Sunday, December 30, 2007

Modi, Gujarat's lion heart!

Modi, Gujarat's lion heart
Narendra Modi meets a victim of post-Godhra violence
Not many years ago, the tree-lined road from Ahmedabad to Gandhinagar passed through vast stretches of fields and bush, the air redolent with the fragrance of wild flowers. It's no longer so. The traffic has increased and on both sides of the road huge information technology centres have come up, their gleaming chrome and glass structures reflecting the upbeat mood in the State. I am told land on either side of the road is now prized property with entrepreneurs tripping over each other to get a slice before all of it is gone.
Gandhinagar is a somnolent town, a sprawling colony, really, of squat apartment buildings, red brick bungalows and broad avenues with bright yellow flowers tumbling all over the pavements. There's no mad traffic, no jaywalkers and no piles of festering garbage. Most remarkably, there are no plastic bags -- that ubiquitous symbol of urban decay across the country -- littering the streets, the pavements, the parks and the vacant plots. Gandhinagar, largely inhabited by Ministers and bureaucrats, is stunningly neat and tidy and vastly different from crowded Ahmedabad. We head for the Chief Minister's residence.
The security arrangements are elaborate. As the car enters the Chief Minister's residence, I catch a brief glimpse of the nameplate. It's in Devnagari script and says, in large silver letters, Narendra Modi. In Gujarat (as also in the rest of the country) that's introduction enough. The house and the garden bear witness to Mr Modi's Spartan lifestyle. Frugality is writ large on the furniture, the peeling paint on the walls and in the sparsely furnished, severely austere office. It's Saturday, the day before results of the Assembly election are to be announced.
Mr Modi, of course, is relaxed. "It won't be less than 120. It could be more than that," he tells me. We talk about politics, the campaign, his famous proxy spat with Soniaben, and his plans for Gujarat. This is a different Narendra Modi, one whom I got to know well during the time he was exiled to Delhi, a victim of Gujarat's eternal politics of dissent and factionalism.
It was 1996. Mr Shankersinh Vaghela had almost managed to topple Keshubhai Patel's Government with the help of 'dissidents' whom he had taken for an extended holiday to Khajuraho. The loyalists immediately branded them as 'Khajurias'. Mr Vaghela's men responded by labelling the loyalists 'Hajurias'. The revolt was quelled by making Mr Suresh Mehta the Chief Minister; he has since turned a dissident and walked out of the party. Mr Modi was packed off to Delhi.
On a lazy afternoon at 11 Ashoka Road, I asked Mr Modi whether he was upset over the way events had unfolded despite being a 'Hajuria'. He cackled and then said, "You see, there's a third category, that of 'Majurias'. I belong to this category." What he meant was that so long he had an assignment, he was happy doing whatever the party asked him to do. And he did it with full gusto.
It's the same spirit that drives him as Chief Minister of Gujarat. "I am still a 'Majuria'," he says as I get up to leave, and hugs me warmly. At no point during our conversation does he sound cynical. His optimism is infectious.
The celebrations on Sunday outside the BJP office in Ahmedabad and the genuinely joyous welcome accorded to Mr Modi by a mammoth crowd cramming the narrow street when he arrived after the final results had been declared reminded me of cinematic representations of Caesar's triumphant return to Rome after a victorious campaign. As I wrote in my despatch that appeared in this newspaper, thousands of men, women and children were delirious with joy.
This was vastly different from the racket created by hired crowds that we usually get to see. Mr Modi's popularity is absolutely stunning. You have to see it to believe it. Television footage and newspaper reports do not do him justice. Images and words cannot capture the mass adulation he commands. Every word, every gesture, every pause and every flick of the finger fetches a roaring response. He strides the State's political stage as a giant, a man much larger and bigger than what he is in real life. The Gujarati idiom, 'Chhappan ni Chhati', which means lion-heart and literally translates into "56-inch chest", aptly describes Mr Modi's public persona.
The many myths surrounding him, myths that have become a part of Gujarat's folklore, bolster his mass appeal. Chatting with friends in the evening, I learned various things about Mr Modi. He doesn't sleep. How do they know? A raja who is mindful of his praja's welfare and follows raj dharma stays awake all the time. Mr Modi follows raj dharma, he is an ideal raja who thinks of nothing but his praja's welfare. So, he is awake all the time. Another version has it that Mr Modi gets up at 3 am in the morning and starts working.
A friend's wife breathlessly informs me that Mr Modi, a bachelor, is a vegetarian (which he is), he practices yoga (which he probably does) and he has no family (yes, he lives alone). What more can you ask for? According to an extended version of this revealing insight, Mr Modi's mother sits with the crowds at his rallies and he does not even acknowledge her presence. A second version adds details about how he has scrupulously avoided helping his siblings despite holding such a high office. A third version mentions that at Mr Modi's ancestral home, his folks use moulded plastic furniture. The waiter at the hotel restaurant told me that the ground shakes when Mr Modi walks, so he walks slowly. This is not just adulation, but veneration. There's nothing false about it; it is genuine love and affection bordering on unquestioning adoration. Few politicians, if any at all, can claim as much. This can only make Mr Modi's task that much tougher.
I am personally curious about who was manipulating the satta bazaar which went on a roller-coaster ride during the last 72 hours before the results were declared. In the early stages of the campaign, the odds were heavily stacked against the Congress and most people were putting their money on the BJP. After exit polls suggested the Congress was on a comeback trail following the first round of voting, the odds were evenly balanced. The second round of exit polls, which gave Mr Modi a narrow victory margin, saw the odds tilting against the BJP. In the last 72 hours, there was heavy betting with punters putting their money on a Congress win. Newspaper estimates suggest that the bets amounted to Rs 2,400-crore. In the event, those who placed their money on the Congress lost heavily. Some people, though, have made a killing.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Explaining Modi's popularity

Mass adulation reaches crescendo
It's 3.15 pm and the sun is getting stronger by the moment. The air outside the BJP's rather modest State headquarters at Khanpur is thick with the smoke and acrid smell of crackers; the road is jam-packed with thousands of men, women and children, among them a sprinkling of Muslims in skull caps, celebrating the party's victory. Jubilant Gujaratis, many of them wearing the by-now legendary 'Modi mask', break into bhangra as drummers work themselves into a frenzy. From the makeshift dais at one end of the road, loudspeakers blare, "Mere desh ki dharti sona ugle, ugle hirey moti...". Suddenly a buzz goes around that Narendra Modi's about to arrive and the cheering crowds go berserk. How do they know? The cell phone jammers have been switched on.
Modi arrives at 3.25 pm and there's no holding back the surging crowds. It's a welcome no less than that for a triumphant Roman emperor. Hands shoot up in the air, fists clenched, as the masses chant, "Modi! Modi! Modi!" It could well have been, "Caesar! Caesar! Caesar!" Women hold aloft their children, some no more than toddlers, dazed by the sight and sound, hoping they will get a glimpse of "Chhappan ni Chhaati" (Gujarati idiom for lion-heart, literally means a man with a 56-inch chest) and be inspired to grow up into one. If Modi were to wave at the child, it would be nothing less than divine benediction.
It takes seven minutes for Modi's car, a silver grey SUV, to negotiate the milling crowds by now delirious with joy. As the car comes to a halt outside the collapsible gate of the party office and commandos open the door, a momentary hush descends. Everybody waits breathlessly for their hero to emerge. When he does, a roar goes up. This is the moment they have been waiting for since 8 am. Women and teenaged girls scream in a manner reminiscent of Beatlemania. Children squeal. Crackers go off in the crammed road but nobody cares. Everybody chants, "Modi! Modi! Modi!"
Modi gets down from the SUV, slowly, measuring out the time so that the masses can savour the moment and recall it for their grandchildren. He's wearing his trademark half-sleeve soft saffron kurta with a matching shawl thrown across his right shoulder. He turns around and waves at the crowd, the half-smile on his face spreading into a full smile. Men fling their arms and jump into the air, women swoon and the chanting reaches a crescendo. Having given them the darshan they have been waiting for, Modi marches into the BJP office, purposeful and stern.
In the media centre hall, journalists have been patiently waiting for him since noon. Most are languorous after a hefty celebratory meal served by the party officials. Half-an-hour before his arrival, a written statement by Modi, thanking "the mature people of Gujarat from the bottom of my heart", has been circulated. When he finally strides in, there's no mad rush by camerapersons and photographers. Modi is not to be trifled with, at least when he is present. He repeats the contents of the written statement, attributes his splendid victory to the people of Gujarat. "The credit for this victory does not belong to me or the BJP, but to the five-and-a-half crore Gujaratis. I gratefully acknowledge everybody's contribution and their congratulations," he says and then pauses, daring the media to call him arrogant.
A hand goes up. "Mr Modi, Keshubhai Patel has congratulated you. Do you accept it?" Modi looks at the intrepid reporter and then spaces out his words, "I have already answered that question." The question is repeated. Heads turn to look at the reporter. Modi looks him in the eye and says, "I accept everybody's congratulations and best wishes. The Prime Minister called to congratulate me. I would accept your congratulations, too, if you had the guts to congratulate me." The media briefing ends, Modi strides out.
On the road, the crowds are waiting for a second darshan, hoping that Modi will address them from the makeshift dais. As Modi emerges from the BJP office, the cheering begins afresh. Their "Chappan ni Chhaati" doesn't disappoint them. He waits for the cheering to end and then begins to speak, humbly thanking party workers for their tireless efforts, their sweat and tears. Each word fetches spontaneous applause, women stretch out their arms, teenagers scream. A large group of high school students has been marching around since early morning, holding aloft posters of Modi, their eager faces giving away their devotion to a man who so easily connects with the young. The students cheer the loudest, their adolescent voices cracking, as Modi dedicates his victory to the people of Gujarat. Every sentence mentions Gujarat and Gujaratis twice over, but he speaks in Hindi, mindful that the event is being telecast live from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. He ends his brief speech by asking the crowds to join him in raising the slogan, "Bharat mata ki jai!" It has to be full-throated with both hands raised, he instructs, and the people obey.
Back at the hotel where I am staying, I decide to pop into the Pradesh Congress office which is next door. It's locked, the yard empty. The last person out has been careful to switch off the lights.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Discretion is not censorship

Discretion is not censorship
Last Thursday I was invited to speak on 'violence in media' at a panel discussion organised by Pioneer Media School and Gargi College in south Delhi. The room was packed with students and it was refreshing to be among young people who are not yet afflicted by the disease most Indians suffer from -- cynicism. I began by asking how many of the students track news every day. Hands shot up in the air and it was an impressive majority. Second question: How many track news on 24x7 news channels? About a third of them raised their hands, some raised theirs hesitantly. Third question: And how many read newspapers every day? Almost everybody raised their hands enthusiastically. There's hope yet for the print media.
For the next half-an-hour, I held forth on the portrayal of violence in media, especially television, its impact on society, how it perpetuates gender stereotypes and adversely affects women and children the most. Unlike many of my professional colleagues, I am not much of a speaker. And teaching at Pioneer Media School, where we do a course on writing, has taught me that it's extremely difficult to retain the attention of kids who have barely turned 20, that too for an hour, unless you peg everything to something that they feel is of concern to them. At Gargi College, I had planned to speak for no more than 10 to 15 minutes and say thank you for the opportunity, etc, before the yawning began. Surprisingly, the students were so responsive that I continued well beyond the time I had allotted myself.
This brings me to two conclusions, drawn from my experience in participating in similar panel discussions in various colleges. First, kids at non-campus colleges are perhaps more interested in contemporary issues than those in the 'top' campus colleges with their snooty teachers and equally snooty students. Second, television may have dumbed down news and entertainment but it has not had a dumbing impact on viewers, at least not as yet. The students at Gargi College had a fair idea of why the audiovisual media resorts to portrayal of violence (to push up ratings), how it breeds violence in society and provides a certain legitimacy for violent behaviour. So, there is hope yet that television will not succeed in its mission to create a society dominated by the lowest common denominator.
Some interesting points came up during the discussion. For instance, why was I drawing a distinction between print and audiovisual media, and berating television while sparing newspapers? Partly because I am biased towards newspapers and largely because television channels are the bigger offenders. I cited several reasons. For instance, a great degree of editorial discretion is still exercised by newspaper editors while deciding what should be published and what should be spiked. The Pioneer's editor, Mr Chandan Mitra, tirelessly points out every few days that photographs of dead people or anything that is gory should not be published on the front page, just so that such visuals do not get in due to oversight. It is unlikely that editors who decide programme content for television channels exercise such caution; on the contrary, they probably live by the motto that the gorier the footage, the better for ratings. For evidence, look at what is broadcast in the name of news and entertainment.
Two incidents from my early years in journalism come to mind. Mediapersons were asked to leave Amritsar before 'Operation Bluestar' began in June 1984. The only news about the Army storming the Golden Temple that reached newsdesks across the country was based on official briefing by the Government's spokesman in Delhi. People were reluctant to believe the Government's version and rumour mongers had a field day. Within hours of the Army taking control of the holiest Sikh shrine after neutralising the terrorists who had holed up in the Akal Takht and in the sanctum sanctorum, a story spread like wildfire that Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale had escaped from the Golden Temple premises and would soon lead a counter-attack against the Army. Mrs Indira Gandhi, alarmed by reports of desertions by Sikh soldiers following Operation Bluestar, authorised the release of photographs taken after the Army action. One of the photographs showed Bhindranwale sprawled out on the ground, his body peppered with bullets. He could not have been alive. Newspapers were expected to publish the photograph to scotch rumours about his 'escape' but very few did so because it violated the principle of publishing gory pictures. Similarly, great restraint was exercised by newspapers during the 1984 pogrom against Sikhs following Mrs Gandhi's assassination.
From there we have travelled to a point where nothing is taboo for media. If there is no footage, then it is simulated, as was done while broadcasting the bogus 'sting operation' conducted by Tehelka to "expose" those behind the post-Godhra violence in Gujarat. Television content editors insist that it is their job to show it as it is, that they are merely broadcasting that which is true and real. This is nothing but an attempt to seize the moral high ground and make newspapers look silly for being 'lily-livered'. What they forget is that moving images have a lasting impression on viewers, that editorial discretion is not about suppressing the truth but packaging it in a manner which may not please advertisers and sponsors but prevents our collective conscience from being brutalised. In a sense, television editors need to exercise greater discretion than those in the print media; if that means self-censorship, so be it. After all, to quote the Supreme Court's observations while upholding censorship of films, the audiovisual media "motivates thought and action and assures a high degree of attention and retention as compared to the printed word".
The printed word is still guided, to a great extent, if not by the letter then by the spirit of the recommendations of the Second Press Commission headed by the redoubtable Justice KM Mathew. But television has no such moral compass and is reluctant to come up with guidelines that would form the core of self-restraint. As for Government adopting a broadcast code, every time this comes up for discussion, broadcasters cry foul and denounce it as censorship and an assault on media's freedom.
Those offended by what newspapers publish can approach the Press Council of India with their grievances, but no such forum exists for television channels; for all practical purposes, they are above the law and want to remain so. This is neither healthy nor desirable for our society. Unless checked, the damage caused by unrestrained broadcast of anything and everything will be irreversible.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Coffee Break

Summer hols at Chakadapore
I'm not much of a film buff and have extremely poor knowledge of contemporary films, actors, actresses and directors, especially of the Bollywood variety. Which is not to suggest that I hate watching films; on the contrary, it's great to watch the occasional movie, provided it's interesting and not sequenced absurdity, and I don't have to go to a cinema. Nothing can be more distracting than cellphones bursting into distasteful versions of Bhangra.
A couple of weeks ago, I had picked up a VCD of Anjan Dutt's latest film, Bow Barracks Forever, from the music shop at Chittaranjan Park where we mandatorily drop in every time we go shopping for 'Bengali vegetables' and end up buying at least six varieties of saag which philistines in India's dust bowl consider no better than cattlefeed. I am rather partial towards Anjan, who is not much of a filmmaker (he is yet to get over his theatre days and ends up making movies that are theatrical and lack the subtle sophistication of the audiovisual medium) but an excellent human being with a big heart.
Anjan started off as a journalist with The Statesman and was a fine writer. I have known him since my early years in journalism, which was much before the last millennium came to an end. After some years, Anjan meandered into theatre, acted in some avant-garde Bengali films, appeared in Mrinal Sen's movies and then began making his own films. Late in life he decided to become a musician-cum-singer and though I don't care much for his music, he is quite popular as Kolkata's balladeer doing a desi version of Bob Dylan. Amazingly, mashimas love him as much as teenagers with names like Ranjana, although kakus tend to frown upon his subversive lyrics.
But this is not about Anjan so much as it's about Bow Barracks Forever. The film has been shot on location at central Kolkata's famous red brick landmark, Bow Barracks, built to house American soldiers during World War II and now the last refuge of Anglo-Indians in what once upon a time used to be the 'Empire's Second City'. The barracks, declared unsafe for human habitation, officially houses 133 families, but according to one estimate, as many as 1,500 people live in its crumbling rooms, balconies, corridors and doorways.
At the time of independence, all the occupants of Bow Barracks were Anglo-Indians who, like Anglo-Indians elsewhere in the country, especially in railway colonies, could trace their ancestry back to Britons who had come to India during the Raj, married Indian women and raised 'half-and-half' families. Although never entirely owned and accepted by India's colonial rulers who had their own little 'Whites only' charmed society, they were integral to the colonial administration. Anglo-Indians were preferred over others for jobs in the Railways, Customs, Excise and Posts & Telegraph as they could be 'trusted'.
Looked upon as 'collaborators', perhaps unfairly so, during the freedom movement, tragically Anglo-Indians were disowned and dumped by the departing British when the Union Jack was replaced by the Tricolour. Overnight, they became the Empire's abandoned children. Some of them were able to migrate to Britain, others set sail for Australia, New Zealand and Canada. But many, like the Anglo-Indians of Bow Barracks, stayed back because they felt this was their home and their destiny. So much so, the Anglo-Indians of Bow Barracks are loath to vacate their sooty, poky, damp and crammed rooms for new apartments promised by the Government; this is the only anchor they have known in their lives.
Years ago Aparna Sen had made a film, 36 Chowringhee Lane, on the loneliness of an Anglo-Indian teacher, Ms Violet Stoneham (Jennifer Kendal excelled in this cameo appearance) and her brother, Eddie Stoneham (Geoffrey Kendal was equally good) in the twilight of their lives. Ms Stoneham at least had a job and an apartment of her own; Eddie lived out his days in an old-age home waiting for his son to visit his dad. Ms Stoneham is left with memories of the Raj, a whistling kettle and her cat, Sir Toby.
Bow Barracks Forever is also about the loneliness and the frustrations of a community that lives on an island yet craves to be accepted as part of the mainstream. It's about the moral science teacher whose wife, Rosa, runs away with her pot-bellied afternoon lover, an insurance agent, and then returns home suitably contrite and chastened (Moon Moon Sen does look like a lush!) and Aunty Lobo (Lilette Dubey), a widow who bakes cakes and brews wine and calls her elder son in London only to be greeted by an answering machine. There's Anne (Neha Dubey), the battered wife of Tom (Sabyasachi Chakravarty) who is a small time racketeer. And then, of course, there's dear old 'Peter the Cheater' (Victor Banerjee matures like Boujelois), the cheerful conman. Bradley is a quintessential Anglo-Indian lad, bindaas and a layabout who can't keep a job and has no problems apart from his love for Anne, whom he rescues from Tom.
There's more to the film, however, than the tragicomic lives of Aunty Lobo, Rosa, Anne, Bradley and Peter. It's about their struggle to hold on to what they have known as their home for generations. They fight back the 'building mafia' and turn down lucrative offers to sell their property. Nothing, they decide, is going to make them give up their way of life. The film ends on a happy note. Bradley marries Anne, Peter declares his love for Aunty Lobo, and the mafia steps back. Bow Barracks is going to last forever, if not as a series of decrepit buildings threatening to collapse at any moment, then as a concept, an idea, a memory of times long gone by.
There used to be this Anglo-Indian boy in school with me (there were quite a few Anglo-Indian families in Jamshedpur those days) who would go out of town for summer holidays. I once asked him where did he spend his summer vacations. "With my aunt at Chakadapore. My uncle's a loco driver," he replied, "During Christmas, we go to my other aunt's place at KGP. She's got a fireplace and all, men." That evening I poured over my school atlas, trying to locate Chakadapore and KGP. I couldn't find either place. Next day I asked him to write down the names of these locations which to a young upcountry boy had an exotic ring. He scrawled out, in uneven letters, Chakradharpur and Kharagpur in my English exercise book. Half way through that term, he left for Australia with his mum and dad ("He's going to drive a tram, men!"). I wonder if he remembers his summers at Chakadapore and Christmas at KGP.

Friday, December 14, 2007


Reopen trial of razakars
Kanchan Gupta

Last week a significant event took place that was largely ignored by our ‘national’ newspapers and news channels which, at the moment, are busy tripping over each other to defend the presiding deity of 10, Janpath and berate Mr Narendra Modi, the favourite whipping boy of Delhi’s la-di-da secularists. But for robust reporting by Bengali newspapers, we would not have known that the remains of Hamidur Rahman, legendary hero of Bangladesh’s liberation war, till now interred in a grave in Tripura, were handed over to Bangladeshi authorities on December 9. Thirty-six years after laying down his life to liberate Bangladesh from Pakistan’s tyrannical rule, Rahman has at last found his rightful place among other fallen mukti joddhas in his homeland.
The touching story of Rahman’s supreme sacrifice deserves to be recalled and retold, if only to silence Jamaatis on both sides of Padma — and ‘intellectuals’ who provide legitimacy to their canards; among them Ms Sarmila Bose whose ‘history’ of the liberation war is a stunning example of negationism — and refresh memories of those terrible days of mass slaughter and rape by Pakistani soldiers who were helped in their dark deeds by collaborators, known as razakars and drawn from Jamaat-e-Islami, Al Badr and Al Shams. Many of them are still alive; some of them have served as Ministers and legislators in Begum Khaleda Zia’s hugely corrupt Government and actively promoted radical Islam; a whole lot of them would find themselves behind bars and walking the plank if Dhaka were to reopen the trial of collaborators and take it to its logical conclusion.
Rahman was a sepoy in the First East Bengal Regiment of the Mukti Bahini, the liberation force set up with the help of volunteers often armed with nothing more than .303 rifles and grenades, to fight Gen Tikka Khan’s Army of Pakistani marauders. Legend has it that on October 28, 1971, Rahman was ordered by his company commander to attack the base camp of Pakistan’s 39th Frontier Force near Paharmura, 145 km from Agartala. The resources of the Mukti Bahini were already stretched and there weren’t too many fighters to be spared for the mission. So Rahman set off alone, armed with two grenades. He stealthily crawled to the camp’s two machine gun posts and took them out even while he was being strafed. Rahman died at the age of 17 years. Later, inspired by his valour, other mukti joddhas tried to capture the Pakistani camp; scores of them died.
An old-timer recalls, “Rahman’s body was brought to Hatimarachara, 40 km inside Tripura, by Rehman Mian and given a proper Muslim burial.” After the fall of Dhaka and the liberation of Bangladesh, seven of the bravest mukti joddhas were posthumously conferred that country’s highest gallantry award, Bir Shreshtha. Rahman was one of them. But there was never any real effort by the post-liberation regimes in Dhaka to bring the hero home. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, after an initial burst of enthusiasm to enshrine the guiding principles of the liberation struggle as the founding principles of a secular, democratic Bangladesh, began pandering to the same forces that had fetched ruination and worse on Bangladeshis.
By the time he was assassinated on August 15, 1975, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had lifted the ban on the Islamic Academy whose Urdu-speaking patrons and members had actively colluded with Gen Tikka Khan’s Army, imposed prohibition and declared gambling illegal. Perhaps it was not entirely coincidental that within a couple of years of Bangladesh’s birth and repudiation of Islam as an overarching national identity, Islamic groups had begun to show signs of revival. Nor is it coincidental that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman should have sought and secured Bangladesh’s inclusion in the Organisation of Islamic Conference; he travelled to Lahore in 1974, ostensibly to attend an OIC summit but used the opportunity to break bread with those who had tormented, tortured and killed three million Bangladeshis. It is not surprising that ‘Joy Bangla’ should have been replaced by ‘Khuda Hafiz’ while he was alive; nor is it surprising that his daughter and inheritor of his political legacy, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, should be perfectly at ease brokering deals with suspect Islamist organisations.
The military regimes that ruled Bangladesh after Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s assassination — first headed by Maj Gen Ziaur Rahman, who was assassinated on May 31, 1981, and later by Lt Gen HM Ershad, who was chased out of office by a pro-democracy movement — worked towards subverting the history of Bangladesh’s struggle for independence which, in a sense, began in 1948 when Mohammed Ali Jinnah declared that “Urdu, and only Urdu shall be the official language of Pakistan”. The Bengalis of East Pakistan revolted, horrified by the very thought of being asked to abandon their cultural identity. The language agitation, culminating with the brutal crackdown on protesting students on February 21, 1952, now commemorated as Ekushey and International Mother Language Day, marked the beginning of Jinnah’s “moth-eaten Pakistan” falling apart.
The Arabisation of Bangladesh has continued unabated since then, as has the corruption of Bangladeshi society. If Maj Gen Zia was guilty of issuing the infamous ‘Indemnity Ordinance’ that allowed the guilty men of 1971 to escape punishment for their crimes, his widow, Begum Khaleda Zia, is guilty of legitimising the Jamaat-e-Islami, which had collaborated with the Pakistani Army and now insists that the butchery and mass rape 36 years ago was no more than a “civil war”. A Jamaat MP in the last Parliament, Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, apart from heaping abuse on those who fought for Bangladesh’s liberation, has on more than one occasion described Hindus in that country as “excrement” to the nodding approval of Begum Khaleda Zia. Which does not mean Sheikh Hasina Wajed has stood by the spirit of the liberation war; on the contrary, she has contributed in equal measure to Bangladesh’s politics of hate, violence and disruption.
Mr Fakhruddin Ahmed’s military-backed caretaker Government, which now rules Bangladesh, has shown remarkable persistence in reviving the spirit of 1971 and restoring faith in the principles that motivated mukti joddhas like Hamidur Rahman to embrace death in the prime of their lives. This is far beyond the remit of the caretaker Government, but comes as a welcome departure from past policy. He must now reopen the trial of collaborators, especially those who killed the best and the brightest of that country in what is known as the ‘slaughter of intellectuals’. That would be a fitting tribute to those who dreamt of and fought for a truly free — mukto — Bangladesh on the 36th anniversary of that country’s liberation tomorrow (December 16, 2007).


(c) CMYK Printech Ltd. Unauthorised reproduction is prohibited.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Coffee Break

When Advani declared Atal PM in 1995
Kanchan Gupta

Twelve years ago, addressing the concluding session of the BJP Mahadhiveshan at Mumbai's Mahalaxmi Race Course, renamed Yashobhoomi for the event, LK Advani declared on November 12, 1995, that not only would his party form the Government after the 1996 general election, Atal Bihari Vajpayee would be India's next Prime Minister.
For a moment there was stunned silence. Then followed thunderous applause. The declaration came at the fag end of Advani's speech. It was not a matter-of-fact statement, but an emotional announcement.
He later told some of us it was a "historic moment" for both him and the party, something that he had been waiting for years to declare. "Now that we are in a position to win, the moment has come," he added.
Before Advani, his voice by then choking with emotion, could return to his place on the dais, Vajpayee got up, took the microphone and, giving a pass to his long pauses, said, "The BJP will win the election, we will form the Government and Advani will be Prime Minister."
Advani said, "Ghoshana ho chooki hai...". A smiling Vajpayee retorted, "To phir mai bhi ghoshana karta hoon ki pradhan mantri...". Advani chipped in, "Atalji hi banengey". "Yeh to Lakhnawi andaaz me pahley aap, nahi pahley aap ho raha hai," Vajpayee said.
For a while, both of them looked at each other, two old colleagues and close friends who had nursed the Bharatiya Jana Sangh since its formation and later the BJP, both of them clearly moved to tears. Advani was party president, Vajpayee Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha.
That declaration, like Monday's, also came in the backdrop of hectic political activity in Gujarat. Shankersinh Vaghela had led a rebellion against Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel and dislodged him from office with the help of 'Khajurias'. Suresh Mehta was the 'consensus' candidate who had just taken over as Chief Minister. Narendra Modi had been exiled to Delhi.
As party president, Advani reluctantly accepted the terms of truce arrived at between the 'Khajurias' and 'Hajurias' to save the Government in Gujarat. But he didn't forgive Vaghela. Those covering the BJP National Executive meeting at Pune on November 7-8 just prior to the Mahadhiveshan would recall how Vaghela touched Advani's feet but failed to elicit even the slightest response.
In the summer of 1996, Advani's public declaration came true. The BJP emerged as the single largest party and was invited by President Shankar Dayal Sharma to form the Government. Vajpayee was sworn in as Prime Minister. The Government fell on the 13th day after Vajpayee, failing to put together a majority, resigned.
The rest is history.


(c) CMYK Printech Ltd. Unauthorised reproduction is prohibited.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Malaysia Hindus persecuted

Malaysia, not truly Asia
Kanchan Gupta

Water canons used to disperse protesting Malaysian Indians in Kuala Lumpur
The brutal crackdown on Malaysia’s ethnic Indian community for demanding equal rights and a better deal should have left India incandescent with rage and South Block fuming. Instead, we have heard nothing more than a timid squeak in the form of the UPA Government informing Parliament that it has “taken up the issue” with the Malaysian authorities. There has been no robust statement, nor has there been a gesture of solidarity with Malaysia’s Hindus under attack. Thirty-one of them have been picked up for joining a protest march and charged with “attempt to murder” and equally serious offences which, if ‘proved’ in Malaysia’s kangaroo courts (recall the Anwar Ibrahim trial), could fetch them heavy penalties. The Prime Minister, who spent sleepless nights after an Indian Muslim was detained in Australia for his connections with the two Glasgow Airport bombers (both Indian Muslims), is not known to have shown even the remotest interest in the persecution of Hindus in Malaysia, leave alone utter a single word to register the Government of India’s protest. A conspiracy of silence has been hatched by those who believe even the mildest rebuke would upset the ummah in both Malaysia and India and cast aspersions on the Prime Minister’s ‘Muslims Über Alles’ policy which, funnily though, is yet to swing Muslim votes for the Congress.
It would, therefore, be in order to place on record the salient points made by Mr P Waytha Moorthy, chairman of Malaysia’s Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF), the organisation which has been leading the agitation for a more equitable and egalitarian deal for that country’s ethnic Indians. He was in Delhi recently and made an eloquent presentation about the plight of the “forgotten, marginalised and persecuted” Hindu community of Indian origin in his country. Mr Moorthy stressed on four points that outline the situation prevailing in Malaysia:

  • The demolition of Hindu temples on the instructions of Malaysian authorities, who are pro-actively involved with the Islamisation drive, has gathered extraordinary speed. At least “10,000 Hindu temples have been demolished” in Malaysia since its independence 50 years ago. Many of the temples were as old as 150 years and integral to Malaysia’s multi-cultural, multi-religious society; more important, they were a part of Malaysia’s civilisational history. By razing them, Malaysia is not only disowning its past but also stripping Hindus of their dignity and self-respect.

  • The Government sanctioned Islamisation drive has moved into top gear. While in office, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, backed by his party, Umno, had launched a two-point programme to give Malaysia a distinctly Islamic character. The first part of the programme was aimed at promoting Islamic values, setting up Islamic institutions and embracing pan-Islamism by securing a place for Malaysia on Islamic fora. The other part of the programme focussed on reviving the ‘bhoomiputra’ policy of the 1970s by promoting the interests of ethnic Malays, who are Muslim and form just over 55 per cent of Malaysia’s population. As part of this campaign, Muslims got precedence over others in Government, bureaucracy and education. Simultaneously, shari’ah court rulings are being made increasingly binding on non-Muslims, “especially in matters of inter-faith marriages and religious identity of children”.

This point is illustrated by a story filed by PTI from Kuala Lumpur on September 17, which is reproduced verbatim below:
An ethnic Indian Hindu woman has urged Malaysia’s highest civil court to stop her Muslim husband, who had embraced Islam, from converting their sons to the religion against her wishes.
Subashini Rajasingam, an ethnic Indian Hindu married Saravanan Thangathoray five years ago and the couple has two sons — Dharvin and Sharvind. However, Saravanan told Subashini last November (2006) that he had converted to Islam.
Twenty-nine-year-old Subashini, a clerk, attempted suicide and was hospitalised. When she returned home, she found that her husband had left with their son Dharvin, who he claimed had also converted to Islam.
The woman turned to the courts to prevent her husband from converting Sharvind and from seeking a divorce in a Shari’ah Court instead of a civil court. However, the Court of Appeal ruled in March she should argue her case in the Shari’ah Court. She then approached the Federal Court against the verdict.

  • More than two-thirds of the people of Indian origin in Malaysia, living in that country for 200 years and forming 10 per cent of the population, are economically deprived because of their ethnicity and religious identity. Seventy per cent of Malaysia’s ethnic Indians are manual labourers and daily wage earners. This vast underclass is oppressed and suppressed by ethnic Malays with more than a little help from their Government. There are no official welfare programmes for the Hindu minority.

  • The number of Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam schools has dwindled drastically, even though the population has increased manifold. The Malaysian Government is deliberately callous about the educational needs of the ethnic Indians. This is because the authorities want to “cut off the cultural and spiritual heritage” of ethnic Indians.

Not surprisingly, our national media with its skewered ‘secular’ agenda has not bothered to publicise the details provided by Mr Moorthy. Horror stories emanating from Kuala Lumpur have been suitably downplayed while outrageous comments by those wielding the stick in Malaysia have been front-paged. The overwhelming view appears to be that India should remain aloof and not get tangled with “Malaysia’s internal issues”. As a principle, this is unexceptionable. But since when has the UPA Government begun to live by principles?
The Islamisation of Malaysia should worry India. In fact, the galloping progress of radical Islam in South-East Asia should scare the daylights out of us. Malaysia has officially embraced Islamisation; Indonesia is Islamised; Thailand is putting up a valiant, though some would say losing, fight; and the Philippines Army is locked in a fierce battle with radical Islamists. Both our western and eastern flanks are now inimical to us; to pretend otherwise would be, to use an old-fashioned cliché, tantamount to adopting an ostrich-like attitude. With the Government burying its head in the sand, India is a sitting duck for Islamists of all shades and ethnicities. We would be well-advised to start losing some sleep over this.
December 9, 2007

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Monday, December 03, 2007

Mullah raj in Marxist Bengal

Surrendering to thugocracy
Kanchan Gupta

In recent days there have been two riots in two cities in two countries with two starkly dissimilar responses. Muslim mobs ran riot in Kolkata on November 21, ostensibly to protest against Marxist violence in the villages of Nandigram in which their co-religionists were targeted. But the thugs who swarmed the streets of central Kolkata, armed with swords, Molotov cocktails and assorted weapons, had an insidious agenda: To drive dissident Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen out of the city. The 'progressive', 'democratic', 'liberal' and so-called people's Government of West Bengal, headed by a charlatan and dominated by the CPI(M), used the fig leaf of 'Muslim discontent' to force Ms Nasreen to leave Kolkata, choosing to mollycoddle radical Islamists rather than stand up to their outrageous hooliganism in the hope that Muslims will make common cause with Marxists when elections are held.
Twenty-one years ago the CPI(M) had accused Rajiv Gandhi of abjectly surrendering to fundamentalists and using the Congress's brute majority in Parliament to subvert the Supreme Court's landmark judgement in the Shah Bano case by pushing through a particularly obnoxious law known as Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986, stripping indigent women thrown out of their marital home the right to justice guaranteed by the Constitution of India. Today, the CPI(M) stands accused of pandering to bigotry that recalls the violent demonstrations following the Supreme Court's judgement favouring Shah Bano.
The other riot took place in Villiers-le-Bel, north of Paris, part of the infamous banlieues where Muslim immigrants, most of them illegal residents, from northern Africa live in appalling ghettos and seek inspiration from fire-breathing mullahs. This time the rioting was far worse than that of November 2005: Not only were cars set on fire, policemen were attacked by young men armed with guns. This was a first of its kind, prompting otherwise politically correct news agencies to report that the police were locked in a combat with "urban guerrillas".
The banlieues have been in ferment ever since President Nicolas Sarkozy, after winning this summer's election, set a target for authorities to deport 25,000 illegal immigrants, irrespective of their nationality or religion, by the end of the year. In 2005, Mr Sarkozy, as Minister for Interior Affairs, had taken a tough line and cracked down on the rioters with an iron fist. He has scoffed at lib-left criticism that his policy "threatens values in a nation that prides itself on being a cradle of human rights and a land of asylum". We get to hear a similar refrain every time an attempt is made to identify illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in our country. But while our Government promptly retreats (the BJP was no better than the Congress during the years it was in power at the Centre) in the face of hostility, Mr Sarkozy's Government has refused to budge from its stated policy. "I want numbers," Mr Sarkozy has been quoted by the BBC as telling Mr Brice Hortefeux, head of the Ministry of Immigration, Integration, National Identity and Co-Development, which he set up after taking office in May. "This is a campaign commitment. The French expect (action) on this." Compare this resolve with our political parties dumping their campaign commitments in the nearest dustbin after winning an election, substituting them with crass populism.
If Mr Sarkozy had nothing but contempt for the rioters in 2005, this time he has been scathing in his indictment of those who took to the streets. While giving a pep talk to policemen in Paris, he brushed aside pseudo-sociological bunkum and bogus multi-culturalism. "What happened in Villiers-le-Bel has nothing to do with a social crisis. It has everything to do with a thugocracy," Mr Sarkozy said. In 2005, Mr Sarkozy had described the rioters as "racaille", or scum. "I reject any form of other-worldly naivety that wants to see a victim of society in anyone who breaks the law, a social problem in any riot," he said, adding, "The response to the riots isn't yet more money on the backs of the taxpayers. The response to the riots is to arrest the rioters."
Would our politicians, especially those in power, ever dare be even remotely as tough as Mr Sarkozy? That's a silly question. Because in this great 'democracy' of ours, violence is the language of negotiation for those who reject the supremacy of the Constitution of India and Government, denuded of authority, believes toeing the line of least resistance is the best policy. Hence, even before push comes to shove, Government crumbles in the most shameful manner.
But we are not alone in witnessing the state turn into a jellybean when confronted by radical Islamism and its attendant perversities. Look at the timid response of the British Government to the plight of one of its citizens, Ms Gillian Gibbons, who has been jailed for 'blasphemy' in Sudan. Her crime: She had asked children in her class to find a name for their teddy bear and they came up with 'Mohammed' because they had been taught by their parents that it was the "most loved name" and they loved their teddy, too. The parents screamed murder and soon Ms Gibbons was in the custody of the upholders of shari'ah.
Everybody, including Sudan's envoy to the Queen's court, agreed that it was a silly accusation, that Ms Gibbons was at best guilty of letting innocent children have their way, and that no great harm had been done. To prove that trials in Khartoum's shari'ah court are fair, Ms Gibbons was sentenced to 15 days in prison, instead of being whipped in a public square or sentenced to death.
On Friday, a leading cleric, Sheikh Abdul Jalil Karuri, gave a fiery sermon during noon prayers at Khartoum's Martyr's Mosque, accusing Ms Gibbons of "deliberately naming her class's teddy bear Mohammed with the intention of insulting Islam". Soon, thousands of people, waving swords, were marching through Khartoum, demanding Ms Gibbons be shot. Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Boris Johnson has lamented Britain's limp response: "There was a time when Britain would have sent a gunboat to rescue her. There was a time when MPs would have been holding furious debates on the matter, and bandying phrases such as 'civis Britannicus sum'. In the old days there would have been a démarche from Britain to Sudan, warning that His Majesty's Government would not suffer a hair on her head to be disturbed."
At least Johnson has the comfort of history. We don't even have that.

December 2, 2007.

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West Asia politics

A time for peace in West Asia
Kanchan Gupta

West Asia peace conferences in the past have been big media events with every actor in this strange, never-ending passion play seeking to hog the limelight. From Camp David to Oslo to Tabah, via various other places including the Red Sea resort of Aqaba, the journey to a lasting peace and a final settlement has been extremely rough for both Israelis and Palestinians, with the Americans cheering from the sidelines and the Arabs slyly digging up the road for the vicarious pleasure of watching peace-makers stumble and fall. With media making a big show of earlier peace conferences and television reporters insisting, "History is being made inside those rooms you see behind me," when in reality everybody was just being cussed and cross, great expectations would be generated among the people in a region that has known nothing but conflict for the past six decades. Those expectations would soon be swamped by bitterness and loathing of the other.
Thankfully, the organisers of the Annapolis Conference were careful not to turn it into a media circus; US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has demonstrated that she is far smarter than her predecessors and is mindful of realities instead of possibilities. When she had embarked upon her mission to kickstart the stalled West Asia peace talks and thus gift the Bush Administration with a foreign policy success, perhaps she had hoped for something concrete to emerge from the Annapolis confabulations. She worked overtime to ratchet up the working relationship between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, camping in Jerusalem and visiting Ramallah in the hope of getting the two leaders to agree on a joint statement listing the key areas of broad agreement.
In the event, President George W Bush read out a statement of intent on behalf of Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas who have now agreed to fast forward the peace process for a final settlement by the end of next year. Mr Bush could yet go down in history as the American President who brokered real peace in West Asia and solved a riddle that had tested the intelligence of his predecessors and left them stumped for a solution. Of course, there is no guarantee that Israel and Palestine will have worked out a two-state solution by this time next year. Apart from the proverbial slip between the cup and the lip, there are other imponderables that cannot be wished away.
In the rapidly shifting sands of Arab politics, what is true today can lie buried deep under a sand dune tomorrow. Hence, there is no reason to believe that the Arab endorsement of the Annapolis initiative -- Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister was seen clapping more than once inside the conference hall and even Syria has grudgingly applauded the outcome -- will be as strong after a few months as it is now. King Abdullah has fashioned, or shall we say forced, a sort of Arab consensus on a durable peace based on the two-state formula by getting the Arab League to accept his pragmatic position at the Riyadh summit. But that does not necessarily mean ever Arab leader has stopped wishing Israel's demise, nor does it suggest that the Arab street is one with the Arab palace on carrying the Annapolis initiative to its logical conclusion.
For the moment, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are mightily worried about Iran's expansionist dreams and a belligerent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's aggressive agenda of imposing Shia dominance in Sunni Arabia. If Iran is able to achieve a breakthrough in its basement nuclear programme and enrich sufficient plutonium to make a bomb, for which it has already secured the know-how from Pakistan's nuclear black-marketeer AQ Khan, then Mr Ahmadinejad would have the Arabs on the run. Already, with Tehran calling the shots through Iraq's shia clergy, Lebanon's Hizbullah and Gaza's Hamas, there is sufficient cause for worry in Riyadh, Cairo and Amman. The Iran-Syria nexus only adds to these concerns. On its part, Syria is worried that it is getting increasingly isolated among the Arabs states, a situation it is desperate to get out of, especially in view of the Israeli air strike on a strategic target (believed to be either a nascent nuclear installation or a storage facility for Iran's enriched uranium). Despite Syria protesting loudly and appealing to Arab sentiments, not a single Arab state has as yet condemned the Israeli strike. On the contrary, there is reason to believe key Arab leaders have conveyed their appreciation to Israel. This is bad news for the regime in Damascus.
Predictably, Iran and Hamas have rubbished the Annapolis Conference and declared their intention to undermine any efforts to forge a durable peace. There is matching cynicism, we can be sure, in the Arab street and opinion cannot but be divided in the Arab palace. Within Israel, there are many who are opposed to making the smallest of concessions, leave alone considering the restoration of the Green Line or returning to the 1967 border. Any talk of dividing Jerusalem, with the Palestinians getting East Jerusalem with its Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosque as their capital, can inflame passions in Israel and bring down Governments, irrespective of their parliamentary strength. There is also the issue of right of return that Palestinians consider non-negotiable and Israelis, whether on the Left or Right, will not even countenance, leave alone concede. These are issues that one gets to hear and read about; there are others that are of strategic importance but not in the public domain. For instance, Mr Abbas is believed to be driving a hard bargain on sharing of waters, sending shivers down many Israeli spines.
Yet, both Israel and Palestine realise that this is perhaps the best time for putting the bitter past behind them and working on a future co-existence that will be mutually beneficial. The Arab leaders -- Kings, Princes, Sheikhs and Presidents -- realise that unless the Israel-Palestine dispute is resolved, Iran will prey on imagined victimhood both within their territories and in Palestine to further its agenda of Shia supremacy. Ironically, the nuclear arsenal Shia Iran desires and Sunni Arabia fears is seen by many Sunnis on the Arab street as Islam's ultimate empowerment which will spell Jewish Israel's nemesis.
Speaking at Annapolis, Mr Olmert, striking a note of caution, said, "We do not need to lose proportion... This was not meant to change history." He is both right and wrong. History was made 60 years ago last week when the UN adopted Resolution 181, virtually creating the states of Israel and Palestine. That reality can never be changed. But if the Israelis are able to convince Mr Abbas and his colleagues in Fateh that an honourable deal is in everybody's interest, and the Arabs underwrite such an agreement, then the course of history will change. For starters, Iran will be halted in its tracks.

December 2, 2007.

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Sunday, December 02, 2007

Marxists pander to Muslim fundamentalists

CPM engineered Muslim rage
Taslima thrown out to get Nandigram off the radar

Kanchan Gupta
Jamiat-i-Ulama Hind leader Sidiqullah Chowdhury at a protest rally in Kolkata
Was the recent violence witnessed in some parts of central Kolkata, leading to dissident Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen's forced eviction from the city, genuine Muslim anger or manufactured rage? Did the CPI(M) have a hand in organising the rioting? Who has gained the most after mobs took to the streets?
For possible answers, we need to step back and take a look at the sequence of events beginning with the CPI(M)'s smash-and-grab of Nandigram.
When the Marxists let loose a reign of terror in the villages of Nandigram in end-October, ratcheting it up in the first week of November, to recapture territory they had lost to the Bhoomi Uchchhed Pratirodh Committee protesting acquisition of farmland for an Indonesian SEZ, they had not bargained for extensive and sustained negative publicity in media.
The CPI(M)'s Nandigram takeover strategy was based on the doctrine of shock and awe, that is, rapid dominance through the use of overwhelming force. Marxist cadre were deployed to block entry to Nandigram and newspersons were chased away. It was hoped that this would prevent media from putting out details.
In the event, the media coverage of Nandigram was beyond anything the CPI(M) could have imagined and hugely damaging for the party. Newspapers and channels across the country picked up the story, as did foreign agencies. The fact that most of the victims of the Marxist mayhem were Muslims painted the CPI(M) in lurid colours.
With Muslim organisations, till now favourably disposed towards the CPI(M), beginning to voice their protest -- Jamiat Ulama-I-Hind said "Muslims in West Bengal are worse off than in Gujarat" - Marxist leaders, yet to recover from being pilloried over police harassment of Rizwanur Rehman and his death in mysterious circumstances, found themselves scampering for cover.
Seeking to capitalise on Nandigram, Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind called a three-hour shutdown in central Kolkata on November 15. There was moderate response to the call, disrupting Kolkata's usually chaotic traffic, but there was no violence.
The next day, Pashchim Banga Milli Ittehad Parishad, comprising 12 Muslim organisations, including Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, Milli Council, Indian National League, Jamiat-e-Islami Hind and All-India Minority Forum, called a four-hour shutdown. Once again, apart from fiery speeches, the protest was unremarkable. Traffic was stalled at Esplanade, Park Circus, AJC Bose Road and Kidderpore. Not that traffic moves smoothly in these areas otherwise.
Suddenly, the All-India Minority Forum, led by Idris Ali, former head of the local Congress minority cell and a serial 'public interest' litigant in Kolkata High Court, called a three-hour shutdown on November 21 to protest against "Marxist atrocities on Muslims in Nandigram" and demand the "expulsion of Taslima Nasreen from Kolkata".
On the day of the shutdown, mobs emerged from Muslim-dominated areas, many of them in CPI(M) leader and West Bengal Assembly Speaker Hashim Abdul Halim's constituency, Entally, and went berserk, torching vehicles and attacking policemen. Within no time, news channels across the country were broadcasting live footage of the violence.
The footage showed mobs on the rampage and Kolkata Police personnel on the retreat. In one particular shot, a policeman was seen loading a teargas shell and then not firing it as a mob, waving swords and chanting slogans, advanced menacingly.
At none of the places that witnessed violence was the mob larger than 100 hooligans. If the police had wanted to, they could have chased away the mobs. But they didn't. It was almost as if they had been instructed not to act.
Surprisingly, the State Government, which later claimed to have been taken by surprise, promptly called in the Army and imposed curfew. This, too, made headlines as the Army's help had not been sought in West Bengal for the past 15 years although there had been worse incidents of violence.
In sharp contrast to the prompt deployment of the Army in Kolkata, the Left Front Government had refused to deploy CRPF personnel in Nandigram. When CRPF personnel were finally allowed in days after the Marxists had taken over Nandigram, they were not given the power to enforce law and order.
It took less than an hour for the Army to clear out the violence-hit streets and restore order. By early evening, calm had returned and life in Kolkata was back to normal, barring the dusk-to-dawn curfew in a few areas. Briefing newspersons on the violence, CPI(M) politburo member and State party secretary Biman Bose said if Nasreen "should leave Kolkata if her stay disturbs the peace".
What he did not explain was the ease with which mobs had been mobilised by an unheard of organisation and the listless behaviour of the State police. Neither Idris Ali nor his All-India Minority Forum could have organised the crowds. The Forum had already participated in the protest organised by Pashchim Banga Milli Ittehad Parishad and there was no reason for Ali to call a separate shutdown.
Those who track the CPI(M)'s dirty tricks department believe that Ali may have been "encouraged" to call a shutdown and highlight the "Muslim demand" for Nasreen's expulsion from Kolkata. He may have been the proverbial cat's paw. Apart from him, four men may have played a crucial role in securing for the CPI(M) an escape route from the Nandigram mess: Aslam alias Pappu, Ruhul Amin, Sultan Ahmed and Iqbal Ahmed. Aslam, a resident of Alimuddin Street, where the CPI(M)'s State headquarters are located, is a "property dealer" known for his links with the CPI(M). Amin lives in Topsia, has CPI(M) links and a dubious profile. Sultan, a resident of Ripon Street who has switched loyalties from the Congress to the Trinamool, is "open to persuasion if the price is right". His brother Ibal has done a reverse switch though his services are "not strictly restricted to the Congress". On November 21, mob fury was seen in the Ripon Street and Topsia areas, apart from Park Circus.
By the morning of November 22, media focus had shifted from Nandigram to the rioting. That day Nasreen was put on a flight to Jaipur and since then, newspapers and 24x7 channels, especially in West Bengal, have front-paged and prime-timed stories about the CPI(M) "giving in to Muslim demands". Nobody is talking about the CPI(M)'s "atrocities on Muslims in Nandigram" anymore.
Yesterday's 'persecutor' has become today's 'appeaser'.

December 2, 2007

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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Marxists and Mullahs in West Bengal

For freedom, stand by Taslima Nasreen
Kanchan Gupta
Dissident Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen arriving in Delhi on Friday night
Those acquainted with contemporary Bengali literature could argue that dissident Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen is not a talented writer. But there are few who would disagree that she is an extremely courageous woman who has struck out at Islamic fanatics and mullahs whose sole passion in life is to come up with the most perverse interpretations of the Quran so that they can live out their dark fantasies born of obscurantism and twisted notions of patriarchy. Ms Nasreen gave up her profession as a qualified physician to take on radical Islamists who had begun to gather strength under the tutelage of Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by Dhaka cantonment queen Begum Khaleda Zia, as well as Awami League, headed by a fork-tongued Sheikh Hasina Wajed. Her newspaper columns were hugely popular, especially among Bangladeshi women, although the Jamaat-e-Islami was none too pleased that someone should dare question the mullahs’ diktats.
Ms Nasreen became a celebrity of sorts in Kolkata after the publication of Nirbachito Column, a collection of her newspaper columns, which won her a prestigious literary award. Back in Dhaka, her success raised the hackles of those discomfited by the fact that rather than disappear behind a burqa and meekly accept the oppressive ways of the clergy, a Bangladeshi woman had begun to inspire others to emulate her defiance. They began to sharpen their knives for the kill; in the meanwhile, they turned on Bangladesh’s minuscule and disinherited, disempowered Hindu community, committing horrendous atrocities. After the demolition of the disputed Babri structure in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, they let loose a reign of terror, killing Hindu men, raping Hindu women and destroying Hindu temples. Lest all this be denied by Islamic fanatics on both sides of Padma — including those who fly the banners of Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, All-India Milli Council and assorted organisations like All-India Minority Forum that make up the Brotherhood in Green — and their ‘secular’ patrons, the most casual scan of newspapers of those days will reveal the extent of the crimes committed against Hindus in Bangladesh in the guise of protesting the demolition of the disputed Babri structure.
It is a tribute to Ms Nasreen’s courage that rather than silently watch the persecution of Bangladeshi Hindus, she recorded those crimes in a slim volume, Lajja. Within days of the publication of the novel — it was ‘fiction’ based on incontrovertible facts — it was slammed by the Government of Bangladesh, which had clearly colluded with the fanatics by allowing them a free run, and the mullahs who, typically, were outraged that a Muslim (although Ms Nasreen says she is a ‘humanist’) should have dared put their misdeeds on record. The book was banned and a mullah issued a fatwa, calling for her execution as she had committed ‘blasphemy’! During Friday prayers in mosques across Bangladesh, believers were urged to murder Ms Nasreen if the Government failed to carry out the death sentence. Another mullah offered a reward of $ 2,000, which was really more a reflection of his cash flow problems than his desire to see her head brought to him on an aluminium platter borrowed from his kitchen.
But all this did not dampen the demand for Lajja. Pirated copies of the book sold in thousands even as fanatics took to the streets, clamouring that Ms Nasreen be executed to uphold shari’ah. Overnight, Ms Nasreen became a household name, here and abroad. In those days The Pioneer had a fiesty correspondent in Dhaka. I recall asking him for a copy of the book. He got hold of a pirated copy and sent it to us by courier. Since everybody was curious about what Ms Nasreen had written that had so angered the mullahs, The Pioneer published the relevant extracts. Later, the book was published in both Bengali and English in India; thankfully, the Government did not ban Lajja. That was the beginning of Ms Nasreen’s woes. Hounded by Islamists baying for her blood (in the hope of pocketing the promised $ 2,000), she fled her beloved country in 1995 and sought shelter in Sweden. Two decades earlier, another Bangladeshi writer, Daud Haider, had to similarly flee Bangladesh after fanatics declared him a heretic. We shall return to Daud’s story later.
Feted by Kolkata’s intellectuals, Ms Nasreen decided to shift to West Bengal and was granted a one-year visa in September 2005. But before that, she had run into trouble with Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee who, despite his pretensions of being a writer and a Marxist, gave in without a fight and banned her autobiographical book, Dwikhondito, in November 2003 because it had references to the perversion of Islam by those who use religion to perpetuate their twisted notions of a Muslim woman’s place in society. Another book, Aamar Meyebela, also ran into trouble and was promptly banned in Bangladesh. The publishers of Dwikhondito went to court and appealed against the ban. The Calcutta High Court declared the ban was “untenable” and “unjustifiable” in September 2005. Dwikhondito reappeared in bookshops and became an instant bestseller, not least because it rips off many a ‘secular’ and ‘progressive’ mask.
On August 10 this year, when Ms Nasreen visited Hyderabad for the launch of her translated works, she was set upon by leaders of Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen who insisted that she should be handed over to them so that they could punish her for her ‘sins’. She escaped the lynching but the incident showed that fanatics had put in motion a plan to hound her out of India. Last Wednesday’s riots in central Kolkata when murderous mobs owing allegiance to All-India Minority Forum, headed by Mr Idris Ali, a Congress leader, demanded that she be thrown out of the country, are part of this devious plan whose ultimate goal is to demonstrate the might of radical Islamism in ‘secular’ India. Mr Biman Bose, chairman of the Left Front and a member of the CPI(M) Polit Bureau who loves to be portrayed in media as a remorseless, cold-blooded commissar, wilted in the face of Muslim fury and ensured Ms Nasreen’s eviction from Kolkata and West Bengal. Since then, she has been on the run, first seeking shelter in Jaipur and then in Rajasthan House in Delhi.
It is anybody’s guess as to whether the UPA Government will be able to summon the courage to stand up to fanatics and insist that Ms Nasreen shall remain in India. On another occasion, Mrs Indira Gandhi had succumbed to Muslim pressure and was on the verge of deporting Daud Haider to face death in Bangladesh when the dissident poet was rescued by German Nobel laureate Gunter Grass. If Ms Nasreen is forced to leave India, make no mistake that a time will come when anybody who doesn’t subscribe to the twisted worldview of Islamic fanatics will be similarly hounded in this wondrous secular democracy of ours.

{This appeared as my Sunday column Coffee Break on November 25, 2007.)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Muslims riot in Marxist Kolkata

A plague on all their houses
Kanchan Gupta

For all his bravado, Mr Idris Ali, who heads a little-known Muslim organisation that operates under the name of ‘All-India Minorities Forum’, panicked when he saw his followers run riot in those parts of central Kolkata where there’s dancing in the streets every time Pakistan wins a cricket match against India. Hence his sly attempt to distance himself from the rioters who set upon innocent people, torched cars and police vehicles, attacked school buses and held petrified children hostage in their schools till the Army was called in on Wednesday late afternoon.
“They (Marxist cadre) have infiltrated our ranks and sparked the violence. We wanted to protest peacefully, but the Marxists are trying to discredit us,” he told newspersons on Wednesday evening, obviously hoping to be spared the punishment that he justly deserves but is eager to escape. To paint himself and his murderous mobs as innocent victims of ‘state repression’, he claimed that “the disturbances broke out after the police, without reason, arrested 200 protesters owing allegiance to the AIMF and Furfurasharif Muzaddedia Anath Foundation at Park Circus”.
Without reason? Mr Ali’s foot soldiers were armed with swords and an assortment of weapons, including Molotov cocktails, which they used generously to terrorise people and attack the police. The high casualties reported by Kolkata Police — two Deputy Commissioners were among those grievously injured — and the widespread destruction of public and private property bear witness to the ferocity of those whom Mr Ali has sought to defend. But he is not alone in being indulgent; the anchor of a Delhi-based 24x7 news channel described the rampaging mobs as “civil society in ferment”. So much for media integrity.
The issue, however, is not Mr Ali’s too-clever-by-half defence of his criminal deed. Thankfully, the marauders were forced to back off before lives were lost; but the ‘peace’ that has been enforced with the help of the Army and night curfew is at best tenuous: Only the naïve and those who subscribe to Communist calumny will believe that Wednesday’s communal violence was an aberration and that Kolkata is back to being a ‘city of joy’. Nor should we get distracted by the suggestion that Kolkata’s Muslims are up in arms against the CPI(M)’s thuggery in Nandigram where many of the victims are their co-religionists.
Indeed, it is doubtful whether Mr Ali is truly concerned about the plight of the maimed, the raped and the homeless of Nandigram. Had this not been the case, he would have mobilised political opposition to the CPI(M)’s atrocities in Nandigram and elsewhere. After all, Mr Ali, apart from being the chief of All-India Minorities Forum, is also a Congress leader, or at least is known for being close to certain individuals in the party who have defended his action.
By seeking to convert Nandigram’s mind-numbing tale of human misery into a ‘Muslim issue’, he has tried to add to the list of the community’s imagined grievances. For, the CPI(M)’s ‘Harmad Vahini’ was, and remains, indiscriminate while letting loose its reign of terror in Nandigram. Among the thousands of villagers who have lost their near and dear ones, or have been forced to flee their home and hearth and take shelter in ‘refugee camps’, are a large number of Hindus. Two men whose names have become synonymous with pillage, murder and rape in Nandigram, and who led the CPI(M)’s bloody campaign, are Shahjahan Laskar and Selim Laskar.
The real objective of Mr Ali and his friends — Maulana Toha Siddiqui of Furfurasharif Muzaddedia Anath Foundation, Mr Roshan Ali of Qaumi Awaz Welfare Society and leading lights of Milli Ittehad Parishad — who organised Wednesday’s violent shutdown was to inflame Muslim passion by raising the bogey of Muslim sentiments being hurt by the Left Front Government. Hence the attempt to convert the atrocities in Nandigram into atrocities on Muslims; hence, also, the demand that the visa given to Bangladeshi dissident writer Taslima Nasreen, who has been living in Kolkata for the past couple of years, should be cancelled.
In fact, the second underscores the real purpose behind Wednesday’s violence: Of taking the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen’s shameful attack on Ms Nasreen in Hyderabad to its logical conclusion. Mr Ali and his friends allege that Ms Nasreen has “abused Islam and denigrated the Prophet”, and hence must not be provided with refuge from those who want to kill her, as ordained by Shari’ah, for ‘blasphemy’. If their reference is to Lajja, whose publication led to her first clash with Islamists, then it is rather late in the day. If they are referring to Dwikhondito, then we can only presume that neither Mr Ali nor his ilk has any regard for the law of the land which, they believe, does not apply to India’s Muslims.
Here we must digress to understand why the CPI(M) is as guilty as those who ran amok in Kolkata on Wednesday. Ms Nasreen’s autobiographical book, Dwikhondito, was banned by the West Bengal Government on November 28, 2003, soon after its publication. The initiative to proscribe the book because “it contains very derogatory and provocative references that go against the grain of the tenets of Islam and of Islamic beliefs” was taken by West Bengal’s ‘intellectual’ Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee at the behest of fellow travellers, many of them Bengali writers who take perverse pleasure in denigrating Hindus and Hinduism. One of them, Mr Sunil Gangopadhyay, has waxed eloquent in Thursday’s Anandabazar Patrika on how India is “not a theocracy and we cannot accept fatwas”. He did not display such tolerance while pushing for the ban on Dwikhondito.
The ban was declared illegal by the Calcutta High Court on September 22, 2005. Since then, Ms Nasreen has neither said nor written anything that can be considered, by any stretch of the imagination, ‘derogatory’ of Islam. Two years later, Mr Ali has raised the issue of Ms Nasreen and her controversial book, skilfully avoiding any reference to the court order, taking a cue from the MIM and using Nandigram as a cover.
This is calculated mischief — as calculated as the mass hysteria that was unleashed by bogus propaganda on the cartoons published in a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, allegedly lampooning Mohammed, or the equally bogus breast-beating over the execution of Iraq’s former dictator, Saddam Hussein. On those occasions, the CPI(M) was vocal in its support of the ‘Muslim cause’ and rallied its forces behind a convoluted worldview that has now come to haunt West Bengal.
Wednesday’s communal violence in Kolkata is only the beginning. Having sown the proverbial dragon’s teeth, the CPI(M) must now prepare to harvest its poison yield. The first signs of West Bengal’s Marxist Government cravenly giving in to Muslim violence are already visible. Even before calm was restored in the riot-hit areas of Kolkata, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member and Left Front chairman Biman Bose sought to placate Mr Ali and his goons by offering to expel Ms Nasreen from West Bengal “to maintain peace”. On Thursday, Ms Nasreen was flown out of Kolkata to Jaipur. Her visa expires on February 17 next year. It is entirely possible that the Marxists will now force their obliging friends in the UPA Government to either not extend Ms Nasreen’s visa any further or cancel it right away.
But this is unlikely to serve any purpose in containing ‘Muslim anger’ and preventing incidents similar to what was witnessed on Wednesday. For, Mr Ali and his friends will come up with other grievances that have nothing to do with the genuine problems of India’s Muslims. Make no mistake of that.
November 23, 2007.
© CMYK Printech Ltd. Unauthorised reproduction prohibited.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Israel Diary V

The hawk who turned dove
Kanchan Gupta
The writer with Shimon Peres in Jerusalem
Israel's President Shimon Peres does not have to exert himself to be in the news; the news chases him. This past week he featured in possibly every newspaper in West Asia for "making history as the first Israeli President to address the Turkish Parliament". To thunderous applause, Peres expressed gratitude to Turkey for providing refuge to Jews expelled from Spain in 1492.
What made the event important -- apart from an Israeli addressing Prime Minister Abdullah Gul's Islamist party-dominated Parliament -- was the presence of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Yesterday's foes could not have come closer today; nor would an Israeli head of state have dreamt of asserting with any conviction that "peace is possible with the Palestinians and other neighbouring Arab countries ... in the entire region, from Syria to Yemen".
Yet there was a time when Peres would be counted among Israeli hardliners like David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan who wouldn't countenance the very thought of accommodation with Palestinians, leave alone the Arab countries, and actively propagated the concept of settlements in Gaza and West Bank to push Israel's frontiers to its biblical past.
That was many decades ago; the hawk has now turned into a dove. He doesn't tire talking of peace in our time.
Few would recall today, including in Israel, that Shimon Peres was born Szymon Perski in eastern Poland in 1923. He arrived in the British mandate of Palestine in 1934 and seven years later entered politics as an elected official of the Labour Zionist Youth Movement. Later, he joined the Hagannah, procuring arms to defend Israel from its Arab neighbours. It's been a long time in politics and an eventful public life.
Peres was elected to Knesset in 1959, and since then has been a member of Israel's Parliament till his election as President in June this year -- easily a record of sorts for any politician in any country. Travelling across the political spectrum, from Mapai (which he left along with Dayan and Ben-Gurion after the 'Lavon Affair') to Kadima (which he joined convinced that Ariel Sharon alone could deliver peace), he now plays the role of senior statesman and peace-maker, having served as Prime Minister thrice and as Minister in 12 Cabinets.
Along the road to the highest (though largely ceremonial) office in Israel, he has picked up the Nobel Peace Prize along with Yitzak Rabin and Yasser Arafat for his role in the negotiations leading to the Oslo Agreements. Of the troika who reached the cusp of peace but didn't quite succeed in securing it, Rabin and Arafat are dead; the former was assassinated by an Israeli extremist for conceding too much.
Standing outside the President's residence in Jerusalem, waiting for security clearance as a young woman scrupulously checked my palms and fingernails for traces of explosives with a high-tech gadget, I wondered what would Peres be like in real life. A ponderous old man? A pompous politician? A cynical manipulator? As we were shown into his rather modest book-lined office (lesser 'leaders' in India have far more opulent offices), Peres, easily more than a couple of inches taller than me, lumbered over from his desk, exuding grandfatherly warmth and an easy charm. Over the next 45 minutes he held forth, effortlessly, on the coming Annapolis peace talks, the prospects of a lasting agreement on Palestine and Israel's alarm over Iran's nuclear programme.
Despite Cassandras both at home and abroad predicting that Annapolis will be another stillborn affair, Peres is confident that Israeli and Palestinian peace-makers will keep their date. "Diplomacy is the art of the possible. Annapolis will not be an end by itself, it will lead to a sort of beginning," he says. Like many other optimists in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Washington, he believes a declaration of intent will be issued and the "real negotiations will start".
Looking back at the wasted years spent hunting for an elusive deal acceptable to both Israelis and Palestinians, Peres recalls how King Hussein of Jordan signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1987 and offered his help to form a Palestinian confederation. "The Israelis torpedoed it ... I believe we shouldn't have taken on the job of managing Gaza and West Bank," he adds. Twenty years ago Peres wouldn't have said this.
But Israel wasn't to blame entirely. Referring to the talks preceding Oslo, he recalls, "Yasser Arafat agreed to the 1967 border." This is not what is popularly known of the Oslo talks -- Arafat would never agree to specifics, not at Oslo, nor later, including at Tabah. Then came the rider, "Without him we couldn't have started (talking), with him we couldn't finish." Then came Rabin's assassination and the suicide bombings which made "things difficult". That's putting it rather mildly.
He recalls how he was informed, while on his way to office in 1996, of a suicide bombing in Jerusalem in which 50 Israelis were killed. "The square was full of blood ... Next day there was a blast in Tel Aviv." Peres, who by then had begun to push for a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians, was branded a "traitor" at home. "Extremism took over the centre," he says impassively.
That 'extremism' has now yielded space to pragmatism -- both in Jerusalem and Ramallah. Mahmoud Abbas realises that this could be the moment in history which Palestinians have been waiting for; Prime Minister Ehud Olmert feels Israel couldn't have a better opportunity to strike a deal and cut its losses. "We are closer to peace than ever before. Everything is negotiable ... prejudices, differences and obstacles," explains Peres.
But there can't be any compromise on Israel's position against conceding the Palestinians' demand for the refugees' 'right to return'. "They can return to the Palestinian state," he says. The steel in his voice can't be missed -- shades of the hawk? He pauses for a moment, and then adds with a flourish, "You don't look for the most popular but the most promising (deal)."
In 1994, Peres had famously declared, "History is one long misunderstanding." Does he still subscribe to that view? "These days I recommend young people not to read history," he says with a chuckle, rubbing his hands. Tea is served by two elderly ladies who fuss over Mr President. He has a sip, thinks for a while, and then picks up the thread of the conversation, really a long monologue, but not boring at all. "There was a time when people made a living from land, so they annexed territory ... Today, existence does not come from land but science. So, there's no reason for war. Intellectual energy will fuel the future," Peres says.
If only the real world had been so easily persuaded, it would have been a happier, peaceful place. As the meeting comes to an end, Peres remembers to mention that he continues to be "fascinated by India" and how he connects Jawaharlal Nehru with 'wisdom', MK Gandhi with 'moral strength' and Rabindranath Tagore with 'love'. It's a vastly different India today, one which would find such views quaint. I wish Peres could see it for himself.

November 18, 2007.

Murder in Communist Bengal

CPM proves it’s a party of fascists
Kanchan Gupta

Real face of Buddhadeb: A rally to protest CPM atrocities in Nandigram

Bengalis have this fascination for bhadralok Marxists, which is really a contradiction in terms but has stood the CPI(M) in good stead in West Bengal. As Deputy Chief Minister in the fumbling, bumbling United Front Governments, Mr Jyoti Basu presided over the lumpenisation of West Bengal politics and began the process of destroying West Bengal’s industrial infrastructure, which in the 1960s was not to be scoffed at. He made gherao into an instrument of state policy and lawlessness the hallmark of Marxist politics. When harried industrialists petitioned the Chief Justice of Calcutta High Court and the judge sought an explanation, Mr Basu deployed thousands of his party’s hoodlum brigade to gherao the court. The Chief Justice saw merit in the dictum that discretion is the better part of valour.
As Chief Minister after the Left Front came to power in 1977, Mr Basu vigorously pursued his reckless agenda, denuding West Bengal of whatever little remained of its once thriving industry, while making it a point to holiday in London every year, ostensibly to seduce investors. From the Marichjhanpi massacre to the Bantala gangrape, his tenure as Chief Minister was one long saga of atrocities committed by either Marxist goons or the police, which he had swiftly converted into an extension counter of the CPI(M). Yet, people were easily persuaded to vote for him and the CPI(M)-led Left Front, election after election, because whatever his faults, he was a “bhadralok”. Never mind the fact that behind the spotless dhuti-panjabi façade lurked an evil man with a malevolent mind, a modern day Mephistopheles who derived perverse pleasure from West Bengal’s impoverishment.
His successor, Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, was seen and feted as a “bhadralok” twice over. His lineage was impeccable — graduate of Presidency College, nephew of Sukanto Bhattacharjee whose darkly haunting poetry is replete with metaphors of human bondage and struggle against hunger and poverty, translator of Russian poet Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky, poet and playwright of sorts at one with Kolkata’s intellectuals for whom Nandan is their second home, high on Marxist dialectics and suitably preachy. Bengalis could not have asked for more. What added to his appeal is Bhattacharjee’s ‘reformist’ zeal. He borrowed Nike’s slogan and came up with his (in retrospect, rather corny) one-liner: “Do it now.” Buddhijeebis, who have amazing power to influence opinion in West Bengal, overnight became ‘Buddhajeebis’ and wore their new identity on their sleeves. Mr Basu would let his mask slip once in a while and indulge in crudity; Mr Bhattacharjee, who claims to be a fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, would never do that.
But all this must now belong to the past. Mr Bhattacharjee’s bhadralok image has taken a severe beating and today he stands exposed as a charlatan who doesn’t deserve the office he holds. For all his pretensions of being a man of culture and integrity, he is no less Mephistophelean than Mr Basu. If imitation is the best form of flattery, Mr Bhattacharjee has proved himself an accomplished flatterer by aping his party general secretary, Mr Prakash Karat, in justifying murder, rape and pillage by Marxist criminals. There is not even the faintest hint of regret that Nandigram should have become the leitmotif of the CPI(M)’s unrestrained thuggery. There is no belated acceptance of moral responsibility, leave alone assertion of authority, even at this stage when his friends have begun spitting at him. The Pioneer was not exaggerating when it suggested to its readers that for a lesson in fascism, they should read Mr Bhattacharjee’s shocking comments at a Press conference where he praised his party’s black shirts and poured scorn and ridicule on the hapless victims of their crimes. Among the victims, it needs to be noted, are a Muslim woman and her two teenaged daughters who were gangraped by the Marxist marauders. The two girls are missing; for all we know, they may have been killed or are being held captive to satiate the animal desires of those about whom Mr Karat and Mr Bhattacharjee speak so admiringly.
Compare this with the CPI(M)’s clamorous and vile protest against the alleged custodial killing of a wanted criminal and his moll in Gujarat. Recall also how 24x7 television channels, notably those headquartered in Delhi, went berserk, trying to pin the guilt of that alleged crime on Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Contrast the timid, almost cowardly, media response to Mr Bhattacharjee’s appalling comments and Mr Karat’s chilling defence of the Marxist killers and rapists who have let loose a reign of terror and whose victims are largely Muslims, to the epithets and worse hurled by our newspapers and 24x7 channels at Mr Modi who has at no stage justified the 2002 violence in Gujarat or the alleged custodial killing of a mafia don and his moll. Is it because there is an ‘ideological’ affinity between the fascists of AK Gopalan Bhawan and mediapersons? Or is it because Mr Modi is a soft target and, unlike Mr Karat or Mr Bhattacharjee, whose storm troopers have been intimidating journalists and threatening dire consequences if they report the truth, will not retaliate? Or are there ‘linkages’ that influence our media, more so 24x7 channels, to black out Marxist crimes and invent scurrilous stories to demean others? If our media bravehearts wish to shame and shun Mr Modi, it’s their choice. But must they so shamelessly admire those who prescribe “Dum Dum dawai” — thuggery of the sort witnessed in Nandigram — as Ms Brinda Karat did at a rally in Kolkata? And support Mr Sitaram Yechury who has the temerity to insist that Nandigram can’t be discussed in Parliament because law and order is a State subject?
Mr Bhattacharjee has no doubt sold his soul to the likes of Indonesia’s Salem Group and, closer home, Ambuja Cement and ‘industrialists’ who were no more than small time Burrabazar traders till the CPI(M) came to power and facilitated their rags-to-riches journey. Mr Karat genuflects at Stalin’s altar and listens to the Internationale to relax, so we shouldn’t expect him to be touched by the plight of those maimed, killed and raped by his cadre. But what about mediapersons who tirelessly preach moral and ethical rectitude to others from their high perch in ‘national’ newspapers and ‘national’ news channels? By not admonishing those responsible for the ghastly events in Nandigram, they have legitimised the indefensible and paved the path for similar crimes elsewhere. Amen.

November 18, 2007.

On March 21, 2007, I had written the following article for The Pioneer's opeditorial page, contesting Mr Jyoti Basu's glycering tears for the victims of the police firing in Nandigram on March 14 in which at least 14 villagers were shot dead and scores injured:

Pot calls the kettle black

Kanchan Gupta

When in power, veteran Marxist Jyoti Basu, who presided over West Bengal's decline and death, was as ruthless and callous as Buddhadeb BhattacharjeeEven before West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's critics, both within and outside the CPI(M) and the Left Front it leads, could articulate their opposition to the ghastly atrocities that were committed by the police and Marxist cadre at Nandigram on March 14, one man had set himself to the task of cranking up criticism with remarkable energy and alacrity for his age.
Veteran Marxist and former Chief Minister Jyoti Basu did not lose any time in making public his disagreement with the "anti-people action" of his successor at Writers' Building. And, if stories emanating from Kolkata are to be believed, he promptly contacted leaders of the CPI(M)'s partners in the Left Front, notably those of the RSP and the Forward Bloc, and urged them to lash out at Mr Bhattacharjee.
At an informal meeting among the Left Front partners on March 15 in Kolkata, Mr Basu, having worked himself into a right royal rage, is believed to have pitilessly castigated Mr Bhattacharjee, demanding to know, with all the pomposity that he could command, as to who had ordered the police action. As a sullen Chief Minister decided against converting the meeting into a slanging match, Mr Basu continued with his fulminations: Why did the police resort to firing? Why were protesters shot in their bellies and their heads? In the end, he accused Mr Bhattacharjee of being "arrogant" and "uncaring".
In Delhi, Mr Basu's criticism found resonance in the timid response of the CPI(M)'s tele-friendly leaders, Mr Prakash Karat and Mr Sitaram Yechury. Both let it be known that had Mr Basu been at the helm of affairs in West Bengal, they would have been spared the ignominy of having to justify such barbarity. Almost taking a cue from them, the feisty Trinamool Congress chairperson, Ms Mamata Banerjee, told newspersons that "even a respected person like Jytoibabu has condemned the police firing".
Suddenly, it would seem, Mr Basu has emerged as a better Chief Minister, a more humane administrator and a farsighted leader compared to Mr Bhattacharjee. Many of those who are spitting venom at West Bengal's accidental Chief Minister - had it not been for Promode Dasgupta, Mr Bhattacharjee would have been penning poetry overladen with darkly haunting metaphors much like his uncle Sukanto Bhattacharjee who died at the young age of 21 raging against hunger and poverty or his favourite Russian poet Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky who committed suicide - it would appear, are yearning for the good old days when Mr Basu held the 'Red Fort'.
The truth, however, is that there are no good old days to recall. If anything, Mr 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 Gandhiana) and later as Chief Minister for nearly a quarter of a century at the head of the Left Front Government which has been in power for three decades now, the "longest elected Communist Government" as party commissars untiringly point out to the naive and the novitiate, is a terrible tale of calculated destruction of a State in the name of ideology.
It was Mr Basu, whose feigned outrage over the police going berserk at the behest of their political masters at Nandigram is now being cited to paint him in bright colours, who actively politicised West Bengal Police. 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 'humane administrator' and the 'farsighted leader', few would recall today, presided over the destruction and death of industry in West Bengal, denuding the State of its wealth and disinheriting future generations of Bengalis. Within the first seven months of the United Front coming to power, he ensured 43,947 workers were laid off because of strikes and gheraoes and 4,314 rendered unemployed after their factories were shut down. 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 Mr Basu demitted office, West Bengal had been reduced to a vast industrial wasteland. The only beneficiaries of the policies and programmes actively promoted by Mr Basu were a clutch of Marwari asset-strippers and promoters who moved in to convert industrial wasteland into housing projects. Mr Basu remains loyal to both; even in retirement he ensures promoters violating environment and other laws have their way while those who feathered their nests thanks to 'industrial disputes' instigated by Marxist trade unionists swear by him and his able tutelage.
Mr Basu is aghast that the blood of innocent men and women should be spilled in so callous a manner by the Government headed by Mr Bhattacharjee. Yet, Mr Basu, while in office, did not brook any criticism of the Marich Jhapi massacre by his police in 1979 when refugees were shot dead in cold blood. Till date, nobody knows for sure how many died in that slaughter for Mr Basu never allowed an independent inquiry. Neither did the man whose heart bleeds 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 beaten to death and then set ablaze in south Kolkata by a mob of Marxist goons. The man who led that murderous lot was known for his proximity to Mr Basu, a fact that the CPI(M) would now hasten to deny. Nor did Mr Basu wince when his police shot dead 13 Congress activists a short distance from Writers' Building on July 21, 1993; on the contrary, he continues to justify that incident.
Mr Bhattacharjee's initial reaction to the horrifying killings of March 14 was no doubt that of a cynical politician not unduly perturbed by the loss of a few lives. His subsequent "regret", which party apparatchiks insist does not amount to an apology, is not becoming of a man with pretentious claims to being a poet and a playwright. But was Mr Basu any more sensitive to the plight of those who suffered at the hands of his party's thugs? Did his heart cry out when women health workers were gang-raped and then two of them murdered by thugs with Marxist affiliation on May 17, 1990 at Bantala on the eastern margins of Kolkata? Or when office-bearers of the Kolkata Police Association patronised by the CPI(M) raped Nehar Banu, a poor pavement dweller, at Phulbagan police station in 1992? If we were to recall his response to such gross abuse of power by party cadre and party-affiliated policemen - "Emon to hoyei thaakey" (Such things happen), much like former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's comment, "Stuff happens" - and his sly insinuations that the victims of such barbarity deserved what they got, Mr Basu would neither shine in comparison to Mr Bhattacharjee nor come across as an angel in red.
It's amusing to watch the name-calling in the wake of the violence in Nandigram. It brings to mind an old idiom fallen into disuse, that of the pot calling the kettle black. The Bengali version, popular in north Kolkata, is too risque to be repeated here.