The Coimbatore tragedy

Print edition : March 21, 1998

This refers to the cover story on the Coimbatore tragedy (March 20). It was a dark Valentine's day. The day of celebrating love was instead spent crying, when the seeds of hatred started bearing venomous fruit. The loss of property and lives aside, the real tragedy was the irreparable loss of conscience. Hatred and disgust were displayed not only by the self-appointed guardians of religions but also by the common man, although subtly. Because of the unhappiness of seeing their lives derailed, their views were not truly unbiased.

"This was waiting to happen, the entire community's hand is there, the police were liberal towards the thugs from the other side" - these were the common responses. It seemed the bomb blasts had destroyed in inbuilt filter in the minds of people, which separated law-abiding citizens from the religious zealots who shamelessly justify their brutal action in the name of religion.

B. Senthil Velan Coimbatore * * *

The report of the fact-finding team of the People's Union for Civil Liberties(PUCL) throws light on the communalised police which was responsible for the loss of more than 80 lives (in the November-December 1997 incidents and in the February 14 blasts). The Government should take stringent action against those police personnel who were involved. Their behaviour brought shame not only to the Police Department but to the entire people of Tamil Nadu.

There can be no two opinions about the need to punish severely the extremists responsible for the serial blasts. The Government should ensure that fundamentalism and communalism are dealt with by an iron hand. It is sad to know that the virus of fundamentalism and communalism have entered the government machinery.

S. Aravindha Mohan Ayakudy * * *

The issue of majority and minority fundamentalism apart, it is highly regrettable that the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister did not offer an apology for the apparent lacunae in his Government's functioning, which might have led to the horrendous deaths in Coimbatore. It is also highly distressing to observe the mute and complementary role of the Tamil Maanila Congress. I was one of many who fervently believed that the DMK-TMC combine would herald transparency and accountability in Tamil Nadu's polity, but the Pilate-like stance of the leaders of these two parties on the Coimbatore tragedy has dashed these hopes. It makes one suggest, especially to G.K. Moopanar, that history shows that the path to power without a conscience leads only to a poisoned chalice.

P. Krishna Rao Chennai Naturalists of India

We are obliged to Prof. Madhav Gadgil for highlighting the life and work of India's birdman, the late Salim Ali (March 6).

While writing on the naturalists of India, one needs to take into account two other premier institutions, the Botanical Survey of India and the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI), besides the Bombay Natural History Society. Modern studies on the plants and animals of India date back to the 19th century when the Asiatic Society of Bengal flourished and the Indian Museum was opened in Calcutta.

Among the pioneering zoological researchers, H.M. Lefroy and T.B. Fletcher laid the foundation for the study of Indian insects. Lt. Col. R.B.S. Sewell did tremendous work on the oceanic fauna. S.L. Hora ("whom Salim Ali admired most" and was praised by one and all, including J.B.S. Haldane) and his band of followers, who included K.S. Misra, E.G. Silas and A.G.K. Menon, carried out superb studies on freshwater and marine fish varieties.

There were at least four eminent entomoligists in the ZSI whose contributions cannot be ignored. They are M.L. Roonwal (on locusts and white ants), M.S. Mani (on insect parasitic wasps and high-altitude insects), A.P. Kapur (on ladybird beetles) and T.N. Ananthakrishnan (on thrips and insect-plant relationship).

Baini Prasad, H.C. Ray and N.V. Subba Rao have contributed significantly to the knowledge on Indian molluscs.

Some others like M.L. Roonwal (non-human primates), Biswamoy Biswas (birds), B.K. Tikader (spiders) and M.S. Jairajpuri (nematook worms) ought to be referred to as eminent naturalists.

R.K. Varshney Calcutta Gandhi as Mahatma

Personal sentiment has obviously clouded Ravinder Kumar's judgment in "political actor as social prophet" (March 6). This has led to a factually incorrect interpretation of Gandhi as Mahatma.

To begin with, Kumar's submission that Gandhi "transformed nationalism into a truly momentous mass movement within India" ignores the emergence of a popular mentality of swadeshi before Gandhi's entry into Indian politics. A reasonable view of Gandhi's role, and individual greatness, in Indian history should instead focus on the dialectics of a mass movement caused by the First World War and Gandhian populism.

Secondly, Kumar calls "truth" and "non-violence" novel contributions of Gandhi to the discourse of nationalism. A broader survey of international and Indian history qualifies this generalisation. For instance, non-Gandhian interpretations of Indian nationalism, including the Marxist, feminist and subaltern, also highlight the selective and contextual nature of these "novel concepts"propounded by Gandhi who, more often than not, fetished poverty and deprivation.

Thirdly, Kumar ignores the popular potential inherent in, and exploited by, the creed of extremist Congress nationalist leaders such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak in making the surprising statement that "Gandhi, alone among the nationalist leaders of his time, discovered the profound social anguish and intense nationalism of the popular classes."

Fourthly, in an attempt to convert the economic weakness of the Gandhian method into a sort of moral superiority over contending ideologies, Kumar asserts that Gandhi "came to the chastening conclusion that the economic grievances of the popular classes were not necessarily material that could be drawn into the construction of truly broad-based social and political alliances against the colonial state in India." Left historians, with great credibility, point this out as the cardinal failure of the Gandhi-led and Congress-dominated nationalist movement. Contemporary historiographical developments, to which Kumar's homage refers perfunctorily, prove beyond doubt that by consciously neglecting the "economic grievances" of the people (expressed in class and caste contradictions), the Congress failed to check the growth of communalism and casteism in colonial India.

Fifthly, Kumar writes of certain "pan-Indian" movements in India led by Gandhi in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Of these, only the Non-Cooperation-Khilafat movement of 1920-22 can perhaps be called pan-Indian. The rest most certainly cannot be called thus. Muslims in general were not enamoured of Civil Disobedience Movement in the early 1930s for reasons best known to old Gandhians. The ill-timed, ill-conceived and short-lived Quit India movement of 1942, though popular and successful in parts of the Bombay Presidency and Azamgarh in the United Provinces, was hardly pan-Indian. Muslims kept away from it and the British scotched it with relative ease.

The singular achievement of Quit India, which removed Congress leaders from the scene of actual politics and a war effort necessary to defeat the Axis powers, lay in the unhindered development of the separatist Muslim League during the Second World War with devastating consequences for the subcontinent. Hence the phrase "pan-Indian" appears inappropriate in the context of the real movements led by Gandhi.

Finally, Kumar asserts that the Gandhian movement was "demographically speaking, probably the most substantial popular movement in world history in the 20th century." This generalisation almost completely overlooks the immensely transformative and revolutionary Chinese movement against imperialism, feudalism and comprador capitalism (1919-1949). Compared with this movement led by the Chinese Communist Party, the gains of a so-called "pan-Indian" movement bound by Gandhian morality appear modest.

In the ultimate analysis, the historical value of a great "social mobilisation" does not lie in "great numbers" alone but in the capacity of these numbers to transform society progressively. Considered thus, the limited achievements and many failures of the Gandhi-led nationalist mobilisation contrast starkly with the romantic anti-modernist morality championed by Gandhi and ignored with impunity by his flock.

Dr. Anirudh Deshpande Gurgaon Cotton growers

''The killing fields''(February 20) is very timely and is an eye opener, if one considers the present yield levels of cotton crops.

India can be proud of its position in the world as the country largest with the area under cotton. With the introduction of hybrid seeds, India has brought about a significant transofrmation in cotton cultivation both qualitatively and quantitatively. However, the cotton crop suffer from attacks by many species of insects and mites and the seriousness of damages caused by insects is on the increase year after year.

With the rise in cotton prices, cotton cultivation is spreading, despite the heavy risks involved. Cotton growers, be they marginal, medium or big, are not provided proper training in the time of sowing, the selection of the right variety of seeds, the use of fertilizers and insecticides, the correct method of spraying of pesticides, the use of micronutrients and plant harmones and the watering of crops in different conditions. Besides there are not given correct information about the sources of funds. Unless this situation is corrected, cotton crop growers will continue to suffer suicides.

Vandana Patwari Aurangabad Vajpayee and 'Quit India'

All that comes out of the story on the role of Atal Behari Vajpayee in the Quit India Movement (February 20) is that he has done nothing against the freedom movement. The statement said to be signed by him is in Urdu and Vajpayee has clarified that, though he signed it, he does not read Urdu and that the statement was not read to him. There is every possibility that such things happened during the repressive British rule. There is also nothing in the entire story to support, even remotely, that the Rashtra Swayamsevak Sangh(RSS) chose "ideologically and politically, not to oppose the British colonial authority" as alleged by the author.

Utpal Kumar Bora Guwahati Opinion polls

This is to appreciate the article by V. Venkatesan on restrictions on publishing the results of opinion polls (February 20). There is no scientific study to show that any information on the mass media - has influenced the decision-making process of the people. The Election Commission has not made a distinction between propaganda and information that helps people understand the situation around them - what others think and say. Are Indian voters so fickle-minded as to change their opinion simply because they came to know that many others have decided to act in a particular way? We know that even within a family individuals vote for different parties and nothing influences their decision-making except their own will.

Charles R. Kandula * * *

This refers to your self-righteous and self-congratulatory, though patently untrue, statement about the so-called media hype that supposedly predicted a majority for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) while your own scientific prediction gave the BJP and its allies 'only' 225-235 seats. In fact, none of the psephologists have predicted a majority for BJP and its allies. Pioneer survey gave it 268 seats after your statement appeared, while the India Today survey said it would win only 214 seats.

Vikram Poddar Bangalore Corruption cases

Public memory is short and all the investigative reporting by your journalists will be forgotten soon unless you provide an update on some of the major issues exposed by you, mostly the 'scams'.

A brief history of each case followed up by information on its current status, starting with the Bofors, Harshad Mehta, JMM bribery, fodder scam and other cases, should make interesting reading, particularly if you find out why the cases have got bogged down and no one has been brought to book. Maybe the new Government at the Centre will be forced to sit up and take notice.

Frontline, with excellent photographs as well, is an extremely informative periodical.

R.C. Acharya New Delhi Rajiv assassination probe

The highly informative and analytical cover story (February 20) brought out the fact that Indian police do not lack in dedication, determination and research-oriented intelligence. The historic judgment in the Rajiv assassination case would not have been possible without the excellent work done by the SIT under D.R. Karthikeyan who has boosted the morale of the police force.

It is a very good sign that he has been appointed Director of the CBI.

Sheojee Singh Chapra, Bihar Suicides by farmers

It is alarming to learn that more than 100 farmers committed suicide in Andhra Pradesh in the last few months ("The killing-fields", February 20). A human tragedy on such a large scale is not something that can be taken lightly by any society. What makes this tragedy even more appalling is the fact that the suffering was triggered and compounded by several factors - most of them man-made, which could have been avoided by proper advance planning.

The suicides occurred among small and marginal farmers who grew cotton, influenced by favourable market factors. For them, switching to cotton was a major investment in terms of seeds, fertilizers and, above all, costly pesticides. They ended up putting their entire earnings into the crop, and had to borrow substantial amounts. Sadly, banks and development agencies did not rise to the occasion, and much of the loans were taken from private lenders at usurious rates of interest. Quite often the lenders happened to be the pesticide dealers to whom they needed to pay that money. These loans, as is bound to happen in such cases, were secured by pledging land or gold.

Scientific advice in terms of cotton varieties suitable for the soil, the types of pesticides, the timing of the spraying of them and so on was not readily forthcoming from the agricultural extension agencies, and where it was forthcoming, it lacked credibility because of the agencies' track record. The only source for such advice was once again the pesticide dealers, who naturally had a vested interest in making the farmers use pesticides in much larger quantities than it was necessary. Ironically, the pesticides, instead of killing the pests that infested the crop, ended up killing predators like field rats which were feeding on those pests and therefore were helping to control the damage.

Besides, frequent and often extended power cuts made proper irrigation impossible.

All these factors conspired to reduce drastically the yield, and the farmers found that the "white gold" turned out to be more a mirage. With the farmers desperate to sell their crop and repay their loans, the price of cotton fell from an average of Rs. 2,500 a quintal to as low as Rs. 1,700 a quintal. Despite several appeals from the farmers, agencies of the State and Central Governments, such as Markfed and the Cotton Corporation of India, did not intervene in time to stabilise the prices at a remunerative level.

Meanwhile, the moneylenders brought pressure on the harassed farmers to repay the loans or forfeit the land or the gold that had been pledged as security. Crop insurance came to their rescue only in the case of institutional loans.

Faced with the prospect of losing their only means of sustenance, and having deprived their families of their meagre means of security, the farmers took refuge in the very poison that had failed to kill the pests in their fields. The fact that so many people were drawn to this extreme measure indicates that something is basically wrong with the state of affairs. One shudders to think of the agony of those still living.

This worrisome situation appears to be a replay of the situation between 1988 and 1991, when large numbers of cotton farmers of Guntur and Prakasam districts ended up committing suicide in similar circumstances. Systems to help prevent similar tragedies in the future have to be developed.

We, a group of concerned individuals from different parts of the world, are distressed by this tragedy and are anguished by the fact that not enough is being done by the Government to mitigate the situation in the short run, and to prevent the recurrence of such tragedy in the long run.

The Government has woken up, though somewhat belatedly, and taken some relief measures such as the waiver of bank loans, and the payment of an ex gratia to the families of those who committed suicide. However, we feel that these measures by themselves will not go very far in solving the underlying problem unless the Government is committed to serious long-term measures.

We urge the State and Central governments and all political parties immediately to commit themselves to the following measures:

1. Revamping of the rural credit system and crop insurance, making it more responsive to the needs of the public;

2. Establishing and enforcing clear and strict ceilings on interest rates charged by private lenders, strictly regulating the methods used to collect loans, specifically with a view to eliminating intimidation or harassment (lending practices prohibited under the laws must be made cognisable offences);

3. Regulating the pesticide trade more stringently and subjecting pesticides to strict quality control and certification, on the lines of the regulations in the United States;

4. Making available to the farmers the knowledge necessary for safe and effective farming; making agricultural outreach efforts more credible and accessible to the farmers; ensuring that students and faculty members of agricultural universities help disseminate their knowledge among the farmers;

5. Funding research in appropriate and ecology-friendly methods of farming;

6. Controlling manipulative practices in commodities trading to protect the farmers against price suppression and to prevent distress sale through appropriate legislation, ensuring that government agencies charged with monitoring and supporting the prices of cash crops discharge their obligations promptly;

7. Promoting the revival establishment of small farmers' cooperative societies which have the mandate to oversee, among other things, the proper implementation of laws and regulations relating to lending practices; and

8. For the short term, making every attempt to stem the flood of despair by undertaking relief measures and communicating to the farmers in every possible way that such measures are being undertaken; and the setting up of counselling centres to advise farmers as to where and how to obtain immediate compensation, how to refinance their loans and how to get protection from loan sharks, and so on.

Chukka Srinivas and 273 others Malden, Massachusetts

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