Editorial 1/Cat�s whiskers
Editorial 2/Lying together
Stricken by terror
Letters to the Editor

The Union home ministry has announced a reduction in the number of politicians who are provided security by national security guard commandos. The original priviliged roster of 19 people has now been reduced to five. NSG cover, which meant a contingent of �black cat�� commandos and a bulletproof car, will only be given to the Union home minister, Mr L.K.Advani, three chief ministers and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader, Ms J. Jayalalitha. Among those who have lost the privilege are such relative nonentities as Mr Maninder Singh Bitta, Mr Matang Singh and Mr Sajjan Kumar. As the Union home secretary has noted, many of those who were provided NSG cover held on to the service because of the status it bestowed upon them. Having a squad of commandos was seen as an excuse to block traffic, occupy government quarters and otherwise garner other official perks. The home ministry has also said in general it will attempt to provide security in a less obtrusive way. It should be noted that those who have lost NSG security cover will still have Z category security. The overall numbers of people provided security cover will not be reduced. Nearly 5000 Delhi policemen will still be tied up protecting 366 Indian leaders. And tens of millions of rupees will continue to be spent in this effort.

Few will grudge providing security to Indian leaders who face a clear and present danger of militant activity. But the entire process has largely become divorced from genuine security needs. Instead, bodyguards became just one more form of privilege, another yardstick of influence and power, further evidence of being among India�s movers and shakers. Last year, it took the harassment of a professor by a police convoy of the lieutenant governor of Delhi to make the Union government say traffic would be stopped for the president, the prime minister, visiting heads of state and no one else. Even then a high court judge could not help but ask, �What is the problem if the prime minister travels like a common man?�� The Union home ministry�s pruning of NSG cover is laudable. It can only be faulted for its failure to cut the numbers in other security categories as well. The truth is that for every attempt to cut back on the abuse of privilege, a score of new perks and special dispensations arise. The bulk of people who drive around with sirens and flashing lights in every Indian city do so because they have sufficient political influence to avoid being hauled up by the police. That so many persons are above the law, that the limits of authority are so ill-defined and even more poorly enforced, is the ultimate �security cover�� of India�s priviligentsia.    

The marriage of true minds could meet with unprecedented impediments. A division bench of the Supreme Court has recently sought technical medical assistance from the Indian Medical Association and the National AIDS Control Organization in clarifying an earlier court order. This was in response to a writ petition filed by a non-governmental organization in order to facilitate the marriage of an HIV-positive person to another after �full, free and informed consent is taken for the marriage�. Two fundamental issues emerge from this problem, both conflating the spheres of morality (private and public), medical ethics and legality, a conflation indicative of the effect of HIV and AIDS on human relationships. First, the question of whether two consenting adults infected with the virus could be at all allowed to marry. If the two persons concerned have been entirely honest with each other about their sexual histories and health, any action to prevent their marriage would amount to an entirely unwarranted infringement on what must remain a fundamental right. But what if they have not been entirely honest with each other? This leads to the second, more complex, issue opened up by the judges� appeal for clarification.

The denial, disacknowledgement and sexual double standards that characterize conventional Indian attitudes to AIDS make it possible for either party to enter conjugality through a web of deception and concealment regarding his or her sexual medical history. In such cases, it ought to be possible for concerned individuals to have access to medical information that would disclose a person�s HIV-related status. This might appear to be a distasteful breach of Hippocratic confidentiality. But what is at stake here are the lives of several individuals, including the progeny, in the marriage. However, this information � made available by say, a doctor or a blood bank � ought to be the basis of a decision made by the individuals concerned, and not used by any external agency or institution for behavioural surveillance and coercion, such as the suspension of the right to marry. In fact, this argument could be extended to cover not just HIV-related verifications, but a range of other fatal medical conditions that could be transmitted from parent to child. Here again, the ethics of the situation would depend upon who is being given this information, under what circumstances and the extent to which he is given the right to act upon it independently. Any provision for the disclosure of personal information must be vigilantly attuned to such particularities � admittedly a difficult monitoring task � in order to prevent abuse. Such a radical rethinking of marriage, one of Indian society�s most hallowed institutions, in the light of something as alien to respectability as AIDS is perhaps timely. After all, the majority of AIDS patients in Calcutta�s hospitals are middle-class housewives who have been infected with the virus by their husbands.    

It must be seen to be believed, the changes that one hijacking can bring about in South Block. Nowhere is it as much in evidence as in the actions and the brief of the Indian delegation now in the United States for talks on terrorism.

Notwithstanding the brave front that its members are putting on, the delegation is in Washington as a supplicant. Washington has so much power that it is necessary to recall Josef Stalin�s famous remark about Josip Broz Tito that if the Russian dictator so much as moved his little finger, the Croat who united Yugoslavia would no longer be there.

The story of how the administration of Bill Clinton has come to acquire make or break powers over an Indian team, which is for all practical purposes led by none other than the foreign secretary, Lalit Mansigh, is curiously the story of South Block�s flawed policy on Afghanistan in recent years.

For the record, the delegation which is in Washington for talks on terrorism is led by Alok Prasad, joint secretary in charge of the Americas in the ministry of external affairs. But anyone who believes this would also believe that the then foreign minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, who went to New York City to forge the signature of V.P. Singh�s son for the St Kitt�s conspiracy, was Rajiv Gandhi�s hatchetman in the plot, and not Chandraswami who was directing the St Kitt�s operation from a hotel room adjacent to Rao�s in the Big Apple.

The delegation�s stakes are higher than New York City�s skyscrapers simply because during and after the hijacking of the Indian Airlines plane in December, the taliban succeeded in puncturing the hot air balloon of the Bharatiya Janata Party led government�s anti-terrorist platform.

Since Atal Behari Vajpayee became prime minister, the fight against terror has become the bulwark of his government�s foreign policy. Most countries took this policy at its face value, if only because they believed that, as in the case of the Pokhran II nuclear tests, uncompromising opposition to terror was an article of faith with the BJP. And the way L.K. Advani straightened out the home ministry only added credibility to this perception.

But then came the hijacking and the bottom simply dropped out of this policy. Governments across the world were no longer willing to take the protestations of the external affairs minister, Jaswant Singh, about the Vajpayee government�s commitment to fight terrorism at face value.

What is worse, after the compromise made in Kandahar, Indian ambassadors in major world capitals are no longer ready to put their best foot forward in lobbying support for the BJP led government�s campaign for a global front against terrorism. Foreign governments may continue to pay lip service to the Indian cause, but these ambassadors only know too well they do not any more carry credibility with their host governments on the issue of fighting terrorism.

Which is why South Block�s current engagement of the US is crucial to the very survival of Vajpayee�s foreign policy, of which the fight against terror has become the central theme.

Never before has this country been placed in such a position vis a vis the US, where the Americans have so much leverage with India while New Delhi has none with the US.

Contrast this with the leverage that Islamabad has over Washington and it becomes crystal clear the Vajpayee government�s desire to play a pro-active role in Afghanistan has come a cropper even before the idea has actually been put into practice.

For the Vajpayee government, it must seem like a cruel irony that the agenda on Afghanistan for the international community is being dictated by Pakistan. It is Pakistan�s chief executive, Pervez Musharraf, who is offering to go to Kabul to sort out the problem of Osama bin Laden.

It is to Islamabad that the taliban sends a delegation to address international concerns about terrorism coming out of Afghanistan. Already, some Western countries have created special interest sections in their embassies in Islamabad to deal exclusively with what they call the taliban �administration�. Only a few weeks ago, for almost everyone in the world, it was merely the taliban �militia�.

If Musharraf is able at some stage to work out a deal with Kabul, as a result of which bin Laden leaves Afghanistan, he will get international legitimacy much the same way as General Zia ul-Haq got his acceptance from the world community after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Even if Musharraf persuades the taliban to scale down and eventually put an end to the export of terror from Afghanistan, he will be a winner. South Block may not countenance it, but this is indeed a distinct possibility.

After all, only a decade ago, the Syrian president, Hafez Al Assad, was a key sponsor of terrorism in Washington�s eyes. Today, Assad�s ministers and envoys are honoured guests in the White House.

Or for that matter, consider Libya. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has made his compromises with the Americans and vice versa. Similarly Lebanon, which was a no go area for US citizens until a few years ago. It is no longer so, notwithstanding the continued presence of the Hizbullah, which the West has been conditioned to hate.

Contrast this with India�s predicament, despite New Delhi�s desire to pursue a pro-active role in Afghanistan. India has no leverage in Afghanistan, not with the taliban, not any longer with the Northern Alliance.

Even more galling for the Vajpayee government than Islamabad�s potentially creative role in Afghanistan is the realization that the first tentative steps to give respectability to the taliban were taken by the BJP led administration.

The negotiations which New Delhi misguidedly entered into with the hijackers in Kandahar gave the taliban an opportunity to grow from an assortment of warlords into the nucleus of a potential state. At the time of writing, the taliban � unlike the Vajpayee government � remains categorically refused to entertain the idea of any talks with those who hijacked an Ariana flight from Kabul on Sunday.

If the taliban is able to secure the surrender of the Ariana hijackers without negotiating with them, it will further enhance the taliban�s standing in the eyes of the world. Even if the Afghan airlines hijacking ends in a tragedy, there will still be grudging admiration for the taliban for what the world will then describe as Kabul�s steadfastness.

In the aftermath of the Kandahar hijacking, a leading Israeli said in New Delhi, albeit privately, that Tel Aviv rued the settlement made by India because �a victory for terror in one part of the world will encourage terrorists to strike elsewhere and try the same tactics�.

What the Indian delegation now talking to the Americans must realize is that Israel is one of the few countries which will not only make such a statement, but also stand by it. For the record, the US will make such declarations, but history tells us that the Americans are not averse to using outfits such as the taliban and the Kosovo Liberation Army, which are outside the pale of international law, for their own ends.

The Indians must realize that the Americans will fight terror solely and only if the terrorists pose a threat to US interests, not to anyone else�s interests.    


Drowned in protest

Sir � Self-immolation bids have become a method of blackmailing governments into retracting on policy measures. Arun Pathak tried to kill himself to stop Deepa Mehta shooting Water (�Drowning bid freezes Water�, Feb 7). He tied stones to his hands and to make doubly sure of dying, consumed poison before jumping into the Ganga, even as thousands stood watching, cheering his path to a glorious afterlife, chanting Har Har Mahadev. It is difficult to believe Pathak�s suicide bid was entirely on his own initiative and no political interests were served by his gesture; interests that rely on such token protests in the absence of logic. This is reinforced by the Varanasi administration allowing itself to be persuaded to stop the shooting �until further orders� � and none should doubt that this means �forever�. It must have been a saving grace that he could not pull it off. Pathak and his ilk are akin to suicide squads within terrorist outfits, as in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who consider human lives expendable to their cause.

Yours faithfully,
Ragini Ojha, Calcutta


Sir � The statement of the finance minister, Yashwant Sinha, that he will take stringent measures to recover bank loans without considering closing down weak banks, comes as a relief (�No closures, assures Sinha�, Jan 17). A report by a task force of the Confederation of Indian Industry had earlier recommended the closure of Indian Bank, UCO Bank and United Bank of India. It was subsequently forced to withdraw in the face of the criticism by political parties and bank employees� unions.

A bank�s income usually comes from the interest earned on loans, and its expenses consist of the interest they pay on deposits. The difference between the two, if positive, results in a profit. Thus, for accounting purposes, deposits are a liability and loans are an asset. A loan becomes a non-performing asset when a creditor fails to repay the loan along with the interest. The accumulation of too many NPAs affects the bank�s viability. The CII report and the Verma committee set up by the Reserve Bank of India reached the same conclusion � that the three banks were unprofitable because of huge NPAs. But the inefficiency of the bank staff can hardly be blamed for this.

Public sector banks have net NPAs worth thousands of crores of rupees, most of which is because of a few big industrialists who are at the helm of affairs in various chambers of commerce. The share of these big industrialists in the deposits of these banks is only six per cent, the rest comes from ordinary citizens. If these banks close down, it is the ordinary citizens and bank employees who will suffer, and not the industrialists who defaulted. A better way to make these banks viable would be for the industrialists to be forced to pay back the loans and the interest. The government�s decision to give more teeth to the debt recovery tribunal through an ordinance is a step in the right direction.

Yours faithfully,
B.C. Dutta, Calcutta

Sir � The recent heated exchange between bank employees� unions and industrialists over the CII task report on the closure of three nationalized banks indicates the nefarious designs of big capitalists. Bank unions have rightly demanded the list of defaulters be made public. Industrialists cannot dictate terms when their deposits form only six per cent of bank funds. The Centre should step in with exemplary action against these industrialists so they don�t make free with public funds. The NPAs problem requires some new initiative by the Bharatiya Janata Party led government. An open debate should be organized, keeping clear of party politics and participated by eminent people from every discipline. The aim should be to eliminate corruption and revitalize these banks.

Yours faithfully,
Achintya Chaudhury, Baruipur

Sir � The budget for 2000-2001 will be presented on February 29. I have a few suggestions for the finance minister regarding the rationalization of the tax structure. The special surcharge of 10 per cent levied for a year should be abolished. The exemption limit on personal income tax should be raised from Rs 50,000 to Rs 60,000. The personal income tax rate of 10 per cent should be applicable for incomes upto Rs 150,000 with the maximum rate of 30 per cent applicable only on incomes upto Rs 500,000. Smaller companies should be asked to pay a lower rate of income tax, say about 10-15 per cent on incomes upto Rs 100,000, to stop the proliferation of black money.

The exemptable allowance for children of upto Rs 50 per month and hostel allowance of Rs 150 per month for employees should be increased to at least Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 per month, respectively. To give some relief to the fixed income group, the limit of deduction on bank interest should be raised from Rs 12,000 to Rs 25,000. The rebate of 20 per cent on house loan repayment should be raised from Rs 10,000 to the more realistic Rs 30,000. The rebate for senior citizens should be raised to Rs 25,000 and related in future to the cost inflation index.

Yours faithfully,
R.N. Lakhotia, New Delhi

Sir � In the article, �Trickle down factor� (Jan 31), Bhaskar Dutta says that statistically reliable estimates of poverty at the state level should be based on �full� samples. By �full� samples, the author seems to mean the quinquennial survey of the National Sample Survey Organization on consumer expenditure. The last quinquennial survey on the subject was conducted by the NSSO during July 1993-June 1994 and not during 1993, as Dutta says.

Further, all reports for this survey have been released already. Dutta also says the next quinquennial survey on consumer expenditure was conducted in 1998 and even after a year the survey results have not been brought out. This is not true. The survey period for the latest quinquennial round is July 1999 to June 2000 and thus there is no question of delay in publishing the results. In fact, the NSSO has already released all reports on the surveys for which the fieldwork has been completed.

Yours faithfully,
D.P. Mondal, Calcutta

A thing against McCartney

Sir � Often, in the eagerness to dismiss those they are prejudiced against, people refuse to accept facts and instead rely on entirely personal and unsubstantiated opinions. If Ronie Sarkar (�Winging it alone�, Dec 21) were to re-read the article he refers to, �Paul, Cavern come together� (Dec 16), he would realize it was not Paul McCartney who had �women blatantly propositioning him� but Bill Heckle, the director of Cavern Club. But, Sarkar overlooks this �minor� detail. And what does he mean by saying �The Beatles� decline had started much before John Lennon was shot�?

The group split in 1970, 10 years before Lennon�s death, but have remained on top ever since � in music polls. So what decline? It is evident Sarkar is another member of the �Love John Lennon-Hate Paul McCartney� club. The truth about McCartney and his role in the Beatles has been emerging recently. Sarkar should look up Bill Harry�s introduction to The McCartney File (1986) or Hunter Davies�s revised edition of the only authorized biography.

Finally, McCartney � the most successful pop-music composer and recording artist ever, as well as recipient of innumerable awards � at the age of 57 does not need �to cash in on still unabated Beatlemania�. As for McCartney�s �decision to go it alone�, Sarkar should know that the decision goes back 29 years, when hounded by the selfish behaviour of Alan Klein and Lennon, he released McCartney in 1970.

Yours faithfully,
Subhajit Banerjee, Calcutta

Sir � Ronie Sarkar is unnecessarily biased against Paul McCartney. One, the Beatles�s popularity has not declined. Two, the group did not decline because of McCartney. Three, McCartney did not have to exploit the Beatles� popularity, because he had a more than fair share in the group�s successes.

Yours faithfully,
Mohun Roy, Calcutta

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