Editorial / Inheriting vagueness
India is not for Hindus alone
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

The word heritage sounds impressive. And like many impressive words, it is also vague. The enormously expanded list of “heritage” buildings prepared by the Calcutta Municipal Corporation, including over a thousand buildings and sites, is a striking example of such vagueness. In effect, it empties the notion of heritage of all meaning. Buildings or sites can be preserved and restored for a variety of reasons, each of which will have to be identified and explored thoroughly. A list of “heritage” buildings may be based on more than one principle. At the same time, if the makers of the list do not clarify the reasons first, the list is bound to become a ragbag of whimsical preferences.

But the first step of all is defining the premise. What is meant by heritage? To broadly define it as the history of a city is to actually throw the question wide open. Certain cities can identify a historical event as a turning point in their evolution, like bombing during the world wars. Restoration, preservation and rebuilding can then find a broad historical perspective in order to retain a sense of the past in the present. But a city such as Calcutta, which is a site of accretion, is the meeting point of many histories, each with its own turning point. Which history is to be chosen, and who is to choose? Buildings from the colonial past as well as those representing feudal munificence can slide into the list side by side with houses associated with iconic personages of history. This would revive the question instead of answering it. In Calcutta’s case, the history could be of the nationalist movement, or of the Bengal renaissance. Everything together means sheer confusion. Besides, people move from place to place; there is no way to decide how many hours or years are needed for a hero to have spent in a house for it to become part of the city’s heritage.

There is, additionally, the far more troublesome issue of cultural history. The Bengal renaissance leads to a vortex of contending personalities, sites and achievements, without answering the primary question, that is, which strand of cultural history a city like Calcutta is to recover and preserve. A city with a cosmopolitan past cannot afford to focus on a dominant culture. A heritage list may thus limit perceptions of the past.

Another principle is architecture. On that basis, any beautiful building may be preserved. But only after deciding whether beauty is to be located in architectural excellence, a particular style, or simple visual appeal ranging from magnificence to prettiness, and whether the “heritage” is to be located within a certain timeframe. Identification by architectural excellence may be a good way to limit the damage being done by the regimentation of current urban building practices. But it will also lengthen the list while making the notion of heritage vaguer still. The problem with the present list is that no principle or combination of principles is discernible. The heritage commission has not been able to provide it with a defining context, as a result of which the idea of heritage remains suspended in a limbo of meaninglessness. The preservation of buildings is significant activity, but only if the purpose behind it is clear to the policymakers.


Not long ago, on a rainy London evening, I found myself at the Festival of Hindu Youth. Parked outside the vast marquees set up for the occasion were fleets of shiny cars, and inside the tents were prosperous families. Almost all had their origins in the Indian state of Gujarat — the region that, over the past weeks, has been swept by violence. I was there to give a talk about Mahatma Gandhi, the most extraordinary Gujarati ever to have lived — a man who, defying the prejudices of his society, practised a pluralist and tolerant faith, fought against the evil of caste, and gave his life in trying to end violence between Hindus and Muslims.

In fact, there were few at the festival interested in Gandhi or his message. Instead, I listened to speaker after speaker working on the audience in televangelical style: exhorting the youngsters to stand up for their Hindu religion, to defend their caste identities, and to face down other religions that might intimidate them — especially Muslims. In a north London suburb, I was witnessing the very sentiment that today is ripping up the India that Gandhi and his heir, Jawaharlal Nehru, had worked to build. The clash is between two ways of envisioning India: an idea of India that finds strength in the country’s profound diversities, and that has tried, in a striking and original experiment, to invent ways that allow these to cohabit within a single political frame; and, set against this, the dream of a nation purged of other religions, of an India that is homogenous and ethnically cleansed — the Hindu extremist ideology of Hindutva.

Gujarat is the only Indian regional state ruled by this ideology. As such, it offers the starkest image of what Hindu nationalism, should it ever gain unrestrained control of the Indian state, will mean for India and its future.

Gujarat has long been considered one of India’s most developed states. Its per capita income is over three times that of India’s poorest state, Bihar, and its fortunes are closely linked with a large, economically powerful Gujarati diaspora across the globe. Gujaratis have a reputation for being industrious and entrepreneurial, civic-minded, and even (it sounds laughable now) pacific. Their reputed virtues make them an epitome of the Indian middle class — and there is, too, a successful Gujarati Muslim bourgeoisie (indeed, Gujarati Muslims, who form around 12 per cent of the state’s population, are among the most assimilated in India).

Yet, literally and sickeningly, Gujarat is today the crucible where the alloy of Indian selfhood is being tested. This region has hardly been immune to religious violence in the past. But this time, things are very different. The causes and the stakes of earlier Hindu-Muslim clashes were local. Now, the violence is impelled by a larger story about what kind of place India should be; and the immediate cause — the attack at Godhra by Muslims on a train carrying Hindu activists back from the northern town of Ayodhya — is in events elsewhere.

Most important, the violence against Muslims that followed the train attack was not the work of spontaneous mobs, of the illiterate or impoverished. As the police commissioner of Ahmedabad himself stated, “These mobs were being led by the educated people — advocates, doctors, the rich.” The looters drove cars, and dialled mobile phones. At their helm were politicians and party activists from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its umbrella of supporters: the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and its “youth wing”, the Bajrang Dal, virtually terrorist organizations of thugs trained in arson and killing, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, whose members assassinated Gandhi in 1948, a movement founded in the Twenties under the inspiration of Mussolini’s Brown Shirts. Standing behind them were the BJP leaders in New Delhi who head the national government.

Together, these men showed a lethal determination to exterminate all signs of Muslim presence. Alongside the most brutal murders, Muslim businesses, homes, mosques, shrines and tombs were precisely targeted.

The ambition to make India a Hindu nation-state has existed since the late 19th century. Why has it acquired such a devastating force now? One of the remarkable achievements of India’s half-century-old experiment with democracy is that, over the past decade or so, the lowest and poorest in the caste and economic order have entered the world of electoral politics. Regional lower-caste parties have proliferated, and have challenged the position of the upper-caste orders. At the same time, the agrarian middle castes, many of them newly prosperous, have felt threatened by those immediately below them pressing for political recognition.

Indeed, Gujarat in the late Eighties and early Nineties was the location of some of India’s worst caste violence. Hindu extremism has always drawn its support from these upper and middle castes — economically and socially powerful, but numerically small. Constrained by electoral politics, the BJP strategy has therefore been to unite support around a “Hindu” vote. In search of a permanent majority, it has tried to draw in other less-privileged social groups by using a rhetoric of hatred and religious symbolism and inciting fear of enemies — the repertoire includes Pakistan, Muslims, Christians, the West. It has created a “monster” Hinduism — a potentially immense coagulation of support that defies all traditional forms of Hindu practice and belief.

The state of Gujarat has been the chosen laboratory for the Hindutva experiment. The BJP’s “family” of supporters has a stranglehold over public life in Gujarat — in recent years, they burned churches, ransacked an exhibition by India’s leading painter (who happens to be Muslim) and gained control of the media (they tried to shut down independent television coverage of the current carnage, which showed BJP politicians participating while police stood by idly).

Today, if you are a Muslim, a Christian, or a tribal, living in Gujarat — if you are not a Hindu — the authority of the state has ceased to protect you. Among the 30-odd regional states of the Indian Union, many contend for the prize of being India’s leading dystopia. Now, Gujarat has placed itself well ahead. What is happening there reveals the depth of the threat facing Indians today.

So far, the legal constitutional order of the Indian state — which refuses to privilege any one religious community, and guarantees security for India’s many numerically small but historically deeply-rooted religious groups — has, despite serious battering, remained in place. In the 55 years since the horror of Partition, the Indian secular state has, in fact, been able to restrict the number killed in Hindu-Muslim riots to around 8,000 (another 3,000 Sikhs were killed by Hindus in 1984). This is an unforgivable blot on the face of any secular state. But it’s worth setting this figure against the background of India’s demographic scale, its deep divisions, and the profound stresses democratic change is bringing to the society.

This could now change. The leaders of the BJP, the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and the home minister, Lal Krishna Advani, are committed to a totalitarian vision. It is one that defiles Indian civilization — a civilization that in truth is the mongrel creature of diverse cultures, impulses and ideas.

It is time for patriotic Indians across the world to stand up and to renew the idea of India that Gandhi, Nehru and the generations who fought for India’s independence stood for. If we do not, India will cease to be itself.

The author teaches at Birkbeck College, University of London, and is the author of The Idea of India. He is currently a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington



Friends are for a cup of tea

Committed From ashes to ashes. To return from the quiet burial of the Godhra ashes issue to the almost-forgotten figure of the ash-smeared hero of Ayodhya, Ramchandra Das Paramhans, and one of his other commitments. Paramhans has a friend, and the most unlikely one. While he is willing to give up his life for the Ram temple, his friend is out to stop its construction at any cost. The mandir-masjid dispute, however, has not come in the way of the sadhu and his buddy, Mohammad Hashim Ansari, key litigant in the case filed by the Sunni Waqf Board. While the 94-year old mahant is reputed to have filed a case on December 5, 1950, seeking permission from the courts to worship, friend Hashim followed suit with one on December 16, 1961, seeking removal of the idols from the inside of the then undestroyed Babri Masjid. The Paramhans-Ansari friendship apparently goes back to the Fifties, when the sadhu, a resident of Bihar, made Ayodhya his home. The two have reportedly met regularly before and even after December 6, 1992. Ansari is said to run a tailoring shop in Ayodhya, and the mahant is a frequent visitor to his shop, not so much for fashion as for a cup of tea and a quiet chat. There have also been times when Paramhans is said to have hired Ansari’s taxi. Any lesson in it for the belligerent VHPwallahs in Godhra and elsewhere? Just in case there is, would Paramhans please care to preach it himself?

Seeing red

A lesson in red. Just before he left for Hyderabad to attend the CPI(M) party congress, Nirupam Sen, commerce and industry minister in West Bengal, got to know that comdrades in the Dum Dum-Sinthi area had decided to burn copies of a particular vernacular newspaper that was carrying a series of reports on the left. They needed to play god and stop the paper from reaching readers. A furious Sen reached out to them before that with a strict warning. If they had to be so barbaric, they would have to do it outside the party. There was a wise note as well. Newspapers will be newspapers, and there was a political way of dealing with them. Burning copies was not that. An emissary was despatched and the masterminds told that they would be thrown out of the party if they went ahead. Magic words. The dadas relented and newspapers safely reached readers.

End of an affair

Nothing is going to be the same in Gujarat anymore, not even Muharram. The Muslim population there has reportedly decided not to bring out colourful tazias. Muharram is a month of mourning for the community and the happenings in the state will lend it more sombreness. Unfortunately.

How to run

Meanwhile, political life goes on as usual. Najma Heptullah, Rajya Sabha deputy speaker and currently running for the vice-president’s chair, is taking no chances this time. Not that she did ever. Anyway, dear Najma recently called on Pranab Mukherjee, seeking his support for the coveted post. But Mr Finger in Every Pie is himself gunning for the post. Naturally, he declined committing himself. He merely asked Najma if she had got the approval of Mrs G. Then in a lengthy explanation, he informed Najma how important it was for the runner to, first and foremost, secure sponsorship from one’s party. Mrs H got the message, loud and clear. But evidently that hasn’t stopped her from seeking the sponsorship of other important people like LK Advani, Jyoti Basu and N Chandrababu Naidu. But, we have been told, none has given any commitment. Did they all remind her about Mrs G?

Self-aid is the best AIDS

Help!!! The Jammu and Kashmir CM, Farooq Abdullah has reportedly re-inducted one Govind Ram to his cabinet two years after he had decided to drop him, shocked out of his wits by his minister’s ignorance. Ram then was minister of health. At a world AIDS conference held in Jammu, the minister had his audience in splits when he started talking. He hit it off by saying that Jammu and Kashmir was facing a severe aids problem because the Centre was not giving enough aids. Farooq decided he had had enough. So why does he want him back now? That is because the elections are nearing and he probably wants some aid from his representative in Jammu.

To come of age

In didi’s aid? The Trinamool Congress has a new star on its horizon, Partha Chatterjee, first time MLA from Behala (West), who seems to have earned the confidence of Mamata Banerjee and is the Trinamool’s new face in Delhi and all other major affairs. Chatterjee, a former corporate who left a plush job for the rough and tumble of a political career, also seems to have earned the respect of the powers that be. Chatterjee recently had the rare courage to point out in the assembly that the governor’s speech, while mentioning the dead, had failed to mention the policemen who had taken the bullets at the American Center. The chief minister thanked Chatterjee in the house and is even said to have asked his MLAs to look out for what Chatterjee was saying. In another incident the assembly speaker showered encomiums on Chatterjee for his constructive advice in political and administrative matters. So far so good. But will he manage to be didi’s man in the Trinamool?

Footnote / As some would like it

A politico’s former wife and daughter-in-law of an opposition party bigwig found dead in a five-star hotel is one piece of news the bored national capital would bore into till death. So while the police still gropes in the dark about the murder/suicide angles of the mysterious death of Natasha Singh, social Delhi is agog with rumours and conspiracy theories. One has it that the police ought to look into dead Natasha’s divorce petition once again in which she is said to have mentioned her husband’s romantic involvement with the daughter of a high profile diplomat. One way to nab Jagat, eh? And there would be many more than willing to egg the police on along that route. Hubby Jagat was once gen-sec of the Indian youth Congress and naturally had political ambitions. So even while people hadn’t stopped gasping in shock over the death, IYC chief, Randeep Surjewala, is said to have attempted to settle old scores. That is till he had to be reminded by AICC gen-sec Oscar Fernandes that this wasn’t exactly the time. He also begged the media not to politicize the tragedy. “Politicize”, who?    


In the shadows

Sir — Contrary to what the report, “Oscar’s golden chance to bury dark past” (March 18), says, Hollywood’s prejudice against African-Americans is not likely to lessen in the near future. Political correctness notwithstanding, blacks continue to be marginalized in American society. And films are no exception. Also, look at Hollywood’s curious silence on inter-racial relationships — as if such things were better left unsaid. As long as blacks remain “invisible” in American society, performers like Denzel Washington will continue to be sidelined at the Oscars.

Yours faithfully,
Sunanda Gupta, Calcutta

State of the economy

Sir — The editorial, “Very trying” (March 11), rightly points out that there is nothing new or remarkable about Asim Dasgupta’s budget. Despite his criticism of Yashwant Sinha, Dasgupta has imposed a 10 per cent surcharge on sales tax in order to generate an income of Rs 376 crore — reviving, in the process, a levy that was abolished long ago. Dasgupta’s “alternative economic path” is an eyewash. He cannot criticize Sinha for imposing additional taxes on the one hand and do the same in his own budget on the other.

Even though the finance minister has allocated Rs 889.6 crore for urban development and has promised Calcuttans better roads and new buses, the challenge for the government will be to ensure that these funds are properly utilized. Dasgupta’s lack of vision is evident from his decision to impose a whopping entertainment tax of 20 per cent on amusement parks. Perhaps he thinks that such parks are frequented only by the rich. Dasgupta should realize that it is decisions like these that have given the state the impression of being anti-growth and development.

Yours faithfully,
Apurba Mitra, Calcutta

Sir — Asim Dasgupta must be praised for presenting a progressive budget. Although the country is in the midst of a recession, Dasgupta has managed to limit the state’s fiscal deficit to Rs 4 crore and has aimed at a growth rate of 7.8 per cent for the year 2001-02. Dasgupta has also talked about creating more jobs. However, he has inexplicably said nothing about recruit- ment to government offices through the public service commission.

Yours faithfully,
Apratim Sinha, Burdwan

Sir — If Yashwant Sinha had “robbed” people by his budget, then they can be said to have been “looted” by the West Bengal finance minister. And now the Calcutta Municipal Corporation too seems to have joined in, as a result of which Calcuttans will now have to pay more for water, even though it is a basic amenity. The CMC has also increased burial and cremation charges by 20 per cent, which will further burden the middle-classes.

The mayor of Calcutta, Subrata Mukherjee, has raised the fee on cinemas by 50 paise, following in the footsteps of Asim Dasgupta, who imposed a 20 per cent tax on bowling alleys and pool parlours. Mukherjee’s actions prove that politicians rarely think of the good of the people. After driving off private capital from the state, the West Bengal government can now congratulate itself on depriving people of their few remaining pleasures.

Yours faithfully,
Sush Kocher, Calcutta

Channel blues

Sir — Of late, many Bengali channels have started conducting news programmes and debates in English and Hindi. These channels were meant for Bengali audiences, who were bored with the over dose of Hindi programmes on the other channels. It is expected that these channels will conduct news and current affairs programmes in Bengali, besides the mandatory Bengali films and serials. Introducing Hindi and English programmes on these channels defeats their very purpose — providing wholesale entertainment to Bengali audiences.

Yours faithfully,
Manaspratim Basu, Calcutta

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