The Tribune - Spectrum



Sunday, March 19, 2000
Books


Man’s anti-nature depredations
by Randeep Wadehra
History no more authentic than fiction
by Shelley Walia
Global world serves global elite
by Bhupinder Singh
Not Hindutva, but Bharati Yata
by M.L. Sharma
Valiant Winnie (Mandela) in her own words
by Vijay Naik
A neurosurgeon remembers
by Darshan Singh Maini
What Gandhi really preached
by Kuldip Kalia
Why so many dowry deaths?
by Padam Ahlawat
 


Man’s anti-nature depredations
Write view
by Randeep Wadehra

Environmental Engineering and Management by Suresh K. Dhameja S.K. Kataria and Sons, Delhi. Pages 385. Rs 80.

IF you thought indifference towards environment is exclusively a Third World trait, listen to what Chris Patten, a British Conservative politician and at the time Secretary of State for Environment, had to say as late as April 19, 1989, in the Independent: "Green politics at its worst amounts to a sort of Zen fascism; less extreme, it denounces growth and seeks to stop the world so that we can all get off." No wonder the world took its own time in waking up to the impending catastrophe.

We often use the terms ecology and environment as synonymous. Ecology deals with the influence of environmental factors on all aspects of life such as morphology, physiology, growth, distribution, behaviour and survival of organisms. On the other hand, environment is the sum total of all the external conditions that affect the life of organisms in their natural habitat. Environment has two main components. One, external factors like temperature, humidity, minerals, gases, etc. which form the abiotic environment. The second constituent comprises plants, animals and micro-organisms that form the biotic environment.

While studying ecology two aspects are taken into consideration — namely, autecology and, synecology. Autecology or species ecology relates to individual species and its population and studies its behaviour and adaptation to the environmental condition at different stages of its existence. Synecology or the ecology of communities studies groups, their composition, and behaviour vis-a-vis the prevailing environment.

The author points out that in a homeostatic (the ability or tendency of an organism or a cell to maintain internal equilibrium by adjusting its physiological processes) ecosystem, if there is disturbance in the balance between the living organism and its environment, it will have harmful ecological consequences. Therefore population explosion, proliferation of pollutants, etc. can bring about extreme changes in the physical environment. This can have an adverse effect on the health and quality of life of human beings, animals and plants. In fact the entire eco-system faces a danger.

As a consequence of the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992 the Strategic Advisory Group, comprising 20 countries, 11 international organisations and more than 100 environmental experts, recommended the developing of standards in six areas: (1) environmental management systems; (2) environmental auditing and related environmental investigations; (3) environmental labelling; (4) environmental performance evaluation; (5) life cycle assessment; and (6) terms and definitions.

Thanks to the general enthusiasm at the global level the environmental management and auditing standards improved rapidly. The first two standards of the series ISO 14001 and ISO 14004 were published in 1996.

Every year June 5 is observed as Environment Day. This is but one part of the global effort at imparting environmental education. It is realised that there is need for creating awareness of environmental problems among people and motivating them to promote positive action for saving the planet. Already, environmental education has become part of the curriculum in schools and universities. Environmental sciece, environmental engineering and environmental management are the three specialised branches for students.

Both formal and informal systems of environmental education are being offered. The author would like to see primary schools as the starting point of formal environmental education. This would equip the child better when it goes for higher studies.

There are about 200 departments of environmental studies in various universities and colleges in India, which offer degree or diploma courses. Yet no attention is being paid to have a pool of specialists in the field. Most of these courses are lumped together with M. Tech and M. Sc as additional subjects. Similarly, teacher education in the field is also being neglected.

In the non-formal sector much remains to be done. There is no concerted and sustained effort at providing environmental education to the general public. There is an urgent need to end this hiatus. In fact, even though international organisations are doing their bit to promote an eco-friendly culture, much needs to be done at the national level. Water, air and soil are getting polluted at an alarming rate. Forests are being wiped out without a thought for the disastrous consequences. Slogan shouting and gimmickry have replaced serious effort at the political and administrative level. Business tycoons too cannot escape their responsibility in this respect.

Suresh Dhamija has published this book keeping in mind the need of students. He has done an excellent job. It is strongly recommended that committed readers too buy this book to know how their various activities affect the surroundings. There is plenty of food for thought here.

Healing Mind, Body & Soul by Alan Bryson. New Dawn, New Delhi. Pages 244. Rs 175.

Undoubtedly, the human body is a matchless piece of sophisticated contraption. Scientists, seers and philosophers have been trying to unsuccessfully unravel the secret of its functioning.

Recently the medical establishment was amazed to discover that not only brain cells but also all primary cells of the immune system are equipped with receptors for neurotransmitters and neuropeptides. Our cells communicate by a system dubbed as "P-mail". Dr Candice Pert explains that 23 amino acids in the cells are able to transmit and receive messages much like a dish antenna.

Rene Descartes, the 17th century philosopher and mathematician, had played a vital role in separating the functions of mind and body. Modern scientists now refer to the neuropeptides and their receptors as the biochemical correlates of emotion. In 1963 when researchers at the University of Leningrad found that damage to the hypothalamus (the part of the brain that lies below the thalamus, forming the major portion of the ventral region of the diencephalon and functioning to regulate bodily temperature, certain metabolic processes, and other involuntary activities) could impair the immune response, they tried to explore whether or not nerves were sending messages from the brain to the immune system.

PNI or psychoneuroimmunology is the study of the interrelationship between our mental state and our immune, endocrine and nervous systems.

It is now being increasingly realised that mind is capable of influencing one’s healing process. For example, it is a fact that chemotherapy results in hair loss. In a study, a group of patients were administered placebo and yet 30 per cent of them lost hair! Physicians familiar with PNI often make use of placebo to cure their patients. Thus more than medicine, it is a patient’s faith in the treatment that actually heals.

Here it would be apt to recall the German psychoanalyst Georg Groddeck’s words: "One must not forget that recovery is brought about not by the physician, but by the sick man himself. He heals himself, by his own power, exactly as he walks by means of his own power, or eats, or thinks, breathes or sleeps."

Bryson has also elucidated the importance of spiritual healing. He has quoted extensively from the teachings of the Buddha, Abdul Bahai, and other religious personages. The role of "virtue factor" too has been highlighted. Vegetarianism and other nutrition-related aspects have also been explored.

However, nature cure has not been paid much attention in this volume. Perhaps the author is not aware of W.H. Auden’s following words: "Healing," Papa would tell me, "is not a science, but the intuitive art of wooing nature

Ascension by R.K. Langar, Pages 181. Rs 175.

This is a book on subjects that are at once diverse and interrelated. Essays on the Gita and the teachings of the Ramayana explain the essence of these two works, especially in relation to a person’s routine life. Similarly Langar brings forth Krishna’s character as depicted in Bhagwatam, as the embodiment of love in all its aspects.

In another essay he tries to expound the meaning of Maha Mrityunjaya mantra. He also dwells on the importance of yoga in life.

Langar gives us glimpses of lives of saints and philosophers like Adi Sankaracharya, Swami Vivekananda, Ramanuja, and Madhvacharya. Elsewhere he had written eight essays on education, character building, dowry deaths, corruption, etc.

This book is ideal for those who want to acquaint themselves with the rudiments of Indian culture, philosophy and way of life, as well as ruminate on the various problems of contemporary Indian society.Top

 

History no more authentic than fiction
by Shelley Walia

Between History and Literature by Lionel Gossman. Harvard University Press, Cambridge. Pages 412. $ 44.99.

IN the post-modern world of sophisticated literary theory, the historian has come continuously under attack from literary scholars who have challenged and undermined the traditional historian’s absolutist pretensions. Lionel Gossman, the M. Taylor Pyne Professor of French at Princeton University, has drawn from his long teaching experience to throw light on the problematical relationship between literature and history. He focuses his attention on the intervening of history and literature in historical writing itself, showing how literary narratives and politics are inextricably bound up in the texts of two major Romantic historians, Augustin Thierry and Jules Michelet.

Though historians are becoming more and more defensive, and probably the reason for this is their largely untheorised stance on history writing, Gossman would want us to consider not this disjunction between the two disciplines but to discover new ways in which each can assist the other. He also addresses the twin problems of the place of narrative in historiography and the alleged incommensurability of historical narratives.

Although the narrative is borrowed from oral and written testimonies and historical accounts, it is essentially literary and rhetorical. Meanings are an effect of the narrative design, rather than a deduction form the facts. It is therefore clear that historical narratives "have much more in common with fictional narrative than historians are normally willing to allow".

The institutionalised boundaries between history and literature can thus be challenged by showing that the historical discourse is subject to the same kind of analysis as any other discourse. Isn’t reality always structured by the text whether it be literary or historical as none are transparent in projecting reality?

Gossman argues that "the categories of literature and history have a history; that literature as a social institution and, above all, as a subject of instruction in schools and an instrument of cultural formation and communication is part of history and subject to historical analysis".

In this context, Gossman falls back on Hayden White’s view that many teachers of literature often treat the study of the historical context of a literary work as "a kind of archetype of the realistic pole of representation", alleging that this historical context has a concreteness and an accessibility that the work can never have. They forget that "the presumed concreteness and accessibility of historical milieu, these contexts of the texts that literary scholars study, are themselves products of the fictive capabilities of the historians who have studied those contexts".

The institutionalising of literature in last century quite clearly subordinated it to history. The present "organisation of literary studies in the university (by national languages and historical periods) reflects that subservience and association. The collapse of historical philosophies in the aftermath of 1848 provoked a revival of the 18th century attempts to divide the sphere of knowledge into clearly demarcated territories subject to different criteria of validity. From now on literature would be considered in conjunction with aesthetics and altogether a separate discipline from social history."

With the recent debates on the "slipperiness" of language and its "deep structure", the historian begins to get worried about the epistemological basis of his study and the literary critic is deeply shaky with the idea of history being a firm foundation to the world of imagination. Relevant to this idea of the ambiguity built into the very notion of language, Wittgenstein writes: "Remember what a hard time children have believing (or accepting) that a word really has/can have two completely different meanings."

As we all know, the signifying power of language disables any attempt to produce a scientific discourse. This is the result of the French deconstructionist school which together with the Anglo-American analytical school that emphasised the textuality and not the referentiality of a text as the true determinant of historical meaning, produced a popular school of thought that "history is a linguistic artefact constrained by a genre specifying reference to conventionally agreed upon historical "facts", and that "fiction", in other words, informs, "history".

This, I guess, is common knowledge to many undergraduates, but it most certainly is a significant development in the philosophy of history and literature which endeavours to privilege literary discourse that is self-reflexive and knows that the only "truth" it knows is fiction.

The denial of fixity of either the interpretation or of the supremacy of any canon is thus asserted in a post-modernist stance that does not see language having any correspondence with reality. One could argue that there is no reality principle in the writing of history which has a complexion relative to the pleasure or the ideology of the historian, and thus anti-positivistic and deeply sceptical of absolute truths.

This theory takes into consideration the fallibility of historical record as well as the fallibility of the historian and his norms of selectivity. It cannot be denied that the past cannot be resurrected in its totality as it inevitably entails the process of exegesis and selection that leads to distortion in the "very attempt to present a coherent account of an inchoate past". The question of differing cultures also brings different assumptions to bear on the historical work. Carl Becker, in this ongoing debate, maintains that "every man is his own historian". This brings us to the conclusion that the very discipline of history writing has built into it the elements of frailty, fallibility and relativity.

Foundational history did put a premium on a methodology that used footnotes, quotations and a chronology that stood on the foundations of the canon of evidence, always aiming for objectivity and easy accessibility. On the other hand, post-orientalist history writing ridicules this delusive enterprise as it endeavours to conceal "its ideological structure behind a scholarly facade of footnotes and the pretence of facts".

Such history serves the patrocratic aims of an ideology that has the sole purpose of being subservient to the history that it sets out to record. The exercise of this type of an approach is to free history from the coercion of absolutist ideas of truth and reality that serve any authoritarian ideology. Truth, Theodore Zeldin, an Oxford historian, argues, can be discovered only in "free history" otherwise "known as fiction". It is an anathema to theorists like Hayden White that history is different from the literary or rhetorical aesthetic creation; and they would, therefore, like to "aestheticise" documented history which for them has no distinction from philosophy or literature, and is apparently an imaginative creation of the past that goes well beyond the constraints of documents and "facts".

No longer is the past treated as an event; in the hands of anti-foundational historians, it now turns into a text that is to be interpreted and analysed in the ways of the literary critic, who cannot overlook the features of irony, paradox and tension which are always inherent in any text.

The purpose here is not to pay heed to an event, but to use a methodology that conjectures on the nature of history and ideology. Any essentialist prig here meets his final collapse. And as Wittgenstein argues in "Philosophical Investigations", "Our investigation is directed not towards phenomena, but, as one might say, towards the ‘possibilities’ of phenomena." Nothing present to consciousness can qualify as knowing what to do; this reasoning is essentially Wittgenstein’s and doesn’t it point to a sceptical conclusion.

In this lies the genesis of the contemporary project of constructing or deconstructing history, instead of reconstructing it, a type of metahistory, that is, in the words of Terry Eagleton, "a political project, an attempt to dismantle the logic by which a particular system of thought, and behind that a whole system of political structures and social institutions, maintains its force".Top

 

Global world serves global elite
by Bhupinder Singh

Profit Over People: Neo- liberalism and Global Order by Noam Chomsky. Seven Stories Press, New York. Madhyam Books, New Delhi. Pages 155. $16.

EVEN as the USA made a break with many institutions of the "Old World", it has in many senses been a continuation of the European idea. Hegel in his "Philosophy of History" (1830), while noting that the still nascent America had not made any significant contribution to philosophy at that time, expected it to add to the European achievements in future. Though its contribution to philosophy has been modest in comparison with its other achievements (France still seems to produce the most influential contemporary philosophers), America certainly is the successor to Europe, the "Old World".

In fact, while Western Europe seems to be into its sober, matured middle age, America is an adolescent bursting with energy and confidence that best characterises that age in the life of a man.

Some, however, may disagree with such characterisation. Noam Chomsky, author of the book under review, is one of them. He would rather characterise America as a juvenile adolescent, if not a juvenile delinquent.

Chomsky has been much acclaimed for his definitive contribution to modern linguistics and for his biting criticism of the US foreign policy and analysis, of the corporatisation of the media. The title of one of his previous books "Manufacturing Consent" is an eloquent phrase that best describes the nature of the mass media today. In India, he is looked upon as a genuine friend and advocate of the Third World causes.

In a series of essays in this book Chomsky directs his focus on the contemporary economic policies being advocated by the ruling circles in the West under the rubric "globalisation". Chomsky feels that these policies are not new, these are a continuation of the liberalism of the 19th century which saw a massive expansion of western imperialism, primarily in Africa and Asia. The essence of such policies today is not much different from that of the past century. In short, it puts profit over people. The profits go to the select group of capitalists and corporate managers at the cost of the ordinary mass of people.

Chomsky traces the role of the USA in fomenting trouble in Latin America, which the USA has virtually regarded as its backyard. In the fifties, it disrupted those regimes it perceived as being too radical or nationalistic.

The re-emergence of Europe and Japan after the devastation caused by World War II changed the power equation of the world to a tri-polar system in the capitalist world. The writer shares the view of other economists who see the oil crisis of the seventies as leading to the dismantling of the post-war global economic system and within which the USA could not sustain its role as the world’s banker. This abdication lead to the huge explosion of unregulated capital flows.

"In 1971, 90 per cent of the international financial transactions were related to the real economy — trade or long-term investment — and 10 per cent was speculative. By 1990, the percentages were reversed and by 1995 about 95 per cent of the sums were speculative with daily flows regularly exceeding the combined foreign exchange reserves of the seven biggest industrial powers, over $ 1 trillion a day and very short term about 80 per cent with round trip of a week or less."

The author suggests that the principal architects of the "Washington Consensus" ignored the predictions of a low growth, low wage economy and preferred the predictable effects including very high profits in the short term. These profits were augmented by the short-term oil price rise and the telecom revolution, both related to the huge state sector of the US economy.

Neo-liberal policies in those countries outside the global system till the early seventies followed the familiar pattern of the Third World countries. The case of the former Soviet Union which most enthusiastically gave itself up to the dictates of the IMF is probably the most gruesome, where a Unicef inquiry in 1993 (barely three years after the reforms) found 0.5 million starvation deaths in Russia alone. While a few millionaires gained enormous wealth, 25 per cent of the population slipped below subsistence levels.

Among other novelties of neo-liberalism is that it cannot explain the reasons for the 65 per cent of rise of the per capita income in the USA. Similarly, South-East Asian economies have also followed paths that do not conform to the neo-liberal orthodoxy. The author quotes Paul Krugman, acerbic but brilliant economist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), saying that "conventional wisdom" (as determined by the IMF and the World Bank) is unstable and regularly shifting, sometimes the very opposite of the previous phase even as the two institutions impose the new orthodoxy. Retrospectively, it is said that the "policies did not serve the expressed goal" and were based on "bad ideas". Krugman observes that generally these "bad ideas" turn out to be in the interests of the dominant groups.

Chomsky gives a number of examples from history, including that of the "permanent settlement" in India which was later termed as a "bad idea". Many specific instances of such cases in the 1990s, including those of Brazil and Mexico which led to similar results, are also highlighted. In brief, great economic ideas have always been bad for those at the receiving end but not for the designers and the local elite.

On the other hand, success stories have invariably come from those countries which rejected the dictates of the financial institutions and instead charted their own course. The examples of Japan and South-East Asia are striking.

As for "Reaganesque rugged individualism" and its worship of the market, Chomsky quotes from an analysis of the Reagan years in the Foreign Review: "The post-war chief executive with the most passionate love of laissez faire, presided over the greatest swing towards protectionism since the 1930s." Another chapter of the Reagan years includes the traditional disguise of "security". Similarly, Thatcher’s Britain saw "two million British children suffering ill-health and stunted growth as a result of poverty on a scale not seen in the 1930s".

The USA has been steadily isolated in the UN, having cast more than 71 vetoes in the world body since 1967, often taking recourse to violent interference in what it perceives to be a threat to its interests, sometimes attracting the ridicule of the world. As the writer says, "Polite people are not supposed to remember the reaction when Kennedy tried to organise collective action against Cuba in 1961." Mexico could not go along, a diplomat explained, "because if we publicly declare that Cuba is a threat to our security, 40 million Mexicans will die laughing".

The facts offered by Chomsky in support of his thesis are piquant even though the general contours of his arguments have been long known. Critics may say that it is old wine in a new bottle, while his admirers are bound to say that as it ages, wine only gets better.

After accepting this, one cannot but ask "what next"? If the neo-liberal order is not the panacea for the world’s problems, where do we go from here? Here Chomsky gives only a negative answer (opposition to globalisation). Other contemporary commentators like Immanuel Wallerstein ("After Liberalism"), Samir Amin ("Capitalism in the Age of Globalisation") and Andre Gundez Frank ("ReOrient") provide answers which are too detached from the actual state of affairs and too much rooted in the past. Many of them sound utopian in today’s context. Alvin Toffler offers some new, though nave directions.

One hopes that even as we do take the warnings sounded by Chomsky and other writers seriously, one also needs to explore, like Manuel Castells in "The Rise of the Network Society", to come to terms with a world that is already globalised.Top

 

Not Hindutva, but Bharati Yata
by M.L. Sharma

Redefining Indian History by Asiananda. Minerva Press, New Delhi. Pages 482. Rs 400.

IN the book under review, Asiananda has undertaken to redefine Indian history on the paradigm of "Bharatiyata" in order to enlighten readers on different perspectives of secularism. He has extolled all those higher cultural and spiritual values which India stands for. Since the times immemorial India has been carrying the torch of love, wisdom, universal brotherhood and the concept of one human family.

Foreigners who are in the habit of belittling the cultural heritage of India on the ground of poor economic growth, poverty and slothful working of the government, will certainly find a powerful reply because the author has certainly done much spadework to build his case. He has come out with new insights and has tried to provide clarity.

Spread over 10 lengthy chapters, the book has touched on all socio-politico-cultural aspects of Indian history, including the cultural ethos, ethnic roots of the people and their heritage and religious thoughts. However, the book revolves around "Bharatiyata" as contrasted with Hindutva. The concept of "Bharatiyata" to him is a panacea for all national and international problems. This "Bharatiyata", writes Asiananda, is but a living reality for an average inhabitant of the subcontinent... This ‘Bharatiyata’ is experienced as a "religious consciousness of kaleidoscopic coloration — that admits the same sanctity to all godheads — Vishnu, Shiva the Buddha, Allah, Jahwe or whatever and all experienced as secular in the sense it is universal, transmitting a spiritual empathy with all humanity, nature and cosmos... So India must own up a secularism that is of faith, not the godless one that science and materialism propagate."

The idea of "Bharatiyata" is the Vedic concept of history — which is not made up of wars and conquests but of holy men and avatars. India, he says, sticks to a higher order — vision, identification and intuition and not to logical reasoning. History moves as events and movements in the psychic ocean of consciousness.

The author contends that there are two historic approaches to secularism. One is an attempt at defensive Hinduisation, as propagated by V.D. Savarkar and the other is an attempt at syncretisation, Indianisation and spiritualisation. Both are the pathways to secularism, but one is lower truth and the other higher truth. The secularism taught by Gandhi pertains to the truth of the higher realm.

The author laments that the great and all-comprehending spirit of India was reduced to Hindutva, which was responsible for "Mandir-Masjid-Mandal" splintering and the political deadlock of the democratic and governmental process. It is on the foundation of "Bharatiyata", with strong roots in ancient history and tradition that Gandhi, Dr Radhakrishnan, Nehru, Indira Gandhi and other patriots envisioned a brighter, peaceful and prosperous India.

He deplores the negative way of assessing the role of leadership in India. "John Kennedy, in spite of his short thousand-day administration, has a safe place in US history, but this cannot be said of Indira Gandhi or Rajiv Gandhi or possibly any of the past and future Prime Ministers in Indian history." Political opponents exaggerate "corruption charges".

The fundamental truth of Indian history is its universalist thrust. "At the level of ‘Bharatiyata’, history is a pure quest for higher Truth... As ‘Bharatiyata’ India is home, the mother, assimilation". This quest for higher truth is on not only in the East but also in the West.

If the quintessence of Indian history is its vision of one human family and its tolerance and assimilative power to embrace all, the West is aiming at universalist redemption. These impulses of the East and the West are bound to consummate into a "planetary cycle of millennial human renaissance". The Vedic wisdom has originated in a spiritual dawn radiating golden rays on the intuitive horizons of the ancient seers.

The author believes Hindutva served BJP well, but in order to assert itself as a non-status quo party it will have to move in the direction of "Bharatiyata" because Hindutva is crude. It is lower Hinduism, what he calls a bread-and-butter form of Hinduism and not the Hinduism of the ancient rishis.

Hindutva, he asserts, is the Hinduism of the shopkeeper. The higher Hinduism is philosophical, abstract or the universal religion. It is not opposed to any religion but complements other religions with profound thoughts and it is the same philosophy which was followed by Akbar making the Mughal empire "another legacy of the Indian spirit".

In 1578 Akbar ordered a ban on cow slaughter and became a mystic and a vegetarian. If Aurangzeb reversed this spirit, it was, he says, due to the personal ambition of the emperor and to humiliate Dara Shikoh, who was very close to Hindu thought. "If Hindu spirit cements all the pluralities together, ‘Bharatiyata’ reconciles the contradictions of Hindu, Muslim, Bengali, Kannada on the common transcending denominator of the Indian. There is a distinction also between India that is Bharat and India that is Hindustan, Bharat is ever broadening India as contrasted with the reductionist Hindustan".

He believes that economic growth in the country can only be possible if the country successfully grapples with the pressing domestic problems like political deadlock. If the 19th century was the British century, the 20th American century, the 21st will certainly be the Asian century, with India and China both in the limelight.

Mother India, he says, is kept imprisoned and in bondage and she can only be liberated when her children reach the higher truth and see that the mother beyond her body has the soul and has subtler sheaths of consciousness too. She is not only the mother of her children in this part of the world but also of the entire humanity. No doubt the Ganga and the Yamuna are polluted, the purity of both rivers is eternally enshrined in the hearts of Indians.

The Gita seeks to approach the Divine through the synthesis of love, knowledge and works. It is "song of ‘Bharatiyata’, the Constitution of India that is Bharat". India is not only the name of a country we live in but also of the whole civilisation for which it stands.

He counsels the BJP to broaden its vision and desist from adopting the similar role of the pre-partition Muslim League of representing the majority community if it wants to be a centenary party like the Congrees.

In this unique multi-dimensional and neatly printed work, the writer has provided a new direction to researchers, political scientists, historians, Indologists and reformers, besides providing perceptual clarity. Asiananda (Dr Devasia) is the Rajiv Gandhi Professor for World Order Studies at the Indian Institute of Ecology and Environment, New Delhi.Top

 

Book Extract

Valiant Winnie (Mandela) in her own words
Story of the most unmarried married woman

This is a chapter in "South Africa: the Land of Mandela" by Vijay Naik and published by Manas Publications, New Delhi.

PODOLAND in South Africa is a hilly area, dominated by primitive tribes. Nomzamo Madikizela’s father was working as a teacher there and Winnie is one of his nine daughters. The teachers’ salaries were pretty low and running a household with nine daughters was tough going. Winnie’s mother was a science teacher and also extremely religious, insisting on daily prayers. She prayed fervently for a son, but died without one at the age of about 40. After the death of her mother, Winnie had to drop out from school. She started working in the fields and mulching the cows and minding the flock of sheep were part of her routine. She continued to go to school and passed her sixth grade. Winnie used to walk barefoot several miles to school and started using shoes only when she entered secondary school. Before that, it had never occurred to her to ask her father whether they could afford shoes. Bismark, who struggled for the unification of Germany, was her father’s hero; so she was named Winifred at first. Winnie really did not like that name at all. Her original name was Nomzamo but she became known to the world as the valiant challenger of colonialism, Winnie Mandela.

When the colonial government incarcerated Nelson Mandela for 27 years in a prison on Robben Island, Winnie, who had married him on 14 June 1958 and was then just a schoolgirl, became the symbol of African conflict. She came to be called "the mother of black people." In fact, Winnie is Mandela’s second wife; Mandela has three children, Thembi, Makgatho and Pumla from his first wife, Evelyn Entoko, whom Mandela divorced. Winnie and Nelson Mandela have two daughters: Zindzi and Zeni. Zeni is married to the prince of Swaziland and has a daughter, Zimaswazi; Zindzi has spent many years with Winnie and they provided each other mutual support when the police were harassing them day and night. The letters written from prison by Mandela to Winnie and Zindzi have many moving accounts of the family’s travails. They also contain an ingenious analysis of history and politics, thus reminding the reader of Nehru’s letters to Indira, though letters cover wider ground. Nelson Mandela’s pet name is Madiba. When Zeni went to see him at Robben Island with the baby Zamaswazi, Nelson Mandela held a child in his arms after 16 years! He was deeply moved and Zindzi and Zeni say, "We have never had the good fortune of receiving the loving touch of our father. While he was in prison we could only meet him with the barrier of unbreakable glass between us. Sometimes we could see only his face."

Winnie had a fair inkling that life with Nelson Mandela was not going to be a bed of roses. As soon as she got married, the government and the police started hounding her and this continued till 1985, a full 27 years! Out of 22 of these 27 years, they were deported out of the country. The family was attacked by a series of misfortunes. On one occasion, she was subjected to non-stop interrogation for five days and five nights in police custody. She underwent this torture when a fever was raging in her body. In spite of this experience, Winnie Mandela insists, "I have suffered whatever countless black men and women have suffered in South Africa; I was just one among them."

Winnie had just a few days of romance and enchantment before her wedding. She first saw Nelson Mandela in the state court of Johannesburg, when the police had attacked one of Winnie’s colleagues who were fighting the case for him. The next time Winnie met Mandela when he was with Oliver Tambo and his fiancee, Adelaide Tsukudu (who later became his wife). Winnie hails from Bizana in Podoland and Tambo too belongs to Bizana. Adelaide and Winnie were staying in the same hostel. Once as Winnie was about to leave from the Baragwanath hospital in Soweto, Oliver and Adelaide arrived in their car and offered to drop her at her destination. Adelaide was famished and Oliver discovered that he had no money on him. Nelson happened to be present in the same shop. Oliver looked at Adelaide and said, "Tell him to pay the money." Adelaide went inside the shop and came out with Nelson and Oliver introduced Winnie to him with the words, "This is Winnie from Bizana."

Soon after, Nelson called Winnie and invited her for lunch. Winnie was quite scared; Nelson was senior to her in age and moreover, was a patron of her school. His name on the school papers was the only information she had about him. Winnie became restless after the phone call, not knowing what to wear for the lunch. Finally she got some decent clothes, which she was somewhat uneasy wearing, because they did not belong to her.

It was a Sunday, but Nelson used to work all the time, even on weekends. Someone else came to pick up Winnie and when she reached his home, Nelson was immersed in his files. It was the time for lunch and Winnie and Nelson went to an Indian restaurant. Winnie tasted Indian food for the first time there and later said, "I was just a village girl from Podoland. I had made just a few acquaintances during my service as a social worker, that’s all; otherwise I had no contact with life in Johannesburg. At this lunch I couldn’t eat, couldn’t even swallow. The curry was so spicy that my eyes started watering. Nelson offered me a glass of water and said, "If you are finding the food too hot, drink a glass of water. It will make you feel better." He was eating the spicy food with great relish, but was being continually disturbed by people even during the meal."

"Reaching the car after lunch took half an hour because he was talking to some one or the other all the time. When we reached his office, people were waiting for him there too, so we went out. Nelson said, he had called to ask me whether I could raise funds for fighting the lawsuit of treason. I had never even dreamt that he could ask me such a question. When we reached the car, he held my hand like an elderly person would. ‘Today was a good day for me,’ he said before entering the car. Then he turned around and kissed me gently."

"Next day he appeared in his exercise kit and took me straight to his gymnasium. This was our routine for a week and even there he was with me, but still not with me. There was no room for romance and I never indulged in flirting; there was no time for it."

"One day he simply told me that he had ordered a wedding gown for me. It was then that I realised he was proposing to me. When my father heard about it, he felt very proud. But my family was worried about his first wife and their children. Moreover, what about the charge of treason against him? But they all had faith in Nelson." In June 1958, Nelson was permitted to leave Johannesburg for four days and, after they got married at Winnie’s house in Podoland, it was expected that there would be another ceremony at Nelson’s house. Winnie adds, "If the elders’ opinion is taken into account, our marriage ceremony still remains incomplete. Nelson gave Lobola for marrying me. (Lobola is the dowry to be paid by the bridegroom to the bride). I don’t know how much it was. But he gave mulching cows with calves."

Winnie Mandela’s life is full of such incidents. During her deportation she said at Bradford, "When Nelson is released from prison, then we can complete the remaining part of our married life together." Winnie had even brought the wedding cake at Bradford. She said, "I had married conflict incarnate. I never had the good fortune of getting lost in dreams along with my husband, as a new bride is supposed to do. Nelson cannot be separated from conflict and from people; for him, his country comes first and everything else afterwards. In spite of this, the love he showered on us and the self-confidence he inspired in us could not have been achieved anywhere else. When I married him, I was well aware that I had married conflict, and would be a part of the people’s fight for freedom." In her biography titled "Part of My Soul" Winnie says, "I think I am the most unmarried married woman. I look forward to some day — even if it means just a day — enjoying some kind of married life with him. I would be thankful even for that."

Under the guise of a ban on communism, the Verwoerd government gave the same treatment to all the rebel leaders and continued its spate of arrests. Winnie Mandela was deported to Bradfort under the same law. Policeman Gert Prinsloo, who was to keep a watch on her, subjected her to tremendous harassment.He would enter the house at any time and would start throwing things about Winnie Mandela. She describes how he used to purposely vex her in simple matters.

"My friends Helen Joseph and Barbara Whaite used to bring me some homemade dishes occasionally. It was the year 1977. Father Rakale used to warn me of their arrival; but on this particular occasion, since Father had not come, Barbara and Helen sent me a telegram from the post office. On receiving it I went to the town immediately and met them. To avoid being noticed by the police, I was speaking to only one person at a time. My car was at a little distance from theirs. We had just brought some groceries from Barbara’s car and kept it in mine, when it suddenly started raining. Helen sat in the front seat while Barbara sat at the back; I was standing at the door and talking. Just then Gert Prinsloo arrived, with a few leaves sticking on his face. I realised then that he had been hiding in the bushes behind the fence and spying on us. He shouted, ‘You have broken the rules, I am arresting you.’ Later, a case was filed against Helen and Barbara and they were sentenced to four months imprisonment because they refused to produce any proof." Once the police seized a bedsheet which had ANC colours along with the books and papers! This bedsheet, with a Pennsylvania Dutch design, had been given to Winnie Mandela as a gift by the 22-member American delegation. Many such incidents in Winnie’s life have purified her, as gold is purified by fire.

Against all odds, Winnie managed to get a degree in the subject of social work. She continued her social service along with her struggles. Nelson Mandela was released on February 11, 1990, a moment of supreme importance in the history of the world. Winnie Mandela was an active member of the ANC women’s wing and in December, 1993, she again won the presidentship of that wing. Earlier, she had been suspended from the presidentship of the state ANC women’s wing, at which time she had resigned from all posts of the ANC and from membership of its national executive. She had been charged with misappropriating ANC funds and also with rebelling against the leadership. But her regaining the presidential post in 1993 made it clear that valiant Winnie was once again going to shine on the political horizon.

It now became clear that 59-year-old Winnie had the support of grass-root workers. In particular, she had won the hearts of the poor people in the East Rand area. Since she also had the support of the metropolitan council of south Transvaal, she came to be recognised as a senior leader of ANC’s urban wing. However, her problems started just before Nelson Mandela’s release and her prolonged struggle received a black mark. Her bodyguards and players of Mandela’s football team started indulging in hooliganism and violence; 14 years old Stompie Seipei and four of his friends were kidnapped. Winnie was charged with the kidnapping and murder of Seipei by South Africa’s labour union Cosatu and by former representatives of the United Democratic Front. The case was tried in a court and Winnie was found guilty of the charges; though she was sentenced, the jail term was waived. In April, 1992, Nelson Mandela declared his separation from Winnie for personal reasons.

The two were together for not more than two years after Mandela’s release. Now once again they are going their separate ways. Mandela appointed Winnie Mandela as the deputy minister for art, culture, science and technology, not because she was his wife, but because a place in the Cabinet was due to her for her sacrifices during the racist rule. Mandela had to honour the feelings of Winnie’s innumerable admirers.

Another incident involving Winnie Mandela occurred while I was in Johannesburg. Stompie Seipei’s tomb in the Tumahole settlement near the township of Parys was being cleaned in the last week of July. His name is not carved on it, but his family and friends know the place. Preparations for a dinner to celebrate his birthday were in progress in a nearby hotel and the hall rented for the occasion was filled with people. Everyone was waiting for Winnie Mandela, who did not turn up. In fact it had been Winnie’s suggestion that ANC workers arranged a meeting between her and Stompie’s mother Joyce Seipei at Tumahol. The congregation had been planned to heal the wound caused by Stompie’s murder. Her not turning up created an atmosphere of anger and anguish. The residents of Tumahole have not yet forgotten the horrible sight of Stompie’s murder. His mutilated body was found in 1989. Winnie Mandela was sentenced to imprisonment; but later the sentence was reduced to a fine of 15,000 rands.

People started getting restless with every passing minute. Some one said, "Winnie Mandela is still in the city hotel." Another person suggested, "She may have gone to Joyce Seipei’s place." But when it became known that she could not come due to her work in the secretariat, people started whispering, "She may have avoided coming because of her feelings of guilt." Papi Refutso said, "Mandela should come here and talk to us; at least then we will be willing to forget the past."

When the news of Winnie Mandela’s absence reached Joyce Sipie, who was sitting dejectedly in a hut in Tumahole, she said, "Winnie must be really busy. That’s why she has sent me this sheep as a gift." The number 215 was clearly visible on the sheep’s back. Joyce said, "I really wanted to meet Winnie, to talk about old times. There was so much to be said away from the spotlight of publicity." She still hopes that some time or the other the "mother of the nation" will come and meet her. Joyce added, "I used to feel that Winnie was responsible for my son’s death. I had become very bitter then. But a person cannot remain in that state forever. Now I have quite regained my control. I shall be happy to meet Winnie."

Jerry Richardson, held guilty for Stompie’s death, had been first sentenced to death by hanging. Later this punishment was reduced to life imprisonment. Joyce remarked, "Though my personal loss is tremendous, I still feel sorry for Jerry Richardson’s family, because he will be taken away from them for ever." A young girl named Xoliswa Falati, who was allegedly involved in the kidnapping of Stompie, was also convicted. She went to meet Joyce after her release. Joyce said, "I didn’t feel like talking to her. But there she was standing in front of me. Then what could I do?"

Joyce feels sorry for only one thing and that is that she will have to depend on her cousin for bringing up her two sons. "I have not received any help from the ANC. Had Stompie lived, he would have started earning and would have supported us."

Though Winnie Mandela is a member of the ministry, she is not inactive. Ben Ngubane is the Cabinet Minister for her department and as soon as he assumed charge, he appointed a special group of advisors and called them to a meeting. But two members of this group, Roger Jardine and Isaac Amuha, resigned almost immediately. It was clear in the last week of July that the rift between Winnie Mandela and Ngubane was widening. Winnie Mandela was opposed to Ngubane’s style of functioning. She particularly objected to Dr Koos Paw’s appointment as the director general of the department. Before this, Dr Paw had been the director general of the education department in the white government; Winnie Mandela claims that his appointment is a retrogressive step.

Deputy President Thabo Mbeki tried to mediate between Ngubane and Winnie Mandela by arranging a meeting between the two at Pretoria. However, the meeting succeeded in reducing their differences only to a small extent.

Winnie Mandela will always be an important figure in South African politics. While thinking of her life, an Indian will invariably be reminded of the epic Ramayana. When Lord Rama was exiled, his wife Sita accompanied him in his 14 years of exile; upon their return, she had to go through an ordeal by fire to prove her purity. Urmila, the wife of Lord Rama’s younger brother, Laxman, stayed back alone in the capital while Laxman went with Rama in exile.

Winnie seems to have played the roles of Sita and Urmila simultaneously. She stayed alone for 22 years like Urmila, and also went through an ordeal by fire because of public criticism like Sita. After so many years of separation, she is still alone. What Winnie said is the truth: "I am the most unmarried married woman!"Top

 

A neurosurgeon remembers
by Darshan Singh Maini

Uphill All the Way: An Autobiography by B. Rama-murthi. published by the Lakshmipathi Neurological Centre, Chennai. Pages 369. Rs 150.

THE genre of autobiography today varies from the usual straight, chronological narrative to highly complex, indirect, subtle discourses in which imagination, fantasy, fictive variations, etc. tend to make it a fairly wide and insightful story. Essentially, this involves the play of the mind as events and experiences begin to yield the energies or their poetries that give significance to them, lifting them out of a welter of myriad happenings. The putative life then becomes symbolic and, therefore, acquires its aesthetic appeal.

Considered thus, "Uphill All the Way" by Prof B. Ramamurthi, a father figure in Indian neurological surgery with an enviable record of recognition abroad, would be regarded as an autobiography closer to the traditional form but amazingly enough, its other virtues — a deep sense of humanity, an overarching vision of vocation and values, an unobtrusive erudition, light wit and, above all, an air of joie d’vivre and a regard for the sacredness of life — make the volume delightful reading even for those with little interest in a highly specialised discipline.

As for neurologists in business and for the medical profession in general, it is some kind of great primer that eventually expands into a book of high endeavour, achievement and wisdom. The lay reader, however, does see a lot of the human side of an eminent surgeon, as also something of the enduring power of South Indian culture and of the cultures, oriental as well as occidental, in the process of narration.

For during scores of visits abroad in various capacities, his keen observant eye, while taking in the graces and refinements of the host culture, developed the power to adjust new ideas, new modes of perception and new levels of ethics within the framework of his own received and nourished set of values. This, I think, accounts for his cosmopolitan world-view which subsumes the finer elements that flow into the basin of a responsive, alert sensibility.

Dr Ramamurthi seems to have a prodigious memory, for as we follow the story of his life from his birth under the star called Sathabisakh (meaning a hundred doctors) to his school and college days, a whole procession of teachers and classmates, of kindred spirits and kindly relations passes before our eyes, making the narrative a tableau on view. To be sure, some of the profiles tend to crowd the canvas but on the whole, the portraits done in "oil" — of his mentors and heroes — and those done in "water colour" — of romantic figures and dream girls, for instance — give a very purposeful peep into the becoming of a great, humane surgeon.

Similarly, he has left some memorable sketches of his elders and peers and pals in the profession in India and other parts of the world. In all these write-ups, one can see the magnanimities of a spirit in labour and action, in fellowship and camaraderie.

Among other things, Dr Ramamurthi’s skill as an administrator, as an organiser and as a leader reveals many facets of his personality. And it may be pertinent to add that his admirable and amiable spouse, herself a doctor of distinction, remains a sweet, energising agent in his passage from position to position, from acclaim to acclaim. His honours — and they make a long list — include the award of Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan, becoming a Honorary Brigadier, president of several national medical bodies and institutions, and finally of the World Federation of Neurosurgical Societies.

A surgeon of his eminence is bound to run into all manner of VIPs, including Ministers and Governors, the big brass and the top drawer bureaucrats in Chennai and New Delhi, and such encounters bring out Dr Ramamurthi’s views of men and mice, of heroes and harlequins, of politicians and panders. Of the Tamil set, Karunanidhi easily comes out as the top contender for his respect along with the legendary Anna (C.N. Annadurai) a figure of erudition and understanding. The relations with MGR remained understandably formal and cool and Jayalalitha, therefore, also was indifferent to his friendly overtures.

Nehru and Indira Gandhi receive some qualified praise, but it appears to me that the learned surgeon is reluctant to go into the wider and deeper issues of politics.

We do, however, find in these pages a very deep and abiding sentiment for Gandhi, and respect for some aspects of Gandhian economics.

A surprising "hero" in his "pantheon" is, believe it or not, Winston Churchill who repudiated, in rhetoric and action, all that the Mahatma, "the naked fakir" of his fancy, stood for. Obviously, Dr Ramamurthi finds little contradiction here, for his admiration for the great "British Bull" rested on the Churchillian qualities of leadership in crisis — on his dauntless spirit, his dourness and grit and on his sense of history. Which perhaps shows that Dr Ramamurthi has, in some measure, the Kentsian virtue of "negative capability", the ability to see an adversary’s point of view.

* * *

In the Moonlit Village by Toshihiko Hirabayashi. Translated into English by Hironobu & Kelvin M. Leahy. Aonekoza, Japan. Pages 45.

ALL Japanese poetry is, in a manner, so unique or sui generis in character as to defy the best translators. Its oblique, tangential, gnomic and economic or laconic qualities make simple events or scenes complex and often obscure, though obscurity in most cases as in the volume under review, "In the Moonlit Village" is not wilful but constitutive. Ambivalence and irony, sudden leaps, a sense of vague connections in dispersed, bitten-off thoughts at first sight appear to perplex the mind, but a second reading soon begins to show "the figure in the carpet" — the delicate skeins that have gone into the weaving of each tapestry.

Toshihiko Hirabayashi is obviously a modern poet who combines some of the western influences such as those of surrealism with traditional Japanese modes of a poetic statement or discourse. So the Indian reader persuing such a volume has an impression of familiarity as well as of distance. However, in the end, most of the poems in this slender but richly produced book do add up to a powerful exposure of the psychic wounds which all wars leave behind.

Quite a few of these poems starting on a village scene, or on a recollected tableau, or on a nature landscape, abruptly bring up from the dark depths, as it were, gory details of war brutalities, war hysteria and war weariness.

All this is surely based on the poet’s personal and agonising involvement in the Japanese tragedy of war history and psychosis. This experiential authenticity comes through in line after line.

In these 16 poems Hirabayashi has given us a collage of village and war scenes, and one is left in no doubt about his political inclinations which remain muted and indirect, or about his dim view of an affluent society swinging away from to settled courtsies, ceremonies and poetries of Japanese life to the new rhythms of mindless hedonism. He misses, in particular, the gentle graces of country culture.

On the whole, the war poems or poems turning around the harrowing memories of war dominate the muses, though moments of remembered love break through the fog and smoke and debris of years to make nostalgia both sweet and tart. In a poem called "Promise", for instance, the poet recalls how in a letter, his beloved promised "to live up to the very end", not realising the nature of "this murderous age" in which armed ideologies have ruined human relationships and robbed persons of things they prize most — love, tenderness, home, intimacies and freedom.

Other subjects of his musings include the questions of suffering and death, existential anxieties and ambiguities, identity and authenticity. However, there are seldom extended or deep enquiries, the questions crop up here and there in poems that otherwise move in diverse directions.

In the concluding lines of the poem "On the Brink of a Dream", the poet pondering the problems of pain and uncertainty says:

Before turning to particles of light and vanishing/One by one oh, could the world be viewed so simply/Even in my life-time, I wonder.

In another poem, he agonises thus:

What kind of traps have been laid for me, and by whom?

I, finally, turn to two putatively political poems, "Freedom" and "The Return of Ernesto Che Guevera". In the first poem, the poet recalls the tragedy of an East Timor boy "now in chains", and how he etches the word "freedom" with his finger-nails on the menacing white walls of his prison cell. His meeting with him has a poignant edge, for he values the spirit’s energies thus expended in the service of a cherished dream.

In the poem concerning the legendary Latin American revolutionary, Che Guevera, the poet first gives a sketch of a deserted, derelict railway station, and then picking up a throwaway newspaper and finds a report about the return of Che’s remains back home after a lapse of 30 years.

"Is it illusion, all of this? Oh, here too burns a signal fire of the revolution. For a while the guerrillas wage a gun fight. All I need now is a beautiful woman....."

Clearly, the poet’s humanist and radical sympathies in such poems come out in a more committed way. Also, the need for womanly love and warmth in the midst of political and social horrors.Top

 

What Gandhi really preached
by Kuldip Kalia

The Little Book of Gandhi compiled and edited by Rudrangshu Mukherjee. Penguin Books, New Delhi. Page 140. Rs 75.

WHEN ideas strike, thoughts provoke, messages inspire, preachers educate and opinions stir the conscience, a person thrives on good deeds and teachings of prophets, philosophers, writers and statesmen.

The Father of the Nation, Gandhi warns, "Thoughts, however good in themselves, are like false pearls unless they are translated into actions." And those who speak of Gandhism are, perhaps, doing a great disservice to him because he "conceived no such thing as Gandhism". In his own words, "Iam not an exponent of any sect. I never claim to have originated any philosophy."

Lovers must understand the basic essence because "love is not love which asks for a return". Moreover, "Love has no boundary. My nationalism includes the love of all the nations of the earth irrespective of creed," Gandhi asserted.

Mistaken people believe Gandhi was anti-British but he clarified, "Iam not anti-English; I am not anti-British; I am not ‘anti’ any government; I am anti-untruth, anti-humbug and anti-injustice."

Religions are as many as are individuals but "religion is a thing to be lived. It is not mere sophistry," says Gandhi.He explains the meaning of religion in simple words: "It is not the Hindu religion but the religion which transcends Hinduism, which changes one’s very nature, which binds one indissolubly to the truth within and which ever purifies." But one must remember that prayer "can be fruitful only if it comes from within".

"Truth is God" is what Gandhi always professed. "The way to truth is paved with skeletons over which we dare to walk." For him, truth is "infinitely dearer than the "mahatmaship’, which is purely a burden," but warns that religion is the "exclusively property of no single scripture." Those who wish to root out religion from society, they are perhaps involved in a "wild goose chase", and any success in such an attempt "would men the destruction of society". So "education, character and religion should be regarded as convertible terms".

When we speak of "faith", we must agree that "optimism indicates faith". Moreover it is not something to grasp but "it is a state to grow into.And growth comes from within." Have faith in Gandhi because his "faith" is "brightest in the midst of impenetrable darkness".

Gandhi rightly warns, "We are not quite as free as we imagine. Our past holds us back." Moreover, it is difficult, rather practically impossible, to "achieve real freedom without self-denial".

Gandhi held women in high esteem.That is why he claimed that "my experiment in non-violence would be instantly successful if I could secure women’s help." He wanted them to be in the forefront and participate in all activities.He asked that "women should cast off their timidity and become brave and courageous".

To Gandhi, "Ahimsa is a great vow; it is more difficult than walking on the edge of a sword." Undoubtedly, a powerful emotion of the heart and, its expression can be found in numerous forms of service but at the same time, it is a pathway where "one has often to tread all alone".

And civilisation points out to "man the path of duty". Truly speaking, Indian civilisation "elevates" the moral being.However "the East and the West can only really meet when the West has thrown overboard modern civilisation", the Mahatma concludes.

Emphasising the importance of and need for the spirit of "sacrifice", he rightly said, "A life of sacrifice is the pinnacle of art and is full of true joy". For him, a guru is the person who guides us to the right path by his "own righteous conduct".

Gandhi rightly asks: "Is not politics too a part of dharma?"He himself answers: "Politics requires purity of conduct."Let the politicians of today listen to his voice. Really great men like him do not need supporters.They are always followed by followers with unfailing and unfaltering faith. Their greatness lies in their deeds and sayings. "My life is my message," this is how Gandhi sums up. Top

 

Why so many dowry deaths?
by Padam Ahlawat

South Asians and the Dowry Problem edited by Werner Menski. Vistaar Publications, New Delhi. Pages 262. Rs 250.

MANY young brides lose there lives over dowry disputes in India and among Indians settled abroad. They are burnt, killed or maimed by husbands and in-laws for not being able to fulfil their dowry demands. In 1993, dowry claimed the lives of 5817 women in India, with Uttar Pradesh accounting for 1952 of them.

It is in the North Indian states that the problem is more acute, though it is spreading to the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh where 575 deaths were reported in 1993. Uttar Pradesh is followed by Delhi, Haryana and Punjab in the highest number of dowry deaths in relation to population. In 1994, Delhi accounted for 132 deaths, while Haryana reported 191 and Punjab 117 deaths.

Dowry deaths have shown a steep increase in the past few years. According to the figures provided by the National Crime Bureau, there were 1912 dowry deaths in 1987, which continued to increase to 5199 in 1994. The change in life style and arrival of electronic goods and vehicles have led to giving and demanding of a large dowry. So much so that newspapers carry stories giving the dowry price commanded by various professions.

The book carries the papers presented at several international conferences on dowry and bride burning. Contributors from various fields review dowry, enforcement of dowry laws and the problem of increasing dowry deaths.

Dowry is a complex social issue, which cannot be banned altogether as it is accepted that a girl be given jewellery and presents on her marriage. The problem begins when the boy’s parents demand things in dowry which the girl’s family is unable to fulfil. In fact it is the bride herself and her family who want to give the daughter dowry befitting their status. Besides, they have a selfish motive as they do not want the girl to have any share in her father’s property. Julia Lislie in her paper calls for more attention to be given to the connection between dowry and female property rights.

Bisaka Sen’s paper explains how the girl’s family actually benefits from offering dowry as it deprives her of any share in property. Consequently, a complete ban on dowry will not be effective given the social reality. Some have advocated property right to girls as a solution to the problem of dowry.

Werner Menski believes that it would not be possible to ban dowries, as the people involved have what appear to them to be sound reasons for continuing the custom. But, he points out that what we ought to fight against is not dowry but dowry-related murders. It is not dowry which is the problem, but dowry-related violence. He too feels that the tradition of giving gifts on marriage for use in her new house is an unequal deal for women.

Most dowry deaths are related to bride-burning and are usually committed by the boy’s family. These deaths are difficult to detect as they are passed off as caused by accidental fire while cooking or as suicide. Homicide or murder has always been in the statute book, but such deaths are not investigated as murder and are made to look like accidents. Hence the need to enact separate law on dowry death. The laws have been amended to make them more effective. Courts too have begun to convict persons being tried under this law.

However, one of the consequences of dowry violence becoming a major issue has been that now all violence in marriage is viewed as related to dowry demand.

One of the papers deals with several cases of dowry deaths, some of which end in the acquittal of the defendant on one ground or the other. Many cases are not properly investigated or evidence is allowed to be destroyed.

The book reveals that dowry is not confined to the middle class, but to all strata of society and is spreading among the Gujaratis and the Sikhs settled inBritain. Some of the dowry cases have come to the court in Britain.

The volume tries to unravel the causes of dowry-related violence and find how such barbaric acts can be ended. In conclusion, a practical strategy towards eradicating dowry and bride-burning is delineated along with an agenda for more research into the problem. The contributors accept the limitations of the book but hope to come out with a better study on the subject.

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