Editorial 1/ Fair Deal
Editorial 2/ Never say retire
Divorce counsellor
Fifth Column/ a shadow between proposal and act
Letters to the Editor

If a divorced Muslim woman could receive maintenance from her husband till she remarries it would cause a minor revolution in Muslim society. The Calcutta high court has made this revolution possible. It has ruled that Ms Shakila Parveen, an appellant, will get alimony beyond the iddat period of three months and 13 days after the divorce, that is, until such time as she remarries. The high court overturned the ruling of the Sealdah sub-divisional magistrate’s court that Ms Parveen could be returned the den mehr or dowry, but would not be eligible for maintenance after the iddat period. The new judgment marks a watershed in rulings regarding divorced Muslim women. The first such case to cause fevered controversy was the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Shah Bano case in 1985. There too, the appellant was granted maintenance beyond three months. The furious objections to women continuing to receive maintenance beyond three months that came from orthodox leaders of the community made the government of the time, headed by Rajiv Gandhi, think twice. Parliament passed the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986. Its phrasing left the matter open to interpretation by the community. It was thus an indirect return to the iddat regime. Some court rulings since then have interpreted the 1986 act in line with those sections of the criminal procedure code which allow a divorced woman maintenance, but have not laid down any specific period to counter the three month limit. The judgment by Mr Basudev Panigrahi, the judge in this case, has clearly defined the period for which maintenance should be granted a divorced woman. By extension, if a woman does not remarry, alimony is for life. 

Fifteen years is a long time. The fate of the judgment will indicate how far Indian society has travelled in these years. There is greater awareness of — and consequently greater pressure to right — the gender inequalities imposed by personal laws of various religious communities. The high court judgment comes hard on the heels of recommendations by the national commission for women to the Central government to put a stop to the practice of verbal triple talaaq, something that Ms Parveen was reportedly subject to, and to change the practice of three month alimony for divorced Muslim women. There is more articulate and vocal social opinion on the issue than there was in 1985. This might help real change within the community, because a ruling by itself can do little to alter everyday social practice. It is there for reference, stating on an ideal level what is just.

The implicit contradiction between two constitutional principles, of equality and of non-intervention in religion, has created strange anomalies. Women from the minority communities, whether Christian or Muslim, often have to abide by personal laws which put them at a disadvantage while reforms through legislation have been made in the majority religion with some success. Political expediency and perhaps a genuine desire not to upset minority sentiments have prevented reforms which appear to interfere with personal laws. The recent judgment shows the way to a fair and rational approach to providing equal status to all citizens. It is to be hoped that people’s opinion this time will be able to defeat the operation of vested interests from every side. 

An old communist never retires, he goes on fighting for the revolution even if the struggle is now confined to the ballot box. Mr Jyoti Basu, who must be among the oldest communists alive in the world today, has more than once expressed his desire to retire from politics. But the demands of his party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), have taken precedence over his personal wishes and even at times over his health. The old warhorse has once again been drawn into the fray to lead the campaign. Mr Basu announced that he would campaign for Left Front candidates in the forthcoming civic polls. Mr Basu admitted that leaders of the CPI(M) wanted his full participation in the campaigning and Mr Basu is not one to fight shy of that responsibility. This demand for Mr Basu is obviously related to the reverses the left has suffered recently in West Bengal. Here the unkindest cut of all was the loss of the Lok Sabha byelection in Panskura to the Trinamool Congress. The Left Front has no other card up its sleeve except the Basu card. It is obvious to any observer that the left’s popularity is on the wane. Abuse of power, rank inefficiency and incumbency are some of the reasons for the decline. The gainer has been Ms Mamata Banerjee and her party, the Trinamool Congress, which is seen as the only party seriously opposed to the left in West Bengal. Faced with decline and the rise of a vocal and militant rival, the left has been forced to summon up an octogenarian who has done all but plead to be free from the hurlyburly of politics.

This plight of the left and more specifically of the CPI(M) reveals the seriousness of its myopia. The left has failed to produce another leader who has the public standing that Mr Basu enjoys. The entire leadership of the CPI(M) in West Bengal is more adept at backroom politicking and intrigue than at winning elections. If communists were spiritualists then this dependence on Mr Basu could be attributed to their belief in his immortality. Since communists are atheists, the dependence on him can only be attributed to their incompetence. Nobody in the CPI(M) has addressed the question of politics or elections without Mr Basu. This is Mr Basu’s strength and his party’s weakness. 

An ubiquitous ignorance of Tamil political culture within large chunks of India’s media and polity has resulted in a completely avoidable controversy over remarks made by the Tamil Nadu chief minister, M. Karunanidhi, during a function to mark his birthday. Unable or unwilling to put matters and issues in a clear historical perspective, always looking for the dramatic sound bite, the media often comes a cropper when handling subjects that require complex analysis. Unfortunately, this is a trend rather than an exception. Perhaps it should not have been a surprise that the media and some politicians went to town over some observations by Karunanidhi on Sri Lanka. 

What the chief minister simply said, to paraphrase him, was that if a marriage is under strain because of constant quarrelling then it is better for the partners to go their separate ways. The same rule could be applied to Sri Lanka — with the Tamil and Sinhala going his or her own way as happened between the Czech and the Slovak.

Merely a fortnight earlier, he had come down heavily on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, virtually calling it enemies of their own people for the number of Tamils, both the ordinary and the outstanding, who had been murdered at Velupillai Prabhakaran’s orders.

Applying these two statements to the ground situation in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, and putting them in the context of Tamil political culture, can it even remotely be construed that the chief minister is asking for a solution according to the LTTE’s way of thinking? Given his clear antipathy for the LTTE, and that it is the only group continuing to look for a violent solution to the ethnic problem in the island, can he be regarded as having endorsed its position as a solution?

Through a process of assassination and annihilation, the LTTE has virtually finished other Tamil movements and political parties on the island. It is thus pretty much the only Tamil opposition left in the Sinhala state. By fear or favour, the LTTE is indeed the largest representative of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. But that has not endeared the terrorist organization to Karunanidhi.

When his statements are looked at collectively, he is saying a lot more than what the media or political leadership have been able to comprehend.

If a marriage is under strain, it would be logical that both parties would have to go their separate ways. That was the case between the Czechs and the Slovaks, placed together by an accident of history, and who went their separate ways peacefully. One of mankind’s only velvet divorces.

The flip side to this logic is that it would also take both the quarrelling partners to want to divorce for Sri Lanka to be separated into two. The LTTE says it represents most Tamils, through the barrel of a gun. It argues that the Tamils want a divorce. Chandrika Kumaratunga’s government represents the rest of the island as a consequence of the ballot and clearly does not support separation. The onus, logically enough, is on the partner not wanting a divorce to do something, make the extra effort, so as to save the marriage. In this regard the onus is clearly on the Sri Lankan government and the Sinhalese people. 

Contrary to common perception, Jaffna is not falling and nor is it likely to fall in the near future. The doubts raised earlier about the Sri Lankan armed forces’ morale, motivation, firepower and manoeuvre have been put to rest by some fairly simple but well coordinated moves by the military leadership at the ground level. This has stiffened the resolve, allowing for the essential counterattacks on LTTE positions, which are critical for the military if there is to be a line of defence.

The LTTE expended a considerable amount of its manpower, ammunition and hardware in the latest bout of fighting. Even with the subvention of a mysterious state benefactor, the LTTE is unlikely to improve its position to the point it can dislodge the Sri Lankan state from the north and east of the island. The foreign state benefactor can only assure the LTTE of military hardware, not the manpower needed to convert that equipment into a victory.

The LTTE may even continue to score psychological points through terrorist actions like the recent murder of Clement Gunaratne, the minister of industrial development in the Kumaratunga government. But such actions cannot deliver Jaffna or eelam, to the LTTE. A stalemate can thus be assumed. A stalemate like the current one, in which the stature of both parties remains in reasonable order, is the best block from which to build a peaceful solution. But, to repeat, the onus is still on the Sri Lankan state and the Sinhala people.

Kumaratunga came to power on a ticket of peace, battling immense odds because of opposition from chauvinist elements within both the Sinhala and Tamil communities. Her credentials are impeccable when it comes to the vision of peace. She now has an opportunity to translate vision into reality. The stalemate in Jaffna has given a cover of prestige to both warring sides.

This is thus the opportune time to bring both sides with their egos reasonably intact to the negotiating table. When neither side feels it is the loser, the willingness to listen, bargain and then deliver peace, is that much more.

Kumaratunga must prepare the Sinhalese for a negotiated settlement. There are elements within the Sri Lankan state who will resist, just as sections of the Buddhist clergy will. The clergy should never really be allowed to settle policy anywhere. But she has to ride over these characters, and she must be helped to do so, by the world generally and by India specifically. 

After a careful observation of events as they have unfolded, the Indian government has finally decided to begin its bit to bring peace to the island. This is of course the eminently sensible path to take. The splurge of accords of the Eighties came to naught. The bloody fiasco they left as their legacy is still alive in popular memory. An Indian government comprising those who had opposed the processes of the Eighties is, in that sense, the best regime to offer a credible solution.

India’s credentials are above board. Now it is up to the world community to show its credentials, and begin the process of clamping down on the LTTE’s global network. It is only when definitive measures are taken that the LTTE will feel the pinch to deliver peace. It is only then the chauvinist elements among the Sinhalese will begin to see sense in peace. The Sinhalese have their loutish equivalents of George Speight, a person who took a perfectly tranquil Fiji and turned it into an ethnic gladiatorial arena.

When the time comes to deliver peace in Sri Lanka, the Sinhala Speights are likely to come alive, that is if they still see the world community as powerless and indecisive. There can be no compromise with the louts anywhere, just as there can be no compromise on peace, for there is no velvet solution to Sri Lanka’s frayed marriage. 

The proposed legislation on Christian marriages is a double-edged sword in the hands of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government. Posing as a saviour of “exploited” Christians, the BJP is in fact talking about the issue of conversions to Christianity. 

The government had invited 15 Christian organizations and 22 Christian members of Parliament to discuss the proposed amendments to the Christian Marriages Act and prepare the ground for the introduction of the Christian marriages bill 2000. It seemed the government wanted to dispel Christians’ fears that it had any designs against them. However, neither the description of the minister of state for law, O. Rajagopal, of the meeting as, “positive and encouraging”, nor the law ministry’s claim that “a broad consensus has been arrived,” sounds convincing. 

The assertion of the law minister, Ram Jethmalani, that the secular authority in a welfare state had the mandate to regulate such procedures, reveals the BJP’s anxiety to ensure it is not accused of interfering with Christian personal law. Meddling with personal and civil law carries the risk of hurting religious sentiments. The proposal to amend the Christian Marriages Act could not have come at a worse time, given Christians and churches are under a sustained attack by Hindutva forces. 

Clause for concern

Rajagopal first announced the proposed amendment last November in Kerala which has a sizeable Christian population. There are over 50,000 divorce cases pending under the Christian Marriages Act in Kerala and there is no love lost between the ruling Marxists and the Catholic church there. The BJP thus wanted to seize the chance to project itself as a concerned, secular and progressive party.

Though, Bishop Donald de Souza, secretary general of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, claimed that “churches have long become progressive and are allowing inter-religious marriages”, Christian marriages continue to be governed by the Christian Marriages Act, 1872.

The chief objection of the church stems from a clause in the proposed bill which stipulates that only marriages in which both partners are Christians would be recognized. If one of them is a non-Christian, the marriage would come under the Special Marriages Act. This proposal is being seen as a ploy to curb conversions and implement a hidden Hindutva agenda by preventing inter-religious marriages. The Delhi archbishop, Alan de Lastic, made it clear that Catholics would not agree to the objectionable clause and forced Jethmalani to set up a subcommittee to sort out the issue. 

Cross purposes

Caught in the crossfire between the church and the government are Christian women. Jyotsna Chatterjee, director of the joint women’s programme, prepared the draft of the government’s amendment bill. She advocated changes in the Christian marriages bill, 1972, and asked for an early legislation since the provisions of the bill for the first time accorded Christian women equal legal status as men. 

An early passage of the bill is possible by removing the offensive clause and obtaining the consent of the National Council of Churches of India. With pressure mounting on the government to repeal the existing act, legislation on the amended bill may not be difficult.

Christian institutions also strongly oppose the provision in the bill which treats the clergy who solemnize marriages in church at par with the civil registrar who conducts marriages. According to the church, religious and civic authorities cannot be granted the same legal status in matters concerning personal law. 

In Christian personal law, marriage, divorce and inheritance have different legal status. For example, de Lastic declared the bringing of marriage and divorce under one comprehensive act as unnecessary. Matters are complicated by the fact that the Catholic church has not yet been reconciled to divorce. 

The Christian Divorce Act, 1869, is weighed heavily against women. The act favours men who can get divorce on the ground of desertion or adultery. But a wife can only do so on grounds of cruelty, insanity, desertion, adultery, incest or bigamy. The new bill attempts to correct this gender imbalance. Hence, Christian women do not want to let go of this unique opportunity. 


Purge strategies

Sir — What is this holier-than-thou attitude that the South African cricket chief, Ali Bacher, is projecting to the media (“Mud on Indo-Pak tie” June 13)? His allegations that the World Cup ties between India-Pakistan and Pakistan-Bangladesh were fixed, and that umpiring in the final test between South Africa and England in the 1998 series was questionable can only explain one thing: Bacher is trying to make up for the slander his country has had to face after the Hansie Cronje debacle. Now that South Africa, with its clean image in the cricket circuit, has fallen from grace, it is time for Bacher to make amends. Or else, why did he, like others, keep mum all this while, knowing full well that these matches were fixed, when he gathered the information from former Pakistan opener, Majid Khan, a year ago? He is also unnecessarily creating suspense before revealing the name of a certain bookmaker, Mr R, all in a bid to “purge the game of cricket once and for all of this cancer”. Now that the grapevine has it that Bacher himself is involved in matchfixing, doesn’t this “well meant” statement sound similar to Manoj Prabhakar’s endeavours? 

Yours faithfully, 
Jayita Kar, Calcutta

Out of order

Sir — Amar Krishna Paul in “Bytes among the bullets” (May 25) discusses Assam’s forays into information technology territory. He gives the plus points of the Assam state government’s info-tech policy and the tremendous potential of this sector in furthering socio-economic progress. Paul however does not talk about the infrastructure required to prop up the info-tech industry which would include an efficient network of electricity supply and telecommunications. Assam’s failure in both these sectors is well known. 

This part of the country is infamous for its power cuts. Internet connection is available in Guwahati and Silchar with a population of 12 lakhs and five lakhs respectively. Paul is obviously not aware that Assam is still wallowing in chauvinism, while the rest of the world has gone digital.

The integrated services digital network Paul talks about is not available here and it would be a fantasy to think of ISDN facilities. Paul needs to be informed that it takes about a couple of hours to log in to the internet in Guwahati. The cyber revolution and the “connectivity” that comes with it are still a distant dream.

Yours faithfully,
Miftahul Hussain, Guwahati

Sir — The tripartite committee comprising the All Assam Students’ Union, the state government and the Central government had agreed to implement clause six of the Assam accord signed in 1985 between AASU and Rajiv Gandhi. The clause required the Central government to make adequate provisions to safeguard the interests of the indigenous people of Assam. 

These people were vastly outnumbered because of the policies of the Congress government which promoted unabated immigration to augment its votebank. Years later, people with vested interests are once again raking up the debate on who are the “indigenous” people. Yet, the subject had been thoroughly debated on and a definition arrived at as far back as 1950.

According to a conference of the superintendents of census of all states of India, “indigenous people of Assam” meant a person belonging to the state and speaking Assamese, or any tribal dialect of Assam, or in the case of Suma Valley, the language of the region. The Central government should adhere to the definition and protect the ethnic identity of the Assamese.

Yours faithfully,
Jibon Saikia, Guwahati



Sir — I wonder if the home minister, L.K. Advani, is at all aware of the situation in Assam. Its resources of tea and oil are the only reason Assam gets the attention of the Central government. Otherwise, it is a forgotten state. For what other reason can the Centre turn a blind eye to the fact that Assam remains in the clutches of the surrendered cadres of the United Liberation Front of Asom? The state and the Central government can feel proud about bringing the ULFA back to the mainstream. But SULFA depredations belie their claims.

Former cadres of the ULFA are the new mafia of Assam. They roam around with AK-47s, run extortion rackets, threaten businessmen and terrorize ordinary people. The police, as usual, is hand in glove with them. 

If the Asom Gana Parishad government is unable to control the menace, it should be dismissed. If the SULFA can carry firearms, people should also be allowed to carry weapons for self-protection. Unless the problem is tackled immediately, the situation is bound to turn explosive again in the state.

Yours faithfully,
Utpal Sharma, Guwahati

In whose interest?

Sir — Retired people, especially those who served in the private sector, have become victims of the liberalization policy in the country. Under pressure from the World Bank and in keeping with global rules, the government of India is drastically slashing interest rates in banks and post offices. It is true that in advanced countries bank interest rates are much lower than that in our country. But it needs to be mentioned, the former have social securities, better healthcare systems and senior citizen benefits. 

Imagine millions of elder citizens, who have worked throughout their lives, paid their taxes to the government, being forced to live on the meagre interest rates paid by the banks or the post office where they have deposited their entire savings. It is different for retired government employees who receive government support in the form of pension. For those who have no such backup, the going is getting increasingly tough.

Yours faithfully,
Bir Sanker Banerjee, Calcutta

Sir — In the past few months, the Metro rail service has improved manifold. No breakdowns, punctuality of trains, cleanliness are some of the things which need mention. 

The introduction of resting chairs for senior citizens is a nice thought. However, this may not attract too many senior citizens to travel on the trains. What might encourage them to travel more frequently is the installation of more escalators in more stations and ensuring that they work. Going up and down the stairs is more strenuous for the aged than waiting for the trains.

Yours faithfully,
B. Roy Chowdhury, Calcutta

Walled in

Sir — I was greatly disturbed at the news report, “Realtor runs into doctor stonewall” (June 12), published in the “Metro” section. It is sad that the above news comes from a newspaper of the standing of The Telegraph and that too, without ascertaining the veracity of the facts. I fail to understand why my name was dragged into the report. One, I did not enter into any deal whatsoever with the Indian Medical Association. Two, I have not bought the property from R.C. Ghosh & Co., as alleged, neither do I know who bought it. From what I have read, I feel that my name was mentioned in the report only to malign me for reasons best known to the person concerned and in order to obtain “heritage” status for the property in question. Someone from the IMA unit must have used my name to justify the demand to give heritage status to the property. Further, I am not the owner of Shivalik House which collapsed a few years ago; Arun Dutta was the promoter of that building. 

Yours faithfully, 
Pradeep Kundalia, Calcutta

Amit Ukil replies: 

Pradeep Kundalia expresses ignorance about transactions over the premises housing the IMA’s Calcutta branch. The president of the branch, Sudipto Roy, has confirmed that the branch is now paying rent to Babulal Vinayka, who is the owner/senior partner of Health Point Nursing Home and is married to Kundalia’s sister, Urmila.

We regret having made an inadvertent error in associating Kundalia with the Shivalik collapse. Shivalik House was not built by him, the building on Rajendra Road in Bhowanipore was. It too collapsed, killing people. 

Letters to the editor should be sent to: 

The Telegraph
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Calcutta 700 001
Email: [email protected]
Readers in the Northeast can write to:
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