Editorial 1 / United stand
Editorial 2 / Rule of five
A message from Kanpur
Fifth Column / Kept out of the operation theatre
Getting over the identity crisis
Letters to the editor

When in 1997 Ms Mamata Banerjee had walked out of the Congress in a huff, she had erected an artificial barrier between herself and her natural habitat. It was assumed by most that this was a separation and not a divorce. The announcement that the Congress and the Trinamool Congress will jointly fight the forthcoming assembly elections in West Bengal ends the separation. Ms Banerjee�s transient flirtation with the Bharatiya Janata Party, the principal obstacle to the formation of a grand alliance with the Congress against the Left Front, had ended when she resigned from the National Democratic Alliance government. The Congress-Trinamool Congress alliance takes Ms Banerjee a few steps closer to what has all along been her stated political objective : the defeat of the Left Front. The alliance rules out the possibility of a split in the anti-left votes in West Bengal. The Bharatiya Janata Party�s presence will be a token one since its electoral success in the state was derived from the joint front it had with the Trinamool Congress. The election on May 10 will be a polarized one with only two players, the left on one side and Ms Banerjee on the other. The Congress has accepted that Ms Banerjee will lead the election campaign against the Left Front. This is exactly as it should be. Ms Banerjee has earned for herself the status of a leader who has been uncompromising and relentless in her opposition to left rule. Her entire political campaign has the removal of the left from Writers Buildings as its focus.

If the Left Front is the main victim of the coming together of the two Congresses, the chief gainer is the Congress. The state Congress, after the formation of the Trinamool Congress, had practically made itself into a political non-entity. It had lost credibility as the jibe that it was nothing more than the left�s running mate, popularized by Ms Banerjee, caught the public imagination. This was manifest in the last Lok Sabha polls when in many constituencies the Congress vote bank shifted en bloc to the Trinamool Congress. This was the sign that traditional Congress voters no longer saw the party as an anti-left force. Ms Banerjee had taken the wind out of the Congress sails. That wind has now come back. The Congress is poised to gain in electoral numbers and regain its credibility. This gain follows the recognition of Ms Banerjee�s strength and stature. Those who opposed her can now eat humble pie but there is the possibility of that pie being laced with the rich wine of an election victory.

The formation of this anti-left opposition is clearly the result of long negotiations. But the negotiations should not detract from the overall context that forged the alliance. One important element in the context was the refusal of Ms Sonia Gandhi, the Congress president, to shut the door on Ms Banerjee. Ms Gandhi kept herself aloof from the petty bickerings of the state Congress and saw in Ms Banerjee a leader who had a popular appeal among the people of West Bengal. On Ms Banerjee�s part, there was the acceptance that her goal could be reached only if all the anti-left votes were brought into one basket. Within this context, once she left the NDA, a Congress-Trinamool Congress alliance became inevitable. Politics is by nature unpredictable but Ms Banerjee and the Congress can be satisfied that they have for the nonce maximized the possible.


The foot and mouth crisis is more important than elections. Mr Tony Blair has finally decided to postpone the local elections until June 7, when the British general elections are also expected to be held. This was a difficult decision which has, however, been perceived as a dignified move by most of his colleagues and electorate, even if his handling of the foot and mouth crisis has not won general approbation. Mr Blair�s decision is the first suspension of normal democratic rules since 1945. But what the deliberations and uncertainty around the elections have revived in Britain is the entire issue of fixed-term parliaments. A private member had recently placed a bill in the House of Commons suggesting an automatic dissolution every four years � instead of the constitutional five-year maximum � unless triggered by a Commons vote of no confidence. Also, in Britain, the calling of an election depends entirely on the prime minister. It is time, some feel, to reckon with the fact that for the last couple of decades Britain has gone to polls every four, instead of five, years.

India needs to seriously reopen a similar debate regarding how frequently to hold elections, and the notion of fixing four-year, instead of five-year, terms. Unfortunately, the immediate crisis in India necessitating such a review is considerably more sickening than foot and mouth disease. The fate of governments in India seems to be moving towards increasing instability of various kinds, with corruption proving to be the most potent destabilizing factor. Not only corruption, but also the peculiar exigencies of coalition or minority governments are increasingly determining the precarious lives of ruling combinations. Starting with the exemplary solidness of three prime ministers in three decades, Indian governments now do not seem to last for more than a couple of years. Bofors brought down Rajiv Gandhi within two years from elections, and given the unwieldiness of the Indian electorate, there has never been a dearth of crises to topple subsequent governments. A fixed shorter term will cut down on the uncertainty and anarchy and will also put a firmer straitjacket of accountability on whatever medley is at the nation�s helm. Demystifying the five-year period in order to think shorter will spare the country and a tottering leadership the indefinite approach of doom.


Perhaps if West Bengal could have loaned its chief minister to Uttar Pradesh for just that one week in March, Kanpur could have avoided the terrible suffering it went through. According to official figures, 14 people, including the additional district magistrate, lost their lives between March 16 and 19. Twelve of the killed were from the minority community, one a 12-year-old boy, all shot dead by the police. Property worth crores was looted and burnt. The warm fraternizing between communities jointly celebrating the festivals of Id and Holi, witnessed only a few weeks earlier, was overshadowed by the sight of deserted streets under curfew.

Although there is little doubt that in the post-Ayodhya decade, deep rifts � if not polarizations � on a communal basis have taken place in Kanpur, it would be a complete misreading of the situation to call the March incidents �communal rioting�. Communal riots presume the participation of large sections of communities in hostile actions. There were no such clashes between the two communities in Kanpur. In spite of grave provocations from fundamentalist groups of both communities, the people at large refused to be drawn into expressions of mutual hostility. This was evident in the numerous stories of solidarity and help extended to each other by members of the two communities related to the joint delegation of women�s organizations, of which the present writer was a member, which visited Kanpur on the first day that the curfew was partially lifted.

Fundamentalist or communal forces, although claiming to represent different religions, have a common denominator, which is, reactionary interpretations of religious texts as the guide to social action and public life. The effort is to create national or community identities based on such interpretations. Intrinsic to these efforts is incitement of hatred for the �enemy�, the non-believer. If the taliban, in the name of what can only be described as one of the crudest and most objectionable interpretations of the Islamic texts, bombed the Buddha statues in Bamiyan, in a typically communally motivated response, a group of saffron- scarved men publicly burnt copies of the Quran Sharief in the streets of New Delhi. The photograph of the Quran being burnt, attributed to a foreign news agency, was put out on the internet.

This is where the politics of the dominant parties in the affected states plays a crucial role. Should not the burning of any book considered holy by its believers be universally condemned and swift action taken to send home the message that such deliberately communally provocative acts will just not be tolerated? This is exactly what Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the West Bengal chief minister, did when he rushed to the Nakhoda masjid in Calcutta on hearing that the Quran Sharief had been desecrated, ensured the miscreant was arrested and ordered a probe. In contrast, it took the prime minister over two weeks to even issue a statement condemning the burning of the Quran. Meanwhile, Kanpur was burning.

As far as the Central government is concerned, it did not even bother to find out the identity of the criminals who burnt the Quran, leave alone prosecute and arrest them. When governments, supposedly pledged to uphold constitutional guarantees for religious freedom, do not respond against such outrageous acts, the field is left open for the advance of divisive agenda. The message sent is that the burning or desecration of a holy book or place of worship of a particular community only concerns that particular community and it is up to them to react or protest.

This provides fertile ground for fundamentalist forces within those communities to utilize the spontaneous and entirely legitimate anger against such acts. Thus one fundamentalism breeds and strengthens the other. In the particular case of Kanpur, the incidents showed that the acts of the sangh parivar against minority communities has and is reflected in the formation of mirror image organizations and groups within the Muslim community.

A most provocative poster was pasted on the walls of Kanpur, using the language of the taliban by one such group which preferred to remain anonymous, the only byline in the poster being the �Muslims of Kanpur�. Once again the administration, this time run by the Bharatiya Janata Party government of the state, chose to ignore the poster and isolate the troublemakers. On the contrary, on March 16, when a group of young men sought to burn an effigy of the prime minister in protest against the inaction on the burning of the Quran, the police charged at them with lathis, injuring several of them. This triggered off the ensuing violence. The extremist forces, which were waiting for just such an opportunity went into action, reportedly with arms.

Within a span of three hours, the Bandukeshwar temple and three small roadside ones in the Choubey gola area were damaged, four Hindu-owned shops and a house belonging to a poor vegetable-seller, Rakesh, were set alight. Shri Pathak, an additional district magistrate, was caught in the crossfire and was killed. The rumour, found later to be a blatant lie, spread like wildfire that he had been shot from the roof of a masjid. What followed was the mass violation of human rights of the minority community in Kanpur. The entire Muslim community was termed the aggressor and found itself targeted by the forces of the state.

Instead of an impartial administration determined to stamp out the flare up of violence of a communal nature initiated by extremists, what happened in Kanpur was the subversion of the administration itself by the communal agenda of the sangh combine. The indisputable evidence was a video film widely watched on the 16th evening, telecast by a local television channel, which showed the provincial armed constabulary and the Bajrang Dal mounting a joint operation against the minority community. Notably, Buddhists, a large number of whom are Ambedkar followers, distanced themselves from such objectionable acts.

In minority-dominated areas curfew was declared. During the curfew hours, sections of the PAC and the local police went on a looting and burning spree. Property owned by small shopkeepers, poultry-market stalls, readymade garment shops, bangles and shoe shops were irreparably damaged or destroyed. In one bizarre incident, the commissioner had to retrieve looted goods from a PAC van in Beconganj. At the other side of the city, where Muslims were in a minority, several masjids were attacked. Thirteen live bombs and ammunition were recovered from the house of a BJP corporator, Janaki Gupta, from Vijaynagar, but in spite of the incontrovertible evidence against her and her whole family, only one of her sons was arrested.

With the transfer of the district magistrate and the superintendent of police there has been some improvement in the situation. But with the communal agendas of the government firmly in place, it is difficult to predict future developments. Can the country survive such policies?

The lessons from Kanpur go beyond the confines of that wounded city. There is little doubt that fundamentalist groups of both communities have grown in all parts of India, including states like West Bengal. To some extent, this can also be attributed to the politics of crass opportunism of centrist parties who ally with such forces for short term gains, thereby presenting them with an entry point into areas where they do not exist. Only a strictly impartial secular administration by parties and alliances committed to fighting fundamentalism of all hues can ensure the prerequisite for any advance: mutual trust, harmony and peace between communities. On such a scale of measurement, the rule of the BJP and its allies has proved to be a disaster.


The appointment of Louise Frechette as the deputy secretary general of the United Nations in March 1998 had been described by many as a step in the right direction. The post of the deputy secretary general was first established by the general assembly at the end of 1997 as part of the process aimed at the reform of the UN, as well as to help manage secretariat operations and to ensure coherence of activities and programmes.

The UN, despite being a premier international organization, has been accused of having a gender bias on more than one occasion. Even after more than half a century of its existence, a woman has not yet headed it. Yet, the UN has also made consistent efforts to eliminate discrimination against women all over the world. For the last 40 years, the UN has been actively involved in promoting equality among women and in helping them recognize their role in society.

The convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women adopted a resolution in the UN general assembly in 1979, which has now been ratified by 101 countries. However, women still occupy very few posts in the UN and constitute roughly one fourth of the work force. They are also conspicuously absent from the high-level posts.

The former secretary general, Boutrous Boutrous-Ghali is believed to have remarked, �We are a long way from gender equlaity in the United Nations secretariat�. He had also advocated greater representation for women in the UN.

Time for a better deal

The UN has spearheaded the passing of several international resolutions aimed at focussing attention on women. It has coaxed a majority of its member nations into giving a better deal to their women � including their right to vote, equal pay for equal work and so on. Given the UN�s endorsement of women�s issues and problems, it is strange that organizations like the International Labour Organization should have only 25 per cent women in their work force.

Even though guidelines and goals for equal opportunities have been set by the secretary general and the general assembly, they have not been given adequate importance in actual practice. One example of such discrimination against women would be the fact that the administrative tribunal has no female members.

According to observers, women are mostly seen in the UN secretariat sitting with their word processors, correcting the mistakes of their male bosses or rewriting their speeches. They are also seen hovering in conference chambers, ready to carry out any errand that may fall their way. Very little creative or intellectually stimulating work is assigned to them.

Model of diversity

Several cultural and political factors have combined to create a difficult environment for women in the UN. The UN is unlike a corporation or a government department that has clearly demarcated lines of authority and responsibility. It is an institution beholden to its member nations. Moreover, the member countries are also responsible for the low number of women occupying important posts in the UN as very few governments recommend female candidates for filling up vacant posts.

Culturally, the UN system is a model of diversity. Employees communicate in many languages, dress differently and follow different religions. However, multiculturalism has proved to be a downside as women working in the UN have to do without the protection of their national laws.

There have also been allegations of sexual harassment in the UN. The organization has recently settled a sexual harassment suit in favour of a staff member. It was only after the Catherine Claxton case that the UN was forced to recognize the problem of sexual harassment as a reality and admit that there was urgent need for a review of existing policies on the issue. In fact, very few women employees register formal complaints as they are afraid of losing their jobs.

Jobs in the UN can be broadly divided into two categories � general staff and professionals. In both these categories, women occupy very few posts. Given that the UN symbolizes the spirit of democracy and upholds human rights, it is imperative that it remains committed to the ideal of gender equality and opens its doors to women.


Bengalis think a world of the so called �Bengal Renaissance� of the 19th century. What is often lost sight of is that the same century produced Dayananda Saraswati and the Poona Renaissance. The Poona heritage however has a set of unworthy carriers who show unseemly pride in being �true Hindus� and want other co-religionists to share that pride. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has in fact openly asked the minorities to accept � our culture�. The question is what is �our culture�, also, who are the �minorities�?

Ancient Indians who spoke Sanskrit did not call themselves �Hindus�. They belonged to a certain Brahmanical culture � the Brahmanya dharma. �Hindu� is a nomenclature used by outsiders. The Persians, unable to pron-ounce the word �Sindhu� correctly, called the men of the Indus Valley �Hindu�.

The people of the Sanskritic culture, also called the Aryans, encountered the long-settled Dravidians and the forest dwelling tribes of the subcontinent. Through a process of give and take, a composite culture emerged. There took place a merging of new deities with the old on a massive scale.

Krishna or Vyasa of the Mahabharata were products of the Sanskritic culture as much as the so called Caucasian Aryans. With the passing of time the purity of Aryan Brahmanism was lost. Things could never be the same again. The Buddhists, the Jains, the tantriks and a host of new sects caused diversification of the traditional culture. The monolith of Brahminism was broken.

Alberuni (literally �the foreigner�), an outstanding Muslim scholar from Khiva, made a masterly study of what he perceived as Hindu culture in his book Tarikh-i Hind. This was the first Muslim assessment of the strength and defects of Hinduism as a system. An interaction between Hindu culture and Islam in India went on throughout the medieval period at two levels. The attitude of the ruling class and orthodox Muslim theologians was very different from the sufis, who were much nearer to the common people.

One has to face the fact that all textual pronouncements of different religions are not reconcilable. There is no truth in the assertion that all religions preach the same thing. Yet, it is historically correct to say that the common man in medieval India could go about doing his daily round of work generally ignoring the scriptural injunctions. A person was accepted as he was. Spontaneous humanism and secularism could not be browbeaten. Medieval India was a cosmopolitan world of international trade. A marketplace generates its own secularism. A salesman has to be neutral in matters of religion and social custom.

As the Muslims settled down in the subcontinent, a new mixed culture emerged which combined ideas and practices of both religions. The message of sufism and the bhakti movement reached out to the people at large and could not be effectively countered by orthodox pundits or communal politicians. There was no going back to pure Hinduism.

The seizure of political power in Bengal by the English East India Company marked the beginning of a British, and not a Christian period in Indian history. This was because the British acted as a bridge between India and the fast changing West. The coming of the West to India is a major cultural phenomenon. Despite strong reactions against the new culture, both among Hindus and Muslims, the people of India willingly made room for the Western culture within the broad federal structure of Indian culture.

Indian hospitality towards the outsiders is one fact that is often overlooked. Unlike China and Japan, India has never closed its doors to foreigners or to foreign influence. Apart from the earlier migrants who moved in through the northwest, a host of others came across the seas. Take the Syrian Christians, the Arab traders and sailors before the rise of Islam in the 7th century and later, the Jews, the Parsis, the Armenians and finally the Portuguese, most of whom arrived at the western coast of the country.

India is known for her capacity to accommodate varied ethnic and religious groups. The process of assimilation may not have been entirely peaceful, but India has a way of coping with tensions and unresolved conflicts through its cultural coexistence. In the massive ensemble of diverse religious groups, it would be difficult to seek out the purely �Indian culture�.

One cannot deny however that something distinct emerged in this subcontinent that can be called Indian culture. But this is hardly a �Hindu� culture. Let the Shiv Sena and the RSS stalwarts ask themselves how far back in history they are prepared to go to avoid contamination by Islam or Christianity. It is good to remember that India is the second largest Muslim country after Indonesia. It has more Muslims than Pakistan.

The Christians of India, like the Muslims, are mostly converts from indigenous religions and naturally share much of this culture. The �pure Hindus� will have to learn to live with these Indians who are supposedly different. No sensible person will deny that Western culture has made a difference to India. Although associated with colonial rule, Western influence in India has a distinction of its own. This is because much of it was consciously borrowed by Indians themselves rather than being imposed by alien rulers.

By willingly accepting Western ideas and institutions, India has moved ahead of other Asian countries in the process of modernization. Today, one cannot talk of Indian culture without taking into account the crucial European element. The cry for total national integration reminds one of the cry for national �unity� in pre-independence days. C. Rajagopalachari once said that we have unity, the trouble begins when we want �more� unity.

Now let us turn to the tricky question of the minorities. The Muslim rulers of India did not use a majority-minority divide according to religious affiliations. Non-Muslim subjects were regarded as �protected people�. Yet the rulers recognized the regional cultural groups. They could tell a Gujarati from a Marathi, a Bengali from a Tamil.

The rise of language communities around a number of vernacular literatures is a significant fact of medieval India. Left to itself, India might have grown into a country of diverse regional cultures. But this was thwarted by the colonial intervention after 1857. The official language survey, the census and the forming of electoral constituencies led to an arbitrary classification of the Indian people according to categories of religion and caste. What might have emerged as a federation of many regional nationalities was reduced to a country of Hindus and Muslims. Sadly, these categories were swallowed by the modern Indian elite and used as the basis of their national politics.

Through all this confusion the regional cultural identities held their own. Otherwise, Jawaharlal Nehru would not have accepted the principle of linguistic states much against his will. A noted scholar of linguistics thinks that the regions are the real India. If one goes deep into a regional culture, one can hit the underlying structure of an all-India culture.

A touching episode in an American university campus tells us a great deal. At a students� gathering where Indians and Pakistanis met, an Indian from Delhi said, �I am from Lahore�. A Pakistani replied, �I am from Delhi�. Make no mistake about it. Lahore and Delhi belong to the same Indian culture which has evolved through many centuries.

The author is former professor of history, University of Calcutta



For our eyes only

Sir � When Ketan Parekh, the ace broker responsible for much of the recent disaster in stock markets, is described as �Sleepless and shut out from family� (April 1), the public quite obviously is expected to gloat over the justice of it all. One may recall the similar treatment meted out only months back to Bharat Shah, Bollywood financier and diamond merchant, on his suspected links with the underworld. Many years ago, Harshad Mehta, responsible for the securities scandal, was treated in much the same manner. Yet, Shah�s fortunes have rocketed since then and Mehta has escaped public censure to become a respected financial columnist. Parekh�s brush with the Indian authorities is also going to be bitter, but short. The people of this country have to realize, as the rich and famous already do, that the grilling the government makes these few undergo is a show organized for the pleasure of the public eye. This is also one brief waking hour for the authorities before they fall asleep again.
Yours faithfully,
Samita Pathak, Calcutta

Give them a break

Sir � It has been argued in several articles in The Telegraph, including Sugato Hazra�s �Why cutting interest rates is not that unjust� (March 21), that the reduction in interest rates on small savings is expected since interest rates should logically be linked to the rate of inflation. This argument would have worked had it been possible to adjust the interest rate to the inflation rate. The problem is that while the inflation rate keeps changing from month to month, the interest rate, once fixed, is relatively immutable. The only option is to have either a flexible interest rate which is periodically adjusted to the inflation rate or a relatively stable but slightly higher interest rate which may not need frequent adjustments.

Another argument favouring the reduction on the savings rate is that pensioners have the option to invest in the stock market or in mutual funds. These are only theoretical options at present given the extreme instability of the stock market. Moreover, mutual funds have not yet evolved to the stature and maturity where they would offer a reasonable investment route to pensioners who are looking for stability and security.

The number of senior citizens in the country is increasing and will continue to rise. With the disappearance of large joint families, these people are often left without the kind of family support retired men enjoyed earlier. Nor is there any social security system in India on which they could rely. Comparison with overseas rates is therefore a trite unfair.

A particular inequity is the fact that the senior citizens earned their income at a time when earnings were low and taxes were high. In the evening of their lives, they should not be left with a declining source of income, especially when they have to contend with higher living costs and unforeseen medical expenses for which insurance is no longer possible after a certain age.

Yours faithfully,
P.M. Narielvala, Calcutta

Sir � More than half a century has passed since India attained independence and since then there have been nine five year plans, numerous budgets and a number of finance commissions. Yet, the lot of the ordinary man continues to get worse. Sugato Hazra may be right in contending that the sky has not fallen on the small investor with the lowering of interest rates on savings, but scholars like him should understand that small investors with their meagre funds hardly understand the mechanics of the share market, nor can they trust its vola- tility. Harshad Mehta � and now Ketan Parekh � still haunts the common man.

It is quite obvious that in the absence of stringent market regulations, there is every chance that small investors will be duped by mischievous speculators in the share market. The recent goings on in the stock exchanges throughout the country only attest to this fact.

Does the finance minister now understand that theory is one thing and its implementation quite another, particularly in a country where people in the government and other important institutions are steeped in corruption?

Yours faithfully,
S.K. Pal, Calcutta

Sir � For the last few years, budgets have spelt disaster for senior citizens who depend largely or entirely on income from the interest on savings. In kickstarting the economy, the government seems to be kicking the senior members of the country rather hard.

Interest rates on post office monthy income schemes have come down from 14 per cent to 9.5 per cent. Bank interest has also come down from 13 per cent at the maximum to a paltry 9.5 per cent. The gross income of senior citizens have been brought down virtually by 30 per cent. Even this income is subject to taxation. On the other hand, inflation is touching double digit figures. Thus, the effective interest in this financial year will amount to only one per cent after taking into account the three major factors of interest reduction, inflation and income tax.

The senior citizens of this country should be provided with some safety net which will protect the interest rates available to them on their investments made prior to the budget. India is following the developed countries in reducing the rates of interest on savings, why is it then giving such a short shrift to the concepts of social security?

Yours faithfully,
S.N. Chatterjee, Calcutta

Sir � The reduction in the interest rates on savings is unfair in a country where there is no old age pension and other benefits for senior citizens. Some compensation should be arranged so that these people are given two or three per cent extra interest on investments. It may be mentioned that in the past, half a per cent excess interest was given on fixed deposits by different public sector units to employees of both the state and Central government.

Yours faithfully,
A.K. Dutt, Calcutta

See through

n Sir � In �Ways of seeing� (March 31), Vyjanthimala Bali, chairperson of the 48th national film awards, has stressed that a film on an educational epic like the Mahabharata, deserves awards because it goes back to our culture and values. In the same breath, she deplores another film because of its signalling of all kinds of �wrong� relationships. Either she is oblivious of the fact that Mahabharata also contains high doses of such relationships or she should not chair the office she holds. By an extension of Bali�s logic, films like Ghare Baire and Charulata could also be dumped for the relationships they portray.

Henceforth, directors and producers aspiring for national awards would be wiser to put their money in making hagiographical films that celebrate the lofty notions of the Hindu right instead of taking on ambitious projects like filming Taslima Nasreen�s Amar Meyebela.

Yours faithfully,
Kajal Chatterjee, Sodepur

Sir � The national film awards controversy is shocking. Till last year, art films and the regional language films had attracted more awards. The trend seems to have been reversed. Popular films and artistes from Bollywood feature more in the awards list. The awards in all likeness are politically motivated. This is unfortunate for the film industry, especially for the talented artistes of the country.

Yours faithfully,
Mahesh Kapasi, via email

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