Saturday, January 30, 2010

America legitimising Taliban!


It matters little to the 70 countries whose representatives met in London last Thursday to discuss the modalities of striking a deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan what Afghans think of the cowardly decision. “The London conference was not about Afghanistan, but about British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s re-election campaign,” Mr Aziz Hakimi, who heads an NGO in Kabul, has been quoted as bitterly commenting after the adoption of a $ 500 million ‘Peace and Reintegration Trust Fund’. Those who take a less than charitable view of US President Barack Hussein Obama’s much-hyped but utterly hollow AfPak policy and America’s trans-Atlantic ally’s sudden urge to end the Afghan war have promptly dubbed the ‘Peace and Reintegration Trust Fund’ as the ‘Taliban Trust Fund’.

The outrage is understandable. The absurd theory of there being a ‘good’ Taliban with whom the world can co-exist in peace and a ‘bad’ Taliban who should be shunned has finally been put to practice. Worse, the London conference has succeeded in erasing the mythical line separating the ‘good’ Taliban from the ‘bad’ Taliban. Never mind the display of faux displeasure and bogus dismay by the Americans in London; we can be sure that the decision to bribe the Taliban, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, with “jobs and homes” — euphemism for sacks of greenbacks — so that they give up their murderous ways, had the Obama Administration’s prior approval. In fact, the proposal, for all we know, may have emanated from Washington, DC. It was unveiled in London.

Mr Mark Sedwill, Nato’s newly-appointed civilian chief in Afghanistan, has been candid enough to admit that the proposed deal will involve reaching out to “some pretty unsavoury characters”. In effect, this means seeking peace with those who have sheltered Al Qaeda’s top leaders, including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. They will be asked to “cut ties with Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups and pursue their political goals peacefully” for a certain price to be settled in cash. The US, at least officially, was opposed to a blanket offer, insisting that it should be limited to Taliban ‘fighters’. But it does not appear to have pushed this point too far, which only suggests that the ‘Peace and Reintegration Trust Fund’ is the outcome of a pre-rehearsed, carefully scripted, exercise.

Ironically, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, which worked in tandem with the US in the early-1990s to facilitate the birth and rise to power of Mullah Omar and his evil gang that the world came to know as the Taliban, will now “play a key role in the reintegration process”. Pakistan, cock-a-hoop over the outcome of the London conference, has offered its services to train the Afghan police and security forces. We could soon see the ISI expanding its reach into, and control over, Afghanistan. In a sense, the US has conceded Pakistan’s claim over Afghanistan; Islamabad can now look forward to regaining its ‘strategic depth’ through a puppet regime in Kabul.

Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai is welcome to believe that he has secured his job, but so did Mohammad Najibullah suffer from delusions of invincibility till he was strung up from a lamp-post with his family jewels stuffed into his mouth. Yet, there’s little that Mr Karzai can do, apart from hope that the American and Nato troops won’t just up and leave but hang around “for at least a decade”. The contours of the ‘reintegration process’ will emerge at a peace jirga which Mr Karzai says he will convene in the coming weeks. But it’s unlikely that he is in command of the unfolding situation: It’s more than likely that Pakistan, backed by the US, will now call the shots, to begin with covertly and increasingly overtly as it gets into the act of reclaiming what it had lost in the aftermath of 9/11. Unless, of course, things go horribly wrong and the ‘Taliban Trust Fund’ turns out to be a non-starter.

For the moment, there is no reason to believe that the proposed deal with the Taliban will unravel, or be an exclusive affair restricted to the ‘good’ and not the ‘bad’ among the wretched lot. It now transpires that regional commanders of the Taliban’s infamous Quetta Shura held secret talks with the UN’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Mr Kai Eide, in Dubai on January 8. The Guardian, which broke the story, quoted officials as saying, “They (the Taliban) requested the meeting to explore avenues for talks. They want protection to come out in public.” A UN official, confirming the Dubai talks, said, “The Taliban made overtures to the Special Representative to talk about peace talks… That information was shared with the Afghan Government and the UN hopes that the Afghan Government will capitalise on this opportunity.” Capitulate, and not capitalise, would be a more appropriate word.

Having decided to sup with the devil, it makes little or no sense to set a standard for those invited to the supper. Ms Hillary Clinton, rather than take recourse to subterfuge, was being honest when, commenting on the London deal, she said, “The starting premise is you don’t make peace with your friends.” Having accepted this fact, the Obama Administration should stop pretending that it is opposed to the idea of a “future Afghan Government that includes allies of Mullah Omar”. Nor should US Special Representative Richard Holbrooke make a show of insisting that the “peace plan should focus on low-ranking Taliban fighters motivated by money, not ideology”. Mr Holbrooke is welcome to insist “That is not on the agenda here. There is nothing happening on it involving the United States” and that “the Taliban’s renunciation of Al Qaeda is a red line” for the US. Such assertions on drawing a ‘red line’ amount to what is referred to as a ‘red herring’. If Pakistan and the Taliban suffer from serious trust deficit, so does the US.

India should be worried — very, very worried — about the US-sponsored attempt to legitimise the Taliban and thereby instal Pakistan’s proxy regime in Kabul. But with a limp-wristed Government taking instructions from the US, there is little that we can do other than fret and fume. There is something extremely sinister about the orchestrated clamour in the New Delhi Establishment, of which certain sections of the media are an integral part, for the resumption of India-Pakistan talks. That the dubious initiative to revive the stalled bilateral dialogue should coincide with the London conference and the appointment of Mr Shiv Shankar Menon as National Security Adviser is not entirely surprising. India’s humiliation at Sharm el-Sheikh will now be taken to its logical conclusion by Mr Manmohan Singh, ably assisted by Mr Menon. If you have any doubts, look at the craven alacrity with which Minister for External Affairs SM Krishna has signalled that the UPA Government is willing to “do business” with a Taliban legitimised by the US.

[This appears as my Sunday column Coffee Break in The Pioneer on January 31, 2010.]

Saturday, January 23, 2010

To forget would be to forgive


Nandimarg massacre of Pandits: Even toddlers were not spared by Islamists.

Twenty
years ago this past week, Hindus were forced to flee Kashmir Valley, their ancestral land, by Islamic fanatics baying for their blood. Not a finger was raised by the state in admonition nor did ‘civil society’ feel outraged. In these 20 years, India has forgotten that outrage, a grotesque assault on our idea of nationhood. So much so, nobody even talks of the Kashmiri Pandits, driven out of their home and hearth, virtually stripped of their identity and reduced to living as refugees in their own country, any more.

Our ‘secular’ media, obsessed as it is with pandering to the baser instincts of Muslim separatists, waxing eloquent about the many sorrows of India’s least of all minorities, arguing the case for rabid mullahs and demanding ‘greater autonomy’ for Jammu & Kashmir so that the Tricolour doesn’t fly there any more, has not thought it fit to take note of the 20th anniversary of the new age Exodus. Our politicians, who salivate for Muslim votes and are willing to go to any extent to appease ‘minority sentiments’ — including approving the automatic though absurd inclusion of Muslims in the list of BPL beneficiaries of the Indian state’s munificence in keeping with the Prime Minister’s ‘Muslims first’ policy — would rather pretend this particular event never happened. Our judiciary, which endlessly agonises over terrorists and their molls being killed in Gujarat, has not thought it fit to set up a Special Investigation Team to identify the guilty men of 1990 and bring them to justice. It would seem Hindu pride, Hindu dignity and Hindu lives are irrelevant in this wondrous land of ours.

Tragically, Hindus have no sense of history: Those who have come of age in these 20 years, we can be sure, are ignorant of how the Kashmir Valley was cleansed of its Hindu population through a modern day genocide. To forget, it is often said, is to forgive. But should we forgive those who committed this monstrous act of criminal misdeed? Should we forget that the Government of India has disowned the Hindus of Kashmir Valley? Should we rationalise the remorseless attitude of the Government of Jammu & Kashmir towards the plight of Kashmiri Pandits?

***

Srinagar, January 4, 1990.
Aftab, a local Urdu newspaper, publishes a Press release issued by Hizb-ul Mujahideen, set up by the Jamaat-e-Islami in 1989 to wage jihad for Jammu & Kashmir’s secession from India and accession to Pakistan, asking all Hindus to pack up and leave. Another local paper, Al Safa, repeats this expulsion order.

In the following days, there is near chaos in the Kashmir Valley with Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah and his National Conference Government abdicating all responsibilities. Masked men run amok, waving Kalashnikovs, shooting to kill and shouting anti-India slogans.

Reports of killing of Kashmiri Pandits begin to trickle in; there are explosions; inflammatory speeches are made from the pulpits of mosques, using public address systems meant for calling the faithful to prayers. A terrifying fear psychosis begins to take grip of Kashmiri Pandits.

Walls are plastered with posters and handbills, summarily ordering all Kashmiris to strictly follow the Islamic dress code, prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcoholic drinks and imposing a ban on video parlours and cinemas. The masked men with Kalashnikovs force people to re-set their watches and clocks to Pakistan Standard Time.

Shops, business establishments and homes of Kashmiri Pandits, the original inhabitants of the Kashmir Valley with a recorded cultural and civilisational history dating back 5,000 years, are marked out. Notices are pasted on doors of Pandit houses, peremptorily asking the occupants to leave Kashmir within 24 hours or face death and worse. Some are more lucid: “Be one with us, run, or die!”

* * *

Srinagar, January 19, 1990. Mr Jagmohan arrives to take charge as Governor. Mr Farooq Abdullah, whose Government has all but ceased to exist, resigns and goes into a sulk. Curfew is imposed as a first measure to restore some semblance of law and order. But it fails to have a deterrent effect.

Throughout the day, Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front and Hizbul Mujahideen terrorists use public address systems at mosques to exhort people to defy curfew and take to the streets. Masked men, firing from their Kalashnikovs, march up and down, terrorising cowering Pandits who, by then, have locked themselves in their homes.

As evening falls, the exhortations become louder and shriller. Three taped slogans are repeatedly played the whole night from mosques: ‘Kashmir mei agar rehna hai, Allah-o-Akbar kehna hai’ (If you want to stay in Kashmir, you have to say Allah-o-Akbar); ‘Yahan kya chalega, Nizam-e-Mustafa’ (What do we want here? Rule of Sharia’h); ‘Asi gachchi Pakistan, Batao roas te Batanev san’ (We want Pakistan along with Hindu women but without their men).

The Pandits have reason to be fearful. In the preceding months, 300 Hindu men and women, nearly all of them Kashmiri Pandits, had been slaughtered ever since the brutal murder of noted lawyer Pandit Tika Lal Taploo by the JKLF in Srinagar on September 14, 1989. Soon after that, Justice NK Ganju of the Srinagar High Court was shot dead. Pandit Sarwanand Premi, 80-year-old poet, and his son were kidnapped, tortured, their eyes gouged out, and hanged to death. A Kashmiri Pandit nurse working at the Soura Medical College Hospital in Srinagar was gang-raped and then beaten to death. Another woman was abducted, raped and sliced into pieces at a saw mill.

In villages and towns across the valley, terrorist hit lists have been floating about. All the names are of Pandits. With no Government worth its name, the administration having collapsed, the police nowhere to be seen, despondency sets in. As the night of January 19, 1990, wears itself out, despondency gives way to desperation.

And tens of thousands of Kashmiri Pandits across the valley take a painful decision: To flee their homeland to save their lives. Thus takes place a 20th century Exodus.

* * *

After the Holocaust, Jews reflected on their persecution and resolved, ‘Never again.’ Yad Vashem is not only a moving memorial to the atrocities committed against Jews, it is also an archive that documents specific details, including names, addresses and photographs, so that future generations neither forget nor forgive their tormentors. Twenty years after the persecution of Hindus began in Kashmir Valley, we don’t even know how many men, women and children were stripped of their rights; how many were raped, slaughtered and maimed; their names; and, what happened to those who survived. Barring those living in refugee camps in Jammu and Delhi, in the hope that some day they will be able to return to Kashmir Valley with their dignity and safety assured. Deep within they know, and the rest of us know, that is never going to happen.

And thereby hangs a tragic tale of callous Hindu indifference.

[This appeared as my Sunday column Coffee Break in The Pioneer on 24/01/10]

Friday, January 22, 2010

Spies are not bound by law


Mohammed Hamid Ansari, unlike most of his predecessors, is not a politician elevated to the post of Vice-President of India for services rendered to his party. He was a member of the Indian Foreign Service, Vice-Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University, Chairman of the National Commission for Minorities and headed the working group set up by the Prime Minister to propose ‘confidence-building measures’ for civil society in Jammu & Kashmir, apart from undertaking various other assignments, including promoting the concept of ‘oil diplomacy’, given to him by the Government of India. In between fulfilling his various onerous responsibilities, he has also spent time at the Observer Research Foundation. Although a favourite of the New Delhi establishment, he is known to have taken a contrarian position on several occasions — for instance, he has unambiguouly criticised India’s vote against Iran’s bomb-in-the-basement nuclear programme, bitterly lashed out at the toppling of Saddam Hussein, and ruthlessly berated Israel for not silently suffering Islamist excesses. Hence, it would be unwise to brush aside the suggestion of such a distinguished person that intelligence agencies in India should be made accountable to Parliament.

Delivering the RN Kao Memorial Lecture at the R&AW headquarters in New Delhi last Tuesday, Mr Ansari made an elaborate case for setting up a parliamentary intelligence oversight committee “to ensure that Government’s policy is carried out effectively within the boundaries of law”. How else, he asked, “shall a democracy ensure its secret intelligence apparatus becomes neither a vehicle for conspiracy nor a suppressor of traditional liberties?” Unless there is a parliamentary intelligence oversight committee with “access to some operational details”, he added, no “assurance (can be given) about the efficacy or legality of the intelligence services”.

While acknowledging that we need to carefully examine whether the “openness and public discussion will compromise the secrecy essential for intelligence needs”, Mr Ansari asserted the “legislature, nevertheless, is the organ of the state that allocates funds and is, therefore, entitled to insist on financial and performance accountability” which, at present, is not done. According to him, “The proposed Standing Committee could fill this void; it could also function as a surrogate for public opinion and thus facilitate wider acceptance of the imperatives of a situation... a wider sampling of opinion would facilitate better comprehension of the issues and of possible remedies to attain total national power and comprehensive defence.”

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, asked what he thought of Western civilisation, had famously replied, “I think it would be a good idea.” As ideas go, Mr Ansari’s proposal, too, is ‘good idea’. Of course, Rameshwar Nath Kao, who set up R&AW in 1969 and headed our external intelligence agency till 1977, would have balked at the suggestion that Parliament should be allowed to oversee the functioning of his organisation “to ensure that Government’s policy is carried out effectively within the boundaries of law”. As would his successors as well as spy masters of repute who have headed the Intelligence Bureau, barring the few who rose to high office not because of their abilities but by virtue of their proximity to those who matter in the corridors of power. If intelligence agencies were to start working “within the boundaries of law”, we wouldn’t need intelligent men and women gathering realtime, actionable intelligence but dull babus who excel at citing rules to justify inaction and worse.

More importantly, it is amazing that a former officer of the IFS, whose members are not known to be particularly deferential to politicians (except those who can swing plum postings for them) or respectful about Parliament’s privileges — recall Mr Ronen Sen’s mocking description of MPs critical of the India-US civilian nuclear agreement as “headless chicken” — should demand accountability from intelligence agencies through parliamentary oversight and scrutiny. Mr Ansari could argue that the Ministry of External Affairs does come under Parliament’s scrutiny. But the Standing Committee on External Affairs scrutinising budgetary allocations for the Ministry or producing anodyne reports on specific policies does not really amount to ‘oversight’. Neither are its reports taken seriously by policy-makers nor are its views considered to be of any consequence insofar as the functioning of the Ministry is concerned.

It would, however, be unfair to suggest that the Standing Committee on External Affairs does a thorough job of its task. Our MPs are known for doing shoddy homework and most of them are largely ignorant of foreign affairs if not entirely disinterested in the finer nuances of strategic issues. It is not surprising that the last occasion when the Ministry of External Affairs had come to dread the Standing Committee was when Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee headed the oversight body: He would ask the right questions and refuse to take bluff and bluster as answer.

Had the Ministry of External Affairs and its IFS babus been truly accountable to Parliament “to ensure that Government’s policy is carried out effectively within the boundaries of law”, then they would have had to explain to the elected representatives of the people of India as to why Mr Harish Kumar Dogra, our High Commissioner to New Zealand, was recalled and humiliated in an appalling manner. Or under what circumstances did the babus at the Consulate General of India in Chicago issue multiple entry visas to Lashkar-e-Tayyeba operatives David Coleman Headley and Tawwahur Hussein Rana, thus facilitating, to a great measure, the fidayeen strikes in Mumbai on November 26, 2008. Mr Ansari’s concern for accountability would have carried greater credibility had he raised these and other questions related to the functioning of a Ministry he has served for nearly four decades.

This is not to suggest that intelligence agencies should be accountable to none or that obsessive secrecy should exclude keeping the legislature from being informed; that would be a ridiculous assertion. After all, if intelligence and counter-terrorism officials associated with the FBI and other agencies can be summoned for congressional hearings in the US, there is no reason why R&AW and IB officials cannot be asked to brief our parliamentarians. Similarly, if details of US Congress hearings can be placed in the public domain (unless they are classified as strictly off-the-record), there is no reason why details of similar briefings to our Parliament cannot be made public. But such briefings, we must bear in mind, are never ever about ‘operational details’. To accept Mr Ansari’s proposal would amount to severely compromising our national interest.

[This appeared as leading article on the editorial page of The Pioneer on 22/01/10.)

India matters, not America


[UPDATE:

I had hoped a loyal babu willing to do his master's bidding wouldn't be appointed successor to MK Narayanan. But I was wrong. Shiv Shankar Menon, of Sharm el-Sheikh fame, has been appointed NSA. The consequences will be along expected lines -- on Pakistan, on Jammu & Kashmir and on America.]

As National Security Adviser MK Narayanan prepares to exit the Prime Minister’s Office and spend the coming years in the splendid isolation of a Raj Bhavan, it would be appropriate to review his tenure as Mr Manmohan Singh’s top aide. Given his unimpeachable loyalty to the first family of the Congress if not to the party (it would be facetious to suggest that one is concomitant to the other) it did not surprise anybody when he was inducted into the PMO after the UPA came to power. Nor was it surprising that his initial assignment was that of Internal Security Adviser. Having served as Director of Intelligence Bureau (when Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister) and a ‘National Security Adviser’ of sorts to VP Singh during his brief stint in office, he was a natural choice for the job. Known as a ‘tough-though-thinking cop’, apart from excelling at gathering ‘political intelligence’, his presence in the PMO, it was felt, would be a perfect counterfoil to the soft approach of the Government to issues linked to internal security as well as help shore up a regime dependent on unreliable allies by working the back channels with parties like the DMK.

There was a problem, though. JN Dixit, who was appointed National Security Adviser to the Prime Minister, saw his role as not being dissimilar to that played by his predecessor, Mr Brajesh Mishra, who handled both external and internal security-related issues loosely structured within the matrix of strategic affairs. The Director of IB, the Secretary heading Research & Analysis Wing, those handling Military Intelligence, the Joint Intelligence Committee, the Scientific Adviser, the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (who is also Secretary of the Department of Atomic Energy), the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary would directly brief Mr Mishra who, in turn, would brief Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Mr LK Advani wasn’t too happy with the arrangement and was definitely displeased about the Home Secretary hopping across from North Block to South Block to keep Mr Mishra posted, but there was little that he (or for that matter the Raksha Mantri and the Videsh Mantri) could do about it. Mr Mishra was the foreign policy czar (he was appointed special representative for crucial talks with several countries, including Pakistan, China, Russia and France and had over-riding authority), the initiator of strategic dialogue with the US, and the chief operational intelligence coordinator. All this apart from his responsibilities as Principal Secretary, which involved inter-Ministry coordination and routine administrative duties as chief of the PMO staff. That Mr Vajpayee never had any reason to complain is an abiding tribute to Mr Mishra’s amazing abilities.

Mr Singh (or was it someone else?) decided not to vest any one person with so much responsibility. Mr TKA Nair was appointed Principal Secretary, a job which the veteran bureaucrat with an impeccable record still holds. But it remains unclear whether an effort was made to delineate the task of the National Security Adviser from that of the Internal Security Adviser. What is known is that Dixit, held in awe by the Foreign Office and feared by India’s neighbourhood, was never too sure about his remit. Dixit may have been a grand strategist, but he was a poor tactician. On the other hand, Mr Narayanan, confident of his political backing, tactically exploited the situation to his advantage, appropriating for himself virtually every segment of the national security matrix and more. With Mr Shivraj Patil as Minister for Home Affairs, he met with no resistance: All pink note-sheets would land on his desk before they were read by anybody else.

The brewing conflict between Dixit and Mr Narayanan was resolved in the most unexpected and tragic manner. Dixit, popularly known as Mani, died on January 3, 2005, barely seven months after the UPA came to power. Mr Singh, hesitant to replicate his experiment, promptly anointed Mr Narayanan National Security Adviser and since then he has held the post, minding both external and internal security issues and strategic affairs. In between deciding who gets to head IB and R&AW (usually favourites from the Kerala cadre of the IPS), he also ran political errands, for instance coercing Panthers Party chief Bhim Singh to vote for the Congress-led Government and convincing DMK supremo M Karunanidhi not to push the envelope too far on India refusing to come to the LTTE’s rescue.

Meanwhile, the national security situation deteriorated rapidly with terrorists striking with impunity across the country, extracting a terrible toll of human lives and shaking confidence in the Government’s ability to protect the country’s citizens from jihadi marauders. The Maoist menace at home and the mess in Nepal bear further testimony to his sterling abilities. Mr Narayanan was clearly out of his depth in the vastly changed security scenario, though it is claimed he played a crucial role in finalising the India-US civilian nuclear cooperation agreement which, lest we forget, is yet to become ‘operational’.

Despite all this and a lot more, it would have been an uninterrupted run for Mr Narayanan had nemesis not struck by way of the November 26, 2008 fidayeen attacks on multiple targets in Mumbai and the resultant outrage followed by the sacking of Mr Patil. Both the National Security Adviser and the Home Minister should have been unceremoniously dumped after the July 11, 2006 Mumbai commuter train bombings in which more people were killed than in the carnage two years later. But then, 26/11 was telecast live while 11/7 wasn’t; more than 200 Indian commuters died in the first attack and six Americans were among the 166 who perished in the second massacre. So, Mr Patil made an ignominious exit, Mr P Chidambaram took charge as Home Minister and Mr Narayanan found his remit severely curtailed. Over the past year, national security has been the preserve of the Ministry of Home Affairs and Mr Chidambaram has done a commendable job.

We are now told that the Government proposes to have two separate Security Advisers — one for homeland security and the other for external security. That’s an excellent proposal and merits immediate implementation. If that happens — and it’s a very big ‘if’ — the defunct National Security Council (when was the last time it met to discuss strategic security, political, economic and energy concerns?), the Strategic Policy Group (comprising babus not known for coming up with scintillating ideas) and the Joint Intelligence Committee should be immediately disbanded. Structures of the past cannot meet challenges of the future. We need a brand new system with the right people for whom India matters more than America, not loyal bureaucrats who will blindly do the Prime Minister’s bidding.

[This appeared as my Sunday column, Coffee Break, in The Pioneer on January 17, 2010]

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Destroyer of West Bengal


UPDATE:

[Jyoti Basu died on January 17, a week after the following article was written. Obituary writers waxed eloquent on his many achievements; invariably everybody made it a point to mention he enjoyed his whiskey, which, presumably, bore testimony to his sterling qualities. On January 19 Basu was given a state funeral, gun carriage et al. The crowds were truly impressive.

There was Basu draped in the National Tricolour with CPI(M) cadre singing the Internationale. As a fellow writer has pointed out, when he was Chief Minister, Basu would make it a point to return from his summer vacation in London only after August 15 -- the ceremonial flag-hoisting on Independence Day was done by a senior colleague.]

Had it been Jyoti Banerjee lying unattended in a filthy general ward of SSKM Hospital in Kolkata and not Jyoti Basu in the state-of-the-art ICCU of AMRI Hospital, among the swankiest and most expensive super-speciality healthcare facilities in West Bengal, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would not have bothered to arrange for a video-conference for top doctors at AIIMS to compare notes with those attending on the former Chief Minister of West Bengal.

Jyoti Banerjee, like most of us, spent his working life paying taxes to the Government. Jyoti Basu spent the better part of his life living off tax-payers’ money — the conscience of the veteran Marxist was never pricked by the fact that he appropriated for himself a lifestyle shunned by his comrades and denied to the people of a State whose fate he presided over for a quarter century. Kalachand Roy laid what we know today as Odisha to waste in the 16th century; Jyoti Basu was the 20th century’s Kala Pahad who led West Bengal from despair to darkness, literally and metaphorically.

Uncharitable as it may sound, but there really is no reason to nurse fond memories of Jyoti Basu. In fact, there are no fond memories to recall of those days when hopelessness permeated the present and the future appeared bleak. Entire generations of educated middle-class Bengalis were forced to seek refuge in other States or migrate to America as Jyoti Basu worked overtime to first destroy West Bengal’s economy, chase out Bengali talent and then hand over a disinherited State to Burrabazar traders and wholesale merchants who overnight became ‘industrialists’ with a passion for asset-stripping and investing their ‘profits’ elsewhere. A State that was earlier referred to as ‘Sheffield of the East’ was rendered by Jyoti Basu into a vast stretch of wasteland; the Oxford English Dictionary would have been poorer by a word had he not made ‘gherao’ into an officially-sanctioned instrument of coercion; ‘load-shedding’ would have never entered into our popular lexicon had he not made it a part of daily life in West Bengal though he ensured Hindustan Park, where he stayed, was spared power cuts. It would have been churlish to grudge him the good life had he not exerted to deny it to others, except of course his son Chandan Basu who was last in the news for cheating on taxes that should have been paid on his imported fancy car.

Let it be said, and said bluntly, that Jyoti Basu’s record in office, first as Deputy Chief Minister in two successive United Front Governments beginning 1967 (for all practical purposes he was the de facto Chief Minister with a hapless Ajoy Mukherjee reduced to indulging in Gandhigiri to make his presence felt) and later as Chief Minister for nearly 25 years at the head of the Left Front Government which has been in power for 32 years now, the “longest elected Communist Government” as party commissars untiringly point out to the na├»ve and the novitiate, is a terrible tale of calculated destruction of West Bengal in the name of ideology. It’s easy to criticise the CPI(M) for politicising the police force and converting it into a goons brigade, but it was Jyoti Basu who initiated the process. It was he who instructed them, as Deputy Chief Minister during the disastrous UF regime, to play the role of foot soldiers of the CPI(M), first by not acting against party cadre on the rampage, and then by playing an unabashedly partisan role in industrial and agrarian disputes.

The fulsome praise that is heaped on Jyoti Basu today — he is variously described by party loyalists and those enamoured of bhadralok Marxists as a ‘humane administrator’ and ‘farsighted leader’ — is entirely misleading if not undeserving. Within the first seven months of the United Front coming to power, 43,947 workers were laid off and thousands more rendered jobless as factories were shut down following gheraos and strikes instigated and endorsed by him. The flight of capital in those initial days of emergent Marxist power amounted to Rs 2,500 million. In 1967, there were 438 ‘industrial disputes’ involving 165,000 workers and resulting in the loss of five million man hours. By 1969, there were 710 ‘industrial disputes’ involving 645,000 workers and a loss of 8.5 million man hours. That was a taste of things to come in the following decades. By the time Jyoti Basu demitted office, West Bengal had nothing to boast of except closed mills and shuttered factories; every institution and agency of the State had been subverted under his tutelage; and, the civil administration had been converted into an extension counter of the CPI(M) with babus happy to be used as doormats.

After every outrage, every criminal misdeed committed by Marxist goons or the police while he was Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu would crudely respond with a brusque “Emon to hoyei thaakey” (or, as Donald Rumsfeld would famously say, “Stuff happens!”). He did not brook any criticism of the Marich Jhapi massacre by his police in 1979 when refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan were shot dead in cold blood. Till date, nobody knows for sure how many died in that slaughter for Jyoti Basu never allowed an independent inquiry. Neither did the man whose heart bled so profusely for the lost souls of Nandigram hesitate to justify the butchery of April 30, 1982 when 16 monks and a nun of the Ananda Marg order were set ablaze in south Kolkata by a mob of Marxist thugs. The man who led that murderous lot was known for his proximity to Jyoti Basu, a fact that the CPI(M) would now hasten to deny. Nor did Jyoti Basu wince when the police shot dead 13 Congress activists a short distance from Writers’ Building on July 21, 1993; he later justified the police action, saying it was necessary to enforce the writ of the state. Yet, he wouldn’t allow the police to act every time Muslims ran riot, most infamously after Mohammedan Sporting Club lost a football match.

Did Jyoti Basu, who never smiled in public lest he was accused of displaying human emotions, ever spare a thought for those who suffered terribly during his rule? Was he sensitive to the plight of those who were robbed of their lives, limbs and dignity by the lumpen proletariat which kept him in power? Did his heart cry out when women health workers were gang-raped and then two of them murdered by his party cadre on May 17, 1990 at Bantala on the eastern margins of Kolkata? Or when office-bearers of the Kolkata Police Association, set up under his patronage, raped Nehar Banu, a poor pavement dweller, at Phulbagan police station in 1992? “Emon to hoyei thaakey,” the revered Marxist would say, and then go on to slyly insinuate that the victims deserved what they got.

As a Bengali, I grieve for the wasted decades but for which West Bengal, with its huge pool of talent, could have led India from the front. I feel nothing for Jyoti Basu.

[This article originally appeared as my Sunday column, Coffee Break, in The Pioneer.]

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Kolkata ragtime


Sir Stuart Saunders Hogg didn’t quite have native shoppers in mind when he built Kolkata’s New Market in 1874. The Gothic red brick structure, which could have sat comfortably in the Empire’s First City had it been built there instead of next to the Corporation Building on Lindsay Street off Esplanade in the Empire’s Second City, housed shops stocked with everything that could tickle the fancy of the sahibs and memsahibs and their babalog.

The finest tableware, the best linen, fashionable dresses and dress material, fresh meat, fish and vegetables, confectionery and bread baked to suit the British palate, could all be purchased under one roof. There were jewellery shops to indulge the fancies of memsahibs and tobacconists that sold British cigarettes and Burmese cheroots, briar pipes and hand-rubbed tobacco — smoking was a fine art and not a criminal offence as it is today. There were bookshops that sold The Times (shipped from London) and had shelves crammed with illustrated books, often on gardening and other such distractions to relax over-worked minds that kept the wheels of the Raj moving. All that was fit for consumption by Kolkata’s British elite was available at New Market.

Much later, New Market was renamed SS Hogg Market in memory of the visionary city planner whose concerns were, of course, guided by the interests of the burra log —the natives lived in squalid slums and the upwardly mobile Bangali bhadralok in palatial houses in north Kolkata which was a world apart from central Kolkata. A plaque still exists recalling the official name, but everybody calls it New Market; it’s doubtful if Kolkata remembers Hogg sahib. But then, Kolkata has forgotten much of its past, not all of it glorious but a lot of it that made the Empire’s Second City the envy of those who lived in what passed for cities in the rest of India, including Mumbai.

The sahib log left six decades ago when the Tricolour replaced the Union Jack. Their place was taken by brown sahibs and saree-clad memsahibs. The boxwallahs who were hired to manage Kolkata’s once famous trading and manufacturing firms became the new clientele of New Market. But this phase did not last long. The turbulent 1960s and 1970s marked Kolkata’s rapid decline and fall: The boxwallahs moved on to Mumbai; those who couldn’t migrate in time were left to wallow in self-pity. Living the high life became a badge of dishonour as Kolkata lost its sheen and lustre.

Kolkata may have survived the ravages of the failed revolution which destroyed much of all that was good about West Bengal and its capital city, but it has not quite regained the glitter and glamour that once set it apart. Till 1962, Kolkata was way ahead of Mumbai, Bangalore, New Delhi; Chennai and Hyderabad were not even in the reckoning for a slot in the list of metropolitan cities. That was also the time when Bengalis could say with justifiable pride, ‘What Bengal thinks today, the rest of India thinks tomorrow.’ A half century later, it’s the other way around: What the rest of India thinks today, Bengal thinks tomorrow — that is, if it thinks at all.

New Market encapsulates this decline and decay of the city Sir Stuart Saunders Hogg tried to fashion after London. The Christmas decorations that once made New Market look pretty now seem tacky. New Market never quite recovered from a devastating fire in the mid-1980s when nearly half the market was gutted. The new New Market is a PWD-built monstrosity with shanty shops that sell plastic table covers. The blaze spared the front portion of the market which still stands. The old New Market is now crowded in by cinemas converted into shopping complexes and eateries catering to the lowest common denominator. New Empire, Elite and Globe are now part of Kolkata’s folklore.

Some of the shops are still around in New Market. Nahoum’s, run by old man Nahoum, among the last of what was once a thriving Jewish community, looks run down but its almond rings remain as tasty as ever. Wading through the crowd at Nahoum’s is a daunting task — it always was. The book shops seem to have disappeared, but the crockery stores are there, laden with cheap made-in-China products. Grotesque caricatures of Lalique are no tribute to the much-vaunted Chinese genius.

New Market, it seemed, had turned into a wholesale market for cut-price lingerie with every second shop displaying skimpy innerwear that I couldn’t imagine the middleaged women gawking at them slipping into. But obviously sales are good or else there woudn’t be so many shops selling size zero thongs. Middle class Kolkata continues to get its sum wrong.

After an hour’s wandering in the byzantine passages teeming with bargain-hunters, we find the silver shop from where we had purchased jewellery and table ornaments in the past. The owner is as effusive as ever, although business, he tells us, has been bad. In his velvet-lined oldstyle display case we spot an antique silver comb with gold-plated birds for which he asks a fraction of the price it would have fetched in Mumbai, Bangalore or New Delhi. But then, Kolkata no longer competes with these cities and the shoppers at New Market are not looking for antique jewellery. We haggle over the price before buying the comb. Clutching a memento of Kolkata’s past, we exit New Market to the strains of Una Paloma Blanca (When the sun shines on the mountains / And the night is on the run...). George Baker Selection was a big hit in the 1970s and Una Paloma Blanca topped the charts in 1975. That was possibly the last year New Market glittered at Christmas — sort of a marker setting apart the past from the present.

Outside New Market,what was once upon a time a tidy square now looks like a flea bazaar, no different from Chandni Chowk as we know it today. There’s nothing charming about the place any more. New Market serves as a soot-darkened backdrop to the theatre of everyday life in Kolkata — the past fading into the distance as the present looms menacingly near. The cacophony of honking taxis, blaring bus horns and shouting hawkers is an instant recipe for a headache that lingers late into the night.

[This article originally appeared as my Sunday column, Coffee Break, in The Pioneer.]