Saturday, 31 December 2011

Indian Media: A Reality Check



We in India often look upon media as some kind of a valiant mission, as an instrument of change, rather than a profession, a value neutral mechanism. Thanks to the stalwarts of the freedom movement like Tilak, Gokhale, Gandhi, Nehru et al, who published and used newspapers as a powerful weapon to fight with the mighty Raj. As a matter of fact, the very first paper to be published from India in 1780- The Calcutta Gazette of James Augustus Hickey- was so fiercely opposed to the viceroy Warren Hastings that Hickey was incarcerated and later deported home. Given this history, it is quite natural that people expect the media to follow the tradition established by such worthy predecessors and feel aggrieved when expectations are belied.

In the early years of independence the scene looked not that bad. The proprietors and editors were mostly product of the freedom movement, they cherished certain values and there was also a sense of commitment and pride in being a partner in the nation building process. The things started changing gradually after the death of Pandit Nehru on 27th May 1964. Though Smt Indira Gandhi is rightly blamed for press censorship and other excesses towards the press during emergency years, I would like to submit that overall hers was a mixed record. She freely interacted with the press; was suspicious of the so-called Jute Pres, but sensitive to the needs of the small and medium papers; SITE programme as a public service vehicle was launched during her period, large scale expansion of All India Radio took place; and importantly, the press generally remained alive to the needs of the common masses.

Thereafter, three different developments, which took place at three different times, altered the character of Indian press beyond recognition. Firstly, in the post-emergency period many influential newspapers raveling in their newfound freedom very quickly abandoned their social responsibility and became scandal sheets. Secondly, the arrival of TV in the mid-eighties lead the press in believing and deciding that it would not survive without resorting to changes, both in editorial priorities and production techniques. Lastly, the new economic policies introduced in the nineties that opened the gates for corporate houses and foreign players to buy stakes in media ventures resulting in complete transformation of media policy, priority and ethics.

This is the historical background of Indian media against which we may now attempt to examine the current scenario. Though the mass media or simply put the media encompasses a whole range of activities such as press, radio, TV, theatre, cinema, posters, wall-writings, internet etc, but for the purpose of the present discussion, I propose primarily to focus upon the first three that construct the very basis of media in public imagination, namely- press, radio and TV and refer to other forms only wherever necessary.   

Let me start by saying what we expect from media. There are four traditionally accepted and broadly defined functions of mass media- 1) dissemination of information, 2) interpretation of events, 3) education- meaning political education in the broadest sense of the term and 4) entertainment. The third function becomes most important in a diverse, plural, developing society like India. But we note that over the last two decades or so the scene has changed so fast that all instruments of mass media together have pushed the first three functions to the fringe and the last one namely entertainment with a capital E has come to occupy the core. As a result, mass media has not only lost its inherent capability to influence public opinion and play its role as a strong pillar of democracy, but also become the talk of much public debate and target of criticism, even ridicule. Witness some recent happenings- Radia Tapes, pronouncements of Justice Katju, defamation case against “Times Now” channel and so on. The question is who is responsible for this sorry state of affairs- media owners, journalists, readers, government or some other forces?

Who Is Responsible?

One too often finds it convenient to put the blame on “media”, without going into the specifics, as if media is some autonomous agency that has some inbuilt mechanism to correct itself. This thought leads to nowhere and on the contrary, rather absolves those responsible for the present state of affairs.The fact has to be recognised that media is what is made by the collective inputs of all of the above and therefore, every one of them has to accept its share of responsibility in bringing about the present state of affairs. Therefore, it would be better to first get a clear picture of how the media operates in the present times and only then talk about the remedial measures

At the outset, we will do well to remember that the modern technology as needed for media operations calls for huge capital investment. The days are over when an enterprising journalist could take the risk with whatever meager resources he had, for launching his own newspaper. A whole battery of media-moguls has eased that quintessential editor-publisher out. Whosoever is capable of investing tons of money in machinery, establishment and start-up losses can only launch a newspaper, a TV channel or a FM radio station. We know that a selected few like business houses, politicians, mafia gangs and foreign investors can alone arrange this kind of money. This as a corollary has resulted, on the one hand, in concentration of media power in a few hands; on the other side has fast eroded the institution of editor and free press has become an outdated notion.

The typical media owner of the day does occasionally play charade about meeting up his social responsibility, but the fact is that he has absolutely no confusion or compunction about what he really wants from his media enterprise. It will be too simplistic to suggest that he is concerned about profits generated by advertising revenue. It’s but only a small part of the scheme. His eyes are really set upon much higher targets- use media to influence and mould policies that concerns his other activities, plough back a part of business profits in media with a view to consolidate his position and to create monopoly in a given market, gain social and political clout; and most importantly, roll out a product that serves his class interests and make others crave to reach that exalted station in life. If religion continues to be the opiate for the masses, media is the new wonder drug concocted in this age.

A newspaper, in the earlier days, generally used to build its identity on the basis of its content- news stories, features, articles, editorial commentaries etc. It enjoyed a loyal readership cultivated through its wee defined editorial policy. Not any longer. The press is now following the example of TV where total stress is on looks and appearance and content has been rendered purposeless. One can’t distinguish one paper from the other and reader’s loyalty has become ever shifting. As regards TV, the question of loyalty hardly arises as the viewers are prone to keep on surfing the channels.  I need not cite any examples in this regard as it will be wasting your time on the items that are all too well known. But we need to ask an uncomfortable question at this point that as to how the media owner was able to carry out this transformation. Here the journalist enters the picture.

It is obvious that content is the soul of the media, be it paper, radio or TV. The editorial team under the leadership of an editor is supposed to fulfill this essential requirement. For sure, like the good old days, even today a media house looks out for and hires competent journalists. As a matter of fact, they are a lot better from their predecessors being better educated and better trained. Just take a look at the number of journalism institutes in the country and the graduates passing out from them. Moreover, the working conditions are much better in comparison to the past. Then, what has happened that the output by these brilliant journalists does not pass on the anvil of public opinion?

It might be said without mincing words that a large number of journalists has rather voluntarily been co-opted in the grand design crafted by media owners and their elitist circle. I seek your permission to narrate a scene from a film titled “Naya Daur” made in 1957. In the film, actor Johnny Walker playing the role of a press reporter comes all the way from Bombay to a small place in Madhya Pradesh to report about a road being built by the collective efforts or Shramdan of the village folks. The reporter is inspired by what he sees, keeps his pen and camera aside and joins hands with the villagers in their dream project. Now, this was somewhat idealistic even for those days, but at least press-people were thought worthy of such respect then. Fast forward to 2011 and see a number of journalists enjoying junkets, seven star treats, freebies and in return doubling as lobbyists and middlemen. While, TV journalists shine in glamour and betray arrogance, their counterparts in print media hanker to emulate them.

As a journalist who has spent fifty plus years in print media, I am rather dismayed by the attitude of the readers, too. An average newspaper subscriber is a person who can easily afford the cover price of a paper. Yet, it is pathetic to see him getting influenced by the marketing gimmicks of moneyed media houses. So much so that he makes a choice on the basis of gift schemes introduced by them and keeps on changing the paper accordingly, even month by month. He has come to think that newspapers are flush with advertising revenue and don’t need subscription money any more. The result is that a paper with serious content has no hope to thrive or survive in this atmosphere. 

Let us now briefly discuss the role being played by the government. I have always held that a robust democracy and healthy press (media) are complimentary to each other. In a welfare state like India, press was supposed to act as the bridge between the people and the state, between aspirations and actions, between desires and deliveries. It seems that the state, gradually shifting from Nehruvian model of nation building to neo-capitalist philosophy has no need for a healthy press. The leaders have lost touch with the masses and they don’t want their sleep to be disturbed by the travails of the aam admi. There are schemes galore in the name of welfare, but nobody seems to be interested in getting reliable and independent feedback about the implementation of these programmes. The state has turned a blind eye to the growing monopolistic trend in media, spokespersons of various political formations deem it better to debate issues of national importance on TV channels rather then on the floor of the house, and the prime minister has no appetite in meeting with the press. 

A word may also be added about various media bodies. Once upon a time there was Press Institute of India (PII) that regularly conducted training courses for journalists. It is almost dead now. IFWJ was a powerful trade union of working journalists; it’s now split in three entities, none of which has the power to influence the course of events. INS and ILNA have also lost their respective relevance and clout with the government. Many newspapers are running their own media training institutes, but their syllabi have nothing to do with democratic values, as we understand them.


This is a dismal picture that I have tried to present based upon my own experience and study of the subject. The million-dollar question is what is the remedy for these ills. For quite sometime now, I have been advocating that it’s futile to depend upon the media controlled by vested interest, and we must rather develop some kind of a parallel press that answers to our needs. Call it guerilla press, if you please. When we want to build a democratic, socialist, secular society, we also need adequate instruments for mass contacts, mass awareness and public education. I envisaged that workers, students, peasants etc would publish their own newspapers, composed on a computer, printed in a small facility and circulated on micro level. It could be a single broadsheet weekly wallpaper pasted on the walls of Gram Panchayat, college notice board, office canteen and so on. The expenditure would not be much and surely there would be some journalist friend around to help in the cause.

Obviously this proposal has its limitations. But I think that we have an alternative available in the form of a people’s initiative. That can be a joint stock company, a cooperative society or a public trust for setting up newspapers and TV channels. In the past some efforts were made in this direction, though they failed primarily due to lack of professional management. There are two different examples from other fields that may be studied in this regard. The first is Amul and the second is Indian Coffee House. You may want to give a cool thought to these ideas! The point is that the media should be in the hands of the people and be not aligned to business interests.

Whatever be my suggestions about alternate media, we can’t and shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that in a democracy polity it is primarily the government that is under obligation to create an atmosphere that is conducive to a vibrant media in order to ensure the cherished right of freedom of expression. We know that the government has faltered on this account, not only because it is under pressure from the capitalist class, but also due to its own political philosophy. This is not acceptable. While we would like to remind the government on this, we may also put forth some practical suggestions for its consideration and appropriate action.

Print Media:

One immediate step that central government must take is to set up the third press commission, which will look at the larger issues like price-page schedule, ownership pattern, devolution of ownership, FDI, ombudsman etc.

A complete revision in the advertising policy of DAVP is also called for in promoting socially oriented journalism. Some suggestions in this respect are as follows-

1.      Display Advertisements related to social justice and welfare programmes should be released only to Indian language newspapers. Main beneficiaries of these schemes i.e. general masses read only language papers. Therefore, for example, why should an advertisement about scholarships for ST students be given to ‘Times of India’ or any other English daily published from metro cities?

2.      The weeklies and tabloids published from district places and remote towns are often dubbed as Yellow Press, but this perception can be changed through a strategy. These papers circulate in rural areas and thus, have a potential for becoming useful tools to disseminate public information. DAVP may consider giving them display advertisement on a fixed rate- long-term basis and ask for fixed space for publicity of welfare schemes. All newspapers routinely publish publicity material provided by advertisers. DAVP can also demand the same. This will help to curb the rising monopolistic trend and ensure decentralization of print media in the country.

3.      Those newspapers, which as a matter of policy run regular pages on developmental issues and Panchayati Raj, be given preferential treatment for DAVP ads. This will ensure greater public participation in designing and implementing public policies in the true democratic spirit, and will also involve the print media in such formulations. It may be made clear that the stories/ articles need not be pro-govt. and that the press will be entitled to its views on the subject.

4.      Those newspapers, which as a matter of policy promote small regional languages, (such as Bhojpuri, Chhattisgarhi etc.), and have regular space dedicated to editorial content in a regional language also be given preferential treatment. This will be particularly helpful in the vast Hindi speaking countryside in disseminating information on welfare policy initiatives.

5.      Those newspapers, which are published from tribal areas/ schedule V areas, need to be given some kind of special treatment, like extra rate over and above normal tariff etc. They might be treated as pioneering industry in a backward area.

6.      Similarly those newspapers, which are published from small towns, district headquarters, having population below 1,00,000 should be given some additional advantage by way of special rate etc.

7.      Display advertisements and small tenders etc. should be reserved for regional newspapers. At present English newspapers published from metro cities corner the lion’s share of all govt. advertising (mainly released through private advertising agencies). There is no justification in it. The metro newspapers cater to the elite, don’t reach villages and even otherwise have hardly any social concern.


It is an anomaly that while TV has been opened for private players; a cost-effective and people-friendly medium like Radio is still firmly in the hands of the central government. It is hard to understand as to why community radio remains a distant dream, while private operators have been given permission to run FM stations like Radio Mirchee. This selective approach has turned Radio into a vehicle of popular entertainment rather than an instrument of mass education. There might be genuine apprehensions about the abuse of this powerful medium that reaches to far-flung villages and surpasses any other medium, but surely measures can be put in the place to prevent untoward, undesirable and unwarranted happenings on the community radio system. It might be useful to recall that in 1975, SITE programme was launched for mass education through TV. It was taken up as a pilot project in six states. This example can be followed in respect of community radio, too.


The total number of privately held TV channels in the country runs into hundreds. Quite a few of them have foreign collaboration. Similarly, politicians control many.   This glamorous medium is a perfect vehicle to implement the neo-capitalist agenda and has proved to be so in India. While a TV channel should be able to retain its independence, it should not be allowed to shirk its responsibility to the public. At this stage, I suggest that a TV commission on the pattern of the press commission be set up to examine all aspects of TV operations.

 The government owned Door Darshan goes on to receive flaks for its performance. Yet, it is the only agency to provide public service telecasting. Earlier it had no rivals; now it has to survive in the face of stiff competition. This calls for a thorough scrutiny of the programme mix being offered by its various channels. It must be ensured that DD doesn’t deviate from the primary purpose for which it was set up in 1959 and takes due care to promote the basic values enshrined in the Indian constitution. . It is a matter of satisfaction that we now have two more channels respectively owned and operated by Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha that complement the role of DD.

Even catering to the need of entertainment for the masses, some simple steps might be taken. Like showing award winning regional films on DD National in the Prime Time slot rather than during late night hours as is the practice now. There may be many more ideas but the point is that DD should not be run on the dictates of marketing managers/advertising agencies.

New Media:

At the end of the paper, I propose to return once again to what we, as concerned citizens could and should do to use media in furtherance of democratic value system. We have been hearing a lot about the decisive role played by Internet and various social media sites during political upheavals in Egypt, Libya and even in India in Anna Hazare’s campaign against corruption. The self-laudatory claims made by the new media instruments are no doubt exaggerated, but what prevents us from taking advantage of the opportunity presented by these technological tools? I suggest that all progressive organisations, think tanks, even political parties should optimally use them by joining these sites and start posting material on them.

The simple point is that we have to adopt a two-pronged strategy. One is to continue to put pressure on the elected governments for implementation of a media policy that is in sync with the basic fabric of our society. The second is to keep on exploring possibilities of people’s initiatives in this direction.

Lalit Surjan

Raipur 04-11-2011

Note: This paper was presented in a National Workshop on “India’s Path To Socialism” organised in Hyderabad on 27-30 December 2011.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Privatisation Of Water


At the outset we need to discuss the definition of water. Is it only a resource? Is it merely a usable item like road, electricity, telephone or fast food? Is mankind the only consumer of water? Besides mankind who else has a right on water? Pondering at length over such questions I have come to accept the following definition.

Water is a resource but more than that it is the most precious gift bestowed upon us by Mother Nature. All living beings have a right on it. From the tall trees of the forest to the humble grass in the meadows and from mighty elephant to tiny ant every one needs water to survive. Mankind needs water primarily for drinking. Then only he uses water in other purposes like sanitation, irrigation and industry- in that order. It should be obvious that water can’t be compared with any other resource or service.

Water is our fundamental right. It can neither be curbed nor terminated. But this is what precisely the global machine of profit is trying to do. The authors of our constitution might not have envisaged this situation; otherwise they sure would have enlisted the right to water as the first fundamental right. All constitutions in the civilised world recognise the right to life. Isn’t access to water a part of that right? Then how should one describe the powers, which are trying to take away this right from our hands? Aren’t they the most cruel and heartless exploiters and demons in today’s world?

Water is not something created by man. It is given to us through rains in many forms and mediums. We get it in natural way through mountain streams, meandering rivers and placid ponds; as also through wells, hand pumps, and urban water supply schemes by use of technology. Undoubtedly technology makes life easier and therefore we are naturally pleased when water comes through municipal taps. Unfortunately in the pleasure of this easy availability we tend to forget that water deposits are not endless, and therefore ought to be used in judicious manner. While we discuss the role of WTO and the privatisation of water in this forum, we should also ask ourselves whether there is something like water-consciousness in the society.

WTO is a gigantic machine of profit. World Bank, IMF, ADB etc. are also part of the scheme. They all profess to be working for the development and progress of the world community but our experience over last five decades tells another story. That they have worked relentlessly only for making the rich countries richer and more powerful. On the strength of their ill-gotten wealth in the colonial era these countries have forced the rest to kneel before them and beg for scraps. They are least concerned about the sovereignty of nations and have never cared for cultural traditions and diversities of other societies.

In this background it’s hardly surprising that they now want to trade in water. Water is only a commodity for them, a product- that doesn’t require any manufacturing process. A permission from the government of the country where trading is sought is more than sufficient. Such permission in this uni-polar world order has become much, much easier to seek. National governments, even provincial governments and Panchayati Raj Institutes prostrate before the global traders. Once the permission is granted they need to invest only on bare requirements like motor pumps and pipelines. Thereafter it becomes a game where water suppliers dictate the terms. Those with enough money at their disposal alone can buy water and survive. The rest are free to die of thirst.

This happened in far away Bolivia. In the town of Cochabamba municipal water supply was handed over to the US multinational Bechtel- the same company, which has emerged as the biggest contractor in the war-torn Iraq. This company took over all water resources of the town and started trading on very high rates. So much so that people were forced to spend almost half of their income in purchasing of water. The situation soon became unbearable and agitated people came out in the streets. The government supported the company. It resulted in brutal firing on unarmed civilians in which several citizens died. Yet, the people were not deterred. Ultimately the government had to cancel the contract. The company was sent packing back. Ironically, the company is now demanding an astronomical sum in compensation from the Bolivian government.

It is important to understand the background of this decision of Bolivia to privatise urban water supply. In many countries, governments take huge loans from World Bank et el. ostensibly in the name of development work. But rather then investing in productive activities the money is mostly spent on unworthy causes or finds its way into private coffers. The development projects are never completed in due time resulting in escalation of cost, while the interest on such loans, mistakenly believed to be foreign aid, continues to increase. A major part of the country’s revenue thus goes into servicing of foreign debt, leaving little money for real development. To bridge the gap, governments again lean on institutions to help them out. At this point, lending institutions pounce upon the borrower. They start applying all kinds of pressure on the government to accept their own agenda such as privatisation of public sector industry and services, low interest regime, Voluntary Retirement Scheme, downsizing of bureaucracy, free entry to foreign firms etc. Debt-laden, corrupt and ever-needy governments succumb to these pressures.

We are witnessing the same scenario in India. The central government has bowed down before the foreign capital interests. But that has not benefited the country in any respect. The state governments also seem to be very much attracted by foreign investment. Their leader is Chief Minister N.Chandrababu Naidu of Andhra Pradesh. In his state every year hundreds of farmers commit suicide, as they are not able to repay their debts. In summer 2003, for the first time in its history 1300 people died of heat stroke in the state, as the government was not able to open drinking water kiosk in urban areas. Yet, Naidu is rated as the best chief minister in the country.

Enron is a well-known name. Indian political masters rolled out red carpet for this US multinational. Whatever dreams the company sold turned out to be a big hoax. It went bankrupt in spite of its thick relations with President Bush. This meant losses for the shareholders but the directors went home with handsome compensation packages. The same directors have now formed a new company to try their luck in trading of water. There are more than a dozen firms in Europe and the US in this business. Their operations are mostly in the developing world. I have already cited the case of Bolivia. In Metro Manila in Philippines, city water supply is in the hands of a foreign company. In Karachi, Pakistan talks are going on for a similar project. A river in Michigan, USA was leased out to a soft drink manufacturing company in the face of protest from local residents. But India is the biggest market for these traders.

The National Water Policy, which has been framed by the Govt. of India under the influence of the water industry and WTO advocates private trading of water. The govt. expresses its inability in providing adequate water supply citing lack of resources. It is also of the view that the private sector is more efficient. On such grounds in 1998, the erstwhile government of undivided Madhya Pradesh had privatised Sheonath River in Chhattisgarh. The present government has promised to terminate the contract but no steps have been taken so far in this direction. Then, we have this case of New Delhi where the multinational company “Suez” has been contracted to bring water to the metropolis from far away Tehri Dam on Ganga. In this particular project no consideration has been given to the enormous money spent from the public exchequere in building the dam. In the neighbouring state of Jharkhand municipal water supply of Jamshedpur has been handed over to another multinational “Vivendi”. Periya River in Kerala has been handed over to Coca-Cola and in Tamilnadu Coca-Cola and sakthi Sugar combine has been given rights to extract ground water in Shivganga area near Madurai. In that state water supply of Tirupur- famous for its hosiery manufacturing- has been given to another foreign company. Such examples are on the increase.

The only aim of these local/foreign traders is to earn maximum profits. They are least bothered about the basic water needs of the people. Their profits come not only from selling water, but from other activities, too. Their business interests range from hybrid seeds to chemical fertilisers and pesticides to irrigation systems to construction of big dams and factories. Vivendi owns the Universal Studio in Hollywood. In countries like India these foreign firms may get contracts from building of dams to sale of terminator seeds. Once they have entered our life then there is no escape from their clutches. In Kerala where rivers have been handed over to Coca-Cola, access to drinking water has been cut. In Andhra Pradesh farmers are committing suicide because they are never able to repay debts taken for purchase of seeds, fertilisers, pesticides produced by these firms.

WTO asserts that water supply is a part of the “service industry” as if it is something like a Post Office, Bank or Insurance Office. It is continuously making a case in favour of free trade across the globe. This has resulted in profits mostly for American companies. The US, the champion of the free trade, never hesitates in raising barriers in the areas where it fears losses for its own firms. The call to treat water supply as a service is also motivated to facilitate entry of foreign firms in this trade like already done in banking and insurance. Once the field is opened to them they will take over city water supply, refine wastewater, build huge dams and introduce water related technology developed by them. No need to say that each of these activities will fetch huge profits.

Water will then be supplied on the paying capacity of the consumer. Naturally, top priority will be given to the industrial manufacturers who will be able to recover the charges from the end users. Then will come soft drink manufacturers as the coloured sugary syrup can be sold at, may be, fifteen times higher price. In agriculture sector only rich farmers will be able to purchase water, as they are not only rich but also enjoy political clout. In the cities residents of posh colonies will get preference. It beats me as to how in this scheme of things rural poor, landless farmers, urban labourers and residents of shantytowns will be able to get water for life. The masters of water will lay claim even on the raindrops falling in one’s courtyard.

Once WTO declares water as service, it will not be possible to retract from it. Each member country will have to accept it. Then a situation may arise when water from India will be sold in Singapore. The market will decide the selling patterns. Then a contractor will also be free to decide his own rates in his contracted area, as it happened in Cochabamba or Metro Manila.

The challenge before us is to join hands in fighting with the traders of water, the agencies supporting them and the governments giving them permission. Environmentalists and water activists in India have already rejected the national water policy, but there is an urgent need to launch a nationwide agitation. We must tell WTO and its associates in their face that trading of water is not acceptable to us. If our peaceful appeals are not heard then we must be prepared to come out in the streets.

Written and translated by Lalit Surjan

Keynote address given in pre-Cancun National Seminar held in Bhubaneswar, Orissa on 27th/28th August 2003. Published in Deshbandhu, Raipur on 28th August 2003.

This article may be circulated and reproduced in any form.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

The Buddha Smiles


O Lord Buddha, forgive them. They know what they are doing!

Tathagat smiled first in 1974, when India conducted its first N-Test in Pokhran on the Buddha-Purnima. Thereafter he was in a blue mood. After a lapse of twenty-four years, he once again smiled on the Buddha-Purnima of 1998, when the second N-Tests was conducted in Pokhran. I recall a Hindi poem written by the late Nagarjun some fifty years ago which, roughly translated, says that “The truth perceived by the govt. is different from the truth as seen by the people/ And this has put Tathagat, the supreme sage, in a dilemma”.

I would like to understand that if Lord Buddha was smiling on his birth anniversary, then whom was this Tathagat facing a dilemma? Does the poet have any right to raise any doubt about the smile, which has been attested by the govt. of the country? And if the poet wants to exercise his right, then is he prepared to voice his concern about the policies and decisions of the govt. of the day?

As a matter of fact, the poet should be asked if at all he did feel any concern about the N-Test conducted at the end of twentieth century by India. There is a distinct possibility that he might have felt rather elated at this development. To quote Nirmal Verma “It would not be unjustified if in him the glory and sanctity of patriotism has turned into narrow prejudice of nationalism” in the comparatively safe environment in which he lives. Again in Nirmal Verma’s words it is also possible that “he may not like to muddle his sense of patriotism with the self-interests of the powers-that-be”.  

At any rate, the trauma and tragic experiences of the war are not part of India’s collective memory. We didn’t had to face all that faced by many other nations during the Second World War- the holocaust, the Atom Bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or twenty million people laying their life in the Soviet Union; India was almost free from this nightmare. Today’s India has forgotten even the long struggle fought by our forefathers to become free of the colonial rule. Though India has gone to war on four occasions after Independence, Indian literature has not produced any significant writing on war or its after-effects. Rakta-rag by Devesh Das written on the background of the Second World War is perhaps the only book on this subject. Two novels of Jagdish Chandra- Adha Pul and Tunda Laat are the story woven around military life, but real experiences of the war are missing in them. In Hindi, if one has to mention, there is just one novel- Seemayen by Manhar Chauhan.

An important aspect of the truth is that the democratic polity in India, in spite of its shortcomings, has created a peaceful, free and vocal space not only for the common person, but also for the writer. This can be seen by comparing the Indian experience with that of from Vietnam to South Africa to Bosnia to Chile. This is interesting to note that whenever India has gone to war, it has turned out to be a money-spinning venture for a particular breed of poets who revel in calling themselves poets of patriotism and valour. We have seen open Patriotic poetry recital sessions being organised all over the country in 1962, 1965, 1971, and even in 1977 after lifting of the Internal Emergency. The year 1998 may also be seen in the same light.

Noble Laureate Heinrich Boll has noted somewhere that in post-war-Germany there was perhaps not a single writer who in one way or another was not related to Catholicism. It is just possible that in the aftermath of two great wars, the writers, sensitive as they are, were drawn towards their spiritual traditions, in quest of peace and in search of meaning of human existence. They even might have attempted to redefine the spirituality. But the sensitive hearts of India are least bothered about such subtleties. They travel, with equal ease, between the Veergatha Kaal (Era of poetry of valour- 10th/11th Century) and the Bhakti Kal (Era of devotional poetry- 15th/16th Century). The Indian poet, snugly floating in the ocean of devotion and spiritualism, may not like to see the paradox of N-Tests being conducted on the birth anniversary of Lord Buddha, as reflected in the following words of noted poet the late Faiz Ahmed Faiz!

“The people in power are concerned about the throne and the treasures, but they all envy this recluse of yours” and

“O, Lord! While the Sheikh delivers diatribes by his acid tongue, the tears flowing from the eyes of the poor soaks your chador”. (Both couplets translated from Farsi).

Today when India wears on its shoulders the pride of becoming a Nuclear State, and when proud intellectuals like Dr. Pushpesh Pant castigate former Prime Ministers for not exercising the option, one can only offer prayers in the words of Vinod Kumar Shukla- one of the most important signatures in modern Indian Writing -

“It may be that the big blast to destroy the earth happens any moment now/ It may also be that before the life is destroyed, a bigger blast of life takes place”.

Notes- 1) Tathagat is yet another name of Buddha. 2) Buddha-Purnima is the birth anniversary of Buddha as per Indian Calendar. 3) Purnima- Full Moon.

Written and translated by Lalit Surjan

The Editorial published in AKSHAR PARV monthly, June 1998

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Global Campaign For Abolition Of Nuclear Weapons


 “It may be that the big blast to destroy the earth happens any moment now/ It may also be that before the life is destroyed, a bigger blast of life takes place”.

With these words, the well-known contemporary poet Vinod Kumar Shukla offered his prayers when India tested her capability for destruction in the desert of pokhran on 11th may 1998. Such concerns have been voiced again and again by the peace loving citizens of the world ever since the USA dropped Atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. It is said that even during the Second World War, there were quite a few scientists who were opposed to the manufacturing of the bomb. A significant attempt to stop the nuclear madness was made with the Pugwash Conference and the release of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto in July 1955. The Hibakushas and peaceniks of Japan have also been holding world conference against the bomb since 1953. Besides, many more organizations are working in Four Corners of the globe towards this goal. Yet, the day appears to be not too near when all these efforts will bear fruits and the world will finally get rid of these devastating weapons. As we know, there are almost a dozen countries in Asia, which have tried to acquire and develop nuclear capability in last two decades and in that they got support not only from the military brass but also from a large section of the general public. Some of the reasons for their deadly desire may be described as follows-

1.      Nuclear capability gives and boosts up an ephemeral notion of nationhood. A poor country ravaged by colonial rule and foreign marauders takes it to be the easy way to join the club of affluent nations.
2.      It also provides with a false sense of national security. A government, which has failed to address to the basic problems of the country, thus attempts to divert attention from its own failings
3.      In a male-dominated world order, it also perhaps fills the rulers with a sense of manhood. The supposed-to-be tough guys love to play with dangerous toys.
4.      In the particular context of India, this also seems to be a case of mythology revisited. For the bramhinical politico-techno-sceintific establishment the bomb is nothing less than the Brahmastra described in the mythology. The spectacular brightness of the bomb explosion reminds them of the splendour of the god as depicted in Geeta. 

 What I am trying to suggest here is that the challenge before us today is two-fold. At one hand our fight is against the political powers that advocate and promote acquisition of nuclear weapons, and on the other hand we must also work towards changing the popular mindset, which has come to believe in the virtue and efficacy of the bomb.

America’s war on Iraq has in an unexpected way presented us with an opportunity to work for our mission with renewed vigour.  As we all know, people throughout the world were outraged by the one-sided war launched by the US. In a spectacular show of solidarity with hapless Iraqi people, billions came out on the streets on 15th February 2003. The public opinion against the war and in favour of ever-lasting peace was mobilised in an unprecedented manner. The warmongers had not bargained for it.

People want peace more than ever. They have seen through the neo-imperial designs, and understood the consequences. They are also tired after witnessing wars small and not so small broken out in one part or another of the world. We should not lose time and seize this opportunity before the fatigue gives way to inertia and indifference. In my humble opinion, we will do well to consider and incorporate the following points in our campaign-

1.      Effective linkages between anti-nuclear movements, be it national, regional or international; at least for the purpose of sharing of information, and whenever possible lending moral and physical support in the true spirit of world citizenry.
2.      Foster ties with democratic movements active in different geographical regions and different action-fields.
3.      Special efforts for education of women and youth on this issue. Both these vital segments of the society appear to be out of our area of influence. At least in third world countries like India. Although they are always the main victims of any war.
4.      More effective dissemination of information about dangers of nuclear power as such, and not only the bomb. People are generally not aware of devastating effects of nuclear power related activities like Uranium mining and other practices for so-called peaceful purposes.
5.      Deconstruction of the myth that the bomb serves as a deterrent. A large number of people believe that if only Iraq had bomb, America would not dare attack it. They also tend to believe that since bomb has not been used after 1945, it will never be used in future as well.
6.       Mustering support of the scientists’ community, and highlighting it in all possible ways. It is the establishment scientists who steal the limelight, and persuade people in believing in the virtues of nuclear power.
7.      Adoption of programmes for opposing all mass- media software- cartoons, movies, TV serials- that propagates bomb, weapons, war, and violence in every conceivable manner. What is the use of including peace education in school curriculum if the child is enamoured to ‘Superman’ and his ilk.
8.      Production of literature on mass-scale in local languages to ensure effective communication with the silent majority living in villages, dark corners and far-away places.

I was asked to speak on the Global Campaign for abolition of nuclear weapons. Previous speakers have covered many aspects of the movement. I need not repeat what has already been said. I have also purposely chosen not to narrate the history of our collective efforts over the years. What I have tried to say is largely based on my personal experiences as a campaigner for peace with the hope that it may have some usefulness in the present context.

I opened my statement with a poem. I would like to end with the following stanza from Rudyard Kipling-

“Far-called, our navies melt away/ On dunes & headland sinks the fire
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday/ Is one with Nineveh & Tyre
Judge of the nations, spare us yet/ Lest we forget/ Lest we forget”

Lalit Surjan

Text of the speech delivered in World Social Forum, Mumbai on 18th January 2004.

Claude Eatherly


……..  He continued “There are many, thrown into the asylum, who would be considered mad in the people’s eye today. But one needs those eyes to see and declare them as mad.”
I asked with disinterest “What do you mean by the eyes?”
He directly looked into my eyes and replied, “----the one who becomes distraught by listening to the voice of the inner-self and in that mindset starts acting on orders of the inner voice is considered to be mad today. In the past, he might have been a saint. Today his place is in the mental asylum.”

------- I said, “So you were talking about the mental asylum; what about that?”
He started saying something, perhaps the preface for his statement. I interrupted him “What name you said?”
“Claude Eatherly”
“Is he a Roman Catholic? A tribal Christian?”
He was offended, “You were not listening?”
I tried to convince him that I had grasped each and every word of what he was saying. But his facial expressions said that he didn’t believe me. He said, “Claude Eatherly was the American pilot who dropped the Bomb on Hiroshima.”
I was surprised. Either he or I was mad. I asked, “So what?”
Now really angry with me he said, “You idiot! He kept sending a cheque every month to the Mayor presiding over the discoloured, dreary, ugly, and sad life of the devastated city of Hiroshima so as to provide some help to the hapless people, as also to atone for the unpardonable sin he had committed!”

------- Whom is he talking with me in this tone? I imagined as if I was not living in this world; have come some two hundred miles above it, from where I can see the sky, the moon and the sun, and the stars. Rockets are flying from one end to another; and the earth looks like a blue sphere, where there are people who have come from all countries, and are not of any particular nationality. I was somewhat mesmerised for a split second. That moment was loaded, with awe and self-doubt! And in that moment I asked, “So Claude Eatherly of Hiroshima is in this asylum?”

The fingers of my stretched hands were pointing in the direction of the yellow building. Going across the walled compound my searching eyes had caught a glimpse of the bright eyes peering out of the window. If I am to believe this man, these eyes must belong to Claude eatherly and none else. But is it possible?

He could read my mind, “Yes, he was Claude Eatherly.”
“Then is it not India? We are living in America?”
He laughed scornfully at my foolishness, and said, “In every big city of India there is an America. Have you not seen those fair-coloured, bright golden women with a streak of red on their lips; have you not seen their costly costumes? The highbrows riding in limousines?
The sophisticated prostitution? The seminars? Once upon a time we used to go to London and were called as “England Returned”. Nowadays, we go to Washington. If only we had as much money, and Atom Bombs, and Hydrogen Bombs, and rockets, we would have been the luckiest! Do you read newspapers?”

I said, “Yes”

“Then you must have read the speech of Macmillan. Remember, what did he say? This country may not be a part of our military alliance, but culturally and mentally it is with us. Was he telling a lie? No sir! He was just telling the truth. And if this is the truth, then it is also equally true that their moral and cultural crisis is ours too.”---------------

He continued, “When such is the case, then why can’t our country too, have the pilots capable of dropping atom bombs, and why can’t we have our own imperialists and war mongers? Just go and read the newspapers, and ask the English-speaking elite. The sum and substance is that India is also America.”

 By now I was sweating. My heart was not prepared to accept that India was also America, and that Claude Eatherly was incarcerated in this lunatic asylum. He roared with laughter sensing my discomfort and fear, but then his eyes were filled with sadness.

He said, “Claude Eatherly was an aircraft pilot. The bomb he dropped destroyed the city of Hiroshima. He returned to see the consequence of his heinous deed and was shattered to see what was left of the city. He was a broken man after that. He didn’t know that the weapon in his possession could work havoc of this magnitude. The broken images of the innocent persons killed or maimed by the bomb started haunting him. He was filled with a sense of unending guilt, and a desire to mitigate sufferings of his victims. On the other hand, the American Government rewarded him. He was declared a “War Hero”. But his conscience bothered him. He asked for to be punished for his crime. But how a hero could be punished? He left the job, yet the lionisation didn’t stop; he was still the hero!

“He started committing petty crimes, so that he may be caught, tried, and punished. But he was always acquitted. His pleas for punishment were ignored. But when he persisted, he was at last thrown into a lunatic asylum in Waco, Texas. He stayed there for four years but his insanity could not be corrected.

“After his release he joined hands with some criminals and started robbing the post offices. He was duly arrested, but was acquitted once again when the judge came to know who he was. The top brass in the military didn’t want to be embarrassed by convicting a war hero. To save honour, he was sent back to the asylum.

“This is Claude Eatherly! There was no reason to disbelieve his honesty! A film company offered to pay him a Million-dollar fee to make a movie on him. He refused. This erased the doubt if any about him.

“Who doesn’t know that Claude Eatherly is another name of the conscience opposing the atomic war. Yes! Eatherly is not a mental patient. He is the burning symbol of the spiritual restlessness, of spiritual anxiety. Do you refuse to accept this?”

He was now wearing a dejected look. He further continued, “How many are capable of understanding this spiritual anxiety, spiritual restlessness? And how many believe that they are psychic, neurotic, queer, strange, or mad? In the ancient times many of our sages were regarded to be insane. Today also, many are regarded as such. If they are not important enough, they are simply ignored. Thus their inner feelings are prevented from spreading out.

“There is a lunatic asylum inside hearts and minds of each of us. We consign our uncontaminated, sublime, and rebellious thoughts and emotions to it; so that either they learn to make compromises, don the garb of civility, and start behaving, or spend a wretched life there.”

Awe-struck I asked, “Is that story for the real?”
He replied, “Don’t you read newspapers? Then what do you know? If you don’t believe me then go, and find for yourself. In the meantime, let me take you on a round of the asylum.”

On the way, once again I said, “I’m not prepared to accept that India is America. It has never been and it would never be one.”
He brushed aside my objection and said, “Your problem is that you don’t see my point.”
I said, “How?”
“Claude Eatherly may not be living here, but at least we can look for the people whose conscience pricks them as much.”
“But will it be the correct thing?”
“Why not! Doesn’t the people honest to the country have a personal sense of just and unjust?”
“I haven’t understood.”
“I mean there are people who know who are the robbers and sinners and exploiters. They may not necessarily be the outsiders, but from amongst themselves. Try to understand.”
“Please explain”
“That even those who experience the widespread injustice yet don’t revolt against it, carry the sense of personal guilt deep inside their hearts. It ought to be. That is the basic oneness between Claude Eatherly and them.”
“So what does it prove?”
“That proves that every sensitive person like you is Claude Eatherly.”

 It was just as if he had stabbed me. Yes, this was the truth! Absolute truth! The inner-self gathering dust in the dark abyss of the heart does revolt. It accepts all responsibility for the sins committed before one’s eyes. Oh me! How often I, too, have been inflicted with this feeling!”


Excerpts from CLAUDE EATHERLY, a Hindi short story written sometime in the year 1959, by the late Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh, in short Muktibodh, (1917-1964), the most important signature in post-independence Indian literature.

Hindi version from Muktibodh Rachnavali, Part III, published by Rajkamal Prakashan, New Delhi, 1980.

 Translation by Lalit Surjan

The Cobweb Of Education


Every year from February to July, a majority of teenagers in India lives under severe mental strain. An all-pervasive anxiety seems to take them over right from metro cities down to the villages. First of all, they worry about the preparations for the annual examinations, and then are gripped by the fear of the exams. Once the exams are over, they start worrying about the results. After the results are out, a feeling of joy may come for a moment, but soon apprehension about an uncertain future overpowers their minds. Besides the students, parents and well wishers are also pestered by the situation. But hardly any efforts are made to found a solution.

One can’t blame the students for the predicament faced by them. They only tread the path paved by the elders. If anybody is to be blamed, it is the parents. They pin high expectations on the children, and impose upon them the liability to make true their unfulfilled dreams. Thus, it’s their negligence and tunnel vision that unwittingly helps in evolving a system that comes to haunt them as Frankenstein monster.

In our wisdom we often forget the basic point that what after all is the purpose of education, and what kind of schooling is needed for the children. Ever since the colonial days, we have considered formal education, as introduced by the Raj, crucial to get useful employment. We think that a salaried job in the government, with some extra money thrown in by way of bribes, is the key to a secure future. We forget that a bird in the cage is also secure as long as the cat does not get the opportunity to kill it. An ox employed in the Kolhu (traditional oil extraction device in India) also leads a secure life. One must ask if this is desirable. I don’t see any cause to be happy in such an environment, which has gradually and slowly quelled the zest for life in younger generation. At the end, it will drive a whole generation to a point where a wretched existence will become the fait accompli.

The irony is that nowadays even those aspiring for higher positions in the society by becoming a medical doctor, engineer, or chartered accountant also think only in terms of security. The primary concern of the system of education designed for such courses now seems to prepare graduates capable of minting money, rather than to use their ability and competence to serve the community. Medical doctors are now expected to set up private hospitals and indulge in what is called “cut practice”. Engineers look forward to build partnerships with contractors and suppliers, and are least concerned about durability and safety of the structures raised by them. And chartered accountants are now admired for their ability to concoct account books and make deals with the tax authorities. Parents spend enormous sums of money for sending their children to places like Kota, Pune, or Banglore for higher studies. Once the schooling is complete, they immediately become engrossed with recovering the money spent on it, and recovery never stops.

It will appear that a maze has been purposely laid out for imparting this sort of education. In summer months, special trains are operated from Delhi and Kolkata to Banglore and Pune for aspiring students (and their parents) for appearing in admission tests. Parents are seen knocking, often without success, at the doors of politicians and other influential persons to beg their favour in getting the child admitted in a desired institute. For each seat, there are at least one hundred candidates. In a typical season an aspirant may have to take at least half a dozen admission tests. Parents know it fully well that out of a hundred; ninety-nine candidates don’t stand a chance of success. Yet, they maintain pressure on children that they have to succeed, as if to become a doctor or an engineer is the highest goal in one’s life; and all would be lost if the goal is not achieved.

As a matter of fact, pressure starts building up from the very early age. Parents simply don’t try to understand the aptitude of the child. If she or he has a flare for fine arts, encouragement is given only to the extent of participating in minor events, so that he/she may win and bring home a prize or two, which could be proudly displayed in the drawing room. A sense of competitiveness is always there. But beyond that, none wants to groom the child to become a musician or a painter. He or she is forced to study science subjects, even if one has no aptitude for it. Lately, with the growing craze for business administration, commerce has also become a desired subject. But, liberal arts subjects like history, geography, or sociology are looked down at. It is never thought that these subjects have a vital, if not more important than at least equal, role to play in building a new society and a new world.

Another factor of this pressure building is the unrealistic expectation from the child to pass out with excellent grades. To fulfill this goal, parents don’t allow the child to participate in extra-curricular activities. On the contrary, he or she is forced to take private tutorials, in addition to reading the course books. This attitude scares the child so much that in case of the result not being up to mark he/she might be driven to commit suicide, runaway from the home, or just become sulky. Thus, it is the parents who provide all arrangements to make the child despondent, instead of him/her becoming self-confident. It is an irony that the very parents, who encourage their tiny tot to sing nursery rhymes before the guests as a proof of his/her talents, feel ashamed when asked about the future of the child when he/she grows up. Who else is responsible for this if not the parents?

If we take a close look, we will find that this is but a symptom of typical middle class mentality. The “Great Indian Middle Class”- so lovingly termed by the votaries of globalisation- has about twenty-crore members including children. Each and every manufacturer, local or multinational, from shampoo to computers to luxury cars, has his eyes set on this potential buyer. In this so-called age of liberalisation, marketing schemes are introduced keeping him in mind. New models of car are for him, so as fridge, washing machine, and TV set. All beauty aids are for this class only. Once, Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia, in the context of Indian woman, has described the black as beautiful. But nowadays new and new formulas are being presented for transforming natural wheatish complexion of Indian skin to snow-white. Bazaars are over-stocked with goods. One may buy whatever one wants to! No problem if the pocket is empty. Foreign bankers have opened their counters at every nook and corner to serve the Indian clientele. Then there are credit cards and ATM facility. The buyer is welcome to pledge himself in exchange for a car, TV set, or a house!

At one time, Janardhan Poojari, the then Finance Minister, had introduced the concept of Loan Mela by nationalised banks. It’s a different story that the banks were bleeding white in that exercise. But in today’s India, a vast market has been opened from Kashmir to Kerala. There are shops in the market selling education, too. One may buy education for the child as per ones taste and desire. Only condition is that one should have enough money in the pocket to clinch the deal. If cash down is not possible then loan facility can be availed. We used to criticise “Jhola-Chhap” schools of Gwalior region. They were peanuts in comparison to shop-owners of the day. This is the age of air-conditioned showrooms. Those who can afford, their children travel a/c class, commute to school in a/c cars, and stay in hostels in a/c comfort.

All this looks pretty attractive today. Parents are happy with themselves for being able to arrange such facilities for the children. When they grow up, they think, they will lead a comfortable life. They will be part of the a/c community ruling this country. They forget that they might have to face the realities of the outside world one day that is full of misery, hunger, poverty, haplessness, and anxiety. The anxiety might turn into anger someday. None wants to make any guess about that eventuality.

Those able to ensure a perfect future for their child are a happy lot today. Those failed this time may take yet anther chance. But in the meantime it will be immensely advisable that parents and grown up boys and girls start pondering if it is necessary to pass through such a grave tension. Is there no better option to this cut-throat competition? Can’t there be a schooling that may bring students closer to real life, and act to cement relationship between people and people? Outside of the middle class, there is a world of the not so fortunate of India. The day stars of the eyes of the middle class learn to make friends with those living on the other side, they will find the meaning of their life that day.

Written and translated by Lalit Surjan

Published in Deshbandhu, Raipur on 19th June 2003

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