The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, June 3, 2001
Speaking Generally

When is an apology not an apology
Chanchal Sarkar

WHEN is an apology not an apology and when is "very sorry" much lower down in category? Well, let us take the scene back to May, 1960, when the Soviet Russians detected an American spy plane called U2 flying high, 1200 miles inside their territory. They brought down the plane and captured the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, who admitted that he worked for the CIA.

Consternation, of course, in the American camp and, first, NASA put out a false story that the plane was on a joint NASA-US Air Force project for the purposes of weather survey. The American administration put out the story that the flight was not an authorised one like in the standoff with China and there was no question of an ‘apology’!

Just at about that time a summit of the western powers and Russia had been scheduled in Paris and both American President Eisenhower and the Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR (in other words the top ruler of the Soviet Russia) arrived for it. The American spy plane matter was, of course, raised either before or during the meeting. Whatever it might be that Eisenhower said, Khruschev (if I remember right) stormed out of the meeting and the summit was cancelled. Khruschev also withdrew his invitation to Eisenhower to visit the Soviet Union.


A few days after Paris, Eisenhower announced that there would be no more spy plane flights during his term as President of the USA. If that wasn’t an ‘apology’, then what was?

I was reminded very much of this during the American spy plane affairs. On one of the CNN programmes, a man called James Lilley, who had been the American Ambassador to China during the presidency of George W.Bush’s father, said that in the spy plane affair, all Asian countries, especially, of course, ally Japan, were with the USA. From Hong Kong, the BBC’s correspondent said more or less, more rather than less, the same thing. Now I wonder to which public opinion pollster organisation they were subscribing, because many Asians and, I am sure, people of the Third World were proud of an underdeveloped country standing ramrod-straight up to the most powerful military nation in the world. Would I be dubbed a liar if I said that?

I did not find the CNN and BBC telecast the comments of an authoritative Chinese person (I am not talking about press conferences) or, for that matter, an Asian or even Third World person. They may have done so, in their domestic broadcasts but not in broadcasts that went abroad. Of course, I am only speaking of programmes that I watched. As for the American reaction, quite a well-known writer, Jonathan Mirsky, said on the BBC,"Just imagine what the reaction would have been in America if a Chinese spy plane had force-landed on American soil?"

The homecoming of the 24 crew members was, of course, a moving affair and everyone watching in whatever country must have been delighted for the families. But, but there wasn’t a word, at least on the CNN programme, for the person whose man did not come back — the Chinese pilot. One, at least, of the crew members had the decency to call the affair "an accident". Well, such is the media world!

The losers

Sometimes, but very seldom, we think of the losers — those who did not make it or having made it, turned down the recognition. Bengal’s theatre had an actor who was probably the best Bengal has produced — Sisir Kumar Bhaduri. He was a college professor who was teaching literature before he took full-time to theatre.

Sisir babu refused one of the Padma decorations. I forget which one but suspect it was the Padma Shri, the lowest. He must have considered it unworthy of him. Ustad Vilayat Khan recently refused the Padma Vibhushan, the highest below Bharat Ratna. Who were some of the others? Our much loved journalist dada Nikhil Chakravarty turned down one. Before him another journalist, M.C. Chalapathi Rao, also took a step which I cannot quite remember. Either he refused first and took it later or it was the other way around. Recently, the very well-known Bengali actor Soumitra Chatterjee refused a professional honour.

Awarding decorations to people who have passed away is a peculiarly Indian custom. Like so many other things, it was invented by Indira Gandhi for giving the nation’s highest honour, the Bharat Ratna, to another thespian (a word our ‘scribes’ love to use), M.G. Ramachandran. Subhas Chandra Bose’s turn came much later but, fortunately, his relatives, wife, daughter, nephews and nieces etc. had the self-respect and dignity to refuse. Why the givers have denied the Bharat Ratna to Gandhiji, Prophet Mohammad and Buddha I can’t understand. Perhaps, they were not worthy of it, according to the ruling brass in India.

Like the Americans who kept honour-giving out through their Constitution, some Indian Constitution-makers also talked about it during the making of our Constitution. Needless to say, as in most things, we followed the British. We really didn’t, though. In Britain, these ‘honours’ are strictly royal affairs — a privilege of the Crown. The British have found ways of honouring people from other countries, non-citizens, not only in the Honour’s List but as personal honours. One such knighthood, for instance, went to the economist I.G. Patel when he retired from the Directorship of the London School of Economics. But, as so often happens, we didn’t follow the British to perfection. There, in Britain, the Opposition are requested to nominate, not just suggest, a certain proportion of the awardees. Not so here.

Thankless job

Of course I don’t read all newspapers, not even all English-language papers of Delhi. That would be a tough and, I suspect, a thankless job. But I am amazed to see no follow up in any of the four papers I read of the extracts published in the Pioneer on April 11 from Nijalingappa’s autobiography in which he had some very revealing and not very complimentary things to say about Panditji and Indira Gandhi. Not just a follow-up, I would have expected large extracts. In fact, there should be many more such memoirs, diaries and preserved letters. Only through them is history and truth preserved.

An ancient land, India is one of the worst in keeping records. Recently I met a gentleman in Gaya searching for some land records. Gaya used to be one of the biggest and more important of British districts. The record building, he said was crammed with papers. But they were so badly kept and the building was in such disrepair that much of the records were in the process of being destroyed. Among the shelter buildings and asylum seekers in that buildings were nests of cobras.

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