Vinay Lal

12 November 2007

Today’s The Hindu carries an editorial on the continuing carnage in Nandigram that would appear to confirm the impression that the newspaper occupies a distinct and indeed I should say distinctly odd place in English-language journalism in India. I have often wondered why the newspaper clearly seems unable to find Indian voices to fill its op-ed pages, which are dominated by reprints from the Guardian (and, occasionally, Le Monde). Apparently we must hold to the view that the Guardian sets the gold standard for journalism, or at least somewhat meaningful commentary. Not for the Hindu the incisive pieces of Cairo’s Al-Ahram Weekly, since for the Indian intellectual London, New York, or Paris are still the only places from where ideas emanate. Or is it the case that the Hindu is run somewhat like a despotic state, where the writ of one man runs supreme, and that very few Indians meet the exacting ideological standards demanded of its contributors? The Hindu must, after all, be among the few places where unabashed apologies for Stalin’s atrocities can still appear with the justification that all true revolutions are subject to some aberrations.

If the Hindu’s stifling left orthodoxies were not enough, it is now out to claim, judging from the editorial called ‘The Challenge of Nandigram’ (Nov. 12), its place as the stern custodian of English constitutionalism and its alleged glories. Not surprisingly, the paper has rushed to the defense of the Left Front, and the parties opposed to the government’s policy of transforming Nandigram into another hub for capitalist expansion are described as having brought ‘administration and development work to a halt’. All the sustained critiques of ‘development’ cannot detract from what the Hindu perceives to be its magical qualities, and the newspaper dutifully trots out impressive sounding figures. Thus, readers are told, owing to the actions of the opponents of development, ‘15,000 children could not be given pulse polio doses; Rs. 2 crore worth of expenditure on health infrastructure has had to be abandoned . . . and Rs. 2 crore worth of investment on electrification could not be made.’

Though at least three people were killed in the firing initiated by CPM cadres or goons working at the party’s behest, a denunciation of West Bengal Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s constitutional improprieties takes up the greater part of the Hindu’s lengthy editorial. In a statement released last Friday by the Governor’s office, Gandhi had expressed anguish at the events in Nandigram and stated unequivocally that ‘the manner in which the recapture of Nandigram villages is being attempted is totally unlawful and unacceptable.’ Gandhi critiqued the CPM for turning Nandigram into a ‘war zone’ and called for the removal of barriers placed by the CPM that had prevented activists and journalists from going to Nandigram. Though the CPM did not press for Gandhi’s recall, it lashed out at him for having ‘out-stepped the Constitutional limit of the highest office of the State’. Accusing him of violating the neutrality which the occupant of the Governor’s chair is bound to preserve, CPM’s West Bengal Committee feared that Gandhi’s rash pronouncements ‘will only embolden the forces determined to destabilize peace and democracy in the State in a most undemocratic manner.’

It is amusing, to say the least, to hear of CPM’s avowed dedication to ‘peace and democracy’ apropos the events in Nandigram. But it is the Hindu’s pompous invocation of the great lessons of English constitutionalism that beggars the imagination. The newspaper reports that the Governor’s office, like that of the British monarch or the Indian President, is bound by restraints that must be observed if the ‘greater democratic legitimacy’ of representative government is not to be undermined. According to this esteemed newspaper, the ‘classic 1867 exposition of the role of the British monarch by Walter Bagehot’ set the standards by which the Governor of an Indian state should abide. Thus, as the Hindu’s editorialist quotes Bagehot, ‘the Sovereign has . . . three rights – the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn. And a king of great sense and sagacity would want no others. He would find that his having no others would enable him to use these with singular effect.’ Gopalkrishna Gandhi, the newspaper alleges, vastly overstepped these limits and stepped into the fray by issuing nakedly partisan statements that gave comfort to the government’s enemies.

Let us leave aside for the moment the question of the Hindu’s own blind advocacy of CPM’s politics. Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s partisanship is described as having consisted in challenging ‘the wisdom of the government’s approach’ and ‘[coming] down on the side of the critics of its action’; moreover, ‘Mr. Gandhi laid himself open to the charge of remaining silent when the supporters of the Left Front were at the receiving end.’ This is rather akin to the rants of middle-class Hindus who complain that Muslims condemn Hindu extremism but do not sufficiently condemn Islamic extremism. The Hindu’s editorialist sounds like a petulant child convinced that the sibling is allowed more liberties. One might have thought that the newspaper would have reflected with some pride on the presence of a Governor who, cognizant of the great moral issues thrown up by developments at Nandigram, Singur, and elsewhere, has sought to indicate that violence cannot be allowed to overwhelm those most affected by these developments into subjugation and abject surrender. Gandhi has adopted a position that most others similarly placed would not have had the courage to embrace.

There is, in equal parts, something comical and pathetic about the Hindu’s trumpeting of Walter Bagehot. The last Englishmen, it has been said, are to be found in India; now, it appears, English constitutionalism will find its most ardent defenders in the pages of an Indian newspaper otherwise known for its fervent advocacy of Marxist pieties.