Editorial/ A touch of caste
Conquest and deception
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

What is frightening about exploitation is that its face never seems to change. So in Parashyampur, 20 kilometres away from Arambagh, the goddess Kali received untimely homage in a temple in order to cleanse the village of the pollution brought on by a female resident. The expenses of the unseasonal puja were borne by Mr Madanmohan Seeth, a primary schoolmaster belonging to the lower rungs of the caste and economic hierarchy. The costs came to around Rs 8,000. It was his wife who had cost him so dear. Ms Sarama Seeth had touched the ghot representing the deity and had placed the sacred vermilion from the ghot on her own forehead. This touch was polluting. A gathering of 250 people had witnessed Mr Seeth�s public avowal of his wife�s �crime� and his acceptance of the judgment that he should bear the cost of the purification ceremony.

There can be few uglier stories. The majority of the village population is higher caste Hindu. The pond next to the temple is out of bounds for lower caste women, because water for sacred purposes is drawn from there. It does not matter that women from more fortunate castes use the same water for washing clothes or bathing children. Ironically, a superficial sense of propriety seems to have touched the high caste inmates of the village. The spokesmen insisted that the temple incident had nothing to do with caste, but with the rule that only the priest could touch the ghot. Perhaps these people are even aware that discrimination on the basis of caste is a punishable crime. Mr Seeth�s humiliation exposes the tragic core of caste-based exploitation and oppression. Knowing what is right does not mean a real advance in thinking � and laws do not change society.

In all this repulsive hideousness, there is a spark of hope. The rebel, who broke the rule of a 250-year-old temple, is a woman belonging to the scheduled castes. For her, there is no dilemma. She has bathed in the pond and paid obeisance to her goddess. According to her, anybody who thinks there is something wrong in that has a dirty mind. Society needed a voice like hers to say the emperor has no clothes. But she will not get away as easily as did the child in Hans Christian Anderson�s tale. Her husband has publicly admitted she is mentally ill. It is terrifying to see all the machinery of oppression and coercion grind into place the moment status quo is threatened. The number of so-called madwomen and witches in Indian society is an index of the scale of the repression practised on women.

In microcosm, the incident in Parashyampur shows a conjuncture of the ancient and the modern that is unique to contemporary India. For the premises of the conflict are both old and new. The scheduled caste families in the area were economically backward for a long time, working in other people�s houses or the women acting as midwives. Today, though, Mr Seeth is a teacher in a school, and the women in families like his are no longer midwives. Some of them are anganwadi workers. Education and self-reliance are changing their economic profile. The caste conflict is thus a continuation of traditional usage and the site of a new and sharpened confrontation. For the moment, Mr Seeth�s identity as a teacher has been demolished. His social humiliation has extended into the classroom, and his pupils, by abusing and insulting him, have shockingly turned into caste enemies. It would seem that oppression has succeeded, by forcing his private, social and professional identities into a single, apparently immutable, mould � one based on caste. Yet the fact that this kind of incident is the first in the temple�s history could also mean that things are beginning to change. May be not fast enough. The advantage that the oppressors have is the control of faith. Caste can be easily subsumed under religion. And the site of battle is still a temple, and the conflict is over the rights to ritual. To change age-old balances, the battle must gradually take over wider ground.    

The violence in west Asia is a reminder that the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights must be the only conquered territories in the world that have not been restored to the previous owners and are deliberately excluded from the global ethics system, as represented by the United Nations, the Hague court and other institutions devised to replace the law of the jungle with a civilized code for nations to live by.

If ever there was a case for UN intervention, it is in this clash of contending sovereignties with the continuing loss of innocent lives. The mounting conflict and the withdrawal of the Egyptian and Jordanian ambassadors to Israel highlight more than the collapse of the Oslo process. They illustrate the collapse of international justice, and expose the partisan role that the United States plays while pretending to be honest broker.

Let it be clear that Israel�s right to live within secure borders is not disputed. �Israel is�, an Israeli friend used to say, refusing to go into legalities. Yasser Arafat and Arab governments accept that fait accompli, agreeing that there can be no return to the days before what they call the �catastrophe� when the Zionist state was established. Second, what Israelis have done with the land � making the desert bloom, to repeat the clich� � evokes respect and admiration. Like other Asians, Indians have much to learn from Israel�s experience. Third, India has done well to get out of the rut of blindly supporting the Palestinians which denied us the benefits of cooperation with Israel without compensatory dividend from oil-rich Arabs.

That Pavlovian response to every controversy did not help the Arabs either. One reason that P.V. Narasimha Rao advanced in 1992 for healing the breach with Israel was that only even-handed diplomacy would enable India to take part in the reconciliation process and further the quest for a Palestinian homeland. It was a valid point, and Arafat himself endorsed it. Lacking his acumen, Narasimha Rao�s successors have sat on the fence so long that their backsides must be encrusted with corns. They rush to Israel on propitiatory pilgrimages, pose theatrically at Jerusalem�s Wailing Wall, brag about being courted by both sides, and pretend not to notice snubs like Saudi Arabia�s cancellation of Jaswant Singh�s trip to Riyadh. A few crumbs from Israel�s table are thought to be reward enough.

Mature diplomacy would have reminded Americans that no other nation is allowed to cling to conquered territory. India withdrew from East Bengal, recognizing indigenous sovereignty. Even apartheid South Africa gave up what is now Namibia. Moscow relinquished control of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Indonesia was obliged to pull out from East Timor. Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi people were punished cruelly and are still paying a high price for trying to swallow Kuwait. Yet, Israel remains virtually undisputed master of the territories it conquered in 1967.

It returned only the Sinai peninsula, and that for three reasons. First, the blob of desert linking Africa and Asia was of no economic significance. Second, not being part of the biblical Eretz Yisrael, it had not attracted fanatical Jewish settlers. Finally, it was a small price to pay to win over Egypt, leader of the Arab world, and enable the late Anwar Sadat to break ranks with his fellow rulers and exchange ambassadors with Israel.

The Israeli consul in Bombay tried to persuade me on the eve of the Gulf War that being pure as driven snow, Israel had not annexed any territory as the evil Saddam Hussein had done. That is only technically true. Whatever the constitutional niceties, Jerusalem has been incorporated into Israel � violating the Oslo accord on bilateral determination of its status � while other areas seized from Jordan, Egypt and Syria are administered as colonies. No one even bothers about their de jure status after 33 years of occupation since de facto control is entirely in Israeli hands.

Until the talks broke down because of an Israeli politician�s provocative gesture, the Palestinians were pleading for a homeland as if the land was Israel�s to give. The entire rationale of the Oslo process is that if Arafat and company are good boys, the large-hearted Israelis might allow them to lord it over scattered scraps of territory that would one day constitute a Palestinian �entity�, never an independent nation with full authority over its own foreign policy, defence and economy. Time and again, Israel has enunciated the theory that the region can hold only one Jewish and one Arab state, and that Israel and Jordan already fill these slots.

Even Shimon Peres, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in drawing up the Oslo accords, questions the existence of any such thing as a Palestinian. Palestinians are only an Arab invention, he suggests, to squeeze a third state out of the Promised Land. He sees all of west Asia as a single economic unit whose potential only the Israelis can realize. He might be right in a technological sense but economic management means political control. The federal union of his dreams would reduce Palestine to a municipality. Its �citizens� would not be very different from today�s West Bank inhabitants who go into Israel every day to work.

They might be well-paid by West Bank standards but earn far less than Israelis. Worse, employment is an instrument of control. Every so often, the Israelis decide to close the border so that thousands of Palestinians are deprived of their earnings; every so often, the Israelis decide that only old men can pray at the Al Aqsa mosque so that the young are deprived of their right to worship. Though Arafat frets and fumes about sovereignty and Afro-Asian governments call him �President� (to Israelis he is only �Chairman�) and give him head of state honours, the peace process does not promise to end this state of dependency.

The persuasive opposite argument is that half a loaf being better than nothing, even a west Asian �Banstustan� would recognize Palestinian rights. That might have been tolerable if the land had belonged to Israel. It does not. It seems to only because of the colossal deception practised by Western governments and the Western media whose sole concern is American self-interest. As Al Gore told a questioner, US �bonds with Israel are larger than agreements or disagreements on some details of diplomatic initiatives. They are historic, they are strong and they are enduring.� George W. Bush�s campaign platform was even more explicitly committed to Israel.

My favourite American quotation on the subject long ago stated the reason. After he succeeded as president, Harry S. Truman lost no time in repudiating the pledges regarding a Palestinian homeland that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had given to King Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia. �I�m sorry, gentlemen,� Truman told state department officials, �but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism; I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.�

That is why the US can never be trusted in west Asia, and why peace and justice demand a UN mission and UN troops. By not speaking out for such global supervision, India has only replaced the deafening silence of one kind of pusillanimity for another. The statement it issued last month was a masterpiece of prevarication that Israelis and Palestinians alike would toss aside with contempt.

Israelis show visitors the blank wall behind the speaker�s chair in the Knesset and joke that Arabs believe it be decorated with a map of the Promised Land stretching from the Nile to the Euphrates. No Arab has ever mentioned such a thing to me but some might if the UN stands by while the US ensures that Israel is the only country in the world to retain the fruits of conquest.    


Our man from Havana

Shall we call it the pilgrim�s regress? CPI(M) politburo member and the all-powerful Alimuddin Street boss, Biman Bose, has returned from Cuba, the Marxists� mecca, a disheartened man. Two apparent reasons for the sadness. One, a Cuban doctor has asked chain-smoker Bose to give up on the habit for the rest of his life. Bose wishes he had never seen him. Commies have problems refusing a Cuban, you see. The other thorn is the Cuban literacy rate, which Bose found was way higher than that of his state. Bose, who pioneered the literacy movement in the state, had a humbling experience to see over 90 per cent of Cubans literate, while the figure for West Bengal is only �70 per cent� (according to Commie stats, that is). Bimanda was also impressed by the high literacy among female Cubans. A determined Bose has lined up a fresh programme to relaunch the literacy drive in the state. He has also promised to give more time to the campaign than to politics. Bad characters, however, attribute Bose�s political disinterest to his being sidelined in the party. With Anil Biswas at the helm of affairs as the state unit secretary, Bose can only think of educating Bengalis. Is that to also help them realize Bose�s worth better?

Dearer � la carte

All good things come to an end. So has sasta khana or cheap food inside Parliament. Bless or blame our fiery, all nonsense Union railways minister for that. The prices at the canteen run by the railways have been increased twofold. The �Veg soup� now costs Rs 4.50 instead of the antiquated Re 1. The chicken biryani has been priced at Rs 27 instead of Rs 12. Quite naturally, the new price list has got the goat of both journalists and MPs who thought moving in the corridors of the Lok Sabha entitled them to the privilege of having the heavily subsidized fare. There is evidently no point reasoning that the revised rates are much less than what appears next to the food listed on the menus of even third rate joints in the capital. There is more. Journalists apparently have been debarred from eating in the Parliament house canteen and around 180 of the breed have protested in writing to a disinterested speaker of the house. A small room is now serving as a cafeteria for them. Its dirty interiors, the piles of bones, leftovers and groundwater bottled in mineral water bottles are adding a new dimension to India�s political hub.

Into something richand strange

This might bring the dead alive. One story doing the rounds in the Congress is about its departed dissenter, Sitaram Kesri. A treasurer for 17 years, Kesri was reportedly in possession of some party funds. Days before his death, he had apparently got in touch with his b�te noire and president of the party, Sonia Gandhi, telling her that he wanted to pass on the funds to the party. As the story goes, a very suspicious Sonia sought the view of her famous coterie, which advised her against touching the money. The doubly suspicious coterie feared it might be some �trap� set by the ailing Kesri to get back in the good books of the madam. There wasn�t time to confirm the hunch. Kesri died soon after. Weeks after and the threat gone, the coterie is suddenly interested in Kesri�s wish again. More so the funds. They are enquiring discreetly to find out how much the �funds� amounted to, where they are now and how they can get hold of them. What makes the coterie think the dying man has not willed it already to the real waris of the Nehru-Gandhis?

Less room for a tipple

The capital�s most prestigious watering hole, the India International Centre, has a problem with the Delhi government�s excise department. On his appointment, almost every excise commissioner thinks it his birthright to be made a member of the IIC. The IIC is protective about its membership and this is a sore issue with the excise department. The vindictive excise department inspectors descend on the IIC frequently to warn it if it failed to adhere to the terms and conditions of its bar licence. Thanks to the visits, the IIC bar has shrunk to one tiny section in the wall of the annexe. The larger area which once used to be inhabited by tipplers is out of bounds now. Some months ago, the small but enclosed open space outside the small bar room in the main IIC building was nixed by excise department inspectors for serving hard liquor. And all because the IIC will not have excise commissioners in its milieu. But do they stink that bad?

Footnote/ Performance with a purpose

If in Bengal, there�s no escaping this woman � as the Rashtriya Janata Dal president, Laloo Prasad Yadav, found out. Mamata Banerjee haunted Laloo as well on his Calcutta visit to attend a private function. Laloo apparently remained closeted in his hotel room, holding discussions with the party�s lone representative in the Calcutta Municipal Corporation. Alarmed by reports that the RJD councillor from ward 47, Anjana Ghosh, was all set to switch over to didi�s Trinamool, a desperate Laloo gave her a long lecture. The marathon meeting lasted for hours during which Laloo refused to hear out the grievances from other party faithfuls and even cancelled a meeting scheduled with the former chief minister of the state, Jyoti Basu, at his Salt Lake residence. A senior RJD leader in the state admitted that it wasn�t only the CPI(M) and the state Congress, Lalooji also suffered from didi-phobia. But Laloo�s Calcutta performance seems to have hit its mark. Anjana says she is so impressed by Laloo�s lecture on the dangers posed by communism and by didi that she has decided to stay. Whoever doubted Laloo�s persuasive skills?    


In the name of the game

Sir � Sports is the best way to promote cooperation and mutual understanding between two hostile nations. Hatred and mutual distrust can all be forgotten through the pleasure of the game and the camaraderie among players. Therefore, one has to question the wisdom of India�s decision to cancel the national team�s forthcoming tour of Pakistan this winter (�India no-balls tour to Pak�, Nov16). India has every right to feel betrayed, especially after the Kargil war. However, since India is a member of the International Cricket Council, a refusal to play with Pakistan can have disastrous consequences. Add to that the fact that this would have been the first visit by an Indian team to Pakistan in 12 years.
Yours faithfully,
S.K. Guha, Calcutta

Access denied

Sir � While ruling out the entry of foreign players in the media, the Union minister for information and broadcasting, Sushma Swaraj, stated that the �concerns of 1995 are still valid� (�Foreign entry lock on print, for 45 years or more�, Nov 18). But the concern that foreigner owned publications could influence political processes in India is actually not valid.

Neither Swaraj, nor the National Democratic Alliance, cared to elaborate how exactly the political processes could be influenced by the entry of foreign players in the media. Nor was a national debate held on the issue before the announcement was made. The government could adopt the policy of least resistance easily because of the divided opinion within the Indian print media.

During British rule, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi could manage to publish Harijan. It is a pity that the government of independent India is behaving in a manner worse than that of the imperialist rulers. Instead of giving in to imaginative fears, the government should adopt a policy of wait and watch.

Yours faithfully,
K. Venkatasubramanian, Calcutta

Sir � Disallowing foreign entry in the Indian printing industry is, on the face of it, an intelligent move on the part of the Central government. The freedom of a nation is not far removed from that of its press. India has learnt its lessons from its long experience of onslaughts from across the seas. It is true that the electronic media has gained importance in recent times, but with its large number of channels, the confusion generated is also great. Besides, a much smaller percentage than people with access to newspapers in India has access to television.

The vernacular media in India makes the greatest impact, while the foreign players, if allowed to enter, will tie up with, or compete against, the English press. Thus the government�s reasoning falls flat. The decision is simply the government�s way of safeguarding the interests of the local press barons.

Yours faithfully,
Sush Kocher, Calcutta

Buck up

Sir � Queen Elizabeth recently came under fire from animal rights activists after newspaper pictures showed her wringing the neck of a dying pheasant, �Killer slur on Queen� (Nov 20). One wishes Salman Khan who had allegedly shot the endangered black buck had faced the same kind of wrath from animal rights activists as did the queen.

Unfortunately, this is India and celebrities do not have to accept responsibility for their actions.

Yours faithfully,
B.K. Roychowdhury, Calcutta

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