Editorial 1 / Sorrow and power
Editorial 2 / Protected poet
Liberties beyond debate
Fifth Column / End of a mystery tour
Going up in smoke
Document / Remove all unnecessary barriers
Letters to the editor

The Bharatiya Janata Party, ever since it came to power at the head of the National Democratic Alliance, has had a very uneasy relationship with the extremist wings of the sangh parivar. The prime minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, has never denied that the BJP belongs to the sangh parivar, but he has carefully demarcated his government�s policies from the ideological positions advocated by organizations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Bajrang Dal, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and others of that ilk. The thrust of Hindutva in government policies thus appears somewhat blunted, except in the efforts of Mr Murli Manohar Joshi, the minister for human resource development, to revise and rewrite history school text books. A sense of belonging to the parivar and government policy are thus apparently in conflict. Nowhere was this more evident than in the statement the home minister, Mr L.K. Advani, made to the Lok Sabha on the Ayodhya issue. He admitted that December 6, 1992, the day the Babri Masjid was demolished was the �saddest�� day in his life. It would not be unfair to conclude from this that Mr Advani actually deplored the incident. But Mr Advani�s statement belied such a conclusion. His personal sadness did not stop him from asserting that the Ayodhya movement was an expression of cultural nationalism, and not an articulation of communal sentiments. That there is in the Indian context an almost inevitable overlap between cultural nationalism and communal ideas is something that Mr Advani will find difficult to comprehend.

The reasons for Mr Advani�s personal disapproval of the demolition, and of Mr Vajpayee�s valiant efforts to put a distance between his government and the sangh parivar is evident from a startling statement made by the head of the VHP, Mr Ashok Singhal. The latter demanded the division of Bangladesh, with a separate �homeland�� for the Hindus of Bangladesh. Such a demand can only be described as being quite irresponsible. It is particularly embarrassing for Mr Vajpayee because in the common perception he and Mr Singhal are both seen as belonging to the same ideological formation. As the prime minister of India, Mr Vajpayee cannot be seen to be even remotely associated with such a notion. Mr Advani and Mr Vajpayee, both in their different ways, realize that it is impossible to reconcile the vituperations of the VHP and its ilk with the priorities of running a responsible and respectable government. The admission of Mr Advani�s personal sorrow is rooted in this contradiction, rather than in any ideological rethinking of Hindutva. There is always the danger of the sorrow being overwhelmed by more pernicious sentiments when the BJP is not in power.


It does not require an irreverent sense of humour to see something deliciously bizarre in Rabindranath Tagore being freed from institutional tyranny by Mr Murli Manohar Joshi. The minister for human resources development has vetoed all appeals from Visva-Bharati to get the copyright on Tagore�s works extended for some more time. India is one of the signatories of the Berne convention for the protection of literary and artistic works. According to this convention, the Tagore copyright, held by the university he founded, was to have expired in 1991. But the existential insecurity this provoked in Visva-Bharati and West Bengal�s Left Front government � culture makes strange bedfellows � forced Mr P.V. Narasimha Rao, then prime minister, to get the copyright extended by another ten years. That period is now almost over, Mr Joshi has given his verdict, and Tagore will be out of quarantine in the new year. Visva-Bharati will have no more say on the publication, performance, adaptation or interpretation of his works. After December 31, 2001, this poet � like so many greater artists before him � will have to brave it out, unprotected, with those two most vitally self-regulating entities, the public and the market.

This ought to reassure anybody who has resented the restrictive, authoritarian and sanctimonious view of cultural practice that Visva-Bharati has repeatedly embodied in its role as the custodian of the �authentic Tagore�. But it has been possible for it to foster this ethos of cultural purism because Indian, and particularly Bengali, literate society longs to keep its icons beyond the reach of free and critical dissemination. Idolization has always been part of the Tagore ethos. When this combines with parochialism and snobbery, and gets formalized in a legally empowered regulatory body, what it produces is not the authentic but the moribund. The freeing of Tagore�s corpus from such regulation will no doubt give rise to much that is bad, nonsensical or corrupt. The weeding out will happen automatically, and should not be the prerogative of a single institution. If the rendering of a song, the production of a play, a critical biography or a filmed novel offends a traditional Tagorean, then he would simply have to choose not to have anything to do with it, and let those who are enjoying it get on with their business. If it catches on it will, and this Tagorean would then have to reconcile himself to the fact that most people want their Tagore that way. Good taste is notoriously plural, and any attempt to keep it �good�, out of devotion or squeamishness, would turn culture into something very dead and very boring.


The Bharatiya Janata Party has gained a subtle victory in its current attempts to tamper with textbooks through directives issued by the Central Board of Secondary Education. Many opposition parties like the Congress are backtracking in their condemnation of the government�s move. But more significantly, the BJP has managed to change the terms of the debate within which this controversy is being argued.

The debate, it seems, is no longer over whether education is being saffronized. Rather, the debate has now turned to a different question. Can textbooks contain passages or cite sources that some sections of some communities find offensive? As a piece of realpolitik, the BJP�s focus on passages that Sikhs and Jains supposedly find troublesome was a masterstroke. If we accept that our narratives on Sikhs and Jains ought not to offend their sentiments, are we not accepting that our narrative of Ayodhya should be such that it does not offend Hindu sentiments?

Further, the BJP�s choice of texts has allowed it to position itself as a protector of the religion of some minorities; it has left the Congress scrambling for cover, and legitimized the thought that writing textbooks is not the sole prerogative of professional historians. Once the terms of the debate over the writing of history start taking account of community sentiments, historians protesting about facts and scholarship will be largely irrelevant. Describing it as saffronization or talibanization, at least in this instance, largely obscures the potential danger of the BJP�s move.

In fact, the real danger is that the reference to �community sentiments� in the writing of textbooks will be a threat to the maintenance of a free and liberal society. It matters little which particular community is in question. While many are willing to loudly protest against saffronization, fewer are willing to come out and openly defend the idea that our textbooks will and ought to contain material that many religious communities will find offensive. While our textbooks and public discourse ought to avoid certain kinds of offensive constructions that maliciously stereotype whole communities, the thought that we ought not to offend community sentiments is a deeply revealing, and dangerous one for many reasons.

First, and perhaps most important, an appeal to community sentiments is the surest way to impede self-criticism, and an honest confrontation with history. Are we now going to say that certain strands of Hinduism have never legitimized some of the most insidious forms of oppression known to mankind because this offends Hindus? Are we not going to acknowledge that Sikhism, Islam, Hinduism and other religions have, in their organized manifestations, sometimes legitimized unacceptable kinds of violence? Of course, what we want to avoid is to fall into the trap of saying that violence and oppression are all there is to these religions. Like any complex tradition they also provide the resources of self-criticism. After all, it is the hallmark of every culture that it gives you the means of transcending its own limitations as much as it binds you to it. But the legitimate worries about gross simplifications and malicious stereotyping have given way to an almost insidious piety about community sentiments.

At one level, we all want to say that �real� Hindus, �real� Muslims, �real� Sikhs, or �true� interpretations of their religion, will show that they are not really oppressive or violent. As a moral exhortation to these religions to become the best they can be this is perfectly fine; as pieces of causal analysis these exonerations are neither here nor there. And in most cases such defences are nothing but false piety. Even the appeal of Marxist historiography in the context of secularism rested on this message of exoneration. In an ironic way, one suspects that Marxist and left historiography was also comforting to many people�s sentiments. In a curious way, by denying that religions, ideas and culture could be autonomous forces in history, by reducing violence done in the name of religion to motives like class interest, it let religious communities off the hook.

In effect it was saying that there could be few religious rifts in pre-colonial India because religious ideologies are at best epiphenomena. The comforting thought in saying that religious ideology is trivial is this: they could not be held responsible for much of anything. The upshot of deference to community sentiments will be that the complex web of our complicities will remain forever unacknowledged.

Second, the fact that a liberal democracy is still so tied to a discourse of community sentiments should be a cause for some alarm. It reveals, among other things, the fragility of our identities, that they cannot withstand serious criticism of the histories that produced them. A society in which identities are so fragile that they can be held together only by sanitized versions of the past is in deep danger.

For one thing, an enemy to define oneself against, or the suppression of internal differences and dissent often consolidates fragile identities, which are the harbinger of conflict. For another, fragile identities are a threat to the freedom of thought and expression. Even in the absence of legal restrictions, if a society is constantly concerned with who is offended and who is not, it is unlikely to allow a genuine airing of differences. Public discourse will be far more hypocritical. Although this is a hazardous generalization, fragile identities are less able to face up to the truth. John Stuart Mill, that unmatched defender of free speech, once made the perceptive remark that people usually want to suppress and exorcise speech when the observations it makes are telling and powerful. It is easy to dismiss the ravings of a lunatic, but harder to face up to truths that hit closer home.

Finally, a society which accepts the fact that their giving offence is enough reason for not encouraging, or altogether suppressing, some speech and writing, is opening itself up to demagogues. After all, in most cases we don�t quite know who is actually offended and who isn�t. All we know is that an organized and vocal group can use the pretext of offence to jeopardize our liberties.

The real lesson to be drawn from this round of the textbook controversy is that the deference to community sentiments ought not to be legitimized as a precept. Gandhi once described a book that many Indians found offensive, Katherine Mayo�s Mother India, as a drain inspector�s report, but then urged every Indian to read it. His thought was that any criticism that forces us to confront ourselves could only strengthen the desire to become better than what we are.

In all our deference to community sentiments, in the ease with which we feel offended, in all the hypocritical pieties about respecting all religions and cultures, we are losing what ought to be our central moral ambition: the desire to become better than what we are. By saying that the purpose of education is the protection of identity, that our school education should allow us to pass through life without confronting serious criticism of who we are, we are doing our students a disservice. We will enable students to negotiate difference better if we equip them better with the ability to be self-critical. Deference to �community sentiments� is the surest way of ensuring that our students do not know what it means to live in a free and liberal society.

The author is professor of philosophy, and of law and governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University,New Delhi


George Harrison is not the first or the only Westerner to have expressed the wish to be cremated and have his ashes immersed in the Ganges. But, when Harrison�s ashes are immersed in the Indian river, it will mark more than the end of �the quiet Beatle�. It will be an end of sorts of a chapter in Western cultural history, a chapter in which India and Hinduism had important parts to play.

It was Harrison�s first wife, Patti, who ignited his interest in Eastern philosophy and in India. She became a member of Mahesh Yogi�s spiritual regeneration movement in 1967, and persuaded Harrison to read about transcendental meditation. Harrison got the other Beatles interested, and what followed triggered an unprecedented wave of curiosity about India and Indian culture.

From here emerged a peculiarly romantic vision of India as some kind of spiritual utopia. The many �Indian� fads of the time, including prayer beads, incense, meditation centres, Benares, kalumpur sandals, chillums and loose fitting tie-and-dye or embroidered clothes, were symbols of a generation�s love affair with their own construction of a country and its culture. In Harrison�s own words, �India� unlocked this enormous big door in the back of my consciousness.�

Bizarre and brilliant

These words are a perfect illustration of the way Harrison and his followers would relate to India only in terms of a lack; India was there to open all those unopened �doors of perception�. The experience of urban India was therefore difficult to reconcile: getting mobbed by thousands of teenagers in Bombay in 1966 turned out to be a bizarre experience for the Beatles, used to being mobbed elsewhere in the world.

Harrison was avidly followed in his attempt to discover Eastern mysticism and music. And given that he featured in the popularity charts several rungs after Lennon and McCartney, it is revealing that the Beatles generation continued to ride his �mysticism� bandwagon long after the rest of the quartet had expressed their disenchantment with it.

Ringo Starr and his wife left Rishikesh within ten days of arriving there because they could not take the spicy Indian food any more. Lennon, disgusted with a godman who not only smuggled in chicken for himself while preaching vegetarianism, but also made sexual advances to one of the Beatles groupies, tore him apart in �Sexy Sadie� (�Sadie� actually stands for the sadhu, not for a woman) � �Sexy Sadie what have you done? You made a fool of everyone.� The brilliant, yet ultimately brittle, maze of their Indian experience is captured in the 1967 classic, �I am the Walrus�, which begins, �I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.�

In search of the spirit

Still Harrison hung on. If Mahesh Yogi turned out to be crook, there was Srila Prabhupada and the Hare Krishna Foundation. Till the end, Harrison liked to believe that India would always be there to help him attain salvation. He donated large sums and property to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and the Hare Krishna Foundation, and was actively involved in their activities. The seriousness of Harrison�s involvement in Indian spiritualism was not too well-received by the other Beatles. Lennon was angry that Harrison had neglected him in his book, I Me Mine, little realizing that Harrison had neglected almost everybody, and was content discussing spiritual matters.

Harrison�s creed is a dying one. Hindu mysticism has failed to retain its glamour in the West. Meditation has not lost currency though, and thrives in yoga schools. If the Sixties and the Seventies marked the high noon of Hindu mysticism, Buddhism is what has caught the fascination of the West in the Eighties and the Nineties.

The assimilation of Indian mysticism as part of the Sixties counterculture followed roughly the same logical pattern as the setting of James Bond films in exotic locales. The religious aspects were overridden by their material signifiers. This is why a few like Harrison, whose interest went beyond a dabbler�s, will be missed even while tourists in tie-and-dye clothes flock to Benares.


On November 1, the World Health Organization issued a statement urging developing countries to take action against tobacco advertising: �Tobacco addiction is a killer disease... communicated through advertising.� With provocative timing the Supreme Court the next day gave an interim order banning smoking in certain public places. The rest of the anti-tobacco bill from which the order was drawn � including a ban on tobacco advertising � was left to its doom among the standing committees. The industry could scarcely contain its joy. Whilst the WHO was warning that tobacco companies have launched a huge public relations campaign to convince governments not to take up laws banning advertising, a spokesman for the Tobacco Institute of India cooed at the ruling, �We support any legislation aimed at discouraging smoking so long as it is reasonable and not discriminatory.�

In 1998, a master settlement agreement was signed in the United States of America between the major tobacco companies and 46 states. The settlement saw the industry accede to most of the anti-tobacco lobby�s demands. It remains the panacea of any such legislation. Is India pursuing a similar model? Given that an industry body spokesman was able to suggest that the Supreme Court had taken the �reasonable� option, what is the likelihood of the government legislating for strong laws? And won�t the industry, struggling with declining markets in the West, only be encouraged by the happy incoherence it finds?

The US settlement commited the major tobacco companies to banning youth targeting: no more cartoon characters like the grisly Joe Camel, no advertising of brand-names, or events with significant youth audiences, and no billboards. The American Legacy Foundation was created with an annual budget of $1.45 billion dollars to pay for public awareness campaigns. The industry also agreed to pay $206 billion over the next 25 years to meet tobacco related healthcare costs. As Christine Gregoire, attorney-general of Washington state, and one of the original 13 advocates who began the litigation, said at the time, �The lawsuit is not intended to take away the rights of adults to choose to smoke, and it is not intended to put tobacco companies out of business� it is to stop the industry targeting our children.� The statement was greeted by a profound silence. As a final caveat, all tobacco industry bodies and trade associations had been outlawed.

In 1999, India offered to the courts its own version of the settlement: a public interest litigation by former member of parliament, Murli Deora. It sought a ban on advertising, including direct or indirect targeting of children, and that hallmark of the US settlement, Rs 500 crore healthcare compensation. The case has, unfortunately, demonstrated some of the many reasons why the American approach fails in India. The champion of the PIL, senior advocate Indira Jaisingh, has criticized the �hopelessly unsatisfactory laws� already in place in India, such as the Cigarettes (Regulation of Production Supply and Distribution) Act of 1975. But the only success of her suit to date has been the Supreme Court�s recognition that tobacco companies must provide health warnings on packets, an order already stipulated by the Cigarette Act. A spokesman for the Tobacco Institute was understandably diffident when asked to comment on this ruling, suggesting no new laws presented by the anti-tobacco lobby would succeed until the old ones were implemented.

The spokesman might also have commented as confidently on the lack of co-ordination in the anti-tobacco lobby. Deora�s PIL is one of the 17 PIL cases which have at one time fought the tobacco industry in the courts. At the federal level, several states, including Kerala, Goa, Rajasthan, Delhi, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, have recently passed anti-smoking litigation, while the Lok Sabha is, as mentioned, also considering a bill. There has however been no comprehensive national campaign. Monika Arora of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences has commented that �health interventions do make a difference.� It is indicative of the confusion of existing and proposed laws that none proposes a state or nationwide education campaign.

A further problem in establishing an �Indian settlement� is that though PILs fill the courts there has been a complete lack of private or class action law suits. The US settlement recognized the formative experience of class action lawsuits: high profile cases, like that of the cancer sufferer Richard Boekin, established the principle of a tobacco company�s �strict liability.� Recent criticism of the settlement even suggest that it has been signed to give tobacco companies the authority to resist far greater compensation claims being pursued in the courts privately. After the settlement, Boekin�s original $3.5 billion compensation has been reduced on appeal to $100,000 dollars. Both sums are beyond the Indian register, but, more importantly, so too is the idea of �strict liability.� Courts and tobacco companies instead rely on the ambivalence of the principle of �partial responsibility.�

But perhaps the greatest factor in preventing a settlement in India is not the current approach, but the US settlement itself. A former executive of a tobacco company commenting on the industry he has left, says, �They have to find a way to feed the monster they have built. Just about the only way will be to increase sales to the developing world.� The monster to which he is referring is not the industry, but the settlement that was supposed to placate it. WHO figures confirm his statement: by the 2020s, 10 million people will die annually from tobacco related diseases, of which 70 per cent will then be from the developing world. The settlement has alarmingly forced the burden of profit onto countries like India.

It is in this context that the Supreme Court�s interim order, and the tardy progress of the original bill, seems terribly inadequate. As the World Trade Organization nudges India towards liberalization, international tobacco companies are preparing to take over friendly indigenous ones. ITC, with the largest stake in the Indian market, is partially owned by British American Tobacco as is Vazir Sultan Tobacco. Philip Morris has a 36 per cent stake in Godfrey Philips India. The government�s recent ruling that foreign companies could not own a 100 per cent stake in an Indian company seems a tacit acceptance of their rise to power. The profits of not only filter cigarettes, with their exotic �luxury tax,� but also the humble bidi, are beginning to pay for the medical expenses of cancer sufferers in the US

Philip Morris recently announced plans to change its name to Altria Group Inc. It might help Philip Morris executives forget about the 1998 settlement. The name Altria � referring to the Latin word for �high� � also refers presumably to the profit margins, and the inevitable mortality rates, which are expected to come from the developing world. The US settlement, as Judith Mackay of the Asian Consultancy on Tobacco Control suggested, has left the rest of the world exposed. And without concerted efforts to reach its own settlement � that is, a nationwide education campaign, a ban on advertising, and the notion that an industry is wholly responsible for its product � India remains a vast potential market. The only consolation in light of the US settlement is that may be governments themselves will be forced into paying the compensation to the cancer sufferers they failed to protect.


In the light of experience and of the increasing application of these instruments by members, we agree to negotiations aimed at clarifying and improving disciplines under the agreements on implementation of article VI of the general agreement on tariffs and trade and on subsidies and countervailing measures, while preserving the basic concepts, principles and effectiveness of these agreements and their instruments and objectives, and taking into account the needs of developing and least-developed participants. In the initial phase of the negotiations, participants will indicate the provisions...that they seek to clarify and improve in the subsequent phase. In the context of these negotiations, participants shall also aim to clarify and improve World Trade Organization disciplines on fisheries subsidies, taking into account the importance of this sector to developing countries...

We also agree to negotiations aimed at clarifying and improving disciplines and procedures under the existing WTO provisions applying to regional trade agreements. The negotiations shall take into account the developmental aspects of regional trade agreements. We agree to negotiations on improvements and clarifications of the dispute settlement understanding. The negotiations should be based on the work done thus far as well as any additional proposals by members, and aim to agree on improvements and clarifications not later than May 2003, at which time we will take steps to ensure that the results enter into force as soon as possible thereafter.

With a view to enhancing the mutual supportiveness of trade and environment, we agree to negotiations, without prejudging their outcome, on: (i) the relationship between existing WTO rules and specific trade obligations set out in multilateral environmental agreements. The negotiations shall be limited in scope to the applicability of such existing WTO rules as among parties to the MEA in question. The negotiations shall not prejudice the WTO rights of any member that is not a party to the MEA in question; (ii) procedures for regular information exchange between MEA secretariats and the relevant WTO committees, and the criteria for the granting of observer status; (iii) the reduction or, as appropriate, elimination of tariff and non-tariff barriers to environmental goods and service... We instruct the committee on trade and environment... to give particular attention to: (i) the effect of environmental measures on market access, especially in relation to developing countries, in particular the least-developed among them, and those situations in which the elimination or reduction of trade restrictions and distortions would benefit trade, the environment and development; (ii) the relevant provisions of the agreement on trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights; and (iii) labelling requirements for environmental purposes.

Work on these issues should include the identification of any need to clarify relevant WTO rules. The Committee shall report to the fifth session of the ministerial conference, and make recommendations, where appropriate, with respect to future action, including the desirability of negotiations. The outcome of this work as well as the negotiations carried out ... shall be compatible with the open and non-discriminatory nature of the multilateral trading system, shall not add to or diminish the rights and obligations of members under existing WTO agreements, in particular the agreement on the application of sanitary and phytosanitary measures, nor alter the balance of these rights and obligations, and will take into account the needs of developing and least-developed countries.

We recognize the importance of technical assistance and capacity-building in the field of trade and environment to developing countries, in particular the least-developed among them. We also encourage that expertise and experience be shared with members wishing to perform environmental reviews at the national level. A report shall be prepared on these activities for the fifth session.

We agree to a programme, under the auspices of the general council, to examine issues relating to the trade of small economies. The objective of this work is to frame responses to the trade-related issues identified for the fuller integration of small, vulnerable economies into the multilateral trading system, and not to create a sub-category of WTO members. The general council shall review the work programme and make recommendations for action to the fifth session of the ministerial conference.

We agree to an examination, in a working group under the auspices of the general council, of the relationship between trade, debt and finance, and of any possible recommendations on steps that might be taken within the mandate and competence of the WTO to enhance the capacity of the multilateral trading system to contribute to a durable solution to the problem of external indebtedness of developing and least-developed countries, and to strengthen the coherence of international trade and financial policies, with a view to safeguarding the multilateral trading system from the effects of financial and monetary instability. The general council shall report to the fifth session of the ministerial conference on progress in the examination.

To be concluded



War against state terror

Sir � Naxalite attacks on industrial units in Andhra Pradesh have once again given the home minister, L.K. Advani, the opportunity to campaign for the passage of the controversial anti-terror ordinance. But if events in Srinagar are any indication, the passage of the ordinance is a double-edged sword that can give rise to a new set of problems (�Public heat melts terror law seal on house�, Dec 2). Sentiments of the local people forced the police in Srinagar to hand over a house they had sealed on the grounds that it sheltered militants. The arrest of seven girls who were suspected of being involved in terrorist activities sparked off violence in Bandipora, a fact that clearly demonstrates the current of public sentiments against the ordinance. Both the National Democratic Alliance government and the home minister should keep in mind one important fact � for most people in Kashmir and the Northeast the new ordinance brings back memories of its more famous past incarnation.

Yours faithfully,
Arunava Dutta Gupta, Calcutta

Game without rules

Sir � It was interesting to read Pratap Bhanu Mehta�s article on the medley that is Indian politics (�All coherence gone�, Nov 7). Politicians in our country at present have no proper ideology, and they also lack the commitment and vision that their predecessors possessed. To them, politics is a game that they play in order to win for themselves power, fame and money. The needs and welfare of the people of their constituencies are only incidental to their scheme of things. Therefore, they promote their interests shamelessly. An appalling lack of imagination and a paucity of ideas make them use the same gimmick repeatedly with the same results. The proliferation of innumerable political parties, all of whom claim to be the protectors of some linguistic or religious minority, has further impoverished the Indian political scenario. As has been pointed out by Mehta, we therefore have a confusing number of labels like �cultural nationalism�, anti-globalization sentiments� and so on.

Unlike the United States of America which has two major political parties, India is a multi-party democracy. Our politicians prefer to take the easy way out whenever there is disagreement. The anti-defection law has completely failed in preventing the break-up of parties. The history of Indian polity is full of such instances: the break up of the Congress in 1967, the split in the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham, the more recent break in the Congress and the formation of the Trinamool Congress and so on. Mehta has also painted a realistic picture of the Congress under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi. Instead of playing the role of a constructive opposition, the party has allowed itself to be directed by the limitations of electoral politics.

Yours faithfully,
Urmila Ghosh, Calcutta

Sir � Pratap Bhanu Mehta has correctly diagnosed the malaise that ails Indian politics and politicians. Instead of concentrating their resources on the building of infrastructure, schools, hospitals and in promoting industry and trade politicians prefer to blame the US or the World Bank for our miseries. The people of this country are also as misguided as their leaders and feel more comfortable blaming the World Trade Organization than in indulging in some introspection. It hardly matters whether the government in power is the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Congress. Each party or group of parties has been implicated in scandals involving crores of rupees. While it may have been the Bofors for the Congress, it is the Unit Trust of India for the BJP.

Mehta has also rightly commented on the dilemma of the BJP, which has been unable to reconcile its centrism with its claim of being pro-Hindutva. The dynamics of coalition politics has also forced its leaders to compromise on some of their pet projects like the uniform civil code and the Ram janmabhoomi issue. One cannot help agreeing with Mehta that it is the Congress that has been the worst casualty of opportunistic politics and policies. The party never really recovered from the death of Rajiv Gandhi and the political exile of P.V. Narasimha Rao after the hawala scandal. The election of Sonia Gandhi to the post of Congress president raised initial hopes of reorganization and unity but she has failed to curb dissent and bring about a consensus on important issues.

Yours faithfully,
Prakash Singh, via email

Liquid poison

Sir � Despite the fact that this is the third hooch tragedy in three months, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazagham government seems completely indifferent to the loss of lives (�Hooch, tariff hikes rock reform drive�, Dec 2). The tragedy has merely sparked off another round of controversy and has afforded the Pattali Makkal Katchi and its leader, S. Ramadoss, an opportunity to come down heavily on the AIADMK.

Although the death toll has already gone up to 50 with the death of the 30-year-old farmhand, Ayyanar, politicians in the state are more interested in blaming one another. Certain parts of the state are dry, but the smuggling of illicit liquor continues unabated. The government, too, has reacted defensively to the incident and a cover-up seems to be underway. Given that as many as 150 people have been admitted to the Cuddalore hospital and nearly 50 of them have turned blind, the government should have accepted moral responsibility for the tragedy. It would also be pertinent for the government to re-examine its prohibition policy in this context.

Yours faithfully,
Indira Ghosh, via email

Sir � The government of Tamil Nadu seems unconcerned about the death of about 50 people in Cuddalore. Even though it has announced an inquiry into the incident and a sample of the liquor has been sent to the laboratory for analysis, it is unlikely that the investigation will lead to the truth. This incident is different from the one in Red Hills where the victims were believed to have consumed a mixture of methanol and water. Even though such incidents occur almost at regular intervals, the wrongdoers are never punished. The administration goes through the ritual of suspending a few policemen in the prohibition squad but no breakthrough emerges in the investigation.

The government should put an end to prohibition and dissolve the prohibition squad. It could also consider lifting taxes and excise duties on liquor and ensure the availability of cheap liquor like arrack for the poor. This would steer them away from bootleggers who offer cheap but toxic liquor. It would also not be a bad idea to enlist the help of non-governmental organizations in spreading awareness.

Yours faithfully,
Kangayam R. Rangaswamy, Durham, US

Parting shot

Sir � In his article, �Delights of a noisy festival� (Dec 1), Khushwant Singh has attributed the pollution of water bodies to the immersion of idols in them. He has pointed out that most of this pollution occurs in the name of religion. One wonders what he feels would be a solution to this problem. It is also difficult to understand why Singh feels the need to come out strongly against the bursting of crackers during Diwali. He could have dwelt on the more serious causes of pollution and thus reiterated his claims to being ecologically conscious.

Yours faithfully,
Kaustav Sinha Ray, Calcutta

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