Friday, July 31, 2009

A Homage to a Historian of Faith

The following article appeared in the online publication South Asia Post, Issue 92 Vol IV, July 31, 2009

When I was at school in the final 10th class, a missionary teacher from far off New Zealand had arrived in Punjab in the hot summer of 1958 to teach in a school located at less than 100 km from my school - wish I had known him then! The Destiny, surely, keeps its own mysterious calendar and scheme of events to happen!

It was on 22nd January, 2002 that I received a phone call in Yerevan, capital of Armenia, where I had spent more than two years as the first resident Ambassador of India. The call was from Director in the office of Foreign Secretary, Mrs Chokila Iyer. He conveyed to me, in an excited tone, that 'she has been successful in getting me posted as High Commissioner to New Zealand' and that I should 'coordinate with Wellington to reach there as early as possible'. I was, in fact, getting reconciled to brave extra period in Armenia. I had, of course, represented to the Foreign Secretary putting on record that I had been given to understand by the Ministry that my posting in ' that tightly-locked-mythological-land of Noah's Ark ' would be for two years. The news was indeed most welcome and a hugely pleasant surprise. It was not that I was feeling miserable in the legendary land of Koh-e-Kaaf but it was the tyranny of Time for me: the date of retirement had started staring me in the face! The three names I should be privileged to meet in New Zealand flashed in my mind - the Everest hero Sir Edmund Hillary; the architect of new India-New Zealand relations, former Prime Minister David Lange and a relatively lesser known to me, Professor William Hewat McLeod, the once-upon-a-time teacher in Kharar - now a prized suburb of Chandigarh - who had earned international reputation as as a historian of the Sikhism, the religion of my people of Punjab. I may, however, admit that I have always felt quite confused whenever I have to fill the column of 'religion' in any form. Though never a strict practitioner of any rituals, I have always felt deeply solaced with the 'spirit' of the Gurubani of Sikhism and have also been drawing an inner comfort and wisdom from broader cosmic tenets of the heritage of Hinduism as per tradition in my family of free thinking scholars with saintly pretensions.

From left: Prof. McLeod, Aradhana Anand, Margaret McLeod
It was on 18th August 2002 that my wife, Aradhana and I were destined to enjoy the distinctly serene company Prof W H McLeod & Mrs Margaret Mcleod, in an Indian restaurant in Dunedin, one of the farthest towns on planet from Kharar/Delhi (12,474 km)! Dunedin, capital of New Zealand's southern province of Otago, was founded by Free Church of Scotland in 1848 and given the old name of Scottish capital, is regarded the most Scottish city outside Scotland. It is an important centre of education, being the site of famous Otago University. We had gone there to participate in the cultural evening organised jointly by all the students from South Asia - Indians and Pakistanis in the forefront - to celebrate the Independence Day of India. Mrs Sukhi (Sukhinder Kaur Gill) Turner, the popular record-third-term Mayor of Dunedin and wife of great Kiwi cricketer Glenn Turner, was our gracious host for our 'City & Sea Darshan (Sight Seeing)'.

McLeods impressed us as 'the made for each other' couple and gentle persons who had genuinely fallen in love with the Punjabis and their dynamic faith. They appeared eager to know more and more about Sikhism and culture of Punjab. Incidentallly, while talking about the social divides among the Sikhs, I mentioned that I had recently read that Professor Puran Singh was an Ahluwalia and that his community had arranged for his going to Japan for higher studies. I noticed that Professor McLeod had immediately noted it down! As an avid collector of books autographed by their authors, I was privileged to receive from Hew copies of, 'Punjabis in New Zealand - A History of Punjabi Migration,1890-1940, GND University, 1986 '; 'Guru Nanak And the Sikh Religion, Clarendon Press, Second imp. 1978' and 'The Evolution of the Sikh Community - Five Essays, OUP, Second Edition,1995 '. The first book contains, a hardly ever known, touching case study of Dr Baldev Singh, a highly qualified medical practitioner and son of eminent Sikh scholar Giani Ditt Singh. Dr Baldev Singh was imprisoned for several years and deported in 1931 under a false case cooked up by the racist local rivals.

Thus began a mutually fruitful and long lasting dialogue between Hew and I. The first one was an almost possessed and indefatigably painstaking scholar scouting all over for impeccable sources of references on Sikh religion; an ever willing listener and keen to cross check with any one interested in the subject. And the other one, myself, is committed to remain completely unencumbered with a burden of any one faith but feeling perfectly at ease with all the faiths of mankind; ever ready to borrow wings of ecstacy offered by the Vedic hymns; Sufi's songs; Bhajans of the Bhakatas; chants in a Buddhist Monastery or a Church of any Christian denomination; serene Silence of Baha'i Lotus Temple and, of course, the rarified musical harmony emanating from the precincts of the Gurdwaras of the faith founded by the Sikh Gurus, sung in the supposed tongue of my mother who had been summoned by Akal Purukh - ' the One Beyond Time ' - before I could learn to utter any syllable!

Prof McLeod paid his last visit to India in December 2002 in connection with the release of his long researched book, 'Sikhs of the Khalsa, A Study of the Khalsa Rahit (The Code of Belief & Conduct of the Khalsa)'. Khushwant Singh, the unique ' human monument ' of the capital of Hindustan, who wears his Sikh faith in all the hues Vahiguru (Praise to the Guru) has created this universe for 'Sarbatt ka Bhala' i.e. Welfare of the Whole Humanity, had addressed the function. Among his other public engagements, Mcleod had delivered the 3rd Bhai Chanan Singh Memorial Lecture on ' Sikhs in New Zealand ' at the prestigious Sikh Centre, Bhai Vir Singh Sahit Sadan. It is worth mentioning that this lecture has been endowed by late Prof Pritam Singh of Patiala in honour of his father who had fallen a victim of a clash, near Peshawar, of hatred prevailing in 1920's between the Sikhs and an aggressive group of Arya Samajis. A thought provoking condition of this annual lectures is that it would be delivered by some 'non-Sikh' scholar on a subject relating to the Sikhs! When I was invited to deliver this lecture in 2005, I felt like asking myself, 'Am I a non-Sikh?' - the answer was an emphatic 'yes', according to the official 'Rahit', i.e. code of conduct for the Sikhs adopted by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee! It was, of course, an immensely soul-satisfying experience for me to speak on the topic, ' The Dynamics of the Sikh Diaspora Since Independence ' before an extremely learned audience,mostly the Sikhs. McLeod had appreciated my presentation which I had concluded with a couplet of Urdu:
'Iman bhi hai khatme nabuwwat pe hamara
Mehsoos bhi karten hein payambar ki zaroorat

Believers we are in the finality of Prophets
Also we feel the necessity of a (new) Messenger!

I had a great satisfaction that I could arrange, during this visit, McLeod's meeting with Mr Navtej Sarna, an erudite Indian Foreign Service colleague and most promising author who was then spokesperson of Ministry of External Affairs (Presently India's Ambassador to Israel). I do hope that this encounter of two different generations of highly scholarly minds must have been a deeply mutually rewarding experience. I hope Navtej would one day be be able to steal time to write about McLeod as a Historian of Sikhism. My innings in New Zealand was of limited 20-overs kind, cut shorter by the 'rain' of calendar. I could meet the McLeods for the last time on 29th June, 2003 when I visited Dunedin to participate in a Seminar called, '38th University of Otago Foreign Policy School, The Ethics of Foreign Policy'. Hew & Margaret invited me for an evening meal at their lovely home located next to the Dunedin Gardens, with a stream flowing by. I was pleasantly surprised to be served with the typically homely Indian preparations. During my tenure as High Commissioner in New Zealand, I had launched - the first ever and also to be the last till date - a publication of the High Commission titled, 'Megh Raajdootam i.e. The Cloud Envoy'. McLeod graciously accepted my request for contribution of an article which I was glad to publish in the August 2003 issue of Megh Raajdootam under the title, ' Punjab - Discovering Faith in History ' dwelling on their stay in Kharar and Batala between 1968 - 1969, later to be a part in his forthcoming book, ' Discovering the Sikhs - Autobiography of a Historian '. I took the liberty of editing half a sentence of this article!

After retirement from Indian Foreign Service in December 2003 which involved a consecutive stay abroad for the last more than 21 years, it took some time for us to settle down in Delhi to do what I had told my old friends, 'All is in the hand of the Hidden Hand ... but I would try to do in the remaining silver years of life what I had always wanted to do i.e. the three R's - reading, reflecting and hopefully writing too!'. The contact with Hew was renewed in the context of an interview by him titled, 'Demanding Work Seeking the Sikhs' carried by Otago Daily Times, Weekend, February 26-27, 2005, sent to me by a mutual friend, Dunedin based young Indian lecturer of Management Studies, Mr Anupam Shailaj. The interviewer had observed that, "However careful they are, when historians attempt to separate historical certainty from enveloping religious traditions they find themselves embroiled in a hornet's nest". McLeod had spoken about 'a life time of research and analysis into the history of the Sikhs and the controversy it sparked', adding, "I insist on the necessity of finding sources that are reliable ... Sikh have been brought up on tradition ... tradition is not historical ... it is upsetting to believers, but what does one do? ... What I have done and what I am saying, it is in print not personal..". Referring to McLeod's 16 books and numerous articles, and editing and translation of many works on Sikhism, it was stated in the interview that 'the campaign to discredit his work - led by a small group of Sikhs, escalated after 1984 ... this campaign of abuse now appears to have mostly died down ... '. Honestly, I had not been exactly aware of the nature and the Sikh diasporic dimensions of any controversial elements attributed to McLeod's writings - and that his work has been raised to the level of 'McLeodian', an adjective, used by one of his critics!

I had noticed Hew's frail physical appearance, but his robust intellect and alertness of the mind did not reveal any sign of a failing health. It was in a message of 19th March, 2006 that Hew wrote about his being diagnosed with multiple myeloma ' which is incurable bone morrow cancer '. He had added, " the fact that it is incurable does not mean, however, that I have to bid good bye to this life immediately. ... and in the last two three years the treatment has taken large strides ... I am now on regular thalidomide and I feel absolutely normal. My aim is to last at least 15 more years which will make me 88!" Hew & Margaret, in a communication to friends on the eve of Christmas of 2006, further revealed, "There's nothing much to tell you this year. Margaret is fine and in Hew's case, the cancer appears to be under control ... We lead a quiet and regulated life, walking down to our favorite cafe for coffee every afternoon ... and that is how things are for us. It's not a bad life, really quite good in fact."

I continued to exchange occasional messages with Hew on matters relating to Panth ( Sikh Community ) and other notable developments in Punjab. When I did not receive any response from him to my messages of news reports on the recent tragic violence in a Ravidas Temple in Vienna and its reaction in Punjab, I thought he might have been busier with the family or lazier during strong southern winter. Then came the message from Margaret & family on 21st July that, ' Hew passed away peacefully last night .' The funeral took place on 24th July at Ross Chapel at Knox College where Hew had set out on his epic journey in search of a meaningful research in the world of History ... destined to make history of a vibrant and uniquely distinct microscopic minority - the Sikhs of Punjab - the work of his life time. Rest in peace, O child of history, amen!

Hew would have loved the following to be quoted to him:
Falsehood gets dissipated, O Nanak,
And, Truth ultimately prevails.
- Guru Nanak, Ramkali Var,13.2 Shri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 953

Further reference on Prof. McLeod:

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Indian Foreign Service - Pride & Fall

The following article appeared in the online publication South Asia Post, Issue 91 Vol IV, July 15, 2009

The announcement on the 30th of June that Smt. Nirupama (Menon) Rao, the topper of 1973 Batch of IFS, will be the next Foreign Secretary has been receiving a wider media coverage in the context of 'Women on Top' in India in the 1st decade of 21st century. Interestingly, Smt. Meira Kumar who had emerged earlier during the month a surprise but a competent choice to be the first woman Speaker of Lok Sabha also belonged to the same batch of IFS. It is also worth recall that Sh. Mohammad Hamid Ansari who, as Vice President of the Republic, is the Chair Person of Rajya Sabha had a distinguished career joining the IFS in 1961. It is indeed a rare credit to the IFS that, perhaps, for the first time in the history of the service Washington, London, Moscow, Paris Canada, Bonn, Brussels are all currently headed by the serving IFS officers.

The winds blowing from Raisina Heights towards India Gate whisper that the former Speaker Somnath Chatterjee will succeed High Commissioner Shiv Shankar Mukherjee in London ('71 IFS) who is due to retire next month. Born on 1st Aug 1949, Shiv Mukherjee,the topper in the IAS, has the distinction of being the youngest ever to join the service - a candidate has to be at least 21 years on 1st of August in the year in which he appears in the IAS Etc. Examination!

Smt. Nirupama Rao, the 17th Foreign Secretary - the second to be a woman - from the regular IFS Examination, will serve till December 2010. The posts of Cabinet/Home/Defence Secretaries have been given, a couple of years back, a fixed minimum tenure of two years. The Ministry of External Affairs has been luckier, after short spells of just thirteen, seventeen and eight months respectively by the three consecutive Foreign Secretaries, to have Shri Shyam Sharan and Shri Shiv Shankar Menon - the two most decent individuals & outstanding diplomats of proven professionalism - at the helm of affairs with clear tenures of two year plus period. The IFS fraternity hopes and prays that Nirupama will be able to provide an understanding and inspirational leadership to her colleagues during the challenging times which also offer a range of opportunities for India as a significant player in the recession ridden international arena and a troubled neighbourhood.

The prologue of the two tributary paragraphs brings us,ironically, to an intriguing and seemingly baffling situation concerning the IFS. It came out in the open with a report in the Hindustan Times on 23rd of June. The report quoted Sh. Ajai Chaudhary, the Dean of the Foreign Service Institute, that out of the 19 IFS probationers of 2008 batch, six had made the cut at the civil service exams with Hindi as their first language and having answered their papers in Hindi. The Dean added that, for the first time, arrangements were being made to teach English to those probationers who were weak in English. The report has ignited a lively and fiery debate among the past and present IFS colleagues about several overall aspects of the IFS, foremost being the steep sliding down of the service among the preference of the candidates in the higher bracket of merit list. In 2008 batch, out of the first 20, only two - ranked 16 & 17 - have opted for IFS; only 7 have opted between 18 to 138 ranks. The ranks for the OBC (4), SC (4) & ST (1) have ranged between 139 to 511. To add insult to the injured pride of the IFS, a couple of candidates are understood to have represented to the UPSC that they should be permitted to reappear in the civil services examination to 'improve upon' their allotted service i.e. IFS! Some thoughtful seniors are convinced that time has indeed come that a separate examination should be conducted by the UPSC for the IFS like the other specialised services

All this brings back the memories of my batch of 1971 - numbers 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 10, 12, 13 out of a list of 84 had opted for IFS. The folklore of IFS being considered 'superior & sought after' include two cases of those who qualified for IAS in '66 but did not join and competed successfully again to join IFS next year. The celebrated case is that of Hon. Minister Kapil Sibal who twice qualified for IAS but but did not join because his heart was set on IFS. The IAS as the inheritor of the ICS & IFS having a partial functional linkage with the political/external wings of the ICS had their initial grooming respectively under the indomitable Sardar Patel & a more enduring role of Jawaharlal Nehru. The evolution of the entire culture of functioning of the institutions bureaucratic structures of the nation has witnessed over the years stresses and strains born of a continuous decline in values of political morality and accountability. The IFS has been viewed comparatively lesser exposed to certain types of undesirable pressures .The other services are understood to offer to those interested a net work of opportunities for, what could be euphemistically called, 'to feather ones own nest'. More on this complex & larger issue later.

Let me return to my own story of the IFS. I received a letter dated 7th May '71 from Under Secretary B. Narasimhan, Department of Personnel, Cabinet Secretariat stating that, 'on the results of the Combined Competitive Examination held in 1970, you have been recommended by the UPSC for appointment to the IAS/IFS ... you are requested to inform this Department immediately ... whether you would accept an offer of appointment..'. I immediately sent my letter of acceptance, Registered A.D. and anxiously awaited the next next communication of the GOI. Came the last week of June ... a friend in the neighbouring town who had qualified for the IAS told me that he had received a letter to join at the National Academy of Administration in Mussourie on 10th of July; he innocently added, "may be you are to be posted abroad and it would take some more time!".

In the first week of July, I decided to visit Delhi to make a personal enquiry. I was told that the 'Police Clearance' from all places where I had stayed for the last five years was still to be received. I recalled that a Police Sub Inspector had visited my father some days back to congratulate him and was offered Laddoos. I could speak on phone to my IAS friend who had been transferred from Bathinda to the Home Department in Chandigarh. He assured me that he would have clearances sent for my stay in Jalandhar and Bathinda. All sorts of thoughts crossed my mind...started thinking that I used to be friendly with comrades of Nawan Zamana in Jalandhar & Naxalite Prof Harbhajan Singh in Bathinda. I had also once given five Rupees donation to Comrade Harnam Singh 'Chamak', a popular elderly Communist leader of my area. I had told him that I have become a Lecturer in Govt College Bathinda and he, taking me in his affectionate embrace, had said, "Barhi Khushi hai; Pher tan Party di vi kujh chande naal madat karo ... [I am so happy; then you must help the Party with some donation ...]". The 'CID' was certainly the first abbreviation learnt by my generation of school children!

On 9th July 1971, I could speak again, with the help of my school friend who was engineer in the Telephone Department at Ludhiana, to Under Secretary B. Narsimhan. He said that all the Police Clearances have been received and that I should talk to Sh. Sethi, Under Secretary (FSP), in Ministry of External Affairs. Sh. Sethi told me that I should immediately depart to join the Foundation Course in the National Academy of Administration, Mussourie. The next morning, I submitted an application to the Principal, Goverment College, Karamsar to relieve me to join the duties in Mussourie as per the telephonic advice. Principal RG Bajpai,a proud product of early forties of Allahabad University remarked that I should have got myself relieved much earlier .He wished me good luck saying,'You would do well in your job..., but would be very, very cautious in your work'. The same evening I had to rush to board a train at Ludhiana for Hardwar ,on way to Mussourie via Dehradun. My father came to see me off at Ludhiana & a school teacher friend accompanied me upto Hardwar.I was feeling overwhemed with complex & contrasting emotions ... on way to a whole new world, strange and exciting but also full of anxieties of the unknown ... to be reflected upon in the next column.