavour of the original.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / EMPIRE AND LABOUR 
 
 
BY RUDRANGSHU MUKHERJEE
 
 
IMPERIALISM AND THE BRITISH LABOUR MOVEMENT 1914-1964
By Partha Sarathi Gupta,
Sage, Rs 695

When Partha Sarathi Gupta died, very very untimely, this was the only book he had published. But this book demonstrates the qualities that won him the respect and admiration of all those who knew him or were taught or supervised by him. This book is marked by a vast and baffling erudition. The research here is detailed and exhaustive as it should be from a man who was particular about facts and had a cavernous memory. Gupta had been a Marxist in his youth but his historical practice was firmly wedded to empiricism.

The aim of this book was to analyze the policies of the British labour movement towards the British empire. The view is therefore from Whitehall and the policy-framing institutions of the labour movement. The research was largely based on unpublished sources. The most startling fact about this book was its provenance. It remains the only book on British history to be written by an Indian historian. Gupta was thus the solitary bridge over what appears to be an unbridgeable divide. Madhavan Palat, in his obituary on Gupta, noted that one legacy of colonial rule ensured that Indian historians never became historians of Britain. But the converse was not true: many Britons have become historians of India and some of them have been good ones too. Gupta was the exception to this generalization and rather enjoyed being one.

In some ways, Gupta was a pathbreaker. The British empire was always an essential component of British history. But most works on British history tended to see the empire as an offshoot rather than as an integral part of British history and developments in Britain. Gupta’s work, entrenched in British history and historiography, showed that the empire and the commonwealth were often crucial factors in the business of policy-making. He thus foreshadowed, as Chris Bayly points out in his preface to this edition, historians like Linda Colley, David Cannadine and Patrick O’Brien who have begun to integrate the empire centrally into their histories of Britain.

In a period when the influence of Marxist historiography was at its height, Gupta looked at history through the prisms of factions, conflicts of interest, pressures and compromises. He abjured notions like social and political formations. This, at that time, was an act of courage and ran the risk intellectual marginalization. But such was the weight of Gupta’s learning and research that he could not be ignored even in the ideologically charged ambience of Indian historiography. Bayly has also noted that despite the passing of time, the opening up of new documents and biographies and the publication of a clutch of political biographies of figures of Gupta’s chosen period, much of Gupta’s analysis and conclusions have been borne out by subsequent research. This is the real success of the book and the research it embodies. This is also a tribute to the enduring qualities of fact-based history writing as compared to the more fashionable practitioners of this or that turn.

   

 
 
EDITOR’S CHOICE / THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING CRIPPS 
 
 
 
 
THE CRIPPS VERSION: THE LIFE OF SIR STAFFORD CRIPPS
By Peter Clarke,
Allen Lane, £ 20

“There, but for the grace of God, goes God.” This was Churchill’s barb about his famous contemporary and potential rival, Stafford Cripps. The figures of Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee so loom over the history of Britain in the Forties that one tends to forget the importance of Cripps in that period. And Indian history in the same period was dominated by Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah and Mountbatten. The role of Cripps in the transfer of power negotiations often gets eclipsed especially in a historiography with radical orientations.

Lord Listowel, the last secretary of state for India, wrote in 1979 that when a proper biography of Cripps is written, India will be seen as the focus of his political career. Peter Clarke’s biography does not quite fulfill Listowel’s prophecy. Clarke shows, in this detailed and extraordinarily well-researched biography, that there was more to Cripps’s life than what he did in India (or, as Clarke would have it, for India). India does occupy a large and special portion of Clarke’s narrative but this is not at the expense of Cripps’s part in British politics (he was in the Forties, during World War II, Lord Privy Seal and leader of the house under the coalition government, and after the war, he was the Lord Chancellor) and in international relations (he was Britain’s ambassador to Moscow in the early Forties and played no mean role in forging an Anglo-Soviet alliance).

R.J. Moore, who till the publication of Clarke’s book was by far the best commentator on Cripps’s unique role in Indian affairs, commented in his Escape from Empire that Cripps left no memoirs to record his own views about his own role. This is Clarke’s point of departure. The book rests, in large measure, on diaries. Cripps’s own, covering his first visit to India in 1939 and his Moscow stint, which had been used by Moore. But there are other diaries — notably the Indian diary for 1946, which is mined by Clarke for the first time. Clarke also uses the diaries of contemporaries — Leo Amery, Hugh Dalton, Harold Nicolson, Hugh Gaitskell, Robin Barrington-Ward (editor of The Times), Reginald Coupland (the Beit professor of Imperial history in Oxford, who came out to India with Cripps in 1942) and so on. These and other archival sources are played off against each other to form the Cripps version.

Cripps’s father was an affluent lawyer and his son, following the family tradition, went to Winchester. Like most outstanding Wykehamists, Cripps developed in school the ability to pursue subtle intellectual arguments and the commitment to high-minded causes. Cripps responded to the call of silk and became England’s youngest KC. He gave up a very lucrative practice to join politics because he believed that it was his duty to serve the nation.

His rise in politics was so swift and dramatic that many considered him as Churchill’s rival. Cripps had many disagreements with his prime minister but, as Clarke shows, he never tried to dislodge Churchill. The failure of the Cripps Mission of 1942 has often been attributed by Cripps’s advocates to sabotage by Churchill. Clarke does not buy into this view but is at great pains to show that Cripps accepted that his mission was doomed once he realized that the demands of the Congress could never be reconciled with his more important commitment to win the war. He temporarily lost the friendship of Nehru but gained the warmth of Churchill, again only temporarily. He came out to India in 1946 as the head of the Cabinet Delegation, with greater authority and the guarantee that independence could no longer be deferred. He pursued, what Clarke calls, “negotiation by attrition”. The achievement of this delegation was fragile but it did serve “to demonstrate that Britain intended to quit India and that the transfer of power was no longer a question of whether but of when and how and to whom”. These issues were crucial in the endgame of empire which Cripps participated in with some finesse in Whitehall.

The biography could easily have been subtitled the importance of being earnest without any of the Wildian overtones. Cripps was an earnest man who always backed up his earnestness with an enormous amount of hard work. His devout belief in Christianity probably had something to do with this. He had affinities with Gandhi, his rival in negotiations, especially in his relentless pursuit of austerity. Churchill, the bon vivant, probably had the last word on him when he said that, “He [Cripps] has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.”

   

 
 
PAPERBACK PICKINGS 
 
 
 
 

Never take a mango for granted

ROMANCE OF THE MANGO
By Kusum Budhwar
(Penguin, Rs 495)

Kusum Budhwar’s Romance of the mango is a comely book which believes in not taking the mango for granted. It provides an extensively researched social and botanical history of this superior fruit, and then turns into a mango-growing-and-cooking handbook. The writing is crisp and readable; the recipes — Tipsy Treat, Salmon Mousse with Mango Sauce, Mango Bellini, Prawn in Mango and Hot Garlic Sauce — sound complicatedly delectable, though rather garishly illustrated. Budhwar’s history has a terrific sweep, from mesolithic and neolithic times to contemporary Bengal and Goa. Her primary documents range from the Baburnama to decorations on the Sanchi stupa. There is a particularly memorable description of the colour of the Bihari Gulab Khas: “a deep cadmium yellow with the blush of a firefly on its shoulder”.

THE JOY OF CANCER
By Anup Kumar
(Rupa, Rs 195)

Anup Kumar’s The joy of cancer is a valuable book which is likely to put people off by its title and the violet, feel-good tints on the cover. Kumar, who has successfully fought stage-four lung cancer, provides a wealth of information and advice which combines medical knowledge, psychological acuteness and practical commonsense. The emphasis is on hard thinking on the part of the patient, and the transformation of acceptance into something proactive and even creative. The author’s confidence on the power of the mind to influence the fate of the body is reassuring but might be difficult to sustain for people having to cope with a greater degree of pain or loneliness during their illness. But the robust, unsentimental, yet emotionally candid voice which Kumar adopts in the book is in itself a welcome innovation in Indian writing on serious illnesses.

WAR AGAINST THE PLANET
By Vijay Prashad
(LeftWord, Rs 75)

Vijay Prashad’s War against the planet is subtitled “The Fifth Afghan War, Imperialism and Other Assorted Fundamentalisms” and is part of the “Signpost” series which “aims to reflect the views of the left and help create a common, progressive understanding of issues that matter”. Prashad, a Connecticut academic, gets straight to the point in his introduction: “The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, by nineteen men provided the pretext for the Fifth Afghan War, by far the most one-sided war ever to take place on Afghan soil.” His main areas of focus are the US attitudes to the communist movements in west Asia and Africa, and the entire issue of oil and natural gas pipelines from central to south Asia through Afghan-istan. This is a concise and hard-hitting analysis which seeks to collapse the “Jihad vs McWorld” opposition to suggest the altogether more sinister phenomenon of a “McJihad”. Prashad’s parting shot: “Powerlessness, too, grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Target practice

Sir — No one can deny that controversy and J. Jayalalithaa are the best of friends. The recent turmoil in southern politics has been occasioned by the possibility of the arrest of V. Gopalsamy, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (“Terror net tightens around Vaiko”, July 10). It goes without saying that this brainchild of Amma demonstrates that she has the rare talent of showing people their place. The current recipient of this attention is Vaiko, who is being hauled up for voicing his support for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, an act which does not invite such sharp rebuke. Under the Indian Constitution, every citizen has the right to freedom of speech. Booking Vaiko under POTA is thus certainly undemocratic. His sympathy for the LTTE does not necessarily mean that Vaiko is sponsoring terrorism in India. There is little doubt that he is being targeted for his opposition to Amma.

Yours faithfully,
Snigdha Basu, Calcutta

Cleansing act

Sir — It is both shameful and unfortunate that political parties, both left and right, have chosen to bypass the Supreme Court and the Election Commission in matters of cleansing the electoral system instead of heeding their advice (“Bill to bypass poll clean-up”, July 9). That political parties could immediately arrive at a consensus to set aside the directive of the EC on the issue is no surprise as most politicians are corrupt, invariably have criminal backgrounds, possess unaccounted for wealth, and little education. But this is expected from leaders who form a code of conduct to minimize unruly behaviour in Parliament, only to backtrack on it later.

The event clearly indicates that the executive has very little respect for the judiciary. Politicians are merely trying to wriggle out of an inconvenient situation by sidelining the constitutional bodies. The argument put forward by the Marxist veteran, Harkishen Singh Surjeet, about the Supreme Court having “surpassed” itself and the threat this action poses to democracy is completely hollow. Things have come to such a pass that the judiciary is being forced to do the job of the executive. Despite the steady decline in moral and ethical values, the executive so far has made no efforts to implement the recommendations of the Dinesh Goswami committee or the Indrajit Gupta committee on electoral reforms.

The common man still has faith in the judiciary and hopes that the chief election commissioner, J.M. Lyngdoh, following in the footsteps of the former CEC, T.N. Seshan, will use his constitutional powers under Article 324 to ensure that his directives are complied with.

Yours faithfully,
Srinivasan Balakrishnan, Jamshedpur

Sir — People in power would rather hide their dirt than cleanse themselves. Our politician’s plan of a united attack against the Supreme Court in the name of democracy proves this point. But what is this democracy they are talking about? The kind that is practised in India makes our elected representatives ride roughshod over the very electorate which elects them to power. It is true that India is the biggest democracy in the world but it is a democracy of, for and by the corrupt. It is unfortunate that we still believe in this sham.

Yours faithfully,
Mrinmoy Goswami, Nagaon

Sir — Our elected representatives have displayed a rare unity in agreeing to muzzle the Election Commission’s attempt to get electoral candidates to declare their educational, financial and criminal records when filing nominations. This exposes the true intentions of the politicians, including the communists who have rarely shown any unity with the opposition on any issue. The electorate of India should condemn this irresponsible attitude of the leaders.

Yours faithfully,
Shailesh Gandhi, Mumbai

At what cost?

Sir — The West Bengal state transport minister, Subhas Chakraborty, has announced a considerable rise in bus and taxi fares, which has left both transport associations and commuters furious (“New taxi, bus rates”, July 9). As usual, commuters have not been consulted before the decision was taken. Transport fares, or for that matter any charge on essential services, have to be fixed keeping in mind the issue of transparency and improvement in public services. That fares had to be hiked because of the rise in prices of diesel, as argued by Chakraborty, is hardly convincing. Operating costs, fair returns on the investment made by bus owners and load factor are the criteria to decide bus fares. These are usually ignored by both bus owners and the administration while considering hikes in fare. A rise in fuel prices is too simple a pretext to bargain with bus owners. The government should set up a separate regulatory body with statutory powers to decide on the fare structure for buses. Its authority should eventually be extended to determine fares on sea and river routes also.

Yours faithfully,
C.R. Bhattacharjee, Calcutta

Sir — Why does it never occur to transport ministers that a hike in fares should somehow correspond to improved bus services?

Yours faithfully,
J. Acharya, Calcutta

Sir — The latest revision of fares for public transport in the state has kept autorickshaw fares out of its purview. But do not these vehicles come within the jurisdiction of the transport department? Perhaps the transport minister will be only too happy to acknowledge the autonomy of the auto-drivers’ union. Nobody can deny that the unions take undue advantage of commuters so far as fares are concerned. The transport minister should see that a proper fare structure is formulated for auto-rickshaws.

Yours faithfully,
Jaydeep Choudhury, Calcutta

Parting shot

Sir — Rudrangshu Mukherjee in his article, “Remains of the past” (July 7), completely overlooks the fact that Lady Abala Bose’s life was devoted to the Brahmo Girls’ School. Mukherjee mixes this up with Bethune School.

Yours faithfully,
Sushoma Ray, Calcutta

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