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  • Beware of dead politicians

    Posted On August 2, 1999

    By Karan Thapar

    What’s in a name? Actually not much but if you happen to be an Indian politician seeking to burnish his tarnished image or curry favour with a disenchanted electorate then the answer is an awful lot. To them the names that matter are not the christian names they themselves sport but those of long dead predecessors which can be revived and thrust on unsuspecting roads, un-cared for buildings, poorly maintained airports. Oh yes and there is one other sort. The ancient, supposedly original names of cities (or do I mean villages and long forgotten hamlets?) which can be rescued from history and forced upon modern day metropolises as their new appellations.

    So, for politicians, names mean a lot because they can be used. Used to suggest that our politicians are more Indian than the rest of us, more nationalist, more in-tune with the zeitgeist of our age. And used in one other respect as well. To pay public tribute to others of their tribe – no doubt in the hope that one day a future generation will return the compliment.

    Thus Bombay, Catherine of Braganza’s trousseau gift to Charles II, is transformed into Mumbai. For this very reason Job Charnock’s Calcutta, which celebrated its third centenary without a change in name, is to be re-christened Kolikotta. And, of course, Madras – the most British of Indian cities – has become Chennai. It hardly matters that no anglo-saxon can get his lips around the new name’s vowels; Chennai it was and Chennai hereafter it will be.

    In time, no doubt, Delhi too will change. I wonder what it will become? Dilli, Dehli, Indraprastha or Hastinapur? And then perhaps will follow the switch of Patna to Patliputra and, who knows, Orissa to Kalinga. By the time our politicians finish nothing will be recognisable any more.

    I therefore write to lament the passing of the world I grew up in and fondly loved. I realise it’s sentimental to do so. But so what? I used to enjoy shopping in

    Connaught Place, or hanging around CP, but once it became Rajiv Chowk it was no longer the same. As a child I used to envy cousins who talked endearingly of Cal. Kol, however, sounds distinctly unappealing. And then there was Bombay. Glamorous, rich, exciting, youthful and fun. But Mumbai?

    Yet if names must change then why must the new ones be those of politicians? Why not of flowers, birds, the seasons, even historical battles? After all who recalls Kamaraj, Krishna Menon or Kamala Nehru? And who wants to?

    And when it comes to cities the concern I have is even greater. Their character lies in their names. It’s their identity. Their self image. So why do we need to force a new one on them? After all, the truth of the matter is that it was during British rule that our cities were created. No one can deny it so why do we want to hide it? Or will we also one day drop India and call our country something else? If I am not mistaken the word is distinctly British in its derivation or, at least, its mispronunciation!

    Yehi hai right choice baby

    That the law is an ass is a well-known saying but just how asinine it can be has been hard to gauge. Now, thanks to two young colleagues (Ashok Upadhyay and Sonia Bhaskar), I can regale you with a couple of delightful examples. They are so odd you will probably think I’ve made them up.

    In India the legal age of matrimony for girls has been fixed at 18. However for boys it is 21. So, if a girl of 18 wishes to marry she has to choose someone at least three years older. If she wants to marry someone of her own age that would be illegal. I know that conventionally brides should be younger but to statutorily require it seems to be taking things a shade far!

    The other anomaly is even more bizarre. The minimum age of consent for sexual relations for a man is 18. The age at which he may marry is, however, 21. So doesn’t this suggest that if a boy of 18 wishes to have sex – as legally he may – the law requires that this happen by means of a pre-marital relationship?

    I call that facilitating sex outside wedlock. In fact, you could even say that the law encourages it. After all, if consenting sexual relations after the age of 18 are legal you can be certain they will also be relatively prevalent. But if marriage before the age of 21 is illegal then, for the intervening three years, the only form of sexual relationship legally permitted has to be extra marital. You and I would call that an affair.

    The flip side to this Alice-in-Wonderland logic is that perhaps our law makers are being broad minded. What, they seem to be asking, has sex to do with marriage? A man will do what a man wants to do regardless of the bonds of matrimony, so why worry.

    This no doubt is an avant garde position many would applaud but I wonder if it was intended? In this instance, is the law an ass or is it, in fact, well ahead of its time? A relevant even if not obvious question.

    Send Thackeray to jail, if you want, but let him vote

    “Last week you criticised Pakistan for threatening to disenfranchise Najam Sethi”, Nino Qazi, the Pakistan High Commissioner’s daughter, questioned me, “and today India has actually disenfranchised Bal Thackeray. So will you now criticise India too?”

    The triumphalism in her voice made me squirm but it was justified. I can’t have one set of opinions for Pakistan and another for India. If trying to disenfranchise Mr. Sethi is wrong, disenfranchising Mr. Thackeray is worse. Worse because it has happened. In Pakistan’s case it’s still a threat, it has still to be done.

    Let me explain. In a democracy the right to vote is the greatest of all rights conferred on a citizen. It is his means of affirming or changing the government and, beyond that, of expressing himself. By his or her vote a citizen’s voice is heard.

    So to deny it is to deny democracy itself. It is as simple as that.

    Of course, this does not mean Mr. Thackeray should not be punished. In fact, he should be punished most severely. Strip him of his right to hold office. Or send him to jail. Let the sentence be salutory. Let it be done, as Admiral Bing would have said in his poor french, “pour encourage les autre”.

    But don’t make a mockery of our democracy by denying a citizen the right to his franchise. Don’t put us in the absurd position of defending democracy by denying it.

    In the meantime if Nino were to ask me whether the whole thing “stinks”, what would I reply? I guess I would have to admit that it’s decidedly malodorous.

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