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THE TRIBUNE SPECIALS
50 YEARS OF INDEPENDENCE

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Editorials | Article | Middle | Oped

EDITORIALS

Enforce the norms
SC warning on medical colleges timely
The Supreme Court has rightly warned the government, regulatory bodies and self-financing institutions against any foul play in admissions to medical colleges. While taking serious note of the harassment meted out to an applicant, Dr Ruchika Arora, for a seat in MDS at Amritsar’s Government Dental College, the Bench consisting of Justice B. Sudershan Reddy and Justice Aftab Alam has observed that “it was a fit case for awarding damages.”

Mischief is in figures
Housewife has still to pay more
If inflation has turned negative, it does not mean any relief for the housewife. Prices of commodities of daily use have not declined. Some, like cereals, fruits and vegetables, pulses, sugar, tea and eggs have rather become costlier. The price rise in such cases is either due to a supply-demand mismatch or an increase in the minimum support prices.







EARLIER STORIES

PM’s offer well-meant
June 19, 2009
Beyond the handshake
June 18, 2009
Mayawati again
June 17, 2009
No changers win
June 16, 2009
That sinking feeling
June 15, 2009
Sahibs and Burra Sahibs
June 14, 2009
Swine flu pandemic
June 13, 2009
Now it’s Canada
June 12, 2009
Vision for growth
June 11, 2009
Beware! It’s not milk
June 10, 2009


Feeding the hungry
Check systemic leakages too
E
ncouraged by the political success of the pro-poor schemes announced during its previous term, the UPA now offers rice/wheat to the poor at Rs 3 a kg. It is as ambitious and controversial a scheme as Bharat Nirman, the rural job guarantee scheme and the farm loan waiver, which not only emphasised on inclusive growth but also contributed to the surprise win of the Congress in the recent general election.

ARTICLE

We can say ‘No’
India can pursue independent foreign policy
by T. P. Sreenivasan
A
n assertion heard in the context of the foreign policy of the first Manmohan Singh Government was that it abandoned India’s independent foreign policy, or was in the process of abandoning it, had it not been for the pressures of its leftist partners.

MIDDLE

The sucker
by Harish Dhillon
H
ave you ever wondered why a handful of people are deceived and taken for a ride again and again without learning anything from their experience? My own theory, based on my personal example, is that a sucker is born, not made. His inherent stupidity — naivety, if you are being kind — is immediately apparent and makes him an easy and repeated prey of the con-artist. Instances in my own life testify to this.

OPED

Iran stands divided
It could be heading for political instability
Syed Nooruzzaman analyses the post-poll situation
I
ran is faced with the worst crisis in its post-Revolution (1979) history. There is a deep societal divide, which has come to be highlighted by the protests against the June 12 election results. On the one side are the deprived sections in Iran’s urban and rural areas, including small farmers and factory workers, and on the other are the middle class and university and college students aspiring for a change in the political dispensation. The battle between the two camps appears to have brought Iran to a situation that can lead to serious political instability in the country.

Shopping for AWACS
by Lt Gen(retd) Baljit Singh
A
t last, the Indian armed forces have the Airborne Warning and Control System after 40 long years of striving. It is perhaps the most potent battlefield, force-multiplier conceived and manufactured after WW II.

Homage to a visual artist
by Shakuntala Rao
NEW YORK: I was ten when I first saw him: at the Shankar’s children’s painting competition in Delhi. I had no talent as a painter and could barely hold a brush for a lick but there I was, at the insistence of my parents, dabbling with an easel and some paint.

 


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EDITORIALS

Enforce the norms
SC warning on medical colleges timely

The Supreme Court has rightly warned the government, regulatory bodies and self-financing institutions against any foul play in admissions to medical colleges. While taking serious note of the harassment meted out to an applicant, Dr Ruchika Arora, for a seat in MDS at Amritsar’s Government Dental College, the Bench consisting of Justice B. Sudershan Reddy and Justice Aftab Alam has observed that “it was a fit case for awarding damages.” It has rejected the Director-General of Health Services’ explanation about the “communication gap” on the issue of her admission. This can be viewed as an excuse for evasion on the part of the DGHS in an attempt to pull the wool over the judges’ eyes. Though Dr Arora got a seat in Amritsar after a lot of effort, when she migrated to Lucknow on the basis of her better ranking, she was denied a seat there on the ground that there was no vacancy. This has exposed the sordid goings on in some medical colleges.

Unfortunately, though the Medical Council of India (MCI), an autonomous body, has been created to ensure that the standards of medical education are properly maintained in all medical institutions, it needs to do its job better. The Centre is also interfering with its functioning and allowing ill-equipped medical colleges to churn out half-baked doctors. This state of affairs must come to an end. Often merit is ignored in medical education. According to a recent report, seats for MBBS and PG courses were auctioned in Chennai. What respect will these doctors command if they seek admission into the profession through the backdoor?

It is time the MCI cracked the whip on medical colleges which are flouting the norms. Such colleges must be de-recognised. Medical colleges should be given affiliation judiciously and only if they fulfill the set norms and criteria like student-staff ratio, qualified faculty and better infrastructure in terms of labs, libraries and buildings. Not long ago, The Tribune, in a series of reports, had pointed out the dismal state of affairs in some of Punjab’s medical colleges. Given the apathy and lackadaisical attitude of the authorities concerned, it is doubtful whether any qualitative improvement in the state-run medical colleges at Amritsar, Faridkot and Patiala — which were under the scanner of the MCI — has taken place. The quality of teaching in these institutions as well as the quality of healthcare in the attached hospitals is still far from satisfactory.
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Mischief is in figures
Housewife has still to pay more

If inflation has turned negative, it does not mean any relief for the housewife. Prices of commodities of daily use have not declined. Some, like cereals, fruits and vegetables, pulses, sugar, tea and eggs have rather become costlier. The price rise in such cases is either due to a supply-demand mismatch or an increase in the minimum support prices. Besides, computing inflation figures exclude major household expenses like those on house rent, medicare and education. Inflation figures that newspaper headlines carry do not present the ground situation. The headline inflation is based on the wholesale price index, which consists of a large basket of commodities of which some have become cheaper. These are mostly petroleum and industrial products for which demand has dipped due to the economic slowdown.

To make inflation relevant to the aam admi, the focus should be on common family expenses, some covered by the consumer price index. Besides, inflation is calculated on a year-on-year basis. Since last year prices ruled very high – oil was at $140 a barrel compared to $71 now — inflation has slumped by 1.61 per cent. To reflect the price situation correctly, inflation should be calculated on a month-on-month basis as is done in many countries. Negative inflation is expected to continue for two or three months more. If it persists longer, that would be a serious cause of worry for those handling the economy. It would mean the slowing of demand for manufactured products, which would spell trouble for the industry.

To deal with this situation, which economists dub deflation, the government and the RBI will have to take steps like cutting interest rates and lowering taxes to boost demand. Right now the government is not worried as there are signs of demand picking up and the economy is seen on a recovery path. Experts like Dr Montek Singh Ahluwalia too have dismissed negative inflation as a statistical issue only.

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Feeding the hungry
Check systemic leakages too

Encouraged by the political success of the pro-poor schemes announced during its previous term, the UPA now offers rice/wheat to the poor at Rs 3 a kg. It is as ambitious and controversial a scheme as Bharat Nirman, the rural job guarantee scheme and the farm loan waiver, which not only emphasised on inclusive growth but also contributed to the surprise win of the Congress in the recent general election. No doubt, the party has been rather quick in proving that its manifesto’s promise on subsidised food for the needy was not just pre-poll rhetoric.

The President’s address to Parliament carried details of the feed-the-poor scheme that is estimated to set an already stressed exchequer back by Rs 50,000 crore. Funding the scheme will be a major challenge since the government is already in a tight corner. The Akali government in Punjab, which too had announced a modest atta-dal scheme, owes Rs 300 crore to its nodal agency, Punsup, which is implementing the scheme. The Centre’s track record in arranging finances is definitely better, but its experiment may spur other less-equipped states to embrace populist schemes for electoral gains, which may also lead to an overlapping of Central and state welfare schemes as well as an inefficient use of the country’s limited resources.

A serious objection often raised to giving subsidies in this country is that these are not targeted rightly to reach the deserving and are eaten up by middlemen well entrenched in the delivery system. Leakages in the public distribution system are all too well known and have remained unplugged so far. Urgent reforms, therefore, are required to rid the administration of corruption and red tape. The monitoring of the UPA’s previous schemes has revealed gray areas in their implementation, which can be dealt with now. Outlays have to be matched with outcomes.
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Thought for the Day

Politics is the art of the possible. — Otto von Bismarck
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ARTICLE

We can say ‘No’
India can pursue independent foreign policy
by T. P. Sreenivasan

An assertion heard in the context of the foreign policy of the first Manmohan Singh Government was that it abandoned India’s independent foreign policy, or was in the process of abandoning it, had it not been for the pressures of its leftist partners. Now that Winston Churchill’s “little man walking into the little booth with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper” has rejected that assertion, at least in the sense that his little cross has led to the advent of a second Manmohan Singh Government, time has come to examine how independent or otherwise was the foreign policy of India in the last five years. The critics of that policy have not been vindicated, though they will say that foreign policy was not an issue at the elections.

Foreign policy, by its very definition, has to relate to the world realities and it has to be reshaped constantly on the basis of the response it gets from its “consumers”, who are the foreign countries, whose actions we aim to influence by our foreign policy moves. An independent foreign policy, in that sense, is a myth. It must have, as its basis, a solid sense of the world around us and must be adjusted to derive the most from it.

The other question is who should foreign policy be independent of? Once it is established that we should hear every one in the process of formulating and implementing foreign policy, the argument that policy should be independent of external influences does not hold. The only consideration has to be whether or not the foreign policy benefits India. The impression created during the first Manmohan Singh Government was that somehow the government could not be trusted to have a sound judgment about India’s interests. Or worse, there could be ulterior motives in pursuing a particular policy. The net result was the creation of a veil of suspicion and an atmosphere of pressure, making it difficult for the government to act decisively. The world watched in consternation when other countries had to deal not with one Government of India, but also with its different factions. The government, it looked, lacked independence to pursue a foreign policy. When the government was being criticised inside the country for lacking an independent foreign policy, it was being perceived abroad as being unable to be independent enough to keep its commitments.

The independence of Indian foreign policy has been questioned before both internally and externally. Freedom of thought and independence of action were at the heart of the nonaligned movement, but the movement itself was seen as a natural ally of one of the power blocs. While India took its decisions independently, on the basis of its own judgment, it was seen as tilting to the Soviet Union, more so after the Indo-Soviet Treaty of 1971 and the Bangladesh war. History will testify that India did not succumb to pressure from the Soviet Union on issues such as Asian Collective Security and some of the other strategic moves of the Soviet Union. India proved that it was too big and too independent a country to be subservient to any other country.

The events of 2004 to 2009 did not make India any less independent, just as the events of 1970 to 1977 did not make it any more dependent on any foreign power. In 2004, the UPA Government inherited the shattered theory of “India Shining”, shattered not by the rest of the world, but by the Indian electorate itself. The rest of the world was dazzled by India’s growth, the nuclear tests and the way India coped with their aftermath. They had abandoned their attempts at isolating India and had come round to working with a nuclear India despite apprehensions about India’s nuclear posture. The most remarkable achievement of the UPA Government was the way it went about bringing India into the nuclear mainstream, an effort, which was seen as surrendering our independence. Suffice it to say here that the much criticised shift in policy took place in Washington than in New Delhi. The NDA Government left off the talks with the United States, accepting four of the five benchmarks the US set for normalising relations. The fifth, strategic restraint, a euphemism for restricting India’s nuclear arsenal, was as unacceptable to UPA as it was to NDA. It was the change of heart in Washington that it could work with the other bench marks that led to the nuclear deal. In achieving it, there was give and take, but those decisions were taken with India’s interests kept intact. Even if the elections were not fought on this issue, Dr Manmohan Singh, identified as he was with the deal, would not have become Prime Minister again without wide acceptance of his stand on this issue.

India’s Pakistan policy is another matter in which the charge of dependence was made. It was alleged that Washington had its hold on our responses to Pakistan. The truth is that India has been ferociously independent in conducting our relations with Pakistan. The most innovative ideas reported to have been put forward in the back channel negotiations on Kashmir were not conjured up outside India. The sketchy details that have emerged have been received well in the West, but no one outside could claim any credit for them. For the rest, India was basically watching the chaos in Pakistan and encouraging the advent of democracy. We did not need anyone’s advice to respond to President Zardari’s overtures. The Bush Administration, mercifully, took no interest in Kashmir at any time. The charge of external influence came up in the post 26/11 situation due to American activism. But today, there is recognition that the Indian response was prudent, logical and inevitable. The rest of the world may have wished that there would be no conflagration, but our decision not to take that route was dictated only by our judgment.

Our vote on Iran at the IAEA is another issue on which there were charges of external pressure. But long before the Iranian situation became a contentious issue, India had taken the position that Iran should abide by its commitments under the treaties that it had signed and that should remove the fears of the international community by answering the questions raised by the IAEA. We had a sense, right from the beginning, that Iran had something to hide and that it was important to have a full disclosure of their peaceful intentions.

On neighbourhood policy, the charges were not about independence, but about ineffectiveness of our policy to turn things around in our favour. Some have the perception that we have unlimited influence on our neighbours and if we do not have it, we should force our way there. Some feel that it is India’s duty to solve all the problems of our neighbours. The test of a good neighbourhood policy is whether it protects our political and economic interests in the neighbourhood. Goodwill from small nations towards their big neighbours is limited and any evidence of interference will be resented. Neither unilateral concessions nor strong arm tactics will help us to deal with our neighbours. In Sri Lanka, the eventual outcome has suited us, while in Nepal, we would have desired a different outcome. But our policies of restraint and helpful posturing have enabled us to retain our influence and to be able to play a role in the eventual dispensation.

Our links with China, Russia, Japan and the European Union have also won approbation of the public in India, though none of these was smooth sailing or without hazards. Our nonaligned links were preserved and nurtured and new partnerships with Brazil and South Africa have prospered. We are no nearer to becoming a permanent member of the Security Council and the chances are bleak not because we have not tried, but because the world is not ready for it yet. We should appear unattached on this issue as permanent membership without veto will be a liability rather than an asset. We should remain ready and willing, but we should not do any deals for it or make our bilateral relations hostage to the support we get on this issue.

No one will claim that the election results are a vindication of India’s foreign policy in the last five years. But the truth is that foreign policy was thoroughly examined in an unprecedented manner and it found favour with a majority of the people. We should not forget that it was on foreign policy issues that Dr. Manmohan Singh staked the very existence of his Government. He is now fully equipped to follow a foreign policy free of extraneous factors and his enhanced prestige around the world will be good for the nation.

The writer, a former Indian Ambassador, is a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington
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MIDDLE

The sucker
by Harish Dhillon

Have you ever wondered why a handful of people are deceived and taken for a ride again and again without learning anything from their experience? My own theory, based on my personal example, is that a sucker is born, not made. His inherent stupidity — naivety, if you are being kind — is immediately apparent and makes him an easy and repeated prey of the con-artist. Instances in my own life testify to this.

Dehradun is the preferred place of residence of retired heads of public schools and I too, once “bought” a plot there. Unfortunately, the process of registration was never completed.

I ran from pillar to post and with each lap of my run the plot gradually unravelled. The ownership of the land was based on a forged will. The power of attorney under which the deed was executed was “benami”. The lawyer who had whetted the whole process was nonexistent and, to cap it all, Surjit Singh, who had “looked” after the deal, had gone underground. It was no consolation that there were 20 other victims who shared my fate.

I finally gave up when I found I had spent more on seeking “justice” than I had paid for the plot. I am not a vindictive man and could find no satisfaction in the fact that Surjit Singh, when he did surface six years later, was suffering from terminal cancer.

But even stranger was my experience with an “old student”. I was waiting for a friend to arrive at a restaurant when I was greeted warmly by an old student.

I remembered him almost immediately, we exchanged some pleasant, inconsequential chatter, he gave me his card and went away. A few moments later, another old student came up to me. I did not remember him but then there are some old students I do fail to remember. As he was leaving he said: “I work at the American Embassy. The store is well stocked so if you ever need anything — golf balls, scotch, crystal — I could get it for you at a reasonable price”.

I have the unfailing, middle class obsession with bargains.

“I am leaving tomorrow evening,” I said, my disappointment obvious in my voice.

“Why don’t you come to the embassy at 11 tomorrow morning? I’ll meet you at the gate”.

“Have you got your list?” He was waiting for me and I handed him my list. As he turned he patted his hip pocket.

“Damn”, he said despairingly “I forgot my wallet.

“Don’t worry. I’ve got cash.”

He looked down the rather extensive list.”I think 20,000 should cover this.”

I waited for him for two hours and then found that no one with his name worked at the embassy. Needless to say, he was not an old Sanawarian either.

I have not learnt to be less “naïve”, I remain a sucker, but at least I have learnt to accept these experiences with some equanimity and gained the ability to laugh at myself.
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OPED

Iran stands divided
It could be heading for political instability
Syed Nooruzzaman analyses the post-poll situation

Iran is faced with the worst crisis in its post-Revolution (1979) history. There is a deep societal divide, which has come to be highlighted by the protests against the June 12 election results. On the one side are the deprived sections in Iran’s urban and rural areas, including small farmers and factory workers, and on the other are the middle class and university and college students aspiring for a change in the political dispensation. The battle between the two camps appears to have brought Iran to a situation that can lead to serious political instability in the country.

The poor have overwhelmingly voted for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has won the presidential poll with nearly 63 per cent of the votes cast. But his nearest challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, supported by the change-seekers, has refused to accept defeat.

Though he has secured less than 34 per cent votes, he represents a large and significant section of the population having the capacity to change the destiny of Iran if given an opportunity. Mr Mousavi has accused the incumbent President of indulging in unfair practices to remain in power.

His angry supporters have been holding demonstrations since the poll outcome was known on Saturday, leading to the death of seven persons and injuries to many.

Mr Mousavi and his camp followers, including former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, have vowed not to take rest till they get justice. They have demanded annulment of the elections, but the Council of Guardians, which looks into such grievances, has ordered recounting of the votes polled at some of the controversial centres.

The Council announced its decision after it was directed by the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to probe the rigging charges levelled against President Ahmadinejad. The top Ayatollah came out with his otherwise unexpected order following the eruption of protests against the election results threatening to paralyse life in Teheran and most other cities. He is known for his soft corner for the incumbent President, but he cannot afford to allow the situation to go out of hand.

Whatever Ayatollah Khamenei says is unlikely to be challenged by any section of the Iranian political class. That is why President Ahmadinejad has agreed to accept the findings of the probe and the recounting of the votes at some of the polling booths, though he has forcefully denied the rigging charge. Mr Mousavi’s supporters are not keeping quiet, but they have decided to continue their agitation in a peaceful manner as their supreme leader wants.

The tactic of the Iranian rulers is that somehow the street protests must come to an end. The grievances of the Mousavi camp will be taken care of, but this does not mean that Iran may go in for a re-election.

Irrespective of what happens in the days to come, the issues raised by Mr Mousavi, a former Prime Minister, cannot be taken lightly. The policies of President Ahmadinejad have led to a sharp decline in the availability of employment opportunities for the educated Iranians.

The present government is more bothered about keeping the Iranian nuclear programme intact than creating conditions for foreign investors to come to set up shop in Iran. Most Iranians are opposed to the government jeopardising their country’s economic growth because of its isolationist policies, though they are not against Iran endeavouring to become a future nuclear power.

This is where President Ahmadinejad has an advantage. He is not prepared to give up the nuclear path because that gives him the strength to fight his political opponents. Though those who constitute his support base are suffering more than anyone else because of the President’s unimaginative policies, unfortunately such a realisation has not dawned on them.

They believe when Mr Ahmadinejad holds mainly the US responsible for their growing economic woes. One of the cases he cites in support of his viewpoint is the US opposition to the implementation of the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline idea, which could have added to Iran’s foreign exchange earnings considerably.

Mr Ahmadinejad excels in whipping up passions. He has been projecting the US and the rest of the West as the real enemies of Iran. His opponents have no convincing answer to his argument that the US has been working to turn Iran into another Iraq, though in vain.

“Iraq is still occupied. There is no order in Afghanistan. The Palestinian problem is unresolved,” he keeps repeating at every available opportunity. He also often reminds people of how former US President George W. Bush indulged in the vilification of Iran by describing it as a part of the “Axis of Evil”. These have helped strengthen the anti-American sentiment among the Iranians which Mr Ahmadinejad has been exploiting for political purposes.

The more the Western media supports the Mousavi camp fighting for the cause of reform, the more it strengthens the position of President Ahmadinejad. The President’s camp does not have to struggle much to prove that the Western detractors of Iran, including the US, and his political opponents at home are on the same side.

However, Mr Ahmadinejad seems to have realised that anti-Americanism cannot take him too far. It can no longer help him survive in power even if his election as President gets legitimacy from the Supreme Leader of Iran. His latest statement that he is “ready for a debate” with the US shows that he may tone down his anti-US rhetoric in the days to come. Though he now says that the Iranian nuclear issue “belongs to the past”, he is unlikely to reject US President Barack Obama’s overtures for talks unless the US hardens its stand after the latest development in Iran.

Under the circumstances Mr Ahmadinejad may change his priorities and give more attention to the projects aimed at alleviating the economic suffering of the people. India may be approached again for joining the gas pipeline project for which an agreement has been reached between Iran and Pakistan with Russian company Gazprom signing the contract for laying the pipeline.

Iran, having one of the largest gas reserves of the world, needs to make use of it to increase its foreign exchange earnings. It may approach China, too, to join in the ambitious gas supply project as Beijing had earlier shown interest in it. There may not be as virulent opposition to the pipeline plan from the US as it was there earlier.

However, tackling the economic woes of the people has nothing to do with the banner of reform raised by the Mousavi camp. This is a very serious subject in the Iranian scheme of things. The entire system is controlled by the different religious institutions that have come up over the years. Their tight grip cannot be expected to get loosened at this stage.

But the widespread expression of the desire to bring about some reform may make the key figures in the Iranian system start thinking on these lines. This can be considered as an achievement of the reform movement represented by the Mousavi group.

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Shopping for AWACS
by Lt Gen(retd) Baljit Singh

At last, the Indian armed forces have the Airborne Warning and Control System after 40 long years of striving. It is perhaps the most potent battlefield, force-multiplier conceived and manufactured after WW II.

The Yom Kippur offensive launched by the restructured Egyptian armed forces against Israel in the early 1970s had achieved complete tactical and strategic surprise. The seemingly impregnable Bar-Lev defence line along the East Bank of the Suez canal was breeched and the Israelis were almost routed.

This was the moment when the AWACS made its maiden appearance to shore up the beleagured Israelis in the Sinai desert. And the tide of battle was thereafter so decisively reversed that but for international pressure, the Israelis were within a whisker of capturing Cairo!

All the post-war analyses were unanimous that all other factors apart the unexpected application of the AWACS contributed decisively to the outcome of that war.

Little wonder that the armed forces the world over were willing to pay any price to acquire the AWACS. But the Americans would not part with it. The Russians were desperate to close with the military technology gain of the Americans but it was not till the 1980s that they inducted into service their first-generation AWACS.

It was natural, therefore, that when in 1986 General K. Sunderji visited Russia as a state guest that he would request his hosts for a look at the AWACS. The idea was to either buy outright a few AWACS or obtain them on lease on the lines of the nuclear-powered submarine.

When the subject was broached with the Russian Defence Minister during the meeting in a glittering hall in the Kremlin, the Soviets used innocence and guile to convince us that they had never heard of the AWACS, let alone possess them. At this stage I slipped a sketch of the American AWACS photocopied from the Janes Weapon Systems compendium to General Sunderji.

That was the beginning of a serious proposition being turned into a hilarious game of bluff and banter. The Defence Minister said with a straight face that in the spirit of the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, would we let them have the photocopy of the technical profile of the American AWACS?

After a lengthy duel of mischievous world play, General Sunderji agreed to part with the photocopy on the assurance of the minister that it would remain a guarded secret! And that India would have the first AWACS produced in Russia!

Our week-long visit ended at Tashkent. The penultimate day was taken up with displays and demonstrations of training simulators of a whole range of weapons and automotives.

On the last day we were to relax watching an exclusive performance by the Bolshoi Ballet Company and by the Uzbek folk dancers. Now before we retired to our rooms, our tour liaison officer, a two-star General, mentioned that he had arranged a farewell picnic-breakfast the following morning.

The picnic site was the 500 hectare State Lemon Farm, about 60 km from Tashkent. Try as we may but there was no fathoming the reasons for this unscheduled picnic. And on one pretext or another our host would open yet another bottle of vintage wine till at last there was heard the approaching drone of an aircraft.

As the aircraft made low and deliberate, repeated passes over us, our host turned to General Sunderji and said, “Sir, doesn’t this resemble the photocopy of the American AWACS you showed us? Had you mentioned that you wanted to see our ASDACS (Acquisition and Strike Directing Air Craft System) we would have gladly flown you in it all the way back to New Delhi !”

General Sunderji laughed, reached, out to a bottle of Champagne on the table and raised a toast to the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace and Friendship ! But what we have now is neither the AWACS nor the ASDACS but a hybrid comprising the American Falcon radar manufactured by the Israelis and mounted on Russian IL-76 aircraft provided by us. Such are the games which the super powers play with their client states.
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Homage to a visual artist
by Shakuntala Rao

NEW YORK: I was ten when I first saw him: at the Shankar’s children’s painting competition in Delhi. I had no talent as a painter and could barely hold a brush for a lick but there I was, at the insistence of my parents, dabbling with an easel and some paint.

I saw M. F. Husain, hair disheveled, wearing his signature wrinkled khaki kurta pyjama, bare feet with camera in hand walking among us. He came up to me with a large smile (and a few polite words) and took several photographs of my miserable battle with the brush. I vividly recall his genuine pleasure in being surrounded by children and their art.

More than 30 years later, I finally got to see one the largest collections of Husain’s paintings, photographs and films at the Herwitz’s Collection of Contemporary Indian Art at the Peabody Museum in Boston.

On display were some of his controversial paintings from the series, The Mahabharata, which renders his own vision for the classic epic. These paintings, as in other instances, have been criticised for depicting Ganga and Jamuna as nude figurines and the helpless portrayals of Krishna and Arjuna on the battlefield.

The museum also held showings of Husain’s films. Though best known for his massive canvases, Husain has been a self-proclaimed cinephile. “I am a visual artist,” he had recently said in an interview with CNN/IBN from his exiled home in Dubai, “I wanted to be a filmmaker long before I became a painter.”

While his much reviled 2000 film, Gaja Gamini, had been both panned by critics and ridiculed by viewers (as was his 2004 film, Meenaxi: The tale of three cities), it is his short black and white documentary, Through the eyes of a painter, also shown at Peabody, which best signifies Husain and his art.

Through the eyes of a painter, made in 1967, is barely 18 minutes long with no dialogue but gives us a collage of Rajasthan, a place Husain frequently visited and which enormously influenced his early works.

The Hindustani and Carnatic classical music of the film, by Vijaya Raghava Rao, reverberates through every scene as do images of a Rajasthan, not merely of its palaces but of people; it is as if you watch one-frame-a-time a Husain canvas taking shape.

Three years later, influenced by Husain’s documentary, we see an equally brilliant and imaginative film, “Phantom India” by French filmmaker Louise Malle. Both films, as Malle would later say in appreciative comparison to Husain, had “no plans, no scripts, no lighting equipment, no distribution commitment of any kind...”

Husain’s style, which Malle would adopt later in his films, was not to impose a narrative but let images and events occur and let viewers watch whatever the camera captures.

In the past 20 years, Husain’s art has gone through an Indian-style purge: chapters on him have been removed from NCERT textbooks, his work is now rarely exhibited in India, his murals and paintings have been removed from public buildings, and studios which have dared to display his art have been burnt or stoned.

Originally to be exhibited as part of the IIFA 2008 film festival in Goa, the showing of Through the eyes of a painter was cancelled, under pressure from the VHP and other Hindu right-wing organisations. It is likely that this film, by “India’s Picasso” as he is referred to internationally, will not be seen by audiences in India. That is a pity.
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