Editorial 1 / Burning alive
A greenhouse in ruins
This above all / Travelling is an exciting pastime
People / Ram Naik
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1 / BURNING ALIVE 
 
 
 
 
Sometimes things may be better than they appear. It is true that few facts have emerged from the episode of Kuttu Bai’s immolation in the Panna district of Madhya Pradesh. None of this looks good. It is either another incident of sati, or it is being perceived by the villagers and their neighbours as such. The last incident took place in Satpura in Uttar Pradesh two years ago. At that time, the police, overwhelmed by the passion of the crowd, were forced to stand by. But one feature has emerged clearly from the welter of confusion around Kuttu Bai’s death. The police may or may not have been late in arriving, but once on the spot they did their best. Although badly outnumbered and eventually beaten up, the two policemen announced repeatedly that sati was illegal and did their best to stop the burning of the live woman on the dead man’s pyre. The pyre was actually lit when the senior policeman was unconscious.

This is the only silver lining. It can be hoped that at some future time consistent action by the police in enforcing the law will have some effect, even on the most superstitious, exploitative, backward and poverty-stricken village community. The death could not be prevented. But one reason for the sparseness of facts is fear of the heavy presence of policemen in the area, the immediate arrests and the very clear signal from the administration that this was a crime and the criminals will be punished. The usual myth-making around a sati episode is muted, limited to frightened disavowal of responsibility. The pyre is said to have caught “automatically”. While all this will obviously hinder the progress of this particular case, and may even upset it completely, the fearful reaction shows that firm administrative action has exposed the criminal basis of the act to some extent. It has also successfully nipped in the bud the frenzied celebrations and the possibility of turning the spot into a pilgrimage by building a traditional sati temple.

But it has to be said that the administration had one advantage. In this case, the couple in question came from the lower caste, just as in the previous incident. Sati is traditionally an upper caste custom, tied in with the concept of “honour”. It is immeasurably tragic that poor, exploited backward caste women should adopt, or should be made to adopt, a murderous and regressive upper-caste custom as a way of escape from an unbearable life. Ironically, by so doing, the poor women have uncovered what lies at the heart of the custom: the disposal of women to the community’s advantage with all the appurtenances of worship.

Poor, frightened villagers are one thing, but regressive, quasi-feudal upper-caste communities may be quite another. Prosperity can cover up a host of sins. It is in these situations that the administration needs to be unyielding. More important, members of the administration need to be convinced of the criminality of such apparently religious acts. Superstition, faith, caste-dictated beliefs run deep. There is no space for inaction when a case of prospective sati comes to be known, either for neighbours or for the police.

   

 
 
A GREENHOUSE IN RUINS 
 
 
BY TIRTHANKAR ROY
 
 
The scenario of social science research in India has not been very bright of late. A glance through standard international listings of articles in economics, applied economics, sociology and related subjects published in reputed journals would show too few originating from Indian universities and research institutes. The large infrastructure set up for social science research is singularly lacking in the direction of work that requires more than average penetration and technical skill. Detailed research of good quality is rare. Rarer still is work with an analytical bent.

All ideas about policy and the future, to have any meaning at all, must flow from a conceptual foundation about the present and about history. The starkest failing of Indian scholarship is in respect of such foundational work. Matching in impact the teams that we send to the Olympics, the 200-odd university departments and research institutes collectively fail to make a mark in the world that the top 25 social science journals represent.

Why this dearth of original and industrious mental labour?

One reason heard is funding. After a decade of exceptional generosity, budgetary support for social science research did dry up in the early Nineties. In the Eighties, new institutes were set up under the aegis especially of the Indian Council for Social Science Research, seminars and conferences overflowed, jobs were easy to get, professorships and directorships went begging. Along with a lot of flab, such funding created an infrastructure which could, and did in some cases, advance original thinking. Then the crunch came, followed by mounting technological backwardness, lack of exposure to public events, and the exodus of good brains from academics.

All this hurt no doubt, and the scale of the bitter harvest is yet to be fully realized. The financial situation, however, improved by the end of the Nineties. Did that stimulate original thinking? The answer, sadly, is “no”. In any average university department today, signs of creativity and intellectual stimulation are too rare. Cynicism and short-term concerns eat away the souls of the brightest faculty. Seminars are dead. There is all-round intellectual obsolescence. There is lack of credibility, such that the faculty is unable to attract good doctoral students. Even the most reputed universities show these signs. If they still produce students with researchable potential, those students are determined to carry out research as far away from their alma mater as possible. Good doctoral students rarely stay in India any more, whereas a fair number of them did in the Eighties.

The real problem is not money, but leadership. Institutions by and large are led by persons for whom meeting international standards in research has never been a top priority. This crisis, furthermore, is not a fault of individuals, but an outcome of the way the social science research regime in India functioned in the pre-reform era.

To see this, let us take applied economics research for an example. The first 40 years of independence saw the creation of a state-centred “public sphere” in this field. Leading university departments and several new research institutes represented the “think-tanks” that sustained it. Much of their research was policy-related, though there was also simultaneously a questioning of policy and political systems, especially among the left. Nevertheless, the state was the centre of this world. It was the state that supplied money, meaning and sympathetic readership for research. The public sphere was well-oiled too. Leading participants were constantly visible, via seminars, conferences and management of jobs and grants.

All this, however, was sort of a greenhouse. It had limited links with the global world of scholarship. At its peak, the policy regime that this Indianist scholarship studied was beginning to become outlandish. On the global mainstream, therefore, this scholarship made little impact (history and sociology fared better). Few in this field published in international journals. And those who did, made India appear as exception to standard theory, their “Orientalist” message making them conspicuous. Eventually, the leading figures even began to suffer from an illusion that they were the centre of the universe.

In economics teaching, there crept in a bias against mainstream theory. “If you ignore us, so shall we” was the message thrown at the world of economic theory and policy. Left radicalism of the Seventies warmly supported such defiance. The result was a string of idiosyncratic courses designed and doctoral theses produced in several newly set up institutes with an aggressively regional and applied orientation. This greenhouse is in poor shape today. Indian exceptionalism has no takers in the outside world. There is little money to sustain the public sphere. Above all, the state-centred research agenda is obsolete, because the state is increasingly irrelevant in developmental discourse. Intellectual support for eccentric research or teaching agenda is gone with the worldwide fall of left radicalism.

In this scenario, if quality research is to take place, the researchers first need a Copernican revolution. They need to realize that the world does not revolve around India, rather India is one of the countless little domains that must orient themselves to the international public sphere. Indian scholars have to emerge from the ruins of the greenhouse where reputations were made easily, and connect to the global public sphere, where reputations take much longer to build, but build on secure foundation.

Doing this is not going to be easy. The long-nurtured insularity of Indian scholars has almost killed the outside world’s interest in India. The Orientalist streak has reinforced that sentiment by projecting India to be beyond standard theoretical tools. And many who grew up inside the greenhouse do not have the skills required to talk in a global language.

There is, in other words, a close parallel between the crisis in the Indian economy and that in social science research in recent times. Both had been sheltered from global influences until 1990. When the shelters were withdrawn, obsolescence vis-à-vis the outside world became exposed in both spheres. And both now need globalization. That a globalizing trend has begun in applied economics research is clear enough. Teaching programmes are reorienting back to the mainstream. Thanks to large doses of international funding for applied and action-oriented research, a few institutes and scholars have joined the global public sphere on development discourse, albeit in rather too narrowly specialized fields. But these new tendencies remain exceptions rather than the rule. These are yet to instil self-confidence in the average university department, and yet to rejuvenate them in any significant way.

One persistent stumbling block is the quality of leadership. As with industry struggling to globalize, in social science research too, leadership matters in how this challenge is met. By and large, institutions are managed by leading scholars of the greenhouse era. Several, though by no means all, among them do not feel the need for reform, or are ineffectual in initiating reform. Even worse, there may be in some cases a feeling of insecurity about raising standards.

Today, advancing quality research and breathing life into research institutions need, most of all, to encourage and reward scholarship that targets the international public sphere and makes itself heard in such spheres. Such an incentive structure may not immediately pay off, but can eventually bring moribund minds in line with the world outside. However, given their present state, the majority of the institutions are more likely to try protecting their own turf via small-scale politics, control over jobs, and lobbying for government money, rather than initiate such radical reforms.

The author is professor, Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Pune

   

 
 
THIS ABOVE ALL / TRAVELLING IS AN EXCITING PASTIME 
 
 
BY KHUSHWANT SINGH
 
 
It is great fun watching important people trying to make sure that everyone around them knows they are important. The game is better watched while travelling by train. People who go by air are mostly of some importance because they pay a lot of money to get plane tickets and since they are strapped to their seats most of the time they do not have many opportunities to show off their importance. Those who travel by bus are the lowest caste of travellers; they don’t bother about each other and like air travellers remain affixed to their seats or stand in the aisles. Rail travellers come from different sections of society, they are freer than air and bus travellers to move up and down the aisles and display trappings of importance. I had the opportunity to see some of them in action the last time I travelled from Kalka to New Delhi by the Shatabdi Express.

Few people board the train at Kalka; all of them come from the resorts sprinkled around Shimla. There was a strapping young man who helped me to put my suitcase on the rack. I thought he had recognized me as somebody of importance. He had not; he was simply being kind to an old man. Then came a party of six, four men in flat, round turbans, a lady in black silk salwar-kameez loaded with gold bangles and rings and her daughter in Jeans and T. Shirt with her head demurely covered with a dupatta-scarf. I recognized the leader of the group as I had often seen him on TV singing kirtan in gurdwaras. He carried a three-foot long kirpan which he reverently placed on the rack above his seat. (He is not a top-class raagi but is very popular because he keeps rapport with his sangat by frequently exhorting them with “Bolo saadh sangat” and they respond with loud cries of “Sri Waheguru”. I was impressed that the saadh-sangat of the Shivalik hills had willingly paid six executive class fares to hear him sing. No sooner were they seated, than several tiffin carriers were opened. Snacks were served on silver platters, tea in silver tumblers. I noticed the young girl cross the aisle to speak to her father. She addressed him as any convent-bred girl would as “Papa”. It would have been more appropriate if she had called him pitaji. .

The really important board the Shatabdi Express at Chandigarh. They don’t come rushing in like other hoi polloi looking for their seats and grabbing places for their luggage. Their lackeys precede them, find their seats and place their baggage. They make a state entry just as the train is about to leave. On this journey there were three such important personages. One was a general. As he sat down his orderly saluted him and departed. The general did not wish to talk to anyone. He opened a newspaper and appeared lost in its contents. The other was a portly sardarji with his paunch jutting out six inches beyond health limits.

The third important person was the governor of some state accompanied by his shrimati, a personal servant in spotless white turban and coat bearing the emblem of some Raj Bhawan and a tall young ADC in military uniform. All ADCs of governors look like handsome gigolos who add importance to their bosses. In addition there was a railway police guard armed with an ancient carbine who stood in the aisle questioning the credentials of everyone who wanted to go to the loo located at the end of the compartment. Neither the governor nor his shrimati had to tell other passengers that they were important.

At New Delhi railway station, a small procession of important people marched out towards the VIP parking area. They scored over other VIPs by being received by admirers who garlanded them and raised their voices, “Boley so Nihal! Sat Sri Akal!”

There is something for everyone

I live close to a bus stop. Many times as I stroll out of my home, someone or the other asks me “Sardarji, Panjabi Bagh kaunsi number bus jaatee hai — what number bus should I take for Punjabi Bagh?” It can be Mehrauli, Kashmiri Gate, Rajouri Gardens or anywhere else. I do not know the answer because I have never sat on a bus in India. My ignorance is often taken as snobbery. That is not so because I have ridden in buses everywhere else. From Hong Kong, Taiwan, Bangkok, Manila, Singapore and Australia I have been to Europe, the United States of America and Canada. In Delhi I have my own car; in other Indian cities I am driven by friends or go by taxi. My daughter, grand daughter and many of my friends travel by bus. I hear of their experiences. The jostling and bottom pinching that city Romeos indulge in in crowded buses. I think I am better out of their way lest I should be foolhardy enough to punch one on the nose. However, there are other bus-users who travel long distances and have altogether different tales to tell.

One such is Sheela Reddy of The Outlook who travels every working day from her home in Patparganj to her office in Safdarjang Enclave, a distance of some 30 kilometers taking an hour each way. She tells me about singing beggars and salesmen who ply their trades in moving buses with the connivance of conductors who no doubt get their commission for allowing them to do so. She writes: “It’s hard to sell anything, even a two-rupee ticket, in a moving bus. But there is a breed of innocuous little men, thin and worn but neatly dressed, who are able to rouse up commuters from their habitual coma. Scarcely five minutes of their colourless sing-song patter, and travel-hardened bus veterans eagerly fish out their wallets to buy such fripperies as sewing kits, toothbrushes with detachable handles, combs of five sizes, pocket key chains with calculators and guide books on learning everything from pickle-making to English conversation.”

She writes of a particular master of the art of bus salesmanship: “He begins. ‘All of you at sometime must have faced the problem of missing button/ a pickle gone bad/not knowing English.’ No passengers begin to stir from their pre-office snooze, others who had been staring straight ahead or out of the windows at nothing, turn their heads towards him, grateful for this small diversion on a dull, sweaty workday morning. “Whether you are a housewife or an office-goer, a missing button can create a problem. But we have a scheme,” he bends down to unzip his airbag and pull out a packet of transparent shirt buttons in a see-through plastic pouch, which he holds aloft. “These buttons will cost you at least Rs 15 in the market, but we offer it to you at only Rs 10.” The commuters are now wide awake and expectant. And he doesn’t disappoint them. “Everything you buy these days comes with a scheme. The scheme we are offering you is this.” As all eyes fix on him, he calmly pulls out a pouch of hooks.

“In the market this will cost you at least Rs 5, but it comes to you absolutely free.” Still no takers, but the salesman is imperturbable. “Everybody needs a needle in the home.” The commuters eye the packet of needles he pulls out with that curiously dispassionate interest that women usually display in a sari shop: “This too is free with the packet of buttons.” One by one, as disinterestedly as a magician, he pulls out the other bonuses. Two reels of thread, one black and the other white, a socket for a sewing machine, a measuring tape are held up before the hypnotized audience. And in a fitting climax, as he reels out the words as if by rote, he pulls out a neat, narrow package, where all the items are held together in a single-tier of plastic, “All this for only ten rupees, ten rupees, ten rupees.”

He is coming to the difficult part: the kill. Sensing it, his customers stir uneasily, detaching their eyes from him. He goes down the aisle, urging his customers, “Ten rupees, ten rupees, costs nothing to look.” One tentative hand reaches out for a packet, another, soon half a dozen potential buyers are scrutinizing the plastic wrapped contents. All it takes is for one or two to reach for their wallets, and soon the whole bus is in a frenzy of shopping, eager to lighten him of his load before he jumps off at the next bus stop with the air of a company trader.”

   

 
 
PEOPLE / RAM NAIK 
 
 
 
 

Charity begins at home

The funny bone gears up in the darkest of moments. It starts tingling just as cynicism sets in, or when despair descends. And, clearly, nothing stimulates it more than a good dose of politics.

Not surprisingly, the petrol pump scandal has spawned a whole new industry of one-liners. Sample this. The three little words that all die-hard members of the Sangh Parivar greet one another with — no, it’s not I love you, but Jai Shree Ram — has grown one word longer. These days, you have to say Jai Shree Ram Naik.

For, it has to be said, the minister for petroleum and natural gas has done more for the Sangh Parivar — an amorphous body where the RSS holds the torch and sundry small political outfits, the train — than anybody else in the group in the four years that the BJP has been in power. Not counting Narendra Modi, of course — but let that be.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has been a failure in the eyes of the Parivar ever since he first bit into a tangri kebab several decades ago. Lal Krishna Advani, on whom the RSS once reposed great faith, has let the old men down by failing to decimate Pakistan. “But Ram Naik,” men in Khaki shorts are going to tell one another for years to come in shakhas across the country, “he did his bit.”

Quite possibly, Ram Naik will figure prominently in the book of good deeds that makes for compulsory reading in shakhas. In the same breath, a serious scholar of the tome will tell you that Bhagat Singh gave up his life for the country, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee gave all his living moments to the Jan Sangh. And Ram Naik gave away petrol pumps.

For the NDA government, where scandals brew as often as tea in Assam, Ram Naik is the flavour of the season. The 68-year-old minister — who looks as benign as an avuncular character actor in a Marathi film — plays the main role in the latest drama in a series of plays that the NDA government has been enacting since 1998 — starting right with Amma and her Shoes down to George and his Friends.

The latest scandal — dubbed Naikam in some circles — revolves around the distribution of petrol pumps across the country. Naik set up 59 selection boards and asked them to choose the most eligible candidate out of the hundreds of applications that every new petrol pump generates. The boards did so. The pumps went to state BJP leaders, their wives, sons, daughters-in-law, brothers-in-law, to close members of the Sangh Parivar and to the relatives and friends of NDA partners.

Naik’s own role in the scandal is a bit nebulous. One of the pumps has gone to a relative of his, but industry sources say that they will be surprised if they hear that Naik himself was personally involved in any of the dealings. For there are many who are ready to vouch for his integrity.

The MP from Mumbai North is mostly known as a clean politician. It is said that the man who has been elected to Lok Sabha from Mumbai a record number of five consecutive times has always been above board when it comes to money.

But in the last couple of years, the image has taken, though not quite a battering, certainly a few dents here and there. Some believe that Naik’s image went down a few rungs the day his daughter, Visakha Kulkarni, took over as his officer on special duty. Kulkarni, however, is confident that as far as his constituency is concerned, Naik’s reputation stays untarnished. “They (people in his constituency) are 100 per cent confident that Ram Naik is not a party to anything,” Kulkarni says.

Many in political circles would agree with Kulkarni. As a politician who has risen from the ranks, he is said to be an accessible, down-to-earth Parliamentarian. Years ago, he had mastered the art of meeting people when he set up a make-shift office in local trains during his days in the Maharashtra assembly. “He would meet people on his way to Bombay, listen to them, take their applications and then ask them to get in touch with him, in the train, on his way back home,” says an old associate.

He has always nurtured his constituency by taking special care of the Christians and Muslims who form a sizeable part of it. When Mumbai was burning after the Babri Masjid demolition of 1992, his constituency was mostly peaceful.

Then, in the last election, after Naik’s votes showed a decline, he appointed an established pollster to find out what had happened. When he learnt that sections of Christians had not voted for him, he gifted an underwater pipeline to the Christian area of Gorai last Christmas. Naik urged Indian Oil — and it helped that he was the minister — to use its underground pipe to supply water instead of gas.

It’s this easy tie with the people that is Naik’s strength — and strangely enough, his Achilles’ heel as well. People who have observed Naik over the years believe his desire to please people may have tripped him over. “Naik doesn’t know how and when to say no,” says an observer. “In that sense he is a weak man.” Not surprisingly, when it was conveyed to Naik to make the Sangh happy with petrol pump allocations, he did so without a murmur.

The BJP insists that Naik is not to be blamed for the petrol pump fiasco, even though the government has cancelled all allotments. But as far as the Opposition is concerned, Naik is the man who was in charge and should step down honourably.

Naik himself is unfazed. In his curriculum vitae, he lists “Public Service” in the column for “Favourite Pastime.” And in allocating petrol pumps to family and friends, he will tell you that he was only doing the public a service. For hasn’t it been said that charity begins at home?

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

When push comes to shove

Sir— By talking of a referendum on independence, the Taiwanese president, Chen Shui-bian, may well have inadvertently pushed the island to the brink of war with China. Although Taiwan became a democracy about 50 years ago, the Chinese have always considered it a rebel state (“China still threatens as Taiwan scraps exercises”, Aug 8). Even the United States of America has washed its hands off the issue. Chen has merely given China an opportunity to appropriate Taiwan in much the same way as it did Macao and Hong Kong. Doesn’t Chen realize that in case of an armed conflict, Taiwan would be the loser?

Yours faithfully,
Anupam Bharghav, Goa

In protest

Sir — Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress must be thanked for giving Calcuttans an extended weekend (“Rail bears bandh brunt, city cools heals”, Aug 6). So what if the already tottering economy of West Bengal suffered losses of a few hundred crore and thousands of daily wage-earners and their families went to bed hungry? That the majority of the population did not support the bandh or the party that called it, did not matter to Banerjee. All she cared about was getting even with the Centre. It is time the Trinamool didi realized that the people are getting tired of her histrionics.

Yours faithfully,
Kalyan Ghosh, Calcutta

Sir — In calling the bandh, Mamata Banerjee did not spare a thought for what the repercussions might be on the economy of West Bengal. The Left Front seems to have realized the folly of bandh politics, but Banerjee hasn’t. Does she not know that the bandh had little impact on the Centre’s decision to bifurcate Eastern Railway? But at least the people of Bengal can be thankful Banerjee did not go through with the 72-hour ba-ndh as she had threatened to.

Yours faithfully,
Reba Bose, Jamshedpur

Sir — The editorial, “Woman scorned” (Aug 5), seems to take at face value the left’s recent “no-bandhs” stance and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s image as the new “messiah” who will take Bengal to new heights. This is far from the truth. Bhattacharjee’s tenure is only into its second year and the sum total of his achievements so far has been a few promises of better rule and an admission of 25 years of failure.

An earlier editorial, “Divide and gain” (July 1), had pointed out the disadvantages of bifurcating Eastern Railway and criticized the decision as potentially dangerous to the federal structure of the country. So why criticize Mamata Banerjee now?

The division of the railways should be opposed by every politician and every party. The initiative should come primarily from the ruling Left Front, which seems more interested in cornering Banerjee. Also, what is the alternative to bandhs to effectively register protest?

Yours faithfully,
Pabitra K. Das, Calcutta

Sir — Bandhs are bad for the economy of a country, 50 per cent of whose population lives below the poverty line. They hamper growth, bring down production and discourage foreign investment. Mamata Banerjee’s August 5 bandh also had the disadvantage of worsening relations between the Centre and state.

There are other platforms of protest like the state assemblies, Parliament, the media and so on, that Banerjee surely knows of. Other than a few politicians, nobody benefits from bandhs. Clearly, the bandh was the result of Banerjee’s frustration at not getting the railways portfolio.

Yours faithfully,
Ram Krishna Dokeniya, Calcutta

Sir — In order to make the bandh successful Mamata Banerjee should have called it at Hajipur itself. How can Banerjee draw the attention of the railway minister if she calls the bandh in West Bengal?

Yours faithfully,
Somnath Chatterjee, Hooghly

Sir — Why should the people of West Bengal suffer because of a disagreement between the state and Centre? It is well-known that bandhs “succeed” because most people are afraid of being targetted by the political cadre.

Yours faithfully,
Taher G. Ayaz, Calcutta

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