Editorial 1/War relief
Editorial 2/Foreign matter
Games coalitions play
Letters to the Editor
Community fare/Book review
After China’s rain of blows/Book review
In prisons of the mind/Book review
Recipes for a blissful life/Book review
Shadow lines of history and utopia/Book review

The parallels inspire caution. The Indian government has agreed to provide humanitarian assistance in the civil war in Sri Lanka. The external affairs minister, Mr Jaswant Singh, has not detailed what exactly this means. However, eyes are on the 30,000 Sri Lankan soldiers trapped on the Jaffna peninsula. They will have to be evacuated if the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam launches a campaign to recapture Jaffna. Such an evacuation will require considerable Indian assistance. It should be remembered that an earlier battle for Jaffna led New Delhi to send the ill fated Indian peacekeeping force into Sri Lanka in 1987. Then it was the Sri Lankan army that lay siege to an LTTE held Jaffna. The then Rajiv Gandhi government airdropped humanitarian assistance into the city. Colombo got the message, calling off its army. In return India sent the IPKF to the island. Within months the Indian army was at war with the LTTE and, at one point, in danger of taking on the Sri Lankan army as well. Hundreds of casualties and three years later, the IPKF withdrew. The civil war continued. Complete confusion reigns among most Indians as to what the political and military goals of sending the IPKF were in the first place. New Delhi not only withdrew its soldiers, it cut itself off from the civil war diplomatically, politically, even rhetorically.

But turning its back on Sri Lanka was never feasible for India in the long run. The civil war had domestic political repercussions, especially in Tamil Nadu. It is noteworthy Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee consulted all three Tamil parties in his coalition before announcing the new policy. In addition, the LTTE committed acts of terrorism against India, including assassinating Rajiv Gandhi, and is known to be linked with the Pakistani narcotics trade. More importantly, India’s claims to being the dominant south Asia power look hollow as long as it ignores a conflict raging only 14 miles from its coastline. India’s announcement will no doubt cheer the Sri Lankan president, Ms Chandrika Kumaratunga. She has sought international intervention to try and temper the LTTE and moderate a civil war which it seems no one can win. Her inviting Norwegian mediation is likely to have been designed to force New Delhi into once again engaging itself in the island war. From Vietnam to Afghanistan, many countries have found foreign civil wars to be a dangerous, bloody and slippery slope. The Vajpayee government must be both transparent and clear about India’s present political goals in Sri Lanka. It should also draw a line in the sand and state that India will never involve itself militarily. Statecraft is not merely about showing the flag. It is also about recognizing that a country has only limited resources at hand and must determine its foreign policy goals with comparable humility.    

The Supreme Court has recently attempted to end a protracted controversy in Assam politics. A three-judge bench of the apex court has recently issued notices to the Union and Assam governments asking for the repeal of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act. This is in response to a public interest litigation filed by the former president of the All Assam Students’ Union, Mr Sarbananda Sonowal, against the unconstitutional enforcement of the act only in Assam, even when it is applicable everywhere in the country. The Supreme Court has now given six weeks, from May 1, to the Union and state governments for filing affidavits repealing the IM(DT) Act. It has also been recommended to the court that the act should be substituted by the Foreigners Act of 1946 in Assam.

The central issue here is the facilitation of the processes of identifying and deporting “foreigners” or illegal aliens in the state — a concern that has been central to its politics since the beginnings of the “Assam movement” in 1979. The IM(DT) Act puts the onus of proving a person’s foreignness on the prosecution, whereas the recommended Foreigners Act puts this onus on the accused. Assam is therefore eager to weed out illegal migrants with a law that opposes the Anglo-Saxon principle of jurisprudence by which a person is innocent unless proven guilty. Constitutionally, Indian citizenship laws are under the Central government’s jurisdiction. The IM(DT) Act was passed by Parliament in 1983, when Assam was largely unrepresented in the house as a result of an election boycott. This made it extremely difficult, unwieldy and expensive, if not technically impossible, to prove that someone was an illegal alien in Assam, reinforced by the ambivalence of pan-Indian political parties on the issue. Since then, the IM(DT) Act has been a source of frustration for supporters of the Assam agitation and, more recently, for those who link the rise of insurgency in the state with the influx of aliens from across the Bangladesh border. Although the number of illegal migrants actually deported under the act has been ridiculously low compared to the estimated number of infiltrators settled in the state, the act has often been deployed in votebank politics by both the Asom Gana Parishad and the Congress in relation to the indigenous Muslim population. Migration across the borders will continue to be an inevitable and uncontrollable human reality in Assam, largely dictated by local economic conditions. Although the Supreme Court’s pressure might put an end to a long political dispute in the state, there is no guarantee that this legal measure will make the problem of identifying “foreigners”, who share the language and physiognomy of the legal citizens, any less insurmountable in the absence of more fundamental economic solutions.    

The continuing tug of war over subsidy cuts provides an insight into the problems of governance that plague the governing coalition in New Delhi. Even more than that it shows how the premier party at the core of the alliance finds it increasingly difficult to lay down the line. Even the ascendancy of the most activist and assertive sarsanghchalak or supreme head of the parent body, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in recent times, presages the opening of an alternate route to the present alliance in the medium term.

Power lies uneasily on the head that wears the crown. All the more so, when it is held in place by a cohort of parties with little in common with one another than mutually exclusive spheres of electoral influence. Coalitions are more than a means to attain or retain office. They are also an opportunity for the various components to try to grow at each other’s expense. The question, therefore, at the back of every ally’s mind is obvious: what are they gaining and for how long?

Such issues are easy to resolve or easier to redress if there is one clear ringmaster out in the middle. This is the story of India’s longest running coalition regime in Calcutta and also of the alliance ministries in Kerala. But the reverses in Uttar Pradesh put paid to the Hindutva party’s dream of ensuring such an outcome at the Centre. The locus of power is clearly with the largest partner: witness how it holds key portfolios including finance, home and external affairs, not to mention the human resources development ministry. A close and trusted ally presides over the defence ministry and political compulsion if nothing else will force him to stay the course.

But this still does little to resolve the deeper conflicts that threaten to become a faultline in the National Democratic Alliance. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s greatest trump card is Atal Behari Vajpayee, now hailed by his own party chief as “the tallest leader in the country”. But he is the only senior member of the entire parivar other than Jaswant Singh to have stayed off the stage during the phase of rath yatra politics, best symbolized by L.K. Advani.

Despite his adroit choice of words, the latter can never live down the days when he thundered from the pulpit about how “only Hindu raj can bring security for all”. While he too gained in no small way from the surge of support for the party, Vajpayee has the image of a consensus politician.

As with Indira Gandhi, his personal position is so unassailable that there is certain to be a vacuum in the future. In political terms that also raises the issue of whether his party can at all throw up anyone else acceptable both to its various wings as well as to the allies. Until now, the issue has been brushed under the carpet but the questions related to it keep surfacing from time to time.

After all, the building of the Ram temple at the disputed site in Ayodhya, as and when it is attempted, is bound to raise the hackles of the allies. They are as committed to a plural cultural order as the opposition. As the polls draw closer in UP and as disaster stares Ram Prakash Gupta in the face, there is bound to be pressure to reopen the issue. Even sans that, the rumpus over the entry of the RSS cadres into government service in Gujarat provided a fine illustration of how far the saffron party is hemmed in by present arrangements. A single party ministry in the state had to withdraw a government order lifting a ban due to pressure exerted by coalition partners at the Centre. Make no mistake. This is a tug of war, which can and will have different outcomes at different times.

Closely related to this is the review of the Constitution. Until now, the “foreign origins” question has served the coalition well, even winning support from P.A. Sangma, whose anti-Congressism has all the zeal of a fresh convert to the cause. But as the Telugu Desam Party leader and chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, N. Chandrababu Naidu, has made clear, his priorities lie elsewhere as well. The review, he has publicly argued, must reexamine the vexed issue of Centre-state relations. Revamping these will not only mean curbing the Union’s power to dismiss state governments, already a non-starter in our increasingly federal times. It will also encompass the issue of how the pie of resources is divided up between the states and New Delhi. Here, the BJP is likely to be similar to the Congress in its basic instincts. Federalize where you must, but centralize while you can is the common motto.

This is where those who belabour the allies’ concerns over subsidy cuts are missing the point. The question is not merely of their economic significance, timing or necessity, each of which requires serious debate. The problem is that the states are burdened with most tasks of welfare while being prevented from raising resources to the extent the Centre can. The primal urge of the regional formations is the exact opposite of the national parties. They wish to federalize as far as possible and centralize only if unavoidable.

What keeps the NDA together is that neither side in the great contest is able to have its way. The day one side gains in strength or size, the alliance’s days will be numbered. This is why of all the states, UP matters so much to the fate of the Vajpayee government. Since Kalyan Singh’s ouster, he has ruled the state through trusted lieutenants. They have ensured that the apple cart is not upset. But by handing the issue of the religious places bill on a platter to Mulayam Singh Yadav, they have given him a dream platform that he has seized upon with alacrity. The divisions in the ruling house are also on caste lines, with the governor, a senior Dalit luminary, Suraj Bhan, referring the bill to the president and doing his bit to keep the heat on the upper caste dominated government in Lucknow.

There is one cloud in the silver lining for the Vajpayee regime: namely, the necessity of power for the sangh combine. Contrary to its protestations, the control of the administrative machinery is critical not only for the eventual creation of a Hindu rashtra, but to dispense patronage especially in the fields of education, culture and the law and order machinery. This craving for access to patronage is itself enough for the present to stabilize the government and make it less likely to fall prey to a rapid shift of course. Of course, this is heavily reliant on being in power. A change in the winds that blow across the political landscape, a shift in electoral fortunes and there may be a shift of direction.

The NDA is like the halt on the road to the future. Either it becomes a combination more heavily under the thumb of its key component, or it breaks up into a United Front type formation. Part of the answer depends on how the Congress staves off disintegration. But much more hinges on the short run on Vajpayee’s ability to walk the tight rope. Survival in office may be easy. Keeping the base of support will be the difficult part. That is the part of the journey we are now witnessing.

The author is an independent analyst on ecology and political affairs and former fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum Library, New Delhi    


Rags to riches

Sir — Bishakha De Sarkar’s “Everybody loves a good drought” (April 30) was a piece of candid reporting. But it is not only a good drought that politicians, bureaucrats, junior officers and clerks look out for. Other calamities like cyclones, floods and earthquakes also fill pockets. Grants from state and central governments are devoured by intermediaries before they reach the people. And lucre finds its own intricate ways into the pockets of interested parties. I recall one incident during my service period as general manager of the Dredging Corporation of India. Once, I found the price for every kilogram of “rags” used for cleaning engine parts billed four or five rupees higher than the prices the year before. The amount involved a few tonnes. On inquiry, the supplier confirmed the price, reasoning that since there had been no cyclones that year, clothes — generously donated by citizens in response to flood relief appeals and usually cut to pieces to be sold as rags in the market — would be in short supply.

Yours faithfully,
Bachaspati Goswami, Calcutta

Ticket to security

Sir — The enemy of an enemy is a friend. This is the idea behind the mahajot. Mamata Banerjee has chosen the right time to float the idea. The ball is now in the court of the other parties, mainly the Congress, which must think hard if it does not to face a complete rout in the state.

Banerjee’s mahajot reminds me of other such grand alliances in history which had been formed with exactly the same aim. Take the alliance between the warring states of Bidar, Barar, Golconda, Ahmednagar and Bijapur. These states could not stand each other, yet combined together to defeat the Vijayanagar empire. They succeeded in this in the battle of Talikot. Vijayanagar was consigned to history. However, after their aim was fulfilled, the alliance split and their internal wars started again.

Of course, Banerjee’s mahajot could meet the same fate as the former Bahmani kingdoms even before it defeats its common enemy.

Yours faithfully
Manish Garg, New Delhi

Sir — Disruption seems to be the order of the day in West Bengal, even if at the expense of the state’s development. Just when the hibernating state government is beginning to arouse itself, the opposition is bent on dislodging it at any cost. It is time the opposition learns to play a constructive role in Indian politics and not just eye the throne. We bore with the West Bengal government for 20 odd years, why disrupt it when things have started looking bright, when development projects are being executed?

If the mahajot is really on a strong footing, let it come up with constructive and progressive agenda rather than negative parochial ideas.

Yours faithfully,
S. Dutta, Calcutta

Sir — The people of West Bengal await the mahajot with bated breath. Mamata Banerjee, the star of this latest political drama, may be likened to Kate Hardcastle in Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops To Conquer, who succeeds in conquering Marlow, the man of her dreams. Stooping low is what relates the two, though Banerjee’s action is motivated by a larger love of the “people”.

In the past 23 years the Communist Party of India (Marxist), under the aegis of Jyoti Basu, has rooted itself firmly and grown stronger with each passing year. Banerjee has realized this, which is why she, in a final catastrophe, has taken resort to the brahmastra, the mahajot. She realizes the task will be all that more onerous if a branch of the opposition’s alliance is cut off. Even the former railways minister, A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury, accepts this. This points to there being no better path in politics than negotiations. It also indicates that most political parties in the country are now prepared to take on the CPI(M).

The immediate fate of the mahajot is in limbo. But the prospects of the alliance still have plenty of promise. Only time will show whether Banerjee has the last laugh or not.

Yours faithfully,
Banibrata Banerjee, Calcutta

Sir — The news report, “Bengal mahajot through backdoor” (April 22), is a sad commentary on the state of affairs among the opposition parties in West Bengal. It also augurs ill for the forthcoming assembly elections. Mamata Banerjee and A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury have intuitive political understanding. They highlight the all encompassing nature of the mahajot between the Trinamool Congress, Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party. They recognize that complete unity is the sole raison d’etre for all the three. Unfortunately, some local and central leaders foolishly believe in restricted electoral adjustment.

They forget the lesson of Bihar, where in the assembly elections the National Democratic Alliance partners miserably failed to repeat their Lok Sabha poll performance primarily on account of backbiting among themselves. While Banerjee stated the BJP would be part of the mahajot, Khan Chowdhury seems to be confused. The Congress would be indulging in wishful thinking if it hopes to come to power through a “backdoor mahajot”. A clear stand is what people expect from all leaders.

Yours faithfully,
Om Prakash Mehta, Calcutta

Airy schemes

Sir — New Delhi’s decision not to allow foreigners to own equity in India’s airlines sector is against the interests of air travellers. Although the demonopolization of domestic air transport is giving some choice to passengers, the dominant carrier — Indian Airlines — is unreformed. It continues to show discourtesy and absolute indifference to passengers’ needs despite losing significant market share. For example, it maintains a separate check-in counter for frequent fliers. Often, the queue at this counter is longer than that at the normal counter. This is the sort of privilege Indian Airlines gives its patrons. Flights are delayed for hours because crew members do not turn up. The airconditioning inside the aircraft barely works. All complaints fall on deaf ears. A number of things can be done for passengers. Delays in excess of half the flying time should mean a refund of half the fare. Foreign investment should be allowed in this sector. With investors on the board, their criticism would surely improve customer service.

Yours faithfully,
T.H. Chowdary, Hyderabad

Sir — It will be sad to have British Airways close its Calcutta operations from November. I have noticed on several occasions that the Calcutta-Delhi flight hardly carries enough passengers to justify the operation. The last time I travelled from London to Calcutta, there were only 18 passengers from New Delhi to Calcutta, although the aircraft was full between London and New Delhi.

Calcutta’s airport service is bad enough to give any airlines a bad reputation. I once had to dig out my luggage from the bottom of an enormous heap since the conveyor belt was not working. For the convenience of Calcutta passengers, British Airways could arrange the connecting flight to New Delhi in such a manner that passengers are not kept waiting to board the London flight which leaves New Delhi after midnight.

Yours faithfully,
R.H. Putran, Calcutta

Last word

Sir — “Faceoff over nuclear plant” (April 23) should alarm environmentalists. Supporters of the nuclear power plant will paint a rosy picture, but such plants can spell environmental disaster. Remember Chernobyl. The power plant, to be set up near the Sunderbans, will impinge on a world heritage site, the world’s largest mangrove forest and an area rich in biodiversity. Such coastal forests shield Calcutta from storms and natural calamities. Sustainable development is necessary to preserve natural heritage. Good sense must prevail and the project abandoned.

Yours faithfully,
S.R. Banerjee, state director, World Wide Fund For Nature-India, Calcutta    

The Faber Book of Writers On Writers
Edited by Sean French, Faber, £ 15

This book is a testimony to a widespread variety of mythmaking that begins when one celebrity speaks to another. This mythmaking is continued and intensified when the retorts fly back and forth. Celebrities are largely 20th century creations, but this book is concerned with most writers who have attained iconic status since Shakespeare. Equals, competitors and most important, legends in their own right jostle to have their opinions remembered. Writers perceive their lives being converted to character sketches that dwell on a plane of verbal reality. We as readers are witness to the battle of egos, the energy that is generated when one mind meets another, the admiration and the jealousy, the awe and the derision that are the byproducts of this meeting. Paradoxical and parallel trajectories come together and struggle for representation.

The sense that lingers when one has read the book is one of multiple voices seeking to be heard and the reader is faced with many questions, most significantly that of purpose. What is the objective of a volume such as this? Is Faber choosing this mode as a means of surveying authors over the last five centuries? What does it seek to achieve outside of a pastiche of anecdotes and incidents for ready reference? In a world of transient fame, when biographical criticism is out of fashion, the concept of the canon is passé and the very discipline of literature is at peril, it is certainly refreshing to read about authors as individuals with follies and foibles.

There are some discussions of literary principles as well —- Hardy talks at length about his “pessimism” to G.K Chesterton. However, none of this is new and cannot really add substantially to a body of literary criticism. Names resurface, including that of Robert Southey and Leigh Hunt, the ornaments of English literature courses, suppressed in the postmodernist, poststructuralist onslaught. In fact, the book is dotted with memorable portraits and the impressive list of names can match any history of English and American literature.

Located somewhere between an autobiography and a biography, the book provides a ready reference for anecdotes and even gossip to some extent. William Thackeray’s piece on Dickens certainly falls into this latter category.

The book can satisfy many needs in many kinds of readers, particularly those wanting to know more about the author’s persona outside of what is obvious from the literary text. Authors, in ostensibly writing about others, reveal more about themselves. However, it is important to keep in mind that most information is sketchy and unreliable, focussing on one, perhaps trivial, aspect. Few portraits are as detailed as that of T.S. Eliot by Virginia Woolf. The meetings are recounted with great care including the graph of their changing level of intimacy. Typically she ends with a flourishing prediction —- that Eliot was settling in to be a great man.

Some insights are indeed priceless including one of W.H. Auden by Paul Bowles. Auden — the serious and ostensibly anti-establishment poet of the Thirties in whose work Marx and Kierkegaard co-exist uneasily — is here revealed to be a successful administrator, housekeeper and patriarch. Bowles writes that the experiment in communal living, that he and other artists were part of, was successful largely because “he [Auden] was exceptionally adept at getting the necessary money out of us when it was due”. He saw to it that everybody was served hot and punctual meals and no arguments were allowed at the dining table!

Certain patterns and preoccupations emerge in these vignettes — the precise and almost always unflattering description of the physical features of eminent writers. Woolf writes of Katherine Mansfield, “she stinks like a civet cat that had taken to streetwalking”. According to Dos Passos, Dreiser looked like an elephant — a sensitive one, but an elephant nonetheless. These lampoons pack a punch but are far outnumbered by genteel criticism like that of Shakespeare by his younger contemporary, Ben Jonson. Jonson writes that Shakespeare is honest, has an open nature and gentle expressions. More has already been written about Shakespeare than he had ever penned, and this additional information cannot be particularly valuable. However Jonson’s patronizing tone when he writes, “His [Shakespeare’s] wit was in his own power; would the rule of it had been so too” betrays a sense of struggle between two generations of writers.

Like all legacies, literary legacies are a highly contested terrain and literary batons are not passed on without friction. The conflict between a literary parent and his or her successor is often articulated in terms of the degree of conceit displayed. This is a leitmotif that runs through the collection where authors are categorized either as self-important or self-effacing. Eliot finds Joyce acting very self-important. Galsworthy considers D.H.Lawrence too conceited whereas in a brief description, Anthony Powell writes about Galsworthy’s “boundless vanity”. Such contrapuntals abound and make this volume a delightful read. The battle of egos between Naipaul and Paul Theroux has generated a book written by Theroux, which is excerpted here. Hemingway writes about Ford Maddox Ford’s condescension towards the younger author’s art and the reader cannot overlook the subtle, tongue-in-cheek complacence. In any scheme of literary evaluation, Hemingway far outshines

Ford Maddox Ford and Hemingway can hardly suppress their thrill in having had the last word as it were. When this was published, Ford was not alive and could not defend himself against the charges of being a detestable drunkard. As evinced in the case of Hemingway, this battle of retorts is definitely won by the survivor. One cannot but appreciate the thorough research that must have gone into compiling such a book, but the question of purpose haunts. What is lacking is not in the contents of the book as much as in its putting together. The introduction — a summary sans analysis — fails to convey a raison d’être. Sean French writes about his interaction with some authors like Samuel Beckett, but he does not provide any framework within which to locate our reading.    

India and China: The Way Ahead After Mao’s India War
By C.V. Ranganathan and Vinod C. Khanna, Har-Anand, Rs 295

The 1962 India-China war calls for a novel. Only literature can explain a war neither side wanted to fight and both sides genuinely believe the other aggressed. But two Indian ex-diplomats show nonfiction can still contribute to understanding this conflict. C.V. Ranganathan and Vinod C. Khanna want Sino-Indian relations out of its present rut. Seeing 1962’s legacy as the main obstacle, most of this book dissects the war’s “chain of misperceptions and misunderstandings.”

Like earlier works by Allen Whiting and Yaacov Vertzberger, the authors tend to see Jawaharlal Nehru’s forward policy as mildly provocative and his belief China would not use force absurd. They also agree Chi-na’s military response was wholly disproportionate. The key to 1962: why did China use hammerblows against India’s pinpricks?

Nehru and Mao Zedong could not have had more different views of each other. Nehru romanticized about a resurgent Asia. Mao saw Nehru as a British imperialist — in class origin, ideology and foreign policy. That did not make war inevitable. But it made it easy for Mao to believe the worst of Nehru.

Kremlin documents show Moscow initially restraining Mao. From 1959 to 1962 Mao softpedalled the boundary dispute. The recent memoirs of General Lei Yingfeng say Mao personally ordered the Chinese withdrawal from the claim line in 1959. But after Mao crushed the pro-Soviet faction in his party in 1962, Moscow was on the enemy list.

Oblivious to all this, India enacted policies that aroused Mao’s suspicions. One was the forward policy of sending troops into disputed territory. The other was refusing to negotiate the boundaries. India made a legalistic defence, claiming “there has always existed a well defined customary and traditional boundary with China.” Beijing argued its borders were forced on China by imperialists. China would respect administrative realities, but it insisted India accept these boundaries as illegitimate. India the inheritor could not renounce British borders. China the revolutionary could not accept them.

After clashes in September 1962, Mao concluded Nehru was going to use force. Lei briefed Mao soon after. Lei said Nehru was a British neo-imperialist who had joined Moscow and Washington against China. Mao said, “These do not explain why Nehru wants an armed conflict with China.” Lei replied, “Nehru is emboldened to go so far with China because Nehru thinks that China is in no position to respond.” China was isolated, its economy a mess. Nehru, Lei claimed, had told aides China would bark but not bite. “From that point onwards Mao planned a fullscale military response.”

Mao stressed the attack was a warning,even hoping for later rapproachment, quoting a proverb, “Out of a rain of blows, friendship flows.”

The authors believe the war was avoidable. Until 1960 the dispute “had shown several instances where proposals of one side for the avoidance of conflict...were turned down by the other.” They make a strong case for the 1962 war being the result of layers of misperception.

The worst part of 1962 was its legacy. Four decades later and India and China are still fruitlessly talking about the border. The authors stress that “India is now dealing with a China which is significantly different from the Fifties and Sixties and now has an altered scheme of domestic priorities.”

But Sino-Indian relations are also distorted by another issue: Beijing’s support for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and missile programmes. Until it is clear what China’s motives are, it will not be easy to dispel India’s distrust of China. Unfortunately, the book addresses this issue only superficially. The authors loosely say Pakistan and China share a strategic perspective in south Asia. Islamabad also acts as Beijing’s go-between. But there is no sense of why this should lead to gifts of atomic bombs. However they rightly say the past decade has seen Beijing slowly distance itself from Pakistan.    

Legal Order and Mental Disorder
By Amita Dhanda, Sage, Rs 450

In the heart of Calcutta, only a few kilometres from the office of the human rights commission, live about 150 men. They are locked up for nearly 16 hours a day. They eat jail food, wear jail clothes and have no contact with the world outside. They have skin diseases, twisted nails, shaved heads, dazed looks. The place they live in is formally called the Institute of Mental Health, but everybody knows it as Alipore Special Jail. More colloquially, Pagla jail. These 150 inmates are mentally ill.

What is there in our laws to stop the mentally ill from being treated worse than criminals in sordid jails? Practically nothing. As Amita Dhanda exposes in her well researched work, when it comes to the mentally ill, the very concept of modern law — as it has evolved over the last five decades — breaks down completely. Its role is confined to being the guardian of individual rights and liberty; and an instrument of public education.

Laws on mental health are anachronistic in that their priority, like that of the colonials, is to protect society from the dangerous manifestations of mental illness. The question of dignity, liberty and civil status of the mentally ill have been virtually left unaddressed. Dhanda’s work, rich in documentation and analysis, can be valuable in understanding the systematic deprivation of the mentally ill.

The major drawback of the mental health laws, rightly Dhanda’s prime focus, is their overriding stress on institutionalization. The primary concern is regulation of the admission procedures. This has several adverse fallouts. First, the need to ensure adequate treatment in hospitals is glossed over despite reports exposing abysmal living conditions and non-existent treatment in mental hospitals.

Second, the law does not make it mandatory for the state to house the mentally ill. It leaves the selection of “a suitable place of detention” upon the government’s discretion. Without an express prohibition — given the mere recommendatory role of the human rights commission — there is little hope of guaranteeing non-criminal treatment to the mentally ill.

Third and most important, the stress on institutionalization abnegates legislation’s role in destigmatization of mental illness. Modern bio-medical science does not see sanity and insanity as discontinuous but as a part of the behavioural continuum. In India, according a survey, at least two people per 1000 in the population are suffering from mental disorder. Worldwide, in the next century, stress related mental diseases are projected to vie with cancer for the top slot among killer diseases. In Britain, stress is the number one reason for absence from work. Why then should the Mental Health Act, implemented as late as in the Nineties, seek to confine the scope of mental illness to institutions, giving a short shrift to the needs of care and rehabilitation?

The reason, says Dhanda, is that the pressure groups acting upon the lawmaking and policymaking bodies , the judiciary and medical practitioners, in their struggle to wrest greater authority, have ignored the need to empower the mentally ill. Her conclusions reconfirm the experience of activists in the area. Magistrates routinely issue orders of indefinite confinement without examining the ill, besides relying solely upon police applications and medical certificates. This has encouraged corruption in admission procedures to flourish.

Evidence by mental health professionals in court show a disturbing absence of knowledge of legal requirements. In a number of cases, Dhanda shows, doctors have breached the ethical norms of confidentiality, testifying against their patients and even producing treatment records in court.

Courts rely excessively on medical opinion while determining the nature, extent and curability of mental diseases. Medical literature cited in court are mostly foreign treatises. This brings into focus the problematic issue of cultural variations of mental illness. Dhanda argues that an overemphasis on the bio-medical view of mental illness has influenced the politics of mental health. If insanity is viewed as “disorder” rather than “dissent” (Michel Foucault) or “deviance” (Eric Fromm), the mentally ill run a greater risk of being stripped of the right to self-determination.

If mental health is to stop being a low priority area in law, education and health, its insularity must end. Where there has been cross sectional advocacy — as in Kerala, where mental health professionals, legal bodies and volunteers have joined hands — the living conditions of inmates in mental hospitals has improved. This integrated approach (and the political will to append more, do more) can change the way we look upon our mentally ill. And ourselves.    

The Path to Tranquillity: Daily Meditations
By the Dalai Lama, Viking, Rs 495

The book is a compilation of quotations selected from the dalai lama’s writings and occasional interviews and edited by Renuka Singh. She chooses them from January 1 to December 31 of a year to reflect on the great master’s spiritual and secular concerns and spread his message of universal responsibility, compassion and peace.

In each of the daily quotations, the dalai lama speaks with an endearing informality about every aspect of human life. According to him, human beings want to be happy and avoid suffering: “It is immensely valuable to cultivate and maintain a positive state of mind”. In the Buddhist tradition, one of the most effective means of doing so is by engaging in meditation. The main emphasis in Buddhism is to transform the mind, and this transformation depends on meditation.

The dalai lama shares his thoughts about science and feels scientific research and development should work together with meditative research and development since both are concerned with similar objectives.

The changing world necessitates that one retain the simple values of love and courage and understand the workings of the mind in order not to lose one’s grasp over the sense of reality. One of the gems of the great man’s wisdom runs like this: “If there is love, there is hope to have real families, real brotherhood, real equanimity, real peace. If the love within your mind is lost, if you continue to see other beings as enemies, then no matter how much knowledge or education you have, no matter how much material progress is made, only suffering and confusion will ensue...The foundation of all spiritual practice is love.”

Religion is important in the dalai lama’s scheme of things because it provides serenity, discipline, detachment and self-control. Politicians need religion even more than a hermit. Selfishness of mind, on the other hand, causes ignorances, anger, passion — the root of all troubles.

According to the dalai lama, man and society are interdependent. Hence the quality of man’s behaviour as an individual and as a participant in his society are inseparable. Attempted reparations to lessen the malaise and dysfunctional attitude of our societies have been targeted to build a society which is more just and equal. Unfortunately most noble objectives to combat the myriad social problems have been defeated by man’s inherent self-interest.

Tenzing Gyatso, the 14th dalai lama, has rightly observed that in order to meet the challenge of the new millennium, men will have to develop a sense of universal responsibility.

The quotations reveal each man is equally entitled to happiness, justice and equality, but these should derive from altruism and should not be corroded by the stations of power and wealth. To build up such an altruistic motivation so that justice and equality may coexist, the creation of a strong moral fabric is a prerequisite.

The quotations in this book reflect the dalai lama’s inclusive vision of the world. In spite of accepting the unhappy state of modern life, he is a firm believer in the essential goodness of human hearts. The reflections are wise, humane and inspiring. Also appealing are the message of hope and the deep yet easily comprehensible philosophy of compassion and nonviolence.    

Beyond the Frontier: The Politics of a Failed Mission, Bulgaria, 1944
By E.P. Thompson, Stanford, $ 13.95

A small event pushed out even from the margins and the footnotes can be used to prise open larger questions of historiography, of evidence, of the relationship of process to event. The late E.P. Thompson attempted to do this in the Camp Lectures in Stanford University in 1981. The lectures, now put together by his wife, Dorothy, make fascinating reading and add conviction to the belief shared by many that Thompson was one of the finest historians of the 20th century.

The story is about a British mission that went into Bulgaria during World War II to organize and fight with the Bulgarian partisans. Operating under desperate conditions, most of its members were either captured or killed. Among those killed was Major Frank Thompson who after the death of his superior officer had been forced to assume command. Frank Thompson was only 23 when he died and he was none other than the author’s elder brother.

The partisan movement has been dealt with ungenerously in Western historiography and has been eulogized in Bulgaria. Bulgaria in the war was an Axis ally but was not with the Soviet Union. There were elements of pro-Russian and pan-Slavic sentiments within large sections of the population. There was no German army of occupation in Bulgaria. The Bulgarian partisan movement, unlike its Yugoslavian counterpart, was thus engaged not in a national uprising against foreign occupation but in a direct insurrectionary action against its own government. It operated in conditions of almost impossible difficulty.

Frank Thompson went to Winchester and to New College. He was a classicist with a rare gift for languages. He was a vintage Wykehamist: “that curious freemasonry of self-assured intellectuals” dedicated to service and certain values. It was this background and the experience of the Thirties — rise of fascism, the Depression and the Spanish Civil War — which made Frank a communist. But his communism was far removed from the dogmatic and doctrinaire ideology that emanated from Moscow. E.P. Thompson is very good at rescuing this unique sensibility from the stereotype imposed upon it by the Cold War.

He writes, “The basis for the commitment lay in an internationalist anti-fascist contestation, in an era of Western ruling-class appeasement, non-intervention (but effective complicity with reaction) in Spain, tenacious and oppressive imperial rule in the dependencies of all the imperialist nations, racial segregation and oppression in the United States, and in all countries ruling class inertia in the face of depression, unemployment and severe social hardship. The Left understood, publicized and opposed the advance of Nazism and Fascism, and the persecution of Jews, intellectuals and oppositionists of all kinds in Germany and Italy and parts of the Balkans.”

Frank Thompson remained in the army despite Moscow’s announcement that it was an imperialist war and the notorious Russo-German no aggression pact. He was recruited to the Special Operations Executive after it was set up by Churchill in 1940 and was parachuted into Serbia in January 1944. E.P. Thompson pieces together the subsequent story from records (much of which on the British side has been weeded out), from oral testimony, from memoirs of those fought in the sector, his brother’s letters home to his parents, his brother and to Iris Murdoch and a diary that was found among his papers which were returned after his death.

The available evidence exposes the fact that Frank was left in hostile terrain without back-up and adequate orders. Her Majesty’s government knew that he and his comrades were facing certain capture, torture and execution. There was more here than indifference produced by the hazards of war. By the middle of June when Frank was executed after a show trial, both the British and the Soviets had lost interest in an insurrection in Bulgaria. A small group seemed expendable. Frank Thompson may have been a victim of the mendacity of two states set to emerge into the Cold War.

Was Frank Thompson then appropriated by and lost in the great impersonal processes of history? His brother, the historian par excellence, does not see history as closed and resolved. It remains a field of unfinished possibilities from which the present can choose. It is here that the lives and sensibilities of men like Frank Thompson have contemporary significance for their commitment was to an internationalism and to a unified Europe. It was a utopian moment, “a symbol of the possible which tower(s) above the poverty of the present.”    


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