Editorial 1
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Cutting Corners

Letters to the editor


Prosecuting war

India has fired the first salvo in what could prove to be a long and protracted diplomatic struggle with Pakistan. The Indian prime minister, Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee, has publicly blamed Pakistan for the hijack of Indian Airlines flight 814. Mr Vajpayee says India will undertake a concerted campaign to persuade the world to label Pakistan a terrorist state. He had been preceded by the foreign minister, Mr Jaswant Singh, laying out some of the evidence of Pakistani involvement. For example, it seems clear the hijackers and the three militants India freed are all in Pakistan now. Mr Singh says five hijackers were Pakistani citizens and a majority of the 35 prisoners the hijackers had asked to be released are Pakistanis. However, no matter how loudly and how often India may make the charge, the evidence of Pakistani collusion remains so far only circumstantial. If New Delhi expects to win an indictment from the court of world opinion, it needs to collect far more evidence and refurbish its own credibility.

India has a poor record of persuading the world of the existence of a �foreign hand.�� Its political leadership has made this claim so often, so loudly and on the basis of so little evidence, that the international community cannot be blamed for being sceptical. One country used to being accused of being the foreign hand in India is the United States, one of the countries New Delhi most wants to prove Pakistani perfidy to. Even when India had a case � for example, in revealing Pakistan�s support for the Khalistani insurgency � it did a poor legal showing. It provided statements from captured militants that were inadmissible under international law because they were extracted under torture. It also refused to allow third parties like foreign media or non-governmental organizations to independently verify its claims. India�s own sloppy police procedures do not help matters. One of the three militants India has just released has been in jail for five years without being convicted. Officials of the United Kingdom has said this militant can enter their country � because New Delhi has failed to judicially prove he is a terrorist. All this only undermines India�s credibility. The Vajpayee government claims it will put forward incontrovertible evidence Pakistan was behind the IC 814 hijack. Hopefully, such evidence will be on par with the cellphone intercepts of Pakistani generals that India procured during the Kargil conflict.

India needs to strengthen its own global image as an opponent of terrorism. It blindly supported Arab terrorists during their violent campaigns against Israel in the Seventies and Eighties. There has been a steady convergence of US and Indian official opinions regarding Islamic terrorism emanating from northwest Asia. However, it was only after the Kargil conflict that India agreed to set up a joint working group on terrorism with the US. The US state department recently made a statement that the �release of the hostages is not the end of the matter�. This should be a cause for concern in Islamabad. Washington has already branded Harkat ul Ansar a terrorist group. India needs to pile up the evidence that there is a direct link between Harkat ul Ansar and Islamabad that goes beyond Pakistan�s admission of �moral support�. Diplomatic confrontation, especially one grounded in legalities, is a long and difficult affair. India needs to prepare a watertight brief or else face a second humiliation.    


Misplaced loyalty

A party in opposition is burdened with the responsibility of opposing the party in power. By this logic it is understandable that the Congress has sharply criticized the government�s handling of the crisis that emerged with the hijack of flight number IC 814. But the direction of this criticism is somewhat puzzling. The Congress used its firepower against the fact that the foreign minister, Mr Jaswant Singh, had gone to Kandahar and had escorted the three militants. This is really a side issue. The Congress has not taken Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee�s government to task for its mishandling of the crisis from the moment it started. There was enough scope for this since the government responded to the hijack only after the aircraft had landed in Kandahar. Before that it had dragged its feet. One reason for this soft pedalling is that the Congress, when it was in power, did not always take an uncompromising position against terrorists. In its own way, the Congress has been as susceptible to blackmailing as the present government. In September-October 1993, when 40 Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front militants occupied the Hazratbal shrine, they were given safe passage on the condition that they would give themselves up to the local police. But six months later they were freed. Having lived in a glass house, the Congress perhaps is not in a position to throw stones.

There is something more at issue here. This relates to the attitude of the Congress. It has not begun to take seriously its role as the principal opposition party. There have been too many times in the recent past when the Congress has missed the opportunity to embarrass the government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party. In the initial stages of the Kargil conflict, the Congress failed to ask the government about the infiltrators who had been entering the region at least months before the conflict actually started in May 1999. On the issue of economic reforms, the Congress having pioneered them is allowing the BJP to run away with the honours. On the hijack too there is a failure to push through the advantage. There was a time in its early history when the Congress was known as her majesty�s loyal opposition. A hundred years later, it has become the BJP�s loyal opposition.    


Look back in respect

No reason to feel outraged. The death of the don of Indian sociologists, M.N. Srinivas, has not caused the slightest ripple. The newspapers, most of them, particularly those in the north and the east, completely ignored the report of his passing. They had other priorities to cater to, such as the cussedness of Australian umpires in judging the Indian cricket captain out when, according to patriotic viewers, he was not so, or the shenanigans indulged in by this or that Yadav leader in the backwoods of Bihar or Uttar Pradesh.

About a year ago, a similar silence had greeted the report of P.N. Haksar�s passing. The Haksars and the Srinivases never cared while alive about the posthumous treatment to be accorded to them by the media.

Men of their ilk were responsible for the stature India has reached, in various phases, in the course of the past half century. Since, in the views of the New Testament, those five decades were a huge waste, personalities who defined that period deserved to be treated with, if not contempt, at least indifference.

Unfortunately though, there is a little bit more to it, to wit, the aspect of the progressive spread of illiteracy. The reference here is not to the 50 per cent of the nation�s members who have been carefully left outside the orbit of even primary education, and whose numbers rise every year. The darkness encircling them has been in the nature of a continuum.

Men like Haksar and Srinivas might have tried their best to persuade the political establishment to take certain essential measures so that the darkness that has turned out to be the fate of the nation�s majority could be even marginally dispelled. Their endeavours ended up in a big zero. The dumb millions were obviously altogether unaware of the altruism of which they were the intended beneficiaries.

The free market and even dissemination of knowledge do not always go together. Infinitely more worrying is the superciliousness noticeable amongst the so called elite sections of society, which could not care less whether the man whose death was reported at the bottom of the seventh column of an inside page had played at some juncture a crucial role in enhancing, through his singular contributions, the nation�s global image. This defunct individual, they have satisfied themselves, did not belong to the category that matters, and were not recipients of any imprimatur of approval from international finance capital.

The latter of course would also include the website crowd and those others well versed in the state of the art devices of information technology. These devices, installed in affluent houses and bureaus in country after country assist the rich set to indulge in financial speculations and other relaxations.

The accent without question is on lightheartedness and even more lightheartedness. The attraction of classical music, for instance, is on the wane, so too is respect and regard for the grand and timeless themes of science and philosophy.

Most of the new generation of scientists and technologists, including those who have been generous enough not to have migrated to the United States from their native lands, have rendered themselves into slaves of computers. Theories that are not derivatives of computer manipulations receive short shrift from today�s whiz kids.

Some of them of course also train themselves as economists, statisticians and accountants of the first order, ready to further and advance the cause of information technology. They have, at this moment, a high market demand and are paid fabulous salaries.

What a tragedy though, they will not have heard of Srinivas�s contributions on the �Sanskritization� of India�s so-called inferior castes, nor will they be familiar with reports of scores of young Ph.D aspirants who flocked to the country from American universities in the Fifties and Sixties, nurturing the hope that Professor Srinivas would recommend for them a village in either nearby Karnataka or remote Himachal Pradesh; they would then gather the data, fit in the hypothesis and present Professor Srinivas with a pleasant bouquet of scholastic wisdom of which he was the inspirer in the first place.

And then there was the phenomenon of hundreds of Indian students trekking from all over the country, not necessarily agreeing with him, many calling him a traditionalist or a reactionary to his face. He, and they, would enjoy the exchange of academic banter. The silence that has greeted the news of Srinivas�s death suggests that such anecdotes will no longer even pass as respectable ancient history. The website crowd will consider pastimes of this kind a huge waste of time. Old fogeys die, don�t they, so what is biting you?

We have, it seems, entered once more, with appropriate modulations, the realm of two cultures. One of them is constituted by the shrinking arena of learning and exchange of ideas within small like minded circles in universities and outside. This thin assembly of learned individuals do not carry much social weight. A numerically vastly superior, supercilious set has taken over the main quadrangle of academia. Discussion on literature concentrates on brittle English writings in India.

The native languages are an embarrassment, not to be alluded to in polite society, a fate that is also likely to overtake Indian classical music, painting, art and architecture. The appropriate price has to be paid for globalization. Be reasonable, literature in the domestic languages have a limited clientele, they are not a patch on the reach attainable via the global language, English. The state of the art technology that has invaded and is invading the ramparts of music, arts, sculpture and architecture will similarly render the traditional discourses into irrelevance. A bonfire will be made of our heritage. That appears to be the agenda for at least the next 50 years.

What happens beyond that point of time belongs to the realm of pure speculation. National pride may conceivably regroup itself. It is however bound to encounter fierce resistance, even from within the country. Transformation of the external circumstances may nonetheless help the process. Once that begins to happen, native-born geniuses will not have to migrate to the milieu of an alien culture in order to make a decent sort of living. What do you know, maybe a young Ph.D aspirant, sitting at his website, in Lucknow or Hyderabad, will come across references to a 20th century Indian scholar, M. N. Srinivas, who had done pioneering work on the historiography of sociology.

The scholar�s interest aroused, he may seek further counsel from a bunch of eminences from the university faculties at Minnesota or Wisconsin. M. N. Srinivas will receive recognition as a valid historical figure once these probes and searches are completed. Srinivas, if he were around, would have enjoyed the joke. The Sanskritization of sociology studies courtesy the website: is that not a destiny even the gods will come to adore?    




Let off the dock

Sir � Russians must be relieved after their reckless and impulsive president, Boris Yeltsin, decided to call it a day � eight years after destroying the country�s political and economic stability (�Sorry Boris steps down�, Jan 1). In the last two rears, Yeltsin had sacked prime ministers according to his whims and fancies � surely senility cannot be sighted as an excuse for this ludicrous action. In a nation where the majority has been fighting for daily existence, it is befuddling how Yeltsin and his cronies have succeeded in accruing huge amounts of wealth at home and abroad. Perhaps the ailing president was just experimenting with the goodies of capitalism before doling out its virtues to his subjects. It is unfortunate that the acting president, Vladimir Putin, has granted his predecessor immunity from prosecution� a tactful move to show the Russians his alienation from Yeltsin�s administration. But with Russia�s coffers being empty, isn�t it time duma broke its silence and took this preposterous leader to task?

Yours faithfully,
Rhea Lal,

Errors of commission

Sir � The Supreme Court�s recent verdict quashing an appeal petition by the Election Commission against the former finance minister, Manmohan Singh, should have far reaching consequences. Singh was accused of declaring false residence in Assam and enrolling his name as a voter in the Dispur assembly constituency in order to get elected to the Rajya Sabha from Assam in 1991.

Following the apex court�s order, it will now open the floodgates for any national party which has a comfortable majority in the state legislative assembly to get a complete outsider elected as the state�s representative in the upper house. Section three of the Representation of Peoples� Act, 1951, provides that no person shall be qualified to be a representative of any state in the council of states unless he is a voter from a parliamentary consitutency in that state. For all practical purposes, this provision will be reduced to a mere technicality required to be kept in mind while filing nomination papers to the Rajya Sabha.

Court verdicts seem to set greater store by the letter of the law than by its spirit. Singh was issued a notice by the EC asking him to furnish evidence that he was a resident of Assam. The EC�s decision to enquire into the residence certificates of other Rajya Sabha members like R.K. Dhawan and Subramaniam Swamy was a sequel to its order to Singh. Amazingly, the Guwahati high court ruled in favour of Singh saying that he had not been served any such notice.

The apex court has upheld this verdict and also said that the state electoral officer was only following the orders of the then chief election commissioner, T.N. Seshan, who had drawn inferences �without giving Singh the opportunity of a defence� and therefore deserved to be set down. However, the apex court has given the EC permission to issue Singh with a notice for �correcting the electoral roll�. Strange indeed are the ways of law.

Yours faithfully,
Govinda Goswami,

Sir � The anti-defection law lays down that in order to legalize a split in a political party, one-third of the members in its legislative body must defect. This is making a mockery of the Indian parliamentary system because now every member of parliament or legislative assembly asks for a ministerial berth as the wages of his continued allegiance to the party in governance. For example all 11 MLAs who defected from the Luizinho Sardinho�s Congress government in Goa have been rewarded with ministerial berths in the Eduardo Faleiro government. One can never predict when the remaining MLAs too will rebel citing some reasons of conscience or policy difference.

A similar drama rocked the Uttar Pradesh assembly when the state Bahujan Samaj Party and the state Congress kept fragmenting. A similar phenomenon was seen in the assemblies of Himachal Pradesh and some northeastern states. When Rajiv Gandhi had introduced the anti-defection bill in the Lok Sabha he provided for the compulsory resignation of all defecting MPs/MLAs. And yet it has become fashionable for the political class to calumniate him as being inexperienced and immature. They even had similar things to say about his move to encourage computerization.

Since it is more than obvious that the anti-defection law has done more harm than good, is it not time to review it? Should we allow the political aya rams and gaya rams to make India the laughing stock of the democratic world?

Yours faithfully,
K. Chaudhuri,

Sir � Notwithstanding the phenomenal rise in the literacy rate in West Bengal, more than 400,000 invalid votes were cast in the October 1999 general elections. This is a sad commentary on the level of political awareness among the state�s voters. Instead of fighting among themselves, why don�t these political parties undertake a door to door campaign to tell the electorate how to cast their votes properly?

Yours faithfully,
Prahlad Agarwala,

Sir � The EC was greatly perturbed over electoral malpractices before the general elections. What about the enormous sums of public money wasted in reelections in constituencies vacated by leaders who contested in more than one constituency? In such cases either the runner-up should be declared the winner or the candidate vacating the seat should be asked to foot the bill of all the other candidates in the by-election. Better still, the electorate should refrain from going out to vote a second time just to show the greedy leaders that they are not puppets in their hands.

Yours faithfully,
D.K. Bhattacharjee,

Vision of the streets

Sir � For some time now, accidents and their almost inevitable aftermath � violent mobs blocking roads, wrecking buses and whatever else comes to hand and heckling the police � have become almost a daily occurrence on Calcutta roads. This is because the number of vehicles in the city has increased phenomenally in the past few years while the road space has remained fixed at around six per cent of the total city space. Then there are rash driving, encroachments on the road by hawkers and squatters, general disregard for traffic rules, buses stopping anywhere and everywhere to pick passengers. Some roads were widened to facilitate smoother flow of traffic but hawkers soon set up makeshift stalls and the situation was back to square one. Constructing flyovers, subways, overhead bridges, bus bays, strict vigilance by the police and installation of more traffic signals might help reduce accidents in the city.

Yours faithfully,
Punyabrata Chatterjee,

Sir � Autorickshaws, which have proliferated in and around the city in the past few years, are a great help to the commuter, especially along routes that might be inaccessible by other modes of transport. But autos, notorious for flouting most traffic rules, are also responsible for creating traffic jams. Most passengers complain about the way these vehicles are driven. Autos should be banned along important thoroughfares to avoid unnecessary congestion. Also there is need to educate the drivers about road safety norms.

Yours faithfully,
Rudra Sarkar,
Calcutta n

Sir � The traffic police department in Calcutta proposes to constitute a �special squad� to visit key roads and intersections to find out whether traffic policemen take bribes from trucks and buses. This is absolutely hilarious. The joint commissioner of police (traffic), V.V. Thambi, must be really naive if he expects this squad to be anything but an exercise in futility. Policemen taking bribes is a common sight. There is no need to waste time over such a routine occurrence. Thambi would do better to utilize his department�s resources in reducing the number of accidents in the city.

Yours faithfully,
Srihari Bhakta,
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