Editorial/School for scandal
Bounded by frontiers
Letters to the Editor

Ham-handed political action makes heroes of the most unnatural of men. The Bharatiya Janata Party�s handling of affairs in the Indian Council for Historical Research has made famous a historian whose name would not have appeared in newspapers except in the personal columns. But by locking his room in the ICHR, the BJP has laid itself open to charges of muzzling academic freedom and of declaring jihad against left historians. Familiar cries of �save us from fascist attacks�� are being heard once again and signature-hunters and petition-mongers are having a field day. This hullabaloo is diverting attention from the more important issues regarding the ICHR. This body was set up by S. Nurul Hasan who, in the heyday of Indira Gandhi�s pink phase, made a fine art of appropriating social scientists to the cause of the state. Money was doled out from the exchequer to fund research. The ICHR was one of the institutions which acted as a channel for this kind of patronage. Its decision-making, in that phase and even subsequently, except for a brief interlude during the Janata regime, was dominated by a coterie of left-leaning historians some of whom had no other claims to Clio�s house except being Nurul Hasan�s blue-eyed boys. In terms of research output, the ICHR did very little to justify the money that was spent under its rubric. The ICHR remains an institution geared to disburse patronage. Only now the patrons have changed. The BJP is in power, its ideology holds sway and therefore it wants its own loyalists to be recipients of patronage. The left�s cries of discrimination and so forth ring very hollow simply because the BJP is playing the game according to rules made by the left. Of course, it is never pleasant to be hoist by one�s own petard.

The most important issue here is the very existence of a body like the ICHR created at least in name to promote state-funded and state-sponsored research. In many ways, the state�s presence as a sponsor is inimical to historical research. It creates bias in the mind of the historian and acts as a constraint on his historical imagination. The historian is best left to his own devices to recapture and represent the past. This is the principal reason why something like the ICHR is not known to exist in either the United States of America or the United Kingdom. The ICHR was modelled on similar institutions in the erstwhile Soviet Union. And every one knows now what kind of falsified history was sponsored by Joseph Stalin and his successors. If the BJP wants to break out of the game of patronage-mongering which the left started and is serious about the writing of good history, it should disband the ICHR. But the BJP may find this impossible since it is in the nature of state power to produce its own intellectual camp followers. And Indian intellectuals � such is their lack of self-confidence � get lured by the state rather easily. The number of saffron camp followers may, in the future, match the number who attended Nurul Hasan�s court.

There are other practical reasons to close down the ICHR. It has become a seat for the abuse of power and it is a drain on the tax-payers� money. There are historians, trumpeting their academic integrity, who have taken nearly two decades to complete their part of the project called Towards Freedom. There are others who have taken money from the ICHR and that is the last that has been heard of their research project. It is sad but true that if a list were to be made of those who have taken money from the ICHR for research and then have not delivered, it would include the names of some of India�s best known historians and almost all of them of a left orientation. Five or ten years down the line, if the BJP�s patronage is allowed to have its own head, another list would show up the name of saffron-oriented historians. This mug�s game can be ended by bringing the shutter down on an utterly useless and irrelevant institution.    

It is, perhaps, with some urgency that Calcutta has been affirming its distance, these last few weeks, first from Varanasi, then from Kanpur and each time from that spectral centre, New Delhi, itself removed from yet sinisterly informing these other cities. What came through across this distance was the masterly combination of savagery and guile, the unvarying, purblind rhetoric and, on both occasions, the spirit-crushing sense of something truly appalling somehow managing to triumph.

Following the disruption of the shooting of Water in Varanasi came the �culture curfew� in Kanpur after Valentine�s Day. A pattern of some complexity begins to emerge from the rudimentary fascism. In both cases, a set of cultural values is being projected upon two apparently distinct realms: a private sphere of individual self-regulation and the public spaces of a city. In Varanasi, the value of sanctity is embodied both in the upper-caste Hindu widow and in the sanctified spaces of a Hindu city � in its historic buildings, its ghats and in the river which makes it holy.

In Kanpur, the vigilante squads of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad enact their idea of Bharatiya sanskriti not only on the bodies of the couples they publicly humiliate or of the girls whose dress code they regulate, but also by taking control of civic spaces. They have ransacked and shut down restaurants and gift shops, dividing the campus and the city into zones in order to police them better. What this pattern highlights is the fluid and fragile boundary between the private and the public. The violations, particularly in Kanpur, target precisely this fragility and batter it down.

We are private individuals as well as citizens, living in a city or town or village and inhabiting its demarcated and overlapping spaces. Our experience of our selves � the freedoms and the constraints � is as much self-determined as it is defined by these spaces, surrounding us physically and symbolically. This invests our social and political beings with a certain physicality. We wear clothes and live in houses, which are in cities that are, in turn, part of the state.

The individual is thus placed, at every stage, within concentric circles of containment that both close in on him and open out from him. When we share these spaces with others, we are bounded from and inscrutable to one another, yet held in and articulated through a network of exchanges � of words, touch, gazes, services, commodities.

Therefore, we experience liberty and repression, security and fear not as abstract notions, but as concrete apprehensions realized in the private and civic spaces in which we live out our daily lives. Private and public, interior and exterior, individual and social, domestic and civic begin to come together within this quotidian fabric. Yet suddenly, when placed alongside the earlier analysis of the curfew, the very ordinariness of this fabric becomes fraught with a sense of its vulnerability to control and violation. A town under curfew seems to present extreme versions of what we experience everyday as part of our �normal� lives, with varying degrees of acceptance and resistance. This perception could easily become part of the culture of suspicion that fascism inevitably breeds in its onlookers. But it could also lead to recognitions that produce an altered � and altering � consciousness of our own lives and of the lives of those around us. A thing so fathomlessly gratuitous could thus be made to serve some human purpose.

And this is the point at which Calcutta will have to be brought back into the picture, and into a series of very specific pictures. How do the spaces of the city � houses, streets, parks, buses, taxis, public lavatories, restaurants, shops, cinemas � produce our experience of ourselves as private and political subjects, as social, sexual, professional beings negotiating such concepts as liberty and sexual equality in the arenas of the mundane?

I had recently gone out to dinner with a few women friends at a moderately expensive restaurant on Park Street. My friends � all in their early thirties, single or, on that occasion, unaccompanied by their partners � sat down, lit cigarettes and we then went on to order cocktails. The atmosphere around us changed instantly, a change played out in silence, entirely through a network of gazes, and hence difficult to put into words without sounding snooty or paranoid. The suspended conversations in the neighbouring tables (mostly families and couples); the stares, a quick sizing up followed by a steady half-leer in some of the men and a more complicated mixture of disapproval and curiosity in the women; the rakish gallantry of the waiters, deftly lighting cigarettes while glinting at me with a locker-room suggestiveness and refusing to move out of earshot throughout the meal. We had to choose between feeling vaguely uncomfortable and keeping ourselves amused by it all, and of course we chose the latter. But there was an edge to this amusement, and we felt disinclined to linger over coffee after the meal.

Outside it was still not very late. There was no place where we could sit and talk over a drink. The only places open at this time were the nightclubs (not worth the din) and the late-licence bars (gazes again). A funny resonance here with the banning of �sitting culture� by the ABVP in Kanpur restaurants that charge �sitting rates� per hour from teenagers who cannot afford to pay for more than a cup of tea. One of my friends needed a loo, and there were none in the vicinity for women. So we hopped into a taxi and went back to my place.

Most of us live with our parents. So, very soon, a different kind of tension started building up � imperfect latch-key arrangements, unstated domestic curfews, unwillingness to cause anxiety, discomfort about taking taxis alone at that time of the night. Before long, the evening was over. In retrospect, the sense of enjoyment was punctuated with moments of feeling curiously uncomfortable, unfree, unsafe, even an occasional twinge of feeling not fully adult at thirty plus. The intensity of these moments varied according to gender, personality (unequal reserves of humour and brazenness) and personal circumstance.

The experience of feeling free can take many forms in our everyday lives � loftily earnest as well as trivial and frivolous. For a woman to sit alone somewhere �public� outside her home or workplace � perhaps to have a relaxed smoke, write a letter, read a book, look at people or simply do nothing, wearing clothes she finds comfortable � without feeling that she is being provocative or subversive, may be just as crucial a form of experiencing freedom as being allowed to exercise her constitutional right to the freedom of expression through writing, making films or political activism. And this could apply just as well to another sphere, irrespective of gender � say, to the sphere of sexual exploration.

A responsible and enjoyable experience of sexual liberty, and dignity, is also largely determined by how we inhabit � and are inhabited by � domestic and public spaces: our own and our friends� living arrangements, together with more public places like restaurants, parks, campuses, riverfronts and cinemas. And this is certainly not, or not simply, a question of finding a place to have sex in, but of being allowed privacy and comfort in which to work out the complexities of intimacy. The location of the telephone, or the toilet, in one�s home can be as much part of one�s experience of adulthood as how one is made to feel and is looked at while buying condoms at a crowded chemist�s. Privacy is as much a matter of attitude as of architecture.

Civil or political freedom is never absolute, but must necessarily be a continually negotiable �area bounded by frontiers�, to use Isaiah Berlin�s memorable phrase. Yet liberty and freedom of choice, as Berlin warns us, are not �intrinsic to the notion of a human being�, but are the fragile products of �historical growth�. His elaboration of the idea of �positive liberty�cannot but sound like a high requiem today: �The sense of freedom entails not simply the absence of frustration, but the absence of obstacles to possible choices and activities � absence of obstructions on roads along which a man can decide to walk.�    


Bitter PIL to swallow

Sir � The lawyer community has finally awakened to its ethical duty of safeguarding the interests of the common man (�PIL filed for rally ban on weekdays�, Feb 18). A PIL against disruptive processions is a politically correct step. Reversing the trend may take a while but at least it is a proactive move in the right direction. Having curtailed the revelry of Holi, Diwali and marriage celebrations of north Indians, the Left Front would do well to institutionalize its hypocrisy by stopping these �democratic� means of expression, ostensibly on behalf of its vote bank, while pleading with the people concerned to keep it in power. At least, to use an oft-repeated term in cricket commentary, it will have been consistent.

Yours faithfully,
Buddha Bhattacharya, Calcutta

Misdirected flock

Sir � The recent attack by fundamentalists on the octogenarian social activist, Asgar Ali Engineer, cannot be condemned enough (�Asgar Ali Engineer beaten up�, Feb 14). Engineer is a reformist Bohra and chairman of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism and the Institute of Islamic Studies. I met the fearless crusader and was struck by his clarity of thought and genuine respect for other religions. Yet he has been repeatedly attacked by fundamentalist forces. This time, even his house was not spared. The Maharashtra government should ensure full security for this exceptional individual.

Yours faithfully,
A.F. Kamruddin Ahmed, Hooghly

Sir � Asgar Ali Engineer represents the tolerant face of religion. The attack on him is yet another example of the vicious attempts of fundamentalists to undermine the tolerance on which all religions are based. Whether Engineer voiced his displeasure against the maula of the Bohra community, his co-passenger on the plane, is purely a matter of conjecture. If he did, it was entirely within the right to freedom of speech. It seems pointless to condemn a group of people who have not developed the mentality to face criticism.

Yours faithfully,
Syed Raza Mirza, Calcutta

Sir � Religion has begun to find a growing place in corporate world of the United States though US civil libertarians seem to be worried at these trends. Companies ranging from the Fortune 500 ones to medium and small size firms are reported to hire chaplains and start departmental meetings with prayers. American work place religion policy permits federal employees to have �religious conversations� as long as they do not seek to convert and do not �offend�.

A religious-cum-management consultant group advises firms on applying Biblical principles such as rejecting bribery and encouraging more friendly worker-management relations. Such directives, albeit on non-religious grounds, are not uncommon in Indian governmental organizations. Perhaps a religious instruction helps prevent such forms of corruption.

In India, such moves face opposition from the �secular� quarters. A Chennai-based insurance company was sued by an employee for printing quotations from the Bhagwad Gita in their greetings cards. There are, however, cases where employers are rigid. A Christian employee was sacked owing to his repeated absence on Saturdays. He considered it a sin to work on Saturday.

Christopher Reed, writing in The Guardian on the issue of religion at places of work, misses a point: the sentiment of being nice to workers goes with the lengthening of working hours, shortening of holidays, stationary incomes for all but the top brass and downsizing for profit.

Yours faithfully,
S. Subramanyan, Mumbai

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