Editorial 1/Divided in terror
Editorial 2/Unpacific isle
Touching others
Letters to the Editor

Retaliation makes insurgency impossibly self-perpetuating. Particularly in Tripura, a state that has stepped in blood so far that its civil society seems to have come to a terrifyingly unmanageable point of no return. In the incessant ethnic violence that has intensified recently in the Khowai subdivision — about 48 killed in the last four days — a new, dangerous though inevitable, element is to be noted. The non-tribals — traditionally the victims of massacre, abduction, arson, looting and widespread displacement — are showing signs of organized violent retaliation. Since last November, there have been nine attacks on tribals, killing about 20, by the United Bengali Liberation Force — mostly using crude, hand-made bombs and, recently, the lynching of three tribals caught looting deserted non-tribal houses. The UBLF is still a ragtag outfit of young non-tribals, lacking the extensive and relatively sophisticated reinforcements and experience of the National Liberation Front of Tripura militants. But this incipience of revenge can only be deeply alarming for the already desensitized and demoralized counter-insurgency forces in the state. Security personnel — the Central Reserve Police Force, the army, Assam Rifles or Tripura State Rifles — are already showing signs, not only of sustained ineffectuality, but also of callousness and inertia. With almost no securities guaranteed to their families or survivors and a complete absence of any Kargil-type fanfare around their seemingly endless vigil, this is perhaps not surprising. If they have been so far unable to root out one militant outfit, having two on their plate has to bode grimly.

The recent survey visit of the chief of the army’s third corps, Lieutenant General R.K. Nanavati, and the appointment of a new director general of police cannot, however, disguise the Centre’s clueless, politically uninterested, evasive and procrastinatory non-handling of the situation. Scoring a hackneyed political point by repeatedly blaming the state government, the Centre’s perpetual contemplations and considerations have now resulted in putting off decisive action — putting the entire state under the Disturbed Areas Act and initiating larger scale induction of the army — until June 16, when it will have to appoint a new governor in Tripura. Moreover, it is difficult to be optimistic about the latest noises made by the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura, wanting to help the Centre initiate peace talks with the various militant outfits in the state, following the Nagaland model. The run-up to and the fallout of their victory in the recent Autonomous District Council elections have been simply too devastating for the people of Tripura, tribal or non-tribal, for this newly formed party to inspire any trust. Meanwhile, caught between political factiousness, Central apathy, ineffectual military deployment, fathomless economic deprivation, and now divided against itself, Tripura remains trapped in the vicious circle of ethnic terrorism.    

The decision of the great council of native Fijian chiefs to urge the release of the hostage Fijian prime minister, Mr Mahendra Chaudhry, will bring more pressure on Mr George Speight to seek a nonviolent end to his attempted coup. This will not solve the fact most native Fijians are unwilling to tolerate an Indian Fijian at the helm of political affairs, even if he was democratically elected. The present debate is within the native Fijian leadership. Moderates like the president, Mr Kamisese Mara, argue that if Mr Chaudhry is overthrown by force there would be serious international repercussions. Hardliners like Mr Speight seem to want a constitutional guarantee that an Indian Fijian should never become prime minister again — the presidency is already reserved for native Fijians. Even Mr Mara seems inclined to let Mr Chaudhry’s government fall. He merely believes it cannot be done through a coup. Fiji cannot afford to damage its shaky democratic credentials further. The chiefs’ endorsement of Mr Mara tilts the balance in his favour. But Mr Speight has the hostages, guns and some native Fijian support.

Native Fijians have repeatedly altered the constitution, normally after a coup, to strengthen their hold on political power. The present move seems to have been triggered by the renegotiation of land rights. Native Fijians own most of the land on the island. However, it is Indians who work the land. Most of the land was given to Indians on 99 year leases. Many leases are due to expire in the next few years. Native Fijians want the new leases to be of much shorter duration. The Indians would prefer long leases, if not outright ownership. Mr Chaudhry was elected during a sensitive time for Fiji. The fear he might ensure land rights go the Indian way is a key reason for Mr Speight’s popularity. The native Fijian demand for shorter leases is reasonable. However, the manner in which they have sought to even avoid a debate on the issue is reprehensible. There is little India can or should do. Overseas ethnic communities whose ancestors happen to be from the subcontinent are not New Delhi’s responsibility. India can and should be in the business of promoting democracy and opposing the overthrow of elected governments. Native Fijians take pride in their Commonwealth membership and their role in United Nations peacekeeping operations. If, as seems likely, Mr Chaudhry is forced to step down from office one way or another and the Fijian constitution is further amended, India should demand Fiji’s suspension from the Commonwealth and seek to block the use of Fijian troops in UN operations. These are symbolic acts but curiously may do more damage to native Fijian sentiments than, say, economic sanctions which would hurt Indian Fijians the most.    

Some months ago, in its “India Matters” segment, Star News reported on the continued practice of untouchability in a part of Tamil Nadu. Like most of the reports in this segment, this was an instructive piece, documenting an aspect of everyday life that escapes the attention of most people, especially in urban areas where this news programme is widely watched.

In the presentation of the report to the viewer, however, something curious happened. The reporter is interviewing a labourer who says that the roadside tea-stalls, for instance, either refuse to serve Dalits, or keep aside a cup for their exclusive use. He says, in Tamil: “Oru kappu tee kadikkiradekashtamapochi.” A close translation of this remark would be as follows: “It is/has become difficult to get even a cup of tea.”

However, the translation provided by the news programme was embellished with the insinuation of another desire, rendering the cup of tea itself immaterial. It said, “We cannot even have a cup of tea with them.” This is not so much a translation error as an ideological slip. To put it simply, the expression of a need (and the difficulty of its fulfilment) has been converted by the translator into an expression of desire.

An objective observation has been given a subjective supplement, embedded in a projected fantasy. The labourer’s words could be interpreted as a complaint against the tea-stall owners for refusing to serve him tea, but the translator implies that he is actually more concerned about the refusal of the upper caste customers to let him share their company. To the stated object, “cup of tea” the translator adds the implied object: to have tea with “them”. The subject too has changed: the grammatical subject “it” has been replaced by the collective “we”, thereby transforming the speaker into a spokesman.

Language is a treacherous, slippery field. It does not remain a neutral “instrument” to be used by us as we please. And it twists our meanings around until we can no longer know whether we are speaking it or it is speaking through us.

Thus the desire attributed to the Dalit turns out to be the desire of the Other. For what do we have here if not an ideological belief intruding upon the task of translation, revealing thereby the prevalence among us of a particular understanding of what caste and the project for its elimination is all about? We should not make the translator a scapegoat: he has only rendered visible something with a far wider currency.

The fantasy scenario within which the Dalit struggle against caste oppression becomes “agreeable” to the rest of us is supplied by the translator. That scenario can be captured in the following formula: “The Dalit struggle is worthy because it stems from their desire to be like or equal to ‘us’.”

Such a fantasy is by no means peculiar to India. It has been expressed in South Africa, where the blacks are said to want no more than to be treated as equals by the whites, and in the United States, in relation to the black minority. It is the fantasy that animated the reformist narratives of the nationalist era, like that of the film Sujata.

That satellite television could be hospitable to such a reformist gaze is possibly the only surprise here. In any case, in a democratic polity marked by struggles to achieve the constitutional ideals, it is a matter of great importance to understand what models of equality prevail in the popular mind. And in this formulation we have discovered one model which is probably unconsciously adhered to by many, and which is distinguished by its “imaginary” structure, that is to say, a structure predicated on a two-way relationship where each is working with a certain “image” of the other.

Let us then juxtapose two models of equality and reflect upon their respective consequences. The first one, which we discovered above states the following: Dalits, considered an inferior group of people under the caste system, are now aspiring for equality with other castes. They want to be “considered” equal to all others, to be “treated” as fellow human beings by upper caste people. “They want to have tea with us.”

In other words, they look to their superiors for a recognition of their fundamental humanity. Their cry is: “Treat us like human beings, treat us as your equals.”

This is the “imaginary” scenario where the encounter is between two groups, two entities. Equality is here defined as that state which results from the shedding of hierarchical prejudices by the upper castes, who pull the lowly Dalit up into their domain, give him permission to sit at their table.

Another scenario could be stated thus: There is a law of equality in the land; by virtue of this law, all are already equal. Equality here is a legislated fact. It is not achieved by elevating or pulling down one group to the level of another.

No “consideration” or “treatment” is called for, merely an adherence to the law. It is declared as an objective state. It is not a state of being that a Dalit must achieve by imitating or aspiring for the life of the upper-caste person. It is a “symbolic” equality, which comes to be in a flash, and has the force of an absolute, non-negotiable injunction.

If the Dalit were to speak within the discourse generated by this model of equality, he would not appeal to anyone for recognition, but rather say, “All are equal in the eyes of the law. What eyes are these, then, that look at me from some other perspective than the one imposed by the law? Where do they come from?” His desire would be to get a cup of tea at a place that sells tea on a government licence, not to rub shoulders with someone who considers himself superior to him.

The law thus enables the subject to walk out of the stiflingly two-sided imaginary relation in which he was trapped. Equality is precisely that condition in which there is a third element, foreign to both parties, through which their relations are mediated: the state. But the imaginary relation has its seductions, it is after all the one that arises through everyday human interaction.

It is arguable that as long as real inequalities exist, the imaginary model of equality will survive in some form underneath the symbolic model. Dalits themselves may not be entirely immune to the seductions of that relation and there may exist a reciprocal fantasy. But it is mainly for the upper-caste subject that the fantasy of the Other’s desire to be equal to him provides an agreeable way of dealing with the anxieties generated by caste conflict.

Above all, this fantasy helps to disavow a most unpleasant possibility: that for the Dalit,equality may not be predicated on the continued dependence on upper-caste role models, that when a Dalit demands a cup of tea, he may actually want nothing more than just a cup of tea. What the man on television said was a complaint addressed to the law, not a plea for love and recognition addressed to his betters.

The author is senior fellow, Centre for the Study of Culture and Society    


Look before the leap

Sir — When will the overgrown boys in South Block stop using the Indian soldiers as cardboard pieces? The blood of our young soldiers is still fresh on the ice peaks of Kargil and the jawans are once again in battle preparedness for another suicide mission (“Indian forces on Lanka alert”, May 23). Do the people of India realize the armed forces are being made to pay for the the political bungling of a government which cannot see beyond its own precious nose? Had it not been for this peculiar myopia — which incidentally made it miss the thousands of Pakistan trained infiltrators happily making bunkers in Kargil — the Bharatiya Janata Party would have realized how surely it would burn its fingers in the Sri Lankan mess. Does Atal Behari Vajpayee need to be reminded that the Tamil Tigers have never wasted much energy on keeping their word and that the Indian government should at least wait for a summons from the Sri Lankan government itself before ordering its soldiers to leap to death?

Yours faithfully,
Jayanta Mitra, Calcutta

Air waves

Sir — At every opportune moment our leaders deride the military and “rogue” rulers in Pakistan. But we have plenty of this breed among those of us who wear khadi, Nehru topis and use mobile phones. This was obvious from the striptease performed behind the democratic veil on May 12, when a few parliamentarians from Bihar decided to take the flight home (“Bihar MPs in hurry hijack plane home”, May 19).

But can these politicians be blamed in isolation? The country’s citizens are equally to blame for letting things come to such a pass. A nation gets the leaders it deserves. Why do we just have a cynical laugh over incidents like these and then sink into our private lives? What we lack is a national character. Winston Churchill was probably right to have noted that India would one day be ruled by rogues and rascals. It is hard to believe that a weeping Lal Bahadur Shastri had once tendered his resignation over a rail accident. Today we have a Union civil aviation minister catering to the outrageous demand of his colleagues.

The basic tenet of democracy is equality before law. Why should a person parking his car on the pavement be fined while a bunch of members of parliament get away after hijacking a plane to their chosen destination? Why should a local thug be arrested for pelting soda bottles while parliamentarians are not even suspended for turning the assembly into a battlefield? Exemplary and immediate punishment of the errant parliamentarians is called for. But it is better to ask for the moon, isn’t it?

Yours faithfully,
Anand Kumar Jhunjhunwala, Calcutta

Sir — The recent incident whereby an Alliance Air flight was forced to change course to please a handful of power-drunk politicians establishes yet again the sordid state of the world’s largest democracy. What is more shocking is the unity among these politicians when they decide to break codes of civilized behaviour. They conveniently forget inter-party squabbles and exhibit the kind of solidarity which would have done the nation a whole lot of good had it been used in the right instances. These so called elected representatives of the masses think that after having secured the mandate (by means not always legal), they have attained to the privilege of bypassing the law. This, not merely for themselves, but also for the members of their families and cronies. During the exhibition of brash power, these politicians conveniently forget the existence of the same people from whom they had begged the mandate not too long ago. For reasons obvious to all, this incident will be brushed under the carpet in the name of an official inquiry whose report may never see the light of the day.

Yours faithfully,
S. Basu, via e-mail

Sir — The hijacking of the Alliance Air flight bound for Lucknow to Patna was disgraceful but not unbelievable. After all it involved MPs from Bihar who probably believe they are following the noble example set by the chief minister of the state. Earlier we believed the goonda raj symptomatic of Bihar was confined to its borders. The ferocity with which Bihar’s parliamentarians carried out their objective shows their “influence” has spread far and wide.

It is good to see the media feels responsible enough to give front page coverage to incidents which have become routine by now. Only public protest against such political highhandedness can make MPs understand such uncivil behaviour will not be tolerated.

Yours faithfully,
Hemal Panchamia, via e-mail

Sir — When MPs start hijacking planes, we do not need hardcore terrorists to do the job any more. We blame Pakistan for training militants to destroy the peace of our country. Bihar seems to be doing an equally good job of training politicians to destroy the peace of mind of common citizens. It is a shame that the civil aviation minister, Sharad Yadav, had such a big hand in this high voltage drama enacted by the MPs from Bihar. If the principal of an institution starts breaking rules himself what are students expected to do?

Yours faithfully,
Sushma Jalan, Calcutta

Sir — It is unfortunate the report “Bihar MPs in hurry hijack plane home” says flight CD-7411 of May 12 was hijacked. We would like to clarify the flight which operates Delhi-Lucknow-Patna-Calcutta was rerouted to fly to Patna first, over-flying Lucknow.

The flight, scheduled to leave at 1740 hours was initially delayed because of heavy rains and dust storms at Delhi airport. Subsequently, after take-off, a passenger complained of chest pains and the aircraft had to be taken back to Delhi to offload the sick passenger. The flight was further delayed at Delhi as there was no parking space available at Lucknow airport because of the diversion of Sahara and Jet airways flights to Lucknow airport. Several other flights to Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore and other places were delayed for inclement weather.

The civil aviation minister visited the airport to check the arrangements being made for the stranded passengers. Accordingly, the revised departure time of the flight was fixed at 2145 hours. Since watch hours available at Patna airport are only till 2300 hours and the air traffic controllers did not extend them to allow normal routing, the flight could not have landed at Patna had it followed its normal route. It was because of this and to avoid inconvenience to passengers travelling to and from Patna, that it was decided to change the route of the flight. It may be mentioned that rerouting of flights is not uncommon in the airline industry.

Yours faithfully,
A.K. Vasisht, deputy general manager, public relations, Indian Airlines, New Delhi

Matter of principal

Sir — The report, “Police blink at sex abuse” (May 6), by your special correspondent in Patna mentions an emergency meeting convened by the bishop at his house on May 5 to discuss the recent happenings at St Xavier’s school. We wish to go on record that no such meeting ever took place in the bishop’s house, neither did the archbishop, Benedict J. Osta, issue any statement on the matter to the press. We contacted the Patna correspondent, Tapas Chakraborty, and appraised him of the matter.

The principal and administration of St Xavier’s are competent to deal with the allegations and issue any statements or clarifications. The school has dealt with the situation in its own way by calling a parent-teacher meeting, the outcome of which could best be ascertained from the Xavier’s Parents-Teachers Association. We are deeply hurt that a newspaper of your standing should have published such a report without confirming the facts.

Yours faithfully,
Allen R. Johannes, press secretary, archdiocese of Patna, Bankipore/dt>

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