Letter from India: Holy Cows and Reel-Life Icons
Growing up in a society driven by the aspirations of the middle class and riven by the all-pervasive economic chasm, corrupt ideas and actions often merge matter-of-factly with our daily life. We, the educated middle class, see these as innocuous survival tools: Once we’ve seen a trailer of the good life we somehow feel that in order to see the full reel, we have to pawn our moral conscience. And so the little corruptions. In India if you are a friend or cousin of defence personnel, you can just walk up to the army stores where products are sold at subsidised rates for the men in uniform, pick them up and then proceed to boast quite proudly before everyone that you got the wares so cheap because of your army connections.
The purchase can be liquor bottles, or something as commonplace and utilitarian as a trolley suitcase, even garments. And the practice is so widespread that I have seen journalists, teachers and other professionals associated with intellectual jobs having no inhibition in engaging in this proxy shopping. So perhaps corruption in the army is not just an army affair.
But the regard for the army and its relationship with the democratic government in New Delhi has always been so sacrosanct that few questions have even been asked about the defence forces. During the Rajiv Gandhi era, the Bofors scandal was a household topic when allegations were made of huge payoffs for the purchase of the Bofors guns. But that was the last time we spoke of bribery scandals concerning the defence forces – until recently. Now things things are changing, and muck-raking is increasingly becoming the order of the day, with a running battle between India’s army chief and the civilian government.
But even if the bonhomie between the two power structures is fast ebbing, rest assured, the army in India is not going the Pakistan way. There is no indication of it trying to usurp any role that it is not entitled to play.
Nonetheless, the once supposedly pristine defence forces, long buffered by the protective walls of their of ivory towers, are now making front page news. Be it a Mumbai multi-storey built for the Kargil War martyrs’ families being occupied by army high-ups and politicians, or a land scam in eastern India, the army’s reputation and relationship with the civilian government in this country may never be the same.
And hardly had a controversy over the age of the present army chief in India, General V K Singh, subsided with judicial intervention (seen as his defeat), that a new controversy erupted and that too on a much bigger scale.
A new front was opened when around the last week of March, General V K Singh dropped a bombshell in a newspaper interview, which quoted him saying that an equipment lobbyist offered him a bribe of Rs 14 crore in lieu of clearing the purchase of 600 substandard vehicles.
The army chief’s allegation came as a huge embarrassment to the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the centre, when Singh said he had informed the defence minister of the episode.
The opposition quickly grabbed the opportunity to question the defence minister as to why he had kept quiet for so long. The latter responded that he had asked the army chief to take action, but he chose not to push it further. This was refuted by General Singh.
As the low-intensity exchange continued, out leaked a letter to the prime minister by the army chief dated March 12, 2012 pointing out serious deficiencies in the Indian forces weaponry and ammunition and air defence.
In the letter General Singh wrote of the absence of critical ammunition to defeat enemy tanks and of a 97% obsolete air defence which “doesn’t give [the force] the deemed confidence to protect.”
He also mentioned the infantry being crippled by “deficiencies of crew served weapons” and its lack of “night fighting” capabilities. In addition, the letter said the Elite Special Forces are “woefully short of essential weapons,” and added that there are “large-scale voids” in critical surveillance. The army chief asked the prime minister to pass orders to “enhance the preparedness of the army.”
India’s junior defence minister, Pallam Raju, admitted the veracity of the letter, but said the issues raised were being addressed and the gaps in defence capabilities were being bridged.
That notwithstanding, the leakage of this secret letter had bickering lawmakers close ranks with some opposition members of parliament joining them to demand the sacking of the army chief, who is scheduled to retire on May 31, 2012.
Soon thereafter, the army chief issued a statement calling the affair a cynical attempt to tar his reputation. He went further, maintaining that the leaking of the letter was tantamount to high treason, thereby passing the buck to the government.
Meanwhile, some Indian media reports supported the army chief, disclosing that he had refused to sign a contract with state-run BEML (Bharat Earth Movers Limited) for the purchase of the controversial Tatra Trucks (made by a Czech company). They also maintained that General V K Singh had also refused to clear the post-retirement appointment of a former Lieutenant General, Tejinder Singh. His name was drawn into the controversy as a defence purchase lobbyist allegedly taking the offer for the trucks to the army chief. Tejinder Singh retaliated by denying all such charges, and promptly moved to sue Singh for tarnishing his reputation.
In the wake of the charges and counter-charges, Defence Minister A K Antony ordered a probe by the federal investigating agency CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) and said he would go any length to investigate the allegations of the army chief. “I will not allow any corruption,” said Antony.
The drama then took another turn when Czech vehicle manufacturer Tatra Vectra denied that it had ever approached India’s army chief General V K Singh and offered him a bribe in lieu of approval of a contract for its trucks.
However, the matter became even more inflammatory after the general added that 7,000 such vehicles were already being used by the army and had been purchased over the years at exorbitant prices, without anyone questioning the transactions.
Tatra Vectra challenged the general’s claims about the “substandard” quality of the trucks in question, insisting that there has been “no formal complaint regarding the quality and/or performance of the Tatra Truck in the past 26 years, either in India or internationally.”
According to Vectra, armed forces in over 38 countries, including the United States, Russia, Israel, Brazil and Malaysia rely on Tatra vehicles, and in India the company deals exclusively with Bharat Earth Movers Limited (BEML), a government undertaking.
As the controversy raged, allegations flew thick and fast from the army chief’s side, dragging several serving officers into the fray. Denials and rebuttals followed with equal vigour, prompting Defence Minister AK Antony to urge the media not to tarnish the image of the army in any way.
That, however, may already have happened.
Legend of the East
Who is Soumitra Chatterjee? Few in Pakistan would be able to connect with the name. He is no Bollywood superhero, but he is a living legend of the Bengali cinema industry eponymously called Tollywood (because of the location of the studios in the Tollygunge area of Kolkata). Tollywood is characterised by the best and worst the world has ever seen on the silver screen, perhaps since Louis and Auguste Lumiere screened the first commercial movie before an awe-struck audience in 1895. Tollywood has produced legends like the late Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and the late Tapan Sinha, the last one admittedly not in Ray’s league, but who made several commercially successful movies on subjects and issues which are now dubbed as the crossover genre.
So when Soumitra Chatterjee’s name was announced for the Dada Saheb Phalke award, the highest honour in Indian cinema, in March, it was not just a tribute to the man, but to the whole Bengali community that is sold on cinema wherever in the world it is made. An award to Chatterjee was also an innate recognition of some of the finest Indian filmmakers who are all Bengalis, and who have worked in the run-down Kolkata studios to churn out celluloid gems.
Soumitra Chatterjee began his film career in 1959 in Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) opposite the charming Sharmila Tagore, who went on to become a Bollywood diva. He became one of Ray’s favourites and it was an association that continued till Ray died in 1992. A legend of Bengali cinema, the 77-year-old Chatterjee has also made his mark in international cinema, having starred not only in international productions – including Merchant Ivory films – but also in movies from Tollywood that are international cinema at its best.
Chatterjee has performed in countless Bengali movies of both the commercial and arthouse genre, often acting in the most ham-handed low-budget, melodramatic commercial movies targeting non-urban audiences, but excelling even in these. Chatterjee has acted opposite every yesteryear Bengali heroine, including the larger-than-life Suchitra Sen (now leading a Garboesque life after retirement), the cerebral Aparna Sen and Tanuja.
Interestingly, Chatterjee beat Bollywood actor Pran, who was a popular villain in the films of the 1960s and 1970s, to bag the award for 2011. India was equally surprised when Chatterjee’s mentor Satyajit Ray was awarded the Lifetime Oscar by the Academy of Motion Pictures in 1992, on his deathbed.
Soumitra Chatterjee is also a theatre personality, well known for his stage performances and recitation skills.
Dadasaheb Phalke (30 April 1870 – 16 February 1944), after whom the award was named when it was first instituted in 1969, was an Indian producer-director-screenwriter. He is known as the father of Indian cinema.
Raja Harishchandra made by him in 1913 was undivided India’s first full-length feature film. Phalke went on to make 95 movies and 26 short films in a career spanning 19 years.
With even the national awards in India not being spared allegations of behind-the-scenes lobbying, the conferment of the highest film honour of 2011 on Chatterjee is, fortunately, beyond dispute. There could not have been a more deserving film personality than Chatterjee, and his films are highly recommended to Pakistan cine buffs looking beyond Bollywood and its badshahs and bombshells.
This article was originally featured in the April 2012 issue of Newsline under the headline “Holy Cows and Reel-Life Icons.”
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