Autism in Kashmir
Word and deed
Disarmingly nonprolific
Letters to the Editor

The chief minister of Kashmir, Mr Farooq Abdullah, is in dire political straits. Hence his decision to gamble on a high risk confrontation with the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre. His National Conference partymen easily passed a resolution accepting the state autonomy committee report. But in doing so they have done nothing to legally buttress Kashmir�s chances of autonomy. However, he has seriously embarrassed the government of Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee. He may also be able to force a larger debate on the issue of Kashmiri autonomy. Perhaps most importantly for the embattled chief minister, the passage of the resolution may revive his flagging credibility in the Kashmir valley. New Delhi has maintained the official equivalent of a stony silence. This may be its best policy. At a time when it is holding parleys with the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, the last thing the Centre would like to do is spell out an official stance on Kashmiri autonomy. Yet that is exactly what Mr Abdullah wants to provoke.

The Kashmir chief minister is walking a political tightrope. He came to power in an election characterized by record low turnouts and tainted by accounts of army coercion. His present regime in Srinagar has been widely perceived as corrupt and maladministered. The state�s finances are a mess. Mr Abdullah has barely begun the task of rebuilding the state. The National Conference, by all accounts, is deeply unpopular even in its valley stronghold. The strongest evidence of Mr Abdullah�s eroded credibility are signs that Kashmiri youth are once again flocking to the banner of militancy � a job that had increasingly been filled by imported mercenaries. Mr Abdullah has long complained that the Centre has cut his feet from under him. He had campaigned on the single platform of autonomy but New Delhi has refused to let anybody, let alone Parliament, discuss the matter. What has driven Mr Abdullah to pass the assembly resolution seems to be the Vajpayee regime�s negotiations with Hurriyat Conference leaders. There was an implicit message in such a move. Namely, New Delhi is prepared to consider an autonomy package for Kashmir. It would be pointless to talk with the Hurriyat Conference if it was not. However, it will not waste such a package on an unpopular Kashmiri leader. Clearly, the Centre believes Mr Abdullah is such a leader.

In any political drama regarding Kashmir, the actors speak in half-truths and the plot is filled with gaps and contradictions. The present autonomy debate is no exception. New Delhi is keeping mum. It is likely to stay mealymouthed for fear of reducing its negotiating options when it comes to the Hurriyat Conference. Mr Abdullah is likely to continue to talk loudly about autonomy � he now plans to debate the second state autonomy committee report which is about regional autonomy for the valley, Jammu and Ladakh. He will now hope the cynical inhabitants of his state will suddenly see him in a more positive light. If they do not, Mr Abdullah will have emptied his quiver of political gimmicks. The Hurriyat Conference will continue to speak with forked tongues as well � loudly demanding azadi while holding talks that can only have autonomy as their ultimate goal. Amid all this are the long suffering people of Kashmir. Unfortunately, no one is more uncertain and divided about the future of the state than they.    

It could not have been pleasant for the prime minister, Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee, to meet the pope in the Vatican. In the eyes of all Christians across the world, Mr Vajpayee�s government stands tainted by its complicity with the atrocities that have been perpetrated on Christians in India. The stain refuses to go away because in the public perception, Mr Vajpayee�s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is seen to belong to a wider ideological formation known as the sangh parivar. Within the sangh parivar are organizations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal � proclaiming allegiance, like the BJP, to Hindutva � which are notorious for their campaign of hate against religious minorities. Since the BJP came to power, this campaign has gained in stridency. The BJP is thus seen as being guilty by association. Also because of the common ideological bonding, official condemnation and action have not been strong and adequate. There is a sense of fear and apprehension among Christians and among other minorities as well. It was only to be expected that the pope would express his dismay and concern. Mr Vajpayee has attempted to placate all fears by articulating a commitment to stop all such atrocities and to work to produce an atmosphere of communal harmony in India.

There are many in India who will take the prime minister�s words as no more than lip service to communal harmony. Mr Vajpayee, to prove his sincerity, will have to first clear out a lot of weeds from his own back garden. This will entail setting up a greater distance between the government and the sangh parivar. The prime minister may find this difficult to push through within the BJP. Mr Vajpayee must act as prime minister of India and not as prime minister of the BJP. This will serve to snap the Hindutva tag that Mr Vajpayee carries with him. Such an act will not win him friends within his own party but will enhance his national image. His assurance to the pope is only the first step. The real work remains at home. Mr Vajpayee through his firmness and by taking steps to reshape his party�s ideological orientation will have to instil confidence among minorities. This is the least he can do and the least will go a long way.    

The second anniversary of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government�s decision to test nuclear weapons passed off relatively unnoticed in India. But, nonetheless, it was remarkable for the realization that even in the stratified world of nuclear �haves� and �have-nots� there was a separation between the men and the boys. Nowhere was this more evident than in the environment which heralded the respective anniversaries of the Pokhran and Chagai tests.

As the anniversary of Pakistan�s tests approached, there were alarmist reports that General Pervez Musharraf�s junta might embark on yet another round of nuclear testing. The Bill Clinton administration went so far as to warn Islamabad against any such action. In marked contrast, official statements in Washington made the point that there was nothing to suggest that India was on any similar course. In other words, the international community trusted India�s assertion that New Delhi had imposed a voluntary moratorium on further testing, despite the fact that the major powers, especially the United States, are yet to live down the realization that India fooled international intelligence and hoodwinked their satellites in 1998 into thinking that no nuclear tests were underway in Pokhran.

But more significant than this global trust in nuclear India was the way the Atal Behari Vajpayee government conducted itself in the run-up to the anniversary on May 9. Two days before the anniversary, external affairs minister, Jaswant Singh, made a landmark statement in Parliament on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The import of the statement was largely lost even on those Indians who normally take an interest in national security issues, caught up as they were with the crisis in Sri Lanka. Singh�s statement was made in the backdrop of a conference then taking place in New York to review the NPT, held every five years despite the treaty�s extension in perpetuity.

Compressed into 11 paragraphs, it signalled India�s foray into the global arms control regime, its head held high as a declared nuclear weapons state. In a nutshell, it signalled � on reading between the lines � New Delhi�s willingness to abide by the key provisions of the treaty as a nuclear weapons state, even while staying out of the NPT. This is the first time since the NPT was formalized in 1970 that any Indian government has countenanced the idea of living with the treaty, which has been repeatedly condemned as unequal and discriminatory.

To understand the significance of what Singh said in Parliament on May 9, it is important that his statement should not be read in isolation. Speaking on the opening day of the NPT review, the US secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, was candid. �There is no provision in the treaty for new nuclear weapons states�, she said. �We will not break faith with all the states � from the former Soviet republics to South Africa � who made good decisions to strengthen their own security and the cause of non-proliferation by joining the NPT�, she added. This, in reality, is the fundamental dilemma facing the 187 states which have signed and ratified the treaty. There is no provision in the NPT for new nuclear powers; but such nuclear powers are a reality which cannot be ignored if the treaty is to survive.

At the same time, if the five states which are allowed by the NPT to retain their nuclear weapons agree to others joining their exclusive club, how can they compensate those states which opted out of the nuclear race for having done so? After all, it was a combination of Western pressure and incentives, rather than any moral compulsions, which forced these states to abjure their atom bombs.

Albright was followed by China�s Sha Zukang, who pointed out that while article six of the NPT enjoins nuclear weapons states to pursue negotiations to bring about global nuclear disarmament, the US was engaged in efforts to overwhelmingly enhance its first strike capacity.

If these contradictions pulling apart the NPT regime were one aspect of the New York conference that influenced Singh�s statement, another was Israel�s nuclear opacity, which was no longer defensible. Indeed, India has got a lot to thank Israel for the way it got off without much of the expected criticism.

At the NPT review, the Americans and others who wanted to talk about India were in a dilemma. They had to allow a free-wheeling discussion on Israel�s nuclear capability if they were to talk about the Indian or Pakistani nuclear tests.

The sense at the United Nations throughout the review conference was that the only practical way out of the dilemmas facing the NPT community was to accept the de facto nuclear status of India, Pakistan and Israel, and find a way to make these states accept the provisions of the NPT, even if they continued to refuse to sign the treaty.

Disarmament and non-proliferation think-tanks in the West have already started talking about such a possibility, which would have been nothing short of heresy until the Pokhran and Chagai tests. Acronym Institute, one such think- tank, says in a report that �there is no prospect of India, Israel or Pakistan giving up their nuclear capabilities and adhering to the NPT as non-nuclear weapon states. Nor could they become acknowledged as nuclear weapon states without undesirable legal and political consequences...Some governments are increasingly making the pragmatic argument that it is most important to persuade these three de facto nuclear weapon possessors to undertake the obligations in the NPT�.

Singh�s statement to Parliament is significant because it reflects these realities of the NPT regime. Two years ago, when India exploded its nuclear wea- pons amidst Doomsday predictions from those opposed to the tests, few believed that it would be the global non-proliferation regime that would be put on the defensive as a result of Pokhran and Chagai. Without gloating over the fact that the Vajpayee government�s calculations behind the nuclear tests have come true, Singh has signalled that India now needs to move on with its agenda for disarmament, even as it retains its claim to be a nuclear weapon state.

Such an effort couldn�t be more timely in the effort to regain India�s position within the global disarmament movement (which was lost with the decision in Geneva in 1996 to block the global test ban treaty) and, at the same time, work towards international acceptance of India�s nuclear status. A notable element of the NPT review was the wide acceptance of the �new agenda coalition�, a group of seven countries severely critical of the slow pace of disarmament by the nuclear weapon states. The coalition � made up of Egypt, New Zealand, South Africa, Brazil, Ireland, Mexico and Sweden � includes some countries which will never come to terms with a nuclear India.

All the same, India must work out a modus vivendi with this coalition, if only because there is a broad convergence of objectives between its members and India, which has been a strong proponent of nuclear disarmament ever since independence. South Block should not forget that last year, this coalition managed to persuade the UN general assembly to adopt a resolution that called upon nuclear weapon states �to engage without delay in an accelerated process of negotiations� towards disarmament. While all this is encouraging evidence of how South Block has been able to turn around in India�s favour what appeared to be an impossible situation only two years ago, more thought needs to be given in New Delhi to nuclear policy itself in the long run. Those in charge of the policy appear to be content that a so called nuclear doctrine has been published.

The composition of the new national security advisory board suggests that for many in New Delhi�s establishment, the nuclear doctrine has been an end in itself. They would do well to learn from Vladimir Putin�s Moscow, more so now that New Delhi�s contacts with the new Kremlin have been activated, what with the external affairs minister visiting Russia. A few days before the NPT review opened in New York, the Kremlin ratified the second strategic arms reduction treaty which will cut Russia�s nuclear arsenal by 2,500 warheads to a figure of 3,500 by the year 2007. Why?

Because Putin wants to divert billions of dollars saved from nuclear cutbacks into repairing his country�s conventional forces. The Chechen experience and simmering trouble along Russia�s borders as well as the borders of states known as its �near-abroad� have convinced Putin that old-fashioned soldiers on the ground are what is needed for Russia�s security now � not prestigious nuclear warheads attached to inter-continental ballistic missiles.

For that matter, look at the Clinton administration�s rationale for the new missile defence programme. Washington believes that the threat to its security comes from some rogue state like Saddam Hussein�s Iraq launching a missile at New York against which a missile defence system is vital.

What Jaswant Singh and Vajpayee ought to consider, now that India has nuclear weapons, is what kind of defence the country needs and where the biggest threat to India emanates from. That will enable them, as Putin has admirably done within days of his election, to turn arms control agreements into ways of enhancing national security.    


Campaign under control

Sir � Who would dare to make birth control a campaign plank in the civic polls (�Not a nod for birth control�, June 25)? After the birth of the billionth baby, it seems wiser for politicians to maintain a studied silence on the matter. People by now have learnt to bring to election campaigns a willing suspension of disbelief. In spite of this, politicians, on their part, strive to sustain the rhetoric of credibility. Herein lies the duplicity. The government�s policies on birth control have never made much of a difference to the population anyway. Women have always been the easy target. No wonder sterilization of women is rampant among the poor, in spite of the fact that it is hazardous to health. Also, vasectomy, the safest measure, has never been prioritized, as government expenditure on birth control makes clear. In such a situation, it is natural for politicians to steer clear of such agendas, which they know can never be fulfilled. After all, their instinctive tendency to play it safe is rooted in pragmatism.

Yours faithfully,
Sweta Das Gupta, Calcutta

Streamlined banking

Sir � The report, �Blueprint to shed flab in all banks� (June 6), mentions high establishment expenses, excess manpower, low business volume per employee and the alarming increase of nonperforming assets in public sector banks as the reasons for the introduction of voluntary retirement schemes in banks. However, the causes have simply been computed from a collection of data and are not based on reality.

Unlike the foreign and private sector banks which serve the big cities, public sector banks serve a cross section of people from society and are still trying to spread the banking network throughout the country. In remote places, it is the public sector bank which serves the people. Given the massive expansion undertaken in rural and semi-urban places since the nationalization of banking, the establishment expenses of 20.13 per cent, as reported, is negligible. Moreover, it should be remembered, unlike the former group of banks, public sector banks are under the compulsion of the government to lend millions of rupees without a single paise in interest under the guise of social development policies.

Over 63,000 rural and semi-urban branches of the public sector banks are served by a skeletal staff. Had these branches been mechanized, they would have required half the staff. Since more than 90 per cent of the public sector banks, including those in urban areas, are served manually, the manpower is bound to be a bit on the larger side. The government as yet has not provided adequate funds for the mechanization process. The weak technological support is another reason public sector bank employees remain tied up with time-consuming work, which also leaves little scope for attracting new business. The situation is different in the foreign and private sector banks.

Yours faithfully,
Debasish Mukherjee, Calcutta

Sir � It is shocking to learn that the volume of nonperforming assets of nationalized banks is as high as Rs 51,000 crores. NPA is an honourable term which describes loans which cannot be recovered from borrowers, most of whom get the money through the intervention of politicians in power.

There is another class of defaulters. These are businessmen, cinema stars and criminals who become financiers of political parties and thereby members of parliament. The august house, year after year, expresses concern at the mounting NPA and income tax arrears. It would do India a lot of good if MPs who have arrears of income tax, electricity bills, house rents, use of aircraft and debts to banks are expelled from Parliament.

Yours faithfully,
B. Priya, Hyderabad

Health matters

Sir � Chaitali Chakravarty is right when she says that, �Drug giants seem to have adopted a policy of pushing costlier replacements to existing low-priced medicines� (�Costlier drug varieties leave patients gasping� May 22). However, I do not agree that Aspirin, once a much valued household drug, has now become pass�. It continues to be used as an analgesic, an antipyretic drug, and a cure for a wide range of cardiac symptoms.

It is also used in platelet aggregation. Chakravarty also holds that Nimulid is costlier than Aspirin, and yet it has taken the latter�s place as an analgesic. While this is true, the fact remains that the former is stronger and has less side effects.

It is true that pharmaceutical companies tempt chemists into substituting low-priced drugs with high-priced ones, since companies provide higher margins of profit for chemists in the latter case. Naturally, the chemists take more interest in selling higher priced drugs.

Yours faithfully,
Amalendu Mitra, Howrah

Sir � It is time we deliberate over some aspects of our everyday use of medication. The names of some tablets and capsules are printed only once for a complete strip. It becomes difficult to identify these medicines once they are consumed separately, since people do not always buy complete strips of tablets and capsules. This leads to either a waste of the drugs, or consumption of the wrong ones. The rule should be that names of medicines must be printed on the cover of every tablet or capsule. The names should be printed in Hindi as well. Consumers are often confused about weights of medicines when they purchase packs of eight instead of the regular 10. Medicines should always be packed according to metric units. It is also a good idea to sell medicines as they are administered, that is, according to doses.

Also, there is no need for pharmaceutical companies to sell medicines in glass containers. These should be replaced immediately with unbreakable packs. Essential commodities like medicines should also have uniform local taxes with only the net payable price printed on the cover. Also, there is no need to print both Centigrade and Fahrenheit units on clinical thermometers. Only the former is sufficient. Until people get accustomed to the use of the Centigrade scale, it would be advisable for the companies to enclose a conversion table.

Yours faithfully,
Madhu Agarwal, New Delhi

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