Believing in Beebs


Hijack of a nation

India can draw a sigh of relief that the longest hijack in its history has come to a close with a minimum of bloodshed. While sharing the joy of the relatives of the hostages, Indians must also weigh the price the country has paid: lost credibility, damaged morale and freedom for three sworn enemies of the country. The hostages, their families and the populace at large all agree the hijack of Indian Airlines flight 814 has exposed the procedural inefficiency and risk aversion of the nation’s security apparatus.

Two questions can be raised about the bargain India reached with the hijackers. First, could India have bettered the terms of exchange? On December 26th the hijackers made release of the Harkat ul Ansar leader, Masood Azhar, their sole demand. India refused. It is mystifying then that India ended up surrendering not only Azhar but two other terrorists as well. It seems that if New Delhi had capitulated earlier it would have conceded less and had the hostages back five days earlier. This alternation between bluster and bending could be a symptom of confused signals at the top.

Second, should India have agreed to Azhar’s release at all? This is not an easy question. Harkat ul Ansar is dedicated to violence against India. The release of its leader will embolden it to further attacks. New Delhi can expect all insurgencies to now see hijacking as the means to release their imprisoned comrades or further their political goals. When Mr Mohammed Sayeed, then Union home minister, accepted all the demands of his daughter’s kidnappers, it triggered a spate of copycat crimes by Kashmir militants.

It is true few democracies are politically able to follow Israel’s zero tolerance policy towards terrorism. However, India has yet to develop even the basic contours of a policy regarding hostage taking. The entire IC 814 drama saw New Delhi being dictated by events. When the airplane was allowed to leave Amritsar, India’s options were reduced to near zero. It earned a reprieve when the taliban regime warned the hijackers not to kill any hostages. But as New Delhi settled down to negotiations, the taliban pulled the plug by lowering a new year’s eve deadline. India could have been playing hardball with the taliban to try and get the deadline extended. For reasons unknown, New Delhi declined to do so. At that point, India could only cut its losses and run.

If India is to evolve a consistent and credible position against hijacking, it needs to do more than step up rhetoric. First, it needs to build up domestic support for hardline strategies. Improving the transparency is one way. The rowdy protests of the hostages’ relatives was in part a reflection of their lack of faith in a secretive and incoherent New Delhi. Second, India needs to strengthen its role in multilateral efforts at anti-terrorism. World reaction was slow and rhetorical. India complains the world pays little attention to Pakistan’s role in supporting groups like Harkat ul Ansar. However, its own track record in opposing terrorism is poor. It supported terrorist actions in the past — notably Arab attacks on Israel. New Delhi has not categorically denounced the use of terrorist practices per se, its stance is conditioned by the political affiliation of the terrorists. India needs to refurbish its image on this issue. Finally, the government needs a more comprehensive anti-terrorism policy drummed into the domestic security apparatus. A broad policy outline regarding hijacks and the like is needed. After that, implementation should be left to individual officials, only making clear that maximum responsibility will go hand in hand with strict accountability. Flight IC 814 has not been one of India’s greater moments. The key goal right now should be to ensure such a tragedy does not happen again or at least end in such a humiliating manner.    

Growing up in the Sixties, the BBC mattered. It mattered for vaguely postcolonial reasons: its English was thrillingly English, Tony Blackburn kept us in touch with the Top Twenty and Test Match Special (Johnston, Bailey and Arlott), connected us to the one thing that was better than cricket at home, which was cricket in vilayat. We knew, even in primary school, that cricket didn’t translate well because Hindi didn’t have a word for “bowl” and “ballebaaz” didn’t seem right for “batsman”. Cricket was clearly an English medium subject — as such, the BBC was best equipped to supply it.

Without television pictures, cricket on the radio was exotically literal: Trent Bridge was a bridge, the Oval was a shape and Lord’s was packed with peers. Also radio cricket was a day-night business years before Channel 9 stole the idea for television. Shortwave test matches started at 3.45 in the afternoon and ended in darkness just before eleven. We didn’t know how they did it but we knew why: it was to let the boys return from school. Nor did we grasp time differences: World Service announcers and Big Ben kept bringing up Greenwich Mean Time, but we knew that GMT was just a make-believe world time that wasn’t real anywhere. Cricket on the radio was a game played in primitive cyberspace.

The joy of hearing Ajit Wadekar’s team win at the Oval in 1971 was the greater for hearing the praise come out of English mouths. This was partly deference for the white man, but mainly it was the perfectly legitimate pleasure of having done well in alien conditions, which in cricket has always been the real measure of a team’s quality. In an odd way, because India had so little commerce with the rest of the world in those autarkic days, because we mattered so little to broadcasters in the BBC or publishers in Chatto & Windus or editors in The Guardian, any recognition in the face of this massive indifference was seen as a huge endorsement of worth.

Thus Gandhi’s influence on Martin Luther King, Yeats’s short-lived praise for Tagore, Nehru’s brief moment on the world state when the non-aligned movement represented a principle and not a bunch of losers, Rushdie’s Booker prize, Kapil Dev’s World Cup victory, Viswanathan Anand’s second-best-in-world status, G.H. Hardy’s account of Ramanujan’s mathematical genius, Amartya Sen’s Nobel prize, Sabeer Bhatia’s Hotmail weren’t just individual triumphs but Indian milestones. And while there was an obvious insecurity about this, it was understandable that a colonized or newly independent nation should be anxious for praise from the metropolitan capitals of the first world.

To celebrate a bronze medal at the Olympics might be strange for a country as large as India but at least it was won in an arena where the world could and did compete. It was a proper measure of self-esteem. To claim the Nobel prizes of Hargobind Khorana and Chandrasekhar as Indian successes was sad, even pathetic, since they won them by leaving India and becoming citizens elsewhere, but at least a Nobel prize was a respectable thing to covet. Non-resident Indian is a bureaucratic category but it is also a canny way of claiming for Mother India a conspicuously successful diaspora.

I remember the hours spent in boyhood trawling the shortwaves, the radio’s needle making bleating, mooing sounds as it threaded its way through Babel. If the awful clarity of Radio Peace and Progress peddled Soviet twaddle, the Voice of America wasn’t much better. There were dozens of radio stations around but the only one we listened to regularly was the BBC World Service. The reason it meant so much to middle class Indians was that it was an independent broadcaster.

In the current idiom of marketing, the BBC had built a great brand on its reputation for credibility. But that’s not quite right. The BBC wasn’t a brand, it was a kind of hallmark. The news that was read under its imprimatur was a way of making sense of current affairs. Every day the BBC made a judgment about what was newsworthy and it was a judgment that was widely respected.

By the time BBC television opened shop in India, the broadcasting world had changed. In the commercial, advertising-driven world of cable television, the business of a broadcaster was not to provide a view of the world but to give the viewing public what it wanted. Consequently foreign television stations that had arrived with the intention of bringing global news, sport and entertainment to India, stayed on to peddle Indian programmes to desis. Star Plus went Hindi, BBC began to incorporate more and more Indian content, and the sports channels reinvented themselves in the image of cricket.

And cricket of a very particular sort. When the test at the Melbourne cricket ground ended in an Indian rout a couple of days before this computer induced millennium, the hours left over on the fifth day were filled with footage of the Indian team defeating Australia in India, footage that was more than a year old. Indians don’t like losing more matches than they win — and on television they don’t have to. Every rain break during the Melbourne test was filled with Indian heroics, so the wounds of the present were salved with balm from the past. Television companies eyeing an Indian market, are ready and able to supply sops to a consuming middle-class hungry for self-esteem.

So a nearly defunct Miss World competition, starved of prime time for decades in the West, finds a new audience in India with the victory of Aishwarya Rai, then consolidates this viewership with Diana Hayden and Yukta Mookhey. Thus India, in a splendid late spurt, draws level with Venezuela in the beauty stakes. Bhupathi and Paes, heroes of an international doubles scene depleted by the absence of nearly all the singles stars, become more famous than that other doubles team, Armstrong and Aldrin. Nobody telecasts hockey any more because India’s team loses all the time now and it’s so long since it won a respectable competition that there’s no archival footage to show.

Which brings me back to the BBC. In a recent e-mail poll for the best film actor of the last hundred years, the BBC reported that the winner by a margin was India’s own, Amitabh Bachchan. There he was, the Big B, cruising in ahead of Marlon Brando, Dustin Hoffman, Laurence Olivier. Amitabh Bachchan is a fine actor and a great star, but the poll tells us more about the number of desis on the net and their determination to vote their man in, than it does about the actors chosen. Bizarrely, we had Bachchan on television being interviewed about the poll. The scary thing was that instead of laughing at the absurdness of it all, Bachchan modestly declared in his best English that he was honoured and privileged and so on.

There’s more. My newspaper this morning has an advertisement featuring a photograph of Indira Gandhi. There was a time when she made the newspapers for free but the reason she appears today is that the Karnataka Pradesh Congress committee is celebrating her as The Woman of the Millennium*. This rating, the asterisked footnote tells us, is according to a survey conducted by BBC Worldwide. At the bottom of the advert there are two lines that say “Indira Gandhi, the greatness that stood out among the legends of the world and a population of six billion”. Miss World 1999, the Film Star of the Century and the Woman of the Millennium — India owns them all.

Tired of losing in international arenas, ambitious desis have decided to make their own rules. Another medal at the Olympics or a move up the human development index would be welcome, but meanwhile there are lessons to be learnt from the legendary Dara Singh who defeated the near-mythical King Kong to win a fabled world wrestling championship. There were no reporters present but you can ask anyone. Millions of Indians believed it once and they couldn’t all have been wrong. In much the same way, confronted by a new millennium and tired of being last, canny desis have discovered virtual reality and decided to live in it.    


Not all silence is golden

Sir — Mohammed Azharuddin’s charge that he has been victimized by the Indian cricket board (“Azhar says he was victimised” Jan 1) has added edge to the controversy raging over his exclusion from the Indian cricket team for the forthcoming triangular one day series. The Board of Control for Cricket in India is not helping matters by its silence on the fate of Azhar and Nayan Mongia. All this has achieved is a wave of popular sympathy for the two players. After the fuss, it might so come about that both Azhar and Mongia perform miserably — it has happened before. So why not break the silence and come to a decision? Azhar played good domestic cricket this season. Let’s see if he keeps or fails his promise.

Yours faithfully,
Proma Sen, Calcutta

Left under scrutiny

Sir — Hopes were raised for the rejuvenation of the industrial sector of the state when Viren Shah was appointed governor of West Bengal. Jyoti Basu consented to the appointment despite Shah’s relationship with the Bharatiya Janata Party, which Basu branded “uncivilized and barbaric”.

Poor work culture and militant unionism , both patronized by left leaders, have damaged the industrial sector in West Bengal. Many factories in Howrah, Hooghly, Midnapur, North and South 24 Parganas have been shut down. The industrial sector is flourishing in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Punjab and the south Indian states.

The image of Calcutta with hawkers occupying footpaths, piles of garbage on roadsides, waterlogged streets during the rainy season, frequent demonstrations on streets put off industrialists from investing in the state. Moreover, the law and order situation is going downhill everyday.

To neutralize the effect of this now long enduring image, a strong will and a lot of foresight are needed. I am sure many industrialists will visit Raj Bhavan during Shah’s tenure. It remains to be seen whether they are prepared to invest in the state. Shah’s presence may do much good. It may be hoped that there will be a resurrection of the industrial sector before Basu bids a final goodbye to the Writers’ Buildings.

Yours faithfully,
Manoranjan Das, Jamshedpur

Sir — It is true the CPI(M) is sparing no effort to retain the West Bengal chief minister, Jyoti Basu, in office (“Fond old man”, Nov 12). Basu may be senile but he is the first person to realize the desperate condition of bankrupt Marxist politics in the state and the country.

The 13th Lok Sabha elections have exposed the Marxists’ status. Basu might want to retire while there is still some honour left. He has served the party for a long time and it is not his fault if the CPI(M) has failed to produce leaders of stature. To save face the CPI(M) leaders have cooked up the theory that a Marxist never retires. But it does not look as if such stories will help.

Yours faithfully,
Govinda Bakshi, Budge Budge

Sir —The ministers of West Bengal are no less educated than their counterparts in the south (“Due South,” Nov 21). But we are still lagging behind Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. True, Basu cannot compete with N. Chandrababu Naidu in terms of technological progress, but he surely need not bend under the pressures of his party. Perhaps Buddhadev Bhattacharya, will lead the state into healthy competition with the techno-savvy chief ministers of the south.

Yours faithfully,
Ranjit Kumar Guha Ray, Durgapur

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