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Mainstream, VOL LV No 46 New Delhi November 4, 2017

My Earliest Recollections / Allround Decadence and Ray of Hope / Iraq Crisis and Gujral Government

Monday 6 November 2017, by Nikhil Chakravartty


From N.C.’s Writings

My Earliest Recollections

After N.C.’s demise on June 27, 1998 three pieces were recovered from his notes as evidence that he had started writing his autobiography. Since November 3 this year happens to be his 104th birth anniversary, we are carrying the following piece (written on March 5, 1990) on his birth and childhood.

What’s the earliest memory I have about myself? I have tried to look back to catch a glimpse of what could possibly be the earliest scene I can remember about my life.

I don’t remember anything about my birth and infancy, about the place where I was born. That was in a winter morning in November 1913 at a town in Assam called Silchar where my mother’s uncle was a prison doctor. My mother told me later that I was born early morning at about 5. I don’t know who were all there to receive me into the world, but I was told later that the arrival was smooth, without a hitch. My complexion was slightly dark—certainly darker than my mother’s and my father’s both of whom were fair. So I was called ‘Kanu’—the pet name of Krishna. One of my uncles was an admirer of a great Bengal scholar of those days and after him, I was named ‘Nikhil Nath’. That was perhaps all that I could gather about my first hours in this world.

My mother used to say that as a baby, I used to be quite a problem at night as I could cry for milk at the middle of the night and my full-throated angry howl would wake up the neighbours. And a relation who was rather obsequious to the Raj, would remark that it was good we were not living in sahib-para—the locality of the sahibs—as they would not tolerate this nightly howl by the Bengali baby. My mother used to recall another incident about my full-throated bellowing. The family had gone to the Tagore mansion at Jorasanko to watch Rabindranath’s Valmiki Pratibha in which the poet himself took part. As soon as the curtain was up and the bearded old man appeared on the stage, I roared sitting on the lap of my mother who had to rush out of the hall and had difficulty getting back home all by herself carrying the baby, as my father and my aunt stayed behind as they were ardent votaries of Tagore.

Otherwise I was a healthy normal baby with a large head and bristling hair. No problem about food as I was and have continued to be fond of milk. Every afternoon, I used to have long outings in the pram with Jagabhai who was the all-purpose factotum in our cosy little home.

My earliest recollections centre round the small house at Amherst Street in Central Calcutta. You had to reach it from the main road by a winding brick-laid lane through which no carriage could pass, only rickshaws could enter. The room in front was my father’s study-cum-sitting room. Behind it was a narrow open space and you reached the two dingy rooms and a narrow verandah which served as the dining place with small wooden stools and the meal laid out on the floor. By the staircase was the tiny little kitchen where my mother prepared all our meals. Upstairs there were two rooms, one with my father’s bed and the other belonged to my mother, where my aunts whenever they would come could park themselves. Any other guest would be sleeping in my father’s study downstairs. Next to us was the playing field of St. Paul’s College, where students would be playing. One would notice a dark-skinned young man would be playing with the boys as if he was one of them. Years later, he turned out to be my teacher in Presidency College—Kuruvilla Zachariah, a shy person with big eyes and ears, a bachelor at that time who became a real guru to me.

It was war-time (1914-1918) when I was growing up to be a boy. Khaki uniforms were popular, with a Union Jack stitched on the shoulder, and I remember I got a boy howitzer. A nursery book of alphabets all dealing with the great war that the British were supposed to be winning—D stood for Dreadnought, J for Jellico, U for U-boat, Z for Zeppelin etc.

Allround Decadence and Ray of Hope

While there is no doubt a lot on which to attack those in authority for their dereliction in running an orderly system of governance, one has to ask at the same time why there has been such an appalling deterioration in social conscience in most of our public activity. In other words, the corrosion of values in public life is not confined to Ministers and top bureaucrats, but has become all-pervasive, the pollution of morals seem to choke out public service.

If we look around, there is undoubtedly a widespread feeling of being let-down by those in power, those who have been assigned the mandate to rule by the public that has elected them and placed them on the position of authority. It is precisely because of this reason that the Chief Election Commissioner has suddenly become a phenomenon—applauded by the public that expects him to weed out corrupt practices from the business of election, while he is the target of attack largely by those who feel that their citadel of vested interests in the business of vote-collecting is being invaded by Seshan’s attempt at weeding out irregularities in the running of the election machinery. Khairnar might be reckless in his charges against Sharad Pawar, but the fact that he, a minor fry in the bureaucratic set-up, could brace up to make such charges of corruption against the Chief Minister, who is patently on the defensive, shows that in the public mind Pawar’s reputation cannot smother out such a critic from inside the very government over which he presides. And quite likely there are many more Khairnars waiting to be counted in the months to come. Obviously the ministerial standing for probity has plummeted so much that it cannot make short shrift of critics from within the bureau-cracy itself.

If we look back on the immediate past, we find that in the last ten years corruption has become a by-word in our public life and is having a deleterious effect on the stability of the government. The fact that criminalisation of politics has become a serious item of concern for responsible people in politics irrespective of party labels—and not just the exaggerated outburst of some chronic critics of the establishment —shows the dangerous deterioration in our public life. All this has begun to stir the public in general. The shock of the scam, that nobody in authority is prepared to take the responsibility for, has contributed in no small measure towards the sapping of public confidence in the government.

But the government apart, the callous irres-ponsibility of people at different stations of public life is now becoming an issue of intense comment and concern all over the country. The scandal of the capitation fees for entry into educational institutions—and the angry objections at any ban being imposed on this vicious practice—has been widely commented upon and one would not be surprised if this touches off violent protests. It is not merely the crass commercialisation involved in this practice—which is nowadays sanctified by the authorities in the name of worshipping the God of the Market—but the bankruptcy of any coherent education policy of the government that is going to be the target of popular attack.

The mismanagement of hospitals, with large-scale pilferage of medicines, and the mercenary attitude of many of the eminent people in the medical profession bordering on venality, is widely talked about and may one day break out into angry outbursts from the deprived sections of the public. Meanwhile, the hospitals are not only neglected but left almost uncared for in large cases, while these are overcrowded indicating the magnitude of the needs of the people.

While there is a lot of enthusiasm in the community of students and youth, one finds very little effort at harnessing the youth power for gainful public activity. The universities are riddled with factional politics for which all parties are equally guilty, and one finds no effort at providing leadership on the part of the teaching community towards creating a sense of dedication and public service among the students. There are pockets of inspiring initiative on the part of the students in such activities as the mass literacy campaign, but one finds little effort on the part of those in public life to divert youth power to nation-building activity. The political leadership diverts the youth mainly for election purposes, while there is conspicuous absence of any sustained activity for socially relevant issues. While there is a proliferation of high-cost entertainment of the disco and pop types for the rich, there is hardly any concerted move to involve the vast segments of the less affluent and the impoverished among the youth. Whatever gainful activity by way of recreation and healthy social pastime comes to view is mainly through individual and local enterprise.

The sense of public accountability has gone down so miserably in service sectors all over the country where bribery has become the rule. How shocking this has become could be noted by the present writer during a recent visit to Gujarat. A leading member of Mrinalini Sarabhai’s Darpana Academy had lost his brother in a car accident. After post-mortem, the body was deposited at the well-known government hospital, Sayajirao General Hospital, Baroda. The mortuary was found to be in a state of utter dilapidation—without any effective cooling arrangement, bodies in a state of decomposition, limbs thrown apart, blood oozing all over the place, and a putrid unbearable smell with insects swarming all over. To locate the body, the staff there extracted a bribe, and to get a piece of cloth to put the dismembered body together, he had to shell out more money. Even the autopsy is carried out in a primitive manner with dismembered parts of the body often found scattered all over the place.

This hideous state of the morgue has long been commented upon by the local people but no action has been taken by the authorities. A local reporter commented:

There is no respect for the dead as the administration has been running the mortuary and the post-mortem department in a most callous maner for the last several years. Time and again, people who come here to claim bodies of their dear and near ones have complained of the appalling condition. But the dead command no priority in this hospital.

Why the dead, the living are relegated to a low priority attention in this allround decadence. While such a state of decomposition in many of the services hits the eye, one cannot help contrasting this decadence with the inspiring and uplifting experience of the work of many of the activist groups all over the country. A conspicuous feature of Indian public life in the last twenty years has been the phenomenal proliferation of what may be called NGO activity in different departments of public life. While the preoccupation of the political parties is almost wholly confined to election politics from the panchayat to Parliament, these activist groups can be found engaged in multifarious activities—from helping in rural-welfare, housing for the poor, literacy and education, environment protection, application of appropriate technology, popularisation of science, medical services and numerous experiments in cottage industries. Some are groups which are intensely rational in their outlook, others with a religious motivation. Their standards and approaches may be diverse and uneven, but their eagerness to serve the people can hardly be questioned.

But in the arena of power politics, these dedicated soldiers do not figure at all. Here is the basic problem of the Indian reality today: the state of our conventional politics or the silent dedication of the activists—which of these two will finally win?

(Mainstream, September 24, 1994)

Iraq Crisis and Gujral Government

The following article, which appeared in this journal almost twenty years ago, happened to be the last contribution of N.C. in Mainstream. It was published less than three months before he breathed his last.

Outgoing Prime Minister Inder Gujral can hardly take the credit for his quietude over the American response to the Iraq crisis.

The crisis in Iraq this time has not been of the horrendous type witnessed seven years ago. President Bush was very thorough in having the last fling of the Cold War trying to take revenge on President Saddam Hussein in Iraq. He not only led the blitzkrieg war but also got his contemporaries in Europe and the Middle East to rally round the American flag so much so that after the war even Japan paid for the cost of the American adventure over Iraq.

The scenario has now completely changed. Instead of the last fling of the Cold War which President Bush enjoyed, President Clinton has had to undertake sabre-rattling in a hostile terrain. For one thing, he was taken aback by the resentment of Saudi Arabia over any action against an Arab state. Secondly, he had to do without the help of the Germans and the Japanese this time. Thirdly, the situation was not congenial at home because the President himself was directly involved in personal affairs. Fourthly, the American people have been awakened to the ghastly nature of the Gulf war unleashed seven years ago. The exposure of the effects of American bombing on the children of Iraq by the former Attorney-General of the US Administration, Ramsey Clark, despite the feverish attempts by the US media moghuls to prevent such an exposure, shook the American conscience. Fifthly, the provocation of the United Nations, mainly inspired by the Americans, helped the Iraqis to enlist the support of the humanitarian elements within the European Community.

Lastly, what Kofi Annan has done as the UN Secretary-General has come as a surprise to President Clinton. Incidentally, Clinton had rejected the choice of Boutros Boutros-Ghali for the post on the plea that Boutros-Ghali would not be ‘impartial’, and had instead chosen Kofi Annan for the job. However, when on his return after his trip to Iraq Kofi Annan persuaded the UN Security Council to approve the agreement he had hammered out with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, President Clinton was in for a rude shock.

All this contributed towards the discredit of President Clinton’s Iraq policy as compared to that of President Bush.

In this context it may be worth reminding ourselves that eight years ago I.K. Gujral as the External Affairs Minister in the V.P. Singh Government was attacked in this country for having kissed Saddam Hussein on both the cheeks while on a visit to Iraq. He had at that time oganised the biggest airlift of Indians working in the Gulf for which his critics did not pay him kudos. Ultimately, however, Gujral’s Iraq policy has come to be vindicated.

It must be said to the credit of Prime Minister Gujral that he has lent no support to the Americans in any of their adventurous moves in Iraq. He was one of the few world statesmen who warned against President Clinton’s war-at-any-cost line.

Nevertheless, one cannot but help noticing that Gujral did not strive to rally the vast mass of non-aligned opinon in the interest of peace and against the American provocation of war-like gestures at one of the non-aligned countries. When Iraq was anxious to extend the hand of peace, to which Kofi Annan responded positively, there was nobody to rally the entire world opinion against the American warmomgers’ allout efforts to subvert the Iraq-Annan accord.

It is true that Prime Minister Gujral was then preoccupied with elections in India. One, however, must realise the tremendous responsibility he had to carry on his shoulders as a leading figure of the non-aligned world by dint of being the head of the Government of India. Did he discharge that responsibility with distinction and as best as he should have? Gujral never tires of declaring his allegiance to Jawaharlal Nehru’s ideas, especially to the principles underlying Nehru’s foreign policy course. Could he not have pondered over the steps Nehru would have taken in a similar situation? Nehru’s approach to the Suez crisis could be cited as a pointer in this regard.

In a television and radio address in Washington on December 18, 1956 Nehru had observed:

Recently, we have witnessed two tragedies which have powerfully affected men and women all over the world. These are the tragedies in Egypt and Hungary. Our deeply felt sympathies must go out to those who have suffered or are suffering.... But even these tragedies have one hopeful aspect, for they have demonstrated that the most powerful countries cannot revert to old colonial methods, or impose their domination over weak countries. World opinion has shown that it can organise itself to resist such outrages. Perhaps, as an outcome of these tragedies, freedom will be enlarged and will have a more assured basis.

Thereafter, he had lucidly spelt out the Indian policy without equivocation.

The preservation of peace forms the central aim of India’s policy. It is in the pursuit of this policy that we have chosen the path of non-alignment in any military or like pact or alliance. Non-alignment does not mean passivity of mind or action, lack of faith or conviction. It does not mean submission to what we consider evil. It is a positive and dynamic approach to such problems that confront us. We believe that each country has not only the right to freedom, but also to decide its own policy and way of life. Only thus can true freedom flourish and people grow according to their own genius. We believe, therefore, in non-aggression and non-inter-ference by one country in the affairs of another, and the growth of tolerance between them and the capacity for peaceful coexistence.

It is no use justifying the Gujral Government’s inactivity on the plea that the world has changed substantially since Nehru’s time. No doubt the bipolar global structure has been pulled down with the demise of the Cold War following the collapse of the statist socialist states in Europe alongside the dismantling of the Soviet Union. But the developing countries’ urge for charting out an independent path of advance, free of the superpowers’ tentacles (one of the basic tenets of non-alignment), remains as valid today as before, that is, as it was when the non-aligned movement was established in the days of Nehru. If at all, realisation of that urge has assumed greater urgency now that the sole surviving superpower’s inclination for global domination and imposition of unipolar hegemony, in the absence of a countervailing force, has enhanced manifold. Herein lies the abiding relevance of the NAM and the need to mobilise the non-aligned states for peace and progress in the interest of the developing world.

Such passivity, as displayed by the Gujral dispensation in the wake of the Iraq crisis, has no place in the current world scenario particularly in the face of the heightening challenges in the international sphere.

The new Government of India must bear all this in mind if it really has the interests of the nation and its people at heart, and is genuinely pledged to preserve and protect the dignity and self-respect of this country and the developing states the self-proclaimed global supercop is out to smother under any specious pretext.

(Mainstream, March 28, 1998)

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