December 24, 2012

My tribute to Leslie Claudius

My most vivid memories of Leslie Claudius have little to do with his prodigious hockey skills, those that won him four Olympic medals (three golds and a silver) and led to him becoming the first man to play 100 matches for the Indian hockey team. His playing days were long over by the time I came of age. His final Olympic Games – Rome, 1960 – occurred before I was born.

Nevertheless he was a presence in my life, as a boy and an adult. He was a family friend, and I count his son Brandon as a buddy. More than that, Leslie Claudius was a legend of Kolkata and a lion of the Anglo-Indian community. He was everything we aspired to be – successful, genial and unfailingly polite. “Yanka”, his term of affection for younger people – and at 85, almost everybody was younger than him – reflected his eternal avuncular spirit. He was not just “uncle Les” to me; he was everybody’s uncle.

My most poignant memory of him is from 1978. His young and brilliant son Bobby (Robert), not yet 20 and just back from playing for the country in the hockey world cup, was killed in a motorcycle accident. It would have broken anyone. Leslie Claudius took it with a stoic and grace I can never forget. Deep inside, though, he never forgot Bobby, not for one day.

Leslie grew up in a railway colony in Bilaspur, learnt hockey in Kharagpur – both cities being Anglo-Indian bastions back in the first half of the 20th century – before settling in Kolkata. Here he worked and played for the Customs. Old habits die hard. So often I would see him at the races, taking a keen interest in horses but dressed impeccably in a white shirt and white trousers. I guess this was a throwback to his Customs days. I’d like to believe it also reflected the colour of his heart.

In January 2013, a world Anglo-Indian reunion is taking place in Kolkata and members of the community are coming from across the planet. Anglo-Indian achievers representing several disciplines are being honoured. Talking to the organisers I suggested they also honour an “Anglo-Indian of the Century”. The choice was unanimous: Leslie Claudius. We weren’t honouring him; he was honouring us by accepting.

Leslie had been ailing but seemed to be better when I met Brandon at the Dalhousie Institute on Wednesday (December 19) for Carol Singing Night, the informal inauguration of the Christmas season. His brothers, Leslie Jr. and Richard, would be home from Australia by 11.00 pm on Thursday evening, he said; “And by Christmas Eve we’ll all be having a drink.” Leslie’s boys would be home for Christmas. It must gladden the old man’s heart, I told myself.

It was not to be. On Thursday, at 3.30 pm, while his sons were en route, Leslie passed away. A man presented the Padma Shri in 1971 and the Banga Bhushan earlier this year had to answer to the Longest Whistle.

May he meet Bobby in the Field of Dreams.

December 13, 2012

Tax concession for acid attack victim Sonali Mukherjee

Acid victim Sonali's plea for tax rebate raised by me in Parliament today

A Thomson Reuters survey in 2011 says that India is the fourth most dangerous place in the world for women to live in, as women can be easy victims to cruel forms of violence and disfigurement such as acid attacks. The easy and cheap availability of acid has contributed to the rise of such attacks in the country. The story of Sonali Mukherjee who had acid thrown on her face while she was sleeping has captured the conscience of the nation. This shameful incident occurred in the year 2003 in the state of Jharkhand. Since then, the laws related to such heinous crimes have been relooked at.

It has been a tough battle for Sonali Mukherjee. However, I am happy to report that the victim Sonali Mukerjee has won prize money amounting to Rs. 25 Lakhs from Kaun Banega Crorepatia popular television show, hosted by actor Amitabh Bachchan. Under Section 194B of the Income Tax Act, 30 per cent tax is deducted on any prize money in excess of Rs. 10,000 and other winnings from games, lotteries etc.

As a rarest of rare case, on humanitarian grounds please consider the customary 30% tax assessed on the prize money to Sonali Mukherjee.

News that doesn't make headlines

On Wednesday, December 12, just before Question Hour was disrupted in the RajyaSabha, important work got done for some 30 minutes. Of course, this period didn’t make it to the media headlines, only the disruption and the din did.

There was one piece of information Minister of State for Home R.P.N. Singh shared that requires careful thought and cogitation, not just in New Delhi but across the country. In answer to a question he detailed the numbers of those killed, state by state, in violence related to Maoists in recent years.

Consider the figures for West Bengal. In 2010, 300 people were killed in the state in Maoist-caused violence. A massive 223 of them were civilians, 35 comprised members of the police and security forces and 42 were Maoists or suspected Maoists. In 2011, this number fell dramatically to 50, 43 of these being civilians. In 2012, with two weeks left for the year to end, the number of those killed in Maoist-affected violence in West Bengal is just one. Yes, just one.
This is not me saying it, not the Trinamool Congress saying it, not the West Bengal government saying it. These are figures shared in Parliament by the UPA government and the Union Home Ministry. The run up to Christmas is often called the “Good News Season” and on Wednesday I felt the warmth of this good news.

It cannot be a coincidence 2010 was the last full year of CPI(M) governance in West Bengal and 2012 the first full year of Trinamool governance in West Bengal. It cannot be a coincidence peace in Jangalmahal – where the CPI(M) government fought a civil war and oppressed even political opponents in the name of anti-Maoist operations – and amity in Darjeeling, which was seeing disaffection of another kind, were Mamata Banerjee’s priorities when she took charge as chief minister in the summer of 2011. It cannot be a coincidence these are today considered among her richest achievements.

She has reached out to people who felt marginalised or felt they had cause to be angry with the state, the government and the system. She has been tough on those bent upon breaking the law, come what may. The result is a much smaller Maoist problem than previously imagined, and a model for the rest of the country to follow as it seeks to fight and address left-wing extremism.

Unfortunately, these are not reports and stories the national media will tell you. These are not the themes you will hear when it comes to reportage about West Bengal. Never mind. Sensationalism is temporary; sense and sensibility is longer lasting. In 2012, Mamata Banerjee established this. Those statistics speak for themselves.

Jai Hind, Jai Bangla, VandeMataram. Long Live Ma Maati Manush.