Editorial /Everyone is a winner
There is no one loyalty
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

Perhaps it’s all one vast installation. The lights going on and off in a room at the Tate; Mr Martin Creed presenting this flickering “work” for the Turner Prize (the art world’s Booker); his winning the £20, 000 award; then Madonna presenting him the award, in designer black, the ceremony sponsored by Channel 4; the bleep machine missing her invectives, to the delighted outrage of the British; and finally, a woman hauled out of the Tate for throwing two eggs at Mr Creed’s masterpiece. The outrageous cleverness and publicized glamour of this sequence of events make the entire episode a modern work of art — the sort of complex “event” or “performance” that so much of contemporary art aspires to be.

Yet, Madonna’s words at the show ring true. “Everyone is a winner.” This 21st century icon seems to have got to the essence of what could be either the brilliance or the mindlessness of art in the new millennium. Ever since Marcel Duchamp took an ordinary urinal, signed it “R. Mutt” and entered it as a piece of sculpture titled Fountain in a 1917 New York exhibition, art has acquired the potential of becoming a wonderful free-for-all. Art with a capital A, enshrined in the Venus de Milo or The Girl with a Pearl Earring,was no more. Everybody could make it, everyone could look at it, and everything — from electric chairs to human excrement — could be turned into it. This must have brought a thrilling sense of liberation. The artist could experiment endlessly, overturning hierarchies, breaking traditions and snatching at everything around him to create order or disorder. This could be a wickedly frivolous or an obscurely serious activity. Art became at once very difficult and very easy, very high and very low. The Conceptualist could make art out of ideas; the Minimalist could make it out of nothing. Modernity’s heap of broken images — photography, cinema, advertising, fashion, architecture — suddenly became a kaleidoscope of possibilities. Art outgrew elitism, the Waste Land became fun and trash was transfigured. Kitsch came into being, together with Pop Art and Op Art. Tracey Emin put her unmade bed in the Tate, to be vandalized by two pillow-fighters. At the Kitsch Kitsch Hotha Hai exhibition in New Delhi, Hrithik Roshan’s face adorned the seats of some chairs. Anything goes, Cole Porter had once sung. And anything went.

But the old questions remain — good taste and bad taste, the mystery and value of art, whether art is for everybody or for a few. There is also the question of the artist’s relations with the dealer, the curator and the critic. And finally, how the work remakes the world, and what these remakings might mean to other human beings. The dying Bergotte, in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, takes a last look at the “little patch of yellow wall” in Vermeer’s View of Delft before collapsing in the gallery. He imagines a celestial pair of scales measuring his own life against this little patch of yellow, and fails to survive its ruthless tilt. One wonders which way the scales would have turned if Mr Creed’s flickering lights had replaced Vermeer’s immortal wall.


If we refuse to learn from the happenings around us today, it would be a miracle if we did not have to pay a high price for it tomorrow. One only has to take note of the unending ethnic-religious violence in Sri Lanka. Or, the U-turn in politics which the military dictator-turned-president in Pakistan has been engaged in making since September 11. His particular version of “nationalism” used to be focussed on the solution of the Kashmir problem through military manoeuvres, aiding and aided by Islamic “freedom fighters” who believe in the Holy War.

History would show in the near future whether fighting for freedom in Kashmir, now disinherited officially from the religious fervour of a Holy War, can sustain a high pitch for long. However, more important for the future of Pakistan is whether it would be able to extricate itself from its peculiar military-religious nexus of cultural nationalism, or would embrace this sort of ideology even more firmly in a self-destructive mode, creating in turn a similar reaction from Hindu nationalists.

The narrower the definition of a culture, the greater is the danger of its degenerating soon into some form of terrorism, no matter whether the terrorism is conducted by a group of organized individuals in the name of religion, ethnicity and so on, or is sponsored by the state. We need also to remember that the narrowness of the concept of culture may come not only from religious or ethnic fundamentalism. It may be the product of the other form of narrowness, namely political fanaticism. The history of the sufferings inflicted on the people of Vietnam in the name of “democracy and freedom”, which also involved a whole generation of young and innocent Americans conscripted to fight meaninglessly in a distant land, should be a reminder to us that fundamentalism comes in all shapes, colours and sizes.

The killing fields of Cambodia were an extreme version of the same phenomenon of fanatic political nationalism, in this case in the “cause” of a classless society. Although Islamic fundamentalism looms large at the moment as a major force propelling terrorism, we are informed by the history of the 20th century that it is by no means the only version of fundamentalism that can turn ugly. The fact that fundamentalism can appear in such a bewildering variety of guises with potentially dangerous consequences makes it nearly impossible to have a consensus on it.

This is the reason why all the member states of the United Nations recently agreed that terrorism, which originates from fundamentalism of one sort or another, is bad. But they could not come to any agreed definition of terrorism. And, without facing this issue, the ongoing “war against terrorism” by a supposedly worldwide coalition, is being sustained today simply by the superpower status of the United States of America. Many countries, like Pakistan, fell in line simply because the cost of going against the national interest of the superpower would be far too high. Even a complete military victory against this particular form of fundamentalist terrorism, in the guise of Islam, would not be a moral victory. A definition of terrorism imposed by a superpower is likely to create a reaction against it, perhaps in another form, in another place.

If we look for a moral solution to the problem of terrorism, we would soon be led to a sort of Gandhian position that ends do not justify means. And, the use of violence, inflicting suffering on the innocent as inevitable collateral damage, is never justified, no matter how grotesque the evil that is being fought. However, this moral position is so removed from the real politics of the world today, that it is unlikely to provide much operational guidance. It may provide us with a moral standard, but we do not know how to translate it into the day-to-day affairs of the state.

There is no use pretending that anyone has a solution to this complex problem of fundamentalist terrorism that can appear in various guises. As a matter of fact, to recognize that terrorism has had a variety of fundamentalist origins in recent historical experiences is to begin to search for an honest solution.

At the practical level, such an honest solution has to depend on the device of checks and balances in the polity and in the society. A democratic polity is well-suited for this task, provided we recognize that democracy is not merely about majority rule, it is also about the protection of minority rights. In that sense, it is not an absolute or abstract standard of political correctness. In a civilized polity, we would learn to protect minority rights, reflected in a diversity of religions, ethnicity or language, not as a necessary evil to be tolerated by law, but as a source of cultural richness of “a people”. There is nothing more misleading than to talk about the “clash of civilizations”. Because, civilizations do not clash, what clash are the one-dimensional fundamentalist tendencies that deny the value of diversity. Any civilization is multi-dimensional in that sense.

An apparent flaw of the democratic system is that “we”, the majority, tend to look upon “them”, the minority or the less privileged, as having rights which infringe on our majority rights. As we know all too well, this creates tension about reservation, about affirmative action. There is no easy solution to this problem, and politicians with a fundamentalist agenda will always try to exploit this problem.

Yet, the recognition of one simple point might help in at least reducing the intensity of this issue of majority rule versus minority right in a democracy. In a basic sense, no individual belongs to the majority, because each has multiple loyalties or affiliations. Thus, a Tamil Brahmin may belong to the majority Hindu community in one sense, but he also belongs to the Brahmin minority in another sense. Moreover, suppose he is an old-fashioned scholar of Sanskrit texts with relatively little knowledge of Hindi, but lives in the northern part of India. He does not belong to the Hindi-speaking majority; as a matter of fact, he might think of himself as belonging to a minority language group despite his superior knowledge of the root language of Sanskrit.

Thus, each of us can look deep into ourselves to realize how we all are the products in different ways of such multiple loyalties and affiliations, which may at times even contradict each other. In terms of some loyalties, we belong to the minority, but in terms of others we belong to the majority. It is the job of dishonest politicians to manipulate these various loyalties in an attempt to create a hierarchy; with an overriding loyalty so that, a “majority” can be separated from a “minority”. This can then provide a platform for fundamentalism of some sort to create a winning democratic majority.

It should be the task of the civil society, and of real democratic politics to counter such manipulations by insisting on a simple truth; that individuals are necessarily the product of multiple loyalties. None of us belongs unambiguously to the majority or minority in a civilized society. Spreading this recognition might be the most potent weapon we have against fundamentalist terrorism. However, it would not leave any version of cultured “nationalism” unaffected either, no matter whether it is based on ethnicity, religion or language of the traditional world, or a supposedly “correct” political culture of the modern world.


The author is former professor of economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi



Brave defence

A non-fatal attraction. Vice-president, Krishna Kant, found himself the most sought after man in Parliament on Thursday afternoon while militants and Delhi policemen died in droves outside. His bete noire, Najma Heptullah, was the first to enter his chamber, but not to sweep the chair from under him. It was to seek refuge. Then followed Jaswant Singh, Ghulam Nabi Azad and several others. In the absence of the prime minister and the leader of the opposition, Kant was the only person in the Lok Sabha that day with an armed personal security guard. Still not sure if a pistol would hold against AK-47s, the assembly in Kant’s room kept inquiring every two minutes if the pistol really worked. The august crowd dispersed around two hours later, that is, only after being informed by senior members of the government that the militants were dead and gone. Meanwhile, outside, parliamentarians had busied themselves spinning yarns about how they had stopped the Lok Sabha from falling. Even when scores of mediamen and cameras had stopped recording their feats, they carried on in extended lunches with their domesticated babus. Looks like there are going to be way too many claimants for next year’s bravery awards.

Some weak arguments

No awards for anyone in this case. Not even for Ramdas Athawale, MP from Maharashtra, for his provoking limerick, “Atalji ki lagake photo, Advaniji laye hain POTO, Kafan pe karke ghotala janata ka gala mat ghoto, tumhe harana hi hai hamara motto”. The coffin controversy caught NDA members on the wrong foot. No one knew how to deal with it. Even the BJP spokesman, Vijay Kumar Malhotra, had to ask LK Advani for the line to present before the press. Advani had a simple solution. George Fernandes had to defend himself. So off went Georgie Porgie to face the lights. There were other attempts at damage control as well. Arun Jaitley was sent the next day, but he ended up questioning the locus standi of the comptroller and auditor general. There were other formulations of Jaitley as well. He cited the price difference in the prevailing rate of aluminium and also the price of workmanship. Whose workmanship, Jaitley?

Mistaken identity

The prime minister’s visit to Japan went off fine, except for one hitch. His personal security officer found himself in a slightly awkward position. The officer, who is Sikkimese, had the Japanese driver ferrying them from one place to another, constantly speaking to him in Japanese. The poor officer tried his best to convince the driver that he was not of Japanese origin and did not speak the language either. Since the Japanese driver could understand as much English as the officer could speak Japanese, the situation steadily deteriorated. That was when the protocol officers stepped in, giving the Japanese a lecture on India’s ethnic diversity. That must have been the end of the journey.

Did you know it was coming?

End of a campaign. The terrorist attack on Thursday caught a lot of people offguard. The AICC gen-sec, Kamal Nath, for example. When the fidayeens stole into Parliament, the Congresswallah, along with his followers, was busy holding a demonstration at Jantar Mantar, a kilometre away from Parliament. Shouting “Coffin chor, gaddi chhor” (Coffin thieves, get out of office), Nath stormed into the Parliament Street police station to court arrest. The policemen, however, were in no mood to oblige. An agitated officer even said, “Please feel free to flout any rule. We have no time to arrest you.” Kamal Nath, Subhash Chopra and other party leaders were shell-shocked. That is before their cell phones started ringing in chorus. Bad timing, Nath.

Good time ends badly

Bad tidings for those who have made freebies their mainstay. Now that Jagmohan is here in the tourism department, he is likely to give bureaucrats a very hard time. Many of them had so long made free use of one particular five-star hotel — the health club, sauna, cafeteria and so on — in the capital run by the government. With the descent of Jagmohan, these facilities are now gone. Over 80 per cent of those who figured in the list of complementary pass-holders for the pool in the hotel are bureaucrats, some had been junior officers when they got the pass and had not only retained them, but extended them to members of the family. The ban is apparently also on free lunches and dinners. Does that mean another transfer is in the offing for Jaggu?

The cause of beauty

Another man to watch out for is Pramod Mahajan. The Union parliamentary minister, telecommunications minister, IT minister and unofficial government spokesperson is reported to be a great patron of beauty and apparently wants a ministry created for beauty affairs. Which means beauty queens no longer have to worry about side roles in Bollywood. Surely, the minister and the ministry will be large-hearted enough to accommodate them.

Look this side please

Speaking about side roles. At the cassette release of Shakti Samanta’s Devdas in Bengali, the filmmaker apparently gave the lowdown on himself, his unit, the film Devdas and his “side-hero” (Tapas Paul, who plays Chunilal) and “side-heroine” (Indrani Halder who stars as Chandramukhi). The two stars put up their greatest performance to hide their embarrassment at these appellations. Would Jackie Shroff and Madhuri Dixit (who star for the Hindi Devdaas) also be regarded similarly?

Footnote / It is diplomacy season

India, quite naturally, is mightily elated by what is travelling by air from across the western border. The first import was Yunus Qanuni, the newly appointed interior minister of Afghanistan. Then came the foreign minister of the new regime, Abdullah Abdullah. Now there are talks of the visit of the interim defence minister of the Hamid Karzai goverment — Mohammad Fahim. All this has been quickly interpreted by the MEA as positive indications of the priority Afghanistan is giving India. But diplomats need to look at this other side. The plane that took Qanuni back, brought in Abdullah. When Abdullah goes back, the same plane will carry Fahim to India. For the time being, Afghanistan has no aircraft to shuttle between Bonn, New Delhi and Kabul-Kandahar. Apart from aerial matters, there are other considerations as well. Abdullah has a special reason to be in New Delhi. The visit gives him an opportunity to celebrate Id with his family in the capital. Which only means the MEA needs to keep more planes ready every festive season. Happy diplomacy!    


Terrorists and the moral stand

Sir — The comparisons drawn between September 11 and the attack on Parliament should caution the Indian government against hastily blaming Islamic militants (“Wait for signal from Washington”, Dec 15). The United States of America leapt into accusing Osama bin Laden. This has allowed it to fulfil various political and economic objectives in central Asia; New Delhi likewise may have other agendas in blaming the Lashkar-e-Toiba. But the legitimacy for US actions in Afghanistan still rests on finding evidence of bin Laden’s complicity. New Delhi can show its moral superiority by waiting for proof before it acts.

Yours faithfully,
Pranab Sharma, Calcutta

Electrifying debate

Sir — Let us hope the Indian electricity (West Bengal amendment) bill will continue to focus attention on the wasteful practices of CESC (“Opposition sulks at Bill to beat power thieves”, Dec 13). Then it will be following the good work of the 1998 bill, which saw the the establishment of the quasi-judicial body, the West Bengal electricity regulatory commission, to scrutinize and regulate the CESC’s proposals for tariff hikes. As a demonstration of how ridiculously high CESC inflation claims have been, a proposal for a 30 per cent price increase was reduced by the commission to 3 per cent.

But there are many other problems within the CESC which have to be dealt with. The management of the CESC has developed extravagant habits. The CESC maintained a vast workforce, much of which is deadwood. There are hundreds of cars and motorcycles, which, though ostensibly used for carrying out offcial duties, are often commandeered for private purposes. Besides this, perquisites in the form of free electricity for running power-guzzling gadgets like air conditioners are allowed to many of its officers. The company has been citing “transmission and distribution losses” for its recent problems. I wonder how well electricity is monitored within the licensed area where most of the employees live.

It is questions and issues such as these that the current bill should address . I fear, however, that instead of closer regulation only a few local electricity thieves will be snapped up.

Yours faithfully,
S.K. Chanda, Calcutta

Sir — It is a bold step to introduce legislation that gives deterrent punishment to those who steal electricity, to both consumers who doctor their meters, and non-consumers who “hook” into the electrical grid. The special protection force and specific judicial court as envisaged under the Indian electricity (West Bengal amendment) bill will greatly reduce the time taken between the identifying of the guilty and their sentence being read out in court.

But will the protection force’s ambit extend to examining companies and government offices? Without a coordinated far-reaching effort the pickings at the end of the day will be ineffectual and pitifully inadequate.

Yours faithfully,
Manosh Sen, Calcutta

Parting shot

Sir — The visit of the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to the Renkoji temple in Japan where ashes purportedly of Subhash Chandra Bose are kept brings the issue of the ashes’ legitimacy to the public forum again. What happened to the commission of inquiry appointed by the government on Bose’s reported death in 1945? If the ashes are indeed those of Bose it is high time that they were brought to India, and a fitting memorial raised.

Such recognition would put an end to the whispering campaign being conducted in the country that Bose was alive until recently, and that the Nehrus conspired to prevent his return. It is an injustice to Jawaharlal Nehru and Bose that this should go on when both had high respect for each other. Bose named a battalion in the Indian National Army after Nehru, and Nehru argued admirably for the INA at the Red Fort trials.

Genetic testing must be carried out on the ashes, and the commission be granted access to the relevant documents so that the truth of history is established.

Yours faithfully,
M. Rajan, Coimbatore

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